What Makes Religious Writing?

  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!


  1. Katie says:

    I think what makes fiction religious is it become a focus of how the world of the author is seen, or how a main player in the story sees their world. For example, The Eighth Scroll , is a religious fiction with a lot of different points of view, but each of the main players is colored by it in a different way. Its a pretty smart read because of its religious elements and in my mind that is what makes it religious fiction.

  2. PurpleMark says:

    Both of my books would fall into this category. In ‘The Pattern Of Fear’ my Detective dies halfway through the book and spends the next 3 days going through the Sumerian Underworld of Erishkigal who then raises him from the dead. Then in the second book ‘Let Sleeping Gods Lie’, my Detective learns that he has a God within him and goes on to meet Deities from various Pantheons: Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan, Norse, Hindu in a series of battles against Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and Elder Gods. I like to call these books Philosophy/Theology texts that masquerade as Detective/Action Adventures.

  3. Interesting synchronicity, I am reading _Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold_ by C.S. Lewis this week. He retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

    I will check out the Kafka stories this weekend.

    Your summary of Vasitthi the Madwoman reminds me of Jane Goodall’s account of a chimpanzee mother who carried her dead infant around for several weeks. Archetypes may run deeper in our psyches than storytelling.

    On another note, is is safe to cancel my CWC subscription and trust that these posts will come through my Writerly Life subscription?

  4. Mohamed Mughal says:

    Using canonical iconography also gives writers a ready device for symbolism. I can’t count how many times I’ve recognized the “Christ figure” in literature, or for that matter, how many times I’ve used it myself in my own writing.

    Powerful symbolism!

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