Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

24 thoughts on “Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

  1. I think you make a lot of good points. I especially agreed with that Christianity is a deal-breaker for a lot of people. Many Americans (especially) had bad experiences growing up in the church, and so in adulthood treat Christianity almost like a “trigger”. Going back to what I originally wrote, I find this preposterous, because these are the same people that yell at anti-Muslim sentiment as bigotry. Why is one essential representation and the other a trigger? I’ll get off my soap box.

    I also agree that many people might not know practicing Christians. I’ll take it one further, a surprisingly large number of people who identify as religious aren’t practicing. So not only do authors not think to include it, readers don’t think to miss it. Which is why nobody is kicking up a fuss about it the way we are currently yelling about other points-of-view being missing in literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the visit, and for finding stuff to agree with. 🙂

      I think you are right that, though professing Christians might be in a majority, practicing ones aren’t. So, whether “Christians” are a “majority” in the United States (with all the social power that implies) is kind of a complicated question. It looks that way from the outside, but definitely not from the inside.

      It’s especially vexing when someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali tries to expose what she suffered under fundamentalist Islam, and gets slapped down for it. Say what you like about American Catholics or Evangelicals, but we don’t practice female genital mutilation.

      Thanks again for the visit. I enjoy your blog.

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  2. Jen,

    Interesting post. My first two novels are Christian, the first I call Christian lite, the second heavy duty. But I wrote them knowing they would appeal to ’the Christian market’, not secular. (Since I have not marketed either book, it hardly matters so far.)

    I believe there is baggage that goes along with ’the Christian market’ that many authors want no part of. I am thinking of no graphic sex, no cursing or worldly language, no depicting LGBTQ favorably, no gratuitous violence, and probably others. Of course the biggie is sales. I believe the conventional belief is that secular sells better than Christian. If I were an author trying to make money that would be an issue.

    Blessings,

    Tom

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Benjamin Ledford

    In Andrew Klavan’s interview with Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge, he’s talking about Empire of Lies and said that they told him to take out all the religious stuff for the British edition. He wouldn’t do it, so he lost that market. But it demonstrates that in some cases publishers will actually not let you do it (and he’s an established author).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I did not know that. Great example.

      Have you read Empire of Lies? I did. The MC’s Christian conversion is very sensitively handled, but it is a major part of his characterization and even of the plot. I don’t see how Klavan could be expected to “take it out” without rewriting the whole book. At one point the MC’s ex says some very harsh, cynical things to him and he just kind of lets her say them. So, in a sense, she gets her say. But at the same time, she does not come off looking very good either. I can see how the book could be unpleasant to read for anyone who gets triggered by religion.

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      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Well, maybe it was another interview. I was just trying to find it again to share the link and couldn’t find it. Maybe it was with Dave Rubin? Ben Shaprio?

        I haven’t read Empire of Lies, but I would like to. Sounds like there’s some similarity to Brother’s Karamazov, in which Ivan makes his great take-down of religion and Alyosha doesn’t really offer any response, but the implications of Ivan’s views end up driving him mad, whereas Alyosha finds joy and redemption.

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  4. Benjamin Ledford

    I think you’re right about the power of the presence of God being an obstacle. We are most of us just not wise enough handle these things. And, of those who are more wise, how many of them also have the creative/artistic abilities to work it into a great story? That’s why Dostoyevsky and Lewis and Spenser are so great.

    I’m reading Paradise Lost, and I’m blow away by the depth of thought and insight that was required to write those dialogues. But if your characters are actually God, Satan, angels, demons, and Adam and Eve, there is really no other way to do it. And who is capable of that? Besides Milton, I mean. I think that’s why in his opening stanza he refers to the poem as his “adventrous Song,/That with no middle flight intends to soar/
    Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues/Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.”

    Obviously, depicting the Fall and the rebellion of Satan is an extreme example. You don’t have to do that in order to have a Christian character. But it demonstrates the weightiness of addressing spiritual matters, and especially of facing them head on. It’s not something you can just slip in to add texture. If you include religion but the you’re not writing as though the spiritual claims of the religion are true, then you’re just writing about false religion, which is much easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points.

