Politics and Religion, Take Two
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Over at my romance blog, the Word Wenches, I just discussed politics and religion in romance.

This is generally a very literate, erudite group of readers, and they basically concluded that yes, they’d like to see depth of character in historical romances by showing politics and religion within the boundaries of the romance. But basically, they didn’t want philosophical arguments cluttering up their fantasy. I can appreciate that to a certain extent. I read romance to feel good, too. But I also enjoy learning, and I like characters who make me think. Unfortunately, the market at large and editors in particular are terrified of contentious subjects, even if, historically, politics and religion had to be a large part of people’s lives.

Have we always shied away from emotionally-charged topics? Or is the fear of diatribes and accusations instead of rational discussion a new problem brought on by a lack of critical thinking in today’s readers? Or are there more factors involved?

A recent scientific survey concludes that analytical thought results in a decrease in faith. (Really, we need a study to prove that?) What are the chances that I can discuss this subject in public without being called a devil-worshiping atheist who is damned to roast in hell? (FWIW—I’m a devout Christian who dislikes hypocrisy and ritual)

Has polite discourse gone by the wayside in this day and age of mass communication where we can hide behind anonymity? Perhaps philosophical discussions stayed rational in days when you could shoot the person who disagreed with you. (And there’s a subject begging to be discussed—must respect be enforced by violence?)

My theory is that we desperately need to discuss explosive subjects so they become less explosive. If everyone was exposed regularly to rational, intelligent analyses of politics and religion from diverse viewpoints, shouldn’t they be able to learn how to think about these subjects on their own, without need of flaming diatribes? Have we done society a disservice by refusing to discuss emotional topics for fear of retaliation or at the very least, for fear of offending others?

In my Pollyanna optimism, I’d like to believe the popularity of dystopian novels like Hunger Games comes from reader desire to better understand human behavior and not because they enjoy violence. I could be wrong about that.

What do you think? Could we widen minds by including, however metaphorically, politics and religion in our fantasy novels? I know many of the historical fantasy novels use this trope with great success, but what about contemporary novels like urban fantasy? Must all werewolves tear out the throats of the alpha leaders to rise to leadership? Maybe they could drain their pockets first. Or we could have competing bands of vampires worshiping different gods. Now there’s one I’d like to read!

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Politics and Religion, Take Two — 15 Comments

  1. I’ll let you know if the reactions to my first novel and its two sequels are different now then they were when the books first came out. These books are full of politics and religion. Their protagonist is a deeply conflicted and deeply religious person, and most of his problems come out of that.

    Though so far there haven’t been any death threats or adverse reactions (or nonexistent sales) for the one that’s been out since last year, that features a mixed marriage between a Christian and a Muslim–and it’s a serious issue in the story. As in, it’s the Crusades and they’re fighting on opposite sides.

    Maybe genre fantasy fans are more open to this sort of thing?

  2. I think part of the problem is that nowadays people are afraid of offending, so they don’t talk about religious subjects unless they really trust their auditors. We tend to hear more from the hectorers–the Christopher Hitchens at one end of the spectrum, and the pundits who use Christian terms but preach hatred and division on the other. The media seem to like the extremes because they make interesting copy.

    Also, many are ignorant of history, particularly the history of religion. They’ve heard of witch burnings, and so assume that the Catholic Church, in is two thousand years of history, was all about burning witches. Or that belief was directly tied to ignorance–without reading Boethius, or Erasmus, Augustine, Aquinus, Hildegarde von Bingen, or Chistine de Pizan.

    It takes research and thought to learn about ways of life of our forebears, and then to attempt to look through their eyes and see the world (and the universe) the way they did.

  3. I suspect the veil of fantasy and history not only removes the politics and religion from offensive subjects, it may also remove the readers who lack the imagination to differentiate between their thinking and that of others. And as Sherwood says, even then, readers are unable to move the idea from your world to this one.

    But that does make me wonder if genre writers would have as much trouble writing about these subjects as blog writers, for example. What kind of readers are more likely to be offended?

    • It does explain why I’ll never be a bestseller. Bestsellers affirm the core values of the culture. Even the ones that claim to be “controversial” end up reassuring readers that their values are the best and truest and onliest ones.

      I don’t worry so much about offending when I blog, as about getting into long, tiresome, unwinnable wars. When I saw the studies that have found that true believers, when presented with facts contrary to their beliefs, become more dedicated to the beliefs rather than less, I recognized something that I’ve seen since I was quite young. And realized that there’s just no point.

      In fiction I write what I feel is right for the setting and the characters. I’m aware that there will be readers who refuse to believe that what is true is true, because it contradicts their own beliefs, but as you say, fiction is a filter. I’ll give them the facts and the citations, but it doesn’t matter to me if they believe or not. Unlike a blog, which is personal and direct and aimed at informing and persuading. Fiction just is what it is.

