Hautman, Pete. (2004). Godless. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0698862784.
Jason Bock is bored. Bored of his ho-hum life in his little town, bored of his parents—his mother’s fixation with his health and his father’s obsession with the state of his soul. His father insists Jason attend the weekly Teen Power Outreach (or TPO) at their Catholic church, but Jason makes no secret that he doesn’t believe in God. Then, one night when cornered, Jason, on a whim says that he serves a different god—The Ten-Legged One (an idea he got lying under the water tower after a particularly stiff punch to the face from Henry Stagg, local bully). He pitches the idea to his best friend, Peter Stephen Schinner (known as Shin):
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.
I explain this to Shin, who stops walking and stares back at me as if my nose has turned into a tentacle.
“You’re saying the water tower is God?”
“Think about it,” I say.
Shin thinks about it.
“Prove me wrong,” I say.
He gives it some more thought. “Suppose that what you say is true. Then are all water towers gods?”
“I’m not sure. I guess they must be. Some are lesser god, though.”
Shin nods his head slowly. “I like it.”
They then come up with the idea that water towers “manifested themselves” as alien invaders from another galaxy—Shin admitting that as a kid, he always thought that water towers were spaceships, stealing our water and that someday they would have to take him with them because he was “on to them…. I figured they were just waiting for the right moment to beam me aboard and take off.”
One by one, Jason begins to “convert” his friends. Even Dan, the preacher’s kid, jumps on board. In the mean time, Shin as “First Keeper of the Sacred Text” preoccupies himself with writing the new religion’s—Chutengodianism, short for Church of the Ten-Legged God—Bible and he seems to take it pretty seriously. He even “quantifies” god and calculates the “Secret Dimensions.” In fact, Shin is taking it so seriously that he seems to channel another person whenever he talks about The Ten-Legged One.
Jason even recruits Henry Stagg—the whole reason Chutengodianism started (with his sucker punch to Jason’s face)—mainly because only Henry knows how to actually get up on the tower. In exchange for this secret, Jason promises Henry the position of High Priest.
Before long, Jason calls a meeting of the first Sabbath (which is on Tuesday, “because nothing else ever happens on Tuesday”) up on the top of the water tower. But with Henry, nothing is ever predictable—Henry busts open the top hatch of the tower and convinces everyone (well, everyone but Shin who was too terrified to make it up the tower) to actually drop inside the tower for a swim. Though Jason hadn’t planned on “baptism,” he too swims with them, nearly getting stuck in the tower together.
Afterwards, while Henry is getting dressed, his wet body slips over the side of the tower and with his fall begins the fall of Chutengodianism. He doesn’t die but does break a lot of bones. The cops are called, everyone is arrested and the tower is declared off limits. All the parents are up in arms against Jason because the new religion was his idea and most of the “congregation” have moved on. Most. There is still Shin.
More obsessed than ever and now resentful that Jason seems to have chosen Henry over him, Shin climbs the tower and goes in the water. Jason follows in order to talk him down. But they become trapped there in a thunderstorm, the inside of the tower being the safest place for them at that point. When it is all over, everyone is in trouble again, and Shin even ends up in a mental hospital for a few days, but eventually everything blows over. Jason’s father accepts his agnosticism or atheism, but tells him it’s a long lonely road. Shin still “believes” in Chutengodianism and spends his days drawing water tower gods.
So, was it all worth it?
So, I’ve been thinking about Shin, remembering what he said to me last time I saw him—that you can’t really understand something until you believe in it. It sounded crazy to me at the time, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. For example, you can’t really understand what it means to be Catholic (or Muslim, or whatever) unless you have faith. And you can’t understand algebra unless you believe in numbers. Same deal with gastropods and water towers.
Maybe Shin’s got it right. He just decides to believe in something, then he dives right in. I suppose in a few weeks, he’ll get rid of the water tower obsession just as he got rid of his snails, and move on to something new. Leprechauns, maybe. Does that make him crazy? I don’t know. In a way I envy him. He always seems to know what he wants.
