One unrealistic element of modern fiction is the scarcity of prayer. There are, of course, exceptions, the Christian market being one gigantic one. In the mainstream, however, many a book and movie and television episode goes by without one prayer sent heavenward. Given what is happening in these books and movies and episodes, you would think someone would be praying.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that because prayer in fiction is realistic, all prayers in fiction are realistic. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on how to keep fictional prayers true to life.
There are no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty on the boat back home. Conventional wisdom holds that there are no atheists in foxholes, and this is generally true; horrible things have a way of sending people scurrying for help to all the gods they do or do not believe in.
But remember, Christian writers, what conventional wisdom also says about foxhole conversions. Conventional wisdom is limited, made up of aphorisms rather than facts; there are atheists in foxholes and there are honest (and long-lasting) foxhole conversions. But conventional wisdom almost always has some basis. Atheists have been known to pray in foxholes, but it’s not always the spiritual revelation some Christians make it out to be.
Circumstances dictate prayer. Most people with even a casual belief in God (and some without even that) will, when facing death, pray if given half a second. But if you have only half a second, your prayer will be very quick, likely simple, and if not simple, incoherent.
Prayers are simplified not only by immediacy of danger but also by intensity of need or want. The moment of greatest urgency is when people are least likely to dot their theological i’s and cross their theological t’s – and to keep the established form.
Never underestimate the old refuge of the nursery. Give a man ten minutes to write an article, G. K. Chesterton once said, and “he will run screaming for refuge to the old nursery where he learnt his stalest proverbs.” There are other crises that will send us screaming for refuge to the old nursery, particularly if we haven’t had much schooling on the relevant matter in the intervening years.
How should a character pray, especially if he has more than a harried moment between gunshots or explosions to try? That depends on how he has prayed. The old nursery is often the deciding factor. It is highly realistic for the most uneducated person to pray a formal, eloquent prayer full of Thee’s and Thou’s – if his grandmother took him to Mass or Lutheran services, and got the liturgy inscribed in his memory. On the other end of the spectrum, a Ph.D. might well be stumped on how to proceed after “Now I lay me down to sleep” – if childhood prayers are the only ones he ever learned.
This helps bring to light a cardinal rule of writing prayer in fiction: A character’s prayers should be shaped not by generalized assumptions (“A person with this much education, or this much religion, prays like this”), but by his present circumstances and past experiences.
Prayer is, in the valued literary word, realistic. More importantly, it’s a part of reality that can’t be wholly left out of art without doing an injustice to life. Prayer is a human constant across time and cultures, and it touches on many fundamental things, not least our seesawing hopes and fears on whether or not we are – in fact or in effect – alone in the universe. Its place in art, when properly done, can’t be denied.