More Religious Characters, Please

Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.

There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.

However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.

Most of the time, the concept of religion in books is either a) completely ignored, b) presented as a thing that people do, not a belief-set or philosophy, or c) atheist. And I find the first to be the most common. Even in historical fiction set in eras that religion was a fact of life, most authors choose to ignore it altogether.

And I get where authors are coming from. Many authors are not actively religious. Some authors who might be religious might want to avoid alienating non-religious readers. And others might be concerned that by including it they might have to make the book “about” religion, and that’s not what they want to write about. Truly, I understand, and that’s why for so long I didn’t give it a second thought.

BUT. If the character was Muslim, would we be concerned that non-Muslim readers would be alienated? No. If the character was Muslim, would an author be concerned that their book would “have” to be all about religion? No. So… this isn’t really about religion. It’s about the complicated relationship the West (and especially the book industry) has with Christianity.

So here’s the problem.

According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans still identify as Christian. Over 75% of Americans identify with some religion. If we’re talking about diversity in books, and the importance of a reader being able to see themselves in the books they’re reading, shouldn’t that apply to religion too?

I hear what you’re going to say next, because it’s what I’ve said myself plenty of times. “Who says the characters aren’t religious? Just because it’s not on the page doesn’t mean they aren’t going to church or something.” To which I counter, who says x-character isn’t gay? Just because it’s on the page doesn’t mean they aren’t. Oh, that doesn’t work? That’s not real representation? Well, there you go.

For some religious people, going to church is just something you do on Sunday. It’s not important, so it might not bother them to not see it in a book. But to many, many people, it is something terribly important to them, something they think about all the time. And, in my opinion, that is something they should be able to see reflected in books other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.

Lately, in fantasy especially, I’ve read a lot of non-positive representations of religion or of pious characters. I LOVED The Priory of the Orange Tree, in part because the origins of the main Christian-esque religion are explored, and revealed being fraudulent for the gain of (you guessed it!) and white man. However, seeing only negative representations of religion is getting tiring.

Again, I get it. It’s not an easy thing to include in your book. I am an actively religious person, but in NONE of the books I have planned out to write (haha, yeah right) in my journal is there any mention of a character who goes to church. At this point it’s counter-cultural, at least in books. It’s easier to just leave it out. That way nobody gets offended. But I want to implore any writers out there who might be reading this (again, yeah right) and who are religious people, make the effort.

I want to leave off with a few examples of books I’ve read in the last few years that present a positive (or at least nuanced) view of religion or religion characters.

  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  • Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
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59 thoughts on “More Religious Characters, Please

  1. I agree with what you are saying– books should be a place where everyone gets to be represented and I certainly don’t see a lot of religion characters but it would be nice to see and how it is a part of their lives. Hopefully we will get to see more of this!! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I highly recommend The Calculating Stars if you are looking for books that deal with religion. I loved it because it discussed that scientists can be religious and that’s okay. It features a Jewish protagonist and is insanely well written. I also agree that I wish more books had religious characters (specifically characters that aren’t evil) Religion is apart of most people daily lives so why doesn’t it exist in our books?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will have to check that book out! I like how you phrased that, “It’s a part of our daily lives.” Like, how is it that you manage to get through an ENTIRE contemporary YA set in the state of Texas without anyone saying the word church or Jesus? Even if the protagonist isn’t religious, someone will be. I think that it’s avoided in books reflects the way we’ve been taught to avoid it at dinner.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Add me to the list. Also living in Texas, (have for 22 years), originally from Spain, but currently a Texian, ha ha ha, and religious person, (church goer, but not JUST).

        I’m taking note of your mentioned books of which I’ve only read ‘and loved’ Bel Canto.

