Image from Village Zendo.
Recently I’ve found myself becoming more and more interested in what people would call “religious writing.” That doesn’t mean modern sermons and proselytizing documents; I’m more interested in ancient myths, folktales, religious poetry, and parables. The mystery, reverence, and good old-fashioned tale-telling found in these forms can be very informative for modern creative writing. But it’s gotten me wondering what exactly makes writing seem “religious” these days.
There are the official, canonical documents of the world religions, of course. The stories and even the writing style of the Bible has affected western writers for centuries; its power and declamatory style make for very effective fiction writing. In particular, I can see a fave writer of mine, John Steinbeck, being strongly influenced by the Bible. Other writers have borrowed cadences or whole passages from the Qur’an, the Torah, the Vedas, the Sutras, and others. What fascination do religious texts hold for writers?
One attraction, I think, is the combination of antiquity and universalism. These texts come from unimaginably distant civilizations in human history. At the same time, the concerns they express are astoundingly similar to the problems we face. These documents ask poignantly what the role of families versus the church is, or how we can overcome the fear of death. They show the tenderness of human relationships, such as the touching tale of Vasitthi the Madwoman in Buddhism. In this tale, a woman’s child dies, and she goes mad, refusing to believe that he is dead. She carries his body from door to door in the village, begging for help. Only the Buddha can make her realize both that her son has died, and how inevitable that death was. Her grief is as palpable as it would be today.
After the jump: the magic of religious writing.
For this reason, I think, religious writing is wonderful to incorporate into our fiction. It is the kind of writing that is grappling most directly with the questions of existence. What is honor? What does God expect of us? Is there an external God? Is there something holy in humanity? Is death the end of everything? While every religion has official, doctrinal answers for these questions, I love the non-doctrinal poems and parables because they do not express such smug certainty. Instead, they wrestle, agonize, and wonder. They show individuals and how they grieve and question.
Kafka is a writer who successfully used the parable model and modernized it. He wrote haunting little parables of his own, such as “Up in the Gallery”, “An Imperial Message”, and “Before the Law.” Each of these parables — you can read them at the above links — presents a situation that is both engrossing and makes you completely question the subjective nature of perception, the ideals of law, and the question of faith and belief. The funny thing about parables is that they rely upon archetypes, not individual characters — and yet when they hit home, they feel deeply personal.
It’s a good exercise to try writing one of your own, or to incorporate religious writing into your fiction to give it some extra oomph. Later I’ll write a post about how to write your own parable, so stay tuned!