My Religion in My Writing: What am I Writing For?

Hello again everyone, two weeks ago I started a short series about the do’s and don’ts of including religion in your writing. In that post I focused on the important factor of who we are writing too and how that should direct the ways in which we include our religious perspective into our writing. This week I want to take a look at the reason for writing and how this factor influences the ways we can reveal our religion through our writing. Taking a moment to sit back and analyze the motivation behind any story or piece of writing can be an enlightening experience and has often helped to guide me to the end of what I was writing. When you know why you are writing something then you can also know when you have reached your goals. That being said, it can also show you that you’ve made some mistakes and need to correct a few scenes to make them flow better with your intended message.

puzzle-frameWhen it comes to religion I think it is especially important to step aside and examine what are intentions for the story are and whether or not the story is meeting them in the most effective way. For example, if I were writing a story about redemption in order to point people to Jesus Christ it would not make sense to have every character redeem themselves individually throughout the story; there needs to be a collective redemption that they could not achieve without help. Likewise, if you are a Muslim writing a story to show the importance of ritual prayer it probably wouldn’t make sense to have the main character be someone who already participated in the prayers unless they are being used as an example for those around the who aren’t. Knowing the purpose behind our writing should keep us focused on our goals. It seems obvious, but if you want to portray a specific religious message through writing then it is important to be clear about what message we trying to send. Like knowing your intended audience limits the scope of assumptions you can make in a story, knowing your intended message limits what type of ways you can use to convey that message. Both of the purposes behind a given piece of writing, such as who you are writing to and what you are writing for, should act like the frame or outer edge of a puzzle for the entire story. It doesn’t mean you have the whole puzzle figured out yet, but it helps you to have a better idea of what pieces are going to go where. Furthermore, it is not as limiting as it may seem, or at least not in a negative sense of limiting. It narrows the scope of possibilities for your story but only inasmuch as it dictates the sensible paths for your story to take.

My Religion in My Writing: Who are You Writing To?

images (1)Whether we like it or not, everyone has a little bias on the subject religion. This is just a fact, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter what religion you ascribe to, or if you’re an atheist or agnostic, you have a bias on the subject of religion and this bias is going to show up in your writing. This is a blog primarily about writing, not religion, and so I want to discuss some of the ways to recognize your bias and use it to your benefit in your writing. The first thing I want to say regarding your religious bias is that it is not a bad thing– at least, it doesn’t have to be! The first thing to remember, and the main point of this post, is who your target audience is. If you’re a Christian author and you’re writing about important church topics like tithing then you’re going to be allowed to make certain assumption about the majority of people who are going to read your book. For example, most of them are going to be familiar with the word tithing and its origins in the Bible. Furthermore, you probably shouldn’t include a whole chapter on the plan of Salvation because most of your audience is already going to be a part of your religion; it’s just taking up a space. If you’re a Buddhist monk writing a children’s book we are going to read your work under that lens and expect to see Buddhist principles in the story. This is perfectly fine and acceptable. The main character may go through a series of events that leads him to understanding Buddhism as truth. This is also fine. What isn’t fine is writing a story for an outside audience in which your religious views are put forward as truth without some sort of character development that led to this realization. That is to say, you cannot just assume your views to be true and expect the audience to do the same unless you have a very limited intended audience. The best stories I’ve read are often those which, while intentionally containing certain underlying religious principles, present them as answers to questions raised by the plot of the story itself instead of using them as a foundation for putting forward other religious principles. In summary, religious principles should be discovered in the correct context, not shoved into the reader’s face like propaganda; and how this should be done depends on what you are writing and who you are writing to.

Philosophy in Writing: Recognizing the Author’s Intent

Polarized_Sunglasses_Lens_ShadesDaddy

The latest from Neal Gibson:

In sticking with my earlier post I will be putting a lot of emphasis on Tolkien’s works during this series on the importance of philosophy in writing. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) I’m taking an entire course on the Philosophy of Tolkien this semester, and 2) Tolkien’s works provide a great source for examining the diverse nature of philosophy within writing and how we, the readers, interact with it.

I have titled this installment in my series ‘Recognizing the Author’s Intent’ because in my school career I have found this to be a particularly lost art. So much of what I learned in my Literature classes during high school focused almost exclusively on how I interpreted the author’s work as opposed to what the author intended to convey with his work, and while this is an important thing to consider, It seems that the author’s intent ought to reveal more about the philosophy of writing in a work than my interpretation would. The author’s intent reveals the author himself, in story format, to the reader, and to apply our own interpretation to their writing is like looking through a pair of polarized sunglasses with another pair of polarized sunglasses. If you turn the glasses just right you can still see roughly what the author saw, but if you aren’t careful you’ll miss the image completely.

