Friday, April 19, 2013

Religion in Fiction: Guest Post by Declan Finn

Today's guest blogger is Declan Finn, author of the thriller A Pius Man. He'll be discussing how religion is portrayed in fiction. He has some fascinating observations and I think you'll enjoy his post.

Religion in fiction.

Can religious people in fiction have a worse reputation? Seriously, even ignoring the novels of Dan Brown, being religious in a novel is more than likely to have an arbitrary “villain” label slapped on your forehead like the mark of Cain – and no, I don’t mean the Marvel villain. In murder mysteries, short of a Father Dowling or a Father Brown, the religious tend to get it even worse, as they are almost universally the villain. And if you go into general media, forget it.  The Pianist had actually been criticized for having Catholic priests coming to the aide of the protagonist, sheltering him from Nazis—which happened a lot in World War II, where anywhere between 700,000 and 1.2 million Jews had been hidden exclusively by Catholics (depending on who you ask).

I live in a family of readers. We tend to write TV episodes as we watch them on television. Sometimes, the writers out-think us; sometimes we like our endings better than the ones on the screen. And then, sometimes, we catch only an image, and we sigh, and we know exactly when everything starts to go downhill...

Have you ever wandered into a TV show, and without knowing anything of the story thus far, a mere thirty seconds can tell you more than you wanted to know? In fact, you know so much from that brief glance, you can, without any hesitation, write the entire episode?

This is pretty much how it goes in our house whenever we see almost any Christian clergyman on television. If it's some sort of religious figure, he's the murderer / pederast / psycho / bad guy. In fact, if there's a guest star who shows up as a priest, the only way my family is surprised is if the priest is not guilty of something. Also, if there's a choice between an old-fashioned, grouchy priest, and a hip, young good-looking priest filled with charisma, we know whodunit—the old guy, because killers are never charismatic, are they?

Now, unless someone can correct me, this rule only applies to some variety of Christian group, but, more often than not, it's a Catholic priest. Even on the television show 24, where Muslims terrorists were involved (literally) every other season for the first six years, no Imams were involved. I have never seen a Rabbi involved in a crime anywhere on television.

Under the heading of “these and other stupid things,” there are some interesting facts.



Despite what the average conspiracy theorist likes to spin, priests have a fairly good record, behavior-wise. Within the last ten years, The New York Times came up with an interesting number: 100. One hundred is the number of priests who have been guilty of abusing children. Not over the course of a decade or two, but over the previous SIXTY YEARS. So, one-hundred priests over the course of sixty years have been sick, twisted freaks, out of a NATIONAL population of over a hundred and nine thousand.

In 2004, John Jay did a study, and their number was4%. That's the number who were accused of sexual abuse. Of those allegations, 3% ended in a guilty verdict. 3%

So, many were exonerated. But, let's assume that some were never reported, because some aren't. So, let's assume these two numbers cancel each other out, and stick with 10,667.

Statistics professor Charol Shakeshaft, of the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, estimates the between 1991 and 2000, 290,000 students were sexually abused by public school teachers and personnel. One in every ten American children has been sexually abused at school.  And only 1% of allegations were investigated by the school board.

Hmm.... wait, in nine years, public school teachers have abused twenty-nine times the number of children than an entire profession of priests over the course of sixty years?

On average, abusive priests have been accused of going after 810 kids per year, but the public schools have assaulted 32,000 per annum …

Wow, Catholic Conspiracies? Really? Rome has nothing on the teachers union.

So, if we use the number of the NYTimes, there have probably been more abusive priests on television than in real life. I say “probably” because I've only seen a few dozen on television, and because I will use a power drill on my temple before I watch another episode of Law & Order: SVU. Certainly, though, the per capita count on tv is higher than in real life.

I must have missed all of those episodes where they went after teachers. Oh well.



Fun fact: since the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade, there have been a grand total of six abortionists assassinated in the United States.

Which means there have been more abortionists killed on the twenty year run of the original Law & Order than there ever were in real life.

And the amusing part is that all of the TV abortionists are so good, so pure, and so virtuous, that there was no other conceivable reason that anyone would want to kill them. In real police investigations, the first step is that you look at the significant other for your murderer. Why? Because, more often than not, that is the murderer. Cop shows will, occasionally, follow inquiries along this line.

But, nope, you can't have it happen like that when it's an abortionist. Really? Just once, I want an abortionist on television to be murdered by his ex-wife or something. Current wife? Girlfriend? Wife and girlfriend? No one is so perfect that the only people on the planet Earth who would want to kill him/her is a right-wing violent psychotic.


