Over the next several blogs, I thought I’d share some of the questions and answers. Questions had to do with both researching and writing about existing faiths in fictional settings. Some were quite specific, dealing with such concepts as heresy and literary license.
This time, two questions:
- How can I project an established religion into a future or fantasy world?
- How do you draw the line between literary license, facts, changes, and heresy? That is, how do you write about another faith without belittling or betraying your own?
Question #1: How can I project an established religion into a future or fantasy world?
Chiefly, I look at the state of the world I’m projecting into. What do I posit has happened to the religion and the world between now and then?
Let’s say I’m setting a story on Mars in 2212. What I project from current realities might influence what religious beliefs are represented among the pioneers.
Will Zen Buddhists line up to go to Mars because they feel a venture fraught with such danger and tension will need the balance of Buddhist principles or will they stay home in droves because just going on such an adventure seems to require attachment to a goal? What will the Catholic Church think of a Mars mission? Will the Pope encourage believers to go or exhort them to stay home? And what will Islam (or any other religion) look like in 2212? Will there have been a worldwide revival that gives birth to a more actively evangelizing form of Catholicism, or Buddhism, or Judaism? Will there be sects that believe that leaving the planet means leaving God?
If you add the potential of alien converts to the mix, what happens when evangelists of different stripes arrive on the planet at the same time? Will there be competition — maybe even war? A new spirit of ecumenism? A blending of religious ideas? You might posit that these different religious groups are at war (at least ideologically) until a calamity forces them to unite and cooperate.
Then there’s the BIG QUESTION: Do aliens have souls?
Question #2: How do you draw the line between literary license, facts, changes, and heresy? That is, how do you write about another faith without belittling or betraying your own?
I think if you’re writing in the here and now, you simply must be as accurate as you possibly can be. This means putting your own prejudices and biases on the shelf and trying to get to the reality of a faith before you lift your pen. In part what this means is getting any doctrinal facts you use in a story from the horse’s mouth. In other words, to write about Islam, read the Qur’an and works by writers who are Muslim to find out what that faith teaches and how an individual believer relates to their faith. If you’re going to portray a devoutly Muslim character, you must have some understanding of why that character is a devout Muslim. Especially if they converted from another faith.
If you want to provide counter-arguments, by all means, research the work of detractors so you know what they’re saying, too. But if you can’t honestly understand why someone might become Muslim, I doubt you can write a convincing Muslim character.
By way of example: I critiqued a short story in which the writer had portrayed a young Muslim convert from Catholicism. He made it clear that part of the reason this young man converted was perceived abuses within his family’s church. Yet, at the end of the story he has the young man cavalierly sit down to have a glass of wine with someone. He didn’t do his research well enough to realize that an observant Muslim would not drink alcohol and he’d established that this character was very observant.
This sense of “fair play” I think, must extend to writing about one’s own faith, as well. Be factual, be truthful, be even-handed as a narrator. By that, I mean that I think it’s okay for a character to have polarized views on faith. Even to the point of preaching doctrine or embracing a heresy. This is history. This happens. But I think that for me, the Narrator, to project polarized views as a fact of a faith is to do a disservice to the story and to the faith I’m portraying in it.
Next time: Faith bashing and realism