Fed up with his parents' boring old religion, agnostic-going-on-atheist Jason Bock invents a new god -- the town's water tower. He recruits an unlikely group of worshippers: his snail-farming best friend, Shin, cute-as-a-button (whatever that means) Magda Price, and the violent and unpredictable Henry Stagg. As their religion grows, it takes on a life of its own. While Jason struggles to keep the faith pure, Shin obsesses over writing their bible, and the explosive Henry schemes to make the new faith even more exciting -- and dangerous.
When the Chutengodians hold their first ceremony high atop the dome of the water tower, things quickly go from merely dangerous to terrifying and deadly. Jason soon realizes that inventing a religion is a lot easier than controlling it, but control it he must, before his creation destroys both his friends and himself.
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In the beginning was the Ocean. And the Ocean was alone.
Getting punched hard in the face is a singular experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a little too cocky, obnoxious, or insensitive. I also recommend it to people who think they're smart enough to avoid getting punched in the face by the likes of Henry Stagg.
I was all those things the day Shin (real name: Peter Stephen Schinner) and I ran into Henry beneath the water tower. Henry was in the company of three lesser juvenile delinquents -- Mitch Cosmo, Marsh Andrews, and Bobby Something-or-Other. None of the four were particularly dangerous one-on-one, but in a pack? That was different.
"Hey, Henry, how's it going?" I said, striving for the sort of gruff heartiness I imagined he might respect.
"Who's that? Is that Jay-boy and Schinner?" Henry squinted ferociously, his face scrunched into a hard little knot. He was wearing his usual getup: beat-up cowboy boots, jeans, and a black T-shirt. "What're you guys doing here?"
"Just hangin' out," I said. I wasn't about to tell Henry what we were really doing there.
"With each other? You guys must be desperate," he said. Then he laughed. Bobby, Mitch, and Marsh all laughed too. The three stooges. Watching Henry as if he were the most fascinating thing they'd ever seen.
I have to admit, Henry Stagg is an interesting specimen. He's only about five-foot-five and scrawny as a wild cat, but Henry has presence. He's twitchy, cobra-quick, and wound up so tight you just know something has to give. Henry has a history of sudden, unprovoked violence. That makes him both dangerous and exciting company. Fortunately -- or so I thought -- Henry and I had always gotten along just fine. That might have had something to do with the fact that I'm twice his size. Also, I figured I could outthink him any day of the week.
"Could be worse," I said. "We could be hanging out with you guys." I laughed to make sure he knew I was kidding, which I wasn't.
Henry gave me a neutral scowl. "So how come you're hangin' out here?"
"We're working on a science project," Shin said in his Shinny voice. I groaned silently. I've gotten used to Shin's somewhat high-pitched, nasal voice, but it sends a guy like Henry right up the wall.
"A science project?" Henry said, lifting his voice to a quavering falsetto. "I thought fags were only interested in hairdressing and ballet."
"I'm not a fag," Shin said, his voice rising even higher. And I thought, Uh-oh.
"Not a fag?" Henry piped, raising his arms to display his knobby hands hanging slack from the ends of his wrists.
Shin, realizing that he was headed for trouble, crossed his arms over his notebook and went into his shell. More about that later. Henry capered in front of him, hopping from toe to toe, chanting, "I'm not a fag I'm not a fag I'm not a fag..." Shin just stood frozen, staring at the ground. Henry dropped his arms and walked up to him and stuck his face a few inches from Shin's and shouted, "Anybody home?"
Shin said nothing. Henry's jaw muscles flexed and the veins on his neck throbbed. Shin didn't even blink. When he went into his shell you couldn't pry him out if you stuck a firecracker in his ear. Not until he was ready.
arHenry looked at me. "What's the matter with him?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Hit him," said Bobby. "Give him one."
The stooges laughed as if Bobby had said something witty.
Henry glared at them. Beneath it all, Henry had his rules. It wasn't his style to hit someone who was, say, unconscious. He wouldn't beat up a little kid, or an old lady -- at least not without just cause. And he could sense that Shin, in his shell, was just as helpless.
