There can be a lot of complications that arise when you work religion into a piece of fiction. You might risk offending people, you might get the details wrong and misrepresent a faith, or you might simply be uncomfortable addressing something that can be such a sensitive topic. There’s a few different ways to address these issues, depending on your genre and the role that religion plays in your story.
Fictionalizing the Faith
Fictionalized religion can take on a couple of different forms. A simple example would be creating characters in your novel who are priests, nuns, churchgoers, or anyone else involved in religion in some way. Your fictional priest might be “believable” as a priest, but he’s never going to be 100% like any real-life priest, even if you are inspired by some people you know. Even your fictional “West Podunk Baptist Church” won’t be quite the same as any church in the real world. This can give you a certain amount of leeway, since if your priest has a love affair with an teenage girl, solves murders, crimes, and mysteries, or gets drunk and hangs out with bandits, people won’t necessarily think you’re saying all priests act like that.
But sometimes you need to get a little deeper into questions of faith and spirituality. Sometimes, going into those questions is the whole point. So how do you address those questions?
One strategy can be to draw references directly from the Bible. It can be easy enough to find a Bible passage that relates to whatever it is you’re writing about, even gangsters committing brutal murder (and then having a spiritual awakening and deciding to wander the Earth). Using direct biblical quotes can be an effective way to keep your writing grounded in real-life religion, while understanding that the characters and their actions are still dependent on their personal interpretation of the Bible. In other words, no one who watches Pulp Fiction would claim that the passage Jules quotes is actually meant to condone murder; they just see it as the way Jules himself acts with regard to religion. You can also take this fictionalization a step further by making up your own Bible quotes–the passage Jules quotes in the scenes linked above is actually part real quote, part fiction.
If you want to stay away from actual Bible verses, you can also speak more generally about spirituality, sin, and the religious questions surrounding them. In my novel, Manifestation, the subject of religion comes up a number of times. One example is the question of whether something you did counts as a sin, if you didn’t mean for it to happen. Then there’s the question of whether God actually punishes the wicked like He did in so many old biblical stories. And one of my favorite scenes involves the question of how to find your soul. This scene comes right after Tock asked the question “How do I feel my soul?”:
Father Donovan tapped his fingers against his lip for a moment, studying her. “All right,” he said, taking a deep breath. “When you put it that way, I think I understand what you’re getting at. Let me answer your question by asking you this . . . have you ever loved someone?”
Tock frowned, her face scrunched up as she stared at the priest. “Like, a boy?” she asked.
Father Donovan smirked, then shrugged. “A boy,” he said, “a family member. Your parents. Anyone.”
For a moment, Tock thought about Frankie Palladino. She didn’t know quite what was going on between her and that boy, though she didn’t think it was love. Not yet. Feelings, to be sure. Something more than the physical acts they’d shared. But not love. She could only think of one person she’d ever loved in her life. “My granddad,” she said, her voice a soft whisper.
“And how can you explain that feeling?” Father Donovan asked her. “How do you ‘find’ it, as you put it? How do you ‘use it when you need it’?”
Tock frowned, thinking it over. Thinking about her granddad made her chest hurt. It had been . . . seven months? Eight? Yet the loss was still so fresh. Her fingers gripped the edge of her blanket, and she wanted to wake up Minty so that he could hug her.
She didn’t notice when a tear fell from her eye. “What you’re feeling right now?” Father Donovan said, speaking in a soft, calm tone. “That comes from your soul.”
—Manifestation, Chapter 30: Soul
There’s no direct biblical quotes in that passage. There’s no real connection to a certain religion (and, in fact, I never specify which church or denomination Father Donovan belongs to). But it addresses religious questions in a way that relates to the characters and their goals and desires.
But what if you want to take the fictionalization a step further? In that case, you might decide to just make up your own religion.
A completely fictional religion gives you a lot more freedom. You can create your Gods from scratch and decide on their personalities (Are they kind? Vengeful? Nurturing? Scholarly? Warlike?). You can develop wars between different religious groups without risking offending any real-life people who feel like their religion is being mis-portrayed. And you can develop entire histories for these religions in order to tie them in with the plot you’re developing.
Completely fictional gods are most commonly seen in stories that don’t take place on Earth, but there are exceptions. A great example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where many episodes dealt with villains who worshiped one demonic god or another. The fifth season even had a goddess as the main villain, and there was a triad of demon-gods working behind the scenes throughout most of the spinoff series, Angel.
Then there’s alien religions seen in various Star Trek series. The most well-known is probably the Bajoran people on Deep Space Nine, who worship a group of deities known as The Prophets. To the more scientifically-minded members of the crew, The Prophets are nothing more than aliens who happen to exist in a sort of parallel dimension outside the normal flow of time. Thus, their ability to send the Bajorans messages about the future is less “religious prophecy,” more “time travel.” But the series blurs these lines a number of times during its seven-year run, especially since Captain Sisko is seen as a religious figure, known as the Emissary, because The Prophets speak to him.
There’s probably other ways to address the use of religion in fiction, but these are certainly some of the most common that I’ve seen. If you know of other examples that use a different strategy, please feel free to share them!
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