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Episode 007 - How to write about religion for a mainstream or secular audience

Introducing foreign religious ideologies to readers can be a challenge in both fiction and nonfiction genres. It’s something I’ve struggled with when memoiring about my childhood as a Mormon. For a reader who is unfamiliar with my faith, the ordinance of Baptisms for the Dead can and has given the uninformed a visual of a congregation of Dr. Frankensteins in church dress dipping cadavers into a baptismal font. So I wondered, how can I seamlessly describe it without bogging the reader down with lengthy explanations or halting the flow of the prose? And what of a younger perspective, how would I explain complex doctrine with a child’s voice? How does an author fluidly and organically introduce religious holidays, doctrines, and edicts? And how does she differentiate between culture and doctrine? 

These questions haunted me as I began my first memoir and discovered my fellow students had little understanding of my Mormon faith. I analyzed some of the great faith memoirists and one fiction writer to unearth strategies used to make faith as natural to the reader as the scenery in a film. I tackled four faiths, Catholicism in Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes; the Mennonite faith in Rhoda Janzen’s narrative, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress; Laestadian Lutheranism in Hanna Pylväinen’s novel, We Sinners; and Mormonism in Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks. Only Mormonism and Catholicism were familiar faiths to me, but with all four I examined writing styles, focusing on how each book addressed the creed versus culture divide. While all were Christian faiths, what I found can still be applied when writing about non-Christian faiths.   

Good luck writing, friends!    

Rena  

Works Cited

Allison, Dorothy. “Place.” The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. 15 July 2014. Web. 23 May 2016.

Baxter, Charles. “Against Epiphanies”. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1997. Print. 

Brooks, Joanna. The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith. New York: Free Press, 2012. Print. 

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. "Hamlet and His Problems." The Sacred Wood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921; Bartleby.com, 1996. Web. 20 May 2016. 

Janzen, Rhoda. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. Print. 

McCourt, Frank. Angela's Ashes: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print. 

Russell, Karen. “Engineering Impossible Architectures.” The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House. Portland: Tin House Books, 2012. Print. 

Pylväinen Hanna. We Sinners. New York: Henry Holt, 2012. Print. 

"William Faulkner - Banquet Speech"Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 23 May 2016. 

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