Writing about Religion in Fiction

Religion as a Theme or Sub-Theme

Religion appears as a theme in some of the well-known novels that inspire me.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne stresses the cruel rigidity of the Puritans who punish a young woman in the American colonies. While her husband has been assumed lost at sea for quite some time, Hester Prynne gives birth. After she refuses to name the child’s father, she is forced to wear a scarlet A, signifying adultery. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse tells the story of a man who rejects the teachings of Gautama to follow his own rocky path to enlightenment while working as a ferryman on a river. Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow subjects a Jesuit priest to an encounter with extraterrestrial life. On his return, the priest is ridiculed and loses faith in his religion.

I am weighing the benefit or cost of using religion as a major theme in one novel and as a sub-theme in another. Various questions have arisen for me. How much of the backstory should frame the religious sect? How much narrative should I devote to explanations or discourse on the religion itself? Should any major scenes feature conflict around religious beliefs? How do I incorporate religious ideas and customs into the characters’ arcs? It is a complex process.

The Backstory

Each of my first two novels has a religious facet though they focus on different religions with divergent histories, cultures, and members. Religious thought is foundational for the characters in both novels. In the first novel, the protagonist rejects her religious upbringing, then embraces what her parents consider a foreign religion. I am struggling with how best to weave the impact of her childhood religion into her life’s path. At points, she yearns for some of the familial customs related to her family’s religion but she becomes a serious practitioner of her chosen religion.

In the second novel, the religious backstory is less about the protagonist than about her mother. I am trying to find ways to bring it in without spending too much time on it. The main character does not reject her family’s religious ideas but rather carries the ideas she absorbed when young close to her heart throughout her lifetime. She never becomes a committed practitioner, but her worldview remains tied to the religion of her childhood.

Discourse on Religion in the Text of the Novel

If the religion an author treats is not well known in the general reading culture in which the author is working, it may be necessary to provide some explanation of the religion in question. However, a novel ought not become a treatise on religion. Hawthorne demonstrates the effects of religious authoritarianism through example and counterargument in the story of Hester Prynne. I reread Siddhartha recently to observe how Hesse handled the integration of religious ideas, practices, and actions into his tale. He integrates historical and philosophical ideas about religion into the action line that Siddhartha follows through his lifetime. The author has different characters converse about the religious lessons they have learned. Though they follow different paths, Siddhartha and Govinda both reach enlightenment. In The Sparrow, Russell’s juxtaposition of Catholicism with an otherworldly culture allows her to highlight the lacunae in religions on Earth and on a distant planet.

Conflictual Scenes Regarding Religion

Another question I am trying to answer is whether or not to add any conflictual scenes regarding the protagonist’s new religion. Siddhartha starts off with a conflict between the eponymous main character and his father about religion. The young man leaves home to follow his own path because he is disillusioned with his father’s stance. In The Scarlet Letter conflict is a major part of the story. Hester is shunned, as is her daughter, from interaction with the townspeople. Her husband takes the scary name “Chillingworth” and devotes his life to uncovering the name of the father of Hester’s illegitimate daughter. Conflict abounds in The Sparrow both in outer space between factions and on Earth between members of the clergy.

In my first novel, family conflict is possible at several points in the novel, but I have to decide if it is essential. In the second novel, conflict around religious healing is definitely a potential focus for a scene.

The Author’s Own Spiritual Approach

Another aspect of writing about religion involves the author’s own spiritual approach. I am familiar with both religions I am writing about but a member of neither. Given the focus these days on “cultural appropriation” in fiction, various questions arise when writing about religion. For example, can an agnostic writer create characters who are representative of a certain religion? Can a Protestant write about characters who are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu—or vice versa? How much knowledge of a specific religion is necessary to write authentically?

To assume that authors of fiction may write only about what occurs in their own experience would certainly be limiting. I don’t think it is necessary for an author to belong to a particular religion to write about it. Hawthorne was a transcendentalist, not a Puritan. Hesse’s interest in India was grounded in several threads of his early life. His grandparents had been Protestant missionaries in India. His interests led him to philosophy and psychology. He developed a fascination with Buddhism early on. Siddhartha reflects Hesse’s pondering about the impact of both religious and philosophical ideas on individuals’ lives.

To expect a writer to complete extensive research and write accurately about religion or any other topic is appropriate. Writers must have a solid grounding and understanding of the religions and cultures they choose to showcase. It is also important for authors to select beta readers with appropriate religious expertise who can check for errors in the author’s unpublished text.

Writing Goals for 2020

1. Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:

During the month of April, I had a hard time focusing on my fiction. As I mentioned in my last blog, my husband broke his back. He ended up in the hospital. Readers can imagine how much stress this caused our family, given that COVID-19 is everyone’s present reality. When he returned home, he needed hourly care. Finally, at the end of the month, he started to get better. I caught up on my sleep and got some work done. I added conflict about religion to a scene in each of these novels.

2. Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:

In April, I reread the pages that I wrote during the March NovelRama. What grabbed my attention was my need to do some serious historical work to ground this story firmly in the period I am writing about.

3. Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:

Today is May 7, 2020, I am posting my fifth blog of 2020. The topics that I discuss in my blog are issues that I find perplexing in my own fiction writing. This month I have been contemplating my own relationship to religion and my approach to it in my novels. I have done more comparative reading about religion. Furthermore, for my own peace of mind, I have been meditating on a daily basis. With the entire world facing the effects of Covid-19, I have enormously appreciated the daily talks that Deepak Chopra has been doing online regarding keeping one’s immune system strong through meditation, yoga, and a focus on the present moment.

4. Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:

Our Boulder Writer’s Alliance group met via Zoom in April. Unfortunately, I had to miss the meeting since my husband was released from the hospital that day.

In our Writers Who Read group on Zoom, we analyzed a literary eco-thriller, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk has been awarded Poland’s Nike prize for literature twice, as well as the Mann-Booker Award, and the Nobel. It was a pleasure to read a novel written in an exquisitely literary style enhanced with a complex interweaving of themes. William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell provided the major and minor themes as well as the chapter headings. The subthemes of feminism, ecology, vegetarianism, astrology, animal rights, and a critical perspective on the hypocrisy of a religious figure created a unique character arc for one of the strongest female protagonists I have ever witnessed.










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