Hot Topic Tuesday: What about Religion?

Maybe I'm not looking at the right books, but it struck me the other day that I don't find a lot of religion in the YA fiction I read. I'm working on a project now that touches on some religious themes, but I have to be honest that I'm not sure what I want to say about religion. I know it's an important part of many teens' lives, but it seems so personal. Not to mention possibly contentious. And the older I get the more personal it becomes, for me at least.

Growing up,church was a big part of my life. (I was raised Christian--United Methodist, to be exact.) Church was my stage--I sang in the choir and did solos nearly every other week. Church was also my social life--we had a wonderful, active youth group from which I drew many friends, including a boyfriend who will always be one of my favorite people although we've gone our separate ways. I loved my church and even went to church camp most summers, but I wouldn't say I was necessarily religious.

Other kids at my school were a lot more overt about their Christianity than I was. In fact, sometimes it felt like being a Christian was the "In" thing to do. A lot of our more popular students were in Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and I remember one group of girls who passed around journals where they wrote prayers and notes to each other. I don't doubt that they were sincere, but it came across a little like an exclusive clique. We lived in a small Kansas town, so while I knew a few people who practiced other religions, I either didn't notice if they had their own groups or they weren't as public about them.

Every now and then I'll read a study or poll that says teens today are more religious than ever. Or less, depending on who's doing the study. It does seem to me like there's a greater awareness of and tolerance for a variety of faiths, and it seems like teens are more comfortable than I was expressing their beliefs in public. Teen readers, what's your experience with religion? How big a role does it play in your life? How do you interact with friends of different faiths? And what would you like to see in YA fiction when it comes to religion? Are there any books that you feel tackle the subject especially well?


Bri said...

Finding God defined me as a teenager. It still defines me now, but I was sixteen when I became a Christian, so that's when most of the questioning and whatnot happened. I didn't grow up in a Christian home or around Christians--I was so surprised when my friend missed lunch to go the Christian Fellowship!--so I imagine that makes a difference. In high school people didn't really seem to care if you were a Christian, but though I know a lot more Christians in university & a lot of non-Christians who respect my faith, I also know a lot more people who don't respect it. Though teenagers definitely think about religion, I wonder if the thoughts are more prominent in university? Again, this is just my experience.

I'd LOVE to see YA books with religious themes (that aren't necessarily religious YA), but I can't think of any except for Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker, which looks like it'll be a really great read. I think religion is an important coming-of-age theme, and wish it was more prominent in YA books.

We Heart YA said...

Kiersten White had a great post "On Faith" a while back. It included a few titles that she thought dealt with religion well:

Personally we don't seek out titles that deal with faith, but 2 out of the 4 of us are religious, and of course we would all love to see books that tackle it well. Because, as you say, it IS a part of teens' lives.

Julia Darcey said...

I'm so happy to see this popping up more in blog posts! I agree completely. Like Bri, my teenage years were consumed with the transition from an atheist upbringing to a more Christian perspective. I'd love to see this dealt with more in YA.

All of the stuff I've written has been fantasy, but my main characters always deal with whether or not they believe in a higher power. I would kill to find published fantasy about this stuff!

Eliza Tilton said...

I loved Sunday school. A lot of my childhood revolved around church events. I'd love to see more books that mirror what my life was like. The good moments and the teenager fear that God would punish me because I wasn't supposed to be drinking and hooking up with boys >:< lol

Claire Dawn said...

I do occasionally see books which deal with a Christian issue, but what I'd like to see more of is Christian characters in regular stories.

There's no reason the MC of a cheerleader story can't be the star of the Church choir.

It's something I'm trying for in my work, because everybody goes to church as a kid in Barbados.

Melissa Walker said...

You're speaking my language, Sara! SMALL TOWN SINNERS, my July 19th release, a Contemps book, is all about a girl struggling with her faith. I'm excited to hear about more titles taking on this topic!

Fred LeBaron said...