      • I’d never given any thought to bestsellers affirming core values, but I fear you are right. What I don’t understand is why people aren’t willing to see both sides. Is everyone afraid of change?

      • Judith, I’m very much like you…only newer to publication; ergo, even less likely to hit bestsellerdom much less even get a significant publishing contract. After all, I like writing about strong female protagonists who Do Stuff. While still being parents and all.

        I know there’s a market for that kind of story. It’s just not very big.

  4. “Guardian of the Vision, Merlin’s Descendants #3” almost got banned because I dared say “No matter what name you give to God, she walks beside you.” Fundamentalists really did not like that idea and wrote some nasty letters and emails that I couldn’t be Christian of I said that.

    I dared have a character in Elizabethan England state that just because they changed monarchs didn’t mean they had to change their faith. (Then the character had to figure out what he truly did believe). Modern readers of that book seriously questioned my presentation of faith and politics in this book. They took separation of church and state for granted, forgetting that it is a very modern concept.

    We need these kinds of discussions to remind us of the value of opening our minds and learning from out mistakes.

    • We VERY much need these kinds of discussions, and I wish it was possible more often. I’d love to see your books taught in schools, but we know that will never happen. What does it take to open discussions and minds?

      And I love being able to reply to a reply. Doesn’t take much to please me. “G”

  5. Oh, people shouted at each other until their voices gave out, then just as now. When they were done shouting, they started shooting (and hacking.) There was also a lot of burning, as flame wars were fought out with literal flames. There are at least more moderate moral theories in these times. The separation of church and state has proven a wise practice. Still, the United States engages in its Crusade (Bush II actually used the word), and the Islamic radicals in their Jihad.

    When discourse threatens what people regard as core identity–and church and state have been claiming a place in people’s hearts for a very long time–people become scared. It takes great courage to deal with such fear without lashing out in violence.

    The popularity of dystopian novels, I think, is a reflection of our dystopian realities.

    (I want to write more but, as usual, no time now.)

    • I love “flame wars were… literal flames”! Hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. I was thinking in terms of one on one and not powers that be. Once power gets involved, yeah, we’re off to the Crusades. But if we could all just sit down and talk to each other… Apparently I live in a different reality.

  6. I have a novel titled HOW LIKE A GOD. This is a quotation from HAMLET — the “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy. The Bard is as unexceptionable source of title as you can well imagine — there are entire websites devoted to citing and organizing the thousands of book and story titles mined out of Shakespeare’s works. And this particular snippet has in fact been used by Rex Stout and other writers. Nevertheless, once at a signing, somebody came up to me and assured me it was blasphemous. I cited Shakespeare and told him to argue with the source. Not for nothing am I an English major!

    • Yeah for English majors everywhere! And didn’t the Bible tell us not to judge lest we be so judged? I think God is capable of recognizing blasphemy without mortal man’s interference, thank you very much.

  7. Today while driving up the Columbia River Gorge– one of God’s better experiments with landscape — I remembered that I had written another 2 book series that demonstrates the current political situation in metaphor. The book got buried so fast I didn’t have time to get into trouble with it.

    I presented a society that buried the tablets of their original covenant with the gods inscribed on them, and proceed to rewrite them as suited the mood of whoever was in charge at the time. They also engaged in a deliberate campaign of under-education for the masses and rigid caste structure. Resources of course were distributed from the top down, the people at the top getting the most and the people at the bottom nothing, not even compassion, they were born to be poor and it was the god-given duty of the top 3 tiers to make sure they stayed that way.

    Hmmmm, I see some shameless self promotion in my near future.

    • Do it, Phyl, do it! That’s far-seeing and worthwhile. Really, schools need me to formulate their reading lists.

      And this new blog thing is now changing my image back and forth. Look, the new me! Oh, the old me…

    • Of course, Phyl, that’s not fiction. No doubt you had that in mind when you wrote the books.

      An example I ran across recently is the way Mark 4:24 is usually translated:

      And he said to them, “Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It’s usually taken as some sort of spiritual insight about receiving the message of the gospel.

      Except that he didn’t say “Take heed,” but “Beware” and what he was talking about was the prevailing wisdom that market exchange (measure for measure) is the only way to organize society, and that the rich will inevitably get richer and the poor poorer. That translation is the same sort of thing as pointing out that Jesus said that we’ll always have poor people and using that to justify not doing anything about poverty.

      Those “tablets” are buried deep indeed, and there are a lot of people invested in seeing that they are never dug up–but digging them up is our task in every generation, regardless of what religious or ethical tradition one speaks of.