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

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?

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10 Writers I’m Thankful For

I’m sure this isn’t an original idea. There are probably plenty of bloggers pursuing this kind of topic for their Thanksgiving-week posts. But I liked the thought of narrowing it down to a list of ten and thinking of how the ten had impacted my thinking and my writing in profound ways.

Of course, the challenge is limiting it to ten. At first I thought about doing ten books, but that would be even more impossible for me. Besides, I don’t want this to end up being a list of favorite books but a list of writers who have somehow changed my worldview. So here goes.

  1. C. S. Lewis — for perspective. Like millions of other people, I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia. The first novel I tried to write, as a fifth grader, was a spin-off of those books, with a portal to another world. As an adult, I am blown away by Mere Christianity. “It is no good asking for a simple religion,” he says in one part. “After all, real things are not simple. . . . Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” I also read Till We Have Faces as an adult and savored the new perspectives he offered in fictional form about religion and the new angle he gave the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
  2. Megan Whalen Turner — for twists, subtleties, and complexities. Her Queen’s Thief series is one you could read over and over. The twists made me gasp the first time around — and cheer. The subtleties made me fall in love because of the quiet moments where she gives you just a hint of what’s happening, because more than a hint would ruin it, because quiet moments can be that fragile and beautiful. The complexities made me think, like when Eugenides confronts the gods so often with hard questions about why. I learned from Megan Whalen Turner that these are key ingredients for masterpieces of fiction.
  3. Susanna Clarke — for storytelling. Who else do you know who can produce an 800-page novel — in a tiny font size, no less, with footnotes that often take up half a page or more in an even smaller font size — and have it be a bestseller? Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell taught me about storytelling. Each little footnote is a story unto itself, and every one of them is captivating. You have the option, even on the audio tracks, to skip the footnotes, but I don’t, even when listening to that book a second or third time, because the little stories are just as fascinating as the main ones. That, to me, is masterful.
  4. David McCullough — for breathing life into facts. When I was in middle school, we had to read a biography, and oh how I wish I knew about David McCullough then! He hadn’t written John Adams yet, and I have always loved John Adams because I grew up on the musical 1776. So I chose some random biography, and it was boring. Because biographies used to be that way. I could be wrong about giving McCullough all the credit for this, but it seems like he’s the one who brought storytelling to history and decided to tell it with all the uncertainty and tension it deserves.
  5. Billy Collins — for accessible poetry. I’ve always loved poetry in small doses. I started subscribing to The New Yorker just for the two-to-three poems per issue. But Billy Collins wrote the first book of poetry I read from start to finish and couldn’t put down. He solidified my love for it and proved that the modernists didn’t know everything. The Washington Post says it better than I can: “[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
  6. Marilynne Robinson — for beauty in simplicity. Her books require an unhurried mood, but you get rewarded for that patience by a hundred gems like these in Gilead
    • “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
    • “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
    • “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
    • “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.”
  7. Yann Martel — for the power of ideas in story. In Life of Pi, when the interviewers refuse to believe Pi’s story, he has so many great responses like this: “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” Life of Pi is the opposite. It’s a book that does make you see higher and further and differently, and I love it for that. It’s a story full of insight.
  8. Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card, and Laini Taylor — for magic. I didn’t consider myself a fan of fantasy until I read The Goose Girl, Enchantment, and Blackbringer. These books converted me to the kind of richness of detail they have in common. They make magic seem like something real because the worlds of their books are so real.
  9. Aaron Sorkin — for passion about intelligence. He makes “smart” look good. He says no to the standard dumbness of television. The West Wing is still our favorite TV drama of all time, and miraculously, I know both republicans and democrats who love it. Somehow, Aaron Sorkin managed to create a successful political drama that captivated audiences thirsty for an intelligent look at the complexities of both sides of politics, avoiding simplistic stereotypes. We loved his brief season of Studio 60, too, which brought the battle of intelligent television right into the show.   
  10. Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and Kristin Cashore — for page turners that made me fall hard. My sister and I often get asked how we can be fans of Stephenie Meyer as English majors who know what “good writing” is. Well, for me, it’s because I can appreciate all sides of good writing, and these three authors taught me about creating characters that you cling to and pacing that holds you tight. I read Twilight in November 2005 based on my thesis chair’s recommendation. I started it at 7pm and finished at 2am. The Hunger Games and Graceling were similarly all-nighters for me. I had to keep turning every page, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that about what makes a good story.

What about you? What writers are you thankful for? If you’re doing a similar blog post, feel free to put the URL in your comment. I’m excited to hear whose writing has influenced you!

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