Christian culture is dominant. Thus, even without being Christian myself, I can recognise, understand and appreciate references that are within that culture, like the Pietà:

Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book 4, chapter 8 - The Stairs of Cirith Ungol)

or carrying the Cross:

He unstepped the mast and furled the sail and tied it. Then he shouldered the mast and started to climb. It was then he knew the depth of his tiredness. He stopped for a moment and looked back and saw in the reflection from the street light the great tail of the fish standing up well behind the skiff's stern. He saw the white naked line of his backbone and the dark mass of the head with the projecting bill and all the nakedness between.
He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulder. He tried to get up. But it was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked at the road. A cat passed on the far side going about its business and the old man watched it. Then he just watched the road.
Finally he put the mast down and stood up. He picked the mast up and put it on his shoulder and started up the road. He had to sit down five times before he reached his shack.
Inside the shack he leaned the mast against the wall. In the dark he found a water bottle and took a drink. Then he lay down on the bed. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and then over his back and legs and he slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up. (Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea)

Visiting museums, I have seen thousands of crucifixions, hundreds of pietàs and annunciations. I can recognise saints by their attributes. But this is not my culture.

Is there any way I can make similar references to my culture in the stories I write? (Doesn't really matter what my culture is - the question should be equally valid for any cultural minority.) I guess I cannot expect all references I make to be understood by all readers (one doesn't necessarily see the pietà in The Lord of the Rings when reading it for the first time either, and one definitely doesn't get all literary references in any given example of classic literature without some study) but at the very least I want to make sure I do not push people away by unfamiliar references.

(Question partially inspired by this answer to Cyn's question.)

5 Answers 5


Yes. Both of the examples you gave (more so the LotR one) "work" in their own right without the need to "get" the reference in order to continue understanding the story.

The more likely a reader/viewer/etc is to "get" a reference the more you can lean on it in the story, the same is true for pop-culture references.

To use a recent-ish example in Avengers: Infinity War Spider-Man makes a reference to Aliens as an oblique suggestion as to a way to deal with a given enemy, now given the overlap in likely audience demographics and the cultural awareness of Aliens in general there's a fair chance that a good chunk of the audience are going to get the reference.

But crucially if you don't get the reference it doesn't actually mean you can't understand the scene - understanding it just means you get a few seconds heads up as to what's coming next. The gag is even crafted in such a way as to give humorous value even if you don't:

Did you ever see this really old movie Aliens?

You know that Spider-Man is making a pop-culture reference and it riffs on his relative young age vs Iron Man.

This is hard to test yourself because you will get the references. So make sure you have a beta reader (ideally more than one) who won't - if they don't have trouble parsing the scene then you're doing fine.

Specifically regarding religious references these tend to be more subtly done - mainly because religion is a more sensitive subject in general.


Sure. There are two possibilities.

Oh, you used religion as the example so let's continue with that example. Similar things would apply to an ethnic heritage, or for that matter to the subculture built around a hobby like video games or Civil War re-enactment or whatever.

One, you can throw in an allusion to your religion, and people knowledgeable about your religion will get it and people who aren't knowledgeable won't. If it doesn't matter to the story, that's fine. It's like an inside joke: the insiders see it and nod knowingly, the outsiders don't get it and either don't notice there was an allusion at all, or are briefly puzzled and move on.

Two, if it's important to the story or to some point you are trying to make, then you have to explain it. Sometimes you could explain it right there. Like,

"I've decided to keep the money," Abdul said. "My house has only four pillars."

George realized that he was referring to the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Abdul didn't practice the third.

In other cases, explaining at the moment you make the allusion could ruin the dramatic value. Like explaining a joke usually ruins any humor. In that case, find some reason to explain it earlier in the story. Then when you get to the place where the allusion is important, the reader will (hopefully) remember the explanation from an earlier chapter and get it.

Maybe not the best example, but one that comes to mind: I saw a movie once about the birth of the nation of Israel. There's a scene where a group of Israeli soldiers are celebrating Passover, and suddenly the commander stands up and loudly declares, "THIS year in Jerusalem!" And the soldiers all get up and attack Jerusalem and capture the city. I have no idea if anything like this happened in real life, but it was a dramatic scene. But ... it only makes sense if you know that for almost 2000 years, every year during Passover celebration Jews would say, "Next year in Jerusalem". It was something they had been wishing and hoping for for centuries, and now, the time came that it was reality. If right after the commander and made his statement about "this year", they had stopped and explained this for the viewer who was unaware, it would have ruined the drama of the scene. They had to either assume the audience knew this, or they had to explain it earlier in the movie.

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    A subtler way to do your first example would be to have George respond with something like "but what are prayer and pilgrimage without charity?". This conveys that it's a religious thing (which some readers will recognize and others could Google from that), without requiring the narrator to step in with an explanation. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 22:32
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    @MonicaCellio Maybe so. It depends how specific you feel you need to be, and how subtle or blatant the original allusion is. In this case, do you believe it necessary to make clear that it is specifically about Islam and not some other religion? In this particular example, I'd worry that with your version it would not be at all clear to a reader who had never heard of "the five pillars of Islam" that prayer, pilgrimage and charity had anything to do with pillars, or to connect a list of three things to four pillars. That said, I agree with your basic point: it's better to avoid having a ...
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 22:40
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    ... narrator interrupt the flow of the scene to explain. I thought my example was fairly smoothly done, if I do say so myself. :-) But it was off the top of my head and I don't doubt it could be done better.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 22:42

Absolutely. My own book is filled with references to Judaism and to American Jewish culture (the number 18 is one). In lots of those cases, it's explicit, but not always.

