The experience of religion requires a certain level of creativity, to travel to places that are not seen. It is natural that people over time have used literature to express their profound religious experiences, to communicate with others and fully integrate them in their own minds.
Writers have also used prose, poetry, plays and other forms of literature to pose questions and critiques about religious beliefs and practices, and their impact on the individual and society. Literature, in turn, has been influenced by the themes of major spiritual scriptures.
• English language and linguistics
• Creative writing
Some contemporary examples include J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series, which have been popular with readers for decades and draw on Christian themes. Classic literature such as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” epically retells of the fall of Adam and Eve, focusing on the motivations of the fallen angels. 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels explore religious and philosophical themes such as the nature of God and purpose of evil. Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” vividly describes his vision of traveling through hell, purgatory and heaven. One of the earliest recorded epics, the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh, tells of a king who is two-thirds god and one-third man, on a quest for immortality. The Bhagavad-Gita, an ancient Hindu text, tackles in poetic form the discord between the senses and intuition of cosmic order. It reportedly influenced the works of Omar Khayyam, Walt Whitman, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse and T S Eliot. Hesse’s “Siddhartha” allegorically deals with the spiritual journey of an Indian man called Siddhartha during the time of the Buddha.
These works were not all originally written in English, but translations of many have become part of the canon of English literature courses. They are only a few examples of the relationship between religion and literature, since the beginning of the written word. Their enduring popularity speaks to the power of narrative, myth and story embedded in works of religious scripture and literature. These stories are valued, examined, told and retold because readers and writers find they express deep truths about human nature and the world.
Religion and language: Religion has also influenced the English language spoken and written today, as the blending of religious traditions and cultures over the centuries has added words to each language. One example is the Bible, whose language, symbolism, “characters,” and themes influence the style, symbolism and narrative of much literature today, directly or indirectly. The Bible was first translated into English in the 1520s and 1530s by William Tyndale, leader of the Reformation in England. Phrases we think of as biblical, such as “let there be light” and “ye of little faith” come from his translation of the Bible, as well as “eat, drink and be merry,” “the powers that be,” “the salt of the earth” ” a man after his own heart” and “the signs of the times.”
These found their way into the 1611 King James Bible, which also is the source for English-language expressions such as “can the leopard change his spots?”, “eye to eye,” “gird one’s loins,” “in the twinkling of an eye,” “fell flat on his face,” “a fly in the ointment,” “labor of love,” “put words in his mouth,” “land of the living,” and “the root of the matter,” among others. Some say the King James version is the greatest work of English prose ever written. Its poetic style is reflected in the works of William Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, Coleridge, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It is because modern English was so influenced by the King James translation that its text remains readable – and in use – four centuries later.
Issues today: Understanding the religious roots of literature and language lends deeper insights into the works of many writers, both contemporary and of the past. As the global marketplace expands exposure to international literature, knowledge of the texts and traditions of religions around the world will lead to a more contextualized reading of these works, their cultures and current events.