Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Five novels to read while thinking about faith

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 10:05 AM

Religion is one of those topics you just don’t talk about in everyday conversation.  Religion, politics and sex, you talk about that at work or with folks you don’t know too well, and a basic conversation at the water cooler could get a bit too heated.  Not everyone has religious beliefs, but everyone has thoughts on it.  Some go to church every Sunday, some only on the major holidays, some many times a week and some not at all.  The fact that most every culture has a religious belief or two inherent, well, that says something about the topic.

Now, considering the overwhelming amount of religious creeds out there, I can’t very well take a look at every single one.  I could do my research, taking a look at the literary impact of the three main monotheistic creeds, then touch on Buddhism or Scientology or Neo-Paganism, but that wouldn’t do anything for you,  and besides, that would be a lot of research.  I’d rather take a look at some books that say something about religion in our individual lives.  What is the role of religion?  What does it do for us, on a day by day basis?  Looking at mostly Judeo-Christian beliefs in fiction, I think you could find several great books, besides the obvious (The Divine Comedy), that tell you more about the role of religion in general.

Of course, I’m not going to use this as a way to evangelize you.  Me and my religion, well, I’m a little confused on the topic.  Besides, what’s the point?  You believe what you will.  These books are simply there to give you something think on.

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1. Serpent Box by Vincent Louis Carrella (496 pages, Harper Perennial). An amazing and powerful debut, Serpent Box tells the tail of Jacob Flint, a young boy, born in a curious manner.  The son of a Holiness preacher, Jacob is both blessed and cursed.  Deformed but able to heal men, speak to God, and handle snakes and poison, Serpent Box looks at a faith that views God as here, touching our daily lives, keeping us safe, if we have the faith required.  Lyrical and beautiful, this book takes a look at an oft-derided faith, but more looks at what it takes to have faith in the modern world.

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2. Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn (240 pages, Algonquin Books). The eight stories in Aaron Gwyn's debut short story collection all take place in Perser, Oklahoma, a small town where the Pentecostal church is the center of life.  Looking at many aspects of faith, Gwyn explores how faith can help and destroy individual lives.  Brilliantly done, these stories will each stick with you and give you lots to think about.  Both Dog on the Cross and Serpent Box mine the territory of Flannery O’Connor, looking at the old, Southern religion.

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3. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (384 pages, HarperTorch). This satirical read takes close look at the institutions built around faith, and, as is natural for Pratchett, takes the piss out of them.  In a theocratic state, when the great god Om comes down to Discworld to ordain the next great prophet, it turns out that no one really believes anymore, putting Om in the powerless body of a turtle.  Using Brutha, the last true believer, Om goes about getting his believers back.  Looking at those who say they believe but just go through the motions, Small Gods looks at what real, simple faith is all about.

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4. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (336 pages, Dial Press). Satirical, like Small Gods but much more critical, The Sirens of Titan by the much esteemed Vonnegut looks at how religion and faith can be used to manipulate the masses, and even takes a look at Deism and the role of a god that refuses to interfere.

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5. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (240 pages, Penguin Classics). A true classic, The Power and the Glory focuses on a renegade, Mexican priest in a time when the state of Tabasco was unfriendly and hostile to religion.  The whiskey priest, who has fallen from grace in his role, shows how faith can aid and redeem even the most of those who shouldn’t deserve it.

See also: And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave, In The Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches, A Canticle for Leibowitz by William Miller Jr., Silence by Shusaku Endo

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