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 such works have to be religious—you can probably think of a few that are quite sacrilegious, in fact—but they do open a conversation. Opening up new conversations and perspectives, and awakening empathy and curiosity, proves to be one of this approach’s most valuable contributions to understanding religion.

In this entry for the Understanding Religion series, we’ll look at…

how religion in creative writing works,

why creative writing is important for understanding religion, and

what the limits or weak points of this form of knowledge are.

I’ll also share examples to help you see this approach in action. If you have a favorite example of religion in creative writing, I hope you’ll share it with me and other readers in the comments section (below).This is the general format for the series, which covers different ways of talking about and thinking about religion. Learn more here.

The diverse expressions of religion in creative writing make for a wonderfully rich resource. This goes beyond asking whether a character in the story is Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, a “none,” a Zen Buddhist, or a member of a fringe sect like the Hale-Bopps. This is what we might call content-level involvement of religion in a text. There’s another level, which we might call the meta-level. The latter occurs when a poet or writer speaks in a sacred register like a prophet, or use other techniques we normally associate with either sacred writing or sacred speech, yet the content itself is not religious. Of course, both levels can be combined, as one would expect in a sermon, but they can operate separately. They often do.

We see, then, that religion manifests in creative writing in more than one form:

  • Content-Level (Characters, Places, Actions): observed or demonstrated beliefs and rituals of characters and/or the narrator (still technically a character, not the author)
  • Meta-Level (Voice/Theme/Plot): prophesy, parable, apocalypse, meditation, prayer, miracle

I’d like to look at one poem here in depth to give an example of how creative writing can open up a multi-layered conversation about religion. Although I’m looking at a poem because the brevity of the form makes it easier to discuss in a single blog post, you can expand this strategy to talk about other genres, everything from a creative nonfiction piece like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek to television programs like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Let’s read this 1921 poem by Marianne Moore:

He Made This Screen

not of silver nor of coral,

but of weatherbeaten laurel.

Here, he introduced a sea

uniform like tapestry;

here, a fig-tree; there, a face;

there, a dragon circling space—

designating here, a bower;

there, a pointed passion-flower.

Is religion in this poem, in any sense? Consider the images employed in this tight space. The laurel was traditionally used in Greco-Roman cultures for rites of purification. Famously, it served as the crown of the military victor and the poet, too. Even though the laurel in this poem is “weatherbeaten,” it carried an illustrious heritage that the poem coyly underplays. The reason for this becomes more obvious as the poem continues.

Moore then invokes the fig tree, the tree that covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. One could imagine the “face” that follows belonging to one of the naughty humans peeking out of underbrush at their god when he calls. The “dragon circling space” could be a compressed image of Tiamat in the Enuma Elish, which tells the story of how Marduk vanquished the mother of creation and created humans from the blood of her servant, or it could be a derivative version of the story from a later culture. A bower is a secluded, perhaps wooded, place that evokes the Garden of Eden, and the pointed passion flower is a lush image of fertility and desire.

So yes, you could say this poem draws upon religion to say something, specifically something about Creation. But the poem might also be about the God or Goddess of creation, rather than creation itself. Who “made this screen,” after all? Is it enough to infer from the “He” and the rest of the content, that this is God? It certainly falls within the realm of possible interpretations. It’s also possible to read the subject of the poem as John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, if one imagines the “screen” to be a metaphor for Milton’s narrative poem of the Fall of Man.

This is all without any reference to the life and experiences of the poet herself, based simply on what the words themselves evoke out of shared symbols in Western culture. In delving into the life of Marianne Moore (1887–1972), a still richer layer of meaning comes into play. Like her twentieth-century contemporaries Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Moore developed an abiding interest in Eastern arts and culture. This poem is an ekphrasis, a narrative description of a work of art, in this case “Nine Dragons” by Chen Rong, which was painted in 1244 AD and now held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Have a quick look at the painting and come back.

It is immediately obvious that Moore did not simply narrate the Chinese image what she saw but combined it with her existing Western narratives of creation. Williams once described her style as finding the vastness in the particular, “so that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events.”

This begins to show the wonderful flexibility of creative writing to open up a conversation about religion. Imagine reading this at the start of a class on the history of the Bible. It certainly opens up the question of why the original writers of Genesis and the Enuma Elish wrote the stories the way they did, how the stories might have changed over time, and why people today are still retelling them—this is neither simplistic nor literal.

religion in creative writing

Not every poet or writer who chooses to use a religiously charged image, such as a fig tree, must by definition be writing a religious piece, but the writer does have to reckon with the image once invoked. I think this is a commonly misunderstood aspect to writing. We don’t get to make the words say whatever we want; they carry their history with them. Religious innuendos will rear up in the minds of readers, at times even without their conscious intent, and readers will naturally look for resolution. Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences about Writing puts it like this:

The link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.

There’s no sign of your intention apart from the sentences themselves.

And every sentence has its own motives, its own commitments,

Quite apart from yours.

It adheres to a set of rules—grammar, syntax, the history and customs of language, a world of echoes and allusions and social cues—that pay no heed to your intentions,

If you don’t heed those rules.

It’s hard to pay attention to what your words are actually saying.

As opposed to what you mean to say or what you think they’re saying. (4)

What this suggests is that creative writing at its best encourages empathy and open-mindedness through two things: (1) the free association of images and (2) the frustration of making sentences say what you want them to say while reckoning with their history and their traditional uses.(Why do I feel like I’m talking about church services all of a sudden?)When we confront religion in creative writing, this flexible medium gives us a chance to pretend we’re someone else for a while. Whether I am the writer or the reader, I temporarily suspend disbelief and imagine the world differently—which is exactly what Jesus did when he told parables, by the way.

Most writers are not fully conscious of their religious and spiritual leanings and longings. These are often unexpressed impulses that filter through their writing until something “feels” right. Unfortunately writers don’t always notice that what “feels” right might be familiar specifically because it relies on a stereotype or popular myth that has no rootedness in the actual practice or history of a religion.

Yet religious studies scholars and theologians don’t necessarily have creative writing skills, and even if they did, they might find that their most profound thoughts don’t translate easily into story or poetry.

One of the limits of creative writing as a way to understand religion, then, is the problem of finding historically sensitive writing or at least writing that depicts the longings of people of a particular faith in a way that opens up understanding. Since the goal or end of creative writing isn’t “to understand religion” but (usually) “to entertain or provoke,” the writer is under no inherent obligation to do otherwise.

Like testimony, creative writing is subjective and exploratory, but it does not necessarily involve a call to action. The writer isn’t necessarily saying, “This really happened,” but “Something about this rings true.” It’s that “rings true” bit that speaks to people and opens them up to empathy, but also the bit that can fall into the trap of bias and stereotyping. We just have to walk that line.

I’ll leave you with a few lines of another poem that invokes religion, one of my old favorites, Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”:

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters.

This article is part of the Understanding Religion series, which explores the many different methods and approaches we can use to understand and appreciate religion. Find more articles here and share your favorite book, poem, or other example of religion in creative writing in the comments below.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. 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.

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