Regular contributor Virginia Thomas offers three shorter reviews of books related to ways that teens engage questions of faith.
Title: Preacher’s Boy
Author: Katherine Paterson
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Audience: Ages 10 and up
Summary: Robbie Hewitt decides to give up believing in God. He’s heard the visiting minister condemn wicked thoughts and deeds and suggest that the world will end in 1900. He’s in trouble because he has disrupted church and, as the preacher’s boy, the congregation holds him to an unreasonably high standard. If the world’s coming to an end he wants to get in a lot of living before then; he wants especially to ride in a motor car. Robbie’s oldest brother is severely handicapped physically and mentally and Robbie envies the time and attention Elliot gets from his father. He also fights with the rich Weston boys who make fun of Elliot. His life is complicated by two drifters who camp in his hideout, Violet and her alcoholic father , and a fake kidnapping plot. Finally a ride in a motor car restores Robbie’s faith and the new century begins with a joyous ringing of the church bells.
Giving up faith and doubting God are familiar themes for adolescents. Robbie’s choice of “apeism,” a conflation of evolution and lack of faith, is chosen honestly; God interferes with the lifestyle he thinks he wants. But what happens when you give up God? When you need prayer? When you have to make a choice? When you want to give thanks? When an answer to your deepest yearning can only be a miracle? Robbie’s father is a Christian minister seldom seen in fiction: gentle, modest, open to new ideas, strong in conviction and charitable in relationships. Robbie is one of Katherine Paterson’s most appealing characters. Through his voice she examines a young person’s developing faith and understanding.
Title: Armageddon Summer
Author: Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & Col.
ISBN: 0152022686 pb.
Audience: Ages 12 years and up
Summary: Reverend Beelson is taking 144 believers to the top of Mt. Weeupcut to await the End on July 27, 2000 when God will destroy the world and begin anew. Fourteen-year old Marina’s mother insists that Marina and her four brothers join her there to prevent their destruction. Marina’s father stays behind. Sixteen-year old Jed follows his father to the mountain to look after him. He has been less than stable since his wife left him for another man. In alternating voices, Marina and Jed tell their stories of the month on the mountain interspersed with county sheriff’s reports, Rev. Beelson’s sermons, the rules for Weeupcut’s camping facilities, and a psychologist on a radio talk show. Marina wants desperately to believe; Jed is firmly skeptical. Events play out in a violent, dramatic climax as outsiders try to force their way into the camp to be safe with the believers. “Did we do wrong in believing? Asks Marina’s mother. “Never in believing, “ answers Marina, “just in what we believed.”
With the Left Behind series in the movies and news, Christians are prompted to ask what we do believe about eschatology or end times. This is a thought provoking, gripping book about belief, the search for belief, what happens when belief fails. Jed and Marina are well drawn, appealing young persons who survive the summer and begin to search for faith anew. Before tackling this book is is well to know at least one basic fact about biblical eschatology: Acts 1:6,7.
Title: The Heavenly Village
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Audience: Ages 9 years and up
Summary: The Heavenly Village is a place of peace and beauty with flowers, a river, trees, small houses and shops. It is a stopping place for spirits who are not quite ready for heaven, for those who need to finish their stories. People are always arriving or leaving, something or someone is always being mended. Here you will find Everett, a bank teller who needs time to see beauty he ignored on earth. There is Violet Rose, a baker, who is still concerned for her cats. Dr. Blake was so busy on earth that he never had time for his family or to listen to his patients. Now since no one is really ill, he listens to his patients for hours (and they think they are in heaven) and visits his home each evening, unseen by his family. And there’s Fortune, the rescue dog, who was a nuisance in Heaven but is quite useful in Heavenly Village. There is some provocative idea on almost every page. For example, God is surprised that no one wants to lose weight in Friendly Village. Since they are not worried about what others think about their looks, they decide they look just fine. Or God usually sends a messenger or loved one to welcome a new spirit to Heaven. He has learned that most people like to get a little unpacked before they meet the Creator. This is a short, delightful, beautifully written plotless collection of characters and incidents.
What happens after death? The Heavenly Village will stimulate discussion but not provide any answers. The Bible gives us few details (and it’s well to know 1 Cor. 15, 1 Thes., Rev. 22, John 14 before you discuss this book) but we can’t seem to get beyond time and space, beyond golden streets and gates of pearl and white robes. Rylant frees our imaginations. The book has more to say about life than the hereafter, about how we fail and how we grow. God is depicted as gentle, wise, meeting the needs of all of his children but rather limited on earth. (Rylant is not concerned with sexist pronouns.) Each chapter has a Bible verse introducing it and it’s worth some time to think about why a verse was chosen for a particular chapter. This is by no means a book of theology but it does stimulate theological thinking and it is fun.