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This is a guest post from Will Entrekin, author of The Prodigal Hour. My own novel, Pentecost, tackles issues of belief and it is hard to talk about it openly here because everyone has different views. I'm glad Will has tackled the subject and you can expect a post from me in a similar vein when I pluck up the courage!
Today marks the publication of my novel The Prodigal Hour, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it a religious thriller like Joanna’s Pentecost, it is a thriller that considers spirituality in the context of devout faith. It’s a time-travel story–I believe the world’s first pre-/post-9/11 novel–in which one young man, coping with his own survival of September 11th, moves back home, seeking familiarity. He interrupts a burglary during which his father, Dennis–a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study–is murdered, and the subsequent homicide investigation only prompts more questions: what was Dennis working on, and why would he hide it? Was he working with al Qaeda?
Investigators don’t seem to know, but Dennis’ research assistant, Cassie, might. She isn’t certain Dennis invented a time machine, but she knows who told her he did: Chance.
A time machine is one of the most unlimited passport plot-devices available to fiction writers. Want to go anywhere and anywhen but not–for the most part–write a period-piece novel? Given unlimited license, however, one must create one’s own restrictions–I decided that use of the time machine had to come from the characters’ motivations. The story had to follow where they wanted to go, not where I wanted them to.
As a teenager, Chance lost his mother–who raised him in Catholicism–to cancer, an event that personally devastates him and spiritually leaves him adrift; religion ceases to inspire any faith in him. When he attends Fordham University, it is because the institution was his mother’s alma mater, not because of its Jesuit heritage. There, he studies theology and martial arts with Fitzgerald roshi, a Jesuit priest who is also a Zen Buddhist monk, and whose teachings stay with Chance long after graduation.
But so do his questions concerning faith, as well as the historicity of Jesus.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so here I’ll digress from discussing the story to discussing writing about faith and religion. Everyone knows not to discuss them in polite company, but often that just means either that nobody talks about them ever, or that the only discussion people have is deeply polarized and partisan. This creates a further dilemma, especially for a writer aiming at popular, commercial fiction. Speaking for myself, I’ve pitched The Prodigal Hour as The Time-Traveler’s Wife meets The Da Vinci Code (or, alternately, perhaps Timeline meets The Historian); I’ve always intended a widely commercial novel with mass appeal. This creates a tightrope because religion and faith are such deeply personal topics and one runs into the possibility of offending the very people one hopes to entertain.
Part of the attention The Da Vinci Code attracted was arguably a result of the controversy it inspired, but therein is another dilemma: should one create controversy if it will sell more books?
But then I realized that writing about religion is really no different from writing about any other potentially controversial subject matter, and I think there are a couple of keys to doing so.
The first is honesty, and that’s in terms of character, plot, story, and treatment. What I mean is that theme develops from story, and ensuring the integrity of the story–for example, ensuring that no characters commit any action solely because the author wants them to–is important. Which also includes the notes that, early on, there were ideas I had in terms of places for the story to go that I ultimately gave up in the interest of remaining true to the story and its character’s motivations.
The second is respect. Like Chance, I am concerned by matters of faith and belief–in fact, like Chance, I was raised, Catholic before I grew out of it and then studied theology at a Jesuit college. Years later, I have moved far away from religious conservativism and fundamentalism from any source. There are fringe members of all religions whose actions concern me, be they pro-life activists who bomb abortion clinics or political insurrectionists who bomb weddings. On the other hand, I realize that religion and faith are not just spiritually but also psychologically important to people, and I also think people have a right to whatever beliefs they feel resonance with; I just tend to fear the ways those beliefs might shape policy.
Finally, I think one important aspect is understanding–not with regard to religion itself, but rather the need for it. It’s one thing to attempt to understand theology or faith but another entirely to consider why people require those things; what is it that makes people seek a personal relationship with God? There are so many factors involved and faith is so personal, which is why, when I was writing The Prodigal Hour, I was considering not my own issues with faith, but rather those of the main characters. Their issues with faith and religion were more important to the story than my own.
I never really considered how I might address faith, to be candid; I was trying to understand Chance’s questions about faith and religion, and where they had come from. What was he seeking, and what do we all seek?
I think that was the question I kept coming back to. Setting aside the idea of belief, doctrine, and salvation, religion as a psychological construct is so important for so many people. People find comfort, strength, and hope in it. Which all seemed to be exactly what Chance was searching for, so what about religion and faith weren’t enough for him? What about them made him question so much so deeply? What solutions was he seeking that he couldn’t find in religion and faith?
I’m not sure I answered any of those questions in the novel, but then, I’m not sure they’re answerable questions. I’m not even sure answers are the point. Sometimes it’s less about finding answers than asking questions, and maybe that’s every bit as valuable.
I hope there is some of that value in The Prodigal Hour. I leave it to you to decide.
Image: Flickr CC Tibetan prayer flags by FreeBirD