SOF: The Novelist as God

August 23rd

I listened to this week’s Speaking of Faith podcast twice because the idea of authors creating a new perspective of God and faith through novels struck my fancy. I’d never considered how literature influences spirituality — how a novelist’s relationship with faith shines through in his/her work — whether the subject is a bodice ripper or chick lit. In sum, a person’s faith is always reflected in his/her daily actions.

This got me thinking.

The author interviewed for the piece, MaryDoria Russell, wrote “Children of God” and “The Sparrow.”  She describes herself as an agnostic Jew. She was raised in the Catholic church and later converted to Judaism when pregnant with her first child. Today, she feels like God may or may not be there, but Judaism is the closest answer to a faith that makes sense for her. The title for her second book came from Matthew 10: 27-31:

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

In other words, Jesus is saying — go out and do good works in my name. You are going to be treated poorly. You’ll need to suck it up. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Russell goes on in the podcast to say that if there is a God, he created man because he loves to tell stories. And that all stories are dependent on where you decide to start. She describes the Bible as a series of stories that are generational and depending on where you want to begin, you see the characters as good or evil, wronged or with justice. As a novice writer and a Christian, I find all of this fascinating. I’ve never considered how vast expanses of time certainly influence the outcome of characters through generations of family, etc.

She also says that if there isn’t a God, man created one because we love to tell stories too. While I don’t doubt God’s presence, the story-telling aspect is so true. I know some Christians and Jews feel the Bible (and Torah) were written by God, using man as a conduit. There are too many human flaws in the Bible for me to believe this — namely the way women are told to be quiet in church and to always submit. I’ve got no problem with being obedient to God but I’ve never been terribly good at keeping my mouth shut or blindly listening to anyone’s direction, especially in church.

Questions for the week:

1. Have you ever read a book (novel) that changed your view of faith?

2. Do you have a favorite faith-driven story? (I am very fond of both Esther and Ruth)

3. Do you think this is all a bunch of crap? I can take it, I promise.


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20 Responses

  1. What a great question!
    Two books stand out for me regarding my spirituality and my view of faith – One I read when I was 22, Marianne Williamson’s “A Return to Love”. And more recently “Left to Tell” by Immaculee Ilibagiza. Love and Faith and forgiveness can move mountains whether it is a life threatening situation or your step mom who pushes your buttons or the guy who cuts you off in traffic. So many wise writers and stories..God is everywhere!

  2. Brandon August 23, 2009

    Wonderful discussion! Have you ever had the opportunity to listen to Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949)? Probably; if not, here it is: — I was reminded of it after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (2007). I believe gifted writers are truth-seekers, just as I think Scriptural stories are meant to lead us to many truths big and small. No, I don’t think it’s all a bunch of crap.

  3. Oh Kelli! You’ve unleashed the Pandora’s Box of fun discussion.

    I’ve read many a book –fiction and non- — in which religion was shining through the cracks of every line of text. Readers and those who love books and libraries owe a great debt of gratitude to any and all religions because it is didactic writing that started the industry. There are some exceptional examples of “faith” fiction including Red Tent (which you will like because of Esther and Ruth), Les Miserables, Poisonwood Bible, Siddhartha (I could go on and on). But I’m also a fan of the new up and comers. Something I read on vacation this past month. People of the Book. This little number by Geraldine Brooks layers three faiths together in the making of one exceptional book.

    For me the search of spirituality, not religion, is the drive to read new and more books. Even those silly bodice rippers. But that’s because I find great peace and elevation in seeing new ways of thinking — even if it’s the way of a “lost soul”.

    Now, here’s a question for you. If you could have a dream book club, who would the members be? I tell you what. You’d be on my list. Read on, write on!

  4. I have read to many books that have shaped my faith in God. Could not possibly list them all, but I can say that the Torah, The bible, the Koran, The Gita, the Tao te Ching have never left me, and still resonate with in my heart.
    My favorite Faith based/driven story is “the ocean is full of tears”
    No, I don’t think it’s a bunch of crap, in my heart I feel that the dreaming is infinite…

  5. I find the Bible incredible. God speaks to me through it often. One time in particular was when my grandma, who was like a mother to me, passed away 4 years ago. My world was shattered and the day after, I went to the Bible and randomly read what I opened up to and through tears read Isaiah 40:11 which says “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arms He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing.” (I was also nursing my fourth child at the time) No sooner did I read that I walked in the kitchen and found a little 2″x3″ card that had a picture of Jesus carrying a lamb that my grandma had given me many years before. And get this, it was right on top of my stove. My grandma cooked like crazy and I felt so loved by her cooking throughout the years. How it ended up on my stove that day right after I had read a randon verse that worded that exact picture, only the Lord knows. That’s how real God is. Where that card is today, I have no idea. It seemed to have vanished as fast as it appeared. I know that my God loves me. He does this often. God is REAL.

    And if He loves me that much, why can’t I trust that everything He said in the Bible is true? It makes some great claims…like “I (Jesus) am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man comes to the Father except through me.” He was not just a great man and the Bible was not just a great book. Many men put their lives at the stake, literally, so that this Book may be in our hands today.

