I write in a paranormal, urban fantasy, science fiction sort of genre. Lately I’ve found myself using not just creatures from mythology, but the gods themselves as characters. Odin, Freyja and Idunna make cameos in the latest book I turned in to my editor. (Whether or not they stay in the final draft is up to her. I shall see soon, and you can see in May when that one comes out!) Between my own fictionalized religious writing and the violence in the Middle East over The Innocence of Muslims, I’ve been thinking about art and the gods and the freedoms we allow–and don’t allow–artists to depict the divine. I’m not going to get into the debacle over TIoM here, as I’ve never seen it and don’t know enough about Islam to comment intelligently (other than I think violence is always the wrong response to art–even bad art), but I did want to talk about my personal relationship between art and faith.
When I was younger I believed it blasphemous to fictionalize a holy being. I don’t think that belief is something I was ever directly taught, but more of a feeling I had. I’ve never felt that way about paintings or clay depictions of holy figures, although I know some religions, such as Islam, find any physical depiction a form of blasphemy as well. I’m not saying there is no such thing as an offensive depiction of a holy figure in art, but I, personally, have never found anything wrong with the general idea of creating static depictions of divinities. But there was something about creating an active character, of giving the divine figure a voice and a personality, that seemed inherently wrong.
Looking back on my earlier attitude, I think it stemmed from being taught that Jehovah, the Abrahamic deity, is perfect. I knew many people that not only believed in Jehovah’s perfection, but considered it blasphemy (or at least heresy) to claim anything less. But to make a compelling character, we need to create someone with a personality–someone with flaws who makes tough choices. A character who always knows and does exactly the right thing isn’t interesting. Therefore, creating powerful fiction that included Jehovah as a character (and not just a referenced entity) would, in many people’s minds, be inherently profane.
Unlike Jehovah, Pagan gods regularly appear in fiction, and I think there are several reasons for this. In Paganism, concepts such as heresy and blasphemy are rarely discussed and we don’t think of our gods as perfect beings. I’m not saying it’s impossible to offensively represent a Pagan god, but we don’t expect depictions of our deities to show omniscience, omnipotence, or omni-goodness. Our gods can be quirky, flawed, multi-dimensional characters without Pagans taking offense–because that’s the way we see them. I also think fictionalizing Pagan gods is more culturally acceptable because we’re taught as children that the mythologies they come from already are a type of fiction (even though that’s not the accurate definition of the word). Unlike with Abrahamic mythology, we are culturally raised with the idea of P/pagan divinity as both fictional and imperfect, therefore making characters out of them doesn’t carry the same stigma.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a more laid back attitude about religion. Not that I’m less dedicated or interested, but I’m more able to laugh at the weirdnesses of it, more able to question my preconceived ideas. While the awe has remained, the fear of inadvertently offending a higher power is gone. Thinking as a reader, I’ve also realized that writers who depict the divine are rarely attempting to compose an accurate and complete representation. Their work is an exploration into some aspect of faith and not (or rarely) an attempt to diminish something holy. But as a writer that lingering unease and fear of social repercussion has remained, more strongly when I’m dealing with monotheistic views of the divine than when I’m dealing with my own.
A few years back I had an idea for a book that required Jesus as a character. After contemplating it for awhile, I finally set down to start the story (I still haven’t finished; maybe one day when I’m mentally up for an epic). I remember composing Jesus’s first scene with a sense of excitement and maybe a touch of fear that lightning might strike me down. I was already Pagan at this point, but I still had (and have) a lot of respect for Jesus as a historical figure, and I know how sacred he is to so many people. This created an extra burden in the writing because I felt the need to honor that. On the other hand, I had a story to tell, and I couldn’t cater to everyone’s sensibilities and still tell a story with any resonance. What I came up with for his introduction, after many revisions, is told from the POV of the main character, a woman who’s just died and is awaiting judgment. She doesn’t know who he is.
Though the man felt familiar, she didn’t remember why. Neither ugly nor handsome, he had an outdoorsy, no-fuss appearance with olive skin and short, brown curls. His dark eyes studied her with the intensity of a friend both old enough and good enough to recognize the minute changes of incremental age. After a moment of weighty silence he sat across from her. “I thought you’d like a few minutes to process. How are you?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “I saw the light and went toward it.” Untrue. There was no light. But he smiled at her little joke. At least her first visitor had a sense of humor.
—The Judas Club
I was surprised at how much fun I had composing this. How freeing it was and how much I had to deeply think about Jesus as depicted in the Bible and as a holy figure. It was a learning experience, and if anything gave me more respect for him. After that baptism by ink, I have started to include more divine characters in my work (though I admit my fear of offending has still prevented me from attempting a fictionalized Jehovah).
I’ve found I take special delight in describing the physical appearance of holy figures. First off I get to do research into the time and place they’re from (and I’m a big dork who loves research). Jesus, as a historical figure, should look like a Jew from the Middle East circa 33 A.D. So ethnically what does that look like? Next there’s the decision of how to dress them. If the work is set in the historical time period the deity is most associated with, that’s easy. But if the work is modern day, does the holy figure still go around in tunics and abayas(or whatever) or do they move with the times?*
Choices like clothing get into personality, and there’s where my original fear of stepping into heretical water comes in the strongest. As I mentioned before, to create an interesting character we must depict a well-rounded divinity, one who thinks and makes choices without the clarity of perfection. Odin, in my latest work, was fun to describe because even in the mythological texts he’s unabashedly imperfect, so that burden I’d felt writing Jesus, a figure many believe lived a “perfect” life, wasn’t there anymore.
He was grizzled and disheveled, with a steely beard and one eye covered in a patch. His combat uniform was clean but worn. His one blue eye surveyed the crowd with the world-weariness of one who had seen too much. And yet his skin was young and smooth as a child’s. A spear stood against his chair and a violin rested on a table beside him, as if he’d just set it down.
— How Beauty Loved the Beast
There’s a strange energy I’ve found in fictionalizing the divine. As I wrote that scene with Odin, I knew what I needed to accomplish in it from a plot perspective, but not how the characters would play out. Odin flowed from my fingers as this curmudgeony old ass who didn’t seem to care about anything… and by the end of the scene had everyone doing exactly what he wanted and thinking it was their idea. This somewhat matches the impressions I already had of him from the Eddas and other readings I’ve done. Then Idunna came out completely different from my expectation. I’d always pictured her as sweet and maybe a little home-maker-y. For reasons I can’t fathom, I typed this for her entrance:
The doors boomed open and a chill wind blew through the hall. A tall woman with red-streaked locks and vine tattoos covering her bare arms glanced around, gave a slight shudder and marched forward. “You seek me?”
— How Beauty Loved the Beast
I have no idea where that came from, but I decided to keep it. Divine inspiration maybe? Too much coffee? Do the gods even pay attention when we call them on paper?
Overall, I feel like like I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot as a person of faith from attempting to fictionalize the divine. What do you think Realm? Does fictionalizing something holy diminish it in some way? What are the rules (if any) that artists should have to follow when depicting the divine?
* Put Jesus in a pair of jeans and all of sudden I’m sure you’ve got somebody up in arms. But personally, I can’t see him running around the modern world in 2000 year old getup. I have a pretty high opinion of his ability to notice and react to what people are doing around him.
+ Featured Image: Still from a Czech production of Jesus Christ Superstar by Jef a Tino Kratochvilové. JC Superstar was my first introduction to a fictionalized Christ. While it’s based on the Biblical last few days of Jesus’ life, it’s a powerful and sometimes controversial depiction of his struggles and fears in the three days that led him from a celebratory entrance into Jerusalem to execution on the cross.