An Orthodox Jewish teen responds to The Porcupine of Truth

I get wonderful emails. This one came from a 16-year-old Orthodox Jew who had just finished The Porcupine of Truth. For those of you who are thinking about writing an author to respond to a book, take a look at the way she does it here: it is respectful, yet honest. It is an expression of her opinion and reaction, which I cherish as an author, even if it isn’t entirely positive.

Here is her note, followed by my response.

Dear Mr. Konigsberg,
The Porcupine of Truth was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Thank you for writing it, and also Openly Straight. I love writing and I’d love to be an author one day (I’m 16), and getting to the last page of your books makes me feel like, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to be able to create something as fantastic as this.’
There was one thing that bothered me. It’s not against your book specifically, it’s just something I feel is applicable here. I actually wondered if you got any angry letters from religious fanatics, but trust me, this is not what this is. I’m an Orthodox Jew, but I have no problem with gay people. I just need to get something out there.

One of the harder parts to read of The Porcupine of Truth, for me, was the way Carson thinks and speaks about religion, and also the attitudes of most of the religious people he meets. It made me sad that this was the only portrayal of religious people you gave, as strict, anti-gay, mindless followers, etc. (Besides for Turk, whose religion is cool, PC, and hippyish, and not really anything specific.)
Truthfully, I struggle with a lot of doubts that Carson brings up, about God and organized religion and things like that. But it is something important to me, and I know I want to have some sort of moral code when I’m older.
(But like I said, I’m not anti-gay.)
I’m pretty sure that the point you try and bring across at the end is that you can be religious and open-minded at the same time. That really resonated with me, because I’ve tried to think that way my entire life.
There is one thing that bugs me, though. I can’t disagree with your portrayal of rural, religious Christians (because I’ve never met any) but being religious, even very conservative and strict, does not necessarily make you a blind follower. What I wish I could tell Carson and like minded-people is that there is a philosophy behind everything we do, no matter how absurd it may seem. (At least, in Judaism. I can’t speak for Christians.) It’s not something you can explain in five minutes, and its not about proving God’s existence, either. Religion (for me :)) is about being a good person, and making the world a better place. I know it gets a bad rep from extremists and people who say all kinds of terrible things in the name of God. That sucks. And you’re right, we don’t know what God wants, or if he exists.
It annoys me terribly, though, that people can go around making statements that religious people are blind followers, or that they live their lives according to someone else’s rules. Not that there aren’t people who are sheep-like in their beliefs, but I’m sure there are lots of atheists who are, too. But there’s this consensus out there that if you’re an individual thinker, you must speak against religion. I hear it everywhere.
 I guess what I’m trying to say is that we don’t like being bad mouthed, either. Part of being open-minded is respecting the beliefs of others, no matter how crazy they may seem. (But obviously not if people are getting hurt. That’s just plain illegal.)
Thank you for listening to me rant. And thank you for your books- they gave me a perspective I may not have gotten otherwise.
If you have any wise author-y tips, I would love to hear them.
My response:
Dear XXXX,
Thank you for the note. I do appreciate your perspective, and I thank you for sharing it with me. Truthfully I didn’t intend to paint religious people in that light–as blind followers–but clearly my book made you feel that way so it is something for me to examine.
For me, I’d point to the Mormon family in Utah as a good example of the diversity I tried to render. As both the mother and father say when Aisha calls them out about Prop 8, just because their church feels a certain way doesn’t mean they feel that way.
Carson and Aisha do badmouth religion in the beginning of the book. They do so because they’ve been hurt. Aisha has been kicked out of her home by her religious father, and Carson put his trust in his parents when he was a young boy–parents are our first Gods–and they let him down by splitting up his world. As the book goes on, my intention is for them to explore these prejudices. I don’t believe that all religious people are blind followers, not in the least. Nor do I believe that religion is inherently evil or hypocritical. That said, I do think that religion has been used in hypocritical ways that have hurt many people.
Anyhow, that’s where I stand on it. I liked hearing where you stand, and as Laurelei says in the book, the most important thing is to allow each person to believe what they believe. I embrace your beliefs for you, and mine for me. I hope you feel the same way!
All that said, you are definitely on to something: I do have a tendency to have a bias toward a “spiritual, but not religious” mindset, because it is in keeping with my own beliefs. It was really hard to not write with that bias, and I am sure I failed at that. I think for me, the reason I have that bias is as Turk states later on in the book. How can one follow just one religious path when there are so many wise spiritual leaders out there? I consider myself “spiritual but not religious” because my journey involves many faiths. I listen to Buddhist nuns and brilliant rabbis and incredible pastors and inspiring social scientists as part of my own morning spiritual ritual.
One thing we definitely agree on: to you, religion is about being a good person and making the world a better place. For me, spirituality is about that. I am thrilled when I hear people talk about their religion as a means to these two ends. This is as it should be.
Bill Konigsberg