Faith and Fiction: Where Does Religion Fit?

The great characters from the Ramayana...a thousand years in the future!

Christian Fiction is the only type of religious fiction that has its own distinct section in any given bookstore.  However, it is not the only religious fiction on the market.  I have read quite a bit of fiction from a few different religious perspectives, and most of them have similar difficulties; similar questions that any author has to answer.  The first, and probably most important, of these questions is, ‘How much theology do I sacrifice for the sake of story?’

This question has many answers, for instance Frank E. Perreti has a disclaimer in the front of at least some of his novels (I haven’t read all of his work) that the theology of the story represented within is distinctly altered from orthodox Christianity.  On the other hand the Shakti line of Virgin Comics (featuring the comics Devi, Sadhu, and Ramayana 3392 A.D.) focuses on retelling the Hindu myths in a modern context and, as far as I have been able to tell, stays true to Hindu belief.  So, when we ask this question each author must decide for themselves how much theology can be sacrificed, or ignored, for the sake of the story.

That being said, there are a few caveats that must be addressed.  First if you, as the author, do not have a clear understanding of the theology of your religion then you cannot effectively decide what can be sacrificed for the sake of your story and what cannot.  As I write this I am watching the end of the 5th season of Supernatural, and it strikes me that this is an excellent example of what I am talking about.  In the 4th and 5th seasons the writers of Supernatural venture into the murky world of Christian mythology.  However, it is obvious to anyone viewing that these writers have no clear concept of what orthodox Christians believe.  Because of this all angels become brothers, with God as their father; God becomes an absentee father; and Death becomes older and more powerful than God (who will eventually die).  The writers, I have no idea what their religious affiliation might be, have decided to sacrifice some of the central tenants of Christian Orthodoxy in order to tell their story.  So, you get to decide how closely your work will follow your religious orthodoxy, but first you need to understand your religious orthodoxy.

Sam and Lucifer face off...that's right folks...Lucifer has a potbelly.

The second caveat is this, if you are going to decide how much theology can be sacrificed for the sake of your story…you must have a story worth telling.  This is not to say that all religious fiction is bad, far from it, but if you don’t have a story worth telling then there is no point in sacrificing any orthodoxy in order to tell your story.  So, how can you tell whether or not you have a story worth telling?  The simple answer is, ask.  Find people that are honest, critical, and willing to hurt you (not eager by the way) and ask them if you’re story is worth telling.  If it is they’ll tell you that it is.  If it’s not, well, they’ll tell you that too, and then you can go back and rework your story until it is worth telling.

The last thing I’m going to say about this issue is that you should first ask yourself how much theology you CAN sacrifice for your story, and then ask yourself how much theology you MUST sacrifice for your story.  For instance, a Christian may very well be willing to sacrifice a strict, orthodox view of the short day creation for the sake of his story…however he may not be willing to sacrifice the doctrine of the divinity of Christ for his story.  A Buddhist might be willing to sacrifice the specifics of Moksha for his story, but not be willing to sacrifice the central tenants of Brahman and Atman.  Whatever the case may be, first you must decide how much of your theology you are willing to sacrifice.  Then you can decide how much of a sacrifice the story requires.  If the story requires a greater sacrifice than you are willing to make then you need a new story.  However, if you decide how much theology you must sacrifice, before deciding how much you can sacrifice then you are likely to wind up with a story that makes you, and others, uncomfortable.

I think this picture is pretty self-explanatory.

The second question we have to ask is this, ‘How much faith can I put into my story without making it trite and ridiculous?’ The answer to this question is difficult at best.  Anyone who reads religious fiction, whether it be Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or Islamic, has read something that is just ridiculously over the top.  How do we avoid turning our deeply held religious beliefs into pandering fictional dogma that makes people roll their eyes?…at best.

The first step is to tell the truth.  We all believe, probably strongly, that whatever we believe is the truth.  However, there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfect people, and there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfectly wicked people.  No matter what they believe (or whether or not those beliefs are true) people are still people, with all the hopes, dreams, desires, strengths, and flaws that make up any person.  If you are a Christian writer and every Christian in your story is a kind, caring, wonderful person who just loves everyone and only wants the best…then something is wrong.  In the same vein if you are an atheist writer and every Christian in your story is a rabid jerk who uses God as an excuse to commit horrible crimes…then something is wrong.  Both of these people exist in any given religion, but neither makes up the entirety of any religion.  As a Christian I have met fellow Christians that I love and respect.  I have also met fellow Christians that I can’t stand.  On top of this I have met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I love and respect.  I’ve also met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I can’t stand.  Be honest with your characters and show people for what they are, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The second step is to make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  Unlike my fellow writers on this board, I am not a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.  One of the primary reasons is this; in Lewis’s series good people get saved and bad people get killed.  While you do see a few people who make mistakes and are redeemed, one of the overriding messages in the series is that God doesn’t want bad people.  When I look at the great heroes of Christianity: Moses (Coward, Murderer), David (Violent man of blood, Murderer, Adulterer), Samson (Had too many problems to list), Jephthah (Brigand, Killer, Blackmailer), Paul (Murderer, Persecuted the Church), etc; none of them fit well into The Chronicles of Narnia…or at least not as the heroes.  If you are writing religious fiction make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  For instance I recently read a manuscript by a Christian author in which the main character was unbelievably virtuous.  When I pointed this out to the author he responded that, ‘I wanted to show that she’s the kind of person that would be chosen by God.’  However, when we read the Christian scriptures we see that God chooses the weak, the foolish, and the flawed.  In the Christian scriptures God chooses these people to work through so that there may be no doubt that it is him working through them.  The author’s choice to represent an excessively virtuous person a ‘the kind of person that would be chosen by God’ does not fit within the great themes of Christianity…that’s a problem.

The third step is, perhaps, the hardest for many religious people (I know it often is for me).  Stop trying to defend your religion and start showing it.  Let’s face it, whether you believe in Yahweh, Allah, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman, Buddha, Amaterasu, or the Giant Spaghetti Monster, they can take care of themselves.  Either 1) They do exist and are powerful, cosmic beings, and don’t need you to babysit them; or 2) They don’t exist and you probably shouldn’t be placing trust in them anyway.  We are all convinced that our beliefs are true, and we all feel a need to prove that they are true.  However, if God exists he doesn’t need us to defend him.  Stop trying to protect whatever god you believe in (or don’t, as the case may be) and start showing your beliefs.  This is what I love about the Buddhist and Hindu fiction that I’ve read.  The writers don’t try to defend what they believe, they don’t argue about whether or not it is true, they just assume it is.  Especially as writers of fiction, everyday we ask people to accept things that we know aren’t true for the sake of the story.  I mean, my Avnul stories have people that live a thousand years and lizards that talk.  Brian’s Meg stories are about a teenage girl that jumps between universes to face down giant cyborg tyrants.  If we can ask people to accept things that we, ourselves, don’t believe for the sake of the story…why do we feel like we have to prove something we do believe?  Let your beliefs be a part of the story instead of trying to make them a part of the story.  Trust me, if you really believe something it’ll find a way in.