In May 2016, I asked why we aren’t talking more about the need for religious diversity in books. Because the focus of our blog is primarily YA and MG (along with some classics) and because the book blogosphere seems to be composed primarily of YA and some MG reviewers, I assumed that readers would understand that my concern was with these categories and that I was not overlooking the existence of such categories as Christian fiction. Some commentors, however, suggested that my desire to see representation of different faiths is not altogether warranted. Here, I break down some of the responses and explain why these answers aren’t good enough
Objection 1: We don’t need religious diversity because publishing houses have religious imprints/faiths publish their own books.
Response: I think we need religious representation for two reasons–firstly, so readers can see themselves reflected in art but secondly so that readers can learn, as Atticus Finch says, to walk in one another’s shoes. This isn’t going to happen through some small press printing their stuff somewhere and marketing it to a niche audience like Catholic homeschoolers, or even through a major publisher’s imprint, the selections of which only certain people are going to read. I want to see characters of faith in mainstream books so that people can access them easily.
After all, maybe someone somewhere is printing Buddist or Muslim or Jewish fiction–but I’ve never heard of it or seen a section for it at the bookstore. I’ve only ever heard of Christian fiction. And I’m not reading Christian fiction because it has a reputation for 1) being of questionable quality depending on the publisher, 2) featuring mostly (historical/Western/Amish) romances, 3) generally having a sermon inserted in the middle. Romance isn’t my genre. I prefer to read YA and MG rather than adult. I just want to see characters of faith going about their lives in the genres and age ranges I enjoy. Why should I be shunted off to a special section of the bookstore if I want to see a character of faith? I mean…a Christian character. Because, again, I’ve never seen Barnes and Noble’s Jewish fiction section, have you?
We wouldn’t tell other people who want to see representation that they can kindly take themselves off to the [specific category of people] section, thank you very much. Why would we do that to people who want to see characters of faith?
Objection 2: Historical fiction features religion.
Response: It’s true that some genres feature religion more than others, but we should think about why this might be so. Historical fiction removes the reality of religion–you can, for example, read a book set in Renaissance Italy and enjoy the Catholicism as a quaint historical flavor, much like the dresses and art. You can read a book set in medieval Europe and dismiss anything unsavory as something those “unenlightened” Catholic people did back in the Dark Ages. Historical fiction essentially allows readers to say “we know better now” and not engage with it or be made to feel uncomfortable.
Objection 3: Fantasy features religion.
Response: It’s true that fantasy seems to contain more religion than many other genres. Again, we must ask ourselves why. I suspect this is because fantasy again allows us to think of religion as safe or distant. Things in fantasy, after all, are not true. Relegating religion to fantasy can be almost like saying religion is like a unicorn–a nice thought maybe, but you’d be mad to believe in one.
However, I think representing religion in books has a two-fold purpose: to give readers relatable characters and to broaden our understanding of others. Fantasy religions tend to be made up. That means no Buddist or Hindu or Jewish reader is likely to read a book with a fantasy religion and think “Hey! They’re just like me!” or, as Matilda puts it so eloquently, “I am not alone.” Telling a Christian reader that they can find relatable religion in something like Tamora Pierce is ridiculous. Would you tell a young reader who loved to dance that there aren’t many dance books, but, hey there’s one about basketball they could have? Because all sports are the same, right? Or perhaps a more apt comparison is offering someone who wants to read about a football player Harry Potter instead–flying on brooms is relatable, right? Quidditch is a sport.
And how can we learn about others and how to be tolerant and empathetic and understanding when we’re looking at fantasy religions? When I listen to the political rhetoric being thrown around about banning certain religions from the U.S., when I think about hate crimes, I think we need to learn about each other and maybe that help us create a better society. Again, Tamora Pierce’s gods aren’t really going to help us fight Islamophobia.
Finally, the idea that we should be content with religion being represented in select genres illustrates that we do have a problem with religion being represented. Why are we relegating characters of faith to fantasy and historical fiction?
What would you think if someone said “We don’t need more Black characters–they’re in science fiction”? What would you think if someone said “Oh don’t worry about representing overweight characters–there are a few in some contemporary novels so we don’t need them in romances”? What would you think if someone said “You’re overreacting about the representation of LGBTQ characters–I saw some in a few contemporaries. It doesn’t matter if you like adventure or fantasy, you have to go where the representation is.” If you would not be content with relegating certain groups to certain genres, you should not be content with relegating religious characters to historical fiction and fantasy.
Objection 4: We don’t need religious diversity because readers don’t want to be preached at.
Response: Learning about someone’s religion isn’t the same as being preached at. No one is asking the characters to give monologues about why readers should convert to their religion. If the fact that someone has a religion makes readers uncomfortable, perhaps that is a reason for us all to learn more about each other.
Objection 5: Characters shouldn’t go around talking about their faith because people in real life don’t do that.
Response: I’m confused by the assumption that “character of faith” means someone who goes around all day talking about their religion or perhaps trying to convert others. A character of faith could be literally anyone (because no person of faith fits a pattern) and they could be represented subtly if that’s what the author wants. Just a mention of a character attending a religious service or saying they will pray could be enough. Or maybe the author could mention that a character is wearing clothing specific to a religion or that they’re going to celebrate a religious holiday. It’s that simple if the author wants.
However, I don’t think talking about religion is necessarily taboo in a story. Talking about religion does not have to be preaching. I know many people who talk about their religion and it’s usually not preachy. I’ve found the trick is to indicate that I am comfortable talking about religion, that I am open to hearing what the other person has to say, and that I am trying to approach with understanding and not judgment. A lot of religious people do seem to have a horror of anyone in the public discovering they are religious and so they’re obviously not going to walk up and announce “Hey!!! I’m a [whatever]” and give you a run-down of their religious musings that morning. But I’ve found that if I am the first to say it’s all right, the other person will open up.
And this way you can hear all sorts of interesting philosophical ponderings, thoughts about morality, questions about the afterlife or fate or providence. Many people seem to hear the word “religion” or “God” and think preaching is imminent, but I cannot stress enough that talking about one’s beliefs is not the same as trying to convert someone or impose the same beliefs on them. I happen to think chocolate is a great gift to the world–my saying so doesn’t mean I think my auditors all have to love chocolate, too.
Objection 6: Religion might not be the point of the story.
Response: And the point of the story might not be that a character has a disability, comes from a mixed family, or is overweight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t represent those people in our stories. In fact, most people would never suggest that a character with a disability should only feature in a story about that disability. Maybe people with disabilities would like to see similar characters seeing unicorns, travelling to different planets, engaging in espionage, or falling in love. Maybe all kinds of people can be in all kinds of stories.
The fact that it’s so easy for us to dismiss this topic by saying “Don’t worry about representing religion–it’s in fantasy or over in the Christian fiction section” suggests to me that we truly do have a problem. Readers seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of seeing characters of faith portrayed, as if somehow learning that a character believes in God or goes to Mass or wears the hijab is going to have an unexplained negative impact on them or ruin the book. But consider the following books that feature characters of faith:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
- The Chosen by Chaim Potok
All of these books have been beloved over the years, even though their characters are religious! Have you ever heard anyone say “Oh, Anne Shirley is a great character. I just wish she’d stop preaching”? Probably not.
As readers, we meet all types of characters from goblins, wolves, and hockey players to murderers , prostitutes, and gang leaders. We may or may not agree with their philosophies, beliefs, or lifestyle choices. In the end it doesn’t usually matter. A good story is a good story. So why not broaden our representation of characters of faith and, maybe, in the process, learn to stop making assumptions about what it means to have a religion?