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Author David Adams Richards (Peter Power)
Author David Adams Richards (Peter Power)

David Adams Richards

Canada's literary community gets religion all wrong Add to ...

I have read seven novels from young men and women in the past two years that have had what I consider modern, representative "religious" characters. In all but one of these books, the characters were agents of the most self-righteous kinds of oppression. In fact, in some texts, the words Catholic or religious have become synonymous with all things that good and ordinary people fight against.

As I said to one young man: "I like how you forgive the squeegee kids for pummelling the evangelist to death with his own Bible."

And to a young woman: "I think the only people you didn't show compassion for were those terribly ignorant and pregnant Catholic girls, the three rednecks in the truck, and that picture of Jesus Christ."

"That's because I don't think religion should come into my work," the woman boldly said.

"Well, I agree with you - but you really shouldn't scapegoat so many of them to make your point," I declared.

These were silly remarks, but they do have very serious implications in our broader literary and social culture. And it is an ongoing debate that should be recognized.

For who today wants to write kindly about rednecks, or for that matter religious people? And what becomes of you if you do? In fact, many of our younger writers might not know many Catholic girls, even if they caricature them in their work. And unfortunately it is not only the right wing in our Western society that exploits cultural stereotypes.

Being interviewed about my last book, The Lost Highway, brought this idea home. The child Amy and her faith were viewed positively, especially toward the end of the book.

"But isn't that conservative?" one interviewer cautioned, smiling kindly, knowing I must have made a mistake. That's because, within Canada's writing and intellectual community, many people I know will not consider the idea that skepticism toward the existence of God may not be absolutely progressive.

It is a credulity of thought that is almost prerequisite in much of our literary culture. Darwin proved it, or someone proved it, and now our literary quest is to make such proof absolute. The derision toward anyone who believes is swift and non-negotiable among many writers today, or at least in their writing. It is as if a doctrine has been set in motion in which not to demean religion is sacrilegious.

That is not to say I want anyone to write religious books. Far from it, let me tell you. Anyone who thinks that misses the point entirely.

I am simply reflecting on the plethora of anti-religious elitism that passes for both comedy and concern among people who lecture from the stage. It is a kind of swaggering doctrine that in its own way is as rigid in its essential belief as the evangelical or Catholic dogma it mocks.

There is also a tendency on the left to believe that the very belief in God is itself too conservative or right-wing to have intelligence, leading to an unspoken assumption of comfortable agnostic pluralism. Seeing the lunatic religious fringe, those who would burn our books and libraries, as a danger, there are some who have transposed this danger to anyone who disagrees with any value that the literary left deems safe.

Of course the religious lunatic fringe would burn libraries and destroy freedoms that are established for the security of us all. But so would some of the literary left who believe only so-called politically correct writing to be fair writing - and this thinking can be extremely dangerous and limiting as well.

In fact, I have noticed the same tendency in people who have the power to shape opinion about other people's work. Their qualifying discretion is at times so dangerous and limiting that some who put juries together and judge awards believe that mentioning sin in a work is tantamount to ... well, sin. It is this kind of thinking that is more noticeable among my peers than any other.

And it is that way because books are, to some, supposed to be the answer to liturgy. Especially, among some of my closer friends, Catholic liturgy.

In so many novels, the characters stand up against a predetermined set of values that the reader is familiar with but have been taught by these books to fear, ridicule and mistrust - even if, in private, many of the readers might in some ways trust and depend on the values castigated. So a falsehood is set in motion by the very presumption of casting out falsehood, and the reader is the vulnerable target.

That certain writers I know and admire are prone to this duplicity is more upsetting than those fundamentalists I do not know and do not admire telling me works of genius are false. For it so happens that people I admire who have found a comfortable niche in the writing community have said this as well, about certain works that I admire very much.

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