The Alan Review
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Danielle King, Assistant Editor
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Volume 22, Number 2
Winter 1995


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The Treatment of Religion and the Independent Investigation of Spiritual Truth in Fiction for Adolescents

Dara Gay Shaw

Adolescence is a time of great questioning when young people try to sort out their own place and purpose in the world. During this period of their lives they often question the values and traditional beliefs of their parents and extended families. This independent investigation of spiritual truth is a recurring theme in adolescent fiction. Young adult fiction can serve as a wonderful vehicle for stimulating growth in an adolescent's awareness of the broad diversity of religious traditions and practices. It can also serve as a vehicle for stimulating growth in an awareness of the unity that exists in the underlying spiritual truths common to the great world religions.

Many of the well-known works of adolescent fiction, such as Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Robert Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved, Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, treat religious themes directly. When young readers pick up one of these books, they are exposed to the spiritual, moral, and religious topics that the author has chosen to weave through its pages. Consequently, the writer and reader of adolescent fiction may interact as spiritual teacher and student. The books mentioned above explore diverse religious themes and focus on the process of spiritual questioning. In addition, I will offer other works as a source for heightening the awareness of the shared spiritual truths of different world religions. Sometimes, however, the authors of fiction for adolescents seem to be highly critical of religion, especially in its organized form.

In The Chocolate War, there is a reflection of the hopelessness and loss of faith that is found in much serious modern fiction. The setting of the book is a Catholic school for boys, but within the walls we find evil manifested in the cruelty, both psychological and physical, that gangs and bullies inflict on weak victims. Trinity is a school bereft of spiritual guidance, where souls are destroyed. Evil emanates from Brother Leon, the assistant headmaster monk, who, venomous and cobra-like (p. 23), probes for hidden weaknesses and defects in his students (p. 35). He is what Madeleine L'Engle describes as the type of teacher who is an unNamer, an Annihilator (p. 55). Cormier's imagery suggests a negation of religion. He refers to prayer as a body of religious hoopla (p. 54), to Jesus as "a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy" (p. 11), to John the Baptist and the crucifix as grotesque (pp. 14, 93). To T.S. Eliot's question, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" (The Chocolate War, p. 97), which is quoted several times, the answer is no. The bad guys win and the good guys are defeated, uttering, like Brother Jacques, a "feeble protest, too little, too late" (p. 39). This young adult novel leaves the reader feeling demoralized, questioning organized religion and its leaders and agreeing with T.S. Eliot who said, "Our times are corrupt, the whole of modern literature is corrupted by secularism" (Ozick, p.151).

Religion and morality are an essential part of Robert Peck's autobiographical A Day No Pigs Would Die, which is set in Shaker farm country in Vermont in the 1920s. Moral proverbs like "Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut" (p. 67) and "Wood heats you three times, when you cut it, when you haul it, and when you burn it" (p. 113) season the text. In the opening pages, the reader sees Rob, a boy who finds himself socially set apart from others his age because of his Shaker beliefs (p. 17). Rob's spiritual realizations are subtle. He realizes that everyone in the world doesn't "live strict by the Book of Shaker" (p. 123). He also begins to challenge the decisions of his elders that concern cruelty to animals (pp. 103, 127).

Similarly, Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved has a setting permeated with one religious tradition. The islanders of Rass had shared a strict Methodist way of life since the early nineteenth century when a missionary succeeded in converting the entire populace. On Sunday, the people keep the sabbath, read the Bible exclusively, and attend morning and evening church services as well as Sunday school. On Wednesday night, prayer meetings are held where believers pray for everyone on the island that isn't present (p. 26).

Sara Louise, the central character, delights in the fact that something on the island is free, "unproscribed by God, Moses or the Methodist Conference" when the Captain says he can swear at the orange tomcat because there is nothing in the Bible about how to speak to cats (p. 74). Paterson approaches the idea of an adolescent spiritual struggle, questioning the loss of Christian faith head-on in this book. Sara Louise determines that God Himself hates her when she hears Romans 9:13. Her ranting and over-zealous grandmother, knowing that Sara Louise is plagued with jealousy over her twin sister, quotes her this passage (p. 131). Sara Louise then stops praying and going to church (p. 134). Through the disquieting characterization of the grandmother, the author seems to warn against the harmfulness and the potential cruelty of religious fanaticism. Sara Louise remains a steadfast Methodist although, when she marries a Catholic man, she agrees to raise their children in his faith (p. 171).

