A Dangerous Post: The Convergence of Religion, Politics, and Literature

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What do you think of this post title? I’m only half serious about the “dangerous” part. Yes, there’s the danger of offending somebody when you bring up politics and religion, but I think it all depends on how you do it. So don’t worry! This is just an exploratory post, working off some ideas that have been shuffling around in my head.

See, I can’t get enough of ideas. I’m addicted to complexities. Anything with murky gray areas? Awesome! More to explore!

As a teacher, one of the main things I talk to my students about is embracing complexity. In order to write well, in order to really be persuasive about an issue, you have to cover not only “both” sides but all relevant perspectives. I have to talk my students out of the default binary mode, out of looking at things as either good or bad, white or black, and into exploring the complexities and potential compromises of an issue.

For example, I once had a student who chose propaganda as the topic for her research paper and planned to argue against it, but the more research she did, the more she looked into all the various sides of it, the more she discovered that it wasn’t all bad. In fact, she ended up arguing that propaganda is important for instilling nationalism, which creates unity and solidarity for a country. Yes, there can be some very harmful aspects to propaganda, but by exploring the perspectives she was able to appreciate its complexities and positive aspects, and she wrote a great paper.

This side of good writing — the acknowledgement of multiple perspectives — doesn’t just apply to nonfiction, issue-based writing. In fact, I think it’s at the heart of literature as well, though literature goes about it in more subtle ways.

Literature shows perspectives by showing the complexities of choice, for one thing. Not easy choices, but grueling choices that force us out of binary thinking. So often the heroes of literature are forced to choose not between good and bad but between two complicated alternatives.

Most recently, I thought about this with James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Fairly early in the book, the main character is forced to make a choice between obeying the rules — which he has been made to understand are for the good of the whole, for the preservation of this society they’re in, and aren’t trivial — and saving the lives of two friends. What makes it even more complicated is that he has no idea how to save them, will probably die himself trying, and has to make the decision in twenty seconds.

But despite the complications, as the readers, we say, “Of course he chooses to save their lives. Of course that’s the right decision.” That’s because literature allows us that distance. Literature allows us to be outside of the choice and to see it clearly, in all its complexity. Literature shows us the moral imperative, teaches us when to break a rule in favor of a greater good, and when to obey the rule because the greater good is served by adherence.

Religious texts are the same way, I think. They reinforce the complexity of moral choice in ways that almost seem liberal, when you think about it.

For example, think about Mary. She was an unwed pregnant teenager. I’ve never met a liberal or a conservative who would call that a good thing. And yet Christianity praises Mary for her choice. The New Testament tells us that an angel explained it to Mary, presented her with the information to make the choice, and she agreed to it, probably even realizing that very few people around her would understand.

And then Joseph also chose to go against the conventions of the day. When he found out she was pregnant, he could have stoned her or at least cancelled the engagement. Instead, once an angel explained the complexities of the situation to him, he chose to make the best decision: to stand by Mary, regardless of the ridicule.

Oscar Isaac and Keisha Castle-Hughes in The Nativity Story (2006)

In their particular circumstance, they made the best choice. Will any of us ever be in exactly that circumstance? No. But by reading about theirs, we gain a better understanding of how to grasp complexities and make the best choice possible in our own circumstances.

Over Christmas I heard a beautiful version of the cherry tree carol sung by Anonymous 4 on Performance Today (start at 24:16 to hear it), and it struck me how hard it might have been for Joseph, how many doubts he might have had along the way. It wasn’t the easy choice.

That might be what makes me so passionate about literature: it teaches us to make the right choice, the best choice, over the easy choice. How many heroes in literature have it easy through the story? Not any I can think of.

I just finished reading Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which is a gorgeous account of a character making the hardest choice of her life and being so so tempted to choose the easy road but having the people she loves explain to her why she should stay, why she should make the harder, better choice.

Literature like that is so important. It’s so important to open our minds to the complexities of the world and fully understand the issues and decisions of our lives, understand that harder is often better.

If I can take one more example from religion, let me bring up the slightly more controversial figure of Eve.

"Eve" by Anna Lea Merritt

I actually believe that Eve knew what she was doing. I believe Eve understood that the choice was between breaking one law or another. She had to do what she did in order for all of humankind to come into existence, and in order to gain knowledge, otherwise she and Adam would have been alone and ignorant in the garden forever.

Whether that story is literal or allegorical, nonfiction or fiction doesn’t matter, so long as we look at the complexities of it and recognize that Eve’s choice was complicated. I believe she made the right choice, the not-so-easy choice. So did Adam when he chose to follow her decision.

Maybe all of this is why I’m such a huge proponent of reading, why I agree with Mark Edmundson who says,

“Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. . . . In literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.” (from Why Read? 2004)

Similarly, I think we have to look at politics in the same complicated way. A friend of mine sent my husband and me this link to a presentation about the moral mind in relation to politics, and we loved it (up until the ending, which is slightly too ambiguous, but the bulk of the material is still extremely worthwhile). It talks about how both conservative and liberal ideals are necessary for the balance of society. Conservatives encourage stability while liberals encourage change, and society needs both in order to thrive.

Who knew democrats and republicans were good for each other?

In my opinion, the best plan is to learn as much as we can about every perspective. The more you do that, the more you come to understand that almost every perspective has a valid point, and that considering all those points together will almost always make for a better compromise in the end — a better choice.

Various perspectives usually aren’t as incompatible as we assume. I think it’s actually very possible to synthesize multiple viewpoints when we’re willing to be open-minded.

One theory that really helped me understand that synthesis is James Fowler’s six stages of faith. Too often people get stuck in the third or fourth stage. They are either afraid of new ideas and outside influences or they let new ideas and outside influences lead to disillusionment and tension, where they don’t know how to reconcile conflicting viewpoints. What I love about Fowler’s stages are that each becomes more inclusive. At stage five, you recognize that the world is complicated, but you sort of make peace with the complications. You become more tolerant and accepting, more open to considering the perspectives of other people.

And I like to think literature is a major part of that. Literature allows us to explore the complexities of being human in ways that help us reconcile all of it — even the “dangerous” things like religion and politics.

It really is all about how you look at it.

What do you think? How has reading made you more open-minded? What books have especially changed your worldview for the better?

Leave a comment!

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