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As writers, it is our duty and our privilege to delve into the deepest parts of human experience.
We are told from a young age not to bring up religion or politics in polite conversation, but today, I'm doing just that on the podcast! Faith, spirituality and religion have a spectrum upon which we all sit somewhere. If we're going to bring aspects of this to our writing, we have to be able to discuss it openly.
In the intro, I mention Thrillerfest, ‘Turning Pro' by Steven Pressfield, writing 4000 words per day by thriller author Jeremy Robinson and my new non-fiction book, Career Change.
Jill and I both bring the greatest respect to people of all religions in this discussion. I do hope you will leave a comment with your own thoughts on this topic, but please, do write with a similar respect. This is an equal rights blog!
Dr. Jill Carroll is a Houston-based scholar, writer and speaker who specializes in world religions and applied life philosophy. She is the author of 3 non-fiction books and a new novel, Quail Fried Rice, and she also runs the Amazing Faiths project which encourages inter-faith dialogue and friendship. Today we're discussing how religion and spirituality affects our writing but also how you can use it in your books to bring depth and meaning.
- Jill was raised in a conservative Christian family so religious ideas were part of her upbringing and became compelling to her over time. She loves the questions and stories of religion. Jill is no longer a practicing Christian but it is highly bound up in her life. She's a working scholar who has studied the world's religions. This reflects my own experience. I was a Christian in my teens, but I now consider myself spiritual, although I'm not affiliated with any specific religion.
- You can't put belief in a box. It's more like a spectrum and there is room for everyone. I recently read Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable by Bruce Hood. It goes into this third way – the spiritual between religion and atheism.
- Religion is the oldest cultural product of humans. We've been telling the stories and using it to guide our lives for millennia.
Religion is geography
- In terms of settings, this is critical. I mention Varanasi, which I use in Pentecost, and how it brings up such deep cultural and artistic resonance. The religions of the world are hardwired to be jumping off points for creative projects. They have amazing settings, mystical powerful places with stunning art and huge emotion associated with them. Varanasi has fire, water, sadhus – holy men, chanting, smoke and death. It is ripe for story. It's a ready made world. You can say one word to people of a certain religious background and that will evoke deep meaning for people. They are powerful cultural symbols and that touches people deeply. (This is the reason behind my novel titles: Pentecost, Prophecy and Exodus.)
- On strong reactions to religion. What is it about religion that makes it inherently combustible to discuss? It's the cultural product in which we ask and answer the deepest questions of human existence. When people get attached to the answers, they will defend their position because we may pin our lives on the answers to these questions. If an alternative challenges that, we can feel that as a threat.
Characterization with religion
- When we write, we need to bring these big concepts down to specific individuals with specific experiences. But this can lend itself to one-sided characterization. An evangelical or Conservative Christian or a fundamentalist Muslim can too often be portrayed in a stereotypical manner. There is actually great nuance in people's faiths. There's a lot going on with people. There's fear and anxiety about modern life, the worry that traditional values don't hold anymore, that the world doesn't seem safe. As a creative, we have to see that people are complex and not just the caricatures we see portrayed in the news.
- On researching other faiths without being patronizing. Jill discusses inter-faith work which blossomed after 9/11 in an attempt to foster reconciliation. There are lots of different opportunities to begin dialogue so people can get to know each other as people. A lot of these things are still going on. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and discover that there are people beyond the stereotypes. The more we extend ourselves into friendships, the better off society is. Multiculturalism is here to stay (and that is a good thing!) We discuss the various reactions after 9/11 – the violence as well as the inter-faith efforts. The media focused on the violent side but there was also a lot of positive work going on.
Religion and Politics
- On religion and politics in the US. Christianity has been the dominant religion in the US, and evangelical, conservative faith has been the norm for a long time. It has even been sliding into what could be called fundamentalism. However, in terms of scholarly opinion, it is considered a world-view that is dying. It is not supported by young people and over time, the demographics will change and so it has a shelf-life. But politics and religion seem to be entirely twisted together in the US media.
- In the UK, the media is focusing on Richard Dawkins and the new atheism. Jill also says it is becoming increasingly popular in the US. It's a militant atheism that seems to suggest believers are stupid and deluded to believe in any kind of God. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are also popular writers in this niche. A growing number of people are subscribing to these ideas. But the US is a strongly religious country so talking about it is part of the culture. Atheism is just the extreme end of the faith spectrum, and it has become a fundamentalism in its own right, criticizing those that disagree with it.
