religion in creative writing

Religion in Creative Writing | Understanding Religion series

My favorite way of understanding religion is, without question, the playfully serious and seriously playful exploration of religion in creative writing. Because certain symbols are universally resonant across time and space, they find their way into both religious practice and creative expressions like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, television scripts, stage plays, and sermons. This doesn’t mean [...]

How to Read the Bible

Harvey Cox on Why Biblical Scholars Need the Public (and Vice Versa!)


Halloween Inspiration from the Other Bible

college-jesusSometimes, my friends, two wrongs make a right. Consider:

PROBLEM #1: Halloween costumes of Christian characters like Jesus, Satan, and even the Mother Mary have become too predictable.

PROBLEM #2: Virtually nobody has read the stories that didn’t make it into the Bible, even though they are genuinely interesting and chock full of scoundrels and heroes.

Never has the cause of religious literacy been simpler! You, yes you, can help with your Halloween costume selection this year! Every time someone inquires after your fascinating choice of costume, you can launch into a story that 99 percent of your fellow party-goers won’t have heard before. From the delightfully queer and saintly to the dastardly macabre and necrophiliac—whatever the tone you wish to strike, I can assure you an early Christian character exists to bring it to life.


Thecla sits in the window to the left, while to the right Paul and Thecla's mother Theoclia raise their hands to teach or convince her.

1. Thecla

Kid appropriate? Heck yes, bring on the young (queer?) female superhero!

Costume: Think Greek Joan of Arc. Thecla cuts her hair short, binds her breasts, and wears a homemade robe “in the fashion of a man’s.” Thecla exhibits a confidence and joy that is practically angelic, so give her a bright aura (gold facepaint?).

As a bonus, a friend or partner could dress up as the lioness who rescues Thecla from other dangerous animals.

30-second story: Thecla abandons her engagement to a wealthy and powerful man to become an apostle after overhearing Paul’s teaching. Her own mother drags her before the authorities and demands she be burned alive as an example to other young women, but God sends a rainstorm to extinguish the fire. Later Thecla is tossed to the wild animals in a Roman arena, but a lioness protects her from harm. She baptizes herself in a pool of killer seals and goes on to live happily ever after.

By the way, Thecla lived to be 90 years old, so ladies, don’t hold yourselves back!

Where to read the whole story: The Acts of Paul and Thecla


In this image dated at circa 570/560 BCE, the Greek hero Perseus wears a sun hat worn by travelers, but this one, lent by Hades, is magical, making its wearer invisible; his winged sandals, lent to him by Hermes; his lion skin, lent by Herakles; and his curved sickle to cut off Medusa's head, and a sack to carry it in. More about this image.

2. Young Murderous Man with a Sickle

Kid appropriate? Not in a million years.

Costume: Obviously you’ll need a sickle, which shouldn’t be hard to come by because it’s also a favorite of the Grim Reaper. Lose the Reaper’s black robe and go for a short toga instead.

30-second story: An old man learns that his son has been having an affair with a married woman. When he tries to warn his son against it, the son becomes angry and kicks his father so hard he kills him on the spot. Overcome by grief over what he has done, the son grabs the sickle from his belt and charges off to kill the woman, her husband, and then himself. The Apostle John meets him on the road and convinces him not to go through with it by raising the father from the dead. After that, the young man chops off his own genitals to prevent further temptation, and he delivers them to the woman as a parting gift. ... You might want to leave out that last part in polite company.

Where to read the whole story: The Acts of John, chapters 49–54


Although in the image above the merchant displays the pearls so that customers can inspect them, Lithargoel keeps his pearls hidden.

3. The Pearl Merchant

Kid appropriate? Yes! The pearl merchant is actually Jesus in disguise.

Costume: Lithargoel the pearl merchant wears “a linen cloth bound around his waist with a golden belt,” which is a clue in many ancient stories that this is actually a heavenly being. The merchant also wears a shawl “tied on his chest, going over his shoulders and covering his head and hands.” He carries an official-looking bound book and a staff. For dramatic effect, you can enter the room calling out in a slow, resonant voice, “Pearls! Pearls!”