      We read parts of Paradise Lost in my high school English class, and maybe it was because it was in a classroom setting, maybe because we weren’t reading the whole thing, maybe it was due to the translation, maybe a lot of things, but bottom line … I didn’t want to be reading about God and Satan with a bunch of other high school kids. I was embarrassed by it. Not sure how it would have gone if I’d read it on my own.

      Andrew Klavan’s novels are a great example of exploring things like good and evil, the problem of suffering, etc., at a more relatable level, in genre fiction. Crime fiction lends itself to that.

      I’m impressed that you’re reading Paradise Lost. The fact that I was an English major and have never read the whole thing is a real indictment … but that’s a rant for another day.

      The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (by Stephen R. Lawhead I think?) also try to explore the problem of evil. He does a great job exploring it in the narrative, but there is a scene at the end where God gets a chance to explain Himself and IMO, it falls completely flat. But I do understand why the author felt he had to include it.

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      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Well, last year I read Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, because I loved the Trina Schart Hyman version, and I thought I should read the original. It was hard going because of the language, but I loved it. So this I thought, why not try Milton? and it’s so good. I feel like I’m filling some gaps in my own education, but really, I do not think I would have enjoyed it in high school. At least, not unless the rest of my education had also been different in order to prepare me for it better. Some of the obstacles are: the length (not just of the whole but of how long his descriptions and dialogues are), the difficulty of the language (the copy I’m reading from the library has modernized spellings, which helps smooth the way a little), the biblical references, the references to classical mythology, and the profundity of thought.

        I would have no interest in being taught it by an unbeliever, or in studying it in a public school setting. So much of the wonder of it is capturing these great truths, and how could you appreciate that and share the genius of it if you think he’s wrong about everything? I’ve enjoyed talking about it with Michelle and Dad and Jake, though. Hopefully we can give our girls enough depth in their education that they can read it and appreciate it when they’re still in high school. Might be a tall order.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In my case, it was just about the most Christian-friendly public school setting imaginable. A very small class, and the teacher was a practicing Catholic, so he taught it without any snark, just matter-of-factly as “let’s learn about Christian doctrine.” But by that time I had already been trained to feel defensive.

        I’m now not sure that it was Milton we read. I think it might have been Dante. I know we also read Faust that year.

        I have good hopes for your girls. I’ve learned more about Dark Ages and Medieval history, including church history, teaching my kids this year than in all my previous education.

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  5. So much to talk about! I pretty much agree with your points, even about “representation.”

    I wonder a lot about this as I write my own fantasy novel. Yes it has a ton of Tolkien influence, but also a lot from historical fiction writers like Rosemary Sutcliff and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as influence from medieval folklore and Celtic myth, and other aspects of my historical studies. But an awful lot of my ideas also come from my spiritual life; things heard in a sermon on Sunday, or sung in a powerful hymn, or read directly in the Bible. Ideas for how characters ought to behave, or how they might fail, according to the lessons in Scripture. Or “applicable” spiritual lessons. And I wrestle with my story’s worldbuilding — should I let my world stay in the Tolkien mold, meaning there is no overt religion but rather there is a worldview informed by Christianity? Or should I invent a religion and cosmology for my world that is still compatible with my Christian faith, so that I can let my characters interact with religious faith in the way that I do? After all, my world is based on historical periods where religion was quite prevalent for most cultures. It feels odd for it not to be part of my own fiction world, and yet I don’t quite want to copy-paste Christian cosmology, nor accidentally invent a pagan religion that displeases my very real God.

