Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.
One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.
Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.
Posted in Books, Higher Education, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 100 Must-Read Novels about Religion, Annie Proulx, BookRiot, fiction, Goodreads, Literature, Neil Gaiman, Teresa Preston, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Shipping News
Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.
What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.
Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?
Posted in American Religion, Books, Consciousness, Deities, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged American Gods, BookRiot, C. S. Lewis, Christopher Moore, Lamb, materialism, Neil Gaiman, Nikki Vanry, science and religion
One of the more embarrassing questions I get asked is “What do you do?” This has been true throughout my career (if what I do can be called that). I should clarify—I don’t mind saying “I’m a professor,” or “I’m an editor”—it’s the follow-up question that’s difficult. “What do you teach/edit?” Mentioning the Bible is a conversation-stopper. In the silence that inevitably follows you can almost hear the electronic buzzing in the interlocutor’s brain as s/he tries to come up with something nice to say while backing away. In actual fact my degrees have been more in the history of religions rather than Bible per se, but those who’ve done the hiring haven’t tended to see it that way. This is not a nostalgic post, asking to go back to yesteryear (that’s happening politically without my help), but it is a reflection of what James Wallace Harris says on BookRiot—the Bible is a good book to read.
It’s easy to get swept away in the criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity. Those who profess it, historically, have a lot to answer for. What we’ve allowed religion to do to others is inexcusable. What we sometimes miss is that the motivation is one in which all people participate—learning the truth. This is more difficult than it might seem. If someone had discovered “the truth” we’d all know by now. The fact is we’re deeply divided about what that truth is and that alone proves no one has found it. We’ll recognize it when we see it. We just haven’t seen it yet. What sometimes gets forgotten along the way is that the Bible was, and is, a great milestone of humanity’s search. As I keep having to remind myself, there’s some really good stuff in there.
Harris isn’t alone in suggesting that atheists should study the Bible. Some very prominent non-believers have declared the same thing from time to time. The Good Book is densely interwoven with western culture—even secular western culture. I’m currently at work on a book that explores one thread of that complex fabric, and it’s amazing to me how much we miss when we ignore holy writ. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. That’s not biblical, but it does hint at the truth, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I want to be able to answer that most basic of questions without having to make excuses for what otherwise looks like a series of poor life choices.
Posted in Bible, Books, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Bible, BookRiot, James Wallace Harris, literacy, Western Canon
I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.
I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.
One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.
One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.
Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.
I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.
Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Literature, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Ugarit
Tagged Beowulf, BookRiot, E. H. Kern, English, Hebrew, King James Bible, Old English, The Exeter Book, Ugaritic