On the wildness of religion
- On the personalities of cult leaders. In terms of characterization, these people are fascinating and certainly lives to be researched for our fiction. But there is no one specific type of person who starts a religion. We discuss that the main religious and cult leaders have been male, with a few exceptions. All the great religions were also founded by charismatic leaders. They started as personality cults, which all developed beyond the original founder. These people were remarkable, they were not ‘normal' people. And as writers, we are attracted to the unusual and fantastic. Normal is boring!
- Religion, by definition, is wild. Faith can take you to the wild edge of existence, especially in the mystical areas of religion. Jill wrote an academic thesis on the savage side of God and used nature as a metaphor. We discuss how the amoral aspect of the wilderness can actually make us feel insignificant and, in a strange way, closer to God. It is beyond morality. It doesn't care. I discuss how I have felt close to God, or Spirit, when scuba diving when I just felt tiny on the face of the Earth.
- This type of deep thinking can bring you closer to understanding your own beliefs, which you can bring to your characters and your writing. Jill talks about how the West Texas desert has almost become a character in her new novel. The sparse, elegant beauty of it and the fact it nurtures such a variety of life but it's also deadly. Everything out there has a blade on it, and it's hot. It can kill you. It exudes that amoral quality. So what does it mean to situate your life out there? Jill worked through those issues in her new book, Quail Fried Rice (which isn't religious at all!)
- On the fear of offense and criticism. Talking about religion can often bring up issues as inevitably, we don't agree with each other. Jill talks about being accepting of the fact that polemic will happen if you talk publicly about these topics. It's important to be respectful of the topics discussed, the religions and the individuals involved. This minimizes attacks. Both of us have great respect for people of all faiths and we try to communicate this in our discussion. It can also be good to bring some humor into the situation, and sometimes recognize the craziness inherent in the complexity of religion.
- Our job as artists is to push the edges, to challenge people and to tackle the difficult topics. Religion is so bound up in life that surely it has to be tackled in our work.
You can find Jill at JillCarroll.com and on Twitter @JillCarroll.
Janice Lane Palko says
Great post! I think including a religious aspect to a novel adds greatly because adhering to any spiritual philosophy inherently introduces conflict, which contributes to a compelling story. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc., there are tenets to be observed to be truly committed to that religious philosophy. It is always a challenge to live up to these lofty ideals and provides a great source for internal and external conflict.
On my website, I recently discussed how some of the most memorable novels (The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, etc.) grapple with spiritual and moral problems. Also, to ignore a character’s spiritual (or lack of ) nature is to ignore an important aspect of character.
At the heart of my romantic comedy, St. Anne’s Day, all of my characters must, in addition to working through problems, come to terms with their moral and spiritual choices. I’m glad more authors are giving their characters a spiritual dimension as it enriches their works.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Janice. I do find it odd when whole worlds can exist in books without some kind of spiritual aspect. It is hard to write about but it is so important to so many.
Ilana Waters says
I just think it’s great, Joann and Jill, that you can have this sort of discussion in a rational, intelligent way. If only our world leaders were more like the two of you, there would truly be peace on earth! Perhaps they should all read your novels . . . 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thank Ilana – Jill and I will of course consider running for US President and UN Secretary General and together, solve world peace 🙂
but really, I agree, I think the more of us that can talk this way, the better. Intolerance drives me crazy 🙂
Jill Carroll says
That’s hilarious – US President and UN Secretary General! What a joint ticket!
In all seriousness, thanks Ilana for your comments. Religion is a difficult subject for lots of people precisely because it “lives” so deeply within us – not at our head, rational level but in our gut level. It takes effort to converse about it in an even keel way, but it’s worth the effort in the long run.
I appreciate this article.
As a Muslim and a POC who writes fiction, it so very important to me that I write situations and characters that are representative. With that said, I am always conscious that there are people out there who are “put off” by discussions of faith, either because they hold differing beliefs or because they feel that faith itself is defunct and not applicable to “real life” or any other reason, to be honest.
I am of the opinion that writing people, places, faiths, cultures that stretch outside of the common “acceptable” “recognizable” tropes makes for one that has more depth and interest.
Jill Carroll says
Khaalidah – I totally understand your point. Religion can be very off-putting to many people. I think, as creatives, we have to be mindful of this and be sure that when we include religious cultures into our work, we do so in a way that broadens, enriches and deepens the human experience we are presenting rather than simply using our creative work as a “pulpit” to preach a particular theology. No one wants to ready “preachy” novels, right? I don’t, at least.
Joanna Penn says
Also agreed, and as I am not a ‘believer’ in a specific religion, I don’t have anything to preach about 🙂 unless it’s preaching acceptance of multi-culturalism!
dani sell says
Joanna, thanks for this article. you did good, girl!
dani sell says
regional dialect/grammar…. intentional.
