The Influence of Religion on Literature

Literature is the oral and written expression of human minds, human experiences and human thoughts. Thus, religion and faith cannot be separated from ordinary life as it is embedded within our morals, our actions, and our very minds and desires. Intellectuals have agreed on the fact that “the path of literature lies parallel to that of religion” and they remain “interdependent and necessary to each other”. (McAfee, 2006, p.137-138). It is an incontrovertible fact that since the beginning of oral and written traditions of literature, the narrators and authors have used religious subject matters in their writings. For instance, in various novels like “The Portrait as a Young Man”, “Candide”, “Crime and Punishment”, “The Brother Karamazov” and “Native Son”, the authors have used the common religious themes and philosophical questions such as the true meaning of life, life after death, human suffering, injustices and problem of evil, through main characters of their novels with an aim to educate and reform the society.

The theme of life versus death and good versus evil are the fundamental elements of religious conviction found in almost all the stories of the world. These fundamental elements have been consistently expressed in various forms by many different authors of all ages through lenses of religion. The impact of religion and philosophical thought in society can be gauged through the literature produced at that particular time.

Professor William Moulton Marston, 1893 -1947

Religion and literature are highly connected. Their links are abundant and span much of history and diverse traditions. The greatest religious texts of the world are in fact part of some of the greatest literature in history. Many of the themes and topics of great literature are also widely discussed within religious texts. The literature of any nation does much to define that nation, as Professor Moulton states: “A national literature is a reflection of the national history”. This may include what a nation does or does not believe. Indeed, the picture is even bigger than that. “World literature,” as Professor Moulton is quoted as saying, “is the autobiography of Civilization”. (McAfee, 2006, p.135) He makes the point that books are a reflection of their authors. As a matter of fact, books are mirrors of the public opinion which endorse and give credence to them. Literature reflects the public views and chooses certain genres (of literature) which endure over time.

Religious practices and institutions have done much in the active preservation of much of the world’s ancient literature. Monks often painstakingly played large roles in work which included copying out entire tomes in institutions such as monasteries to preserve material in times of upheaval and war. In religious traditions the world over, and almost without regard to any specific one, there is a strong connection between literature, and ‘religious thought, practice, institutions, and symbolism’. (Yu, 2009, p.1) The details of the exact links differ significantly, but this is a definite role played by literature. Scholars have suggested that without paying due heed to Greek mythology and Judeo-Christian concepts and traditions the twenty-five-hundred-year “drama of European literature,” as German scholar Erich Auerbach calls it, simply cannot be understood.” (Gale, 2005) There are also examples of this in Islamic and other religious traditions all over the world, either oral, written or both.

One purpose of literature is to disseminate religious ideas so that the relationship between the ideology and the followers becomes stronger. Much of literature is directly traceable to the ideas in various religious traditions across the globe. In some cases, the extent to which religious traditions permeate society is so vast, that the example of South Asia is offered with the remark that “religion is so interwoven with every facet of life…that it becomes indistinguishable”. (Dimock, 1974) Moreover, while emphasising the religious connection to various genres of literature, the French scholar Dumezil argues that there is an inextricable link between gods and heroes in Hindu epics, like the Mahabharata. (Hebbar, 2012)

This kind of direct connection exists in ancient Greek literature too. The poems of Homer and Hesiod “have written down our theology and described our gods for us,” an idea attributed to the Greek historian Herodotus. And indeed, within the works of these two poets are detailed, lengthy descriptions of the underworld that go on to influence later poets like Virgil and Dante. The Homeric poems may well have offered Greek society the earliest descriptions of their gods. The poems are well-known for their portrayals of the gods in human terms, with the same emotions and weaknesses.

The renowned Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish as quoted by Lord Harries, Gresham Professor of Divinity, in his lecture ‘Is Literature Essential to Religion’, once remarked that poetry allows one to behold “the charming illusion”, and use wordplay to “construct a better…fictitious world”. (Harries, 2008) Throughout history, poets have found solace in the composition of words. In the search for faith, poetry has been undeniably the most efficient outlet for feelings of writers. This is evident in major works such as The Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost. Great Italian epic poet, Dante calls his own work The Divine Comedy a “sacred song/To which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand” (Par. Xxv, 1, 2)

If the Greek civilisation had such a major impact on Classical literature, then one can only imagine the mark left by the force of Christianity. Within its first century, Christianity produced numerous works of literature such as the gospels, the epistles, apocalyptic literature and documents like records of the saints. Narratives and descriptions of Christ are a central part of Christianity. Christian writers kept inventing and reinventing literary forms for their purposes. Even today, the veneration of Christian literature continues to interest people.

Religion holds notable significance in a majority of works in world literature. It has influenced the literary thought in a variety of ways throughout its development. For instance, Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English literature, is considered to reflect a “well established Christian tradition.” This is evident in numerous passages within the epic, wherein the characters appear to “suggest something in Christian usage or doctrine.” This is significant because it was aimed at an audience that would have been receptive to Christian ideology. (Blackburn, 1897).

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, like Beowulf, is another superb example of influence of religion in English literature. Its style and diction is very peculiar to the language of sermons, as proclaims Wenzel that “it may seem well enough established that the poet did use the pulpit rhetoric of his day, primarily to fit the tale to his teller, and secondarily to create irony and satire” (Wenzel, 1976). Wenzel continues strengthening his argument by saying that:

“…creating a handful of characters who sound like preachers is not the same as actually borrowing verbal material from contemporary sermons. With the distinction between loose imitation and precise borrowing in mind, I [Wenzel] find the current view of Chaucer’s indebtedness to contemporary preaching far from convincing”.

