Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God's Gardeners: When Writers Create Religious Movements

I spent the last week reading Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Year of the Flood. In this book, she develops the religious movement, God's Gardeners, that she briefly mentioned in a previous novel, Oryx and Crake. In reading this book, it's clear that Atwood understands how religions evolve and the purpose that they serve for human communities.

God's Gardeners have their own saints, and Atwood weaves some liturgy from various Saint's Days throughout the book. In this time of environmental desecration in the novel, it's not surprising that God's Gardeners would choose environmental activists as saints, so readers discover the Feast of Saint Rachel and All Birds, and the Feast of Saint Dian, Martyr.

Despite the more modern saints, this new religious movement doesn't abandon the past. They celebrate the Saint's Day of Julian of Norwich (Saint Julian and All Souls). They still rely on the Bible, along with the surprising new interpretations that come with every new generation.

Atwood has even created hymns for her God's Gardeners. On a recent interview on Diane Rehm's show (go here and scroll down to listen), she describes having recently spent a lot of time with traditional hymns, as she chose the music for her parent's funerals. Writing the lyrics came naturally. And in the interview, she talks about how the lyrics came to have music. The Diane Rehm interview includes some of the music (and Margaret Atwood singing her favorite hymn!), as does the website for the book--and there's a CD available.

It's interesting to observe Atwood's creation of a new religious tradition and to think about the parallels to other religions. I see how the Liberation Theology developments of the 70's and 80's might have seemed a similar mix of tradition and new creation to earlier generations of Christians. It makes me wonder if traditional religions will be able to offer sustenance to whatever coming generations will face--or will they, like Atwood's God's Gardeners, have to recombine the genes into something new which feels very ancient?

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