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Book Review: Godless by Pete Hautman

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How often is it you find a book for pre-teens and teens that objectively discusses things like agnosticism and faith? The answer is not often and that is perhaps one reason Pete Hautman’s Godless won the the 2004 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Another reason is more straightforward — it’s well written and fun, particularly for its target audience.

Godless tells the story of 16-year-old Jason Bock. Jason is the imaginative type and is beginning to doubt his Catholic faith and rebel against his highly religious parents. In part because he is toying with his religious youth group, Jason concocts his own religion. Its god is the town’s 207-foot water tower. After all, Jason reasons, “Water is Life.” Coming up with much of its doctrine off the top of his head, Jason names the religion Chutengodianism, the Church of the Ten-legged God.

Jason’s best friend, Peter “Shin” Shinner, is there from the outset. As the religion’s Head Kahuna, Jason names Shin First Keeper of the Sacred Text. Shin even begins writing Chutengodianism’s scripture, excerpts of which preface each chapter. Most subsequent members of the religion also are granted a title, although their admission to the religion often is based as much on ulterior motives as their expressing an interest in joining, which is equally likely to be for a lark. For example, Jason’s attraction to pretty Magda Price leads him to name her High Priestess and bully Henry Stagg becomes High Priest because he knows how to climb to the top of the water tower.

As far-fetched as it may seem, Hautman pulls off most of it. While you could nitpick about how Henry’s character vacillates between bully and buddy and Shin’s total infatuation with the made-up cult, what makes Godless so worthwhile is that it is neither pro-religion nor anti-religion. That fact may make a few evangelicals and book-banners howl if it ends up in a school library or curriculum. Yet the book reveals the ramifications inherent with virtually any religion or faith. We see the ease with which some people will join something that gives them a feeling they fit in a bit better. We see those who go off the deep end and become zealots. We see those who are swayed by personality. We see schisms in leadership and doctrine. We see there are consequences to actions taken on the basis of presumed faith alone.

Unlike what one might assume from the title, Godless is not a critique of whether a supreme being exists or a broadside on any religion. Granted, Jason does have some issues with and criticisms of Catholicism and its rites. Still, that largely serves to frame the context. The book’s overall tone makes even that part of the exploration and struggle questions of faith might present anyone. Godless actually allows young adults — or anyone — to think about such issues without advocating any one position and in a context relatively unhindered by the ardor or emotions that tend to accompany most discussions of this sort if a particular religion or faith is involved.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • Sounds kind of like the birth of the Mormon religion.


  • Jim

    It seems clear from the review that the book is exactly what one who mistakenly believes they are godless, would want to read. Fiction of this sort is not any different that Divinci Code in it’s hostility toward Christianity.
    If it were published in Arabic (fat chance) I would conclude it was hostile to Islam. The reviewer misses the point about it’s “context” doesn’t she.

  • Tom

    Im not sure if vic has read the book. the point that is reached in the review above is hitting the book right on the spot.

  • faizan

    do u know what website i can get the chapter summery for this book

  • I read this boo for Young Adult Lit class I think it was really god. There was parts where i was totally bored, but in all i recommend it. However I doubt you would listen to a 14 years old recommendation 🙂

  • Bob

    This was a very good book! I read it twice. In no way was it really hostile toward Christianity or any other religion. It did, however, very accurately display the hostility that the main character, Jason, felt for Christianity. It saddens me that people try to ban these kinds of books. This book shows so much truth, and actually helped me resolve much of my inner conflict. I think that this book is extremely helpful to teens, because so many of them do go through at least some struggle about their religion. I hope that many schools will realize this and include it in their curriculum. My school put it on their reading bowl list, which I think is wonderful.

  • hfhf

    good book

  • Ruge Lee

    This book was terrible.

  • Richard Cranium

    this book is decent. it makes me hard

  • I liked this book

    This was a great book, but was partially strange, such as them swimming in the water tower.

  • Stephen

    I read this book and I am hosting a discussion group for my school’s reading project. I think it is a good picture of a teenager’s struggle to find where he fits in the grand scheme of religion and faith. While the book has some odd events, I liked the overall story. For the record, I am a Christian, but I don’t take offense to the content of the book.