"Push him over," Marsh suggested. "See if he, like, tips."
Henry put his palm against Shin's chest and gave a little test shove. Shin teetered, but his internal gyroscope kept him erect. Henry realized that a more aggressive push would topple Shin, but he decided not to do it.
"What's the matter with him?" Henry asked me again.
"He just gets that way sometimes."
Marsh said, "He must be, like, some kinda, like, freak."
"He's not a freak," I said, knowing that Shin was hearing everything.
Henry shifted his attention to me.
"You guys are both freaks. Look at you. How much do you weigh?"
"One ninety-four," I said, taking my standard thirty-pound deduction.
"I bet you weigh two hundred and fifty. You're huge."
I wanted to say something like, To a Munchkin like you, everybody must look huge. But I just looked back at him.
Then my head exploded.
At least that's what it felt like. I never saw the blow coming. His fist took me high on my left cheek, and the next instant I was laid out flat, wet grass soaking my back, staring up past Henry Stagg's florid knot of a face at the belly of the water tower, silver against blue sky. In the background I could hear the three stooges laughing, and I could taste blood where Henry's hard knuckles had smashed my cheek against my teeth, but mostly I was looking up at that enormous silver tank.
"It felt like an earthquake when you hit," Henry said, leaning over me. He was smiling happily, his face as relaxed as I'd ever seen it. Somehow I knew that he would not hit me again, at least not on that particular day. Whatever demon had been controlling him was temporarily sedated. We were safe.
But I have to explain myself. I have to explain why I didn't jump to my feet and pound the little creep into the ground. You might think it was because he had his friends to back him up, but that wasn't it. I'm not even sure they'd have done anything. The three stooges were bored and stupid and all they wanted was a little jolt of adrenaline. It didn't matter to them who got beat up -- me, Henry, Shin, or any one of them.
The real reason I didn't jump all over Henry is quite simple, and I'm not ashamed to admit it: He scares the crap out of me.
I outweigh Henry Stagg by a good eighty pounds, I'm six inches taller, I'm coordinated, and I'm fast. I can grab a fly out of midair. I could take a guy like Henry any day of the week. But Henry has something I don't have.
Henry doesn't care what happens to Henry.
And that is why he can punch me in the face and get away with it.
Staring up at him, I could see it in his eyes. Henry didn't care. I could have thrown him against the tower's steel pillar and beat his head to a bloody pulp and that would have been okay with Henry. He'd just keep on swinging those hard, knobby fists, laying on the cuts and bruises and pain until I beat him unconscious, and he wouldn't care one bit. But I would. I'd care a lot. And that was Henry's power.
I respect power. Even in the hands of such as Henry Stagg.
Say you were walking down the street at night and you ran into me and Shin. Here is what you would see: two figures, dark and menacing. One is large-bodied, hulking, and neckless. That would be me. The other is thin, loose-jointed, with hair sticking out in every direction. That's Shin. If you are extremely observant, you will notice that Shin and I are the same height. Most people think I am taller, but I'm not. I'm just bigger.
Look closer now, as we come into the cone of light cast by a streetlamp. Shin is the one with the long fingers wrapped around a spiral-bound, nine-by-twelve-inch sketchbook. He is never without it. I'm the one with fat lips, freckles, and twelve dark hairs growing between my eyebrows. Like I'm half ape. Do you know who Orson Welles is? I look a little like Orson Welles. If you don't know who he is, then, never mind. Just think of me as the big, fat, pouty one.
We met in a computer workshop when we were ten years old. I was the smartest kid there, and Shin was the second smartest. That's according to a formula I devised based on knowledge of X-Men trivia, Game Boy performance, and the ability to lie with a straight face to the teachers. I was better at lying and X-Men, but Shin could out-game me.
Shin and I collaborated on a comic book that summer. We called it Void. It was about a bunch of guys fighting aliens on a planet where all the buildings were intelligent and all the plants had teeth. I drew the people, aliens, and plants. Shin would draw the buildings, machines, and cyborgs. My drawings were always full of drama and action; Shin was into the details.
