Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Have a Little Faith, Proser

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the bookshelf. Actually four funny things.

First, I read a book in which the villain was a preacher who turned out to be an evil cult leader bent on his own monetary gain irregardless of how many people he hurt.

Next, I read a book that began in a post-apocalyptic village ruled by a religious group of women. So intent were they on keeping power that they ultimately committed the vilest of sins, leading to the destruction of nearly their entire flock.

The third book, I just started (but cheated and read an online summary to make sure it was okay to read aloud with my boys). Set in a post-apocalyptic village, an insane preacher is willing to manipulate anyone, even kill to maintain his grip on his people.

Fourth, these three books read right in a row reminded me of another book I read in the last couple months that I didn't finish (a rarity for me). In an ensemble cast of blatantly cardboard stereotypes, the religious girl with the perfect exterior was, of course, exposed as the hypocrite everyone knew she was. Her character arc consisted of denouncing her beliefs so that she could truly 'find herself.'

 Most of the books I typically read don't contain any references to faith at all. And I'm fine, and have always been fine, with that. Faith is a personal thing. And my faith is not necessarily yours is not the person next to us. So, although I like learning about religious traditions, I don't need my literature to be affirming to be fulfilling.

But, I will say, I found the succession of negative portrayals more than a little discouraging. Was it because these were all dystopian or alternate universe - literature I'm not as well versed in as fantasy - and that's how they're written these days? Or did I just stumble upon an anomalous trifecta (quadfecta?) of religious acrimony?

Anyway, after reading those, I tried to come up with some positive counterexamples of faith that I've read recently in YA lit. Here are three:

The first is my perennial favorite, the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. Most inhabitants of her world don't pay much attention at all to the pantheon of gods. They go through the motions of obeisance and celebrate feasts simply for tradition's sake. Gen and his companions, who absolutely understand the reality of the gods, have very ambivalent relationships and feelings toward them.

The second is Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. I'm rusty on this one, it's been a while since I read it, but I think I remember the world was based somewhat on Mongolian tradition. The mc, Dashti, takes comfort in her ancestors and nature worship, doesn't she? (Goody, now I'll have to reread it to find out!)

The last book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, was the only one I could think of where religion played such an integral and positive part in the main character's life. Blessed to be a chosen one, Elisa keeps her faith and ultimately uses it to claim victory over her enemies.

So, how do you see faith (and I mean any faith from real world beliefs to ones created to fit a novel's world) fitting into YA literature?

Does the acceptance of faith by the reader change depending on the genre? Do you have faith traditions in your books? What books can you think of that do? And since faith plays such a large role in many real people's lives (over 90% of Americans profess a belief in God), what do you think the place of faith could/should be in creating well-rounded characters?


  1. It is sad that most of the books I immediately thought of were negative religion, but I think that's the side of the pendulum we're on as a society. Right now, it is very popular to demonize religion. I'm sure things will swing the other way eventually.

    I just finished a book called Daughter of Shadow and Bone that I had precisely these misgivings about. The villains look like angels and are called angels, and their enemies are called (and look like) demons or monsters. I'm so glad I kept reading, because it went much deeper than that.

  2. Daughter of SMOKE and Bone. Sorry. :)

  3. A new poll found that Atheism is on the rise and religion on the downswing in America.

    Perhaps trends like these, along with things like the priest child abuse scandal, have infiltrated YA fiction.

  4. Great topic, Susan. I think, for me anyway, I don't like to write too much about my characters faith, because in the fictitious world I create, technically, I am God. Faith is so critical to me personally, that I don't like writing FAKE spirituality. I don't want my characters to bear false testimony to a god that I created. Does that make sense?

    I do enjoy writing about faith, and personal experiences/testimony of people, if the world of the story is set in the world I live in, and if the experiences actually happened.

    As far as the evil preacher cliche, I think it's mostly just authors using contrast to deepen the power of the story. And like Adam brings up, there ARE evil religious people, and evil Priests. I think the idea of a story about a bad guy manipulating people by their religion, could be fascinating.

    There's a depth of emotions/ motivations/ experiences tied up to each person's spirituality, and I dig reading stories that explore that depth. What I don't like, is when people use their own experiences to force the reader either to believe more in God, or to completely disprove God's existence.

    The good thing about books, is that if you find one that does it wrong, there are always more that might do it better.

  5. I think religion has great power to do good and evil. Some of the evilest acts have been done in the name of religion, and some of the most loving and altruistic acts have been done in the name of religion. I think it is interesting to explore that dynamic in fiction, but I haven't yet.

    Unless religion plays a big role in the plot, I tend to keep it on the sidelines. Otherwise it would be too distracting, IMO.

    Great post!

  6. Religion and preachers are probably an easy target as bad guys. The question is, do the stories balance that out with positive portrayals of religion, or are all the depictions bad? I'm betting in a lot of cases, all of the descriptions are bad.

    I'm glad you brought this up - it gives me something interesting to think about.

  7. Thanks all for your thoughtful comments. You know, I did finally think of one book where the religion was well thought out and not necessarily good or bad, just basically an integral part of the fabric of the story. It's Bujold's Curse of Chalion - and I guess you'd add the sequel, Palladin of Souls. Those aren't YA, but I loved the intricate world she created.


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