Guest Post by Ed Davis, Author of The Psalms of Israel Jones
Publisher Brad Pauquette describes Aaron Daniel Behr’s new memoir The Husband as a “testimony to the power of sin, and a testimony to the redemptive love of an almighty God.” Christopher Stollar’s blurb praises Behr as “one of those rare Christian authors who dares to explore the depths of depression while still clinging to hope in the end.” While for some, charged words like “sin,” “God” and “Christian” might be automatic turn-offs, I’m intrigued, for I, too, write about Christians, and I’m eager to see how Behr goes about it.
Though I’m a novelist rather than a memoirist, I’ve been pondering the difference between writing religious as opposed to spiritual fiction. It seems to me a matter of emphasis, that the former stresses a message reflecting a particular religion’s dogma, a system of beliefs that explain not only the meaning of life but how to act morally in a hostile universe. Likewise, spiritual fiction will, inevitably dramatize a theme, which is a kind of message, but it focuses much more on the art than on the message. While religious writers may have made up their minds about a lot, if not most, of the questions of belief they raise, the spiritual writer freely explores such beliefs and dogmas, highlighting flaws as well as strengths in a fair and balanced way to arrive at as much truth and insight as possible.
But even as these thoughts roll off my pen, I know it’s much messier than that in actual practice. For instance, I’m attracted to the Amish fiction I see on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, which could no doubt teach me a lot about this interesting religion—and which I might enjoy. But I always wonder if the authors will also include a critical edge, for I need religious fiction to go beyond explanation to explore and critique. Dramatizing characters and events that explicitly demonstrate faith is fine, but I want balance and fairness; above all, I want conflict. Within a Christian context, I need serious skepticism and doubt if not downright atheism and agnosticism; in a Buddhist scenario, Western materialism and/or Christianity might oppose emptiness and not-self and the relief of suffering that meditation allegedly brings. Let’s see fair fights as various Jacobs wrestle their angels.
I try to include such a dialectic in my own work. In my last published novel The Psalms of Israel Jones (West Virginia University Press, 2014), Israel, an aging rock star, is a devout follower of the Old Testament who, while he believes himself damned, still hopes for his son Thom’s redemption. Thom himself is a relapsed fundamentalist pastor whose dogma and religious practices like prayer have lost their effectiveness, making him question whether they ever had any, moving him away from entrenched dogma toward “a faith that works” (to quote AA literature). And in my current novel-in-progress, my fictionalized version of Thomas Merton questions God’s motive in allowing him, a 51-year-old monk, to experience an intense romantic love affair with a 25-year-old nurse. Then, a year later, he travels to Asia, to the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, where his recently tested monastic vows cross swords with lamas and rimpoches whose beliefs oppose Jesus’ status as a deity and resurrection with non-monotheism and reincarnation.
Opposition, conflict, doubt, interpenetration, inclusivity (non-duality), synthesis . . . but no easy resolution, no platitudes, no “easier, softer” paths to truth. And no preaching—I mean, none presented as the truth, which the author (not character) wants us to accept and believe. Instead, let there be compelling spiritual argument: ideas and concepts and, even better, experiences: the more contradictory and paradoxical, the better, since reality is like that. The stakes are the insights and truths to be gained for both characters and readers (importantly, they probably will not be the same) as well as for the authors. Complete freedom must reign in fiction’s open market of ideas, so that readers may choose for themselves. Surely no God worth believing in would have it any other way.
About the Author