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Writing About Religious Beliefs in a Memoir

How To Write About Religious Beliefs

Writing about religious beliefs can be a quagmire for the memoir writer. How can you write about religious beliefs without sinking your memoir? The answer that I can offer you comes down to the same old suggestion: show and don’t tell. Showing one’s religious beliefs in action or in a scene allows the reader the freedom to accept or reject the belief itself while continuing to read the memoir.

Every piece of writing has a theme.

The theme is the why of our writing. You and I write because, at some level, we want to impart a point of view. It is an expression of our parenting function. The big problem with theme is that it so easily slips into preaching—or in religious terms: proselytization.

In proselytization, one writes about religious beliefs in such a way that one is telling the reader what to believe. When one shows what one believes, one simply portrays, or describes, an experience. The reader is free to accept or reject the veracity of the belief just as s/he continues to accept that you are telling your truth—not The Truth—about an experience.

You can express religious beliefs without preachiness.

If one writes about “All Praise to the Lord from whom all good things come” as a way of explaining something, that is proselytization. There is a creedal statement there about the source of good things. Children on their own do not believe that all good things come from some god other than their parents. The above example is telling what the experience is supposed to be or mean—from the point of view of a creed. It is preachy. It is telling at its worst and reveals little psychology or insight into character.

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If, however, one writes, “I shouted ‘All Praise to the Lord from whom all good things come,’ knowing that was the right answer in the context of my family and that my mother would be happy to hear me say this,” one is showing. One has created a description of an experience. There is a psychological insight here. Or, perhaps one could write, “I shouted ‘All Praise to the Lord from whom all good things come.’ I was feeling great relief and I could not ascribe any other source to that relief other than the god of my childhood.” Again that is showing. The writer is owning the experience and is not assuming that the reader is in agreement. The theme is clearly one of divine agency but the reader is not being asked to believe it—just that the writer believed it.

In short, one is telling when one has a take on an event that one insists the reader have. One is showing when one is open to the reader making a genuine response that may or may not agree with our position.

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6 Responses to Writing About Religious Beliefs in a Memoir

  1. they coulda told me August 22, 2013 at 11:02 AM #

    “Show, don’t tell”–that summarizes it perfectly. Excellent advice in so many situations, and nicely stated here.

  2. Denis August 22, 2017 at 11:48 AM #

    “Show and don’t tell” is often a safe way to get out of a situation that could easily engulf a writer. It gives the reader the task of sorting through to a personal conclusion. The writer doesn’t have to do it for the reader.

    I seem to remember Jung having written someplace that people don’t listen to what others tell them–even when they are paying big bucks for the advice (such as paying Jung for a consultation). People change when they have insight not when others have insight.

    “Show and don’t tell” carries the day again!

  3. Mary Anne Benedetto August 22, 2017 at 5:37 PM #

    Good point! I can see how easily one might get carried away, particularly if one loves to share his/her faith with others. Approaching from the angle of writing examples of times in our lives when we have felt the presence of God in a situation or the hand of God in an outcome explains our own personal experience and doesn’t preach or come across as pushy. It doesn’t indicate that the reader is required to possess an identical experience or belief. Sharing experiences rather than shoving technical theology can be a gentler approach and still be effective in reaching the reader.

  4. Karen Douglass August 22, 2017 at 9:24 PM #

    This is excellent advice. As you so often do, you have called attention to one of the important points about memoir. We attempt to tell a story based on experience and drift off into opinion, trying to force change in the reader and that rarely works. Thanks, Denis.

  5. Denis Ledoux September 13, 2017 at 8:09 AM #

    Mary Anne, Well said. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  6. Denis Ledoux September 13, 2017 at 8:10 AM #

    Karen, Yes, it always comes down to “show and don’t tell.” How is your writing coning along?

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