clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, February 04, 2004
Do you need to believe in God to be a good writer?

Well, I guess that's not exactly what I mean. You can be an atheist and still work it. But do you have to care about God to be a good writer? To believe that, in some way or other, religion matters, and that religion can have an effect on your life?

It's kind of embarrassing where this thought comes from, but fuck it, might as well start there anyway: the Simpsons. I was thinking about how weird it was for a show that was denounced by a Republican President to have one of its phrases co-opted in service of a Republican war, i.e. "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Good for the right for realizing that it's easier to co-opt a cultural artifact than to criticize it, but Matt Groening hates you, and the Simpsons writers clearly do, too.

But of course, it's not all liberal propaganda--that's one of the things that makes it a sight better than Life in Hell most of the time. For instance, there's its complicated and frankly weird attitude toward religion. Flanders is a dick, mainly, although he's gone from a straight dick to more of a sympathetic foil to Homer's unthinking boorishness; in later seasons the writers honestly seem to be more appreciative of his faith, even if he's occasionally used as a vehicle for anti-xtian jokes. ("Now aren't you kids glad we didn't get those flu shots?" "Y-y-y-y-es." "Mommy?") But I'm thinking most specifically of an earlier instance: the episode where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for $5. What ends up happening, of course, is that his life takes a turn for the worse: automatic doors won't open, his pets start to hate him, and he seems to change dramatically in terms of his personality. Even though it's a purely symbolic transaction, the suggestion is that this actually happened, and because it actually happened Bart becomes less than human. His then casual faith in God goes from not-caring to caring-deeply, because of empirical evidence (and this is where their secular roots shine through--if it'd been a Chick tract the empirical evidence would've been him going to purgatory or something). He cares because he needs to, and after caring for a while and doing some stuff he gets his soul back and everything's fine.

This was a weird episode because it took the concept of a soul so seriously. Bart really lost it, and it was really a problem, and he really tried hard to get it back. They sort of pull it back to half-sectarian Aquinasian theory at the end with Lisa's pantheistic notion of a soul being won through effort, like "having a lot of soul" or "paying your dues," but it's ultimately an episode that takes the traditional American view of religion very seriously. The Simpsons is a great show, and a fiercely humanist show, but even the humanists and the deists found a lot to love in Christianity, or at least found a way to adopt it to their purposes; the ones that didn't now look a little foolish and juvenile. Would the Simpsons be such a great show if they didn't take religion seriously in some way? Is this attitude one that informs all of their writing, and does that view, no matter how hidden, the view that this old thing matters, does that make all the rest of it matter?

What I'm trying to suggest is that the Judeo-Christian narrative is so firmly rooted in our expectation of narrative, such a huge part of the way we are raised to appreciate art, that without some sort of nod to it, no matter how subtle, the work can't really be taken seriously--or, more accurately, that the more seriously you take it, up to a certain point of diminishing returns, the more gravitas and perceived worth your work has. Many of Leonard Cohen's songs, for instance, take Christian imagery very seriously and do absolutely mind-blowing things without, despite any indication (or, I guess given "The Future," very little indication) that Cohen himself strictly speaking believes in these things. He doesn't believe in God, but he believes that God makes a good story, that the story of God is not so destructive that it needs to be avoided entirely, and that the story of God is as important and worthy of study as anything else, as anything in human nature or nature itself. That this unnatural thing is, in some ways, a real thing.

PJ Harvey, too: her religious songs are fantastic, despite drawing purely on received narrative and not personal belief. But on the other hand, her relationship songs are fantastic, and she's said that almost none of those are based in real experience. She just draws from this very old stock of story and makes new things out of it.

Think about those teenagey bands that casually toss around Christian imagery, often to criticize it: seems pretty stupid, because they don't take it very seriously. They take it, indeed, as something ridiculous or destructive.

Maybe this works because it's an effective way of making small things into big things without resorting to the usual big tropes of epic sci-fi or historical drama. A man sitting at his desk thinking is boring, but it's interesting if he's thinking about space aliens or about attacking the Russians or about saving the world--or about some religious experience. It ties that small, individual experience into something old and respected. Especially old--especially old. Those particular interlocking sets of narratives become a kind of crypt or library, a baseless historical reservoir of all sorts of experiences and stories and ideas. Very little else does that, not without some work. But it's not just the signs and signifiers and quotes and ideas, it's the methods, too, the way stories are resolved that gain credence, gain power. It's not just someone nailed to a cross, it's someone winning by dying, by sacrifice. It's not just someone parting a sea, it's someone triumphing because of oppression. It's the ways things make sense to be resolved when we can't explain how they resolve, or when they really don't resolve but our sense of narrative demands something anyway.

Why I'm thinking about this, I guess, is because I'm thinking about why I dislike all those little stories, why I have such doubts that they represent good writing. Stories about families and marriages, about relationships and divorces. All those little things seeming so inconsequential and so uninteresting. But at the same time, some work. Why? Why not? Why in some forums--songs, for instance--but not in others, like novels? Why care sometimes but not others? Is it a simple matter of narrative efficiency or is it indeed, as I say, something deeper? Does there need to be that old technique, that learned narrative sense, beneath it all for it to be effective? But isn't that old technique what makes it so boring? Isn't it, instead, the ability to make it seem big, to make it seem important, to make it seem like it matters to you?

Should I start taking religion a little more seriously? I don't know...