Oh, this is my jam. Y’all. I can’t even begin to describe to you how much I love religion in books. Or just religion in real life! I’m really going to try to be normal during this post, but this is one of my top favorite things to see represented in books, so I may get a little crazy.
Also, I feel like we should disclaimer this by saying that I practice Tibetan Buddhism and have done since December 2011, I have a very fraught relationship with the church, and I believe wholly that every faith should be accepted & practiced according to the cultures that they’re conceived in.
Let’s just rip the bandaid off real quick–I was thirteen when I parted ways with the Episcopalian church. A boy in my grade died over the summer, and when I asked to meet with my priest because I was feeling uncertain and heartbroken, she told me that it was “God’s plan” for this child to die. When I said that I just didn’t feel like that was okay, she told me I had to accept what God had in mind for my friend because this was meant to be the end of his life.
There were many ways that that conversation could have gone, plenty in which I would have stayed with the church, but she chose the absolute worst possible thing to say, and that was that for me. I spent several years in spiritual uncertainty, and while I tried out things like atheism and agnosticism, nothing was really sticking. Faith is important to me, not just as a belief in something more, but as something that brings people together, that is the basis for so many communities. Prior to Christianity invading the world, we’d often build our societies around our places of worship so that they were always at the center of our cities. Faith has long been something that has connected people across the world, and it continues to do so now.
That said, I am definitely going to be well-known for my criticism of both Catholicism & Christianity when my books eventually get published. Freddie’s story, which takes place in the 1930s and is about a researcher spending years trying to discover how to summon a demon, holds the Vatican up as a villain in the story, and Freddie is very often threatened because of his unorthodox beliefs. Sister witches, which takes place in modern day Salem, contains countless references to Lucifer as a misunderstood tragic hero, it uplifts women like Eve and Lilith, and it rails against the horrific burning of witches simply because they were women who dared to be independent from their male counterparts. My books are riddled with criticisms of how Western, white religion is often ugly, manipulative, and toxic. And in case anyone forgot, Jesus wasn’t white, and he definitely didn’t practice Christianity.
ANYWAY. I knew this was going to happen, but alas, here we are, and I think that all explains pretty well why I like religion in books. Faith is complex, and it’s different for everyone, and putting that in your book? Next level. It’s just elevating what you’ve already got to something beyond everyone else in your field. If you’ve got a high fantasy, I am so impressed with you when there’s sprawling cities across a detailed world, different cultures that make sense inside of their physical settings, and heck, maybe even different races, even if that just means you’ve included elves & dwarves alongside your humans. But to then add religion into the mix?
I know that we’re taking three separate posts right now to talk about Katy Rose Pool’s The Age of Darkness series, and a big part of why I love them so much is the religion in them, so just in case you’re annoyed at me for talking about it even more than usual, I’m going to recap my feelings on the religious aspects. BECAUSE IT’S SO GOOD! Not only does Pool give us an entire cast of characters whose sole presence in the book is to be people of faith, but she creates a complex, interesting, and diverse world of beliefs within their cast. I love Jude because he questions the faith that he’s been raised on, and I love Hector because he steps away from that faith when he has more questions than he’s comfortable with and needs to take the space to figure out where his head & heart are at. I love Jude’s team of monk warriors because they have such varying levels of belief–some of them purely for the faith that they’ve worshipped since birth, but some of them for the faith that they carry for Jude, that he’s going to do the right thing and bring them glory, even if that means an unconventional route.
And it’s not just them! Pool doesn’t stop simply with Jude & his surrounding characters, but she weaves religion into the cultures all across the world until there are different gods celebrated in Hassan’s city that conflict with the pantheon that he’s grown up with. Showing not just the religion that is inherent to that part of the world, but how Hassan’s faith intersects with it as a refugee, both in ways that are similar, much like how we see so many similarities in Greek & Roman mythology, but in ways that are vastly different, too, like in the chaotic sprawl of gods & goddesses in Norse mythology that sometimes intersect with others, but also have their own wildly different stories.
There are casual mentions of other faiths throughout the different POVs, too. Though Ephyra does not practice any faith, it’s present all around her, and it’s something she’s constantly forced to grapple with, even if she mostly ignores it, as she’s utilizing her power to dole out life & death to those she deems fitting. Yes, many of these faiths take inspiration from Greek & Roman mythology, but there is so much more dug deep into the roots of the cultures that Pool has created, and this type of world-building, that goes beyond the surface level, is why I love this series so much. Without the religion in this, it definitely still would have been a five-star book, and I would still shout about it, but I don’t think I would love it as psychotically as I do. It’s an added level of world-building that takes this book from, you guessed it–
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t also mention Lord of the Rings, obviously, but what I really want to talk about is The Silmarillion. LOTR definitely has mentions of the religion in it, but the focus of the story is in no way revolved around those faiths, and they’re much more visible in The Silmarillion. “Visible” lolllll as though Tolkien doesn’t just straight up go “here’s Ilúvatar, The God, and all of his archangel children, plus some angels after that.” The religion in Middle-earth is 100% Christian-based, and while I would normally go pffffffft at that and run in the other direction, I like how Tolkien handles it.
Rather than just saying that Ilúvatar rules everything and that’s that, he has Ilúvatar create the world and then immediately take a step back. The world that he creates isn’t Middle-earth, either, because he believes that should be up to his pantheon of gods & goddesses to figure out. So while it does reflect Christianity quite a bit in the beginning, it also dives off into a much more Nordic & Celtic realm very quickly. There are still some shapes of Christianity in it–Morgoth literally gets cast out because he starts asking questions that Ilúvatar doesn’t feel like answering, hmmm that’s not familiar at all–but Tolkien loosens the reins a lot after that and just goes wild.
And though much of this isn’t visible in LOTR, it makes it so much better when you do know what’s going on. Gandalf being an angel is so much more heartbreaking when you know all of his background, and it just adds layers upon layers of angst & drama to Sauron when you understand his roots. Tolkien’s world has so much more depth when the long, oftentimes arduous history of faith is interwoven into the story at large. Not that we needed more depth in Middle-earth, but I’ll always take it!
Religion in books is always going to be something I adore. I know that we only talked about two series here, but the faith inside of those stories makes them so much more than others that don’t include religion. It builds upon not just the characters, but the cultural depth of the world, the vibrancy of the story and how it reacts to the world around it, and what you, as the reader, are going to get out of it. I love stories without a religious aspect in them, but I’m always going to be more excited by ones that have fleshed out their world-building beyond a standard here’s magic let’s go.