Religious Themes in YA Lit

Bridgid Cassin's picture

[Ed note: Bridgid's essay comes to us as a preview of her upcoming talk, "Religious Themes in YA Literature: Using Where Things Come Back and the Religious Lens," at the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association.]


The Scarlet Letter, Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, The Crucible – what do all of these books have in common? For one thing, they were all on my required reading list years ago when I was a high school student. Secondly, they all deal with religious topics and themes, which provide an important avenue for students to develop their critical thinking skills, explore facets of their identities, and learn to navigate the world around them. However, a third thing they have in common is that using these texts to explore religious topics and themes for classroom instruction can do young readers a serious disservice by failing to reach them in the critical space these readers occupy. In other words, for young adults to utilize literature to explore these difficult and challenging topics, they should have access to contemporary works written specifically for them as an audience.

Religious texts used to be a huge feature in every American classroom. From the time of the Puritans until the turn of the 20th century (or later, in some places) reading instruction was accomplished exclusively with religious texts (Hilbun, 2009). Influxes of immigrants from a large variety of religious backgrounds prompted a change in America’s public school systems. While the separation of church and state is immensely important, religious topics and themes can still provide benefits to students when addressed in literature classrooms. While the aforementioned classics and others like them continue to provide pedagogical utility, they may be too far removed from the lived experiences of current adolescents for them to create relevant connections to the texts. Some readers have no difficulty engaging with classics, but reading research demonstrates that the “regular literary diets” of middle and high school students establish a sense of “disenchantment and resistance” because they are not written to them (Soter, Faust, & Rogers, 2008, p. 9). Therefore, in order to adequately engage in religiously-themed works for teens, these books should be written to young adults as their primary audience, and address contemporary realistic issues.

What possible use could these kinds of texts have for young readers? Firstly, there is the issue of identity, a constant theme both in literature and in their daily lives. If young people consider their religion or spirituality to be part of their identities, they should be able to find fiction to mirror this aspect of themselves. Likewise, even if religious practice does not factor into every adolescents’ experience, they should still be able to explore religious topics and themes in fiction in order to appreciate, understand, or avoid them. The world around us is heavily influenced by systems of belief, regardless of personal conviction (this seems especially apparent in the political climate of the United States today) so using literature to explore these systems of believe may provide avenues through which adolescent readers can learn to navigate around or through these systems, whether they participate or not. Finally, because these topics can be personal and challenging, they can jumpstart difficult “conversations that are essential to the development of critical thinking skills… to become insightful and intelligent adults” (Auguste, 2013, p. 37).

However, some books are more appropriate for whole-class instruction than others, and it can be trying to establish the difference between what works, and what doesn’t. A distinction must be made between religiously-themed fiction that explores topics related to various systems of belief, and fiction that is created in service to a particular system of belief, such as the “gentle reads” found on the shelves of Christian bookstores. These are often written with an evangelical bent, illustrating one sect or system more than others, meant to convert the unfamiliar and affirm the attitudes of those who share those beliefs. In Horn Book Magazine, Patty Campbell has called attention to the way these works inaccurately reflect actual adolescent religious practice, containing “clumsy writing and heavily proselytizing stance” (1998, p. 379). These works have neither the conviction nor the “theological literacy” to address the intensely private and troubling spiritual questions that are important to teens (Campbell, 2000, p. 353). If religiously-themed fiction is meant to be challenging to development of identity, critical thinking skills, and interaction with the world at large, than books that provide “easy answers” severely handicap their readers (Campbell, 2000, p. 354).

However, outside of these “gentle reads,” appropriate literature may be hard to find. Let’s review our guidelines thus far: must address religious topics or themes, must be written for a young adult audience, must be challenging and able to induce a number of different critical responses in their readers. This is a tall order for any high school teacher to attempt to fill, even more so because these books are genuinely hard to find. In his column for Booklist, Michael Cart determined exactly how rare these works were, finding that between 2000 and 2011, religiously-themed fiction for young adults were published at a rate of only eleven per year (2012, p. 40). Librarians can even be hesitant to include these books on their shelves, “because they associate the inclusion of religious fiction with ongoing criticism from Christian groups, library administrators, community members, and disapproving parents about collections and the materials in them” (Auguste, 2013, p. 38). Excluding these titles from shelves prevents controversy, especially since religion is cited as one of the most likely subjects for book banning: “The sensitive and divisive nature of this issue clearly presents a conundrum for librarians who recognize the risks involved and yet are committed to providing teens with the educational and personal tools they know they need and deserve” (Auguste, 2013, p. 38).

