Instead of flying back from Provo, UT after participating in the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar, I took the California Zephyr, a train that winds through Denver, Co before crossing the plains of Nebraska and Iowa. It largely follows the route of nineteenth-century passengers who traveled from Chicago to San Francisco. While on-board, my friend Chris and I met two self-identified lez-brarians from New Zealand. We started talking about religion – about the responses of various churches to the earthquake in Samoa, to the Mormon Church’s response to homosexuality and Prop 8, to the rise of Christian fundamentalism in what they see an otherwise ultra-liberal New Zealand.
While we were talking, one of them recommended Tony DuShane’s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk. I downloaded it a few days later onto my Kindle. The book focuses on the awkward, religion-soaked life of Gabe, a teenager whose parents attend the local Kingdom Hall. Through his eyes, we watch overweight Jehovah’s Witness moms stuff themselves with cream pies and then blame their weight gain on multiple pregnancies. We see the confused reactions of his classmates when he arrives at their doors to witness to them about the Second Coming of Christ and their imminent destruction. And, we meet the beautiful Jasmine whose budding sexuality is matched only by her devotion to God.
I read it quite quickly – perhaps within two or three days. In spite of the rapidity with which I finished the book, I felt conflicted about it after I finished it. On the one hand, it was extremely well-written. Its style is reminiscent of childhood and countless hours of reading Fudge-A-Mania, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and Wayside Stories. It captured the wackiness of those books, in which everyday life can seem like an adventure, even if its content, which includes a suicide and masturbation, is meant more for adults.
In spite of how well-written the book was, however, there was something about it that felt off. After thinking about it for a couple days, I decided that it may have to do with the way that the book deals with faith. In DuShane’s hands, being a Jehovah’s Witnesses seems dysfunctional and boring. The adult characters lack complexity and seem to be less spiritually aware than the children around them. They are willing to excommunicate anyone who steps outside of bounds — even if that person is still a child. The sermons are boring and devoid of content, and their actions routine and thoughtless. Although these things may be true depending on which Kingdom Hall one visits, there is no sense anywhere in the book why anyone with any modicum of sanity would join or remain in the Kingdom Hall. DuShane is able to use an individual’s faith to provide laughter or to illustrate the zaniness of life but he is unable to grasp why people find meaning in these communities. At times, I felt like he was pressing too hard and making Gabe’s family too outlandish and close to the edge for them to be believable characters.
A contrast to Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Freak might be Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Smith recognizes the difficulties that religious teenagers can have in negotiating a world in which most people do not share their faith and does so with humor and wit. Her book, however, is able to portray religion in a way that is much more believable than DuShane is. In her book, Jehovah’s Witnesses are still zealots who she ultimately sees as misguided but there is a humanity to her writing that allows the reader to sympathize with them and understand why someone would join a particular faith. Her book as a result feels more real, more recognizable and ultimately, more satisfying.
Note: Reading DuShane’s book has me thinking about some of my favorite novels in which religion plays a major role. White Teeth is one. What are some of yours?