Monday, March 16, 2015

Depicting Religion in Fiction

Religion is one of those touchy subjects that fiction touches on sometimes with great finesse and other times with the equivalent of Thor’s hammer. It’s hard to know exactly how much religion is good for a book and when we’ve become a little too nitpicky about our depiction of Gods and Goddesses. There is nothing quite like a book where the author has forgotten the credo of ‘Tell a good story’ in favor of giving us a very good sermon. Thus there are a few things to think about when considering how to treat religion in your fiction.

Do you want to use an established religion?

This is the first and perhaps most touchy question. If you borrow from an established religion there are going to be those who know the rules better than you almost certainly and that means they could pull out the pitchforks and the torches if you get things wrong. However, that’s not to say you can’t do this quite well. It just means you have to choose your battlefield carefully. Very recently, I read the book “Age of Valor: Heritage” by D. E. Morris. (You can find my author interview with her HERE.) It’s a very good book for a new author and she borrows heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition with her Maker and the adjoining religion. She even goes so far as to give us a few samples of how prayer is handled in that worldview.  While to some it may come off as heavy handed, I think it’s handled with enough of a deft hand that she can get away from borrowing quite heavily and obviously from Christianity.

Now borrowing from religions doesn’t just refer to the big three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That also includes mythology such as Greek, African, Chinese, and other religious systems. Perhaps the most groundbreaking work which borrowed from a number of different systems was Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”. Not only did he borrow quite effectively, but he deified things that had previously not held a divine distinction.

He brings me to my second point.

Do you want to create a new system?

In “American Gods” we are treated to a new class of gods, the Gods of the Technology Age which are seeking to supplant the old Gods. He takes the old system and gives it new names, faces, and abilities. So in a way, this isn’t really creating a new system as removing pieces from the framework and manipulating them. This can be done in a number of ways. “American Gods” uses the old Gods and gets more in depth in how they would be if they were real people which offers quite a view of the creatures man once worshipped. So in a way, Gaiman is playing on both sides of the field as he offers us this story.

Though there are only really two ways to go about depicting religion, either by borrowing from an old system or creating a new one: that doesn’t mean there aren’t a hundred different ways to go about doing those two things.

Can you think of any other good reading for religious depictions? I would love to hear from you in the comments. 

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