Gary D. Henderson says
I listened to this show while on a plane, today, and after all your cautions at the beginning, I was expecting some really controversial talk.
I don’t think you could possibly have been more even-handed. I would find it hard to believe anyone could find anything to criticize. It was a very good episode. (The second I’ve listened to.)
As an atheist, I try very hard to portray people of different faiths accurately and fairly when I write, and not just make all my characters ignore that religion exists. So I was very interested in what you both had to say.
You did, however, cause me to have to re-think a thing or two in the urban fantasy universe I’ve created. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Gary – I actually try hard to be inoffensive 🙂 I’m glad we gave you something to think about. In any universe, I would think there must be people of all religious persuasions – oppressed people particularly have found solace in faith. I recommend that book Supersense which looks at the place of spirituality over religion. Fascinating stuff.
Good job, Joanna.
Though I did get a chuckle out of the gap between Dr. Carroll’s “respectful” attitude and her assertion that Jesus was “diagnosable.” Never mind that, the episode was useful and it filled a different gap, one that shows up sharply when Christian history and artifacts (or fictional artifacts) become elements of paranormal or paranormal-seeming stories. You did well with this topic.
Naturally, when I heard the name Jill Carroll, I thought of that reporter who stayed a few weeks in Iraq. That’s another story that veers into the religion/politics minefield. Not my genre.
You end your casts by expressing the hope that the cast has been “helpful.” As always, this one was.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Lyn, yes, when I was researching Jill, I found the other one as well. There is definitely a lot of crossover – but the pictures are quite different! I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion.
Elizabeth Cairns says
I too was delighted to hear such an open, respectful and engaging discussion and share your theological passion.
Jo, really enjoying how your podcasts are getting even more “deep and meaningful”. You’re a great witness to how a truly authentic business cna be run. Hearing your updates about what’s going on in your world – always inspiring – and continually impressed by the amount of quality support and content you are able to put out there – when do you sleep? 🙂 Hope New York/Thirller Fest was everything you hoped it would be, looking forward to hearing more.
p.s would back you both on a “world peace” ticket for sure 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Hi Elizabeth, Thanks so much for your kind words and I’m so glad you enjoy the updates. I didn’t used to do them but one of my listeners challenged me on it so I try to do it every couple of weeks. I will DEFINITELY have an update from Thrillerfest 🙂 It’s very exciting and I’m learning so much.
I have always tried to be authentic but I think I am more confident now about sharing the deep and meaningful stuff, which I have held back in the past. That is definitely a flow over from the fiction, in which I really put it all out there 🙂
We do enjoy the updates. You are now in the weird position of having lots of people who think of you as a friend, even though we’ve never met. We like to know how you’re doing. Also, even your quick updates often contain a nugget of useful information or inspiration.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Lyn, I really appreciate that comment. I really love to hear from people who listen to the podcast as I know there are thousands of them now, but I don’t “know” them as well as the commenters on the blog. I actually think you guys know me better than many of my real life friends who aren’t into writing – especially as I share the personal stuff now! Thanks so much.
K. Traylor says
Please don’t simplify atheism by calling it “a fundamentalism in its own right.” There are as many shades of atheism as there are of theism. Dawkins disciples and secular humanists are similar in that none of them believe in a supernatural creative force, but their attitudes and worldviews can be very different.
Joanna Penn says
Of course, in a 30 min podcast there is no way we could go into anything in great detail. I agree on the variation in any belief system, in atheism as much as anything else.
Robert W. Hegwood says
Dear Ms Penn,
I had the privilege of discovering your podcast to day, and among its offerings was this post on religion and spirituality in writing which I enjoyed. However, I have some rather large quibbles with you, because you are not finished with this subject. Indeed you barely got started before it was over.
Oh and as a side note with respect to your own writing…you mentioned working on a story that touches upon the Ark of the Covenant…just in case you did not know….The Ethiopian Orthodox claim to have it…the tablets at least and the tray which holds them …which tray they regard as the actual ark not the box that once held them. The parading of the ark is an important part of their Paschal (Easter) celebrations…if you can locate it among all the fakes trotted out to confuse the profane and the kleptophilic.
