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In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: “You know not, but I know.” Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: “Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.” – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 30.
Baha’is believe that respect for the ideas and beliefs of others stands at the heart of good human relationships. When you read a novel or see a movie, look for that kind of respect—you might find that it determines the ultimate effectiveness of the work.
When writers have an agenda, a particular belief system to promote, an axe to grind, or a point to make, their use of religion can easily become heavy-handed. The literary term for this is didactics—meaning the prose has the ulterior motive of instructing the reader.
Having decided that she wishes to prove a particular point to be correct, the writer may just lay it out—straight up. In non-fiction, this can result in the writer sounding as if she is preaching. She might resort to sarcasm or mockery rather than dealing with the ideas directly. This has the effect of engaging emotions, but seldom results in reasoned dialogue. It can also result in the writer making unsupported dogmatic statements, and almost always discourages real dialogue.
In fiction, didactics often ends in some type of verbal warfare; the characters don’t have dialogues so much as they trade sermons or dissertations… and the “good guy” usually wins.
The biggest drawback to sermonizing in fiction is that, while it may sound good to the choir, lay readers are very likely going to put the book down once they realize they’re being preached at. This is not good. The point of language is to communicate. Alienating the person you’re trying to reach is counterproductive. Simply put, if you scream your message, the listener will only cover her ears. When it comes to driving a point home, less is more.
One manuscript I critiqued in a workshop had, built into its synopsis, a section on what the writer was hoping to prove by writing the book. The story itself fell prey to a number of the problems that arise when a writer has an inflexible agenda, but the worst was the manipulation of the characters. A female character was described as being completely naked, though she was in a busy spaceport terminal awaiting a flight.
“Why is she naked?” I asked the writer. ”It would be dangerous, unsanitary, and uncomfortable, among other things.”
“Well,” he said, “I wanted to show how hung-up this other character was on sexuality and his prejudice against the people of this ‘cult’ that run around naked.” The dialogue between the naked lady and the protagonist was a dissertation duel about his hang-ups—not very believable.
I proposed the idea that the writer have his female character travel clothed so she’d blend in with everyone else. Then, when the protagonist later discovers she’s a member of this “cult,” he’ll have his prejudices shattered because she has already challenged his beliefs about what “folks like that” are like. I don’t know if he took my advice.
In my novels, when I pit opposing points-of-view against each other in a religious or philosophical setting, I try to write honestly from each point-of-view. I try to imagine what a person who holds a particular viewpoint would say or do under the circumstances. If I can’t imagine what a character with that mindset might advance as an argument, I can’t write it. That means I have to research that point-of-view and try to understand it.
A lot of writers of religious works, whether fiction or non-fiction, don’t do this.
Why not? Because it’s easier to knock over a straw man than a real one.
In the same way, any real, effective conversation about beliefs has to open up and go beyond facile, two-dimensional, straw-man arguments. In order to truly understand what you believe, I have to put aside my own opinions and prejudices and listen carefully. You have to do the same. In our culture, we tend to talk past each other when we talk about religion.
So in the next essay in this series, we’ll discuss why straw men should avoid people with matches.