Between Fiction and Religion a talk with David Dickinson. Meet the author of one of our most exciting titles of the year.
What inspired you to write Make-Believe?
My previous study of the depiction of Methodists in British fiction since 1890 ended with the thought that reading about Methodists in novels can help the Church discern how best to serve the present age, and I commented that, in this way, made-up stories become make-believe which is what novels are intended to be. Fiction is make-believe, and aims to convince readers of the truth it holds. More significant, however, was my curiosity: why did religious, theological or spiritual themes occur so often in novels when they are written in an age of reduced religious observance? I wanted to discover the answer to what seemed to me to be a strange phenomenon.
What does your writing process consist of?
I like to use the old tools of the trade. Of course, one cannot avoid using a qwerty keyboard and screen, but, for me, nothing beats writing with a fountain pen. I make notes, plan chapters and frame sentences on paper, so I usually write on screen from notes on paper.
One trick that helps me write is that I try always to break off from writing at a point when I know what I am going to say next. I find there is nothing worse than returning to a blank page with an empty mind, so I rarely put down my pen when I am stuck. One frustration I have is that a lot of writing seems to go on in my head at odd times and, by the time I find somewhere to jot it down, the beautiful sentence I had in my head has lost some of its beauty.
Make-Believe ranges from discussions on the Utopian fiction of Sci-Fi to the real- world settings of detective novels and historical fiction. How does the prism of faith enable you to explore in these narratives?
It worries me that reading novels as a Christian distorts my appreciation of them, because I notice and risk over-emphasizing what they, either intentionally or incidentally, imply about God. I hope the fact that this worries me prevents me falling into the trap.
Interestingly the prism of faith through which I explore the breadth of narratives discussed in Make-Believe is a faith in fiction, a belief in story. I must trust the novelists to tell me truth. It helps that the Christian faith is narratival.
For many of us in the West, religion has ceased to be a major part of our lives. How is it a relevant consideration in the fiction we produce?
I find that you cannot keep God off the pages of contemporary novels. I am not being particularly pious when I say this. It is simply that even atheist novels make me think about how I believe about God. This is probably because religion and literature share a common interest, which is what it means to be human.
The authors we encounter in Make-Believe are an eclectic mix. How did you go about choosing who to write about?
All the novels in Make-believe were published this century, and most of them in this decade. I wanted them to be as contemporary as possible because the research question was “Why is there so much about God in novels published now when fewer people think about God?” The novels had to be of ‘now’. Except in niche genres, such as science fiction, it was important that the novels were not obscure. So almost all of them were reviewed in prominent newspapers and had reasonably high sales. They almost chose themselves; at any time in recent years, you might spot someone on a train reading any one of the books I discuss (except the SF chapter!)
Who are your favourite authors writing today?
I enjoy Rose Tremain, Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt, but gone are the days when I kept a keen eye on the review pages for the next publication of my favourite author of all time, Iris Murdoch.
To whom will Make-Believe appeal most?
Make-Believe should appeal not only to people who enjoy reading, but especially those who have an interest in matters theological and who want to think freely and widely about their religious beliefs. In the introduction I stress that the book is nothing to do with what we should believe, but explores the question of why we believe. Reading novels challenges the assumptions we make. At one stage in writing Make-Believe I considered writing it as a resource book for reading groups. I think it still could be used in that way.
Does the decline in church attendance signal a crisis of faith in the UK?
I think it signals a crisis for the church, showing that the organisation is no longer engaging people. In clinging to old ways of doing theology and in continuing to adopt ill-educated approaches to reading the Bible, the church is driving a gulf between itself and the people it professes to care for. The 21st-century world is one of rapid change and the church must run fast to keep up.
Decline in church attendance is accompanied by a greater evil – and increase in expressions of extreme and fundamentalist religion, which at best results in intolerance and at worst in acts of violence.
My book is a plea for rational, reasonable religion which takes account of the presence of God in all that lies around us (and that includes the novels we read).
Is faith always religious?
Theology is our talk of God; religion is our practices to do with God; and spirituality is our thinking about God. I believe that we are naturally spiritual beings, but not necessarily believers in God. Our awareness of the numinous, our sense that there is more to life than meets the eye, is part of what distinguishes us from other animals. So we might say that an essential part of being human is having faith that there is purpose and meaning in whatever we experience. For many this faith has religious or theological implications, but for others the faith they live by is less specifically God-centred. So, no, faith isn’t always religious. Indeed, it isn’t always theological. Some of the novels discussed in Make-Believe suggest people are naturally religious in that we need foundation stories and rituals to keep our sense of individual and communal identity. We all need some form of faith to get through day-to-day life, even if it’s nothing more than faith that the bus driver will take us to the destination stated on the front of the bus.
What will be your next project?
In an aside in the current book, I remarked that St Augustine of Hippo saw reading as a spiritual exercise. I want to take that further in my next project. I intend to write a book on the spirituality of reading literature other than scripture. Novels and poetry feed the soul!
What are you currently reading?
Tom Holland’s Dominion which tells the history of Christianity from the perspective of how and why its thinking has influenced so many aspects of our lives today and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered. At Christmas though, I am thinking of spending time in familiar territory and will bury my head in David Copperfield.
Make-Believe: God in 21st Century Novels is available for pre-order