Faith & Art
Willing Suspension of Disbelief
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Originally published on in Liturgical Credo. Faith & Art as a conversation in essays will continue in this newsletter. If you have suggestions, ideas, or would like to contribute to this series, please reach out.
To have faith is to believe something that has no tangible proof. Why would we believe in something we couldn’t prove? Is it a leap of faith? Is it a deferment of what we know to be fact in the hope that a spiritual influence will intervene? If faith comes from within the literature of religion – the Koran, the Bible, the Torah — is there a particular mechanism that can define a document of faith? Great novels are similar to the great religious documents in the stories and connections they make with the human condition. If I can believe that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden or visualize the enormity of the Tower of Babel, I can imagine Kafka’s bug and Ahab’s white whale. Does the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief” play as great a part in faith as it does in reading and analyzing literature?
I began to think about the concept in writing that we refer to as willing suspension of disbelief. Crafted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “willing suspension of disbelief” refers to the readiness of a person to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are fantastic or impossible. It also refers to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of a literary construct. According to Coleridge, this definition is to “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” It isn’t difficult to connect faith in the stories of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or Buddhist scriptures to that of “poetic faith” described by Coleridge.
At no time was religion and art so closely bound as when Coleridge was writing Rhime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. In fact, later in his life, Coleridge studied his religious context and how it shaped his artistic visions. As writers, we use the concept of willing suspension of disbelief as a working tool. When does a reader pull away from the narrative and realize that the writer is manipulating him? At what point in the novel or story does the writer distract us and pull us away from our poetic devotion and faith in the authorial vision? These questions are discussed in workshops in writing programs and English departments all over the world. This concept is critical to writers because readers who commit to reading a novel length story are willing to suspend disbelief for a good story, but are only willing to accept it if it is properly and perhaps masterfully executed. We are willing to follow the allegory of the Animal Farm to discover the writer’s meaning and intent. We are willing to put our faith and time in a duffel bag aboard the Peqod and hunt down a white whale. We even find it easy to follow a madman tilting at windmills with a sarcastic sidekick. We are willing to witness evil in the hope that people will understand something new about human nature and in turn – ourselves.
Eliza Galgut explains that “…fictional characters help shape the way we think of ourselves, and hence help us articulate more clearly what it means to be human” (Galgut 191). Stories in scripture are meant to provoke a sense of values and commonality in faith and religious understanding. Is it to be seen as merely a myth? Does it reveal more than the emotional response one gleans from art and literature? When I read the scripture, I feel that I am reading stories and ideas that are far removed from my own context, my own understanding. I always feel that I am too far away from the source, that I am reading something disconnected to my beliefs. I feel like I understand the dynamic and dramatic irony of Oedipus the King more than that of the weak conflict between Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. I need to find a clear, immediate plug into the moral and values of contemporary people and their views. If we carry all our stories and our plots forward, then we can derive biblical and mythological parallels to everything we read. Northrop Frye felt as if all literature studies should start in a working understanding of the Bible and mythology. And as a foundation for studying the history of literature, I agree. So much of the literary canon has been shaped through these two significant influences of world literature. But is all literature wrought from Adam’s rib? Or can we redefine our present state of literature to fit different paradigms of understanding like that of Coleridge and the willing suspension of disbelief?
Willing suspension of disbelief involves putting art before probability; it is finding faith – something you cannot verify. Masterful writers can fathom the complexity of how readers interpret words, symbols, and concepts into an experience that is removed from authorial control and understanding. That is why we read literature: to read and understand something new and compare it to our lives and our vision of the world. We then can discuss and analyze this experience. And we can place an aesthetic value to that experience. This is what book clubs, MFA students, and critics are working on all the time. Sharing their view, their understanding of the literature and how it relates to a specific segment of study. Therefore, I believe we are putting faith in a higher order. “Philosophers and poets alike have pondered the seemingly mysterious nature of the arts. From Plato to Hume, the ways in which poetry moves us has been a source of both puzzlement and wonder; in Ion, Socrates even reaches the conclusion that our engagement with poetry is a kind of madness” (Galgut 190). Every book I open, every word I read, every experience I have, every dream I dream, feeds into the higher order of words. It isn’t sitting in church and having a priest tell me what is right and wrong, nor is it the literature professor or critic – but reading words, putting them into the collective ideas and thoughts, and creating something new. This collective is a river of ideas, characters, faith, and understanding. This can be fluid and constant in its change. It is vital to fall into the stream and contribute to it at the same time. It is like starting a novel; all must be vested before you begin.
