Writing about religion
I enjoy writing about religion, or more exactly, I enjoy writing about people who have a religious faith. It is simply not possible to write about most ages of past human experience without including the religious life somewhere. Too often in books you come across a few very simple, and in my view quite unrealistic stereotypes. So there is the rabid fundamentalist, who reacts with violence to anything that seems to threaten his or her world view. Or there is the ruthless cynic, who knows it’s all make-believe and just wants to exploit others. Or there is the naïve villager, who is duped and never questions the wider system. Or there is the wise sage who holds to personal spirituality without the inconvenient trappings of any specific religion.
Now, I have at various times in my life mixed with and known people of faith who belong to various different religions, and I have to say that these simple pictures do not do justice to most of them. In terms of religious faith as well as other areas of life, people are more complex, and more interesting, than these stereotypes. They have doubt as well as faith, selfish as well as noble motives, mixed feelings about the religious institution they belong to, and, usually, commitment to a specific form of religion rather than a vague abstraction. They are often keenly interested in other forms of religion as well as their own, even if they think that those are ultimately incorrect.
How does this translate into writing fiction? Well, a person’s expressed religion is just one facet of their overall character, not an isolated pocket. So the fictional character should express their religion in a way that fits with everything else we know about them. This also depends on the age in which the story is set. The Late Bronze Age, which I write about, was notable for the way different cultures grappled with how the beliefs of other nations dovetailed with their own. We have discovered several comparative lists of deities, recording how priests and scribes tried to think through how someone else’s pantheon of gods matched with what they believed. By and large, it was a time of curiosity and exploration about faith. Other times in history have not been so accommodating, but even within those, there have been large numbers of individuals whose faith has been exploratory rather than rigid. There are always the noisy few extremists, but there are also a great many moderates.
Basically, fictional people whose characters are open to change and adaptation are, in my view, much more realistic than those who are closed and rigid. This applies to religious expression as much as anything else. When crisis strikes – whether in fiction or in reality – religious faith is only one of many personal dimensions which might be stretched and challenged. That process can lead to several different destinations, and usually these are more interesting when they’re not the handful of worn-out stereotypes.
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13