Do atheists recoil from a Caravaggio painting if the subject depicted is religious? I think such a response must be very rare. Ask the same question about a work of modern fiction. Slightly different, isn’t it? People choose to read a work of fiction because they are interested in some aspect of it, such as genre, the subject, the author, the cover, the price, advertising, recommendation. If one of these aspects disinterests them, they wont read the book. Fair enough. The aspect we’re talking about here is ‘subject’, of course. At what point would your average atheist say, ‘No, that’s too much religion for me, thank you,’ and put the book down?
I can only invert the question: at what point would I, as a Christian, say, ‘No, that’s too much atheism (or any non-Christian religion) for me, thank you,’ and put a book down? If the atheism or other religion is incidental, then there’s no problem at all. If it is partly about atheism or other religions to a significant degree, but handled interestingly, with intelligence, and respect, then I’d be totally fine with that, too. But, if it is wholly about atheism or other religions and little else, then I might get bored and put the book down, unless it was brilliantly written and interesting for other reasons. I have to assume, as a writer, that this is the same for most people of any or no faith.
One has to be careful, therefore, how to present a story which contains some element of religion, so as not to put people off unnecessarily. I Am Not Gog is not about religion. It’s about a woman who just so happens to be a Roman Catholic (I'm not even RC, by the way), so there are a few occasions when the subject comes up. The target of the allegory (what the subtext of the story is mainly about) is also not religion, but the allegory, in part, draws upon two texts of scripture and uses them to interrogate the target. This has been pitched at a level so subtle that many readers won’t even be aware of it. Only those who are very familiar with the texts will readily pick up on them. The allegory also draws on purely secular texts, particularly that of the central Eurasian mythology of The Romances of Alexander the Great, and practically nobody is familiar with those outside of a few dusty lofts in academia.
Between the source (surface) story and the target, these three, main allegorical strands are the threads of which the fabric of the story is woven. A reader may stand back and enjoy the broad effect of the cloth (the surface story), or come close and examine the finer details of the tapestry (engage with and decipher the allegorical scheme). Feedback so far shows that most readers remain, apparently, completely oblivious of the allegory, but they do say they thoroughly enjoy the surface story, which is good enough for me. It's some confirmation that the religious element was low-key enough to remain a non-issue for all readers.
The book originally opened with an epigraph. It was a passage of scripture. My partner was of the opinion that I should lose it for fear of putting off atheists. I resisted on principle for some time, but, eventually, I relented and shifted it to the back matter. I have come to feel that was the right decision, mainly because I don’t believe the novel (or any novel) should have an epigraph at all. I now think the things are too self-conscious. It is the author speaking rather pompously to the reader directly. Upon opening the book, the reader should immediately hear Lydia’s voice and be immersed in her world, oblivious of the author. The author should never exist for the reader once they have a novel in hand.
I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the epigraph entirely, though, because of the way I came upon it. I was very close to completing the story, but went for a ponderous stroll through town because I was too hungover to work. During the walk, I was contemplating what epigraph might be suitable. I just happened to find myself sitting in a particular seat in an unfamiliar church, the hassock had ‘St Matthew’ embroidered on it. I picked up the Book of Common Prayer in front of me. It fell open on a random page and there was the epigraph. It seemed tailor-made for the story:
“Again, they are minished and brought low
through oppression, affliction, and sorrow.
He poureth contempt upon princes,
and causeth them to wander in the wilderness, where there is no way.
Yet setteth he the poor on high from affliction,
and maketh him families like a flock.
The righteous shall see it, and rejoice:
and all iniquity shall stop her mouth.
Whoso is wise, and will observe these things,
even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the Lord.”
This is the King James Bible rendering, not the Book of Common Prayer version that I found in the church. The BCP has a different rendering of v40 (the second verse above): ‘Though he suffer them to be evil intreated through tyrants: and let them wander out of the way in the wilderness’. All authoritative opinion I could find on this says that the Hebrew cannot support the BCP rendering of v40, so it would have been wrong of me to reproduce it in my book. The book’s back matter contains the KJB excerpt. (It’s mildly amusing to me that this brief discussion echoes part of the street-preacher’s sermon in the novel.)
The BCP’s take on v40 was what originally caught my eye. The allegorical target of I Am Not Gog is to do with tyranny and its modern methodologies, and Lydia and Joshua are metaphorically wandering in the wilderness, so it seemed perfect. But, being linguistically unsupportable, that rendering is lost, and we now have the KJB version, which, surprisingly, still fits the story, perhaps even more so: the people are brought low through oppression, affliction, and sorrow, and the tyrants or princes (rulers) have lost their way in a moral and spiritual wilderness and are increasingly regarded with contempt.
And with that, as in the book, those erstwhile first words, because I think I have now discussed all I can about I Am Not Gog, shall probably now be my last on the subject for the time being. On to the next book...