Monday, April 05, 2010

Religious Writing

I've been wanting to write a post in response to Ewan Maloney's Guardian Book Blog from Wednesday, but it's taken me a few days to process my thoughts. There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week about morality, as well, and I think they are pertinent to the discussion. A couple in Dubai have been jailed for a non-romantic kiss in a restuarant; whilst the shadow home secretary has expressed agreement with owners of a B&B who refused entry to a gay couple because of their religious beliefs. Between these two stories - both of which seem to be about intolerance rather than either religion or regulation - we've had the murder of the racist Terre'Blance, and the ongoing crises involving the Catholic church's institutional denial of abusive priests.

I mention these four news stories as they all in various degrees of seriousness touch upon "moral" issues - and religion and morality cannot, I think, be separated - at least not when you are talking about art, and, in particular, literature. Fiction has to be "about" something - it is rarely an avant garde abstract text - and good fiction, more so. Yes, fiction can just be about telling a story, but some of the oldest, best and simplest stories (whether you are thinking of Proverbs or fables) are moral ones. In J.M. Coetzee's masterful "Disgrace" there is a dissection of different moralities. Lurie's "disgrace" is the simple one of having sex with one of his students. It is an interesting choice - for it is morally ambiguous to the extent that the reaction to it will be determined depending on where and when it happens. Thus, in Dubai a man and a woman cannot have a friendly kiss in a bar; whilst in the Cotswolds or wherever a same-sex couple expect to be able to share a bed in a guest house. I would have added the word "rightly" to the latter, and the word "wrongly" to the former, but this would be my own moral viewpoint. In saying it is correct that any couple should be able to stay in a hotel or a guest house anywhere in the UK, I'm in accordance with a law - albeit one that is quite recent; and I'm  aware that the age of gay consent was only reduced from 21, sixteen years ago. If it is the law that we all agree to abide by as our arbiter, then Dubai's restrictive laws are perhaps equally as valid.

Morality, in other words, is not "set", yet that is exactly what religion attempts to do; and, though I am no supporter of organised religion, I would ask, if religion is not about morality then what else is it for? The paedophile Catholic priest has been an (unfortunately) comic staple for as long as I can remember. Though many of the cases of abuse go back along way, and are more common in places - such as Ireland - where the church has had a political as well as a religious powerbase, I think every English child of my age would have been wary of inappropriate male behaviour from quite a young age, even if we hadn't yet labelled it as "paedophilia."

In "Disgrace" Coetzee chose a sin that was relatively slight - in itself deliberate, I think - to reflect the morality of the time that it is set in. In his earlier "Life and Times of Michael K" the sins are greater, the lead character has far less a distance to fall. Terre'Blanche, it seems, was killed not as any sort of race killing, but in a dispute over wages. When Tom Wolfe wanted to depict the fall of a man in "Bonfire of the Vanities" he chose as his master of the universe, a bond trader; and, his fall, in the America of the times, was the fault line of race.

Yet, these examples of morality in literature aren't necessarily the same as religious writing. I remember reading David Lodge's awkward "How far can you go?" which has its characters navigating the opposing moralities of being young in the sixties with the diktats of the Catholic church. It felt, reading it in the mid 80s, like an irrelevant philosophical discussion - but then, I wasn't brought up a Catholic. Certainly, in the quarter century of my adult life, many of the issues that seem to have only been slowly and painfully addressed by the Christian churches (not just the Catholic one) were always an irrelevance. I came from a moral background, but not from a proscriptive one. Contraception, abortion, sex before marriage and homosexuality were probably never mentioned at home or school, yet I've never been brought up to think any of them were bad. I caught an episode of the excellent TV dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's "Oranges are not the only fruit" and though I could believe in its world; it's morality - the evangical Christianity that the protagonist grows up with - seems now, as probably then, as a weird cult. It is interesting to think of what we mean by a "religious writer", since, surely, Winterson should be classed as one - she was brought up in a devout faith, but because of her sexuality, independence and intelligence (not just the first of these), had to "navigate" between the realities of being a fully alive human being, and the faith which partially formed her.

It is this "navigation" that Maloney identifies in his Guardian piece as the problematic relationship between religion and writing. He notices early in the piece that the restrictions of religion are often in conflict with the independent mind of the best writers. I would say this has always been the case; yet the level of accomodation between writer and religion is a complex one. For T.S. Eliot, the Anglican church surely offered the stabilities that his personality and moral sensibilities demanded; for George Eliot, everything that was important to her in her life, was, at the time, anathemic to the organised church. Reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" I was struck most of all by the febrile nature of the times - and the birth of English Protestantism. The yoke of Rome was deliberately that, and an independent nation required it's removal. Yet, it is surely the translation of the Bible into English, firstly via Tyndale's Bible, then the remarkable literature of the authorised version, that joins English literature at the hip with it's recognised church. Yet, many of our best writers haven't even been English, (but Scottish, Irish, or futher afield). According to Wikipedia, the King James Version gradually became the de facto Bible in English for non-Protestants as well.