So just how can we go about discovering the author’s intent? Well, in some cases it just is not possible because we do not know enough about the author. To follow the previous metaphor, we do not have access to their pair of sunglasses and so we are left entirely with our own interpretation. However, in the case of Tolkien, we have such vast amounts of his works in the writing that have been published by his son that we really can understand much of the intention behind his writings. We can see that behind everything he wrote about Middle Earth lies the central belief that implicit truth is more easily received and believed than explicit truth. To quote my professor, “Middle Earth is Christian in content, but not in chronology.”* That is, there is not a one to one correlation to anything within Christian doctrine in the world of Middle Earth; there is however, an overtly Christian message in its implied truths of the Fall and of Redemption, to name only two that come to mind.

custom silmarillion coverOf course, in everything we read we are going to bring some level of interpretation with us; this is simply inevitable. In most cases our interpretations will match closely with what the author intended; or at least that should be the goal of writing. There is a fine line between implicitly including an idea and masking it beyond recognition. Tolkien was a master of staying close to the line, but even he sometimes crossed it. Before the posthumous publication of the Silmarillion much of what the scholarly world thought of his philosophy was seen to be at least partially wrong and in need of revision in light of the vast amounts of information released within the pages of the Silmarillion. We can see from this example that the key to finding an author’s intent lies in knowing about the author. If you are reading a book by a Hindu you are probably not going to find any implicit Christian or Muslim themes within it. That does not mean that there is nothing that a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew can take from it, but if you stumbled across something that sounds like it could be Christian you should understand that you are interpreting what you are reading to match what you believe. You are twisting your sunglasses until you can see something that you are used to, even if it means also recognizing the differences between yourself and the author.

Interpretation is not a bad thing; do not misunderstand me on this. It is good to critically think and find applications of diverse ideas into your own ideology. I apologize for the nerdiness of the following statement, but to quote Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender, “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale.”** However it must be done respectfully. To ignore the author’s intent is to place an unrealistic amount of important on our own interpretive powers. As best as possible I would strive to find the line between author’s intent and our own interpretation and to walk that line with intellectual humility.

*Thomas Provenzola, PhD.
**Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 2, Episode 9: “Bitter Work”

Story Challenge of the Week

So, it’s been a little bit of a long day… a good day, but a long one. I haven’t mentioned this yet (at least I don’t think I have), but I just purchased a slew of Helldorado miniatures.   The premise of the game still has me cracking up, and I used it earlier in a plot challenge, but I got the first of the miniatures I ordered today. They’re really fiddly little things, and I slightly messed on up because I started working on it before I’d really examined it thoroughly… which really isn’t surprising. I think I fixed it well enough, but not what it could have been. Anyway, they’re gorgeous, and have awesome detail, which is really exciting! They’re kind of… …disturbingly beautiful little Chinese demon people. Anyway, you know the rules of the story challenge: write a story of up to five hundred words based on the theme provided in the challenge.

Your theme: Confucianism

Sometimes religion can be one of the best topics to write on. Have fun!

 

Story Challenge of the Week

Alright, it’s Monday again.  Anyone else feel like we just did this? Anyone? No, just me, huh? Well, Monday means another challenge, so here are the rules if you need them: You must write a story of at least a hundred words, and not more than five hundred (if you want to post it as a comment – if it’s just for yourself, then it can be as long as you want).  The story must be about the theme given in this post.  So,  if the theme I give you is Life, don’t write a story about the lord of the underworld.  If the theme is War, don’t write a story about a farmer planting his crops.  Themes are very broad, so it really shouldn’t be hard to stay within a given theme, but I teach, so I know that some people have trouble with this.

Your theme: Death of Religion

Interpret this anyway you want.  This could be a story about the death of a religious person, or a story about a dying church, temple, mosque, or organization.  Anything you want to do here!

World Building Part 4: How to Flesh Out A People Group – Geography and Belief

Japan developed an exceedingly unique culture through long periods of isolation interrupted by brief periods of cultural exchange.
You don’t see a lot of heavy fur coats in the Middle East.

Alright, in my previous posts in this series we’ve talked about how to start building your world, the importance of the basics, and specifics on fleshing out your geography.  I do suggest that you follow this order in fleshing things out: geography, people groups, nations.  It is not strictly necessary to do so, but your people groups will be affected by your geography (they will also have an effect on the geography, but geography will generally have more of an effect on the people group), and your people groups will have a great effect on your national politics.  Again, each of these is intertwined, and each will effect the others, so it is best be be flexible as you are fleshing things out.  Don’t get to attached to particulars, because as your world grows and evolves they may need to change.  Sometimes terrain features will need to move, sometimes people groups will split, and other times multiple people groups will meld into one.  You should always be aware of what you are doing, but never get so attached that you’re unwilling to change something that needs to be changed.

The Diet of Worms (a meeting that took place in Worms, Germany) was one of the key moments leading to the foundation of Protestantism.