Back to your subject. Here are some points I hope you address in some future extension of this topic:
1. Why is most fantasy and SF treatment of the religious aspect of human nature so bad? So…cardboard thin crayon drawing of a six year old stereotypical bad…almost no one does it well, and those who are actual persons of faith are often the worst offenders. Here follow a litany of observed flaws: (a) misunderstood/misappropriated tropes. For example years ago there was a SF book with the name Athos prominent in its title. Was it about a hidden monastic kingdom/republic? Was it a land of recluses , the center of spiritual life of the faith of an empire? No…it was just a planet of homosexual men with special rules about making babies through the wonders of modern space medicine…oh and there was murder mystery on a space station somewhere. What a wasted opportunity…Athos is the Holy Mountian, it has a 1000 year history of miracle working ascetics, some which shone like the sun, others with unfailing prophetic or healing gifts, others which read the hearts and minds of others as clearly as reading a newspapers, others who can question trees and stones about times past and get answers…and that’s just the tip of it all…Heck, there was even old monastic who used to live on Athos who answered telephone call two months after he was dead (he told the other party he was in heaven now and if they needed anything they could just pray and he would help) and all the author sees to mine is that of a bunch of men living without women in their own province/land…how do they do it…must be gay. Wow, the mind staggers. Indian or Tibetian holy men have a chance of being treated with respect, but not Christian monastics. Mother Gavriella, an Orthodox nun used to hate getting cut flowers and was seen on occasion whispering to a wilted bouquet in a vase so that it revived…she recommend hugging trees and asking them for some of their strength when feeling overwhelmed.
(b) limited or no familiarity…or an ax to grid. The writers have a very limited experience with any faith…or a limited bad experience with one and try to write out of that. The guy who grows up an Evangelical and only knowing evangelical expressions of Christianity is very unlikely to get stories involving liturgical worship…or the various beliefs and rituals of other faiths very well….it all comes across as a thin caricature. There are two basic varieties of trying to “create” Christian characters…they are either “Catholics in Outer SPACE Space space, or fundy nut jobs suckled on the teat of a lice ridden luddite. Every expression of their faith is a throwaway stereotype…and their “arguments” are so full of straw one could see 100 head of cattle fed through till spring. The other side of this coin for those who want some sort of respectable religion for their societies hit conceptual autopilot and dial up a neo pagan earth mother….because we all know if God’s a God and God’s a He, and His Church is in the hands of an ancient cabal of beardy men…it’s all evilly patriarchal…and oppressive…ooooh men in charge gotta be bad or corrupt or something vile. Oh…earth mother magic religion slinky togas, maybe a little intrigue, arcane gestures, secret passages, but so not male and therefore so necessarily good.
c. On the religious side after lack of familiarity (and empathy…an unwillingness to get into the head and heart of a believing character of a faith other than their own) with other faiths and their worship/theology it goes wrong because the authors are busy writing a long form tractates…a vacation bible school play in World of Warcraft clothing….or astronaut suits and rocket ships. They are preaching…often badly under the guise of fiction…case in point the whole Left Behind series and the earlier though somewhat less egregiously written Peretti’s “This Present Darkeness” (the first of the spiritual warfare thrillers).
2. Authors who did it right. I would have loved a more in depth look at some authors who get the religious aspect of human nature right, or very nearly so. Among those are luminaries such as Cordwainer Smith, JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Walter Wangerin (Book of the Dun…if you’ve not read it you’ve missed one of the great animal fables of the last 100 years) Richard Adams (I think he did it especially well for his rabbits in Watership Down) , Orson Scott Card (though many of his stories are reclothed LDS religious tropes, he treats the religious aspect of human nature with great care), Julian May (Many Colored Land and following…more of a SF Jungian Archtypal take on it..but she makes it work at a mythical level). There are others to be sure, but an examination from a writerly perspective on how they worked out how to deal with this side or lives without either preaching or mocking or dismissing out of hand.
Speaking for myself on the subject or religious nature and creative I recently encounter some commentary from the great director Tarkovsky from his book Sculpting in Time that resonates strongly with me. It might with you too.
“Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being. The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” (p42)
“My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware the beauty is summoning him. (p200)
…what nobody seems to understand is that love can only be one-sided, that no other love exists, that in any other form it is not love. If it involves less than total giving, it is not love. It is impotent; for the moment it is nothing.” (p217)
“We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.”
Well…this has been long and a trifle ranty. I hope to hear more of your podcasts and hear more of your forays into dealing with religiosity with integrity as a writer.
Robert W. Hegwood says
Just a follow up note…after posting I notice several typos and a missing word here and there…some of it is the fruit of a twitchy autocorrect…but the responsibility is mine for not proofing better before posting….I thought I had…but as it turns out…I hadn’t…sort of like the difficulties in catching everything in edits of one’s own stories. Again…like your site, like your podcast…am still a firm believer that everyone automatically gains 10 points of intelligence when speaking with a British accent…and any item read in such an accent, be it ever so humble as the ingredients on a jar of discount peanut butter is automatically interesting. Oh…and I still hope to see future expansions on this topic. Mea still culpa.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Robert, Thanks for your long and considered comments. I am so pleased that you thought enough of the podcast to spend your time responding. Thank you.