One helpful guideline for literature selection, though, is provided by librarians – in fact, the Young Adult Library Services Association, which selects honorees of the Michael L. Printz Award every year. Recipients of this award are young adult novels of high literary merit (Hill, 2014). One award-winner in particular, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, provides a useful example of how to address religiously-themed young adult texts in a classroom setting.

Where Things Come Back is told through the point of view of Cullen Witter, a teenage boy in Lily, Arkansas who must deal both with his brother’s disappearance and his community’s burgeoning obsession with the reappearance of an extinct woodpecker. The secondary plot line begins with Benton Sage, a failed missionary who gives up his faith and dies by suicide, whose quest for understanding is taken up by his college roommate Cabot Searcy. The book of Enoch, an Old Testament text considered canonical only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, provides a strong motif that connects both plots. These plots are eventually connected in strange but satisfying ways, when it is revealed that Cabot is responsible for the disappearance of Cullen’s brother, and both storylines utilize topics of faith, hope, and belief as continuing themes. Ultimately it is up to readers to decide whether these topics are constructive or destructive to the characters in the text. It is this challenge, as well as the teenaged protagonists and the novel’s literary merit, that set Whaley’s novel apart from “gentle reads” or canonical literary classics.

Actually, Where Things Come Back is ripe for critical analysis from a variety of lenses, including (but not limited to) the psychoanalytic lens (especially trauma studies), and the eco-critical lens, in addition to the religious lens. While it may not be a common method of critically examining texts, the religious lens is important to use not only because of the book’s subject matter, but also because of its relevance to young adult readers. In the case of Where Things Come Back, questions of religion and spirituality can be asked of the text, allowing students to discern, discover, and express a variety of opinions and points of view. For example, they could focus on the example of Benton Sage, who loses his faith following a failed mission to Ethiopia. Did Benton have a personal relationship with his religion to begin with, or was he faithful only to please his father? Was his method of evangelizing appropriate to his audience? What qualities or questions does he have in common with Cabot? Why did they both become obsessed with the same text?

While Benton provides to most direct connection to religion and religiosity, the rest of the text provides ample opportunities for further examination using the religious lens. Lily, Arkansas, is in the midst of the search for an extinct woodpecker that mirrors religious fervor, complete with a charismatic leader who may or may not be a false prophet. Cullen experiences daydreams about zombies that play with ideas of resurrection and redemption. Some characters experience their own personal “apocalypses,” or symbolic visions like those encountered in the Book of Enoch and other scriptural writings.

Religious topics and themes can be intimidating to try and undertake in a literature classroom, but using exemplary young adult novels can help make these issues more accessible to students by reaching them in a way relevant to their experiences. John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back is a good model to use to illustrate the benefits and methods of applying the religious lens of literary theory to a text.

It might be nice to take a break from The Scarlet Letter, at least.



Auguste, M. (2013). Those kinds of books: religion and spirituality in young adult literature. Young adult library services, 11(4) 37-40.

Campbell, P. (1998). Mainstreaming the last taboo. Horn book magazine, 74(3), 379.

Campbell, P. (2000). Wrestling with God. Horn book magazine, 76(3), 353-356.

Cart, M. (2009). Carte Blanche: the last taboo? Booklist, 106(6), 32.

Cart, M. (2012). Carte Blanche: still the last taboo? Booklist, 109(6), 40.

Hilbun, J. (2009). The role of Protestant Christianity in young adult realistic fiction. Journal of religious and theological information, 7:3-4, 181-201.

Hill, C. (2014). Introduction. In C. Hill (Ed.) The critical merits of young adult literature. (p. 17). New York, New York: Routledge.

Soter, A., Faust, M., & Rogers, T. Interpretive play: extending literate thinking by using literary theory and young adult literature. Soter, A. Faust, M., & Rogers, T. (Eds.) Interpretive play: using critical perspectives to teach young adult literature. (2008). Norwood, Massachusetts: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Whaley, J. C. (2011). Where things come back. New York, New York: Atheneum Books.