    The Bible is not politically correct in today’s post christian nation…but neither was Jesus in His day. He claimed to be God. He loved radically and called us to love radically in His name by taking up the cross (of suffering and death) to proclaim it. Death is sure. He paved the way and swapped His perfection for our sin so that we may live forever with Him if only we believe that He is God, that He died for our sins and was buried and rose on the third day. Forgiven and eternity with my God in a place where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Rev. 21:4 ?? I’ll swap out my life for His any day…any every day. And He did this for everyone, yet few will believe and take him up on his offer. The heart of God is more than a bunch of rules. Whew, I’ll stop preaching, I’m getting all fired up…lol. I LOVE this book!

  6. Kelli,
    The only book that I honestly feel has been life changing for me is the Bible. I want you to consider a few things when you say “there are too many human flaws in the Bible for me to believe this..” First, the Bible speaks about itself (2 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 4:12) God is the main author, who, through man ,set forth the Scriptures.Second, Jesus himself, affirms scripture (Matthew 5:18)He rebuked the devil with scripture and He is the living Word. Third, the fulfillment of prophesies is overwhelming (Deut 18:20,21,22). Over 2000 prophesies from the Old Testament have come to pass. 333 prophesies about Jesus Christ, in the Old Testament, have come true. The Bible is the infallible Word of God. We cant diminish Scripture to our human flaws nor our cultural views on correct lifestyles. I really respect what you’ve written, but I feel that it is a test of faith when we can read stories from human authors and allow them to so easily sway our thoughts and feelings. We’re asked to be rooted in strong firmament. By the way, I was born and raised Catholic, pursued Protestanism for a while, became part of a Messianic Jewish congregation and currently attend a non-denominational church. I believe we are all on a journey and through it all God continues to grow us through the Holy Spirit for His Will. Blessings to you on your journey!


  7. Interesting post. I agree that one of the wonderful things about reading, especially when you read a lot of books by the same author, is that you kind of get to know the person behind the pen a little bit. It is neat to study up on authors because you learn more about their lives and why they chose to write a book at all. For books that have meant a lot to me it makes them even more interesting when I find out what was influencing the writer to write the book.

    One thing I will say about the Bible is this: I believe every word in there is absolutely true. I don’t think God thinks lowly of women. I’ve struggled with that passage too wondering what it meant. I think it really means that men are ultimately supposed to be leading the body of the church and not women. It’s the way God set things up. And too, context is everything! The way they met back then is vastly different from the way we do now. They met in synagogues and in homes. Even within those situations women did participate in ministry. Some hosted church gatherings in their homes, Priscilla was a missionary with her husband, etc. Now the way churches are set up I think there are more opportunities for women to participate in ministry without leading men. I know many women who teach Sunday school and/or Awana, volunteer in youth groups, volunteer to mentor teenage and college age girls and lead small groups for girls and women and are very active in ministry without being pastors which is what I think was the main idea in that part of the Bible. In fact I believe in Titus God tells the women to teach their wisdom to younger women so we as ladies are actually given commands to teach the ladies and raise the boys (since women are traditionally keepers of the home and we are actively involved in childrearing). Even though I have struggled with this passage too and try to pick apart what it means I am confident that, like all rules God set in place, it is for my protection and wellbeing.

    Also, I like what one of your other readers said about the Bible not being politically correct. I’ve been realizing that as Americans we think that because we are a “christian” nation the Bible should be politically correct and line up with our constitution and it just isn’t so. The Bible has been around way longer than America has and Jesus is not American. Our American rights and dreams didn’t come from the Bible although, praise God, they allow us to freely worship our God and share what we believe.

    I enjoyed reading your post and the discussion on here. Thanks for asking us for our $0.02 worth!

    Sorry this post is really long. It’s just something I’m passionate about and enjoy having the opportunity to discuss. Thanks again for posting!

  8. Lots of books have made me think about my faith……I will name one in the interest of time here…….”Anna Karenina”

    No, this is not a lot of crap….Art should reflect the artists faith whatever they believe if it’s coming from their soul……

    Cool new blog layout! 🙂

  9. I’m with you on the Bible being flawed – I believe it is God-inspired, not God-written. It’s also contextual (of the values of the day); every story is. If you do some background study (luckily I have two seminarians in my extended family who studied the Bible, its orginating language and subsequent translations, and so forth for three+ years each), you can also understand the context of the commands about women – and they weren’t meant to be generalized to all women for the rest of eternity – they were specific to certain women in a certain church at a certain time. But I digress. I also believe the Bible is highly symbolic, and that the stories represent deeper truths of life, love, and struggle. Anywho, I follow Jesus, not the Bible, so it all comes down to the stories about him and who we know him to be. With that said, God does speak to me through the Bible, and he also speaks to me through other people (ie., my pastor, my parents, my friends, my husband, and sometimes, my enemies) and through experiences, and through nature, and through blogging, and….but you get the picture.

    Some of the most powerful books I’ve read include Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul,” Beatrice Bruteau’s “Radical Optimism,” Joseph Campbell’s work on myths, Carl Jung’s work on consciousness, and Anne Lamott’s writings on faith.

