Exploring religion in fiction and how indies can push the envelope

This is a post by Pavarti K Tyler

Religion and literature have long been intertwined.  Some of the best writing and poetry exists within religious texts.  From the poetry of the Bible’s book of Psalms to the lyrical cadence of the Qu’ran’s surahs, the beauty and power of words is one religious writers have honed. But what is the place of religion within works of fiction?

Sci-fi authors have long known that the way to create depth and meaning for their fiction is to layer in religious themes.  From Frank Hubert’s epic classic Dune to Indie Author George Elder’s upcoming release The Genesis Continuum, fictional religion is a necessary component. Through this religious vehicle authors are able to investigate fundamental questions of human existence. Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?

For fiction that deals with real issues of religion in modern day society, there isn’t a good category.  The tag of Religious Fiction takes on the assumption that the content will be compliant with the Religion referenced.  Christian Fiction doesn’t just mean that it’s about Christianity but that it is consistent with the expectations of Christian Readers. Many readers are turned off by the label of Christian Fiction, not because they’re unwilling to read about Christians but because they worry the book will be sanitized to the point of uninteresting (which isn’t necessarily true).

Islamic Fiction is a relatively unknown category, but those who use it to identify their books take the meaning quite seriously.  When a book is coded as Islamic Fiction, the content is expected to be hallal and there for permitted within the confines of Islamic guidelines.

One of the exciting things about Indie books is that rules don’t apply to Indie Authors in the same way they do to traditionally published authors.  We are able to mix genres and create a new market for interstitial content.  It’s an exciting time to write, but even more, it’s an exciting time to read.

Religion is an issue that affects us all deeply.  No matter your personal beliefs, or non-beliefs, almost everyone has an opinion on religion.  Be it the existence of God or the importance of organized worship, something about religious life.  And yet, a book which deals with issues of religion directly is relegated to the abyss of “General Fiction.”

Two Indie books I’ve recently read come to, Bengali Girls Don’t by LA Sherman and Doxology by Brian Holers.  Both deal with the very real role religion plays in the lives of the main character as well as the impact it has on the culture around them, and yet neither would be considered a “religious” book.

As a reader, I’m excited by these conversations.  I’m excited to gain insight into how other people experience their worlds and the role religion plays.  It gives us the opportunity to understand those different from ourselves in a deeper and more intimate way that general fiction allows because those questions of out greater meaning are addressed.

When you can understand what someone else believes, even if you don’t believe it yourself, you are able to connect on a deeper level.  Fiction is one of the only places where we are able to immerse ourselves in the experience of another person or culture.  Perhaps Indie Authors are on to something. Transgressive literature has always challenged the way we think about the world, and Indies have the rare opportunity to write about religion without the constraints of the traditional market.

About this post’s author:

Pavarti is a member of the Novel Publicity Team as a PR Campaign Manager. She also provides content editing as a consultant or for her Novel Pub clients. Her unique experience as a dramaturge, both on and off Broadway, has provided her the opportunity to work closely with many playwrights and directors, allowing Pavarti to consider both the literary and audience perspective. Pavarti K Tyler’s novel Two Moons of Sera is a Fantasy/Romance and is being released in a serial format. Her next novel Shadow on the Wall is scheduled for release in early 2012. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.


16 Comments

  1. Religion is so often maligned particularly in the context of contemporary literature, as if any overtly religious book were merely an attempt at proselytizing. As you point out, these books ask important questions about who we are and they help us make sense of life. I love your points about indie writers, Pav! This freedom to transgress is, to my mind, one of the most exciting and vital aspects of being indie!

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful, thought-provoking post!

  2. Thanks Terri! It’s the rare culture where religion isn’t an aspect of the people’s lives. I think ignoring it limits what authors have to work with in creating their characters. But just because your character is Christian doesn’t mean they have to be perfect!

  3. I completely agree with your point, Pavarti, especially as it applies to the value and role of indie writers. I think we’re just beginning to see the many ways being an independent author will come to shape our influence on society, and the more we understand and acknowledge the actual power we have, the greater that influence will spread.

