Storytelling and religion were inseparable from the beginning of man’s existence and continues to be so today. This places writers who are modern storytellers on the same level as priests as their messages are directed at the spirit or soul of readers.
These profound assertions were part of the message novelist and award-winner, Dr Nigel Thomas, took to the premiere literary awards ceremony of Barbados, the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment 2019.
“Imaginative storytelling [and] writing [were], in early times, indistinguishable from religion, painting, dance and the theatre,” he said in the Frank Collymore Hall and cited as examples the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a funerary text described as ‘a collection of spells which enable the soul of the deceased to navigate the afterlife’.
“Even rock art, humanity’s earliest attempts at writing, tells us of the religious rituals and their creator’s need to express themselves in symbolic ways.”
The Vincentian author of essays in literary criticism, 11 books and five novels, sees as one and the same the emotions and sensations evoked in readers of well-written fiction as works of art and those brought on by holy ministering.
“Art has always been closely aligned with religion… art in the past has sub-served religion and buttressed it and at present, it competes with it.
“Art and religion minister to what some would call our spiritual needs, and others would call our psychic and ethical needs,” said the Saturday night guest speaker.
This 2013 winner of Quebec’s Université Laval’s award, Hommage aux créateurs for outstanding work in literary creation, sees no difference between a fictional narrative and messages received by religious believers.
“Storytelling has always been a part of what it is to be human,” he said, adding, “when we succeed in quickening deep and ethical impulses within readers, indeed some priestly function is performed”.
He said that art captures the ‘ethos of time’ and posited that writers take from ‘the world of senses’ cultural symbols of human existence, ‘the language of the psyche’ to conjure images linked to belief systems and in doing so trigger emotions.
“We associate fire with purity; the earth with decay and contamination, but also with nurture and motherhood; water in the form of baptism with resurrection from the dead as well as with the cleansing of moral guilt. Darkness, as in the case of night, connotes ignorance and sometimes depression, melancholy.
“What the writer or painter does is arrange these so that they simultaneously enlighten and move us emotionally… that natural phenomena take on meanings almost instinctively. The imagination takes over and we merely follow where it leads.”
He said, “Literature’s ultimate objective is to engage us at the deepest level, that is at the level of the psyche.”
In the eyes of Thomas, who is set to receive next month the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr Achievement Award for his work, there is no place for the exactitudes of science in the realm of consciousness, in which religion and writing are twinned.
“The sciences could only respond to what they could measure, and science lacks meters for much of what exists, the content of the psyche for instance. Human nature is another of those areas. Much of what science says about it is speculation and less interesting than what excellent fiction records and reveals.” (GA)