Writing: Finding your own story

Yesterday, I read this post from Brain Pickings titled, “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing.” It discusses what literary critic Samuel Delany has to say about the craft in his book, About Writing: Seven Essays, Five Letters and Four Interviews. It really resonated with me, this part in particular:

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the readers mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops at clarity and logic, doesn’t.”

I have a story in my brain that I started writing many years ago. I had a lot of great starts, then I’d hit a creative wall. Looking back, I think that I had no idea what I wanted to say or what issues I wanted to explore. A story about an interracial couple. Okay, what about them? Even ten years ago, I intuitively knew it needed to be about much more than their family/friends/co-workers don’t like the relationship. Outrageous plot-twists and secret-keeping sounded good at first, but once it got onto paper, it didn’t feel right for this story.

Another issue I struggled with was character development. Every writer does, but the main reason for my struggles were this: as a Christian at the time, I thought I had to weave a gospel message into the story. As a result, my characters were flat and boring. They also lacked clear, realistic motivations. I was attempting to wrench in a religious message at the expense of creating relatable, complex characters. And the final message of salvation, even then, felt incomplete and empty. What did I really want to communicate to my reader? Did I want to lecture them and manipulate their feelings or just present an experience and let them create their own meaning? Did I want to tell my own story, or a story I think I should be telling? Ultimately, self-censorship will never produce a good story.

Now, after maturing a bit, having different life experiences and leaving religion behind, I feel like I’ve grown as a person and can write from a more authentic place. Authentic for me, to be clear. This will be different for everyone. And shrugging off the shackles of religion is by no means the only way to grow as a person. But religion can indeed be a hinderance to personal growth (particularly the fundamentalist kind).

Monologue or Dialogue?

Discussions are two-way, usually. Debates are between two people that state their point of view and there is little attempt to understand the other side. The goal is to best them, verbally. Dialogues, on the other hand, are different. There is still the exchange of viewpoints, that there may be intense disagreement on, but there is more emotional intelligence involved.

There was an ongoing discussion between a Christian family member and I about my changed religious views. My goal was not to convince them to change their minds, but I thought it might be helpful for them to hear about my experience in order to better understand why I left Christianity. Hearing or reading about the experience of atheists you do not know is one thing. But hearing about that experience from someone close to you, is another.

However, the discussion isn’t going anywhere.

We both accept that the other person isn’t going agree with some of the statements we make. That’s good. But I can’t seem to break through the assumptions on their part that I am in “rebellion against God”. They also seem to be mostly interested in a monologue-type conversation (which isn’t a conversation at all): they say what they want, with little to no response from me. Unless my response is “You’re totally right” and I re-dedicate my life to Christ. There is also little understanding that their point of view about God and Christianity, was exactly my own point of view when I was a Christian. Hence, I am quite intimate from where they are coming from, but they seem to think I do not understand at all (even after I expressed that I did).

So on that note, I will more than likely drop the conversation. To be fair, I think they want to have a discussion…or think they should want to have one (you know, defending the faith and all), but it’s too much work. Responding to theological questions, many of which don’t have a clear answer, is time consuming. Frustration on their part sets in, there is lots of talk about their faith being strong and they wonder what the point of the discussion is. Perhaps I have a need or an agenda and not quite sure about this atheism thing, hmm?

I think discussions are always worthy. But not when empathy and compassion for people is not present. And when talking with some religious people, that is how it goes. There is more concern for the feelings of a invisible entity you cannot see, hear or feel, than for the person standing right in front of you.

Thoughts on ritual and mythology

I’ve been having a  discussion with a Christian family member about my atheism and trying to give them a clearer picture of what led me away from Christianity in particular, and then away from religion in general.

A lot of topics came up from this discussion and I plan to blog about a few of them that I have extended thoughts on. The first is the role of ritual in religion.

Relationship vs. religion

One common explanation from Christians about why their faith stands out is that Christianity is not about religion. It’s about a “relationship” with Christ. I used to think that made sense. But now, looking back, I think it’s a way to make your brand of Christianity stand out from other religions or denominations. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that something is “off” with the rituals, rules and rigidness of traditional Christianity. This blog post from 3-D Christianity talks a little about that. In it, the writer points out that this viewpoint creates a false dichotomy that is made to point a judgmental finger at other denominations (particularly Catholics).