Thanks, great post, I've often thought that too, it seems like a big zone of life that's missing from almost all the YA books I've read. "Once Was Lost," by Sara Zarr, I thought, did a great job of conveying the feeling of being a kid who goes to church, is part of sunday school and a youth group, and has a social life built around it, but isn't really that into it in a committed way, even though (or because?) her Dad's the pastor. I think lots of kids in the milieu in which most YA is set (suburban, educated, upper class) grow up in that way. Maybe it's part of the whole "edgy" thing, because it's not really usually very cool, it's kind of dorky and parent influenced/compelled, and YA is often about putting that kind of thing behind you and finding your own way. But I know for me, and now for my kids, being part of that kind of community is just kind of a given, a puzzle piece, just like school, a job, a sport, whatever. Thanks!

Ellen Hopkins said...

Interestingly enough, there are faith/religion references in all my books. I never overtly put them there (except for BURNED, which has religion as a central theme), but my own belief system keeps interfering somehow. Funny, because it's often the more "religious" people who find problems with my books without actually reading them. If they did, they might find the redemption they don't believe is there.

Micol Ostow said...

Love this topic as someone who has explored her own religious identity in my books. When I was researching for SO PUNK ROCK I was very encouraged by the Jewish YA contemp lit available these days -- and looking forward to books like Melissa's that take on different religious attitudes with sympathy and nuance!

Alyssa@Teens Read and Write said...

Great post. Religion seems to be something that's shied away from in general. I'm fine with books that explore religion and faith but think the worry for teens is that if they see a 'religious' themed book they worry that it's going to be preachy. I'm Christian (Episcopal). I attend church and read the Bible. My two best friends - one male, one female - are Jewish and my beloved cousins are Muslim. I have friends that are extremely religious and those that have never been part of any organized religion. I guess I'd like to see books that develop the idea that religion isn't something that should divide us, but rather something that we can respect in others even if it's different. And it shouldn't be the deciding factor of who we spend time with. Regardless of one's religious faith, it's how we conduct ourselves and treat others that builds and strengthens relationships.

Phil said...

What I find interesting is that most films/TV shows/books shy away from religion and portray religious characters as stereotypes (the crazy Bible-thumpers, the nebbishy Jewish guys). They are so afraid of alienating or offending anyone, that they will choose to leave religion out. The writers may also just be ignorant about other faiths. But I like to believe that people will enjoy stories in books or on screen featuring characters who proudly practice their religion without it being their defining trait. It's like having a character who happens to be gay, not 'the gay character.'

I was raised Jewish and participated in a Jewish youth group growing up. I was not very religious, but my faith was a part of my life.

Julia :) said...

Religion plays a HUGE part in my life. I've grown up in a Christian home and so I've always gone to church. I have also noticed the lack of religion in YA. Its normally either put in a negative light (like Burned by Ellen Hopkins) or super cheesy (Christian YA is terrible...) or overlooked completely. One book that did mention religion that I enjoyed was Losing Faith by Denise Jaden. I thought its depiction of religion was well done, as was its depiction of a sort of cult religion. I'm definitely looking forward to reading Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker because that's main subject is basically religion! I hope more authors do this in the future. :)

Amy said...

It's funny because I've actually felt YA is more open to issues of faith and religion in teen's lives than adult fiction.

Julie Musil said...

I'm so glad you tackled this subject! Religion has always been a big part of my life, and I was concerned because one of my manuscripts has a bit of religion in it. Not a huge part, but more of a subplot. I considered writing that whole thread out because I thought it wasn't cool enough. But I know as a teen, I would have loved to read stories with religion in it. Not necessarily a religious story, know what I mean?

Misha said...

Hmm interesting question. One that I've also been grappling with.

I've been a Christian since I was about eight, so obviously it forms quite a significant part of my life's foundation.

On the other hand, I'm not a fan of religion, as it creates a dangerous space where hypocrisy can take hold because people are only going through the motions (most of them man made). As well as the judging that happens between people as they try to show their superiority...

So if I would explore Christianity, I'd have to focus on the relationship with God. And that's where it becomes difficult for me. Because explaining my faith to a faceless person in a one-way interaction feels a little... iffy. And so the grappling continues.

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