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.

Ew! Moments in Books

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Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)

The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.

Why Authors Include Ew! Moments

I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.

It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:

We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)

Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined

How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”

Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.

It’s Good for Ew!

How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.

Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.

Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.

Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.

Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:

Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.