    Stories are eternal. God is eternal. It’s not crap to me.

  10. I have a tiny little book (I think it is The Power of Compassion) by the Dali Lama. I picked up at Tibet House in Dehli many years ago. It opened my heart in so many ways. It was one of those books that found me just when I was in need of reading it – you know what I mean?

    Like Jennifer, I remember a light coming on in college when I first read Joseph Campbell and Willa Cather (Song of the Lark? Death Comes for the Archbishop? I don’t remember which). Acutally, I took an English class in college that was Religion in Literature. We read Emily Dickenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins {swoon}, Siddharth, both of those Cather Novels, a native american novel (Ceremony – Leslie Silko), The Chosen (Chaim Potok), and many more that I’m forgetting since that was more than 20 years ago.

    And recently, re-reading the Narnia tales with my kids, I am especially struck by the spiritual/Christian messages and symbolism that went right over my head as a kid. Quite moving.

    • Marquez. That’s who I left out. Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I quite like Tom Robbins, too for his quirky brand of truth.

  11. One of my university courses was in mythology. We talked about creation mythins from all corners of the globe, including the biblical version. While I was raised a staunch Southern Baptist, I never really considered with any degree of critical thinking skills other mythological stories as having any sort of merit. That course opened my eyes to new ways of thinking. I cannot specify a particular book as we read a wide range of resources. I do believe in God, I just happen to believe in a female version and She is in everything in life. My feeling is that I should be the best person I can possibly be to honor and respect Her and my existence in the entire fabric of life.

  12. Blast, I spelled myths wrong. It’s “myths” not “mythins” as my happy fingers chose to type. My apologies.

  13. The Sparrow was actually her first book. Both of those books are AMAZING! Have you read them? Absolutely fascinating.

    I personally don’t believe in organized religion. That’s not to say I don’t have faith in a higher power. I just think organized religion is a way for people to make sense of their own existence and feel like they have a place in the world. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I need.

  14. I stopped back in because I wanted to see what others had to say.

    Jennifer: I have to bring up John 1:1. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You can’t follow Jesus without following His word. They’re inseperable. John 1:14. The Word became flesh and took p residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
    John states in his gospel that the Word is Jesus. You simply cannot say you choose Jesus and at the same time say His word isn’t legitimate.

  15. What a lot of people don’t know is that there are 24 versions of the bible running about. Each with their own edited version of what’s “real”.

    King James did some editing himself. That’s how we ended up with the King James version of the bible. Things positive about women, especially anything about them being in charge of anything, were often edited out because men didn’t see women as anything but property.

    Also, the book of enik was avoided possibly either taken out, or never put in, the bible. (dead sea scrolls…good book) Some say that it was taken out because that part talked about reincarnation. I don’t know the full story.

    Some also say that way back when the bible was written, it talked about a Goddess, but that too (since it was about a woman) was weeded out by men.

    I don’t know everything that was speculated as being taken out, but would love to know more about it.

  16. I did not grow up going to organized religion services on a regular basis, but always tried to secretly seek it out, but always with out commitment to one view or another. Now I have my own family, and while we consider ourselves Christian we rarely go to church. But we also try to embrace Buddhist teachings as much as possible.

    This past year I began reading aloud The Chronicles of Narnia to my older 2 kids (now 9 &7). Somewhat ignorantly I failed to acknowledge that they were Christian based books. It has been an exciting journey not just for me to re/discover the exciting mysteries of the supreme forces of life, with out a threatening overtone. (the non-commital me). I even find myself getting choked up in the stories when reading aloud to the kids. It has also been fun to discuss the stories with my kids in a most basic level to what corresponds to the Bible. Also allowing Christian teachings in an extremely creative fashion.

    I have also gone on to get the books on CD to listen to on our road trip across country, and CDs of recorded lectures on the life of CS Lewis from his atheist beginnings to his strong belief in the Almighty.

  17. I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about “story theology” lately and I think it’s the same thing that you’re describing. Have you read Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”? He is a writer and a thinker and a Christ-follower. I think you would like his writing. He also maintains a frequently-thought-provoking blog. Here’s an entry you may find interesting:

  18. As I’ve said here (and many other places) before, I’m an atheist. I was raised in a very Catholic family and I now make art about the places where science, creation, religion and stories meet.

    One book that has had a huge influence on me is Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. It tells the story of Fat Charlie and Spider, who are the sons of the Spider god, Mr Nancy (Anansi). The first paragraphs are my favourite:

    “It begins, as most things begin, with a song.
    In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world.
    They were sung.
    The great beasts were sung into existence, after the singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.
    Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That’s the power of songs.”

    The other piece of fiction that’s had a profound effect on me (ie, left me sobbing in public) is a graphic novel by Dave McKean called Cages. Again, it’s about the links between various types of creation — creation of the universe, stories of religious creation, creation by humans. It’s also about cats. Never a bad thing.

  19. I love The Prophet and Mere Christianity, and constantly look for spiritual views that reveal themselves in fiction. There are days when I believe the Bible completely, and there are days when all I can hold onto is that there is a God, and that he created us. I’m finding it harder to hold on to faith lately. But I haven’t let go yet.