Jane Simley, in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, takes the concept of willing suspension of disbelief and speaks to the “willingness” part of the equation first. Her observation of her teaching experience is apt here. She says, “In teaching this story [The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka] twenty-two times to undergraduate students, I found that out of every thirty students, one or two were simply unwilling to believe that Gregor could turn into a bug, and for those students, the story offers no charms at all. It was not that the other students believed that a man in Prague in 1915 turned into a bug; it was that they enjoyed the idea and suspended disbelief, and once they imagined Gregor’s bugness, they were open to every other idea that Kafka had to offer” (Smiley 88). Considering Kafka this way is one thing, but does this apply to religious texts? Does it apply to philosophy and poetry? Can it change the way we think of reading poetry like novels, and novels like poetry? Can we read Leaves of Grass like a novel and define its narrative style and novelistic elements? Can we follow the human truths inherent in narrative story telling? When you read books by Milorad Pavić, you begin to open yourself to his vision before you read the words. Dictionary of the Khazars can be read by cross referencing each entry – giving a different impression each time you read the novel. You can also choose the male or female version of the novel (and yes there is an important difference.) In The Inner Side of the Wind, the reader starts the book traditionally from the beginning. But when Hero’s story ends, the reader must flip the book over and begin reading from the back cover to begin Leander’s story. The two brilliantly cross and weave together before you find yourself back in the middle of the book. Pavić engages the reader on a physical level – where not only does the text foster a willingness in the reader to follow, but it is further reinforced by the physical aspects of the book itself. Getting back to Jane Smiley and her view of “willing suspension of disbelief” is to understand that a “literary education not only enlarges a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief by extending her range of pleasures, it also strengthens her ability to enter the meditative state, and to be receptive to the influence of another human mind, because it is a state of contemplation that is essential to the true appreciation of the novel” (Simley 88). It is here that I begin to see patterns of faith and prayer in the contemplative reflection of our lives in religion to that of other people’s lives and ideas in literature. It is with this kind of language that I begin to understand the connection between the terms – poetic faith, meditative states, willingness to believe, and perhaps one that hasn’t been discussed yet – belief.
Willing suspension of disbelief is important in that it is a psychological or mental process that readers and writers use to shift between the words on the page and the reality. Eliza Galgut writes in her paper titled Poetic Faith and Prosaic Concerns: A defense of ‘suspension of disbelief’ that we learn this concept of partitioning make believe and reality at an early age. As a society we allow the blurring of these partitions in very young children so the make believe and the real are interconnected. As they get older, make believe and play turn inward. Self talk is internalized with comprehension and reading skills – and the world of make believe goes into hiding. However, Galgut’s suggestion is that it manifests itself in the concept of suspension of disbelief. People take to reading because it is like childhood play, which is comforting, safe, and imaginative. In turn, reading and being taken to a new place is similar to taking out your old toy trains and setting them up again to construct an imaginary world. Galgut accurately examines the flexibility of this concept of suspension of disbelief. The reader doesn’t lose his mind or disappear from his reality (completely) when reading. In fact, it is a very versatile and useful mode of thinking and seeing the world. She explains that readers create separate “dossiers” or partitions for each application. While I have never set eyes on a Hobbit, I can visualize and understand its importance in a novel. But there is more mental flexibility. “Suspension of disbelief is an active state of mind, if you will. It is a willing decision to put aside a certain set, or sets, of beliefs in order to adopt for a certain time the set of beliefs generated by the work of fiction before one” (Galgut 197). And if we take that a step further (particularly with new media, interactive video games, and interactive web spaces), the concept of interaction is important in shaping the intensity of that experience.
While this is a comparison between religious and literary constructs, it is relevant to discuss video games and how suspension of disbelief is a shifting element in understanding reality and story based interaction. When I was a kid, it was assumed that kids wasted time in arcades which were construed as school skipping, hi-tech pool halls where kids smoked and played the latest version of Dig-Dug. As game systems evolved into hi-tech supercomputers, (one of which has more power than all of NORAD had in 1975) we have created interactive stories that are being played out all the time. And, it is the willing suspension of disbelief that shifts the player between walking in the mall and not shooting everyone, to an artificial world of make-believe where the code of conduct changes. It would seem to be a good asset for workers, soldiers, or explorers to adapt to different rules and standards as situations change. Unlike fiction which is static and can’t be changed by the reader, the video game is interactive and can be shaped by the player’s ability and scope of ingenuity. In Janet Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, she explains, “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely “suspend” a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world, and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience.” Galgut explains how readers–or in this case, players–have different belief partition or “dossiers” in our mental process that we use when interacting with text or a story-based media. The flexibility of creativity and artistic understanding, in her understanding of suspension of disbelief is that we can easily shift from one dossier to another. The point is that a caffeine-chugging seventeen year-old girl who just made it through the last level of Halo has no interest in taking to the streets to kill. In fact, she wants to finish the story. She wants to get closer. The ability to switch from reality to the interactive story line is a skill that is complex and very adaptable.
