***For the sake of simplicity, I use "gods" and "the divine" throughout this article to describe humankind's relationship with what they cannot see. This is not meant to exclude those of us who believe in one God, but to include all of us who consider ourselves spiritually connected to something we cannot see.***
What we believe about the influence of the gods makes a huge difference in the kind of stories we write with our lives.
Humankind has always tried to explain the unexplainable by blaming or personifying the gods. How does the sun rise in the east? It's in a chariot driven by our god Helios, of course.
As I began to write this article, a customer at my bookstore, Jenny's Paper & Ink Books, came in and began to share with me the story of her healing.
"I was supposed to be gone in February, they said. But my son and his Christian brothers have taken one tumor each to pray over and the tumors are shrinking."
Who can argue with that? The belief in an intervening god has been essential for this woman's healing. Her understanding of the work of The Divine has definitely affected her story. One of the gifts of living a religious and spiritual life is that it provides a framework for us to interact with and understand what we cannot see. But how in charge are the gods, really?
We get into trouble when we interpret our interactions with and limited understanding of them as the way it needs to work for everyone else. That's when belief turns into dogma. Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Doubt and questioning are not welcome in a community where dogma has been decided as the answer for everyone's situation.
I want to suggest that making time to read all kinds of fiction is one of the best ways to protect us from the damage and danger of dogma. You might even consider asking your religious/spiritual leaders what the role of fiction is in their lives. Are they open and available for discussions about what is not easily answered? Are you? Here's some examples of the way fiction releases us from the small stories religious dogma wants to tell.
First, have you read, "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant? It is a story written around Dinah, one of the daughters of Jacob. She is mentioned, in passing, within the story of Jacob's family in the Old Testament of the Bible. Unfortunately, very few women's stories were written and passed down in the Judeo-Christian traditions and Scripture. We are left to imagine and ask good questions in order to learn from these minor characters. Is the fear of adding to Scripture keeping you from exploring the stories of the women more fully? If you answer yes, I would be beyond thrilled to talk more with you about why this is safe and freeing to do. If not, I highly recommend spiritual director, Ronna Derrick, and her Sacred Readings if you want to explore how the stories of the Biblical women can speak personally to you.
Next, are you familiar with the recent Broadway hit musical, "Wicked" which tells the story of the friendship of the Wicked Witch with Glinda the Good Witch from the Wicked Witch's perspective? The source material came from the author, Gregory Maguire, who has written several alternative fairy tales. Another one he wrote is called "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister". What was the story for the stepsisters in Cinderella? How would they tell it? Is it possible that there's no such thing as the good guy and the bad guy? That all of us are a blend of both and that the "bad guy" sides of us have stories to tell, too? If we listen and show them hospitality, so to speak, we can learn so much.
Finally, the stories we tell and live need to be able to accept mystery because none of us can have all the answers. I wrote and spoke a few weeks ago about the difference between the happy ending and the satisfying ending. But what about the ambiguous ending? How are you with endings where all the questions are not answered? A good example of a satisfying and an ambiguous ending is, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey. In "The Snow Child" an unhappy and infertile couple facing the long and dark Alaskan winter build a child from snow who then comes alive. We want the best for this couple as the readers. But what is the best? Will the author decide for us? What if we can't have exactly what we think we want? Can we accept a version of it? Will we be better off? These are hard questions to answer and sitting with the mystery of the unanswered questions is important. We are so often too quick to answer questions with a simple version of our truth about what we can't understand.
Here's why this is so important. When we don't let the power of story release our understanding of the divine and let it breathe, we actually empower the gods to be much more in charge than they really are. When we hold tight to our beliefs about what our gods can and cannot do, it tightens us. Feeling safe from questioning and doubt requires living a much smaller life than we are meant to live. Maybe there's nothing more The Divine wants for you and me than for us to let go and release the stories we tell about how we believe the gods are in charge of you and me.
Fairy tales, magical realism, the myths of the ancients, and fantasy as a genre all let our understanding of the supernatural, the divine, the gods, breathe. You'll breathe freer, too.
Does your faith/spiritual community encourage or discourage questions and doubts about the gods in charge? Maybe a good fiction read as a community could help open the discussion.