    Religion is vitally important in the fantasy genre, where a good writer with clear concepts of spirituality and its place in society can really shine. Religion permeates our culture – every culture – and the freedom to explore the boundaries of belief is the province of the fantasy and indie author both.
    Melissa McPhail recently posted..The LieMy Profile

  4. I agree! Religion is essential to any good world building really. I think what we’ll find as the Indie movement continues is that we have a freedom which has been denied authors for some time. Unless you are already someone who is respected and considered “smart” then publishers shy away from works that take a stand or do something new/controversial. We have a rare opportunity as Indies to say the things that need to be said.

  5. Hi Pav. This is a very nice posting. I think exploring religion in Sci-Fi is an intriguing area, and comes off best when someone isn’t seen as pushing a particular agenda. Just today I finished the publication read-through of Book 3 of the Genesis Series, Forging a Future. Here we saw the key character’s religious beliefs exposed as frauds, and Kara was as devout as a person could possibly be in the face of some horrible events. Reducing her to a state of angry and total despair was needed to open her mind, and she reaches a position wherein she wants to have never been. However, given existence, the only thing she longs for is to attack God—which she indeed does. Oh, that was fun to write: a powerful warrior fighting an idea that she once felt was above reproach! What came out of that scene was special in some ways that may stimulate readers as much in terms of entertainment as it will in terms of philosophy. The point is, religion can be about personal discovery and change, and it need not be bound by dogma and blind adherence to rigid concepts. In that Sci-Fi is the very stuff of discovery; it is very much within our realm to explore religion! Have a good one, Pav.
    George Elder recently posted..On the Nature of GodMy Profile

  6. I completely agree George – thank you so much for making my point clearer and more eloquently – as usual :)
    Pavarti K Tyler recently posted..Book Snob – Covenant by Dean CrawfordMy Profile

  7. Thank you for such a thoughtful article, Pavarti. The best stories explore the values and mores of the characters without implying that what the author writes is the only way to live. The very talented are able to fold the character’s religious beliefs and practices so seamlessly into the story, that the reader feels the character would be an incomplete person without them. As you pointed out, Brian Holers did this so well in Doxology.

    The deepest religious experiences are the ones that mold and move us into who we are to become. Those experiences may have nothing to do with any ritual or congregation, but rather with those moments of understanding the connection between all of us. As George says so well, that may never be a comfortable, easy journey.

    In the books I have enjoyed most, I’ve been able to reach some understanding of another person’s religious beliefs while feeling comfortable with the presentation.

    You’ve highlighted a wonderful concept for all writers in this article. It’s only through sharing what we know and how we believe that we can come to understand each other. And writers have throughout history been in the forefront of the dissemination of information to the world. We have much responsibility, don’t we?
    SuzanneG recently posted..Telling Tales: Surrounded by Hans’ and Grimm’s CharactersMy Profile

  8. Interesting post. Although when I see any book with religion added-in in any form (well, except Pagan) I run for the opposite direction. I simply do not believe in Christianity. I was raised in a household that shoved it down my throat on a daily basis. For peeps that choose that route in religion it will be great addition for them. For myself I’ll never in this life time buy one of those books. Just my two cents.

  9. DeAnna, do you see a difference between books that have a religious dogma as different from books that explore ideas of religion? I’m thinking of Angel but Laura Lee which is a M/M romance and one of the men is a Christian Reverend. They have some very interesting and controversial conversations about what it means to be Christian which I enjoyed, although I myself am not Christian and I certainly didn’t feel any need to change my opinions or beliefs because of what I read. I myself just published a book wherein the characters are Muslim, but it’s not “religious fiction”, that’s just who they are and the part of the world they live in. Would your opinion be different for sci-fi books where religion is often a creation of the imagination (like in Dune) but still central? Just curious :)
    Pavarti K Tyler recently posted..Indie Pride: I’ve never played well with others #indierocksMy Profile

