Listen to the discussion 

ALBERT MOBILIO: Here in the early part of the twenty-first century, religious faith seems to have become increasingly prominent in world and cultural affairs. And this change in the salience of religious faith raises several questions, I think, for the art of the novel. If we think of fiction as “make believe” and religion as “must believe,” how might novelists reconcile the ambiguities and uncertainties of their craft with an attempt to express or characterize religious faith? Is what is meant by religious truth the same as artistic truth? And if these truths are different—and perhaps they are profoundly different—how might a novelist who hopes in some way to characterize or advance the cause of religious faith serve two masters?

JAN KJÆRSTAD: The main point for me is that if you are a novelist you are first of all an outsider. You are going to be a heretic in some way. Everything everybody else takes as true on faith you are going to tear down, you’re going to make it strange, show it from a different angle. If you write a novel, you create something much more open than a religious system. Of course, everything is a belief system, and the modernists—Ezra Pound, for example—wanted to make literature the new religion for a secular age. But I think literature can never be that. Literature is always the opposite of religion, for me.

BENJAMIN ANASTAS: I think there’s a lot in common between the project of religion and the project of literature. Novelists may be heretics from belief, but if you’re a believer, you’re a heretic from reality. According to the Christian narrative, the world we live in is fallen. There was a time when we were in perfect lockstep with our creator, and we’ve fallen out of that relationship with God. The Gospel According to John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So the word has a divine presence of its own—but the word has been separated from that presence. And we as writers, as keepers of the word, are now separated from that divine presence, in this view. So if you’re a believer you look at the world and say, “This is all a lie.” I’ve been spending time with Evangelicals lately, and the more time I spend with them the more it seems to me that they look at the world with a Shakespearean fervor: It’s all a world of seeming.

BRIAN EVENSON: I can think of a lot of fans who do pick up a work of fiction and treat it almost as if it was a religious book. It ends up being, for them, the basis for a code of faith. I had a very strange experience at a conference not too long ago, where someone came up to me and said, “Are you Brian Evenson?” When I said yes, he showed me words from a book of mine that he’d tattooed on his arm. And that really scared me. It’s flattering, but at the same time you feel that someone has taken a literary object that had a certain amount of ambiguity and openness to it and tried to…make it something else. And I suppose we can say the same thing about most religious teachings: that as time goes on they become more formalized, less a way of opening up to the world and more a way of, potentially, shutting down the world. I am an excommunicated Mormon—I was very involved in Mormonism for a number of years. And I do think that being raised in that faith has had a dramatic impact on the way I think about my fiction and the way I think about the world in general. So it’s a very thorny issue.

NADEEM ASLAM: My own relationship with religion is colored by the fact that almost every single person in my immediate family is a believer. And I’m not talking about my nuclear family, but about my eighteen uncles and my fifty first cousins. Every single one of them is a believer. And yet one of them is a gambler, one of them is a musician, one of them is a Jihadi. So I find it hard to pinpoint what religion is, precisely. I know people who pray because they want to connect with the absolute. I also know people who pray for extremely practical reasons. “God, I have an operation tomorrow. Look after me.” “God, my daughter can’t get a job. Look after her.” “God, my son is a heroin addict. Look after him.”

Unlike Brian, I have never been a believer. I realized at ten or eleven that it wasn’t anything that I would need. But as a child—and this connects to being a novelist—religion taught me about consequence. If you do something good, there will be a consequence to that action, which will also be good. If you do something bad, there will also be a consequence. This is the idea of heaven and hell and what have you. And as a novelist, that’s what you’re trying to do, to take a character from a to b, and from b to c, and so on.

MOBILIO: I’m intrigued by this notion of consequence. One thing religion provides all of us with, even if we’re not believers, is the idea of a narrative arc, a set of actions that take place within the realm of free will and have consequences. Jan, you studied theology, and I imagine you studied theodicy, the justification of God’s ways to men.

KJÆRSTAD: That can drive you crazy.

MOBILIO: That’s a good thing for a novelist—a bad thing for a mullah or a bishop, perhaps.

KJÆRSTAD: You can learn a lot as a writer if you study theology, because all religions, I think, have, at their foundations, great literature. The Qur’an, the Old and New Testaments, the Muhammad legends, the Buddha legends, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Taoist small stories, the Shinto stories—they are so beautiful. And they seem open: You can read them in the way you want. But I think when religion came into the picture, people tried to narrow the interpretation. They said, “This is the correct reading.” Then you get rules, and you have to behave in certain ways. When I studied literature, I thought, “I want to get into the business of writing things which are open.” Umberto Eco has a beautiful expression: “opera aperta,” the opened work—one you can read in one hundred directions. That’s what you want to do when you write a good story. You want the reader to use his or her imagination.

ANASTAS: I think it depends on the religious group. Think of Judaism and the Talmud—that’s layer upon layer upon layer of commentary. There’s no one prescribed interpretation. What you end up with is a collective interpretation of many scholars and many experts.

KJÆRSTAD: Yeah, but that tradition is very special, I think. And when it comes to the practice of Judaism, they do narrow it down. As readers, though, they are very good.

