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.
When 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.
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.
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.
Of 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”
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!
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!
If you remember, last Tuesday I discussed the practices of those Kovathi who worship Wernak-Voar and Husa’mird. Today, I want to talk a little bit about the Kovathi who worship Zelkur-Van and Korduan. I’ll admit that this is an area of Avnul that I’m still working on so this post is going to be a shorter one.
As I’ve mentioned before, Zelkur-Van is considered to be the brother of Wernak-Voar by many Kovathi, and he is the jealous brother. Much of the worship of Zelkur-Van runs directly contrary to the worship of Wernak-Voar. Where Wernak-Voar is worshipped through asceticism, pacifism, and flaggelation; Zelkur-Van is worshipped through greed, violence, and hedonism. There are very few holds that worship Zelkur-Van, but those that do tend to be very dangerous. Most Kovathi are very peaceful, only going to war when absolutely necessary, but for worshippers of Zelkur-Van war is often considered an act of worship. The sacking of an opposing city or hold, a religious sacrifice.
Even when not at war, holds that worship Zelkur-Van tend to be bloody places. Slaves are forced to fight warriors in their religious ceremonies, women are annually kidnapped from other holds and sometimes the villages and cities of other races so that Zelkur-Van’s failed pursuit of Husa’mird can be reenacted with a more…appropriate outcome. Unlike holds devoted to Wernak-Voar, in holds devoted to Zelkur-Van there is a defined warrior class that rules the hold. This warrior class tends to be both ruthless and jealous of their power, but advancement into that class does not come through parentage, position, or wealth (though wealth is very important in these holds). Instead twice a year the Kovathi of these holds prepare a ritual trial. In this trial young fighters that wish to join the ranks of the warrior class fight one another to the death, and only a certain number (determined by the ruler of the hold) are allowed to join. The obvious danger of these trials causes many of the Kovathi to refrain from attempting to join the warriors.
As I mentioned earlier, there are no holds primarily devoted to Korduan, but he is also the only god worshipped in every hold. Korduan is the only truly neutral party in the religious struggles between the various Kovathi holds, and his worshippers strictly maintain that neutrality. Korduan has only two religious festivals – initiation and graduation. These are celebrated by his priests annually in order to initiate new students into the order, and move students up to their next rank. The priests of Korduan are generally referred to as teachers, and they pursue education, progress, and intellectual growth above everything else. These particular priorities are often at odds with both of the other parties. The worshippers of Zelkur-Van are often disgusted with the lack of concern that followers of Korduan show towards wealth and violence, while followers of Wernak-Voar generally find the progressive attitudes of Korduan’s teachers threatening. One of their primary purposes is to create new technologies, which is generally encouraged by followers of Zelkur-Van, and discouraged by followers of Wernak-Voar.
While teachers are almost always respected, this tenuous political position causes many of them grief, and it is not unusual to find them bemoaning the lack of intellectual concern among other Kovathi, even as other Kovathi bemoan their lack of practicality, or lack of concern for virtue. However, teachers generally keep to themselves and focus on research and the worship of Korduan, which puts them beneath the notice of many priests from the other religious orders. This humility, though it is often confused for apathy, is what keeps many of the priests of Korduan both safe, and useful.
As I mentioned in my last post on the Kovathi, Wernak-Voar is their primary god, and his worship is often accompanied by that of Husa’mird. Wernak-Voar is a harsh god whose worship in encapsulated in the Jonsbak Vera, literally Law Exist – but meaning the Law of Existing or Being. The Jonsbok Vera contains numerous tenants concerning right action in various situations supposedly handed down by the god himself. The broadest and most pervasive of these, such as ‘My children shall have no nations’, ‘My children shall know peace and hate war’, and ‘My children shall know that there is no war but destruction’, are commonly followed by all Kovathi who worship Wernak-Voar, Husa’mird, or Korduan, and form the root of Kovathi society.
However, there are relatively few such broad laws, and many of Kovathi do not actively follow the thousands of specific restrictions such as, ‘My children shall not know the taste of water on my days of worship’, or ‘If my child eats with his right hand then he is righteous, but if he eats with his left hand then he is unrighteous’. Among Kovathi society the respectability of a person, and often their influence among the hold, is directly tied to how many of these laws that person follows. Some priests of Wernak-Voar go so far as to remove offending body parts (such as the left hand) so that it is impossible for them to violate the law. The worship of Wernak-Voar is expressed on a daily basis in the following of these laws, however he also has a number of ritual days throughout the year. The holy places of Wernak-Voar are always cut into high peaks where the cold is year round, and the biting mountain winds blow fiercely. The Skerabrott, or Cutting Away, is a day long ritual of fasting and privation in which the faithful to Wernak-Voar gather on these platforms, generally naked or in painfully constricting garments, and sing or chant the whole of the Jonsbok Vera over the course of the day. This ritual is seen as a time to remove personal wickedness and reorient oneself on the law and worship of the god. Needless to say the Skerabrott results in a number of deaths annually in every hold that practices it.
The Klungrum, on the other hand, is a ritual that takes place seven times a year that is intended to reenact Husa’mird’s pursuit of Wernak-Voar as a lover. During the Klungrum priestesses of Husa’mird can be see chasing the ascetic priests of Wernak-Voar through the streets of the hold. I don’t think I need to spell out the rest of the ritual, though it might be mentioned that the privacy of the location where the priest is caught is not a factor to his pursuer, and the result of the chase is generally considered enjoyable for both parties (though the priests of Wernak-Voar deny this vehemently. While rituals like the Klungrum are relatively rare among the worship of Wernak-Voar, they offer a respite from the general dower focus of the majority of Kovathi religion. I will leave the discussion of the worship of Korduan and Zelkur-Van until next Tuesday.
