Religious Faith in Scriptural Fiction

When propaganda spoils the magic of religious fiction

Religion is what you turn to when philosophy and science have run out of things to say or when you’re repulsed by the message conveyed by those institutions of reason. Religion begins properly, then, not with theological rationalizations or with a rigorous survey of intellectual matters, but with faith as part of a childlike way of experiencing the world.

As I explain elsewhere, that kind of faith was once closer to what we call “faithfulness,” which amounted to two-way trust between the religious people and some powerful spirits or gods. In its prehistoric heyday, in the age of hunter-gatherers and shamans, that presumed two-way trust or bond was just the reliability of certain causal relationships between animists (proto-religionists) and the pseudo-managed natural processes they personified.

When religion became organized, however, to provide propaganda for theocracy and to rationalize the grotesque social inequality that characterized the first imperial civilizations, trust in the gods and ancestral spirits themselves wasn’t sufficient. Religion came to require faith in the myths, dogmas, and creeds, too, since as Yuval Harari points out in Sapiens, those canonical stories facilitated large-scale cooperation by giving the population a shared identity or brand.

This is the meaning of “religious faith” that’s become central to the surviving Western religions. By contrast, Eastern religions feature therapies that are meant to maintain mental and physical health and to prevent society from falling out of alignment with larger forces. As such, the ancient religions of India and China are developments of protoreligious (and protoscientific) pragmatism. That is, there’s more continuity between prehistoric animism and the Eastern religions than there is between the former and Western monotheisms.

The Magic of Fiction

In any case, we should reflect on the essence of this Western reverence for scripture. For all the self-serving glorifications of faith and the pontifications about faith’s harmony with reason, the nature of Western faith is surprisingly simple and becomes familiar as soon as you appreciate the extent to which Western scripture is poetic, which makes the Bible and the Koran inherently fictional. We’re prevented, however, from enjoying scripture as fiction, because these religious texts are typically presented, on the contrary, as religious propaganda.

There are two kinds of relationship you can have with fiction, depending on how successful the author is in telling her story. You can lose yourself in the narrative and feel what the characters feel, forgetting even that you’re reading a made-up story.

Aristotle explained this reaction to tragedies in terms of “catharsis”: we identify with the protagonist in the same way we come to extend our personal boundaries to encompass our family members or our favourite tools or clothing, so that when the latter are damaged, we take the loss personally as though our bodies had been injured. When the protagonist suffers a tragic fate, we’re able to express how we’d have felt under similar circumstances. In short, the story becomes second nature to the reader, like driving a car.

The adult’s engagement with fiction pales, however, compared to the child’s earliest such experiences. Children are mesmerized when their parents read them stories, because these are among the very first exercises of children’s imagination. The ASMR effects of the reader’s soothing voice and of the turning pages comfort the child and she’s enchanted by the magical world conjured by the combination of the words, the pictures, and her mental exploration of exciting possibilities.

The innocence and magic of those earliest encounters with fiction are too-soon lost, of course, and like addicts we adults seek the works of ingenious authors to remind us what it’s like inside Eden, to be once again innocent and swept away by an enchanted world that’s full of reassuring purpose and benevolent potential.

Disenchantment with Scripture

The second kind of relationship with fiction obtains when poor fiction strains your capacities to suspend your disbelief and derive meaning from the tale. Jaded readers may even resemble strung-out junkies who no longer enjoy their drug but are nonetheless addicted; these readers (or film buffs or music fans) may engage with the latest offerings, hoping to be surprised or to have their long-standing support of the art form vindicated, but they’re more often than not disappointed because experience has replaced their innocence. (This is the meaning of the food critic’s surprise at the end of the film Ratatouille, for example.)

Imagine reading the same story tens of thousands of times. Or suppose you could live for centuries, moving from one part of the world to another, as the seasons change and historic events transform the planet and the populations around you — but you’re stuck with that one story which is your sole psychological nourishment. However universal its themes, magnificent its execution, and historic its influence, that story will obviously become archaic and trite when read so often as a work of fiction. To be limited to that one story for the purpose of stimulating your imagination would be more a curse than a blessing, since rereading this story at such lengths would deaden your sensibilities.

Religious faith in the West begins, collectively and individually, with the first, childlike relationship and ends with the second, jaded one. Regardless of the time period, each reader of scripture can be awed when encountering the famous passages for the first time. Likewise, when myths are first spread, they inflame the initial audience who feel honoured to have been privy to stories they expect will eventually enthrall generations.

But the more each reader studies the Bible or the Koran, the more they have to force themselves to ignore the fact that this scripture is obviously obsolete and stale (not to mention soundly falsified when the texts are read foolishly as nonfiction). Likewise, recent generations have greater difficulty appreciating the artistic merits of scripture than did the earlier, more naïve generations.

What makes this so isn’t that history is necessarily progressive, but that prescientific generations were in fact more naïve about nature than are postscientific ones. In fact, science threatens to turn us all into philistines, because it’s harder to respect the value of art when you’re taught that in reality the world consists of objective, meaningless facts. Imagination generates idle illusions, at best, and the artist wallows in that unreality while scientists and professionals busy themselves with improving the world in tangible ways. At least, that’s what passes for the neoliberal “wisdom” of our late-modern period.

Scripture as Fiction

If you asked the average Christian, for example, about her faith in the Bible, she’d say she believes the Bible was inspired by God and that scripture reveals timeless, supernatural truths. This is to say she’s so bamboozled by the Bible-as-propaganda that she can no longer tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. To think of the Bible as providing objective truths, as opposed to poetic, subjective ones that are open to endless interpretation and that no one could be justly punished for ignoring, is to have your aesthetic standards overtaken by scientific ones.

