The Difficulty of Writing About Religion

"Fair Enough"
Although I greatly enjoy the theological questions raised in Person of Interest, Season 3, Decima (John Geer) is the weakest of Nolan's characters so far.

In general, Person of Interest bad guys are fascinatingly complex, mostly due to their grounded desires and expectations: Elias, Hersh, Kara Stanton, Special Counsel (he's the "Fair enough" guy), Control, even Root (the most abstractly motivated of the bunch) all have clear objectives. Root may hold an abstract desire to talk to Her, but it circles around a definite goal: to TALK to Her.

The consequence is not simplicity but rather a network of differing (often conflicting) desires and needs. It is--at the risk of using an overworked term--politic, and it is naturally political. Not a lot of villains with twirling moustaches, just people with conflicting agendas, some evil, some not (or not completely). Until Decima.

Oddly enough, Collier OUGHT to have been a villain with a twirling moustache--an extremist along the lines of Timothy McVeigh. Unfortunately, the writers wanted so desperately for him to be a sympathetic dupe, they created a character whose motivations make absolutely no sense. Collier is too organized to be a John Hinckley, Jr., yet too lacking in any kind of ideology to explain his subservience to an unknown sponsor.

The impressive Camryn Manheim as Control--a character
one can despise and admire. Well-written!
Which brings me back to Decima--Decima (John Geer) is supposedly motivated by a higher, theological or religious purpose. (I haven't started Season 4, so my supposition is based on the end of Season 3). Unlike Root, however, he is utterly lacking in a theological center.

It would be easy at this point to blame Decima's hollowness on Hollywood's apathy towards religion, but based on the number of tacky religious books and movies I've encountered, I think it is safe to say that religion is difficult to write about in general.

There are likely multiple reasons (some of which will come to me after I've written this) but a core reason that religion is difficult to write about is the abstract nature of belief. In order for Martin Luther to argue against indulgences (a practical reality), he has to believe in something far more abstract (that the soul cannot buy its way into heaven or out of accountability). In order for Joseph Smith to argue against infant baptism (another practical reality), he has to believe that Adam and Eve's Fall from God's presence did not entail a fall into sin. THAT belief entails believing that sin requires intent and knowledge. And THAT entails believing that without intent and knowledge, humans are innocent. And THAT . . .

In other words, a bigger worldview lies behind most theological arguments.

It doesn't necessarily lie behind every religious act by every church-goer or, even, for that matter, every spiritual person. If I give money to the poor or take communion (sacrament) every Sunday or meditate--I am sharing in a larger worldview but I don't necessarily have to be aware of that worldview to benefit from the activity.

St. Augustine: I may not always agree
with him, but he argues his position
well and with great care.
Here's where things get complicated for writers: the grounded actions matter (that's where story comes about) but without the larger view, the grounded religious actions devolve into their own justification. Much religious fiction by religious people contains characters who have an out-sized preoccupation with rules. Sometimes this is intentional, but often it comes down to the sheer, unmitigated difficulty of (1) creating and/or explaining a theology; (2) talking about abstract ideas convincingly; (3) conveying the reality of an abstract idea without sounding crazy; (4) explaining one's spiritual or emotional connection to a series of behaviors (I do this because I know in my heart or hearts that it means something bigger, and I even know what the bigger thing is, but explaining how the two things connect will make me sound trite).

There's a reason the great theologians are great.

And if it is difficult for religious people to write about this stuff convincingly, imagine how much more difficult it is for writers who don't have religious backgrounds or sensibilities--who find the whole religious mindset bewildering to begin with! Sure, they can always fall back on Catholicism--or Shintoism. But to create something like what Decima is supposed to be, the writers would have to understand how someone like Decima thinks to begin with.

The fall-back position, unfortunately, is not all that different from the one that religious people create: all religious people are either staid, obedient ruler-followers or crazy extremists. A logical fallacy, of course (generalization anyone?) but easier to write about than a series of decisions surrounding a central hub of belief.

Easier to write about--and totally boring. Obedience as a problem can be interesting but as a character trait...not so much. And extremism is always boring, which is why Control's utilitarian philosophy, however despicable in practice, is so, so, so much more interesting to listen to than Collier's Decima-fed rants. (And Control's dialog with the Machine--utilitarianism versus faith with an underscoring of wistful obedience--is totally fascinating.)

There's a reason C.S. Lewis and Tolkien remain two of the best religious fiction writers of the 20th century--and they came at the whole thing sideways.

1 comment:

a calvinist preacher said...

Writing about religion is relatively easy, frankly. It depends on how big a chunk you bite off and which religion you're writing about. When writing essays or vignettes, one isn't trying to present the whole of a religion's beliefs.

But writing a religious character into a novel or screenplay when one cannot really sympathize with the religious mindset, much less comprehend it, is dangerous - it too often comes out as caricature rather than portrait. Lewis and Tolkien wrote from within the religion, and their stories reflect a religious mindset they shared. I wonder if they would have done as well writing a novel around a Buddhist or Muslim worldview.

When the religious character is in a supporting role, one is essentially writing a vignette - a short, intentionally cropped portrayal. It's not intended to be the full picture, so it's no big deal that it isn't. But a show like BLESS ME FATHER requires somebody far more intimate with the religion (the first two seasons are hilariously spot on for post-war/pre-Vatican II Catholicism. The 3rd is not as good - rather as if the writer had run out of ideas but still had seven more episodes to write).

The other part of writing such characters is that the story's the thing. It's not the abstract, systematic theology a story-teller should focus on, but the way a religious believer thinks and lives - the story - which is rarely as systematic as the theologians would have us be. Don't put the background in the foreground.