Sometimes the artists who seem most critical of faith aren’t so much railing against belief in God as much as they are against how they’ve seen people misuse those beliefs.
Here are some of my favorite books by writers who on one level take a very critical approach to religion and on another level seem very open to spiritual ideas like hope and redemption.
1. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett had a capacity to get hugely angry at things he considered unjust and then use that anger as motivation to write about things he believed were good.
Small Gods (much like his better-known work Good Omens) directs that anger at organized religion.
The story follows a god who comes in mortal form to the kingdom that worships him only to discover the faith built around belief in him has become so formalized only one person truly believes in him anymore.
As the god and his one follower try to figure what to do next, the story lampoons the Crusades, how holy texts get written and transmitted, and even the idea of a just god.
In the midst of all this ridicule though, the one follower presents a compelling picture of what true faith looks like. In the end, Pratchett seems to argue that faith centered in a genuinely good god and in caring for other people is a beautiful thing.
2. A Spaniard in the Works by John Lennon
A fun collection of drawings and Monty Poython-esque stories, this book includes a biting satirical story about a religious TV program.
The story takes no prisoners in its mockery of bad sermons and Christian apologetics, but as Steve Turner points out in his book on the Beatles’ spiritual journeys, the satire doesn’t really attack Christianity itself. Really, the story’s main attack is Christians who can’t give good reasons for their faith or explain why they hold onto it.
3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Throughout this 10-volume (and more) series, Gaiman creates a complex picture of religion.
On the one hand, some stories criticize conservative religious views on sexuality and gender. And the way the series combines characters from dozens of different mythologies suggests a sort of “all things to all people” approach to faith.
At the same time, there are moments when the characters talk about hope and the afterlife in very compelling ways.
One particular issue in the fourth volume, Season of Mists, raises fascinating questions about the nature of damnation.
4. The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White
The little-known but highly entertaining conclusion to T.H. White’s Once and Future King series follows King Arthur having one last meeting with Merlyn where they discuss human nature and whether it’s possible to avoid warfare.
Written while White was more or less living in exile during World War II, the book takes a sharply Darwinian view of human nature, ignoring the possibility that humans may have a sin nature that causes fighting throughout time.
At the same time, White depicts Lancelot as finally achieving the saintly status he’s always longed for, and ends the story on a decidedly supernatural note.
5. The Shining by Stephen King
I’ve noted elsewhere that Stephen King has an interesting relationships with religion. His works frequently show the hypocrisy and injustice that religious people can commit, but
The Shining is a great example. On the one hand, King makes disparaging references to Catholicism and faith doesn’t seem to play a big part in nay of the main characters’ lives.
On the other hand, Danny Torrance’s strange powers suggest there’s something supernatural out there, and there’s a clear message of hope as Danny learns how to handle his powers.