    I haven’t solved that problem yet, even after many years. But I know that at some point, I *must* write explicitly Christian characters, because there are too many parts of my life that have to do explicitly with Christianity that I need to express in fiction. So far, I do have one modern-day, Earth-set story developing that could support this. I don’t necessarily expect to be shelved on the “Christian fiction” shelves at bookstores or libraries…my approach would not be to preach. But I also cannot let my fiction ignore the reality of my day-to-day faith. I write to glorify Christ, and I won’t apologize for it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the long, thoughtful comment. I am again struck by how much you & I have in common. And, by the way, I love Robert Louis Stevenson!

      Certainly how to handle spirituality in our novels is something we must all struggle with. For what it’s worth, I am not positive that inventing a fictitious, historically informed pagan religion for your fantasy novels would necessarily displease God. That is essentially what I am having to do. But, obviously, that’s a call each of us has to make on our own.

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And regarding a fictional cosmology that is still respectful of Christianity, there’s also the fact that I feel Tolkien has done it about as well as it can be done, and the way he did it is so far almost exactly like how I would want to.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Of course there’s no topping Tolkien. Not surprising, considering that he spent decades on world building.

        He did it from a Nordic/Celtic base. If that’s your culture crush, no problem. It is for many people. But there are a ton of other pagan cultures that can be redeemed through fiction. The ones that have informed my writing so far are Ancient Near East and Native American. I’ll get to Indo-European and Old Europe some day, Lord willing. Also Austronesian, perhaps. I don’t know whether I’ll ever go Celtic, since so many other people have already written fantastic fantasies drawing on Celtic folklore. I might be badly outclassed. 🙂

        But actually, as writers we shouldn’t let the “it’s been done” argument scare us off our own vision. If we did that, no one would ever write anything. And when readers love something, they want a lot more of it, even if it has been done.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Exactly. Unfortunately Celtic and post-Roman Britain are my main culture crush, so I’m in well-traveled waters for fantasy literature. But I’m putting my own tastes into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Katie’s post was great!
    Personally I agree with you on the whole representation thing though. I think it’s interesting to have this discussion from this point of view, because it goes to show that there are all sorts of reasons to not feel represented/feel like there are people like you in literature (I for one don’t see people from my ethnic background being represented- unless they’re being murdered in historical fiction- which I can tell you brings me no joy. So I find it ironic when people say I must be “privileged” not to be behind this argument). Ultimately, I don’t see relatability or representation as the most important aspect of a book. Most of the time, I like to read to experience someone else’s life. And I also happen to love reading fantast, which is often an escape from the real world.
    I think there are lots of reasons why people don’t approach religion as a topic (some of which aren’t the best) but I think your last point about writers knowing their limits is a great one! Sure, we’d all love to read/write like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy… but chances are low!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. When I pick up a book, I don’t look around and go, “Which character is most like me demographically, so I can identify with that one?” I just identify with the MC, the one the author directs us to, whatever that character is like. They could be a British jockey (male and underweight – traits I don’t share) or a 12th century Welsh-speaking monk, or a selkie or troll if it’s fantasy. So, we find them relatable for inner traits or because the author makes them relatable, which, after all, is what fiction is supposed to do, right?

      An author has to really alienate me before I stop identifying with the designated POV character. I can think of one or two times that it’s happened. That would be an interesting topic for a post.

      I can definitely see it would not be fun to see your own ethnicity show up only as murder victims. My ethnicity tends to be the villain in some of our most powerful cultural narratives … but we don’t identify with villains, even if they superficially “look like” us, which is why I think this whole representation thing is prohibitively complicated. (As for the word privilege … don’t get me started. As far as a I can see it’s weapon people use against people whose situation they know nothing about.)

      Ooo, I forgot to mention Tolstoy, but he’s great too!

      Thanks for all the views, you made my day. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. hehe yes exactly!! I couldn’t agree more!

        And yeah I get what you mean- that would be a great topic for a post- I look forward to reading it!

        Ah yes unfortunately that is the case. And that’s very true (and yeah I hate the word privilege- not least because it has historically been used by both communists and Nazis to oppress other people… let’s just say I don’t think highly of people who use it to suppress other people’s speech).

        He is! 🙂

        I’m so glad to hear it- really enjoyed reading your posts 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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