What does “Holy Humor” mean to you? I confess that I immediately thought of Christopher Moore’s novel, Lamb; The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Lamb covers Jesus’ adolescent years that are skipped in 21st century Bibles. While Jesus is pure thoughout the book, party-hardy Biff offers advice, protection, and intense loyalty to his friend. Coarse language and debauchery surround Biff like an offensive odor, but Jesus maintains both an innocence and a radiating spiritual knowledge throughout.
More recently, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night relates the night of Jesus’ birth as experience by three street-wise criminals. The chief of these, Balthazar, has risen from a traumatically impoverished childhood to become one of the most feared desperados in Judea. The baby Jesus inspires in Balthazar the tiniest burp of compassion, long buried by years of murderous rampage. As with Lamb, Jesus is treated with reverence and awe, made more extraordinary by the sinfulness of the supporting characters.
Somewhat more irreverent are novels that cast the Supreme Being as fallible, or even, heaven forbid, a water tower. In Peter Hautman’s Godless (2005 Best Books for Young Adults; 2007 Popular Paperbacks) a fifteen year-old boy amuses himself by impulsively creating a religion. God is the water tower, where the boys go for a midnight dip that turns into a baptismal experience. The water tower-as-God religion spreads quickly, much to the dismay of its creator.
Another example of a novel featuring an unorthodox God figure is Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog. Due to a bad run of administrative decisions, the role of God is assumed by sixteen year-old Bob. Bob thinks being God is cool. But since he suffers from chronic adolescence, Bob’s lust and his laziness play havoc with the Earth. Both of these novels are very funny. Whether there are any real parallels to actual religion is completely the interpretation of the reader.
Another way to think of Holy Humor is when religious characters are featured in a humorous book. For example, Erynn Mangum’s Sketchy Behavior is about Kate, a high school girl who is taught how to sketch the image of a wanted criminal in her art class. Unfortunately, her work is so true to life that the media picks it up and it’s all over the news, along with her name. Kate’s suddenly a target for the murderer. As she tries to cope with this, she turns to God for strength. The tone of the book is wry and sarcastic, but Kate’s religious faith is pivotal.
In The Possibility of Sainthood by Donna Freitas, fifteen year-old Antonia has long been keeping diaries filled with holy cards and requests to her favorite saint. In addition, she has been petitioning Rome for many years, proposing to be the first living Patron Saint. Over the years, Antonia has had many good ideas for her patronage, intending to fill in the gaps left by the current Patron Saint line-up. This year, however, Antonia finds that her mind is continually drawn to kissing Andy Rotellini. Her devotion to sainthood tested, Antonia now proposes that she become the Patron Saint of First Kisses.
Holy Humor is not restricted to Christianity. In Sheba Karim’s Skunk Girl, fifteen year-old Nina Khan struggles with the cultural gaps between her Pakistani family and her new American friends. This includes the strict practice of her Muslim upbrining. These discordant influences inspire some confused prayers for Nina: “Dear Allah. Please take care of my family and friends. Please let me get into the college of my choice.” For many teens raised within the boundaries of strict religious tenets, an amalgamation of ideas becomes their religious practice.
More novels that fall (sometimes a bit loosely) under the Holy Humor Banner are:
- Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (2013 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
- Sparks: The Epic, Completely True-Blue (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie by S.J. Adams
- OyMG by Amy Fellner Dominy
- Miracles, Inc. by T.J. Forrester
- Long Gone Daddy by Helen Hemphill
- The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Hoeg
- Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
- Devilish by Maureen Johnson (2007 Best Books for Young Adults; 2008 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
- Stealing Parker by Miranda Kenneally
- Wide Awake by David Levithan
- Strange Relations by Sonia Levitin
- Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Litman (2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
- David vs. God by Mary Pearson
- Never Mind the Goldbergs by Matthue Roth (2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
- The God Box by Alex Sanchez
— Diane Colson, currently reading The Program by Suzanne Young