        I must add that I detest christian fiction. It should not be a genre imo. I just prefer good authors writing, and if they are sincere, there would be more religion. (I fear they are writing to meet certain criteria in order to sell, -which I also understand but which I too lament).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I have never read a Christian fiction book, and I am not at all interested. I mean, I loved Narnia, but I don’t understand why we need a genre of books that preach the gospel? I file that under the same question mark as people who tell me I shouldn’t listen to non-Christian music. That being said, I *do* like to listen to “Christian Music” sometimes, so maybe I should give The Shack or Fireproof or something a try?

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          1. I love Narnia too, and I think with C.S. Lewis, that the book has to be good literature first. Narnia happens to be great literature, and Christianity flows from them quite naturally.
            I’m with you, I don’t believe that we can’t listen, or should not listen to non Christan music? Or watch some movies? I don’t see a problem with listening to christian music, or even read so called christian fiction like the Amish romances. Personally, I find much of it of little quality, but there can be some gems.
            I still agree with you that Religion is a contemporary aversion in books.

            Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a very interesting post! I just finished The City of Brass and do agree with you. You could also add A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Now I think religion is just a part of our life, directly or indirectly. Some people are good examples of their faith, others not, whatever the faith. So we should have both kind of books, not an overwhelming unique “kind”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can not WAIT to read A Very Large Expanse of Sea. It’s been on my tbr for about sixth months and keeps getting pushed back by other things. But I am eager to read the perspective of a Muslim teen in America.

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  4. Reblogged this on Egotist's Club and commented:
    I concur with most everything said here, especially Katie’s note about 21st century literature. As I read, I strained my memory for “books [with religious/Christian characters] other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.”

    The books or authors that most immediately come to mind when I think of good Christian fiction (whether they feature practicing Christians or not) are either Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien), Catholic literary revivalists (Waugh, Percy, Greene, O’Connor), or somewhat-adjacent folk (Sayers), all publishing ca. 1920-1980. And, you know, I’ll go on recommending the Lord Peter books, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, or the Cosmic Trilogy until my mind dissolves. I’ll commend anything by L’Engle even if it’s technically 20th century writing and I still have yet to read most of it.

    But as Katie says, it’s harder to find representation in contemporary books. The field seems ripe for some solid idea-wrestling, so maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps, as with stories about contentedly single women, I’d have to write it myself.

    Some possibilities that occur:

    The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. 1996, set in 2019/2060. Features Jesuits, Judaism, and agnosticism, in the context of interstellar travel.

    Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. 2004, set 1956. A Congregationalist minister’s theological and philosophical struggles as he looks back on his life and his family history.

    Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley. 2009-2019, set in 1950. Not about faith so much as it’s about crime-solving via chemistry, but it at least depicts Catholics and Anglicans going about their lives.

    The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. 2013, set…well, sometime after 1970. Depicts a woman entering a community in the style of the Benedict Option.

    I’d also like to mention Luci Shaw again. She’s a poet, not a novelist, so insofar as her work discusses faith, it does so directly rather than mediated through a character. She’s been publishing since the 1970s.

    What books do you know of that represent Christianity in any depth?

    What books do you know that represent Judaism, Islam, or other religions with nuance?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Have you been to my home library? Yes to Lord Peter, Robinson, Flavia and a huge yes to O’Connor. Add Carlson’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and My Name is Asher Lev.

      I’m adding Lucy Shaw to my list. And concur that there’s a huge gap in contemporary writers. There’s been an effort to push christian faith out of books, I believe.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I forgot about it too. But from O’Connor, my mind went through Shirley Jackson, and the Southern Gothic took me to Carson McCullers, and her book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter took me straight to My Name is Asher Lev. (I read them the same year too!)

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Love this post and really agree. I would recommend *almost all of Ann Patchett’s works for dealing with religion and faith in an authentic way. Also, Connie Willis is excellent in dealing with faith in a big picture way, although not really church.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things I loved about Bel Canto was that it presented characters who were deeply religious as well as characters that were more culturally religious, but in no way would you call religion a “theme” of the book. It’s just part of their character, like their nationality or career.