A most remarkable rendition of the adolescent's independent investigation of spiritual truth is found in Aidan Chamber's N.I.K.: Now I Know. In this book, Nik, the protagonist, is an atheist. He is drafted somewhat unwillingly into serving as a researcher for a play to be written and performed on the theme of what would happen if Jesus returned today. His history teacher convinces him to take the job, saying that "people have a long history of believing in God.... Religion includes the whole of the human race, the good and the bad, which makes it a perfect topic for historical study" (pp. 13-14).

Nik falls in love with devout young Julie, who becomes his spiritual guide. Julie is active in the anti-nuclear movement. After a demonstration, she rushes to the aid of a man in the street who appears to be injured. She is told to stay back but does not listen. He is a terrorist who has made himself a living bomb. As a result she is badly burned and nearly blinded. She must reconcile her suffering and her religious beliefs. Part of the book consists of her transcribed tape-recorded letters to Nik. Ultimately she rejects a romantic relationship with Nik because she feels it will interfere with her spiritual mission.

All the common arguments and modern objections to religion are explicitly written into this challenging and thought-provoking book. For example, if men are made in God's image, why do they go around murdering each other and in the name of God? (p. 14). The reader follows Nik's search for the answers to his questions and suffers with the characters. This book is an affirmation of the age-old principles of Christianity, prayer, mediation, suffering and love.

Another novel in which an independent investigation of spiritual truth is sparked by romance is Cindy Savage's Nothing in Common. Love often leads young people in unexpected directions. Here Katie meets Matt, who is a member of a little-known but widespread religion, the Baha'i Faith. Their friendship leads her to carefully investigate many of her friends' religions -- Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, and the Baha'i Faith -- through observation of religious services, talks with believers, and books. A secondary theme of the book concerns the difficulties young adults face when they resist pressure from peers to use drugs, drink, and explore sex.

Katie's search worries her parents, who do not believe in organized religion. They allow her to attend a week-long Baha'i School retreat, where she joins the faith as a member. Returning home, she finds herself unable to tell her parents that she has joined the faith. When she finally musters the courage, they react with anger but eventually accept that she has thought out her decision carefully. Nothing in Common explains many of the Baha'i principles.

The theme of a home split by parents that belong to two different religions, which Paterson touches on in Jacob Have I Loved, is further explored in Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Because Margaret doesn't know whether she is Christian or Jewish, she, like Rob in A Day No Pigs Would Die, experiences social exclusion (one of the horrors of adolescence). She does not belong. Should she join the Y of the Jewish Community Center? (p. 35) Encouraged by her teacher, Margaret embarks on a project to alleviate her spiritual confusion. She attends temple services with her Jewish grandmother. She attends a Presbyterian church with Janie Loomis. She goes to the Methodist church with Nancy. And she even winds up in a Catholic confessional, unable to confess after causing pain to Laura Danker. When her maternal grandparents push her toward Christianity and her paternal grandmother pushes her toward Judaism, Margaret rebels, temporarily concluding that she doesn't need religion at all (p. 134). In the end, when she reports back to her teacher, she concludes that her search will continue until she finds a religion for her own children because she doesn't want them to have to go through the struggle of spiritual search (p. 143).

Margaret only feels God's presence when she is alone (p. 120). She cannot find God in either the temple or church, both of which she feels are remarkably similar (p. 63). Though the book ends with a prayer of praise, it is a private prayer. Organized religion is rejected at least for the time being.

The spiritual conflict between Judaism and Christianity is further elaborated in the beautifully written My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. The Hasidic community is too narrow for a genius-driven young artist, who cannot help but be touched by the beauty and passion of the art inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. He says:

Asher Lev is caught in the web of his art, which is disturbing to both Christians and Jews. The Master of the Universe instructs him to "Paint the anguish of all the world.... Let people see the pain.... We must give a balance to the universe" (p. 348). Potok seems to concur with Madeleine L'Engle's observation, "When you are looking for truth, then look in art, in stories, songs and sculpture" (L'Engle, p. 26) and again, "Now I confess that it is difficult for me to separate art and religion for art is often the most authentic expression of religion" (L'Engle, p. 31).

