Disclaimer: I had thought that a post advocating for more religious diversity in mainstream literature, particularly in YA and MG (since that is the focus of this blog), with examples including Christians, Jewish, and Muslim characters would indicate to readers that I am, in fact, advocating for all types of religious diversity, from Buddhist characters to Hindu characters to any other character with a faith you can think of. However, many of the responses seem to assume that I advocating only for Christian fiction (meaning the typically specifically Protestant selections published by a house like Tyndale). Needless to say, this is not the case and I welcome any and all religious representation. Feel free to leave your recommendations below.
Also, I have addressed some of the objections to my call for more religious representation in this post, again noting that the Christian fiction section of Barnes and Noble hardly counts as diverse religious representation. Now, onto the post!
Over the years, it seems the book blogosphere has committed itself more explicitly to diversity in books, advocating for more protagonists of color, more LGBTQ representation, and less sexism in media. However, religious diversity is regularly glossed over in discussions of representations or is regularly dismissed by those who find a character of faith to be “too preachy” or don’t want religion “shoved down their throats.” This attitude does a disservice to the many people of faith throughout the world who would also like to see themselves reflected in characters in books. It assumes that the presence of an individual of faith is, by nature, overbearing, unwelcome, and oppressive–that is, apparently an individual is allowed to have a faith as long as no one else has the misfortune of knowing about it.
However, despite the lack of characters of faith in modern and mainstream literature, a majority of the world identifies with some form of religion. The Pew Research Group in 2010 determined that 16.3% of respondents were not affiliated with any sort of religion. The other ~83% identified with a religious group. That is, in any group of ten people, you could theoretically assume eight were religious. And yet religion remains absent in most YA and MG books.
But, for many individuals, religion is more than an abstract belief in a higher deity. Religion is something that affects one’s philosophy, one’s actions, one’s daily life. For instance, a Catholic teen might have to give up going to a sleepover because she has to attend Mass on Sunday. A Jewish college student might have trouble eating in the school cafeteria. A Muslim might have to plan the day around prayer. A Protestant girl might find herself feeling awkward or even bullied for wearing more modest clothing instead of the crop tops and short shorts currently in style. Religion impacts people every day, shaping them as individuals and creating challenges others might not face–and yet we continue not to recognize this in most of the stories we tell.
Religious diversity does not have to look “preachy.” Religious diversity just means telling more stories about people living out their faiths, the same way most of the people around us are living out their faiths every day. Having a character struggle with saying no because she is waiting for marriage, or being made fun of for wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, or trying to struggle through school and work or even sports while fasting, does not mean an author is promoting a particular religion or trying to convert anyone. It means an author is representing the life of an individual. The struggles of a character with questions of morality, with being bullied, with trying to find their way in life, does not become less valid because that character thinks of morality in terms of a deity.
We like to talk about how reading can expand our horizons, allow us to talk in the shoes of another person, and make us more empathetic and sympathetic people. The fact that a belief in a deity makes some readers uncomfortable, does not mean we should refuse the represent the lives of a segment of the population, but instead that we should take that as a challenge to expand our understanding of the lives of people of faith. Perhaps we will find that individuals of faith are not freaks of nature or weird people trying to convert everyone, but rather normal people who also have stories to share. After all, remember–eight out of every ten people you know probably identify with some sort of faith, even if they currently feel they have to hide it to be accepted.
Getting Started with Religious Diversity
But what does religious diversity look like if it’s not the Christian fiction you’re thinking of, the one with the mail order bride who marries a preacher who fills the pages of the book with his sermons? It looks like most of the other literature you read, except that the people have a faith and it affects their lives:
- The Chosen by Chaim Potok: A story about friendship between two Jewish boys.
- My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: A Jewish boy who longs to paint struggles when his rabbi says his artistic gift must be evil.
- The Mira’s Diary series by Marissa Moss: A MG time travel series where the protagonist is Jewish.
- Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, etc.: A Muslim teen gains super powers!
- Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah: Follows an Australian teen after she decides to start wearing the hijab.
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: Anne is Christian and learns to pray.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Again the protagonists are Christian and they even play Pilgrim’s Progress.
- The Father Brown mysteries by G. K. Chesterton: A Catholic priest solves mysteries. It has been compared to Sherlock Holmes.
You’ll note that most of these selections are older–in the past, it seems, mentioning religion was less taboo. And yet many of these books are considered classics. Generations of readers love Anne Shirley and Jo March, even though they are Christian. Yet when it comes to modern books, readers seem to fear anything that looks like faith. It’s time to rethink what our characters look like, and to introduce again characters that reflect the wide diversity of religions in our world.