Friday, August 4, 2017

Religion on Fantasy #21: Do's and Don'ts of Religion

Life is filled with do's and don'ts, and these little prescriptions add more to the lives of our characters than the big beliefs. Some of these do's and don'ts are religious in nature, shared by entire communities, affecting every way that a community looks and feels, down to the rhythm of a day.

Do's are the easier things to identify. These are the things that add character and texture to a people or place that's not like the character and texture of another people or place.

If you go into a Chinese or Indian restaurant, you are bound to see statues near the cash register, presumably divine beings of good fortune. They are part of the landscape, part of what a restaurant ought to have and ought to be. You won't see the same thing going into a McDonald's. (That might be a lie. Is Ronald like a divine being, too?)

Among Christians, you're bound to see crosses on crucifixes. You might see other sorts of crucifixes, too, but mostly you see necklaces. Crucifixes are frequently put above doors, or in the most important room of the house. Presumably, the crucifixes keep evil from entering the front door, or is given a place firmly among the family.

On Saturday, near a synagog, you'll see Jews, dressed in black, walking to services. On Sundays, the Christians drive to church. Among Muslims, they stop and pray multiple times per day, facing Mecca. Religion affects the rhythm of life, the way in which time passes.

For each thing that's allowed, it seems that there's something else forbidden. On Fridays, Catholics may skip eating meat. You won't find the Jews or Muslims eating pork. The Jews might not clip the locks of their hair. The Amish refuse more modern technology, riding about in horse and carriages while others drive in cars.

Fasting is one of the most common don'ts across the world. All cultures seem to have fasting traditions, people self-deny themselves for religious reasons. The discipline of controlling hunger seems entwined with the discipline of religion.

During some times of the year and some events, some do's become don'ts and some don't become do's. Fat Tuesday is the non-religious day of feasting and revelry that precedes the religious season of Lent, where the people deny themselves. In that day before, restraint is thrown off, and gluttony becomes a virtue.

The clothing of specialists is always regulated. Nobody can dress like a priest except a priest. Yet, there's a time where someone learning to be the clergy is able to change clothes, is able to go from someone forbidden from wearing certain clothing to being the person who wears those clothes. What was once forbidden is now allowed, at least for them.

The rules of cleanliness are rife with do's and don'ts, especially as doing the wrong thing can sully something holy, or ruin the relationship with something divine. Holy places make sure that their special spaces are fenced off, set aside, safe from people doing the wrong thing, safe from don'ts enacted by ignorant people.

People who are especially religious take on more do's and don'ts than the average person. A Buddhist monk carries only a walking stick and a begging bowl. A Franciscan monk forswears wealth. A Crusader volunteers to fight for a religious cause. A priest becomes responsible for the spiritual well being of people who he may not know.

A few select do's and don'ts can go a long way to giving a texture and feel to characters, peoples, and places. Sometimes the effects will be modest, but at other times, the effects will reverberate through the story as some do's and don'ts will derail the plot, sending it off into new and unexpected directions.

Return to: Religion in Fantasy