This may be the more difficult act, so kids might skip this part: Don’t show anybody your pearls when they ask to see. Instead, invite them to come visit your city and you’ll give them the pearls free of charge.

30-second story: After a dangerous journey by ship, the twelve apostles land in an unfamiliar city, where they meet a pearl merchant named Lithargoel. Rich people see that Lithargoel has no bag or bundle where he could possibly be carrying pearls, so they dismiss him without even leaving their houses. But the poor clamor around him and beg just to see the pearls so they can tell their friends. Lithargoel invites them to his city, where they can have pearls for free. The twelve apostles undertake the dangerous journey to Lithargoel’s city only to be stopped by him (now disguised as a doctor) at the gate. Lithargoel reveals himself to be Jesus and sends the apostles back into the world to heal people and spread the good news.

Where to read the whole story: The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles


In March 2015, the University of Minnesota at Duluth’s Dudley Experimental Theater put on a one-act play retelling the story of Kallimachos and Drusiana. Kallimachos was played by student Erik Meixelsperger. Learn more.

4. Kallimachos and Drusiana

Kid Appropriate? No, because even though Kallimachos and Drusiana both come out well in the end, Kallimachos does enter her tomb with the intent to defile her corpse.

Costume: To make the story work, you’ll need a huge serpent, preferably wound around your body. Kallimachos was wealthy enough to bribe someone, so you can get away with a Caesar-style toga and sandals, but you should look disheveled and pale.

A friend or partner could come dressed as Drusiana, a beautiful woman who has died of grief for driving Kallimachos mad with lust. For Drusiana, go for a humble toga and pale face, but with hints of her beauty shining through her sad state.

30-second story: Spurred by Satan, a young man named Kallimachos lusts after a married Christian woman named Drusiana, who has committed to celibacy along with her husband. When she learns of his lust for her, Drusiana dies of grief over Kallimachos’ “damaged soul.” Kallimachos, driven mad by this Satan-inspired lust and egged on by a greedy servant, bribes the servant to help him break into the tomb to defile Drusiana’s body. But when they enter and attempt to remove her clothes, a huge serpent strikes and kills the servant, then climbs onto Kallimachos, who lies “like a corpse” until the apostle John arrives to raise first Kallimachos then Drusiana. Kallimachos shares a vision of the risen Christ and repents of his evil deed.

Where to read the whole story: The Acts of John, 63–77

A Few Halloween Costuming Snags

I’ve written this blog post obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, so a word of caution is warranted: some characters—such as the “blind god” from stories like The Nature of the Rulers and numerous blundering officials in the Acts of the Apostles—explicitly mock or criticize either the God of the Hebrew Scriptures or Jewish people themselves. Let’s not rehash hundreds of years of anti-Semitism with a poor costume choice, okay? Nevertheless, many unsung but genuinely interesting, tradition-defying characters remain tucked away in the annals of Christian history. Why not have some fun with bringing them out of the shadows?

Gospel of Mary of MagdalaI ran into some interesting problems in writing this blog post. For instance, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala is a much loved off-the-beaten-track gospel that is finding more and more traction in arts, culture, and even church. In this gospel, Mary is wise, intelligent, and not portrayed at all as a prostitute. Which leads to the conundrum I experienced when I thought how wonderful it would be to suggest her as a costumed character this Halloween. The Gospel of Mary doesn't actually comment upon Mary's appearance. It focuses on her teaching. If you want to introduce her to a new crowd, you're going to have to use your own creativity and inspiration to do it in a way that doesn't just reintroduce old stereotypes of her. I have always loved the cover image of Mary from Karen King's translation (pictured right), so perhaps that is a good place to start?

Another fascinating problem was Jesus himself. I joked at the beginning that Jesus is too predictable. In fact, if you begin to really delve into early Christian stories, you'll discover as many Jesuses as there are storytellers. The irony here is that a costume works best when somebody can recognize clues to your identity, so the further you move away from the Jesus of Christian tradition, the less effective your costume becomes. I really like Lithargoel the Pearl Merchant (#3 above) because his costume is so vivid and interesting in its own right, that his secret identity becomes a bit of a punch line: "Believe it or not, I'm Jesus!"

