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!