Friday, June 4

godless


by Pete Hautman
Simon & Schuster 2004

A teen boy questions religion by playfully inventing one of his own based on a water tower, but things get out of hand as everyone who participates views the new religion differently. 

This is a book I've started several times over the last three years and only now finally managed to read it straight through.  It's no fault of the book or its author, I've simply had my attentions diverted elsewhere every time I tried to pick it up again.  This time I had a hard time putting it down.  Sometimes books have to find their moment.

Jason's tired of boring Catholicism.  It doesn't speak to him, and attempts to reach out with youth ministry only push Jason further toward atheism.  One day while helping his science nerd friend Shin hunt snails under the two water tower the boys run into Henry, a charismatic bully who would just as much read sci-fi as knock a kid down.  While musing over the ideas of religion Jason wonders if it isn't possible to start a new religion with the water tower as their god.  The idea, meant to provoke others, takes root in his friend Shin and Jason finds it serves his purposes to promote the new religion with Henry and a cute girl named Magda.  Jason's real desire is to climb to the top of the water tower and he wields his new position as founder of the religion as an excuse to get Henry to show him how to climb it and to perhaps win the attentions of Magda.

But Shin's obsession over creating the bible for the new religion push his rational thinking aside, and Henry's bad-boy behavior does more to win Magda to his side as the new religion fractures, and in the end the kids find themselves in trouble when they discover the can get inside the tower's reservoir and pollute the town's drinking water.

This idea of teens inventing their own religion as a way of exploring what exactly it means to have faith is both rich and organic – I was part of a group in high school who playfully did the same thing as a way to explore the elements of religion with which we found common ground.  In the end, of course, everyone reverted to the religion they were raised with, and the idea quickly lost its hold.  Jason comes out the other side of his ordeal in much the same way I did, which was to realize that having religion is different than having faith.  He clings to his invented religion because within it he can define right and wrong in a way that makes sense to him, in way that allows him to not simply accept the moral contradictions placed on members of many other organized religions.

Hautman does a nice job of keeping the theology light and allowing enough room for a reader to draw their own conclusions.  A good choice for the National Book Award for Young Readers back in 2005.
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