Religion in Fiction: a Reading List
Religion is weird, dramatic, violent, fascinating and mysterious. No wonder that it inspires works of art.
For writers, religion is a great inspiration. Whether you are a writer of historical novels, fantasy, science fiction, or impressionist portraits, religion offers you a sheer endless heap of material. Folk tales, long gone cults, medieval power struggles, myths, rituals, moral dilemmas and the struggle with identity – these are all great themes and patterns for a story.
So here are some books I read that made use of religious imagery – some subtly in the margins of a bigger tale, some boldly focusing on gods and witches. I will praise most of them, because they were great. I will also suggest which books you can safely ignore without missing a second of sleep (whatever others have told you – I’m looking at you, Alchemist). While writing this the list kept growing, so I will follow up later with more.
I shall not spoil. I will try to give a short account of what the book is about, what religion has to do with it, and as a bonus: the spiritual benefits you will gain by reading the book. Remember, these are just some books I enjoyed, not ‘The List’. Feel free to add your recommendations in the comments. I’m always looking for a great read!
The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Genre: Humor, Science Fiction, Cult Classic.
Synopsis: Aliens, Babelfish, Potentially Deadly Poetry, Towels, High Improbability, Depressed robot, Travelling Time and Space, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish.
What’s it got to do with religion: It explains the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. And that is not even the reason why you should read it.
Review: Mr. Adams is the funniest dead man ever to have walked the earth. I’m sure Terry Pratchett agrees. You will explode with laughter and whatever it is you have in your mouth when reading this. Better not to drink soda.
Spiritual gain: Puts everything in perspective, healing laughter (spiritually; physically, it might hurt a little).
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
Genre: pseudo-historical fiction, romantic drama, Arthurian legends
Synopsis: The Saga of king Arthur and his knights, seen from the perspective of the women (Morgaine and Guinevere mainly).
What’s it got to do with religion: The various Arthur Saga depict Britain in a time of transition: the ideal of unity under one Christian king replaced a scattering of small kingdoms with their local beliefs and customs. Christian and heroic ideals (sacrifice, bravery, modesty) were usually cherished in the Arthurian legends. Bradley adds a twist by putting emphasis on the heathen practices and old religions that were replaced by Christianity. Pagan imagery is mixed with medieval scenery and a healthy dose of fantasy.
Review: It has been a while since I read the first book and although it has the ingredients to be a favorite of mine (pagans, witches, knights, castles!), it just tastes bland. The style bothered me, too repetitive and too much Harlequin (peach skin, wavy hair, brooding eyes). And since the end wasn’t exactly a secret, I never bothered to read the rest of the series. I liked the movie better.
Spiritual gain: strong visualization of cliffs and castles; confrontation with moral dilemmas and mortality.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Genre: Literature, historical fiction, dramatic romance, satire.
Synopsis: Roland, a scholar of 19th-century poet R.H. Ash, discovers a love letter from his subject to a lyrical poetess. This awakens in him an obsession and ambition hitherto unknown to him. Together with Maud Baily, leading researcher on the poetess, Roland starts to unravel the secret and tragic love between these poets, and losing all his certainties in the process.
What’s it got to do with religion: The poet’s pondering of the philosophical and religious implications of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and lots and lots of imagery from British and French folk tales.
Review: You can say this book is pretentious. However, it is also very good so I don’t mind at all that Byatt is not hiding her knowledge and intellect. Why should she? It is not easy to explain why it is such a great book. It is not particularly easy to read and some parts of the poetry went right past me. What I enjoyed was the subtlety of the romance, the richness of the details, the folklore, and the feminist interpretations, and how all these thing came together. Oh, and her words and sentences are magnificent.
Spiritual gain: finding joy and meaning in small things (insects, poems, getting a reference).
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
Genre: Allegorical novel, ‘spiritual’ hogwash
Synopsis: A shepherd follows his dreams (literally) in order to find a treasure and learns a lot about life and destiny along the way.
What’s it got to do with religion: mainly the fact that many people seem to view this as some profound spiritual guide. It is about the meaning of life and it has magic.
Review: I am mystified at the success of this book. And I even like allegories (see Byatt)! What I read was a bunch of clichés in a crude and unoriginal style that did nothing to capture my attention, laden with moral lessons so obvious you’re better off buying those corny tiles saying things like ‘Listen to your heart.’ (Yes, that is a quote). When people claim this book makes them think, I wonder what they were doing before.
Spiritual gain: practicing patience, postponing judgment.
His Dark MaterialsTrilogy, Philip Pullman
Genre: Children’s books, young adult, fantasy, apocalyptic
Synopsis: Little girl Lyra lives in a world where the soul takes the form of a daemon, an animal companion. She grows up in Oxford but when children go missing and a golden compass that tells the truth comes into her possession, she unwillingly enters a battle between good and evil that puts the existence of all the worlds on the line.
What’s it got to do with religion: Pullman borrows freely from church history and imagery to construct the trilogy’s religious institution. Theological ideas about the order of the universe, human’s place in it, sin, the end of times and of God are also used as inspiration. ‘Daemons’ occur in various works of literature and originate in classic mythology, although not in the exact way Pullman uses them. The fictional science bears resemblance to theories about quantum physics and energy that occur in New Age traditions and various forms of spirituality. There is more than a little sense of holism in the books.
Review: Some narrow-minded Christians objected to this book because it would defame the church. This kind of protest always counts as a recommendation. Pullman does indeed criticize dogmatism and institutional oppression, and his description of god is gloriously blasphemous. The story would make less sense if it wasn’t.
What I love most about this book is that it seems inexhaustible. Pullman easily combines history, philosophy, religion, fantasy, morality and mythology without ever being dull, slow, or moralizing. There is pseudo-science, which I appreciate in fiction, especially when its function to provide a logical framework is so thoroughly achieved. The story is exiting, original, moving and funny. The trilogy can sometimes be a little scary for children, but is great for teenagers and equally entertaining for adults.
Spiritual gain: appreciation of the world the way it is, accepting imperfections and flaws of character.
These are the first five books, more than 3,300 pages combined! That seems enough for now. Next time: Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman and Pi, among others.