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  6. I have also noticed that if a religious character exists and if they aren’t a punchline (hello, over-the-top Christian who’s also a hypocrite), then religion is more of a ritual or a culture than a belief system for that character. You might find characters who light a menorah or who pop into a church once in a while as part of the plot, but I don’t think I’ve really read a character in contemporary mainstream fiction that distinctly, for instance, mentioned God or said something like “I won’t do that because it’s against my beliefs.” Authors can do a lot more to represent religion. (I’d go on, but my co-blogger has already written a couple posts about this, and she’s covered a lot.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I feel like it’s most glaringly lacking in contemporary because it IS such a part of the way we interact with the world and we notice how obviously it’s missing. But fantasy and Sci-Fi do it too. SF in particular seems to thing that in the future we will “outgrow” religion or something, and often presents it a relic of the backwards past.

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      1. I was thinking the same thing about sci-fi. Kind of like the Brotherhood in L1feLik3. Crazy, the villains, definitely relics of the past.

        I also think fantasy using religion as culture more than a belief system or a morality system. Characters kind of might toss out the gods’ names or pop into a temple here or there, but I’ve rarely read a fantasy where the characters’ religion impacted their day to day lives beyond ritual. That is, I’ve rarely seen a character make a decision based on their religion. Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson is one that really stood out to me, as one of the characters really did not want to do something considered a horrific sin in her religion (which was no big deal for other religions in the book). It struck me as being one of the only times I’ve seen a character make a moral decision based on their religion.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I wrote a few posts about the lack of religious characters a few years ago and it’s sad nothing much has changed. Responses I got for the lack were often ones people would NOT use for the lack of other types of diversity. “You can read Christian fiction.” Yes, if you’re Christian (probably Protestant–my understanding is some Christian publishing houses don’t like Catholic authors) and into Amish or Western romances. We wouldn’t tell people, “Oh, you want X? Just read this one genre!” But we do it for religious characters. (And forget that there are religions besides Christianity.) Or, “You can read historical fiction.” Sure…let’s put religion solely in the past where it’s non-controversial and probably depicted as an ancient relic we gratefully shrugged off. Or, “Fantasy books have religion!” Yes, religions that are made-up and thus non-controversial.

    There was also a fair amount of readers who worried that simply mentioning religion meant the book was “preachy” and evangelizing. Or who seemed to think the characters would be walking about giving sermons instead of just living out their lives naturally, maybe praying sometimes or fasting or going to a service. Which is odd. Because, as you note, a large percentage of people in real life are religious and they generally do not go around spouting sermons. They’re just people like anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my gosh, ALL OF THE YES to this!

      I think my fear about publishing this post was that I would come across as the “Christians are being persecuted in America!!!” person, which is NOT what I am going for. But, like you said, I DO think there is a problem that the book industry is ignoring religion almost completely. While I wouldn’t call religion persecuted per se, I do think there is an element of disdain for it from the publishing world that is a problem. For example, I was just listening to a podcast on Monday afternoon where the book in question had a religious character, and the host felt the need to *apologize for it* and to tell listeners that you’ll *probably* still like the book because the character isn’t preachy. Like, just IMAGINE if that character had been Muslim or Jewish, how hateful that would come off.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think there is a lack of Christian, and generally religious, characters in contemporary fiction. And, yeah, when they are present, they are often present as crazy or brainwashed or controlling. People talk a lot about what young people should be “allowed” to read based on what they could learn. But it’s acceptable to teach that all religious people are totally crazy?

        And, yeah, whenever I see a book with a religious person, there is a disclaimer like that. It’s possible I’ve even made some myself because some readers will see there is a person of faith in a book and never pick it up. In my case, I want to say, please give it a try! You might find out that people of faith are totally normal people–they’re not all evangelizing zealots as the media has lead you to believe! At the same time, however, you wouldn’t do that for anyone else. “This character has glasses, but, it’s cool, people. They’re cool.” That would come off very wrong, as you say.