Inevitably, we became best friends.
There are times, though, when I wish Shin was not who he is. His interest in invertebrates, for instance, can be embarrassing at times.
The day Henry Stagg flattened me beneath the water tower we were hunting snails, or "pods," as Shin likes to call them. That's short for gastropods, which is what you call slugs and snails if you are a science nerd like Shin. He had built himself a terrarium -- he calls it a gastropodarium -- and was looking to populate it with an assortment of slimers.
In case you're wondering, the reason we were looking for snails under the water tower (instead of someplace else) was because snails like moisture. It had been a dry summer, and the ground beneath the tower is always moist from the dripping tank. It wasn't really a science project. Shin just said that because he thinks science is sacred. He invokes science as if it were the name of God. Like it should be sacred to Henry, too.
Everything makes sense once you understand it.
Anyway, I was just glad that we'd run into Henry before we found any snails. That would have been bad. Henry probably would have made Shin eat them. Escargot, sushi style.
The reason I'm going on about Henry Stagg and snails is because that particular incident was a turning point in my life -- one of those magic moments where suddenly the way you see the world changes forever. That's the other reason I didn't jump up and pound the crap out of the little monkey: I was busy having a religious experience.
I was flat on my back looking up past Henry at the silver, dripping bottom of the water tower tank, my head still scrambled, when it hit me just how important that tower was to St. Andrew Valley. It was the biggest thing in town. Water from that tower was piped to every home and business for miles around. The water connected all of us. It kept us alive.
That was when I came up with the idea of the water tower being God.
"Water is Life," I said, staring up at its silver magnificence.
Henry, shaking his head, walked away, saying, "You guys are both whacko."
Copyright © 2004 by Pete Hautman
Reading Group Guide
An Educator's Guide to
by Pete Hautman
ABOUT THE BOOK
Teenager Jason Bock thinks more about a confrontation with volatile Henry Stagg, his friendship with snail and slug-loving oddball Shinn, and his uncertain feelings for pretty Magda Price than he does about his faith. Then a simple gag makes faith the centerpiece of his summer: What if the town water tower is God?
Jason shares his quirky observation with Shin and soon finds himself the head of a new religious sect of "Chutengodians" worshipping the metal edifice they now call the "Ten-legged One." As the hot summer days pass, some Chutengodians begin to take the existential mindgame more seriously than Jason himself. During a ceremonial midnight climb to the top of the water tower, the consequences of their passion turn from merely theoretical to near-deadly. Suddenly, Jason realizes that the "religion" he created has taken on a life-altering momentum of its own-one that he, perhaps, cannot control.
While bringing to the fore penetrating questions about faith, Godless is also an insightful, often amusing narrative of what really goes on during a seemingly slow-paced teen summer. The novel neither exalts nor eschews established religion, but instead explores the nature of worship, the act of questioning one's beliefs, and the power of charisma and clever ideas. Jason Bock is a compelling antihero, a leader who never intended to lead, and an ordinary teenager facing the extraordinarily timeless challenge of wondering if there is a place for God in his complex, commodified, and mostly secular life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pete Hautman grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, attended both the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota, and worked as a sign painter, a graphic artist and a marketing executive before turning to writing. His first novel, Drawing Dead, an adult mystery, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1993. Since then he has written a number of other adult titles, such as Mrs. Million and Doohickey, and critically-acclaimed and award-winning titles for teens, including Sweetblood and No Limit. He won the 2004 National Book Award for Godless. Currently at work on a number of novels and nonfiction books, Pete also likes to read, play poker, run, hike, and cook. When queried about getting ideas for stories, he tells young visitors to his Web site: "There are plenty of ideas....The trick is to figure out how to fit those ideas together into a story. That's the hard part. And the fun part." He lives in Minnesota with mystery writer and poet Mary Logue and their two dogs, Renee and Jacques.
1. In the opening chapter of Godless, Jason Bock describes himself in terms of his appearance, his intellect, and his friendships. Based on his description, do you think you would be a friend to Jason? Do you consider Jason's view of himself positive, negative, or otherwise? Explain your answers.
