When scribbling an early draft of a blog post on a canary-yellow pad, I start out trying for a snappy intro, a grab-em-by-the-nostrils opener. Usually I end up with at least something. Occasionally, though, the well runs dry, and half of my pad ends up in the wastebasket. When that happens, my only recourse is to say it straight right from the get-go. Today is one of those times. I want to talk about a topic that’s been nagging at me for the past several weeks, a topic that gets a lot of people’s blood up -- religion in fiction and how it rarely gets handled well.
Take the genre field. You don't need to read voluminously to realize that religious characters aren't typically held in high esteem. SF veteran Orson Scott Card (a Mormon, in interest of full disclosure) states that popular fiction "depicts religious people in only two ways: the followers are ignorant and stupid and easily fooled, and the leaders are exploitative and cynical, manipulating others' faith for their private benefit." I'd add a third, namely as half-mad zealots willing subject others to any sort of torment so long as it advances their spiritual agendas. Such stereotypes are tiresome, not simply because they’re inaccurate, but also because they're facile, shallow, cliché and needlessly polarizing. They're the easy way out. For all the folks wanting to talk about the dark side of belief, you'd think more of them would approach the theme with a modicum of insight and effort.
But at least the skeptics understand stories. If you've ever tried to read religious fiction, you know exactly what I exactly mean. With very few exceptions, most believing authors fall into a trinity of wretched writing sins. They mistake theological proposition for plot, an error going back at least to Bunyan's Pilgrim’s Progress, which could’ve just as easily been a straight doctrinal treatise rather than an allegory. They create protagonists so free from flaws that they appear to have bodily stepped down from a stained glass window. And they take to sentimentality like a pig to mud. Lutheran Gene Edward Veith reminds those in his particular community that when their great writers selected their subject matter, "NONE of them wrote about people's personal problems. There is not one terminally ill orphan in the whole lot. No scenes about broken marriages or friends dying or sports teams winning the big game."
So does that mean readers are stuck somewhere between two camps, one understanding the importance of technique, the other of theme? I am reminded that a few have managed to unify them. Lars Walker managed to make orthodoxy exciting in The Year of the Warrior. Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman gave humanism a humorous twist in Good Omens. Mercurio D. Rivera’s "The Scent of Their Arrival" is a simultaneously fair-minded and chilling take on the dangers of credulity. But these are exceptions rather than rules, a few kernels of wheat among an entire field of chaff. I'll leave it to you, dear readers. Am I overly pessimistic in my assessment, or does a gulf greater than belief separate saints and skeptics?
(Picture: CC 2007 by faithmonsoon)