Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Religion In Fiction

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


B. Nagel said...

If only your comments strayed from verity. Too often I find religious writers assuming that because they have labeled a character "evil," they have no obligation to develop him/her beyond South Park dimensions. Or the opposite, writers in general naming a character religious as if that explained all of his/her idiosyncrasies.

Unknown said...

On confusing theological proposition for plot: yes, this is a problem.

But to pin this on Bunyan? For shame!

There's a reason Pilgrim's Progress has remained in print for the last 300 years, and it isn't because it's a thinly veiled theological treatise. It's a compelling story, well-told, and does what allegory is supposed to do: illuminate.

Take the settings. Vanity fair and the Slough of Despond, the Delectable Mountains and Celestial City -- they give life to what might otherwise be abstract concepts. They create an emotional, rather than purely intellectual, reaction in the reader. The settings and characters incite disgust and desire, laughter and loathing.

As for the plot: while perhaps not up to the standards of today's thrillers, it's hard to argue with the generations of readers who have been pulled along by Bunyan's prose. If written today, the story would have likely ended with Pilgrim's burden of sin falling off his back. But Bunyan knew better. He knew conversion was only the beginning of the tale.

So while theologians were busy writing dense treatises, Bunyan the uneducated tinker wrote a book whose popularity is second only to the Bible.

Styles and tastes have changed, but I don't think it's fair to accuse Bunyan of confusing theological proposition for plot. Quite the opposite: he combined theology and plot, producing a potent concoction that has intoxicated millions of readers.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Fantasy is often an exception, I think. The Dresden Files has an excellent portrait of a Roman Catholic family, LeGuin often takes a nuanced-if-sociological approach to religious characters, George R.R. Martin's Song of Wind and Fire has sympathetic characters from three different religious traditions, and the most sympathetic supporting character in Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy was an ideal of the compassionate Christian medieval knight.

This is not to mention those who domesticize religion so they can have religious characters without angering either the religious or the religiously atheist: Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, and the like have real gods, who both provide innocuous recepticals for worship and amusing plot twists. Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series takes a similar tack, though as far as I can tell there have been no manifestations of the divine that can't be explained away as coincidence.

Even television space fantasy has given good consideration to matters of religion: where shows like Star Trek once minimized depictions of religion to avoid alienating audiences, Battlestar Galactica and its watered-down clone Stargate Universe both explicitly engage with religion and draw energy (and an enthusiastic fan following) from their applicability to real life modern-time religion. (In BSG, you have everything from Starbuck's personal religious faith and crises to the use of religion to justify suicide bombing; in SGU one character struggles with guilt over the Roman Catholic priest who raised him.)

However, I think you're right in general, for three reasons:

1) Fantasy is an exception, where many authors explicitly draw energy from Lewis and Tolkien. Both authors explicitly tried to stick the emotional content of their versions of Christianity into their fantasy worlds. Therefore, even when non-religious authors create fantasy, it is often out of a desire to re-connect with (or ironize, Gaiman does both) the spiritual roots of its mid-century revival. Moreover, even ignoring the Inklings, there is a long tradition associating medieval religion and culture with a positive sense of community and harmony with nature--see Jung, Tennyson, and Marx for three radically different riffs on that theme. (Heck, even the atheist socialist William Morris worked a positive view of Catholicism into his fantasies, stressing its gentleness and ability to unite communities.)

2) I think that, in contemporary narrative, there may be a relative lack of good authors who have any depth of experience with Christianity or Christians. Partially, I blame the anti-intellectual trends of evangelicalism, whose fruits you charted above. But when it comes to the very small world of the biggest movers and shakers...