I would venture to say you already do this yourself. But you may not be aware that some of your references are culturally specific. Most of the time we're not. It's just mainstream culture. Being a minority religion/ethnic group in a large country, where references come from is often a lot more obvious. If you're in the majority, you don't always see it. But its there.

Your examples are short scenes but other ways to do it come from a larger structure. Such as making the arc of the novel reflect the arc of a religious set of events. In my case, I'm using the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors juxtaposed (literally) onto to the generational changes of the Children of Israel on the Exodus (where they end up wandering 40 extra years so that (almost) no adult who began the journey will finish it).

You can also reference things with very small bits interspersed throughout the story. For example, my first chapter is a Passover seder where they talk briefly about the Four Children. My story arc shows those 4 archetypal children in action, but I don't put them together as such or talk about it directly. It's for the (advanced) reader to work out.

You want your story to stand completely on its own without the reader even being aware of the references. Just like you can read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without any clue that the author was deliberately writing Christian allegory.

The purpose of the references is to create layered meaning. And to infuse your setting with a feeling (familiar or foreign, depending on the reader) that makes it your own. Most of it should be invisible. Readers who see it will be pleased with themselves. And people doing literary analysis will be over the moon.

  • I am including quite a few references, some consciously, some probably subconsciously. But then I wonder how the would read to somebody who isn't Jewish... Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 20:50

Most definitively!

In fact these types of cultural references serve two purposes. On one hand, they are for the reader: if the reader identifies it, it may resonate with the feeling that the reference is attached to. On the other other hand, they are for the writer, and this is the most important: they come handy to the writer in writing a certain scene. It is like the blue-print of a particular setup which has been polished for hundred of years in the attempt to express exactly that one thing. Cultural references are basic tools for the artists of any form of art.

Enlarging your basket of references is like acquiring new tools. You can provide a fresh narrative, free of the usual imagery, and be safely guaranteed by millennia of polishing that you are going to achieve your expressive goal.

As with any such cheap tool, the obvious caveats are:

  • don't make them too obvious, else you lose the showing effect in favor of a tedious telling
  • don't exceed with the dose: a reader may put down a book if it start to look like a religious/political travesty
  • study the original well, in particular its meaning before you evoke the wrong feeling in the reader.

A final point about your question of making them identifiable to the reader: don't. You are the magician. Don't reveal your tricks, else the magic is lost and all the remains is some stylistic gimmick.

  • I would point out, though that both images of the Pieta' and of the Cross are actually borrowed from much older myths.
    – NofP
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 16:32

Three good examples of this I can think of, all with very different starting points, are Miss Marvel (a comic book series with a Muslim protagonist), Ready Player One (a book about 70s nerd nostalgia), and Keys to the Kingdom (a series that I thought was based on Christian symbolism, but I'm no longer sure). I'm not a member of any of these groups, but the stories are some of my favorites.

All of these series use a few of the same tricks.

1. Start with symbols of your minority group well known to people outside your group.

The Miss Marvel series starts with Kamala Kahn smelling but not eating pork, while her friend talks about hijabs. In the Keys to the Kingdom series none of the characters are religious, but the symbols of the seven deadly sins are introduced relatively early. These well-known symbols give the reader a good idea of where to start looking for deeper symbols that follow later.

This is why it seems every romantic comedy about nerds seems to have a superficial reference to Gandalf or lightsabers.

2. Describe things well enough that people outside your group can understand them.

They don't need to understand (or even notice) the symbol, but they need to know what's going on. A beta reader can help with this if you're not sure.

I know next to nothing about Japanese video games from before I was born. However, from reading Ready Player One I still have a mental image of what the robot looks like and I know it comes from a Japanese video game. The reference adds resonance, even if I don't understand it fully.

3. Readers may miss the symbols the first time, but that gives them reasons to reread

I didn't recognize most of the symbols in the Keys to the Kingdom series until I read it for the second time. Discovering a hidden layer to the story on rereading made me enjoy the story even more. Every time I learn more details about things the Keys to the Kingdom series alluded to, it increases my interest in both the series and the new information I'm learning.

(Another perspective: At some point, you learned the symbols for your own group for the first time as well. That might have been from your family, but it also might have been from a book. My family is British, but in writing this answer I realized most of my knowledge of King Arthur and Celtic symbols comes from the Dark is Rising series and other books. So, in some ways, the approach is the same regardless of if your readers are members of the same group or not.)

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    Ready Player One, replete as it is with nerdy subculture, actually just uses that as a veneer over a medieval grail legend (Percival/Parzival/Fisher King), which it hints at repeatedly-- so it's a great example of a culturally-specific reference within a new setting!
    – wordsworth
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 0:32

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