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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Context and Creativity - How Religious Events Become a Stunning Story

This post was inspired today while I was listening to the second episode of a radio dramatisation of Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ". While I'm not strongly connected to Abrahamic beliefs, I do enjoy listening to various way in which that framework is used, whether it's pasted directly over established text or using its thematic and religious framework in an otherwise unconnected setting. I've done it for one of my own recently-completed works, but today I'm focusing on other people's take on it.

The most obvious usage is setting a story within Abrahamic context, either using their mythical framework as inspiration or using the setting itself. This isn't directly retelling the story, but instead using it as a backdrop for another story, as with Wallace's book. For "Ben-Hur", the period of Christ's journey through adulthood to the crucifixion is the backdrop for a morale tale surrounding the titular protagonist Judah Ben-Hur. His quest for revenge, and his eventual disenchantment with the idea, mirror Christ's message as recorded in canon texts, in addition to being a medium for wider (yet unfortunately often forgotten) ideas in Abrahamic traditions of forgiveness and tolerance. The lack of tolerance and how it destroys people is demonstrated through the characters of Messala and Iras. "Ben-Hur" is the only one I'm really familiar with, but I've certainly got vague memories in the back of my mind of other stories which used Biblical events as the backdrop for stories that might otherwise lack suitable gravitas.

The opposite end of the scale is creating something that can act as a criticism of that framework, or a parody of it. A prime example of this in English is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Don't be fooled by the movie they based on the first book, which criminally bowdlerises the religious criticism and thematic relations to both Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the concept of original sin. In Pullman's trilogy, the framework of the divine order as represented by the Angels and their fallen compatriots is turned on its head to amazing effect, turning original sin into a boon for human free will. This opposing usage is more common, or at least more widely accepted and publicised, outside its sphere of influence in the West. Examples are most commonly found in Japan: "Berserk", "Neon Genesis Evengelion", and even video game franchises such as "Megami Tensei", "Xeno" and "Drakengard" all feature usage of Abrahamic elements that either put a more cynical interpretation on or outright reverse traditional beliefs and symbolism. (You can probably tell that I enjoyed writing this paragraph more)

These are, of course, just a few examples within one belief system. Every single system of belief that's ever existed has had similar approaches taken, with varying degrees of faithfulness or parody. Another good example would be Greek mythology - many adaptations of them exist, which have both altered the characters and deities to fall more in line with later post-Abrahamic traditions to stayed true to the ambiguous natures of the originals. It's a shock to admit it, but "God of War" was slightly truer to the mythic brutality and moral disconnect between man and deity that many other examples in media. But that's a whole other post.

Whatever your beliefs may be, it's fascinating seeing how them and others are used by other authors in constructive or even deconstructive ways. And what's even better is doing something like that for yourself.

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