  10. Hi DeAnna. I would not equate religion in general with Christianity. Christianity is just one of many religions, and readers might find others fascinating in terms of Sci-Fi potential. Dune is a great example of a religious theme that works well in a Sci-Fi context. Granted, it is hard to overcome an animus that evolves out an experience like you endured. However, it may be best to not allow such experiences to close our heart to various possibilities that may, in the end, enrich our works. Then again, what the heck do I know? Not thinking all that clearly due to kidney problems and med’s…
    George Elder recently posted..On the Nature of GodMy Profile

  11. In this day and age (particularly in Australia), people seem to cringe at the mere mention of God. This proves particularly difficult when attempting to promote a book to a mainstream, young adult market, when the novel has any form of religious content. But with so many books about angels and demons that don’t even touch on the subject, one has to weigh up whether it is better to please the masses, or honour the origins of the creatures that they write.

    This article raises good discussion. I still find myself no better off marketing a fantasy novel with religious content to a mainstream market. But good discussion.

  12. A. – yes, it’s interesting to see so many books about Nilphium and Angels and no discussion of God or the Bible. Religious content isn’t easy to write about, but I think there is a lot of room for personal and literary exploration there. Good luck with your novel!
    Pavarti K Tyler recently posted..ZaZen by Theresa GrisantiMy Profile

  13. Some excellent points have been raised here, not the least of which is the “don’t mention” mentality that forms over certain issues—however shifting views may be. For example, there was a time when SciFi frequently touched upon religious issues, including the existence of God. This was common in the 1950s and even today we see some writers who dare to address the subject. Yet as noted, in our PC world certain topics are just not mentioned, at least at the moment. Now, I don’t know how folks are recruited into the “don’t mention” fold, but it seems an odd place to be for anyone who is a free spirit. I was blessed in being raised in an area where people are taught to express themselves honestly and to not fear repercussions—as is amply demonstrated during our town hall meetings. In short, we learned early on that we have a right to articulate any view, with this tact extending to a right to be wrong.

    Perhaps this civil libertarian mentality is why I had no problem addressing issues related to God through the character of Kara in the Genesis series. Her views begin as dogmatic and strident, but Kara is eventually reduced to the state wherein she wants to destroy the very notion of God. This was great fun to explore as a writer, and I could not imagine censoring my soul for fear of a word or concept—let alone concern about how others may react. As writers, we need to have the courage to explore controversial issues, be they PC or not. If we become homogenized yada-yada folks who act like herd animals, what the hell will we have to offer but rehashed pabulum?
    George Elder recently posted..On the Nature of GodMy Profile

  14. Definately a great and thought-provoking post. I am not religious by any means – organized religions in general tend to turn me off. But one of the most moving books I’ve ever read is Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow.” I loved it’s treatment of thorny ethical/religious issues. It was wonderful! Readers who are open-minded to explorations of “the other” in any manifestion (i.e. men who read about women, women who read about men, sighted individuals who read about the blind (and vice versa), etc. should not have a problem, then, with explorations of “the other” in religion, even if it’s not their thing.
    Terri Bruce recently posted..Hereafter DescriptionMy Profile

  15. This post came directly from my brain-waves. You ma’am, have a gift. I find myself in this exact situation at the moment as I complete a total overhaul on a young adult fiction manuscript with deep religious elements. Interesting yet, I’m one of those who read “God”, “Religion”, even Pagan “Witch” books, and turn-tail and run the other direction. For me, the trick is not so much about appealing to the mainstream market. For me, it’s about appealing to a natural piece of humanity and showing its connection through elements the mainstream can identify with.

    and to whine out loud, when trying to fit my novel into a category, you are exactly right. I feel at a total loss for which puzzle it fits into. Religious? No, I’m not preaching. General Fiction? Please no, it’s too, well… general. Paranormal? Maybe??

    My only hope is to keep chugging along and hopefully one day, Indie or not, I’ll add to the ‘outside of the religious box’ kind of writing.

  16. thank you for this great post. I’ve written a book about religion & culture in contemporary Britain and it heavily intersects with politics. Religion is a great way to explore notions of identity. So as you say it can have a wide reach and not just be a narrow religious exegesis.

    Thank you again for posting this.

    marc x