British TV

I don't know what it is with British television (not just the BBC), but, recently, I watched through a whole slew of British mysteries and stories, etc. After a while, I started to get the odd notion that the British have the strangest obsession with being gay. From the murder mysteries of Inspector Morse to the science fiction of Dr. Who, the list seems interminable.

Original statistics showed that 10% of the population had some sort of homosexual sex.

When they stopped polling the prison system exclusively, the number averaged out to about 1% of the population.

By my count, there have been more gay characters in all of British cinema than have ever been born.

And that's another problem I've had, as far as murder mysteries and cop shows are concerned: Notice that my formula about real life murders was generally gender-vague. Gay, straight, bi, whatever, most people are murdered by murdered by their nearest and dearest.

In fiction, the victim is murdered by anyone, as long as they are not gay. And no one will ever consider suggesting that they did it. This strikes me as mildly offensive. What sort of homophobe will declare that a gay person is innocent because they're gay? Isn't that just a sort of passive bigotry? "Oh, you're the obligatory gay character, you can't have committed this brilliant murder." What? Wait, really?



Why do I mention any of this? Because cliches are tiresome, and boring, and for the love of God, can't anyone come up with an original idea? There are only so many times I can see the same plot recycled through the same unoriginal scripts. If real life were like television, abortionists should collect hazard pay, every priest should be arrested immediately on suspicion, and half the universe is gay, and therefore, they've never perpetrated a crime.

Now, I neither approve of abusive clergy, assassinations of abortionists, nor am I condemning gays for being so. However, if you spend more than five minutes on someone being gay in a plot, you better have a dang good reason for it; I fast-forward through “straight” romance subplots unless it's relevant, so why should I care that two guys are making out in the corner?

I don't want Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in collars, but darn it, I'm tired of writers who are so brain damaged that the only way they can think to bring in a priest on television is to make them a villain.

And, please, can someone on a television murder mysteries kill an abortionist because the wife caught him cheating on her?

In my novel A Pius Man, I take pride of the fact that I take every cliché I can think of about the Catholic Church, and turn it on its head.

I have a mysterious priest in the background, and he seems to have combat training. Hmm … he's got pale skin and silver hair, does that qualify as an albino?

I have a violently, borderline right-wing African Pope and who uses the line “by any means necessary” more than a few times. Could he be a villain?

I have a violent, borderline psychopath that the Vatican has hired. That can't be good, can it?

I have a shifty-looking Cardinal, he up to something?

Does the head of Papal Security have to come head to head with the Pope? Maybe even arrest him?

The answers shake out to a yes or two, a few no, and a maybe. You can't trust anyone in A Pius Man, but you can't automatically conclude that they're the villains.

Nothing is obvious, even if everyone is dangerous.

The Author

The Novel


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thank you so much for writing this, Declan. Honestly, it needs to be addressed. I watched Foyle's War the other night and the killer was a priest, who turned out to be a Nazis spy -- who actually attended the seminary. Good actor, though. I thought he was a good guy.

Murdoch Mysteries had a show about gays that was done rather nice for change. By the end, Murdoch was left questioning his faith and all that he'd been taught.

Great post. Thanks.

Marian Allen said...

Thanks for the grumpy post I'd like to have written, if it hadn't involved actual statistical research. Why yes, I AM lazy -- How did you know?

I, too, include religious people in much of my fiction, and some are goodish and some are badish, some are awful and some are the kind of people you want to know.

It makes you think some writers have boxes of Bad Guy dolls and Good Guy dolls and an OCD compulsion to keep them in the "correct" boxes. ~sigh~

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks for dropping by, ladies. :)
Marian, I think that's true, about the boxes of good guys and bad guys. I find myself accidentally rewriting the same types of characters. I'll reread something new I'd just written and say, "Doh! I did it again. The same character with a new name."

Marian Allen said...

Amanda, don't be too hard on yourself for that: We do tend to be drawn to the same types. I like feisty, grumpy old women -- AND DID, EVEN BEFORE I BECAME ONE. I like impertinent young men -- AND DID, EVEN BEFORE MY OLDEST GRANDSON BECAME ONE. lol

I was thinking more cardboard cut-out than you bring up. I was thinking of, as your guest poster said, "This doll is black, so she has to be sassy and say GUUURRRRLLLL!" or "This doll is a white firefighter, so he has to be heroic" or whatever.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

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