Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Religion

By John Irving

Religion

Chapter 1

When I complained about church, I complained about the usual things a kid complains about: the claustrophobia, the boredom. But Owen complained religiously. "A PERSON'S FAITH GOES AT ITS OWN PACE," Owen Meany said. "THE TROUBLE WITH CHURCH IS THE SERVICE. A SERVICE IS CONDUCTED FOR A MASS AUDIENCE. JUST WHEN I START TO LIKE THE HYMN, EVERYONE PLOPS DOWN TO PRAY. JUST WHEN I START TO HEAR THE PRAYER, EVERYONE POPS UP TO SING. AND WHAT DOES THE STUPID SERMON HAVE TO DO WITH GOD? WHO KNOWS WHAT GOD THINKS OF CURRENT EVENTS? WHO CARES?" (1.107)

Owen seems to think that going to church is not necessarily the best way of having a relationship with God. Church services seem to distract followers from what religion is really all about.

It occurred to me that the Catholics had done this to her—whatever it was, it surely qualified for the unmentioned UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE that Owen claimed his father and mother had suffered. There was something about Mrs. Meany's obdurate self-imprisonment that smacked of religious persecution—if not eternal damnation. (1.146)

Whenever he talks about the Catholic Church, Owen always mentions the "UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" that the Catholics committed against his parents. Here, we see Owen's mom up close. There's something up with this woman, that's for sure – Johnny just doesn't know what that could be.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ—and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. (1.1)

These lines open the novel, and they prepare us for the exploration of faith that we're about to watch John undergo. From the get-go, we understand that John's faith is going to change – he's going to start believing in God more than he had in the past. We just need to find out why.

When I would complain about the kneeling, which was new to me—not to mention the abundance of litanies and recited creeds in the Episcopal service—Owen would tell me that I knew nothing. Not only did Catholics kneel and mutter litanies and creeds without ceasing, but they ritualized any hope of contact with God to such an extent that Owen felt they'd interfered with his ability to pray—to talk to God DIRECTLY, as Owen put it. And then there was confession! Here I was complaining about some simple kneeling, but what did I know about confessing my sins? Owen said the pressure to confess—as a Catholic—was so great that he'd often made things up in order to be forgiven for them. (1.101)

The difference between various types of Christianity is a recurring topic of conversation in this novel. While the Episcopal Church seems a little more appropriate for Owen than the Catholic Church (just based on what he expresses as preferences), we start to wonder if maybe Owen feels like organized religion gets in the way of his ability to have a relationship with God.

Chapter 3
Reverend Lewis Merrill

"BELIEF IS NOT AN INTELLECTUAL MATTER," he complained. "IF HE'S GOT SO MUCH DOUBT, HE'S IN THE WRONG BUSINESS." (3.131)

Rev. Merrill always emphasizes the importance of religious doubt. The point that Rev. Merrill seems to make is that doubt gets you thinking about God – and that can be a good thing. Owen, on the flip side, is so full of conviction that, in his opinion, you either believe in God or you don't.

Chapter 5
Mr. Fish

"I love the part when he tells the angel what to say—that's brilliant," Mr. Fish said. "And how he throws his mother aside—how he starts right in with the criticism…I mean, you get the idea, right away, that this is no ordinary baby. You know, he's the Lord! Jesus—from Day One. I mean, he's born giving orders, telling I had no idea it was so…primitive a ritual, so violent, so barbaric. But it's very moving," Mr. Fish added hastily, lest Dan and I be offended to hear our religion described as "primitive" and "barbaric." (5.221)

Leave it to Mr. Fish to bring a little bit of comic relief. He was not raised in a religious household and has never seen a Christmas pageant before. When things unexpectedly go awry at the Christ Church pageant, Mr. Fish is totally oblivious – and in utter awe. Still, there is some truth to what he says. You get the idea that the Christ Child is no ordinary baby – whether we're talking about the one in the Bible or Owen Meany himself.

Chapter 6
Owen Meany

"WHAT A BIG FUSS ABOUT A BLANKET!" Owen said. "THAT'S SO CATHOLIC," he added—"TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS." (6.82)

Owen has a lot of beef with Catholicism. He's all about talking to God directly and getting rid of stuff that distracts from having a genuine relationship with God. He sees ceremony and symbolism as things that get in the way.

Chapter 7
Owen Meany

"IF KENNEDY CAN RATIONALIZE ADULTERY, WHAT ELSE CAN HE RATIONALIZE?" Owen asked me. Then he got angry and said: "I'M FORGETTING HE'S A MACKEREL-SNAPPER! IF CATHOLICS CAN CONFESS ANYTHING, THEY CAN FORGIVE THEMSELVES ANYTHING, TOO! CATHOLICS CAN'T EVEN GET DIVORCED; MAYBE THAT'S THE PROBLEM. IT'S SICK NOT TO LET PEOPLE GET DIVORCED!" (7.301)

As per usual, Owen goes on a tirade against Catholicism. Here, he criticizes the sacrament of confession – Catholics believe that they can be forgiven for their sins if they confess them to a priest and then say a prescribed number of prayers after. Owen sees this practice as being horribly misguided.

Chapter 8

It's true: we Wheelwrights have rarely suffered. And unlike most of those other Americans, I also had the church; don't underestimate the church—its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart. (8.281)

Religion is also a source of comfort in this novel. Here, John suggests that, for those who believe strongly, faith can ease suffering. Still, he acknowledges, there are many people who can't experience this benefit because they don't have faith.

John Wheelwright

"YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE'S THERE—EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN'T SEE HER?" he asked me.

"Yes!" I screamed.

"WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD," said Owen Meany. "I CAN'T SEE HIM—BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE!" (8.265-267)

The "she" in question is the statue of Mary Magdalene in front of the playground at St. Michael's. Owen draws a parallel between John's rational knowledge that a statue is still standing there in the dark even if he can't see it and his own belief that God is there even if he can't see God.