Pete Hautman. godless. Simon Pulse, 2004. 198 pp. ISBN: 10: 1416908161
It is summer in St. Andrew Valley and Jason Bock is fifteen, awkward, disenfranchised and bored. Needless to say the Catholic Church he is forced to attend by his parents doesn't add much in terms of excitement. Father Haynes is "a thousand years old at least" (33) and his sermons are extended treatments for insomniacs. Jason's dad senses his son's "agnosticism going on atheism" and deals with it in the most ineffective way possible: he sends Jason to "Teen Power Outreach" meetings which are intended to indoctrinate, oops, I meant educate, young Catholics in the faith. The only problem is that the teacher, a layman and used car salesman named Allan Anderson, makes things worse. To begin with, he has no sense of the seriousness of the faith. His prayers to God are overly familiar and conversational — no sense of the numinous here — and he insists on being called "just Al". Perhaps even worse, "Just Al" tries to sell the religion to his young audience as if it were a pre-owned Buick. If that's all God is then they're not buying. After all, Buicks are for fogeys.
Jason responds in a TPO meeting by informing Just Al and the other young people that he's started his own religion which worships "The Ten-Legged One" (18). And just who (or what) is this God? (drumroll please) Jason's object of worship is ... the town water tower. Perhaps it is not as crazy as you might think. As Jason observes:
"Think about it: What is the source of all life? Water. Where does water come from? Water towers. What is the tallest structure in most towns? The water tower. What makes more sense–to worship a water tower or to worship an invisible, impalpable, formless entity that no one has seen since Moses. And all he actually saw was a burning bush." (19)
Jason quickly gathers a handful of disciples for his fledgling religion called "Chutegodianism". And over the next two hundred pages we are treated to a wry and insightful young adult novel which explores themes of faith, doubt, meaning, conformity, institution, plausibility structure, and more.
Pete Hautman's novel was awarded the National Book Award. But even more impressively, it was chosen as a textbook in my Apologetics course. After slogging through readings on the cosmological and teleological arguments the students were delighted to have a practical discussion of the struggles of faith, reason, evidence and doubt wrapped up in the package of an engaging novel.
Not only is Godless highly recommended, but in the capable hands of an informed and articulate youth group leader or Christian high school teacher it could be a wonderful stimulus for discussion and reflection. Consider this excerpt where Jason reflects on the implausibility of the mass:
Hosts are little white disks that do not resemble any kind of real food. The closest thing I can think of would be a flattened, sugarless marshmallow. They have almost no taste, just a faint sourness, and they require no chewing. I think they're made out of some kind of digestible paper.
My point is, the miracle of Holy Communion is when the priest turns these little white disks into the flesh of Jesus Christ.They call it transsubstantiation. [sic] So, if you buy that, then the host the priest places on your tongue is actually a sliver of Jesus meat. But they make the host as different from meat as they can, so that even though communion is a form of cannibalism, nobody gets grossed out. (38)
That single passage captures the objection that many skeptics have toward religious faith: it doesn't make any difference; it doesn't add anything. Instead, it merely takes the phenomena we all can agree on and adds a framework that is completely implausible unless you've been successfully indoctrinated to accept it. And that is but one of the many topics of discussion raised by Hautman's narrative.