Friday, May 16, 2008

Have novels replaced religion?

In the most recent Australian Literary Review, Delia Falconer suggests the decline of God as a source of meaning in the West has occurred side by side with the rise of the novel.

She makes the observation as the opening statement in her review of literary critic James Wood’s book “How Fiction Works”.

It’s an especially relevant comment, given Wood believes fiction has taken over as the measure of authenticity and power of the sacred. He says although fiction requires a different kind of belief to religion, it creates a parallel sense of “the real”.

It’s true that society today looks to narrative to understand and find meaning in the world. We turn to television, film, poetry and theatre to explore and analyse issues and ideas. In this context, the novel is as powerful as ever.

And this raises interesting questions about the place of narrative in religion, and why religion longer has the power it once had in the West.

Falconer says that for Wood, the best novels seem to create an approximate reality so intense and morally driven, that they may temporarily mend the world as a godless "broken estate". (And obviously, Wood is picking his reading material from the literary section, although I have no doubt there are religious experiences to be had in chick lit…)

Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr (who I’ve mentioned before on this blog), believes the decline of popularity of Christianity in particular has been the result of perverting the religion’s original narrative.

He notes that while Eastern nations are – generally – deeply proud and protective of their religious heritage (be it Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist), Christian nations in the West tend not to be.

Rohr believes the reason is that the narrative at the heart of Christianity has been turned into a bad novel: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. When instead, he says the narrative of the New Testament is about sacrifice, suffering, transformation, and redemption. It’s not about “us” and “them”. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not even about getting it right. Quite the opposite.

I agree with Wood that effective narrative has the power to move people in ways that are essentially spiritual.

It’s a shame so many of our spiritual leaders have forgotten that lesson, and turned Christianity into a narrative devoid of its original revelation and power.

(Image: Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette)


Bec said...

Paula, I'm sorry for leaving an essay here, but I couldn't read this post without showing you this. I read it the other day and automatically thought of you, and how I'd like to discuss it with you. And after reading this post, it just seems so...relevant.

Anyway, below is the answer to a question asked by Fiction International in 1984, of Tom Robbins (one of my favourite authors, as you know). The second last paragraph sums up why I love reading his fiction so much. Because in essence every one of his novels carries this philosophy. Anyway, here is the question:

Is the writer obligated to use his/her medium as an instrument for social betterment?

A writer's first obligation is not to the many-bellied beast but to the many-tongued beast, not to Society but to Language. Everyone has a stake in the husbandry of Society, but Language is the writer's special charge. A grandiose animal it is, too. If it weren't for Language, there wouldn't be Society.

Once writers have established their basic commitment to Language (and are taking the Blue-Guitar-sized risks that that relationship demands), then they are free to promote social betterment to the extent that their conscience or neurosis might require. But let me tell you this: social action on the political/economic level is wee potatoes.

Our great human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.

How many writers of fiction do you think are committed to that?

Paula Weston said...

Thanks for a fantastic post Bec. Definitely a relevant topic!

As a reader, I love the idea of a story that can enlarge my soul, liberate my spirit and light up my brain.

As a writer, my greatest goal is to be able to achieve that, but I'm realistic enough to know what a big ask that is.

I also like Robbins' ideas that a writer's first obligation is to language - not to use it as a blunt tool, but rather as a finely tuned instrument, where every word has purpose and meaning in the context of the story being told.

I love the thoughts you capture here Bec... feel to leave an essay anytime!

Gustav said...

Dear Paula Weston

This a question that requires a good hour to chat about - maybe over a cup of tea.

In a nutshell my view is that there are a myriad of reasons of why religion may be declining in importance as the primary source of morality.

Literature has had a role in this decline.

Morality is often a moving compass for us all as we read a new book or watch an amazing play or experience a new philosophy or religion or meet a new friend.

Have a wonderful day.