Of course, Western scriptures muddy the waters by not being wholly fantastic. These religious texts mix historical names and places and events with moralizing, didacticism, speculation, and tribal bigotry, producing myths and diatribes, allegories and parables rather than objective reports. To say a text is fictional is hardly to say the text isn’t about anything at all. Fiction can deal with timeless themes of what it’s like to be alive as a person on earth.

But to suggest that monotheistic scriptures are comparable, say, to a modern historical narrative is preposterous. To have written only of what we would call the facts, namely of the physical, amoral data of material events would have amounted to a satanic sin for early Jews, Christians, or Muslims. The writers and early readers of Western scriptures assumed that nature was infused with the supernatural. There was no such thing as mere lifeless data since God was everywhere, his plans intersecting even with catastrophes that seemed hopeless and godless.

This is to say that to read these texts as ever providing mere literal truth is to commit what these religious readers themselves should regard as a satanic sin. To point to a passage as containing literal truth is to suggest that God is absent from the reference of that passage. Literal truth is only what naturally, physically, meaninglessly occurs. Literal truth is all that’s left when the spirits have been chased from the universe by rational investigators. Monotheists have no business equating their religious message with a literal, mere factual truth.

In so far as every word of these religious texts overflows with theological contexts, prescriptions, and social maneuvering, these texts must be evaluated as fictions laced with propaganda, not as science textbooks or records of objective fact.

Again, that’s not to say there’s nothing true in these texts, since fiction does deal with a kind of truth, namely the phenomenological kind. Fiction tells you what it’s like to be a certain character or a person in general. These are psychological, subjective truths which may be even more important than literal ones. Fiction tells us not the facts or the objective truth, but the meaning of facts and what we should do about them.

The New Testament as Propaganda

By historicizing the narrative of their founder, Christians erased the line between fiction and nonfiction, preventing them from deriving the benefits of either from their scripture. Christians especially are burdened by that other factor, which is propaganda and which spoils the literary appreciation of the New Testament.

The Christian Bible became a hybrid monstrosity in which each passage is somehow both poetic and literal, both obviously made-up and absolutely true, and this confusion became useful for institutional Christian purposes. If those who enter Hell see the message above the entrance, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here,” as Dante says, prospective Christians should be handed a pamphlet extolling the benefits of going through the looking glass.

Take, for example, the story of doubting Thomas in John 20:24–29, which seems at first to provide evidence that Jesus really did survive the grave, since here’s a report of a witness who touched the risen Christ and whose doubts vanished. But to read that text as a mere accurate account of what happened, two millennia ago outside Jerusalem is irresponsible in light of historical criticism of the Bible.

The story of doubting Thomas is sheer propagandistic fiction, the rhetorical point of which is clear. Thomas stands in for the later Christians who came after the risen Jesus ascended to Heaven and whose faith in Jesus couldn’t be made as rational as that of the earlier followers who personally saw Jesus’s miracles, according to the story. The Gospel of John, after all, was likely the latest of the four gospels written and was composed around 70–110 CE, some seven or so decades after Jesus supposedly ascended to outer space.

The moral isn’t left to the imagination, since Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thus, the story is meant to reassure later generations of Christians: far from being disadvantaged, the latecomers whose faith could only be irrational will have greater rewards than those who based their trust in Jesus on their personal experience of him.

This is to say, though, that the faith of these later generations is more praiseworthy because it strains credulity all the more. And we should ask to whom is this blinder faith more valuable? The later generations have more difficulty suspending their disbelief, because they’re encouraged to treat the New Testament as historical rather than subjective, metaphorical, and poetic, but they can’t do so while retaining their intellectual integrity since the evidence before them is necessarily paltry. Sociologically, a population’s gullibility would be most useful to the leaders, such as to the Church officials that would eventually profit from their flock.

If we ignore the early Christians’ underhandedness and ulterior ambitions, treating their texts as pure fiction, we can no longer be so reassured by Jesus’s remark that it’s best to believe without seeing. Blind faith on the reader’s part is foolish, since that lack of discrimination will excuse the author’s ineptitude at telling a worthy narrative.

Have you ever been in the middle of a long novel you’re no longer enjoying, but you tell yourself you’re opposed to not finishing books once you start reading them? Jesus’s praise of blind faith is like that rule we have that compels us to keep reading and sacrificing our time and energy even when the author hasn’t fulfilled his or her side of the bargain, by telling an engaging story.

The New Testament’s epistles were explicit works of propaganda, around half of which were likely forgeries, and the Gnostic Christians were eventually persecuted for their more imaginative tales. Plus, the literary merits of the Christian Bible have been tainted by its having been central to such historic abominations as witch burnings and the Crusades, anti-Jewish bigotry and the oppression of women, homosexuals, and free-thinkers. Needless to say, this unseemly context interferes with a childlike appreciation of the Bible as fiction, and similar observations can be made about the Koran.

The nature of faith in Western scriptures, then, is that our trust in the value of those ancient texts can only amount to waning confidence that the stories reward our attention more than other works of fiction. Even America’s Evangelical Christians, those chief idolaters of the Bible leap at the chance to switch to worshipping a golden calf in the person of President Trump. Who wouldn’t want a break from the tedium of immersing yourself in archaic propaganda that’s been integral to such odious agendas and that has to compete now with libraries upon libraries of more relevant and engaging works of fiction?

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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