Literature as Religion

Literature as Religion
Panorama, 08/02/09
By Cirilo F. Bautista

In Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestselling novel, The Angel's Game(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves, 2009), the mysterious publisher Andreas Corelli proposes a commission to the protagonist, David Martin, "I want you to create a religion for me," he tells Martin. It seems a ludicrous mandate when seen from the labyrinth perspective of theology, but when Corelli explains the foundation of his thinking, Martin senses some glowing light.

"Religion is really a moral code that is expressed through legends, myths or any type of literary device in order to establish a system of beliefs, values and rules with which to regulate a culture or a society," Corelli says. "Everything is a tale, Martin. What we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated." Martin, a sickly, impoverished writer, succumbs to Corelli's offer of small fortune to work for a year "to create a story so powerful that it transcends fiction and becomes a revealed truth." Shorn of it's Gothic complicated subplots, how Martin pursues this commission is the central concern of "The Angel's Game," a most wonderful and exciting Gothic tale set in the early 1900s in Barcelona.

The idea of literature as religion had earlier been mentioned by Andrew M. Greeley in his autobiography, Furthermore! - Memories of a Parish Priest(New York: Forge, 1999). Like Corelli, he advances the theory of religion as embedded in literary narratives. Whether in story or poetry, religion, in this case Roman Catholicism, is a body of symbols which aims to explain the meaning of life and death. Since the Greek word "symbolon" was translated into Latin as "sacrament," meaning a revelation of God," religion was first of all a narrative symbol. "Our religion was story and nothing else. We learned about religion from our parents through stories (Especially Christmas and Easter) before we ever learn about it in school," Greeley writes.

These stories form what he calls "popular tradition" - the first component of religious tradition - made up of stories, metaphors, rituals, common devotion, and evidences of superstition and magic. They co-exist with "high tradition" - the second component - which is "organized systematically and logically and presented in prose propositions which are often supported by philosophical arguments. The proposition tell the devout member of the tradition what one must believe, how one must behave, what rituals one must follow, which leaders one must obey. It is assembled from the writings of the ancients, the teachings of the wise, and the decisions of the leaders. It is supported by a claim to sacred authority. While the propositions, may sometimes change and will almost always be added to, the assumption is that they are always the same truth in slightly different wording."

Did Zafon borrow Greely's idea, or was he really simply expressing a fascinating theory that is gaining wide adherence? It does not matter; what is important is that Zafon gives us a novel that is the literary manifestation of that idea.

For Corelli, religion is all about form - the other gestures, words, actions, and elements that are understandable and graspable in the content of the truths of narrative. "As in literature or in any other act of communication, what confers effectiveness on it is the form and not the content," he says. This is Greeley first component, the popular aspect which, in the end, determines the religion's survival. If there are no devotees there is no worship and the gods would be irrelevant. The second component supports with additional or emendatory narratives the first, though its real purpose is to control the society of worshippers. A system of organized government develops therefrom, always vigilant, always insuring that the form is maintained and attractive. The story of Jesus Christ, the story of Buddha, the story of the various saints and martyrs, for instance, have to be told again and again with increasing avidity and faithfulness according to accepted methods previously arranged. Both components are important, though. Without high tradition, folk practices would be directionless and might lead to idolatry. Without popular tradition, high tradition, "becomes abstract and has little appeal to the total human personality. It becomes an arena in which scholars and leaders play their own self-important games with little regard for the problems and possibilities of ordinary people," Greeley says.

It is not difficult to see how ordinary people's metaphors may affect the religious environment, though often they escape the attention of scholars and high leaders. Acts and experiences whose meanings reside outside official propositions but have crucial importance to the common people help build the popular tradition, strengthening their faith in God's graces.


Blogger joni said...

This articulates ideas I could not yet find the words for. I have long been thinking that a major reason of my agnosticism is that Literature has already provided me what I would have needed from a religion.

5:44 PM  

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