EVENSON: Maybe we should not only think about fiction in relation to religion, but about criticism in relation to religion. We have these written works, scriptures, but the religions they found are based on what comes after: the ways in which they’re interpreted and the ways in which they’re narrowed.

MOBILIO: Well, I’m not sure I can accept the equivalence between interpretations of, say, the Talmud and Anna Karenina. Within a religious context, we’re encouraged to approach sacred texts as the word of God, and the job of interpretation is to find the right interpretation. As contemporary critics or contemporary readers we come to literature with a different kind of belief: that there are many, many interpretations, and not a single one of them is correct. But isn’t the presumption for all religious texts that the sacred word is distinct from the fallen word? And is there a way, perhaps, in which every novelist aspires to that condition of sacredness?

ANASTAS: Sure. I was in New Orleans a couple weekends ago and I went to mass. I don’t go to Catholic services very often. There’s a procession, and the cross comes out, and the archbishop or whoever it is carries the book, which is covered with gold—it’s beautiful. The crowd stops and the book moves through the church and takes its special place on the table. And I thought, “Wow! That’s really how we should treat a book.”

MOBILIO: At Barnes & Noble, for the front table, the sales person should bring the novels that are going to be placed—

ANASTAS: As long as we’re still allowed to write in the margins, I’d be okay with that.

ASLAM: That is how the Qur’an is treated. You’re not supposed to put it on the floor. The Qur’an is not the equivalent of the Bible, in that sense, but the equivalent of Christ himself. Christ was God made flesh, and the Qur’an is God made word, as it were. We were talking about different interpretations of religious texts, and the way these can be closed off. And that raises another point—the political use of religion, which I think is an important part of this discussion. The Taliban was supposedly created by Mullah Omar to save Afghanistan and glorify God; that is the official narrative. But the Taliban is a political and military organization created by Pakistan and sent into Afghanistan. Religion was used because it could be used—because in certain societies, it can’t be criticized.

The chemistry textbooks I studied at school said something like, “Two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen come together to form one molecule of water: H2O.” But when the Taliban took over they said, “It should now read, ‘Two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen come together if Allah wills to form one molecule of water.’” So religion—because it is so dear to people and people think that the tiniest diversion will take away something valuable from it—can be used politically. It’s a very powerful weapon. That is why such leaders don’t want various interpretations of it. That is why they said that The Satanic Verses is not just a book. It is a book that…

MOBILIO: It’s blasphemy.

ASLAM: Exactly.

KJÆRSTAD: I want to contest this notion of treating our own books as some kind of holy business. I can’t agree with that; I think they should be profane. Nadeem’s mentioning the Taliban reminded me of a book by Amos Oz called How to Cure a Fanatic. Oz says that a fanatic should read fiction. Why? Because to read fiction you need, first, imagination—and you need imagination to have empathy. If you have empathy with people, you can’t kill them so easily. Second, if you read fiction, you learn to be curious about things. And third, and maybe this is the most important, when you read good fiction, you learn a sense of humor. It’s very seldom that you see a fanatic laugh. And you seldom talk about laughing when you talk about religious literature. But I think you should laugh. We should be jesters. What Salman Rushdie did with The Satanic Verses was that he behaved a little like the fool, the jester in the old days—and then it became very, very dangerous for him.

ANASTAS: I think you’ve touched on two reasons we have literature in the first place. A religious book manages to create, for some people, a kind of closed world, in which interpretation ends. And then this closed book is used for political purposes; something that is supposed to be of the spirit is used for the flesh. And people are outraged. So you think, “How do I tear this down, when I use the word?” You write a novel.

EVENSON: We’ve begun circling around the notions of the sacred and the profane. And of course you can’t have anything that’s profane without having a belief in the sacred. But, perhaps partly because I grew up in a culture that was very clear about what they thought was sacred, I see my task as a writer, like Jan, to be profane, to disrupt or work against the sacred in some way. But of course there is a kind of sacredness to that idea, too—an alternative sacredness, without the larger structure that keeps things in place and maintains the status quo. Ben, you spoke about the divinity of the word. I think that if the word can open us up to something that is beyond us, then the profane seems to be as capable—perhaps more capable—of doing that than the sacred.

ASLAM: Are you a believer?

EVENSON: No, I’m not a believer at this point.

ASLAM: Are you able to say why you are no longer and why you once were?

EVENSON: Sure, I can talk about that. I taught at Brigham Young University, which is a Mormon school. Before that I was a member of a bishopric, so I was one of three people running a congregation of Mormons. I had been very involved in the religion. When I was at Brigham Young, a student sent an anonymous letter to a church leader saying that my book Altmann’s Tongue, a collection of stories, was evil and supported cannibalism and existentialism and those sorts of things.

MOBILIO: Those are belief systems.

EVENSON: Right, and equivalent terms—I think existentialism was worse for them than cannibalism. Anyway, that led to me being told that if I wanted to stay at Brigham Young, I would need to promise not to publish anything else like those stories. And I ended up leaving the school and later being excommunicated, partly by my own choice, from the Mormon church. So it was a long process of faith being lost, I think, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve suspended the religious question. I think I’m probably as unreligious as anybody.