A Day in the Life

Theology describes what, in theory, believers of a religion ought to believe, for a given value of ought. In practice, however, members of all religions live lives at variance with what they claim to profess, from the evident truth that few people live up to their religious ideals and others live in outright contention with important theological concepts of the faith they profess: there are Roman Catholics who believe in the ordination of women and there are Protestants who do not believe in the Virgin Birth, for example.

The precise relationship between theology and belief is very hard to test but it suffices for the writer to acknowledge that the religion in theory and the religion in practice have a certain amount of variance for a number of reasons, ranging from disagreements as outlined above, to high-profile members of a given faith who oppose (for example) same-sex relationships and who are later found in flagrante delicto with a same-sex lover. Even simpler requirements – weekly attendance at services – are frequently broken due to family commitments, holidays, and so on.

How or why people choose to focus on some areas of faith more than others, or even discard or rebel against parts entirely, is such a massive topic that I could not even begin to do it justice. For a writer who wants to explore these themes, the best thing to do is to reflect upon his own beliefs (religious or otherwise) and think critically about them before engaging, respectfully, with the beliefs of those around him.

In contemporary Western society, the prevailing attitude in many religious communities is, ‘We’re all heading in the same direction generally speaking, so let’s focus on what unites us rather than what divides us’. Further abroad, and within living memory, this is markedly less common, although not entirely unknown, and again this is where research will help. The persecution of Roman Catholic missionaries by the Japanese Shinto-Buddhist authorities was a brutal affair which has had long-lasting repercussions, including the development of hidden Christian communities in isolated parts of the Japanese archipelago which still exist (although they are less hidden) today. Likewise, the persecution of those who during the Reformation and European colonial expansion refused to convert to Roman Catholicism is well-documented, albeit often poorly understood. Although it can be tempting to see ordinary believers as being gutsy underdogs to tyrannical theologians and authorities, it is simply not true: these were ordinary believers who committed these atrocities. Although the names escape me at the moment, I believe it was a Dominican theologian, arguing against a Franciscan, who convinced Isabella the Great that it was wrong to treat the Native Americans as sub-human, thus leading her to attempt (sadly, largely ineffective) reforms of the Spanish colonies.

A believer’s behaviour is, therefore, shaped but not determined by the theological environment, and depending upon each individual’s understanding of aetiology, eschatology, soteriology, and morality, their behaviour will change. Most writers already know that it is a character’s behaviour which reveals his inner life, and this is just as true of faith as well. A character who raves about divine courage and spiritual fortitude but scarpers at the first sign of trouble is very different from another who speaks about faith only when pressed but is steadfast in the face of adversity.

The second important factor in the life of the believer is the experience of the religion itself, its rites and ceremonies and prayers. These can be as simple as a brief mantra recited at a specified time, or intensely elaborate and lengthy rituals. They should always serve a purpose, however. These purposes, too, can be as simple or as complex as necessary: Baal wants sacrifices because otherwise he will plunge the earth into darkness is a theological impetus which will probably lend itself to a fairly functional (and messy) ceremony, although the preamble can be as ornate as the writer wants. The Christian understanding of sacrifice, however, is very convoluted, and the reasons behind the various postures and garments used in Christian liturgy range from the mysterious to the profound to the banal – it may surprise you to discover how many vestments were originally just there to stop other important things becoming dirtied, but then became part of the ensemble themselves. Shintoism has a different concept of sacrifice again, and many (most?) forms of Buddhism have nothing to do with theology of sacrifice at all.

How this all fits together for writing is as follows: having established a theology a writer should decide what demands arise from theology and how these obligations are met (or not) by the community. Finally, the writer must decide how a society’s values is shaped by all these factors. The Hollywood ideals of romantic love and freedom of choice should not be assumed in other societies, especially very alien ones.

Christians meet together on Sundays because the Ten Commandments require Jews, who constituted much of the Early Church, to observe the Sabbath as a holy day. The Sabbath was, originally, Saturday, but because Jesus rose on the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week, and appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week, the Early Church kept the obligation of holy restfulness on Sunday instead. This is also why Sunday is the first day of the week in many calendars. As a general rule, Christian denominations consider it a sin (whether it is called that or not) to fail to go to church on a Sunday unless some other obligation (sickness, crisis, military command) precludes it. Yet, polls show that most people who identify as Christian do not go to church every Sunday. We could interpret this as a conflict of the Christian ideal of obedience with the secular notion of self-care (for example).

In summary, then:
The basis is a scriptural injunction: Keep the Sabbath day holy.
The theological justification is that the laws of God must be obeyed: God tells us that to be saved we must follow his commands, this is one of his commands, therefore we must follow it.
The obligation is attendance at a specific ritual: The ritual or something it accomplishes is what makes the day holy and restful instead of only restful.
The interpretation is either attendance or non-attendance, and why.

