Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing, Reading, and Religion

St, Peter's Basilica.  That's me in the white sweater.
I spent this past weekend in Rome.  Pretty awesome, right?  All in all, it was a fantastic trip, though I wouldn't dare call it a vacation.  If you've ever read Dan Brown's ANGELS & DEMONS, then you'll know how the protagonist, Robert Langdon, sprints through the whole city in the space of a day.  Yup, that was us:  in two days we visited the Vatican (with tour of the crypts), Coliseum, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Bridge of Angels, Castel Sant'angelo, more fountains, more churches, and a few piazzas.

Though like true Spaniards (well, we're Americans living in Spain), we still had time for siestas.  But that's beside the point.

The point of this post is something else entirely:  writing, reading, and religion.

My relationship with religion is about as complicated as my relationship with my hair, and considering I feel like a Pantene model one day, and Bellatrix Lestrange the next, it's pretty darn complicated.

A statue of Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. 
I was raised in a mixed religion household.  That's really confusing, and with one half of the family saying this, and the other saying that, I never quite understood either.  At least, not enough to prefer one over the other, and let's face it:  when it comes to religious beliefs, you can't be half-and-half.  It wasn't until my rebellious high school years that I went through an identity crisis and settled on only one.

Growing up, it always bothered me that I didn't understand.  Sure, I attended church and synagogue events with friends, but I had no idea what was going on.  What does this mean?  What does that mean?  Yet I didn't apply myself to really learning until I decided to become an English major:  to be a writer and a reader, you certainly don't have to be religious; however, I'd argue that you need to have a fairly firm understanding of the world's major religions, and you definitely-without-a-doubt-no-exceptions need to have an open mind.  Here's why:

To be a writer, you have to be a reader, and to be a good reader, you have to recognize the importance of the classics, even if you don't particularly enjoy them.  There's a reason they're classics, after all, and if we take the time to think about them, we can learn a lot about our chosen craft.  Now, what are the various literary techniques you study when you read a classic?  Imagery, metaphor, allusions...Lots of those techniques draw on religion, and if you don't catch the references, it's likely you're missing part of the story's message.

Then there are the archetypes we draw from religion and religious works.  For example, many would argue that there would be no sexy antihero without Milton's Paradise Lost, the first work to feature the devil as the protagonist.

The small white temple on the far left is the temple of the vestal virgins, priestesses in ancient Roman religion.
How about demons?  Angels?  Those come from Christianity.  And the gods and goddesses that often show up in fantasy?  They're usually based on the divinities of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Did you know that the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series are based on classical mythology?  Then there's Laini Taylor's YA urban fantasy Daughter of Smoke & Bone, which draws heavily on both Christianity and Buddhism.  No, it's not required that you understand either of those religions to appreciate the book, but her use of religion to create a world is definitely interesting.

Long story short:  I love to learn about religions, so I was thrilled to visit the Vatican and other religious sites in Rome.  Thanks to my wonderful travel buddies, super awesome tours, and so many old artifacts, sculptures, and paintings, I learned so much :)

What books do you know of that draw heavily on religion?

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