(Wenzel, 1976).
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Renaissance period brought about the Protestant Reformation and the Church of England was born. Literature produced in that period reflected and reacted to this change. Two notable names in this regard are John Donne and Francis Bacon. Both are well known for their religiously-flavoured contribution to the societal issues in response to rise of science through their work. For instance, Donne’s Satire III reflects the religious uncertainty and Bacon’s famous essays lead the readers to the idea of a religious utopia in a world of religious uncertainty.

To understand and appreciate Donne’s Satire III it is paramount to know about his religious views when it was written. According to Moore, Donne wrote this poem when he was in the “transitional stage” from Catholicism to Anglicanism. (Moore 1969: p.41). Through study of the cynicism found in Satire III against the Church by major scholars such as Sir Herbert Grierson, it can be deduced that Satire III is seen as his conscious attempt to reassure himself and the society about the Anglicanism – the new ‘Catholicism’, after King Henry VIII’s ex-communication from the Roman Catholic Church. (Sloane 1971: p.285). The underlying message in Satire is that religion is a personal issue not social.

Francis Bacon’s essays are widely known to have an inspiration from the Bible. He attempts to rationalise religious beliefs when the people of his time were witnessing vast advancement in science.

Many in that period began to question the premise of religion and its place in society. He states in one of his essays, entitled ‘Of Atheism’:

“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”.

Francis Bacon

It is worth noting that his discrediting of atheism could be a backlash of his fear of giving up a religion that had been indoctrinated in him and not his true opinion of atheism

In his essay ‘Of Unity in Religion’ Bacon begins: “Religion being the chief band of human society, is a happy thing, when it is well contained within the true band of unity.” According to Derrin, the insistence that unity is what makes religion such a “happy thing” is very much like portraying a utopian world where every man is governed by one religion and one belief. (Derrin 2013: p.26) In other words, Bacon seems to be acting like a vessel of the Church for preaching religious/church uniformity rather than advocating a deep, profound, spiritual relationship with God.

Influence of Sacred Text on literature

King James IV of Scotland and I of England(1566-1625)

Sacred texts have undoubtedly played a significant role to influence the various genres of literature throughout the history. This essay also endeavours to demonstrate the impact of the Christian Bible on the English literature. Two particular translations of the Bible are not only great literary pieces in themselves but also have great influence on other literature; the translation work of Luther and the King James Bible.

There are three essential influences that the Bible, especially the Kings James Version has had upon English literature: ‘Style, Language, and Material’. The King James Bible is still considered a gold standard for English language prose. Its influence upon the language is undeniable. The words from the King James Bible have become familiar to English readers and listeners. This fact has arisen, in no small part, because these words are used in the Bible itself.

There is some thought that most of English literature is attributable to three works of seminal literature, tales of Greek and Roman mythology, Aesop’s Fables, and the Bible. And of these influences, there is no doubt that the Bible is the biggest one. One of the reasons for that is the audience is most likely to understand Biblical references. No writer can somehow exist outside of his or her audience. Historically, the greatest demand has been for material that is similar to the Bible. Even today, “there is nothing the public will be more apt to understand and appreciate quickly than a passing reference to the English Bible.” (McAfee, 2006, p.138)

The third element of Biblical influence upon literature is providing “what might be called fontal material” and “germinal stuff”. (Greene, 1911, p.393) It has been suggested that, if one were to remove the direct references from the Bible from other English literature, much of other English literature would not be recognisable.

William Shakespeare(1564-1616)

There is also substantial amount of Biblical allusion in Shakespearean literature. Carter claims that “No writer has assimilated the thoughts and reproduced the words of Holy Scripture more copiously than Shakespeare.” (Pearce, 2014, p.228) and according to Greene, Shakespeare is the most “illustrious example” of how literature produced during the Elizabethan era “had become saturated with religious ideas”. Perhaps due to Shakespeare’s input, the “literature of the Elizabethan period itself transmitted biblical influence”. Shakespeare’s philosophical ideas of “kindness, mercy, virtue, conscience, time, immortality, God, judgment” are inspired from the Bible. (Greene, 1911, p.392) His use of the Bible as a resource and a subsequent source of influence may be most discernible where he speaks of “those holy fields/Over whose acres walked those blessed feet/Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed/For our advantage on the bitter cross”. (Henry IV Part I (1.1.24-27)

People familiar with Milton are well acquainted with his most familiar and influential works, “Paradise Lost”, “Sampson Agonistes”, and “Paradise Regained” and know how thoroughly Scriptural they are from front to back. Phrases, allusions, and many ideas from the Bible came alive in Milton’s mind and writing. In other words Milton’s mind was like a garden where scriptural seeds came to ‘flower and fruit’.


In conclusion, religion and literature are intertwined with each other and share common themes and philosophies of life along with the current of history. Influence of religious thoughts and concerns are still being globally reflected in various genres of literature as it bears a constant appeal to life. Some have been arguing that literature should be judged according to the moral standards and that there was no relationship between religion and literature. However, this essay endorses the valued opinion of T.S. Eliot who finds that religion and literature are part and parcel to each other and emphasises the need to analyse “a work of fiction not only linguistically but also ethically and religiously”, and argues that “the great works of the world literature must become a part of the theology today”. (Toroczkai and Preda, 2014) It is interesting to note that in recent years there has been a growing interest in exploring the relationship between literature and theology. The Journal of Literature and Theology, published by OUP is making a great contribution to this academic discipline, since 1987 and it is certainly worth a good read.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

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