Religion is an important feature of many people’s lives, so it shouldn’t surprise us that many writers of short stories have written about religion from various perspectives: the power of superstitious belief, the importance of religious conversion, the cultural role of Christianity, and many other religious attitudes and themes.
Below, we introduce some of the best short stories ever written on the theme of God, gods, religion, and superstition.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’.
This is one of the best-known and most widely studied short stories written by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Subtitled ‘A Parable’, the story originally appeared in a gift book titled The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836, before being collected in Hawthorne’s short-story collection Twice-Told Tales, the following year.
‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ is a curious story which uses symbol and allegory. The story focuses on a minister in a New England parish. The story is thought to be set in the first half of the eighteenth century, before the so-called Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, when American ministers put more emphasis on individual sin and the need for redemption.
Mr Hooper, a minister in the town of Milford, Connecticut, shocks his parishioners one Sunday when he turns up to deliver his sermon wearing a black veil. This veil, which is semi-transparent, largely obscures much of his face, leaving only his mouth fully visible. His parishioners are amazed by this, and start to chatter about why he has started wearing such a veil.
Anton Chekhov, ‘The Student’.
This is a short story by Anton Chekhov, published in 1894. It’s one of his shortest stories, running to just a few pages, and – in keeping with many of Chekhov’s best short stories, very little happens in the way of plot. Yet Chekhov himself considered ‘The Student’ his favourite of all his short stories. ‘The Student’, then, is a nice place to start exploring Chekhov’s distinctive style.
A 22-year-old seminary student training for the priesthood, named Ivan Velikopolsky, is travelling home on Good Friday. He reflects how the cold Russian weather he is experiencing is the same as the cold that figures from Russian history, such as Peter the Great, would have felt. On his journey home, he meets two women: Vasilisa and Lukerya, a mother and her daughter who have both been widowed. He joins them around their fire, and the conversation turns to the Gospels, since it is Easter.
Franz Kafka, ‘Before the Law’.
This is a very short story or parable by the German-language Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). It was published in 1915 and later included in Kafka’s (posthumously published) novel The Trial, where its meaning is discussed by the protagonist Josef K. and a priest he meets in a cathedral. ‘Before the Law’ has inspired numerous critical interpretations and prompted many a debate, in its turn, about what it means.
A man approaches a doorkeeper and asks to be admitted to ‘the law’. The doorkeeper tells him he cannot grant him access, but that it may be possible to admit the man later. We won’t say what happens next, but the parable is typically Kafkaesque – in so far as anything else – in its comic absurdism and depiction of the futility of human endeavour. The story is often interpreted as a tale about religion.
Sherwood Anderson, ‘The Strength of God’.
This is a short story by the American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) which appeared in Anderson’s 1919 collection of linked stories, Winesburg, Ohio. It concerns a minister who finds himself entertaining lustful thoughts about a woman he accidentally sees through a window one day.
‘The Strength of God’ is a story about temptation and desire, and despite its rather plain style and easy-to-understand plot, the story contains some curious ambiguities. We have discussed this story in more detail in a separate post.
James Joyce, ‘The Sisters’.
‘The Sisters’ is the opening story in James Joyce’s 1914 collection, Dubliners. The story is narrated by a young man recalling his friendship, as a boy, with a Catholic priest. The story shows the narrator’s reaction to the news that the Catholic priest Father Flynn, with whom he appears to have shared some kind of friendship, has died, reportedly of ‘paralysis’, suggesting a possible stroke as the cause of death.
Flynn’s death, and the snatches of conversation the narrator overhears as the young boy’s aunt and uncle and neighbours discuss the priest in muted terms, prompt the narrator to reassess his friendship with the Catholic priest, wondering what the unspecified ‘sin’ was that Flynn appears to have been guilty of. We have analysed this story here.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The God’s Script’.
Sometimes translated under the title ‘The Writing of the God’, this is a 1949 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story concerns a Mayan priest who is imprisoned with a jaguar; the priest comes to realise that his god has hidden magic writing within the jaguar’s skin.
‘The God’s Script’ takes in, among other things, some quintessentially Borgesian themes including the infinite, the power of writing, and the individual who is granted access to arcane knowledge.
Shirley Jackson, ‘The Lottery’.
‘The Lottery’ is the best-known story of the American writer Shirley Jackson (1916-65). Published in the New Yorker in 1948, the story is about a village where an annual lottery is drawn. However, the fate of the person who draws the ‘winning’ slip is only revealed at the end of the story in a dark twist.
‘The Lottery’ forces us to address some unpleasant aspects of human nature, such as people’s obedience to authority and tradition and their willingness to carry out evil acts in the name of superstition and religion.
Arthur C. Clarke, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’.
Science fiction has also dealt with religious themes, and this short tale is a classic of the genre. It’s written by the British-born science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) and was first published in the 1953 anthology Star Science Fiction Stories #1, before being collected in Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Other Side of the Sky.
A short tale about religion, computers, and the end of the world, ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ begins with the Dalai Lama making an unusual request of a man who works in computing. The lama wishes to hire an Automatic Sequence Computer and have it transported to the Tibetan mountains so that it can carry out an unusual function: to discover the titular ‘nine billion names of God’ …
James Baldwin, ‘The Outing’.
Baldwin (1924-87) was one of the most significance African-American writers of the twentieth century, and his short stories are well worth reading.
In ‘The Outing’, a church congregation goes on its annual trip, which on this occasion takes the form of a boat trip along the Hudson in New York, followed by a day spent at Bear Mountain. Baldwin uses the members of the church group to suggest the ways in which attitudes to religion, and other things, are changing with each new generation.
Flannery O’Connor, ‘Parker’s Back’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best short stories on the theme of religion with something from one of the masters of the genre, written shortly before her untimely death. Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) wrote much of her work in what is known as the Southern Gothic mode, also seen in the works of William Faulkner.
The protagonist, a man named O. E. Parker, is no longer sure why he remains married to his wife. Through a series of flashbacks which explain, among other things, how Parker came to get much of his body covered in tattoos, we learn more about the character before he undergoes a religious awakening.