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        1. I just feel like there is something you can do to be between Life of Pi and The Hunger Games. Like, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But I can understand why authors may feel like it does. It all comes back to the two things you shouldn’t talk about at dinner, I suppose.

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          1. Right. I think you can have characters of faith and not be writing an evangelizing pamphlet! I think Ms. Marvel does this really well, for instance. Kamala is inspired by her faith to help others. And, when she is confused, she seeks spiritual guidance. But she doesn’t go around talking only about her faith. She’s a normal teenager who has hobbies and interests like everyone else. And it’s a shame that would be surprising to people.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. I do think we need religious diversity in books, and yes, that means all of the religions. One of the problems I see with this is that in the history of books, and especially since keeping lists of challenged and/or banned books and the reasons why, religious issues are a big reason why people cry for books to be removed from schools and/or libraries. So perhaps this has led to people reining in their need to have very religious characters, because they want their books to be more accessible to people.

    I don’t generally talk about my own faith except with people I really know and feel comfortable with. I was raised by an atheist father and a non-practicing Christian mother. I was baptized as a baby, and all of that. When I was in late elementary school and into junior high, I went to Vacation Bible School every summer and thought that I believed and fit in. But if I’m being honest, I still felt a bit off. I started exploring other religions in high school and found the right fit for me in high school. And even though I wasn’t strictly Christian, I did volunteer as a “teacher” at Vacation Bible School. Regardless of which religion, I still think that for the most part, programs like VBS are positive and helpful. Everyone at VBS with me believed me to be a good Christian girl, and I didn’t bother to correct them. I can follow one faith myself and still support a different faith followed by others. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel like others are the same.

    And I’m struggling to recall titles with characters of faith in them, but I know I’ve read some. The only one that immediately comes to mind right now is Autoboyography by Christina Lauren. But I generally enjoy reading books about all faiths. I took Religions of the World in college, and I am fascinated by the tenets and core beliefs of pretty much every major and minor religion out there. I would love to see all of the religions represented more in books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also like reading books about people of all faiths. That’s why I’m never going to criticize a book for having a protagonist who is actively athiest. Honestly, I would rather see THAT in every book than for religion to be completely ignored. To me it sends the message that religion isn’t an important part of our lives. Which, again, for some people it isn’t. But for many people it IS.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Most definitely we have to wring our brains out to find those titles, specially the closer we get to today’s writers.

    The first half of the 20th century, and the whole of the 19th century were full of ‘religion’, as it has always been part of people as well. Maybe the 21st century is experiencing a “correction” and direct attempt at repressing that natural inclination we all have to have religion as part of our life, to be religious, or know those who are, -at least in America, anglo and latin- .

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this post! I agree that it’s a bit of a double standard to put books with religious characters as a separate category – that’s not advancing true diversity.

    This reminded me of Heian Japan, where their beliefs were so strong that where they could go on a particular day was also decided. Anyone writing a book set in that time period and ignoring their religions would be missing out a vital part of their culture (and I’m sure there are many other cultures and times where religion plays an equally important role).

    I quite liked Candace Robb – she’s a historian so her settings are very realistic and religion does play a part in her character’s lives (even though the book won’t fit in the ‘Christian fiction’ genre) – at least for the one I read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point about historical fiction. You reminded me of The Once and Future King, which is set during the crusades. But not once is Arthur mentioned as being a Christian. Why did they even go on the crusades? Very odd indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I love this post, and I think it absolutely needed to be written! Some of my favorite books growing up were by Jewish authors, because they were good at tying religion into their stories without making the book completely about religion, something most Christian authors haven’t done as well. Also people forget is that there are different types of Christians other than “perfectly practicing Catholic” and “weird Evangelical fundamentalist.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a (non-Russian) book that even mentions the Orthodox Church, and that’s just one example. Thanks for writing this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! I agree that Jewish authors tend to be better at integrating faith into a story without making it *about* religion. Although I feel that they may be at a bit of a disadvantage to other religions since Judaism is not at all concerned with evangelizing compared to other religions.

