Religion and Realism in Fiction

     There’s “religious fiction,” of course. Everyone is aware of the “Left Behind” series, which despite its many flaws was widely read and applauded. We also have the works of writers such as C. S. Lewis, Taylor Caldwell, Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Karen Kingsbury, and others. Their novels are explicitly religious, almost polemic about the faiths they uphold and promote. Their readers tend to be equally religious and passionate about it.

     There’s also completely secular fiction, in which religion has no place whatsoever. Innumerable novelists write this sort of tale. Their characters are never depicted in a church or temple, in prayer, or in worship of any other form. While some of their readers might be as religious as the devotees of the writers in the previous paragraph, surely they’re not there for a religious message, as there won’t be any.

     Tales that fall between those two poles – i.e., stories whose characters do allow religion a place in their lives, though it doesn’t utterly dominate the tale being told – are exceedingly rare in contemporary fiction. When we consider that most Americans do have a religion of some kind and do give it some portion of their daily or weekly attention, the paucity of such stories seems rather strange.

     If Americans are largely believers of some kind, wouldn’t fiction that allows religion a place be more realistic than either the religion-dominant narratives or the utterly secular, religion-never-mentioned variety? It seems logical – which might be the first hint of an explanation for the scarcity of such tales.

     The first demand of the reader of fiction is for entertainment. Religious settings and practices are almost antithetical to entertainment. Alongside that, the typical reader doesn’t pick up a novel to read about himself or his own life. He has at least some desire to escape: to depart from the “real” world he inhabits and to spend some time in another. So the omission of certain aspects of “real life” might be an asset to the storyteller.

     All the same, there’s something not quite right about the total absence of religious ideas and practices from fiction other than the explicitly polemic sort. After all, religion is one of the most important of the forces that have shaped human history. Depicting crises in the lives of persons who sincerely hold to a recognized religious faith, and showing how their faiths can assist or impede them in coping with those crises, is one of my major reasons for writing. As I have a hard time naming another writer who does so, it can make me feel rather alone.

     Just now I’m reading a first-contact novel, Revelations by Robert Sells, in which the religious convictions of certain participants play a significant role. I’m not yet ready to recommend it, but we shall see. At least it includes persons with religious convictions that matter to them enough to act upon them. They don’t just sit around fingering their rosaries. And in this Sells’s tale strikes me as more realistic than not, despite its science-fictional premises.


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  1. As, I believe, you have seen, my Catholic faith illuminates my books without being a floodlight.  As a writer, do I think that maybe I can bring someone across the Tiber through my works?  Of course I do, but such is not my objective.

    Having typed that, I reflected on my twelve books for a moment.  Most of my characters are either a little Catholic, a lot Catholic, or have no faith at all.  There is a legionary of Faustina’s who gets teased over his Southern Baptist faith by his century when he won’t drink beer; that ends poorly for his mates once General Hartmann finds out…

    For my future history, faith is just there, like background radiation or sunshine.  You can either ignore it or you can bathe in the light of the Son.  I have characters who regain and some who lose their faith.  Everyone changes, always for emotion later justified by “reason.”  As humans, writers and readers, faith is woven into us.  If a writer ignores that, he’s an idiot.

    • Margaret Ball on February 11, 2021 at 8:40 PM

    An interesting question. Since a number of my fantasy novels are set in the present-day South, it has always seemed natural to me that at least some of the characters would be churchgoers, familiar with the Bible, able to recognize a lot of hymns. That’s the culture in which the South was marinated. Heck, can tell my kids what John 3:16 means, or suggest to a Sunday spam caller that they contemplate Jesus and the money-changers… and I wasn’t even raised Christian.

    With alternate or far-future worlds, writers are presented with a different set of choices. I must say that I am extremely tired of pseudo-medieval fantasy settings in which the church is vilified as a bunch of nasty, anti-science, witch-burning fanatics.

  2. Margaret, you’ve reminded me of one of the greatest ironies in fiction: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was emphatic that his magnum opus was a Catholic novel, suffused throughout with Thomist convictions. Yet critics persisted in seeing it as an allegory to World War II, and nothing he could say could dissuade them.

    I struggled with whether and how to depict religion in The Warm Lands. Finally, I decided not to include it, other than by reference to soul sorcery and Theron the Great’s “reincarnation” in and among the Great Trees. It’s even more difficult in far-future settings, though I did attempt it in the Spooner Federation novels.

    You’d think that in stories told in contemporary or near-future settings, the inclusion of some degree of religious sentiment and practice would come quite naturally. The widespread aversion to it continues to baffle me, and to impel me to do what I can to remedy the absence. It’s a significant part of what motivates the characters of the Onteora Canon.

    Just now, I’m thinking about one of my futanari: Juliette Hallstrom, raised in a Catholic family but herself lacking in religious feeling. She knows her father takes his religion seriously. She’s well acquainted with other religious characters, including Larry and Trish Sokoloff, Holly Martinowski, and Father Ray Altomare. Will their faiths and their attachment to them “infect” Juliette? If so, how would that affect Juliette’s lover Celia? Decisions, decisions…

    Say! Does anyone out there watch “daytime dramas,” a.k.a. soap operas? Those were once supposed to be quasi-realistic. Do any of the characters in them ever pray or go to church services? It’s an area where I’m personally disinclined to “do the research,” so if any Gentle Reader happens to be familiar with it, let me know. And that brings a most disturbing thought in its train: have I been writing a multi-volume soap opera? GAAAHHHH!



    • Margaret Ball on February 12, 2021 at 12:50 PM

    As I recall, Tolkien himself struggled with the origin of the Orcs.  First he described them as being made ex nihilo (I don’t remember the exact materials), then since he had them acting as conscious and possessing language, he felt that having them created by Evil would violate Catholic theology (You can tell me if that’s correct, Francis?) and started describing them as either having been created by torturing Elves, or being degenerate descendants of Elves, or I forget what else. Neither of the latter theories accounts for the vast numbers in Orcish armies, so I suspect that in the back of his head they were always created by Sauron or whoever needed an army, regardless of theological considerations.

    And while I know he didn’t like having The Lord of the Rings read as a World War II allegory, I find it extremely difficult not to compare the state of the Shire upon Frodo’s return with the England of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.

    1. Margaret, I think having Morgoth or Sauron possess creative powers would fall into the Manichean heresy. Catholic doctrine holds that only God can create ex nihilo, whether the thing created is living or not. Tolkien, being a serious Catholic, would have been aware of that. All the same, you are correct that the huge number of Orcs would pose a problem. We never meet a female Orc, after all.

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