Writing Religion in YA

When I thought about the books I'd write as a kid, it never occurred to me that I'd write a novel with a protagonist experiencing a crisis of faith. Though religion has always been hugely interesting to me, I hadn't ever considered making it a theme in a novel. That reluctance can be put down to fear, mostly. There's this old adage about why you should never try to figure out why a joke is funny--it's like dissecting a frog. In the end, nobody's that interested and the frog dies. Talking about religion can easily end the same way, except rather than the frog dying, it explodes in a fiery maelstrom. And people generally aren't very happy when they're covered in frog entrails.


But my protagonist kept pulling herself in that direction and I realized I'd have to figure out a non-clumsy way to communicate her struggles. It's really, really difficult. I've tried so many different approaches, from extreme subtlety to being more explicit, and it's hard determining which is the right course. The problem with subtlety is that there's a risk of watering down the message and being too safe. The problem with being explicit is that it could easily be taken as didactic, preachy, or patronizing.

Hey Sara Zarr, wanna write
my book for me?

Lately, I've heard many YA readers express that they'd like to see more books about teens dealing with religion, so I know there's an audience. I think the reason there aren't more mainstream books with religious ideas is because a) the author doesn't want to be taken for a "religious writer", b) the author doesn't want to be misinterpreted, and c) there's a really high chance of failure. My primary fear is coming across like I want to convert readers to my beliefs. I believe religious decisions have to be made without anybody sticking their nose in. My own beliefs have been really hard-won and personal, so I'd never want to write a book with the goal of influencing a reader. I don't even believe it's possible to alter someone's religious beliefs in a novel, so I wouldn't try if I wanted to.

Philip Pullman, you'll
do, too.

The problem with writing a novel in which characters struggle with religion is that, at any moment, a reader could extract a line of dialogue or internal monologue and take it as the thesis of the book. Because I've tried to present a really balanced view of faith, from staunchly religious to agnostic to atheist, anybody could potentially take offense, depending on what part of the book they're reading. At the end of the day, I think readers, especially YA readers, tend to be pretty accepting. But, I know certain things do make readers want to chuck a book across the room. 

So, I'll throw it to you guys. What sorts of things make you cringe when you read a novel with religion as a theme? Where should an author never go when writing about religion?