3) I think there really is a small, insular group that tends to form a self-affirming culture. Certainly, this conviction only grew when I saw the ideologically indefensible closing-of-ranks in defense of Roman Polanski. Where were the feminists to condemn those who wink at the sexual assault of a woman? Where was the common sense that admits directors to be subject to the law? It was there, in bursts, but mostly I saw a small group of people who would rather affirm their comfortable status quo than anything else. And if the status quo states that religious folk are nutjobs or idiots, it takes a lot to change things. And then, of course, most popular authors write as if they're composing movies, as many a stodgy English professor has pointed out. So the system tends to re-affirm its assumptions.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, I agree with Ehren that you might not be fair to Bunyan. His book certainly won the biggest praise afforded to genre-fic: it was read. It is a bibliographical commonplace that it was not only an immense bestseller, but also passed around and perused so often that almost none of the early editions survive today. They literally fell apart with use.

Scattercat said...

Chestertonian Rambler said most of what I'd have had to say, so I shan't retread that ground.

I will note that one area which wasn't addressed was video games. A lot of current speculative fiction writers came through the lens of video games and RPGs, and Japanese RPGs in particular are far too fond of the "Evil Church" trope. It had gotten to the point where I was mildly surprised if the final boss of a JRPG wasn't God Himself, who was inexplicably evil and in need of killin' by the heroes.

S.D. Smith said...

Great post, Loren.

I am with you.

Loren Eaton said...

Holy mackerel, I didn't expect this much of a response.


Out of all the crazed-religious-fanatics-dead-set-on-doing-evil that I've read, only one has managed to truly surprise me -- the "I LIKE TO EXPOUNDETH IN ALL CAPS!!!" Hezekiah in James Maxey's Bitterwood. And though he was one-track and annoying, at least Maxey provided a very good reason for him to be so.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm tempted to expound at length about Bunyan's over-use of glosses in the original version, which alone could have qualified PP as a systematic theology. But, hey, I'm just a fallen man who has inherited the blight of Original Sin from our first father, one who needs the quickening of the Spirit's regeneration before he can even hope to hear the good news. Is it any wonder I'd make such a blatant misjudgment?

Loren Eaton said...


Yeah, I'd forgotten about Le Guin. She's pretty scrupulously fair and she definitely know the craft. A good example, she is.

I'm not quite so bothered by a lack of positive portrayals of religion in fiction (although I would like more, for sure). I want authors to treat it like it's important even if they're complete atheists, to give careful consideration to it before they put pad to pen rather than firing off a melange of stereotype.

Alas, I haven't read Lackey, Pierce, Williams or Lynch. I'd like to start Martin, but I think I'll wait until he finishes his series. (I understand that's been something of a bone of contention among his fans.)

Your point about self-affirming cultures is excellent. Perhaps that's as much of the problem as anything. Everyone has a tendency to group himself with others who think like him and do not challenge him. Mediocracy thrives in such environments.

Again, I consider myself chastized regarding Bunyan. I shall go punish myself.

Loren Eaton said...


Heh, I hadn't thought about that! That was the entire point of Xenogears wasn't it, to confront and kill God? The last JRPG I played nearly to completion (and this dates me somewhat) was Final Fantasy 3, and I remember that by the end the villain had created his own cult and nearly ascended to godhood.

Loren Eaton said...


Gracias, sir! It is much appreciated.

ollwen said...

I started a comment on this a while back and never finished it. :-P It was something about Fantasy Universes/cultures usually being pre-enlightenment, or definitely pre-modern, so religion and supernaturalness are usually a part. In a lot of recent fantasy though, It seems to taste distinctly pagan.

I came back to comment though, because I ran across something from Dough Tennapel, and thought he was a pretty interesting character, as concerns "Religion In Fiction" in video games and comics. Here's a little of him from a while back:



Loren Eaton said...

That is a really interesting interview. I think I may have to check out Black Cherry. Aliens and noir sound like a fascinating blend. Also, I found this quote particularly interesting: "Ask any person about what they think about God and you will get an amazing story. It won’t just be any old story either, it will likely cut straight to the core of who that person is. It’s so bizarre to me that this most personal, dramatic, amazing story device is getting pressure to be removed by story-telling industries."