So, since you already have your geography somewhat fleshed out (I’m assuming you have maps), the first step in fleshing out a people group is to decide where they live.  Terrain features have a massive effect on social evolution.  For instance, Japanese culture could not have developed if it was not geographically isolated from the surrounding cultures.  Arabic culture could not have developed in a jungle.  Eskimo culture could not have developed in a Mediterranean environment, and likewise, Italian culture could not have developed in an arctic climate.  The geography that surrounds your people group will have a profound effect on their development.  So, figure out where they live.  What are the dominant geographical features? (i.e. mountain people, desert people, forest people, etc.) What is the climate like? (i.e. does winter last for half the year, is there a long rainy season, is the weather constant or does it vary wildly, etc).  For instance, a desert people living in a land with little precipitation might be very comfortable living without strong structures.  A people living in a land battered by frequent monsoons and flooding probably wouldn’t.  This is something I had to consider in the world of Avnul.  The Saru, a reptilian jungle dwelling race, were originally meant to be nomadic.  However, given the jungle environment, the frequent heavy rains, and some of their religious beliefs, it became clear that they would be much more likely to develop as a people who built small, stable villages, and perhaps moved between them, but were not purely nomadic.

Religion has a massive impact on culture, regardless of how we feel about it.

Once you understand how geography has affected your people group, you can begin to develop their culture.  Remember that most cultures are heavily influence by religious belief.  Everyone believes something, and what we believe (what we Actually believe, not what we say we believe) is central to our understanding of the world.  There has never been and will never be a culture that holds no beliefs, and so if you are going to develop a realistic culture you need to understand what they believe.  It is perfectly permissible to develop a culture that espouses one belief, but practices another.  This can be seen world-wide, but the best example is probably Japan (I know, I use it a lot… I know a lot about Japan… sue me).  Japan is a predominantly secular country, and yet Buddhist and Shinto rituals are practiced daily by many of it’s inhabitants.  One author (I can’t remember who, and I’m not quoting but citing from memory) claims that the average Japanese claims to be non-religious, and will perform a Buddhist ritual at a Shinto shrine in the morning, and a Shinto ritual at a Buddhist shrine in the evening.  Another author claims that every Japanese is a Shintoist at his wedding, a Buddhist at his death, and an Atheist in between.  Obviously these are exaggerations, but the goal of each author is to show that Buddhism and Shintoism have so completely become a part of the Japanese national identity that they are no longer considered religions – they are simply a part of what it is to be Japanese.

Another good example is Christianity in the United States.  There are a great many people in the U.S. that espouse Christianity (and some that even espouse its doctrines), and yet the doctrines and beliefs of the religion have no significant impact on their daily lives.  You may develop a people group with a strong belief system, or a people group with a contradictory belief system, but the best is to have something in between.  In any people group there will be people who by into the belief, people who voice the beliefs but do not practice them, and people who reject the beliefs, and each people group deals with these differently.

Even those who argue strongly against religion can come across as largely religious in their beliefs.

For example, among the Neshelim (again in my world of Avnul) those who reject the cultural religion are brutally killed, and those who espouse the religion, but do not practice it are punished – thus the majority of the Neshelim actively embrace their religion.  However, among the Longminjong, all three groups are generally accepted (though those that openly reject devotion to Abin-Thul must do so carefully) – thus the majority of the Longminjong accept their religion, but its impact on their lives varies wildly.

Also, remember that without a clear central authority division will arise through series of small disagreements.  In any belief system individuals will bring their own unique perspective to doctrine and dogma.  This will inevitably bring about variant perspectives that result in disagreement, and are either dealt with harshly, or form branching versions of the religion.  Consider both Islam (Shia and Sunni Muslims for example) and Christianity (Protestantism – in all it’s varied forms, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox) for examples of this.  Buddhism (Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, etc) is also a good example.  Many religions will also develop offshoot religions (Mormonism, Jainism, Sihkism, etc) that share some, but not all of the core doctrine, or that add to the core doctrine of the parent religion.

How developed the religions of your world are is up to you, but one good thing to remember as a base-line is the various religious worldviews: Animism (worship of nature as a multiplicity of gods), Polytheism (worship of many gods), Dualism (worship of two equal and opposing gods), Monotheism (worship of one god), Pantheism (worship of nature as a single god), Panentheism (worship of nature as a portion of god), Humanism (worship of man as god), and Atheism (rejection of god or gods and worship of a non-living philosophy – usually love, reason, science, etc).  Any religion will also contain some degree of Agnosticism (uncertainty, or unwillingness to commit to a specific set of beliefs)*.

So, next time I’ll have more on how to flesh out a people group, but for now… have fun with your religions!

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*Not that the definitions contained here are not technical, but are basic explanations designed to show how specific belief systems develop in a culture.