Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A thought on spiritual experience in fiction

In ancient Greek drama, a common climax was to have an actor playing a god flown onto the stage with a special effects machine to solve the other characters' problems.

If you were actually in a Greek theater and actually saw a man with a really cool, brightly colored mask appear to fly through the air, the spectacle may have been enough to take away both your breath and your sense of story logic. The convenient miracle might have seemed perfectly acceptable.

But on paper, the deus ex machina moment is pretty underwhelming. If the story makes us feel the deep nobility of human struggle, it's disappointing just to have a solution handed down from a god. And so today, young writers are often taught to avoid any convenient solutions from the outside.

But where does that advice leave a religious writer whose actual life experience involves the active influence of the divine? How do you balance a desire to depict life-changing spiritual experience with traditional cautions against the deus ex machina?

A fourteen-year-old's talk on the Holy Ghost just before my daughter's confirmation on Saturday gave me what seems like a good answer: in life, revelation is typically the beginning rather than the end of a story. Because for every prompting of the Holy Ghost that comes, there's an immediate human question: how will you receive it?

The culmination of your spirituality doesn't come when you feel God, but when you find your own way to live in accordance with that experience.

Once the talk pointed this out, I realized the principle is everywhere in the scriptures. If the Book of Mormon were structured like Greek theater, it would open with a long sequence of Lehi in a decadent Jerusalem searching for goodness which would end with a god showing up and showing Lehi the light. But the Book of Mormon starts with Lehi's first vision and then goes on to ask how he's going to live it out. And opening with the divine is far stronger than closing with it.

Or consider the story of Alma. You could write a play where young Alma fights the church and does bad things and his father worries until--cue the angel--divine interference simply solves the core inter-generational problem. But the Book of Mormon doesn't tell the story like that. Scene one ends with an angel: the rest of Alma's long saga is about where that experience takes him and how he deals with the painful and difficult situations his choice to become a prophet later land him in.

In the Book of Mormon, revelations don't end our problems. They launch our journeys.

So sure, in a relatively agnostic era, where even many people who believe in God don't really believe he talks, it may be tempting to treat God as the surprise and to try to show spirituality by giving readers a sense of the guidance or comfort it provides.

But people don't read to see people change without effort, and the Bible doesn't teach that belief in God solves anything on its own.

I am a very religious person, but I think I would be disappointed by a story that starts with a young man puzzling over what to do with his life and ends when a revelation shows him what to do. I'd be interested, though, in a story that starts with something like: "On October 18th, 2008, the voice of the Lord came to Felix Hernandez, saying: go to grad school, my son."

We deserves stories that show the richness of revelation and the unique setbacks and triumphs people experience through deep religious commitment.

Will taking this structural cue from the scriptures help us write them?


  1. James, I believe we are sharing at least portions of a brain. You'll see what I mean.

    (And I'm getting excited.)

    I have a couple of questions, but I'll post them over at EMW or somewhere.

  2. Speaking of spiritual experience in fiction, how goes the self publishing? I'm sooo wanting to share your book with my friends.

    1. I'm actually taking a cue from you and reading the entire book out loud as a revision technique. My wife and I are about 40% of the way through now, doing a lot of tightening and making the tone more consistent.

      Nick Stephens, whose art I've linked to from this blog, is working on the cover design.

      The launch date goal is before BYU's fall semester starts on August 27th.

      I'll keep you posted. And maybe write something about it on this blog.

  3. I love the idea that a talk by a 14 year old solved the religious writer's dilemma. Not the first time ideas from a 14 year old had a major impact on religious thought.

    Auntie Sheila

  4. Perfect after I told the 16 and 17 year olds that Hollywood has nothing on the BOM and our Lesson in RS about Revelation. Love it!

  5. Shalom, Br. Goldberg,

    I am new to your sites. I am a Jewish convert also. I assume you are a Sephard from an Orthodox congregation? I love your writing and your way of seeing the world.I wonder if you would be interested in looking at some I have done? I read that you are a playwright. I have a play based on my book: People of The Book (Am ha Sefer Torah)and it needs an editor, producer, etc.
    Mainly, I'd love to know your story and testimony of the Church. Perhaps we could communicate through email?

    Marlena Tanya Muchnick (Baker) Ashkenazi


    1. I was actually raised in the Church--the picture is from a movie I'm in.
      My grandpa Art was a culturally proud agnostic Jew. His parents were immigrants from Romania, so my roots are Ashkenazi--the Sephardi look probably comes from having Punjabi roots on my mother's side.
      We still do Hanukkah and Passover in my house and I fast on Yom Kippur. I do think Jewish traditions are entirely compatible with Mormon faith, and have found that many second and third generation Jewish Mormons like me agree.

  6. We are living in interesting times. Everything is changing, including the ways we think about life and death. Furthermore, as baby boomers move into our middle years, we are having to face issues around transition that we are not always prepared for. We are recognizing that we want to do things very differently from the way we've seen them done in past generations. And we need guidance as we proceed down this road less traveled.



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