As someone born in the late sixties, I'm probably of the last generation that, religious or not, was brought up aware of the King James version. It remains, along with the works of Shakespeare, one of the two key works of English Literature, and if a writer has a dialogue with the language of any sort, then he or she is almost certainly also having a dialogue with the authorised version, and therefore, with morality and the Christian faith. Where is the religious writer today then? The more fervent forms of Christianity seem to require, as its influence wains, a closer - and perhaps more simplistic - relationship with the faith. A George Eliot or a James Joyce or a Graham Greene had to enter a dialogue with the Bible, the church and with contemporary morality, that were ever-changing and ambiguous. Sometimes the result was acceptance, sometimes rejection. Perhaps its why in Daniel Deronda, Eliot has a dialogue with the older Abrahamic faith of Judaism.

I can imagine a writer brought up in America's Bible belt reacting strongly to a faith upbringing as Eliot or Winterson did in their different times; yet that reaction requires an education that offers the chance of dialogue, and the understanding that there is another world out there. Perhaps, with TV, films and the internet, it is impossible to live in a moral straitjacket; but then again wasn't this always the case? Preaching against temptation, was an acknowledgement of that temptation, and often, a curiousity about what it was. When Martin Amis recently wrote that his sister might have been saved by Islam, it seemed an absurdity to me, as organised religion seems as cultural as moral.

Poets have perhaps found more solace in the church than novelists - as poetry, at its best, is the more ambiguous and nuanced art. It is also, not necessarily about the quotidian, whereas the novel, not always, but mostly, exists in a recognisably realistic rather than a metaphysical, landscape. The great achievements of religious art are many; and poetry can probably claim more than prose - there being close rhetorical links between the liturgical and the poetical, yet this is when religion has a cultural impact, and, more importantly, is a progressive force. It is where religion finds itself incompatible with progress where it is difficult to see what a religious writer might actually look like. A Christian rock band or whatever seems incompatible with the best art - yet at the same time, the biggest band in the world for many years, U2, were avowedly Christian. There audiences, plainly, weren't - and there's plenty of questioning and ambiguity in their songwriting.

I'll finish by saying that in the absence of religion, as well, the art may falter - if only because the need for some morality seems all too necessary in the best writing. The disinterested drug casualties of Brett Easton Ellis's work seem the inventions of a moral writer. Indeed, contemporary capitalism offers a secular "belief system" that has as many conflicts with morality as Christianity had for the slave owner. An English-born Islamic writer may well, at this minute, be questioning their faith as George Eliot questioned hers, as it conflicted with their life. The controversy over Monica Ali's "Brick Lane", for instance, shows the difficulties of any book that treads on cultural (and therefore religious) sensibilities. There is such thing as a religious writer, but whether the religion and the writing are always compatible is another matter. Yet, without the moral question, however ambiguous it may be asked or answered, literature loses one of it's strongest calls on our attention.


jpbenney said...

A very interesting point of view. There would be those who would deny that, as you say, poets are more at home in religion that novelists. Elizabeth Kantor in The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature and Ellis Hanson in Decadence and Catholicism do not support this view.

It is true, though, that it was not until AC/DC and the Sex Pistols (though traces can be found in the Rolling Stones) that overt anti-Christinaity became a staple of cutting-edge rock music. In the 1960s, there were even attempts by a band called the Electric Prunes to put the Catholic Mass in a rock setting.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I still think there's a conflict between a writer, and having a faith, but certainly a number of poets have defined themselves as Christian even in the 20th century - TS Eliot, obviously, but RS Thomas, Gerald Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin come to mind as poets whose writing has engaged with both faith and the church, in different ways. It strikes me that poets are more likely to be tackling religious subjects, prose writers secular ones. I'm not sure there has been that much overt anti-Christianity in rock, I think it can be overdone. "I am an antichrist" is just Lydon being funny (and rhyming with anarchist) about how he is perceived, rather than some kind of religious statement. I kind of think songwriters who choose to use satanic imagery are often little more than "Hammer Horror" (think Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath. Goths, are fascinated by religious imagery and iconography, and I'd imagine are far more likely to turn religious as a result, than, say, fans of New Kids on the Block or Lady Gaga. (Madonna is a classic catholic girl, from the name onwards, for instance.)