So, a couple of weeks ago I was listening to a debate on NPR about whether Jesus Christ would support the occupiers or their opponents. This is actually what got me interested in the Occupy Wall Street movement – generally I do my best to avoid all things political. In fact I rarely vote, and when I do it is because I have found a candidate that I actually support both in policy and as a person (which is getting ever more rare). However, when I heard this debate I just had to look into it.
Both sides made some interesting points, and both sides cited scripture and church tradition to defend their point of view. However, both sides made the same mistake – they assumed that Christ was all about improving peoples lives in the here and now.
However, the gospels, from the beatitudes to the ascension, contain one overwhelming theme in every message, every teaching, every word of Christ. That message is: FOLLOW ME! When men come to Christ he asks them to follow. He doesn’t ask everyone to give up all that they own (though he does of some), nor does he ask everyone to give up their hopes and dreams (though he does of some), nor does he ask everyone to provide for those around them (though he does of some). Instead, what he asks of every person who comes to him is to be like him, to follow, and to obey – whatever that might require.
Christ’s teaching is not, and was never, intended to make this life better or easier. Instead it was intended to make us better (though it sometimes has that effect). Bertrand Russell, in his famous essay “Why I am Not a Christian”, cited Christ’s lack of concern for the necessities of this life as one of the primary reasons that he was not a Christian, and that he could not consider Christ the wisest of all men. It is this exact lack of concern that both sides of the debate are missing. Christ’s teaching is that this life is not important, or, at the very least, not remotely as important as the next.
In all that I have seen, heard, and read about the Occupy movement I have yet to see anyone, on either side, pursuing this goal to follow Christ. The debate ranges from taxes, to opportunities, to welfare. Accusations of socialism, greed, and thievery run rampant. Both sides claim Christ’s support, and at least some on both sides claim Christian values, but I have not heard a single spokesman, from either side, suggest that the entire issue is unimportant in the face of Christ. In this debate religion is being used as a weapon, not as a guide, and this has me very frustrated. I cannot claim to have read or heard everything that has been written or said about the Occupy movement, and perhaps there are others out there who see the same thing that I do – not only in the Occupy debate, but in American politics in general.
Maybe there are spokesmen saying that same things that I am thinking. If so, then I am very glad. If not, then if you agree with me please speak up! My voice is not loud, and not many people are likely to listen.
As you may have gathered from my first post in this series, the Longminjong worship Abin-Thul largely because he rescued them from the Fo’gwok. However, over the four hundred plus years of his rule a great deal of theology, mythology, and an assortment of beliefs have grown up around him. The worship of Abin-Thul can be separated into two large aspects: worship in life, and beliefs about the afterlife.
Worship in Life: The Longminjong worship Abin-Thul as a great protector and ruler. Not only has he successfully built them a stable kingdom, but he also protects them from the spirits of the land and demons left over from the time of the Fo’gwok. Offerings are made at temples and shrines, sometimes daily, in order to procure the blessings of Abin-Thul. People also come to the priesthood for an assortment of reasons: from advice, to magical blessing, to talismans, to the exorcism of spirits. However, the services of the priesthood are never free.
The Priesthood of Abin-Thul: The priesthood supposedly exists for the people, to protect, guide, and aid them. However, priests of Abin-Thul are often self-serving. Advancement through the priesthood is one of the quickest paths to power in any of the Five Cities, and so the priesthood attracts as many power-hungry politicians and con-artists as it does genuine faithful, perhaps more. What is even more disturbing is that Abin-Thul does nothing about the obvious corruption among his priests.
Talismans: Every Longminjong with any money owns talismans. These could be as simple as a little statue that grants a small boost of energy in the morning, to an elaborate design worked into a tower that causes crops to grow faster. Almost every priest in the Five Cities will make talismans and sell them to anyone who asks. However, many of the talismans found in the Five Cities are worthless – either because they were made by a charlatan, or because they were made by a priest but no actual magic was put into the object. Many priests will sell more talismans than they can actually make, and so they only make the most powerful of the talismans, and the rest are just pretty clay statues or nice pieces of calligraphy. While many people suspect that this is happening, nothing can be ‘proven’ and so nothing is done. Still, the people buy talismans from supposedly reputable priests in the hopes that one will work.
The Afterlife: Any temple or shrine dedicated to Abin-Thul will have a spirit home. When Longminjong (who are in good standing with the temple) die their bodies are burned before the spirit home. It is believed that the persons spirit leaves the body with the smoke of the fire, and it is the duty of the officiating priest to lead that smoke into the spirit home. If the smoke does not enter, then an evil spirit is inevitably formed and will cause great misery to the people of the city or village. The more powerful the person was in life, the stronger the evil spirit will be in death.
Spirit homes are usually grand affairs, often larger than the shrine itself, and built with hundreds or even thousands of tiny rooms for the spirits to inhabit. In the city of Kongwei Abin-Thul’s spirit home can be found. This is where priests are interred, and it is as large as the God-King’s palace. Obviously the larger and more elaborate the spirit home, the happier the spirits there will be.
Conflicting Views of Abin-Thul: Though much of the populace is still loyal to the God-King, there is a rising antipathy to his rule. Between the corruption of the priesthood, and the often tyrannical Shengba (district lords) that he places over them, many people have begun to turn away from Abin-Thul and worship other gods, or even the ancient demons of the land. This is always done quietly, because the worship of any other god is forbidden by law, and punishable by death, but it is growing in frequency.