“Life means suffering.”
According to the Buddha, that is the first of four “noble truths” that together define human existence. I’m not much of a Buddhist (I’m a lapsed Catholic who owns a rarely used meditation pillow), but as a writer who deals primarily with religion, with stories of people living in the shadow of faith, I’m inclined to agree.
It’s not just a hunch. A few years ago, I jumped into a car with a friend and fellow journalist, and we spent most of a year on the road, making a book about the varieties of American religious experience. We found stories by keeping our ears open in Nashville honkytonks, knocking on church doors in Mennonite country, haunting internet newsgroups that catered to undercover pagans in the U.S. military and self-proclaimed “Cowboy Christians” in the oversized buckle of the Bible Belt.
Before talking with representatives of all religious traditions about their lives, I guessed that what all faiths had in common was some variation of the Golden Rule. Once I hit the ground, though, the Buddha’s truth met me at every corner: A cult devotee had been abandoned by her guru; a woman’s pious daughter had been murdered by a man in a church van; a rodeo rider found salvation the day a bull put a horn in his eye. I found so many tales of loss and abuse that I came to believe that if stories about faith have anything in common – across time, denominations and demographics – it often seems to be pain.
Of course, you’d never know this from the religion stories that appear in the media, especially around this time of year. Religion provides writers with external elements that are hard to beat: ornate settings, dramatic histories, strange costumes, peculiar speech. There’s no other subject I know of that offers a surface so rich it can be used by writers to disguise an avoidance of depth. Yet interior elements are the real engine of stories about faith; they are the complications that make the stories.
But how does one tell an interior story? Stories about faith involve what the theologian Paul Tillich referred to as matters of “ultimate concern” – not just pious sentiments but questions about the very conundrum of being – and yet to an observer a person’s concerns may seem far from ultimate. This dilemma is the challenge of covering religion well; failing to get at characters’ interior lives is often the cause of unsuccessful stories. But matters of “ultimate concern” are also the reason I care about the subject at all.
Here are a few ideas I find important when I’m reporting or writing about faith. With apologies to the Buddha, I’ll call them the Four Noble Truths of Religion Writing. Whenever I catch myself thinking about or planning a story in a way that doesn’t do the subject justice, I try to recall these points. In their interplay, overlap and occasional contradiction, they reflect the complexities of belief. They are of daily use to me; I hope they might be to others as well.
1. Stories about faith are stories about individuals.
Like each of the points that follow, this should be entirely self-evident. And yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing about, for example, a local imam as a stand-in for global Islam or Muslims generally. There is a way in which this approach is appropriate and unavoidable (see the Third Noble Truth below), but when writing about religious people, it’s important to remember that belief is also one person’s unique inner world.
I once spent time with a former geologist who had given up science to become a preacher and rancher. Driving around his property inspecting his cattle, he spoke at length about the inerrancy of scripture, particularly Genesis. He said everything you might expect a Bible-believing Christian to say, but he said some other things, too. “Scripture explains that God made all of creation in seven days,” he told me, “But it doesn’t explain how many cycles of creation there might have been before then. God could have made and remade the world a thousand times by that point,” the former geologist said. “Maybe that’s why we can see layers in the earth.”
This ranching preacher was not trying to be a great innovator; he would have insisted his ideas were not out of step with the fundamentalism he proudly claimed as a tenet of his faith. Yet he was also trying to harmonize tradition with his other knowledge and experiences.
Many times I have assumed I knew the full content of someone’s faith because I knew the name of his or her church, and I’ve been wrong.
2. Stories about faith are stories about symbols – and stories.
While it’s obvious believers are individuals, I’d argue that their tradition’s stories, images and ideas are more influential than their personal will. People of faith are shaped by symbols and often try to live according to them. In fact, some believers seem not to think of themselves as individuals at all, but as echoes of those who have gone before. “What would Jesus do?” is not a rhetorical question for these sorts of believers. Jesus is also not the only figure religious people model themselves on, both consciously and otherwise. Though as writers we are wise not to rely too heavily on religious tropes in telling stories about religious subjects, to ignore the fact that those subjects have themselves been shaped by stories is to overlook difference, our subjects’ essential ways of seeing.
3. Stories about faith are stories about communities.
Of course, religious people don’t live in a vacuum. Believers live in communities that both shape them and are shaped by them. While a story about an imam does not have to tell the story of Islam as a whole, many readers will come to the story with that expectation. On the one hand this is unfortunate, but on the other, it allows the writer to engage with the fact that not only will the reader see a single believer as a representative of a community of faith, so too will the believers we write about.
It may be too much to ask of any individual, or any story about an individual, to bear the weight of a community. Yet if we hope to convey the reality of religious life, this kind of representative storytelling is indispensable. Often readers come to stories about faith because they want to know about a community and its influence, not just on an individual person, but in American society. Readers want an engaging story about one person, but they also want to understand a religion, its symbols and community generally.
Grappling with the interconnectedness of these first three points is what makes writing about religion so rich – and difficult. The principles connect with one another like the three abutting arrows on recycling bins: Individuals are shaped by symbols; symbols have meaning because they are shared by a community; community is a collection of individuals who have been shaped by the symbols affirmed by the community.
Individual, symbol, community: Every detail of any story dealing with religion has connection to these three factors. There is nothing elemental in a story about religion.
4. Stories about faith are stories about ambivalence and ambiguity.
For just that reason – the contingent, interconnected nature of belief – stories about faith are never static. Despite believers’ occasional suggestions otherwise, religion changes. Sometimes it changes at a glacial pace, often quickly and drastically. Changes occur both in history and in the minds of the people who, in big ways and small, are shaping history with their lives.
If there’s a product of all these varied types of changes, it is the need for constant interpretation of the information we gather. And with the need for interpretation naturally comes ambivalence.
For example: Not long after my visit with the ranching preacher, I interviewed a young woman who said she was both a witch and a follower of ancient Norse gods. Once, she told me, she’d been visited by Thor’s little brother, the trickster god, Loki. She recounted this meeting with the kind of matter-of-fact conviction that suggested she saw no need to defend an encounter that most would regard as nutty.
How to write about such beliefs without making it seem that we are either making fun, debunking or that we too occasionally see Norse gods? If a subject tells us that Loki changed her life, we need to write about this event with a straight face. On the other hand, Loki’s appearance is not exactly something we can fact check, and if not handled skillfully its presence in a piece of journalism robs the writer of credibility. How can we write about such beliefs without hindering readers’ engagement with the story?
One solution might be to look for contexts that help readers move beyond the need to believe. When writing about religion, it is not the suspension of disbelief we should strive for, but rather the elevation of empathy over agreement. In this case, it turned out the young witch had had her run-in with the cosmic trouble-maker Loki not long after she had lost custody of her son. The judge had ruled against her, the woman said, because of her “alternative” beliefs. With this in mind, it was possible to write about the witch’s experience in a way that transcended the strangeness of her story and, I hope, allowed readers to care about her pain, regardless of their opinion of her faith.
Ambivalence and uncertainty may make a story harder to write, but it must not be ignored. When skepticism or religious disagreements arise as you’re working on a story, use them to your advantage. Take for granted that your doubts and questions may well be the reader’s own. Write, in other words, for your readers, including the skeptics among them – not for your subjects.
In the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the final truth concerns nirvana, not ambivalence. While I don’t think that these four principles of religion-writing will lead to anything so grand, it does remind me of the importance and potential of good stories about religion. Covering faith in all its dangers and possibilities won’t necessarily lead to a writer’s enlightenment, but it just might contribute to a more enlightened world.