Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Richard Abbott shares his two cents on "Writing about religious organisations"

There have been many different kinds of religious organisations and structures over the years. The particular problem that I face is to imagine how daily religion was carried out in rural Late Bronze Age Canaan. We have a certain amount of solid information – some temples of varying sizes, a fair amount of religious literature, and quite a lot of household items which are probably religious in focus. I say “probably” since in fact we just don’t know in many cases what certain items were used for.

But the special problem affecting my characters is that they are residents of a small town, up in the hill country of what is now Israel and Palestine, well away from temples or holy places of any size. How did they go about their religion? There were most likely a number of pilgrimage sites in holy places, but the general population would not have had many opportunities to visit these. Their faith had to be enacted within something close to home – something on the level of their own village, where they could express devotion as part of everyday life. I have imagined many of their practices and rituals, based as closely as possible on the little that we know.

The model I chose as a modern analogy was an independent non-conformist church. This was for several reasons, The main one was that in the past I was very involved with such a church, so have some familiarity with its strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, they function at an intimate community level. Typically leaders and members live close together, and meet daily. Relationships are informal, and there is no real separation because of status. Differences in rank are often based on social conditions, not religious ones.

It also means that the leadership cannot easily maintain a dignified or “official” distance from the members, who easily remember their childhood and youthful triumphs and embarrassments. At its best, there is an easy intimacy within an organisation like that… at its worst, there are opportunities for manipulation and covert cruelty.

In any event, this is the setup I presumed for ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’. This form of religious organisation seemed right for a fairly isolated hill country community. Damariel and Qetirah are village members, apprenticed in youth to the couple who were serving as priests and seers for Kephrath. The whole village knows what they were like as children, and conversely they have to minister to people they have known all their lives, with all of the everyday likes and dislikes that involves. When Damariel experiences personal tragedy, everybody knows most of the intimate details, and his difficulties have to be lived out in public. When there is a division of opinion in the village about overall leadership, the resulting dispute cuts across old friendships and family relationships. Anyone who has been part of a religious group functioning on a local scale will recognise the situation. There is no possibility of hiding behind an official uniform!

Milk & Honeyed Land

The Background
In a Milk and Honeyed Land is a novel about everyday life about 3,000 years ago in the hill country of Canaan - now called Israel and Palestine - close to the end of the time of Egyptian rule of that province. It explores how the vast changes in lifestyle, politics, religion and music that occurred in that area between what archaeologists call the Bronze Age and Iron Age might have been mirrored by individual people's words and actions. The large-scale actions and military campaigns of the Egyptian pharaoh and other great kings are nowhere in sight; this is a story of the resources and people available within four small allied communities.

It is set close to the end of a long period of comparative stability in the hill country of Canaan. The Egyptians – the Mitsriy of the story – have governed the region with a fairly light hand, on the whole. Population has declined, and towns and villages have dwindled in size as the occupants have moved out into the more prosperous lowlands. Within a hundred years or so, the political landscape will be quite different again, with the Mitsriy gone and small kingdoms arising to compete over the territory. For the time being, communities continue in their traditional ways, with local priests and chieftains chosen from among the people by merit rather than dynastic ambition. The book follows the life of a village priest in one of the towns as he struggles with timeless issues of life and love, loyalty and betrayal, greed and generous giving.

The First Part of the Story
Damariel is apprenticed as a young man by the village priest, whose reckless actions lead to his disgrace. Damariel manages to avoid becoming implicated in the matter and carries on his training, marrying his childhood friend Qetirah shortly before they begin their shared ministry in the town. Feeling ashamed of their continuing inability to have children, Qetirah becomes pregnant by the chief of the four towns, but the pregnancy is difficult. Damariel's anger and outrage spills over into the marriage. He holds the chief responsible for the situation but cannot see how to get either justice or revenge...

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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13
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