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Culture

The Spiritual Art of the Short Story

Keith McDonald | May 7, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Keith McDonald | May 7, 2024

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

As a journalist, I get a front-row seat at a lot of horror shows. You might expect that. Many media outlets love scandals, fights, tragedies, and “battles” — the greater the shock value, the better. 

There is no getting away from the depressing priority of news organizations to thrive on controversy, to exaggerate it, and, if necessary, even to create controversy.  

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The Baha’i teachings point out that much of the arts, unfortunately, follows the news media’s lead down this twisted path. As early as the 1930s, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, warned against “the prostitution of art and literature.” In a 1980 letter, the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected administrative body of the world’s Baha’is, wrote:

Even music, art, and literature, which are to represent and inspire the noblest sentiments and highest aspirations and should be a source of comfort and tranquillity for troubled souls, have strayed from the straight path and are now the mirrors of the soiled hearts of this confused, unprincipled, and disordered age.

After I left journalism, I realized I wanted to keep writing — but to try and cultivate those “noblest sentiments” and “highest aspirations” and to provide “comfort and tranquillity for troubled souls.” 

As a Baha’i, I know that I am living in a world where the old order is collapsing — and my priority is to help with the reconstruction. These words from a letter written to an individual Baha’i on behalf of Shoghi Effendi show how a writer can do this:

What you could do, and should do, is to use your stories to become a source of inspiration and guidance for those who read them. With such a means at your disposal you can spread the spirit and teachings of the Cause; you can show the evils that exist in society, as well as the way they can be remedied. If you possess a real talent in writing you should consider it as given by God and exert your efforts to use it for the betterment of society.

I saw fiction as the right vehicle for me — in particular, short fiction. The hectic pace of modern life, its information overload and love of social media have driven many people away from longer reads. But short doesn’t mean superficial. Just as poetry can pack a powerful punch in just a few lines, short prose also has that sort of potential. It can be hard to achieve depth in, say, 2000-3000 words, but I want short stories to get out of the shallows and to do it in a positive way rather than wallowing in the darker recesses of life.  

So I set out to write short stories where the reader will hopefully warm to my characters and continue to care about them and their situations even after finishing the story. I also want readers to get something out of the story and to take it on board in their own life, in the same way that an everyday experience can be a positive trigger. 

I want to enter readers’ everyday worlds and not blast them with guns and over-the-top drama. 

The result: a Baha’i-inspired collection of stories titled “Moments of Truth: Stories about nights when the light gets in.”

One story, “Eternity: Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand,” explores the challenge of a new romance where Tracey is strongly committed to her religious belief and Sean has no such belief. Observations over the years of relationship dilemmas among Baha’is inspired this story. Will marriage restrict Tracey’s involvement in her faith? Can Sean understand and respect the importance of religious belief? Should she even persist with dating someone who doesn’t have faith or belief in God? 

Another story, “Saint & Sinner,” is about a catch-up between two young Australian friends in London. Jacquie, a Christian, is visiting the UK with her husband, and Soraya, a Baha’i, lives and works in London. Trauma haunts both lives. 

Although my stories have Baha’i characters, I try not to preach or unrealistically portray Baha’is as blemish-free. Actually, eight of the 13 stories have no direct Baha’i storyline, but they raise spiritual issues, describing situations that portray a Baha’i-like response or challenge the reader’s own moral compass. 

In one story, a young girl’s naïve positivity contrasts with her grandfather’s cynicism; in another, a young man has to decide if a lie is a red flag for his budding relationship; and in another, a university student’s friend turns on her. 

In all the stories, characters have a choice to be generous or selfish; to be honest or to lie; to be their higher self or lower self. Above all, will their response help in some small way to build a better world? Doing that is at the heart of the Baha’i teachings and all spiritual teachings, as this passage from the Baha’i teachings illustrates:

You must become the shining candles of moral precepts and spiritual ideals and be the means of the illumination of others. Clothe your bodies with the robes of virtues. Characterize yourselves with the characteristics of the people of divine morality … as paragons of worthiness, examples of nobility of nature, observers of the moral laws, holding in subordination the lower element by the higher spirit, the conquerors of self and the masters of wholesome, vital forces in all the avenues of life.

RELATED: Uplifting Stories About Finding Joy and Happiness

Twelve of the stories have a Baha’i quotation at the beginning, giving context to what follows and indicating what underpins the writing. As I explain in the book’s introduction:

… a huge part of my life has revolved around the Baha’i Faith and Baha’is for almost 50 years and the work here draws on that experience. That is not to say that the book is necessarily about the Faith but it is written from a Baha’i perspective. Our faith, if we have one, is not something that we can switch on or off at will. It should be the essence of who we are, wherever we go and whatever we do.

One story — about a son finding a batch of handwritten letters his late parents exchanged when they were courting — does not begin with a Baha’i quotation. Instead, it starts with this one by Australian author Nikki Gemmell, from a column she wrote in The Weekend Australian newspaper:

Handwritten letters often feel more intimate than a conversation. It’s the soul flung wide; unlike real life where so often we fold the wings over us. Hiding behind our boasts and glibness and slippery untruths.

Although she is referring to letters written with pen and ink, her words can also apply to many books. When authors write, they often open themselves up far more than they do in conversations, and that, in turn, can open a reader’s heart as well.

The world of short stories — both fiction and non-fiction — is a road less traveled so far by Baha’is but one ripe for exploration. Who knows what any of the arts will be like when the world emerges from its present darkness into the light of a more spiritual global culture? The first shots of that transition, the Baha’i teachings say, are only just appearing. 

“Moments of Truth: Stories about Nights When the Light Gets In” is published by Baha’i Publications Australia and is available from online book retailers and Baha’i bookshops.

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