April 02, 2006

Religion, Part II

"...there are something like ten thousand religions in the world. What makes them think that they happen to have been born into the right one? ...Better to start your own religion, I think."
Apparently it was a grab bag of religion day, since the next book I picked up is Godless, by Pete Hautman. A National Book Award for Young People's Literature award winner, this novel seemed to be less about religion and more about the rebellion of those forced into it. It is about the nature of belief, the difficulty of finding and remaining a true believer, and the longing of the world to find something real in which to believe.

One lazy summer, Jason Bock decides to dream up a religion in contrast to his parent's Catholicism -- which he doesn't believe they get much out of anyway. His mother is a hypochondriac, always fearfully imagining a new disease for Jason to contract, and his father's god is the law, where he always has all the answers and can make them up during his court summations. In Jason's pure and idealistic (and arrogant and immature) opinion, if they really were good Catholics they'd have faith, they'd be nicer, and... well, a lot of things would be different. Jason's pretty sure that religion is such a load that he could do better. So, he makes up a religion - the Chutengodians, who are the Church of the Ten-Legged God. They worship... the town water tower.

The biggest problem with the Church of the Ten-legged God is its believers... Shin, Jason's best friend, is a tiny bit obsessive. They've been buddies for years, and Jason knows that -- they made comic books together that Shin detailed with tiny see-it-in-a-microscope details. Shin has studied gastropods like a biologist, and now he's working on writing a bible for the religion. He is skinny and nerdy, and though fifteen still cries easily. Jason really likes him, but now, he's socially embarrassing, especially now.

Henry Stagg, the town bully, is suddenly interested in being Jason's friend. Henry gives the Chutengodians an exciting edge, since he's given to bouts of frequent and unexplained violence, and he and his group of moronic friends go around beating people up. But since Magda Price, the cute object of Jason's overgrown affection may have only joined the group to get next to Henry, things quickly get out of control in the competition department. Henry takes over the Chutengodians and the harmless fun of a randomly new religion is twisted, then blown far beyond the proportions Jason had imagined. People take risks and get hurt and friendships get left behind. When Jason finds himself in the middle of a thunderstorm, the new religion is not just a matter of something to annoy his parents with one summer, not anymore. "They listen to you," his mother accuses him, and Jason finally begins to understand. But how much of what happens is his fault?

This is a compelling look at the power of religion over belief, and an exploration of faith vs. religion. The author draws no conclusions and makes no judgments, but leaves them to the reader.

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