But what is most interesting, is an essay the 3-D Christianity blogger cites that talks about what that writer, John Suk, believes are the secular roots of the “relationship with Christ” viewpoint (read that essay here). He is very understanding on why people talk this way, but asserts that there is no Biblical basis for the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ and that the phrasing actually causes confusion with both believers (who may feel they are not having as authentic an experience as their peers and suffer anguish over it) and non-believers (who won’t find any difference between this “relationship” with Jesus and spirit channeling) alike. Ironically, he blames “the pervasive influence of the language of secularity” on the metaphors comparing Jesus/God to a friend, parent or lover.

However, he says what causes the creation of these metaphors are the reality of feeling the absence of God and realizing, if just briefly, that the experience is not at all like when you spend time with a person you can see, touch, hear and feel. He suggests not ignoring that reality, but confronting it by seeing oneself as part of a larger whole and not focusing on the “personal” aspect. I am paraphrasing here, but be sure to read his essay to get the full picture of his points.

Myths and ritual

I think it’s a true observation that Catholicism is very heavy on ritual and rules, but that is hardly something that is  indicative of Catholics. All religions have had and still have certain ways in which they choose to worship and express themselves, largely based on tradition. However, it is a tradition that is very, very old, and often from a culture that is no longer with us or that has changed drastically. So is ritual and myth empty? I think the answer is both yes and no. Rituals, stories, myths and traditions start to feel inauthentic after a while when (after the emotional high has ceased) those things are not relevant to your life or culture. So trying to adhere to rules and norms created by people that lived many thousands of years ago is, to say the least, awkward.

James Campbell talks a lot about the role of myths, rituals and traditions. In this interview, he says “mythology is a validation of experience.” He offers the Jesus story as an example: he was crucified, buried for three days, rose from the dead and then rose back to heaven. Campbell points out:

“[We] know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.”

Of this, he says that image does not fit the contemporary mind, because of what we now know about the universe, saying:

You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

Campbell suggests “mythologizing” what we know today scientifically, so we can “validate our experience”. Part of the problem, as he saw it, are that humans need new myths. They need to be able to relate to a tradition or story. The superheroes of comic books and cult phenomenons like Star Trek might seem trite, but they are no different than the stories about Zeus or Poseidon. What is different, is that we can relate much better to the adventures of Captain Kirk or the X-Men, than we can to some ancient Greek (or Hebrew) god. These contemporary stories reflect our knowledge of the universe and what we can imagine being possible with space travel and natural explanations for extraordinary abilities (e.g., a genetic mutation).

So, I think stories, myths and rituals are good for us. The challenge, is taking what is useful and educational, without a belief in the stories being literally true, especially where there is every indication that it is not. Also, we need to resist the urge to go overboard in systemizing beliefs.

 

Introducing the subject of religion to kids

I grew up going to a mostly African-American Baptist church, was baptized at a young age and all I knew was that Sunday was for Sunday School and then church service. It of course never occurred to me that by the time I became a parent, our Sunday mornings would be a whole lot different.

My journey towards atheism started when my oldest son was a baby, after round of Bible studying, during long stretches of sitting while breastfeeding. At that point, we were living in a new state, were still trying to find the “right” church and I felt at some point, I need to be sending my kid to Sunday School. Or something. Right? Well, as most atheists can attest to, reading the Bible, with no filters (aka, Bible study books), real objectivity and an open mind, is the straightest path to atheism. By the time I accepted that I was an atheist and embraced secular humanism, I had kid #2. Fortunately, my DH and I were on the same page.

Now with a 5 year old and a 2 year old, I’ve recently begun thinking about how we will introduce the subject of religion to them. They have seen people pray over food and has heard my mother say, “Oh, Lawd!” at one of their funny antics. That pretty much sums up their religious exposure. But they will get older. They might hear one or both of their grandmas talk about God or Jesus. They could hear about the concept of hell. I don’t want them confused or frightened when these topics come up.

So, I’ve decided to get a Children’s Bible. Kids love stories and mine are no different, so why not just read them Bible stories? Except I am not burdened with the task of convincing them that any of the stories are true. We can freely critique them; laughing at the absurdities, rightly judging good or bad behavior of the characters (including God), or acknowledging a moral action. And if they don’t like the stories, we can stop reading.

I’ll be very interested in hearing my children’s honest impressions of these stories. In your secular family, if you read some Bible stories to your children, what did they think of them?