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  12. YES! 👏 I couldn’t agree more. Christians are extremely misrepresented in the media, and while religion unfortunately can be very damaging and we do have our flaws, it’s unfair to label everyone the same. In nearly every other situation, generalisations are condemned, yet for some reason it’s fine for Christianity?? As a Christian myself, I find it very sad and frustrating. Especially when other forms of diversity celebrated — including other religions — while Christianity is condemned. Christian characters are certainly a challenge to write, given the labels we have, but I definitely want to see authors put as much effort into that as they do other forms of diversity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my goodness, yes to all of this! I agree that Christians in particular are over-generalized. I get especially frustrated with this in fantasy novels when the author gets to create a whole new religion, and they basically copy/paste all of their negative ideas about Christianity. I am truly happen for Muslim authors and characters for making such great strides in representation, but I’m also sad that it’s the only religion doing so.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ugh yes! Fantasy religions have the potential to be rich and interesting, but many authors just borrow Christian stereotypes. On top of that, I feel like Christianity is seen as the majority, which is why many people don’t want to include it. But in reality, Christianity is very underrepresented, or at the very least the rep is one-sided.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Christians ARE the majority (in America, at least), but someone else called them “the silent majority”. Religion is so touchy that many Christians choose not to talk about it for fear of offending others. And I guess that’s leaked over into literature.

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  13. I very much agree with you. I have noticed that there are not a lot of YA books which portray religion in a positive way, or at all. I am a Christian, and I don’t expect to see my faith in a lot of books, but whenever I do, it’s always with some teen who only prays or goes to church because their parents make them. I would much rather not see any mention of religion than see religion as a joke or a negative aspect of a character’s life.

    However, I did enjoy the positive representation and explanation of religion in the Magnus Chase series. It was a respectful way to compare other cultures and beliefs, and I think our books need a little bit more of that.

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    1. I mean, I think it’s fine for it to sometimes be a negative aspect of a character’s life, because that IS the relationship some teens have with religion. It’s just how EXCLUSIVELY the portrayal is negative that I have a problem with. I hope that makes sense.

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  14. Ahhh!! I’m so happy I just found this post of yours, Katie! ❤ ❤ I agree with so much of it, and love how you brought up this topic! It's honestly such a shame how Christians are underrepresented in the media, in order to appease the widespread belief that they're dominating the entertainment industry. How can a society that longs to show diversity, choose to neglect such a large percentage of people? I never see Christian characters represented in a positive light in Western media. The only times the characters do appear, they're either depicted as power-hungry cultists, or the offspring of overly strict parents.

    The few times when Christian characters are shown in a positive light, the novel is suddenly no longer normal fiction, but instead labeled as Christian fic. *sigh* I long for the day when I can see characters casually being mentioned as religious in books, in a positive light.

    What a wonderful post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Good post. Some really talented writers have a strong negative view of organized Christianity. Stephen King comes to mind. And I love the dystopian fantasy novels of S.M. Stirling, and he is in love with Celtic paganism.

    You might want to check out Michael O’Brien, a Catholic writer whose Christian main characters deal with a lot of complexity in their lives and souls. Some of his titles include Father Elijah and Theophilus. He does a really great job of taking you inside a character’s mind and heart when they are feeling just overwhelmed by all the evil in the world … having a spiritual anxiety attack, you might say. He really makes you feel it. So we’ve got Christianity and mental health challenges represented. 🙂

    Also, check out Andrew Klavan. He writes hard-boiled crime novels, sometimes with some supernatural elements. Sometimes he’ll feature a Christian MC, as in his book Empire of Lies. He also does a great job showing sweet, wholesome marriages.

    Of course, there are also G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

    I am a writer (2 1/2 novels written; none published) and I think there is another reason that it’s hard to accurately represent religion, particularly Christianity, in fiction. It’s worth at least 1,000 words so I’ll make a post about it and link to this post of yours.

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  16. Pingback: A new journey in literature | let us begin then. – |reading backwards|

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