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WORLD-BUILDING & RELIGION: Checking with Religious Authority 

I found this question from an attendee of the Catholic Writers Conference I spoke at for several years an interesting one with a number of possible answers.

Q: When should you check your work with a religious authority? 

If I were presenting a piece I expected to be read as representative of my Faith, or which contained characters who were presented as being known historical figures of my faith, I would certainly check with an authority before I published it.

To give an example, I have long had the desire to write a fictional account of the life and death of Tahirih (aka Zarrin Taj, meaning “Crown of Gold”), the great female disciple of both the Báb and Baha’u’llah (founding Prophets of the Baha’i Faith). Tahirih was a poet who secretly studied religion in her father’s library, joined in the search for the promised Prophet of her own faith, and became an adherent to the new Báb’í religion after having seen the Báb (whom she never met face to face) in a dream. Tahirih, whose last words were: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women,” was honored as a key figure in the global women’s suffrage movement. So much so, that the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) commissioned a play to be written in which she portrayed Tahirih.

When I wrote an outline for a novel about Tahirih, I sought approval from the Baha’i institution charged with such approvals to make sure I was misrepresenting the central figures of my Faith (the Báb, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha) or put words in their mouths that might be taken as authoritative. While Baha’is are asked to submit work to this body if they present the Faith or its central figures (to make sure we aren’t making stuff up), it’s not a law or even a rule, but it is something we should do.

So answers to this question may vary. If you are a member of a faith organization or congregation that has bodies set up for such approvals, then you might wish to reach out if you intend to portray Christ or Buddha or Muhammad as a character in your book or story. But this will depend on a number of things, such as how seriously you take representing a Prophet or leader of your faith or someone else’s in a fictional setting and what is expected of you as a member of your specific community.

Another answer might pertain if you were exploring a particular aspect of faith (yours or someone else’s) that you intended to make an element in your story. If you  didn’t understand all the nuances of that aspect—or even if you thought you did—I’d certainly recommend finding an authority (person or book) who could fill in your understanding of the element. I do that often. Before I wrote about transubstantiation, for example, I would certainly refer to an authority on the belief.

My religion doesn’t have a clergy, so when I write about religious principles, I go back to the scriptures to make sure I transfer them to my world as accurately as I can. Given that a central principle of my faith is the independent investigation of  reality and truth, I’m encouraged to go straight to the source and work from there.

When I wrote The Mer Cycle (THE MERI, TAMINY, THE CRYSTAL ROSE) I opened each chapter with a quote from one of my fictional world’s holy books. I got them from the real scriptures of this world and paraphrased them to fit the context of my made-up world. The quotes were intended to illuminate the action in the chapter that followed and I strove very hard to retain their accuracy within the new context.


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