A way with worlds: 13 – Writing religion in your continuity by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

QUESTION: I want to write religion in my continuity. What do I do?
ANSWER: Write it.

(Taps foot. Waits.)

OK, lets face it, that’s not much of an answer. The problem of course being that the question itself is not the question people actually mean to ask when it comes to writing religion in their continuities.

Most people, when they consider writing religion in their story and continuity, are asking one or two of three basic questions:

How the heck do I write original religions in an original setting.
How do I write existing religions in a setting like our own?
How do I focus on a religious theme?
Well #1 is a column unto itself, look for it soon. #2 and #3 are tightly related, and are the focus of this column.

So, lets roll up our sleeves, and get spiritual. Buckle your seatbelts, it’s going to be not so much a bumpy ride, but an interesting one.

QUESTION: OK, what’s some good general advice on writing religious stuff that really exists?
First of all, it’s a good idea to remember religion is an element of many peoples lives, cultures, and stories. In fact, even without any major or even minor religious themes, you may run into religious issues and need some knowledge. Ask yourself how far you can drive in your home town and not see a church or similar religious establishment . . .

Know your subject. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you don’t know it, do your research, if you don’t want to do your research, then work around what you don’t know. Just remember things can come back to haunt you if you to try, and religion is almost inevitably far more complex than you may think.

Never, under any circumstances, when writing a religion in any detail assume you can learn from it by “the competition.” Without going into any great detail, there have been times of rather sad religious conflicts in human history, and conflict breeds propaganda. Even assuming about different denominations of a religion you practice can lead to vast errors.

Even in writing a religion and a denomination you practice, you may not know it all. If you’re serious about a major religious theme, even with something you think you know, be open minded. Check a book or two, surf some web sites, see if there’s anything that you don’t know that may trip you up.

Remember that things happen for a reason – make sure any religion you write is part of continuity, understood, with cause and effect. Traditions are there for a reason (even if it has passed), ideas change, evolve, conflict, etc. People have their religious practices for a reason, even if its not always the one they say or think.

Finally, if you are going to touch on religious themes, remember this: you do not know it all and you do not have the answers. Religion is a complex issue of history, personality, seeking, insight, accident, regret, and ecstasy. If people are still arguing over it today, its likely not many people have gotten it 100% right 

QUESTION: Actually, doesn’t that seem pretty simple?
Yes, its a classic – do your research. There’s nothing much else to say.

And once, again, the questions asked aren’t exactly the questions, let’s jump to the hard one.

QUESTION: I want to write about religious themes in my world without people hating me.
This is the question most people are really asking when it comes to writing religion.

People will dislike you for a variety of reasons. Live with it. It’s hard to do something, that, somehow, won’t offend someone somewhere. Likely at least one person out there would, if they knew you, resent you for even being alive. Don’t let it get to you.

What you can do when writing religious issues, is to be fair, realistic, and intelligent. You can do your research, you can write and say “this is what I think” and “this is what I found.” And you can live with the fact some folks won’t buy it.

You’re a writer. Write.

QUESTION: OK, lets be honest, I want to write about a religious theme and/or religious characters. Yes, I want to do a religiously themed story.
Fine. Do it.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing religion, it’s part of people’s lives. It’s been there from the beginning. Its here now. It’s an element of cultures. Heck, if you ignore it, you’re missing out on important parts of people’s lives.

Yes, some people will say it’s not Politically Correct (whatever the HECK that means anymore). Some people won’t like your handling of a religion, or your interpretation of religion. Some people avoid writing about it just to avoid conflicts, which I consider wimping out.

The problem is preaching versus exploring. Save preaching for non-fiction, because if you use fiction to preach it can stink of dishonesty, of twisting the plot to support an agenda and deceive the reader. It can also, quite frankly, force your hand and make you write things to support your attempt to deliver a message instead of good writing – and it will show, and any communications you do manage may be affected.

Instead, explore. Set up your characters, your settings, and see what happens, see where you go and what you find out. Much like in real life, religion is about what you find, not what you tell other people. Write as a writer, exploring characters and settings that happen to have things you’re interested in and relate to.

Will you be surprised? Yes. Odds are if you explore religious issues close to you, you’re going to learn a few things you never expected to. However, it’ll be honest writing – you and your reader will get something out of it, and you’ll share in the experiences. Besides, you won’t be contriving.

QUESTION: What about writing religious experiences?
Well, people have them, argue why and how, but people do. However, they’re darned difficult to write – and they can be very subjective and very hard to communicate.

First of all, again, know your subject. Secondly – its best to try to communicate effect not perception. Unless you’re adept at communicating the uncommunicatable (for example, William Blake or Robert Anton Wilson), try and deal with the effects of religious experiences.

Secondly, again, don’t contrive. Read, research, extrapolate, but don’t yank something out of thin air to facilitate a story. It makes your theme shallow, the experiences shallow, and the story shallow. A plot device is a plot device no matter what you call it.

And yes, if you’ve had some of your own, draw on them – but remember that its hard to communicate and avoid preaching. Show.

CONCLUSION:
There’s nothing wrong with writing religion. However, be a writer and an explorer and a researcher when you do. You’ll write better, learn more, and share more. Draw on your own experiences if you want, but keep their subjectivity and your limits in mind.

Take a trip to my own alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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