However, I have to say that in a 30 min podcast, we could of course only cover a tiny slice of this gigantic topic – and because this is a podcast focusing on writing and not religion, we won’t be revisiting the topic for a while.
* On the Ark, I definitely cover the Ethiopians and indeed the Lemba of Zimbabwe and many other possible holders of the true Ark. I think you may find it interesting when the book makes it into the public 🙂
* I don’t personally read much sci-fi/fantasy so I can’t really comment on your thoughts here
* Frank Peretti is definitely one of my influences – I loved This Present Darkness, but I’m not a Christian anymore.
I’m glad you like the accent 🙂
Thanks again, I hope you enjoy future podcasts.
Gary Cottrell says
This was an issue I struggled with while writing my novel, “Time Ship.” I am definitely a Christian, and my faith influences every aspect of my life, so it seemed natural to include it in my book. At the same time, I never wanted the book to become didactic or (even worse) “preachy.” I include characters whose faith backgrounds affected them in different ways, based primarily on the character’s individual response to it. I wanted to demonstrate that faith can be both a wholesome influence as well as a destructive one. At the same time, faith is presented largely in the background, a definite part of the story, but not the story itself. I guess, what I’m trying to say is that we should not have to deny who we are when we write, but also remember the audience may not share my views. And yes, everything should be done with respect.
Janice Lane Palko says
I understand your plight. I am Catholic and my novel that I am releasing tomorrow, St. Anne’s Day, is a romantic comedy and has a Catholic flair. The last thing I wanted to do was to sound preachy. I let my characters express their beliefs. I ran it past several people of varying faiths and non felt that I was imposing religious beliefs on them and they said they enjoyed it.
Until the advent of indie publishing there weren’t many places that published fiction written with Catholic sensibilities. At, one time I tried to sanitize it of all it’s “Catholicness” and pitch it to the traditional inspirational/Christian fiction publishing houses. While I got many requests for the entire manuscript, they always ended up passing. And in truth, I think I stripped it of all of its personality. Fortunately, we now have the option of indie publishing and finding our own markets. I say write what you know and be who you are and don’t try to preach.
Larkin Hunter says
Gary & Janice–
Your experiences and positions are completely understandable. I’m protestant, but wouldn’t mind reading about Catholic characters–or observant Jews, or anybody else. In fact, it’s a privilege to be able to see inside a faith or tradition that’s not your own. Seeing it through characters, rather than friends or acquaintances, takes the risk out of peeping through that particular window. What we might be shy about asking of a friend, we’ll be happy to learn from a fictional character.
And yes, Indie Publishing is a blessing, a blessing. Like you, my writing and I didn’t meet the strict definition of “Christian” that the Christian houses required, but neither was I racy or secular enough for the regular publishers. Ruth Ann Nordin is blazing her own trail, and so should we all.
Cheers! And thanks to Joanna for opening the topic. And many thanks to Joanna for the hard work she has done to give us a hand up on our way.
Janice Lane Palko says
So true, Larkin. I found some of the guidelines from the Christian houses too restrictive to make my fiction seem real, and my books were too spiritual in nature for the mainstream. What convinced me was when some neighbors found my first few chapters on my website and asked where they could buy my book–these were people from varied faith background! In effect, my market found me before I found them. Thanks for such thoughtful posts and much success to all of you.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for your comments all. These are exactly the issues I wanted to start discussing. When I first thought about Pentecost, it didn’t fit the Christian market – as it’s not edifying to the faith or something like that! – and yet it includes a lot of Christian story and culture, so people interested in religion will find it fascinating. As you say, we can publish in the gaps and see what happens! All the best with your books.
Alyne deWunter says
I love this conversation.
As far as the amorality of nature – this is what Faerie brings to us. The fertile aspects of how the nature operates. Its all sexual, creation and destruction. Birth/death/rebirth. This is the Old Religion.
The role of the human being is to BE the conscience of the earth. To be the consciousness of the planet. The animals and trees and rocks need us to bring consciousness to them as much as they bring love and awareness to us. We bring the animals self awareness – just look at the difference between wild animals and pets. The tragedy of our time is that people have been, through social manipulation, cut off from their moral role and even from their innate divinity. We’ve been brainwashed to think we are a hazard to the planet merely because we exist. Ridiculous!
Not a believer in Darwinism as I’m sure you can tell….