No matter how you feel about religion, it’s a pervasive theme in most forms of media, and it lends itself to evocative storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, I was a Religious Studies major (as well as an English major) in college. Most people confused Religious Studies with theology, but it couldn’t be more different. Religious Studies is a major comprised of sociology, anthropology, history, humanities and more. You can think of it as comparative world religion- I was able to customize my classes and take classes about all different kinds of religions and theorists, and study how religion is present in pop culture from Disney to Harry Potter.
Being a Religious Studies major has made me eager to pick up YA books that have religious themes or undertones to them, and see how they impact the larger narrative. Some of the below recommendations are books where religion pervades the plot, while others are books that merely have religious elements hinted at. All of them are fantastically written and merited 4 and 5 star ratings on my blog.
Whether you’re intrigued by religion as a literary topic like I am, or you’re more wary but curious to see how it’s used in contemporary YA, the below books are great places to start!
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu | Devoted is one of the more religiously pervasive books on this list. The protagonist’s family are practitioners of the Quiverfull movement, a fundamentalist Christian movement that encompasses practitioners of many denominations with a focus on patriarchy and women as “helpmeets,” whose main job is the be subservient to men. The protagonist manages to leave her family for a time and experience the “real world,” and its fascinating to watch her navigate the outside world in conjunction with the faith that she still subscribes to as she determines which course in life she wants to take.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zetner | The Serpent King is a novel that doesn’t have a central focus on religion, but one of the POV characters’ lives is greatly impacted by the fact that his father is a Pentecostal preacher of a very rural, very poor church that engages in snake handling and speaking in tongues. While this story is much more of a coming of age in the south tale, it’s so interesting to see how religion pulls at certain factions of the community, and how others think it’s absurd, and poor Dill is caught right in the middle.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes | This novel delves deep into the establishment of modern day cults, with Minnow belonging to the “Kevinian” cult, a group of people who have forsaken modern day life and left to build their own community in the wilderness. Told primarily through flashbacks, the book critically looks at the treatment of women, children, and family systems in such an extreme and isolated religion movement, and analyzes the systems of spiritual abuse. Be warned though, this book isn’t for the faint of heart, as it exhibits some graphic depictions of violence.
Immaculate by Katelyn Detweiler | Immaculate is novel that is very mild in it’s religious themes. Yes, there is reference to the Catholic story of the Virgin Mary, as the protagonist finds herself impregnated despite being a virgin, but this story is much more about the media and about the capacity to believe in and understand miracles, rather than about religion itself.
Do you find yourself intrigued with books that deal with religious themes? Are they something you stay away from? How important of a literary device do you think religion can be? Have you read any of my above recommendations? Do you have other books with religious plot lines to recommend? Let me know in the comments!
This is a really interesting post! I don’t think I’ve read any books with strong religion theme in it, because religion is really rare in YA. Maybe that’s because it’s a high risk topic. I’ve heard amazing things about Serpent King and Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, I’m really curious!
Religion really is a controversial topic and I’ve definitely had to seek out the YA books that I’ve recommended here. However, I hope to see it become a bit more common as it is an important and diverse genre that I think deserves attention, especially since there are so many different types!
You make all these books sound so interesting! Religion in society is so fascinating to study.
It really is! I loved majoring in it in college so I love when I can find books with religious themes! 🙂
Ooh great post!! I’m a Christian, so I loooove seeing Christianity represented in YA, but every religion adds such dynamics to the storytelling! I especially love religion in fantasy, seeing the author create something completely new and original…aahhh it just makes my little heart sing!
Oh religion in fantasy is great too! Authors can be so creative with it and its so interesting to see what their influences are. Do you have any fantasy recommendations that feature a religious system?
Religious themes in novels intrigue me, but I’m also somewhat wary of them. I feel that they need to be done with a degree of… maybe objectivity is the word, in that religion isn’t painted as all bad or all good. I haven’t thought about religion as a literary device much though, so this is interesting! The only books I can think of with religious plot lines is Keeping Faith and Change of Heart, both by Jodi Picoult. It’s been a while since I read them, but I remember enjoying them!
Oh yes those are both excellent reads! I remember Keeping Faith being especially ineresting, and the ending being really open-ended. I love that Picoult facilitates a discussion in her novels but tends to let the final judgements and decisions up to the readers.
I haven’t read any of these, but I love the idea of religion being explored more in YA books. I’m adding all of these to my TBR!
Yay! I’m glad you found these recommendations intriguing 🙂 Have you read any YA books with religious themes yet, or is it a sub-genre you haven’t gotten around to in general?
As a Christian I am both intrigued and nervous when I hear about books with themes of church and Christianity, but it’s not a “Christian” book. I suppose I worry that it’ll always show Christianity in a definitively poor light. I definitely believe there are people who call themselves Christians who are not true representatives… I just don’t want to see such a person represented as a picture of all Christianity in a book. But I have been interested in a couple of these books to see how they address faith; maybe I’ll get around to checking them out one day!
I can definitely see where you’re coming from, as many of these books contain really extreme and/or fundamentalist representations of religion. I however found that in some of them, such as Devoted, the protagonist leaves a problematic religious community and continues on with her faith and general and starts to explore other Christian communities to be a part of, so it’s great to see that there’s not a total rejection or negative spin placed on religion in that case, rather it shows that there are opportunities and faith groups aside from the one you are born in that you can explore and join. Thank you for the fantastic comment and contributing to the discussion!
I haven’t read any of these books yet, although I have The Serpent King on my TBR! I definitely feel wary whenever I hear books have a religious element, just because I’m never sure how it’s going to be handled in the story itself. Will it be a thoughtful addition to the themes or background of the story? Or will it just be a stereotype tossed into the novel? That always makes me a bit nervous, though I’m always willing to give a story a shot if I hear promising reviews from other individuals.
I definitely know what you mean! Handling a religious topic, especially if it’s one the author is not personally a part of, always runs of the risk of creating and/or perpetuating stereotypes and doing a disservice to the group. It’s a form of diversity even if we don’t traditionally think of it that way. However, like other topics of diversity in literature lately, I think it’s important to read them so we can seek out those representations that are done well and create a dialogue around religious diversity!
(I’m finally catching up on blog posts ugh)
I generally stay away from books involving religion because I’m not a religious person at all. I want to make a more solid effort to read them, though, because it is important to get a feel for other people and their beliefs. It can just be really hard to read at times. I read Minnow Bly and am totally fascinated by cult books though! I hope to get to the rest of these someday too.
You know, one of the things I loved most about being a Religious Studies major in college is that it had nothing to do really with whether or not I was religious, it just exposed me to so many other cool religious, cultures and traditions, which I think is why I’m obsessed with finding these themes in the books I read now! Minnow Bly was SO good, I think if you liked that you’ll like Devoted too!
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