I envy my father, too. I envy his unshakable belief in the Catholic Church—his faith gives him power and contentment. I envy everyone who has a religion they can believe in. I envy Henry and Magda, who believe in each other. I even envy Dan, who thinks I’m a dangerous heretic.
Me? I have Chutengodianism—a religion with no church, no money, and only one member. I have a religion, but I have no faith. Maybe one day I’ll find a deity I can believe in. Until then, my god is made of steel and rust.
This book has teenaged characters, in teenaged situations and results in teenaged epiphanies. There isn’t a curse word in it. No sex scenes. No drugs or alcohol. Yet this book was on the “Adult” side in my public library. Is it because of the title? Or was the content—a group of normal young people forming their own, harmless, religion—just too wayward for my conservative community (Sugar Land, TX… Tom DeLay’s former district… conservative enough for ya?)?
Either way, the fact that this young adult book was on the Adult side means to me that the library administration (at the mercy of a county commission who, while they are NOT Tom DeLay, at some point must have echoed his political beliefs) is either 1) doing their part to keep compromise between intellectual freedom and complying with powers that be who want to shelter their young people from anything having to do with questioning religion and spirituality or 2) guarding against the possibility of challenges from parents who might object to the title.
I am a very spiritual person. But I’m not very religious at all. I, for one, LOVED this book. When I was a teenager, I thought that the path to “righteousness” (whatever the hell that means) was strict adherence to the principles the adults around me were shoving down my throat. I trusted those adults as leaders and role models because nothing they said insinuated that they weren’t the perfect individuals I thought they were. Why didn’t any of them make sure I understood that Christianity didn’t trump humanity? In the end, I began to see their faults and it made me question everything I knew. It shattered my perception of reality—that communism and evolution were “evil,” that I needed to pray for the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, etc. infidels and their souls so that they wouldn’t burn in hell for eternity.
While it was painful, I’m glad it happened. Now, though my life is less “disciplined” and I’m not really sure what “righteousness” is anymore, I definitely feel more enlightened and connected not only to the world around me (and all it’s beautiful colors and variations and beliefs and cultures and traditions) but I feel even more connected to myself. I feel comfortable in my state of “I don’t know.” I’m still spiritual—I’ll never deny the profound spiritual experiences I had on my road to where I am now—but I’ve decided that being religious only separates me from the beautiful world of creation around me. That’s a separation too painful to be worth “Heaven.”
This realization has taken a “long, lonely road” as Jason’s father put it in the book. And the road was a painful, confusing metamorphosis. I had to research and decide on things myself, based on my own experiences and misadventures. In many ways, I wish Pete Hautman had written Godless a long time ago, so that I could have spared myself this long painful journey. I don’t regret anything because had it not been for all my experiences, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I like me. But I am a little jealous of the young people who get to read Godless (well, IF they ever hear about it and IF they are brave enough to go to the Adult side of the library to get it and IF they are clever enough to be able to hide it from their parents long enough to read it) and live this questioning experience vicariously through the misadventures of a small group of bored teenagers searching for meaning—each in their own way—and looking up to a water tower as a representation of splendor.
Reviews for Godless (via Amazon.com):
From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up–...These are fun, wacky, interesting characters. While chuckling aloud may be common in the early chapters, serious issues dominate the latter stages of the book. The rivalry between Jason and Henry for the attentions of Magda, Jason's unrepentant certainty that doing what he sees as right is more important than following his parents' rules, and Shin's apparent continued belief in the tenets he helped create are thought-provoking and disturbing. Jason is left to ponder the meaning of a religion that has only himself as a member.
*Starred Review* Gr. 7-10. Hautman knows how to project a voice. ...In a smartly structured narrative that is by turns funny, worried, and questioning, Jason watches as his once-cohesive little congregation starts wanting to "worship" in its own ways, some of them deadly. Not everything works here. Shin's meltdown doesn't seem real, even though it has been thoroughly foreshadowed. But most scenes are honest and true to the bone, such as the one in which Jason and Harry agree that their dangerous stunts are worth their weight in memories. Anyone who has questioned his or her religion, especially as a teenager, will respond to Jason's struggles with belief. Many individuals, upon reading this, will consider their own questions once more.
National Book Award Winner