The spiritual concepts of beauty and balance are combined in Sheila Garrigue's The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito. Sara, the protagonist of this book, is about the age of Margaret in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And, like Jacob Have I Loved, The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito begins around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Set in Vancouver, Canada, the book revolves around the spiritual teacher/student relationship of Sara, a British evacuee, and her uncle's Japanese gardener who goes to die in a mountain cave rather than be humiliated in a concentration camp. Sara defies her family in order to continue her friendship with Mr. Ito and his family. Garrigue's book explores the harmony between Christianity and Buddhism, along with many other Buddhist spiritual concepts and traditions, like nirvana and karma. This book cries out against war and prejudice.

There are things that Sara likes about her own church, like the feeling of belonging, the smells, and the singing, but she is also attracted to what Mr. Ito has to teach her about Shintoism and Buddhism. She likes Mr. Ito's short prayer and wishes her minister would try one like it for a change (p. 40). Mr. Ito teaches her that Buddha's teachings are like those of Jesus: their purpose is to help people to live good lives, keep mind and body pure, and to hurt no living thing (p. 116). When she questions him about the war that has caused deep pain to everyone she knows, Mr. Ito tells her that perhaps the purpose of war is to teach how good peace is and to urge people to try harder, because mankind, yet imperfect, is still on the path (p. 118). Different kinds of people were put on this earth to show different roads to heaven (p. 115).

Like Asher Lev, Mr. Ito is an artist. Mr. Ito creates bonsai trees. Sara learns from him and ultimately saves and returns a two-hundred-year-old tree to his family. Mr. Ito's art affirms the harmony of man with nature. Made with sand, stone, and the tenacious, yet fragile bonsai tree, Mr. Ito's art is a prayer that seeks to show the harmony, beauty, and purpose of everything in creation (p. 117).

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is unique among the works considered in this paper. In Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the Schools, Arthea S. Reed maintains that L'Engle incorporates Christian theology into her stories, but that usually her treatment of the subject is indirect and symbolic (p. 97). A Wrinkle in Time's protagonists have to overcome great physical and spiritual obstacles on their quest to save Meg'sand Charles Wallace's father from the forces of darkness. A Wrinkle in Time affirms the power of love, courage, and self-sacrifice to conquer evil. L'Engle explains that a source of humanity's anguish is the separation of the intellect from the spiritual heart. For this reason she makes the villain of the story a naked disembodied brain because "the brain that is not informed by the heart is evil" (p. 36).

It is evident from the sampling of fiction for adolescents treated here that there is a wealth of material for the development of a thematic unit on comparative religion for those young people who have embarked on their personal search for spiritual meaning and purpose. The unit could be modeled after the one on Dealing with the Fear of Death, which is presented in its entirety in Reed's book (pp. 216-221). Other books mentioned by Reed that could be included in such a unit are Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (Buddhism), The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Christian theology), and the Autobiography of Malcolm X (Islam in America). One that is not mentioned is My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi (Hinduism).

Madeleine L'Engle said, "Sometimes we are given the miraculousness of life by unexpected teachers" (L'Engle and Brooke, p. 64). Each of these authors is one of these teachers. It cheers the spirit to read their words that refuse to give in to despair and hopelessness. These young readers live in a world where they may have "to hurt a great deal in order to grow and deepen, but there is below all that happens a Yes to the fact of creation ... that all shall be well" (L'Engle, p. 44).

Works Cited

Blume, Judy. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Dell, 1970.

Chambers, Aidan. N.I.K.: Now I Know. Harper and Row, 1967.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Dell, 1974.

Garrigue, Sheila. The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito. Bradbury, 1985.

L'Engle, Madeleine, and Avery Brooke. Trailing Clouds of Glory: Spiritual Values in Children's Literature. Westminster Press, 1985.

L'Engle, Madeleine. "The Mysterious Appearance of Canon Tallis," Spirit and Light: Essays in Historical Theology, The Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 19-46.

L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Dell, 1972.

Ozick, Cynthia. "A Critic at Large: T.S. Eliot at 101," The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, p. 151.

Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. Avon, 1980.

Peck, Robert. A Day No Pigs Would Die. Dell, 1972.

Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. Fawcett Crest, 1972.

Reed, Arthea J. S. Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the School. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

Savage, Cindy. Nothing in Common. Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1988.


Dara Shaw is Assistant Director of the Intensive English Program in the Department of Foreign Languages at West Virginia University.

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