Stories and Functions – How Religion Works

In the creative endeavours I am familiar with — writing fiction, game design and graphic design — there is an interplay between stories and functions.

Imagine I’m writing a story for children. A problem I have is that, while children want to be strong, self-sufficient and confident, they still live under the wing of their parents. So I need to get my protagonists away from their parents. I can do this in a number of story-ways. I might have a distracted or absent parent (“My Neighbour Totoro”, “Northern Lights”), orphaned children with uncaring guardians (“Harry Potter”), children who are magically removed from their parent-figures (“Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”), a setting in a boarding school (“Mallory Towers”, “Billy Bunter”) and so on. So I have a story, which serves to clothe some function of the narrative.

I see theology as a creative discipline. Theology recognizes a set of constraints and opportunities, and weaves a story or set of doctrines around them. A good theology does so in a way that the story appears to be natural, almost inevitable, and it hides the underlying function. The functions behind religion are pretty consistent, but the theological solutions can vary wildly.

So, let’s say you’re creating theology today. The scientific method puts constraints on what you can credibly say. You can undermine it, refute it, accommodate it, or embrace it, but it is hard to ignore it. You need to move God out of the realm of scientific testing. There are lots of ways to do that, and different groups do it in different ways. You can have a God who has no connection with the natural world, non-empirical by definition. Or you can have a God who refuses to be observed, because it diminishes the ability for people to have faith. Or you can have a God who works in the ‘heart’ (i.e. psychologically). But in all cases we can say of a theology: “what story or stories are used to implement that function?”

Or, as another example, if we want a faith that spreads, we have to create some impetus for new people to come into the faith (e.g. “if you don’t spread the good news, people will go to hell”, “we are the only way to bring peace to people’s suffering”, “God doesn’t want you to use contraception: large families are a blessing.”). Not all faiths use this function, but those that do can theologize the function in many ways.

If you take a good creative writing course, you learn to identify these functions and brainstorm ways to implement functions in your own work. I think we can do the same with theology: we can ask what lies beneath. Why would this theology be chosen? What is it doing that sustains, promotes or defines the faith? What behaviours does it create in those that believe it?

What, in short, does this bit of theology do?

The answers to that question are relatively few. And when asked, they reveal the actual structure of a religion, and the actual unity between them.


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2 responses to “Stories and Functions – How Religion Works

  1. I wonder what percent of good story writers know that they are doing these manipulations or just do it naturally?

  2. Ian

    Its a good question. I think a much larger percentage than the theologians who are aware they are doing it 🙂

    I’ve read a bunch of books and done some online courses on creative writing, and these issues definitely do get talked about. Writers on these programs often say things like “so, I need to get my character to trust this other character, so they can be betrayed, how do I get them to do that?”. At a broader level, things like building tension are reflected in ‘story structure’ which is definitely a big part of learning to write. So I think it is taught and understood.

    On the other hand, I’ve not read anything that tells you how to do theology in the same way 🙂

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