With all this in place, it is time to start planning your liturgy.

Concerning Ceremonies

The easiest way to start thinking of religious ritual is to think of them as re-enactments of key parts of the faith’s understanding of the world: pray as Muhammad prayed, meditate as the Buddha meditated, break bread as Jesus broke bread, and so on.

Of course, these re-presentations are rarely precise. Some put this down to anthropological forces which are then theologically justified. Others argue that continuing theological development precludes doing things precisely the same way as they were done the first time. Again, I do not propose to argue one way or the other, but it suffices to point out that Gautama Buddha probably did not meditate at the top of a Tibetan mountain with lots of novices and incense; likewise, in the Eucharist, Christians do not (generally) break the bread at the point when they remember Jesus breaking the bread – that part comes later.

How would this play out in the Hollow World? I will sketch one possibility.

The Noctiminads, on the basis that the spirits give blessings to those they favour have a theological justification for trying to obtain that favour: a bountiful harvest will not occur unless the spirits responsible for the harvest are pleased. They therefore construct shrines which consist of two parts: an outer section in which the offerings are made by shamasal or laymen, and an inner, closed section where the spirits meet with one another in secret, and where occasionally the shamasal enter to speak with them directly. The obligation is to make offerings to the spirits, and as far as the Noctiminads interpret the matter, those who make insufficient offerings will be punished by the spirits themselves. They also value careful preparation for this time, and so as a culture, the notion of bravery is less celebrated than prudence. Noctiminad heroes are the ones who were prepared, not necessarily the strong or the cunning.

Because the Noctiminad religion is more like a loose collection of related beliefs, each shaman conducts different ceremonies, but they fall into three broad types.

The first type is the simple offering: a person leaves a sacrifice of value to the spirit in an offering bowl in the outer shrine. A spirit of joy may ask for alcohol; a spirit of vengeance for blood; a spirit of rain for water or dry earth. The act of sacrifice is accompanied by a prayer of thanks or petition. Shamasal advise and assist with these offerings but do not necessarily have to conduct them unless the need is great: prayer for rain during a drought, or for victory before a battle, for example.

The second type is the sacred meeting: the shaman or shamasal wishing to commune directly with the spirits daub themselves with the offerings, metaphysically carrying the sacrifices of the people with them on their own bodies. They enter into the inner shrine carrying an urn of water, closing the doors behind them, thus cutting themselves off from the world of mere matter and entering the spiritual realm. The urn of water is used to rinse off the sacrificial daubs before returning to the outer shrine. Originally the shamasal took everything into the inner shrine in bowls but it became too complicated to remember which water was for offering and which for cleansing, although some shamasal still keep the more ancient tradition alive, distinguishing the water of sacrifice from the water of purification through the colour and shape of the vessels.

The third type is the Vigil of the Sun, which unlike the other ceremonies has very little variance: the most senior shaman in any given community leads this ceremony on the same day every year. The teachings of the great shamasal of the past are shared, beginning with the Tale of Awakening, in which the sun comes to be, and ending with the Tale of the Final Night which concludes at midnight. During the Tale of the Final Night, the senior shaman, assisted by his subordinates, enacts the Midnight Feast, laying hands on them and symbolically tearing their flesh. One by one they retreat into the shrine, leading the people with them – this is the only time each year when laymen may enter the shrine – until only the senior shaman is left, huddled by a fire which he then douses, plunging them all into darkness. The people then wait, nervously, to see whether or not the sun will spring to life again. If it does not, then the end has come. If it does so only slowly, then the end is soon. If it does as it always has, then there is at least another year before the end, and the people rush out of the shrine and celebrate with a night of feasting and a day of rest. A grapefruit-like comestible is the traditional centrepiece of the feast, representing as it does the sun.

Do it Yourself

The best way to learn about liturgy is to experience it. If religion is alien to you, it is probably unwise to try to write about it. Do some research, visit places of worship, ask questions about what you see. Spirituality and its ceremonial expression is an ancient part of the human experience, and not simply a lifestyle choice or a set of accoutrements to be donned and discarded at will, and to represent either as such in writing severely weakens the narrative. With all of this at your disposal, try sketching your own fictional religion. If you do not know where to start, consider the three others I have deliberately not included this week (and not because I am too lazy, no siree!) or take the Noctiminads in a different direction. Even if a writer never plans to use these specific religions, thought experiments like these are very useful for training creative skills and thinking critically about one’s own writing.

Have any questions? Did I fail to address anything you hoped I would? Leave me a comment and I will do what I can to resolve any lingering nebulousness.

From next week Writing Worlds will be moving to a fortnightly schedule whilst I deal with work commitments and catch up on sleep. In the meantime, say your prayers, and make sure you are ready for the end of the world!

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