2. What does Jason suggest is the reason Henry Stagg is not afraid to fight? Do you think Jason is correct? How is this observation an important element in the story?
3. What is Jason's father's position on Catholicism? Why does he enroll his son in Teen Power Outreach? What does Jason think about TPO? Why does he attend the meetings? Why do you think Jason treats "Just Al" in the way that he does?
4. At the end of chapter four, Jason wonders: "Why mess around with Catholicism when you can have your own customized religion?" Answer Jason's question. Is all you need to create a religion "a disciple or two. And a god"? Why or why not?
5. Is Jason serious about "Chutengodianism"? Why does he invite Henry, Magda, and Dan to join his religion? Why doesn't Jason consult Shin before inviting new group members and adding to the rules of the faith? For what different reasons do Magda, Henry, and Dan join the Chutengodians?
6. In chapter nine, Shin tells Jason that the reason for his strange conversation with Magda was that he was "channeling the Ten-legged One." What do you think he is really doing? What is the difference between Shin's water tower worship and the faith of the other group members?
7. Why doesn't Jason bring Shin along to learn how Henry climbs the water tower? Is the relationship between the two teens altered when their summer pastime changes from gastropod-collecting to water tower worship? Why or why not? Do you think Jason still considers Shin his best friend?
8. In chapter fourteen, Jason observes that leading a "growing religion" requires "too much politics. In other words, you have to lie a lot." What role does lying play in the evolution of Jason's religion? Do you think leadership-religious or otherwise-requires lying? Why do you think Jason makes this comment?
9. What is Shin writing in his notebook? What happens to his gastropod collection as his obsession with Chutengodianism intensifies?
10. In chapter seventeen, the members of Jason's new religion gather to climb the water tower. What happens to Shin when he attempts the climb? What happens when the remaining members enter the water in chapter eighteen? With what frightening event does the gathering conclude?
11. How are Jason and the other members of the Chutengodian group punished after Henry's fall? What changes take place in Jason's relationships with Magda, Henry, Dan, and Shin?
12. Why does Jason follow Shin to the water tower in chapter twenty-seven? What frightening and certain-to-be-punished action does Jason choose to take? How does Shin get out of the tank?
13. After being rejected by Dan in chapter thirty, Jason comments that "Maybe I'm a pawn of Satan. But I don't feel evil." Do you think Jason's actions were evil? Do you think he was the cause of the other kids' troubles? How would you explain Jason's ideas and actions?
14. What are the differences between the words "faith," "worship," "belief," and "religion"? List the reason or reasons you think most people attend a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship. If you attend religious services, explain your reasons for doing so.
15. In the course of the story, does Shin hold any power over Jason? What are some of Jason's actions or choices that are affected by his protectiveness of Shin? Does Shin need Jason's protection? Do you think some friends wield different types of power over you, and/or require your protection? Explain.
16. How does Jason feel about the relationship between Henry and Magda? Do these feelings affect the way he structures his new religion in the course of the novel? What effect, if any, do his parents' religious ideas have on Jason's thoughts and actions?
17. Although he neither made the initial break into the water tower, nor suggested most of the seriously delinquent activities, Jason's father holds him responsible, noting that: "Your friends listen to what you say." Is Jason truly the leader of the group? Is his father correct about the influence Jason has over the others? Why or why not?
18. At the end of chapter thirty, Shin asks Jason, "How can you understand something you don't believe in?" Answer Shin's question.
19. The narrative of Godless is framed by Henry Stagg's two assaults on Jason. Although Henry is the "victor" in both instances, have Jason's feelings toward Henry changed? Who is in control of each of these situations, Jason or Henry? Explain your answers.
20. In the final pages of the novel, Jason expresses his envy for anyone with any kind of faith. Are there words other than "envy" that could be used to describe the sentiment Jason feels? What does it mean to have a religion but no faith? Can you have faith without a religion?
