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.