By the way, if you actually dress up as one of these characters, (1) you are a religious literacy superstar, and (2) pretty please, send me a photo!

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Clockwork Dreams

Creativity, the Child of Despair

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute's Spring 2016 national meeting.

The final third of Journey of the Universe doesn’t say anything about the environmental crisis that you don’t already know, but the authors’ conclusion is quite interesting and could even be described as the basis of a nature-based spirituality. I wrote a few days ago about their incredibly moving meditation on how living things experience value in the universe; today I’m plagued in response to my reading by questions of crisis, apocalypse, “end times.”

Maybe that’s a natural feeling on 9/11. I still remember the horror I felt that day when, stumbling into sunlight after hours of shepherding stunned patrons of the Willamette University library past a makeshift television, I was accosted by a newspaper boy who tried to sell me a grainy photo of a man suspended mid-fall before the burning towers. From there I made my way to the “safe zone,” WU’s central auditorium, and listened to a seemingly endless buzz of voices that couldn’t seem to speak past themselves. Honestly, I was shocked this morning to read in Frank Rich’s 2011 article, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut.” After all, I was as far West as I could get in the continental U.S., and we were all walking around like zombies for weeks. Did he miss our stop?

This is the part of the ecological story most of us know. In the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, humankind underwent a transformation, from awestruck serfs in a mysterious universe into enterprising kings of a mechanized one. Following upon the discoveries of individuals like Galileo and Newton, human beings for the first time allowed themselves to believe that we “with our vast intelligence had only to determine the laws governing matter for us to gain control over the entire affair” (105). A few hundred years later, we’re suffering the consequences of believing we could dominate and manipulate the very ground of our being.

That has a lot more to do with 9/11 than I think we want to admit. Sometimes terrorist acts are described as “symbolic” in the sense that the violence comes with a message, usually to inspire fear. Doesn’t that just scream mechanistic thinking? It is as though we become—as once befell the planets—no longer gods but mere “dead balls of matter” available to the scrutiny of more penetrating beings (104). At the same time, a terrorist act remains in keeping with the vast working of the universe, if in a disturbing way. Such violent acts do make room—real physical space but also a vacancy in the brain—for something new.

I occasionally have conversations with Westar’s academic director, David Galston, about human beings’ obsession with crisis thinking. We can’t seem to motivate ourselves without a crisis to address. So I naturally wondered how Tucker & Swimme would handle the natural crisis language that emerges from talk of the environment today. Yes, they employ crisis language, but they also make sense of it in terms of the dynamics of the larger universe:

It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire and guide us into the future. (118)

This led me to wonder what can be learned by exploring this dynamic in other points of crisis. I wonder if 9/11 and other moments in today’s “age of terror” aren’t too close to home still, both chronologically and emotionally. For me at least, I can’t go there, not yet, so I turned briefly to the Great Depression instead.

Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has described the Great Depression as “one of the great creative periods of our time.” This might seem counterintuitive. Until the day she died, my grandma stored ten times as much food as she would ever need, a consequence of the hungry years she survived as a younger woman. Similar pangs no doubt run through your family history. But Orvell points out that “the period … birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” More obvious acts of creation came in the form of New Deal programs. Dr Charlie Wildman of the University of Manchester offers similar stories of creativity on British soil during the Great Depression: new housing, new transportation lines, a major renovation to the Manchester library that “accommodated one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, making it the largest after the reading room of the British library.” Such activities on both sides of the Atlantic were by no means restricted to physical works, either; they included programs in the arts. You see how we reach for symbolic language to modulate our despair.

I think what’s tough about this—what we hate about this—is that none of the creativity can guarantee our personal survival. Sure, crisis language equals “important” and “worth your time” in a world full of distractions. But nothing we do is a total fix. As any Buddhist will tell you, the universe with its beautiful, terrifying creative-destructive nature cares not whether your molecules remain arranged as you. It will never reject you, but it will completely and unrelentingly remake you.

I’m not arguing with Tucker and Swimme, at least I don’t think I am. I’m wondering aloud how I feel about seeing myself as a collusion of vast patterns instead of a unique and enduring monument (in a word: a soul).

Clockwork Dreams

Clockwork Dreams by artist Vernon Tan

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.