RESEARCH AND WRITING ACTIVITIES
Despite his uncertainty about religion at the opening of the novel, Jason is quite clear in his description of himself, his shortcomings, and his aptitudes. How would you describe yourself to others? Consider both your strengths, such as your ability to think, draw, play a sport, or perform on stage, and aspects of your personality about which you feel less confident. Write a paragraph or poem, create a collage, or draw a portrait that reflects many aspects of your self-image.
Write your own definition of friendship, then find a dictionary definition for the term. Chart the names, along with brief descriptions, of the main characters in Godless. Circle the name of the character you believe is the strongest influence on Jason. Underline the names of characters Jason would consider friends, then number the friends from the best (one) to the least or worst. Share your chart with friends or classmates. Discuss how the chart relates to your understanding of friendship as defined at the start of the exercise.
3. A QUESTION OF FAITH
At the opening of the novel, Jason acknowledges his ambiguous feelings about religion. Have you ever questioned your faith? Write a brief essay describing this experience. Or write a list of questions you could ask your religion's god if you were to have the opportunity. Follow your essay or list with a paragraph explaining why you do or do not think questioning your faith is a beneficial exercise.
4. WORLD RELIGIONS
Jason finds himself the founder of a new religion. Go to the library or online to learn how various religions began. If possible, divide into small groups of classmates or friends, each choosing one religion. Have each group create an informative, illustrated poster that includes a paragraph describing the origins of the religion, a timeline of key events, the names of important individuals, a list of major tenets of the faith, and information on the contemporary practice of this religion.
Reread the "Chutengodian gospels" that open each chapter of Godless. Are these excerpts from Shin's notebook or are they from another source? In what way do the writings seem logical or intriguing to you? Go to the library or online to discover more about water as a religious symbol. Create an informative booklet about the water motif in one or more religions. Or paint a large sheet of paper with a mural of water imagery in such belief systems as Greek mythology, Native American philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, or Hinduism.
Charismatic leaders exercise critical influence over religious institutions, corporations, communities, and countries. Go to the library or online to research a religious leader, activist, politician, influential artist, or other leader from history. Write a short biography of your chosen leader then compare his or her ideas and actions with those of Jason Bock.
7. IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL
In Shin's notebook, Jason discovers drawings of himself and others as water towers. Create your own characterizations of people by depicting them as water towers or other familiar objects. Or sketch a four to six panel cartoon in which characters with human emotions are portrayed as inanimate objects.
8. DISCUSSING BELIEFS
Dramatize a Teen Power Outreach meeting from the novel. Write a script based on one or more of the TPO scenes in the book. Create a simple set with a half-circle of chairs. Choose friends or classmates to portray Jason, Just Al, Magda, and other characters. Rehearse and perform the scene for classmates or friends. Afterward, invite performers and audience members to discuss their feelings about the ideas presented in the scene.
9. POINTS OF VIEW
Throughout the story, Jason shares his thoughts about the other Chutengodians. But how do you think these characters feel about their leader? In the character of Shin, Henry, Magda, or Dan, write a journal entry describing your feelings about Jason at one or more points in the story. Share your fictional journal entries with classmates or friends. Discuss whether Jason would be surprised to learn how these characters feel about him.
At the end of the story, Jason, abandoned by his Chutengodian followers, is performing community service and still wondering about God. What do you think happens to Jason next? Is water tower worship involved? Write an epilogue to Godless, describing Jason's first day back at school in the fall or another notable moment in his life.
11. GOD IN LITERATURE
Questions about the need to believe and the impact of others on one's religious views are compelling themes in many literary classics. Read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Graham Greene's The Burnt-Out Case, Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, or a similarly-themed work of your choice. Then write an essay in which you compare the images and ideas in Godless with those in your chosen work.
12. IN THE NAME OF FAITH
Like Henry's horrible accident and Shin's apparent breakdown, many dramatic events have taken place in the name of faith. Go to the library or online to research one or more historical conflict that began partly or entirely because of religious issues. Next read through a current newspaper or news magazine to find a story involving religion-based conflict. If possible, learn about good works done by people of the same faiths as those involved in the historical and current conflicts. Create an innovative way to share your research with family members, classmates, or friends, such as a dramatization, art installation, music video, or computer game.
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
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