The same thrill that people get playing video games (not just the young, but people of all ages) is based on the completion of the storyline. I’ve never been a die hard video game player, but I like the story lines. And like a good novel, I always want to know – what’s next? For writers – this is story. And the second thing I want to know is how will it connect to everything I know so far? That is plot. While video games are complex and interactive, the same goals and thirst to finish a good novel are what is feeding the desire to finish or continue playing a video game.
Not only can we visualize how effective Murray’s “creating belief” can be for a video game, but how it might enhance the way we consider our relationship to higher order and religion? The importance here is two significant points. One, that we are vastly creative based on our referential experiences to have multiple sets of belief and ideals at any given time for different applications. Second, that it is so easy for us to shift, that we can believe that chemistry, convection, weather patterns, and upper wind velocity can generate a tornado – but still believe that it is the finger of God punishing us. Our different partitions or (as Galgut refers to them) dossiers can and do conflict. When they do, some interesting ideas come into play. “Evidence for multiple and mutually exclusive belief dossiers can be found in an internal conflict between faith and reason, for instance; a scientist does not believe that transubstantiation is possible in the universe in which we live, but when she participates in the ritual of a Catholic mass, she does believe that what she is being offered are the body and the blood of Christ” (Galgut 194). This example pinpoints the duplicity that is both inspiring and a bit disturbing in our method of understanding fiction, reality, religion, and our moral standards.
The suspension of disbelief in fiction is a powerful psychological development that is creative and interactive. Unlike a painting, we can apply our own working mental references and understanding to a text. This makes writing highly subjective. It is why book clubs are so appealing to some people. They are a forum to discuss how other people approach a text and what they have gleaned from it. Those comparative views shape the overall. And people are looking for those same groups in religion to shape their understanding of religious texts. Isn’t the Catholic Church the ultimate book club? Some want a passive religious experience and some want the interactive. It is just like the person who reads The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison at the beach. She might finish it and contemplate over it for a while and move on. The literature professor might be sitting next to her reading the same book, preparing for the fall course in African American Literature. She wants to understand all the elements in the novel and how to explain that to thirty students reading the novel. It is merely a reflection of how the reader wants to interact with the text and why. This conflict (in my case, the writing of these essays) can be a useful exploration of the self. It can also be a haunting method of fanaticism that leads to violence and religious fundamentalism. Elisa Galgut’s ideas reveal to writers and people of faith that we can partition our ideas and moral codes based on fiction, religion, and other segments of our lives. But when the partitions “conflict,” then we have a shift in view that needs to be realized. We have all read books that have changed our lives, but when our ability to believe is a detriment to critical thinking, we move from a willing suspension of disbelief to a fundamental hard line that is so literal, it can’t be considered in terms of ideas but in pure action and method. When we believe that killing something in a video game has the same emotional intensity as doing it in a school cafeteria, then something is wrong. When we believe every phrase in a religious text should be literal – that marginalizes the scope and the flexibility of our ideas and imagination.
Religious texts are difficult (if not impossible) to read like a novel. They aren’t built to be read cover to cover. I tried to read the Bible like a novel and was quickly stifled. I read Bullfinch’s Mythology and felt a bit better about the story segments, but still felt out of touch with the reason and context of the tales. We can’t expect strong characters, plotting, and continuous story arcs. The willing suspension of disbelief in terms of religious scripture isn’t about the form of the texts, but how we are willing to view and interact with the spiritual scripture. It is our willingness to accept the human values, the moral and spiritual offerings of blind faith. Applying willing suspension of disbelief to religious values isn’t about form and art, but our own ability to apply our own lives and understanding of the world to a common text. As a writer, I find more truth and human understanding in literature. In the end, blind faith might not be blind at all; it might be the willing suspension of disbelief that aligns and measures the depth of our spiritual understanding.
Coleridge, S. T. 1982. Biographia Literaria. Chapter XIV London: J. M. Dent and Sons.
Galgut, Elisa. Poetic faith and prosaic concerns. A defense of ‘suspension of disbelief’. South African Journal of Philosophy. 2002, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p190, 10p.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Smiley, Jane. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.
Abstract: This is part one of a collection of essays titled Faith in Art by Ron Samul. The series is a comparison of literary and religious ideas in the hopes of finding shared values and conflicting concepts. Samul writes in his introduction to the series, “Fiction and religion have commonalities that are based in their structure and philosophical concepts. And it is here that I’ve started my understanding of faith – shaping my view of nature, values, and the image of humanity that is created in art and faith. My purpose isn’t to find truth in art or a religious compass to guide my way. It is merely to connect the two ideas as exploration. The results are debatable and often doubtful. And for that conversation – I am thankful.”