On the whole I hate religious fiction. Apart from ‘The Land of Far Beyond’ by Enid Blyton and a book of Catholic-influenced Lutheran fairy tales by Gottried Keller (who was more of a liberal bohemian than a religious visionary) I can’t think of any explicitly religious books that I really enjoy.
I don’t like heavy Christian symbolism.
I don’t like books with Christ figures.
I can’t stand sugary goodness.
I loathe sermons.
Partly it’s because some of it seems so grafted on. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark all converted to the Catholic Church and each of them addressed their Catholicism in their books. But mostly it’s talk. Waugh is concerned with the horror of life; religion, like nice stately homes and nostalgia, seems to be a way of escaping the horror. Greene is mainly interested in current affairs (he called it the ‘climate of opinion’) and religion is a bulwark of eternity protecting him from the full force of the temporal. Spark’s books have a greater concern with transcendent good and evil, but still, they’re mostly about how random and absurd the modern world is. I don’t believe that God is a fully internalized part of their worldview. So every time a character agonises about adultery, discusses their denomination or becomes a nun, I just roll my eyes.
Partly it’s because I hate propaganda. The most interesting agitprop play I’ve ever seen was ‘Talking Bollocks’ a touring play about gay life in the olden days by 7:84 and that’s because snippets of gossip about other people’s sex lives are always going to be worth listening to, like overhearing strangers on a bus. But more than an hour of po-faced facts and actors leaping about or grimacing to tell me something I could’ve read in a leaflet is deathly. Christianity is far too old for agitprop, but often morals are thumped home, goodness is mistaken for sickly reverence and evil is nothing but evil. Hollywood’s biblical epics of the 1950s are only bearable because of the incongruity of well-known modern American stars trying to pass themselves off as ancient Judeans.
Demented religious fiction is more fun. ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ by John Bunyan is the obvious product of a traumatized solider worried that his sacrifice may not be worth it. The book is built on the fault lines between Pagan, Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Non-conformist and the state. It’s a fabulous, violent quest narrative and ‘Christian’ could be Gilgamesh, Buddha or James Dean trying to escape any corrupt city to find peace. ‘The Water Babies’ by the Rev. Charles Kingsley is the most barking (and charmingly bigoted) thing I’ve ever read. It’s a moral lesson in the form of a fairytale about a young boy who falls into a river and becomes a baby who has to learn to be good in order to be reincarnated as the person he was before. It’s part-Darwin, part-Anglican, part-social reform, part-self-help, all-a mess. ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is a great movie because Mel Gibson needs extensive therapy.
Alternative or anti-relgious religious fiction is nearly ok. A gay Jesus at least gets some form of human personality, and isn’t just a lamb-loving parable-pants with piercing blue-eyes (unless directed by Elia Kazan), on the other hand it’s a diabolical liberty to co-opt a world-religion on behalf of social mores, plus it’s just about as unoriginal as it’s humanly possible to get without having to flee from bungling criminals while unwittingly taking possession of a McGuffin. I love the ‘Life of Brian’ possibly because Monty Python knew what they wanted to say and said it without malice. I can’t stand ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ because Tim Rice wasn’t saying anything and said it anyway – in execrable rhyming couplets. ‘Godspell’ is unspeakable. And anything inspired by The Freemasons, Buddhism or the bloodline of Christ should be burned with fire; the only exception being Zen-odyssey ‘O Lucky Man’, directed by Lindsey Anderson. Yes, it’s dreadful. Yes, it’s some bloody awful Patrician Royal Court Monstrosity that thinks it’s down with the proles. But any film made by a furious public schoolboy containing a man-pig hybrid and a pop band is worth cherishing.
I adore religious poetry. It’s easier to be truthful in a lyric. Believers can love God and hope for salvation no matter how deep in sin they happen to be. I love miracle plays because miracles are miraculous and don’t leave you much time to wonder if the lead character has ever farted. I don’t like re-enactments of the crucifixion because I know the ending. I love the Bible because it really is the greatest book ever written. You’d be hard-pressed to lament more than Job, love more than Solomon or empathise more than Jesus. I love the lives of the Saints because Saints are inspirational wither the stories are literal or fable. I’ve enjoyed the Koran, Rumi, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao te Ching, Madam Blavatsky, the Institutes of John Calvin, everything from Fairy Magic to St. Augustine. I’m too dim for science and I’d rather be dead than die so the higher power has my heart. Only – mostly – I prefer the writer to talk to me directly – and not speak to me through puppets.