In the opening sentence of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator, John Wheelwright, announces that his childhood friend “is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Neither John nor Owen are strictly religious in the sense of belonging to one specific church or practicing careful rituals, but they profess to believe in the existence of God. However, many of their attitudes and actions throughout the book seem sacrilegious—the boys’ Sunday School is useless, the annual Christmas pageant is a farce, and the reverend fathered an illegitimate child, who happens to be John. Furthermore, once the war rolls around, God seems absent from a world filled with so much senseless violence and suffering, and John wrestles with how to overcome his doubt amidst so much pain and evil. In light of these contradictions, the novel seems to suggest that a fully informed and thoughtful inner faith, not blind adherence to dogma, is the most meaningful way to approach religion and belief.
One of the book’s most consistent messages about true faith is how difficult it is for most people, positioning genuine faith as rare and valuable. In the opening pages of the novel, John disdains the Sunday school teacher who frequently leaves the classroom to go on smoke breaks: “Mrs. Walker would read us an instructive passage from the Bible. She would then ask us to think seriously about what we had heard—‘Silently and seriously, that's how I want you to think!’ she would say. ‘I'm going to leave you alone with your thoughts, now […] I want you to think very hard.’” However, the woman’s encouragement to respond to the Bible with profound individual reflection is a method John would himself adopt in later years. The novel suggests that “think[ing] very hard” about philosophy and morals matters more than blind belief. As an adult, John observes, “According to The New York Times, a new poll has revealed that most Americans believe that President Reagan is lying; what they should be asked is, Do they care?” Believing that something wrong is being done without caring enough to do anything about it is like believing in Christianity and its principles without actually thinking about how to live by them.
According to Owen, true Christian faith requires a genuine belief in things unseen. One of the distinctions the book makes between shallow faith and profound faith is made clear in the difference between Christmas and Easter. The miracle of birth, if not Christ’s birth, is witnessed every day on Earth; the miracle of resurrection, never. Therefore, most people find it easier to believe in Christmas than in Easter. Owen declares that real Christians must be able to believe in a miracle the likes of which they’ve never seen: “IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN EASTER […] DON’T CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN.” Similarly, Owen and John look down on performative religion as it is staged in the absurd Christmas pageant and the popular biblical epics of the time, believing that the earthly portrayal of holy events is ridiculous and “SACRILEGIOUS.” Owen objects, “‘YOU CAN'T TAKE A MIRACLE AND JUST SHOW IT! […] YOU CAN’T PROVE A MIRACLE—YOU JUST HAVE TO BELIEVE IT! IF THE RED SEA ACTUALLY PARTED, IT DIDN’T LOOK LIKE THAT […] IT DIDN’T LOOK LIKE ANYTHING—IT’S NOT A PICTURE ANYONE CAN EVEN IMAGINE!’” In his view, pure Christian faith resists the crutch of earthly representation.
On the other hand, A Prayer for Owen Meany is ultimately created around the “proven” miracle of Owen’s dramatic martyrdom. After seeing a detailed vision of his death at a young age, Owen spends most of his life preparing to sacrifice himself to save a group of innocent children, and his heroic death unfolds exactly as he foresaw. John believes in God because he personally witnesses this contemporary miracle. This would seem to contradict the boys’ emphasis on the superiority of the unseen miracle to the seen one, and perhaps Irving seeks to lightly undermine or challenge some of their most rigid statements about belief. Of course, John claims that there is a difference between faith based in the “real miracle” of Owen Meany, and faith based in the type of staged miracle that John himself orchestrated in order to restore Reverend Lewis Merrill’s lost faith—planting an armless mannequin in the exact likeness of John’s deceased mother underneath the reverend’s window in order to make him believe that she had visited him from the beyond. However, John acknowledges that Owen himself would probably treat any revival of faith as miraculous—after all, “GOD WORKS IN STRANGE WAYS!”
Ironically, the faith inspired in Rev. Merrill by John’s illusion is more secure than the faith inspired in John by Owen’s “real miracle.” John both longs for and mistrusts the “absolute and unshakable faith” in God that Rev. Merrill develops. John despairs, “My belief in God disturbs and unsettles me much more than not believing ever did […] belief poses so many unanswerable questions! […] If God had a hand in what Owen ‘knew,’ what a horrible question that poses! For how could God have let that happen to Owen Meany?” However, John nonetheless believes that a faith that engages with these unanswerable questions, rather than ignoring them or disregarding them, is better to practice—in other words, unanswered questions surrounding faith and religion are far better than unquestioned answers.
John aspires to a faith that is clear-eyed and judicious, a faith resulting from thoughtful contemplation, and a faith that one lives by, not merely pays shallow homage to. He exclaims at one point in the novel, “Watch out for people who call themselves religious; make sure you know what they mean—make sure they know what they mean!” To John, not being able to fully explain or justify what one means when calling oneself a believer is a sign of empty religion, devoid of introspection and genuine faith. However, the fact that it took witnessing the miraculous martyrdom of his best friend to instill John’s faith reminds readers that he, too, is flawed, and his ideal faith in the unseen is not so very easy to attain.
Christianity and Faith ThemeTracker
Christianity and Faith Quotes in A Prayer for Owen Meany
“Your friend is most original,” Dan Needham said, with the greatest respect. “Don’t you see, Johnny? If he could, he would cut off his hands for you—that’s how it makes him feel, to have touched that baseball bat, to have swung that bat with those results. It’s how we all feel—you and me and Owen. We’ve lost a part of ourselves.” And Dan picked up the wrecked armadillo and began to experiment with it on my night table, trying—as I had tried—to find a position that allowed the beast to stand, or even to lie down, with any semblance of comfort or dignity; it was quite impossible…
And so Dan and I became quite emotional, while we struggled to find a way to make the armadillo’s appearance acceptable—but that was the point, Dan concluded: there was no way that any or all of this was acceptable. What had happened was unacceptable! Yet we still had to live with it.
It made [Owen] furious when I suggested that anything was an “accident”—especially anything that had happened to him; on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith. There were no accidents; there was a reason for that baseball—just as there was a reason for Owen being small, and a reason for his voice. In Owen’s opinion, he had INTERRUPTED AN ANGEL, he had DISTURBED AN ANGEL AT WORK, he had UPSET THE SCHEME OF THINGS.
Mrs. Hoyt was the first person I remember who said that to criticize a specific American president was not anti-American; that to criticize a specific American policy was not antipatriotic; and that to disapprove of our involvement in a particular war against the communists was not the same as taking the communists’ side. But these distinctions were lost on most of the citizens of Gravesend; they are lost on many of my former fellow Americans today.
All those same crones, as black and hunchbacked as crows gathered around some roadkill—they came to the service as if to say: We acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free.
Getting off “scot-free” was a cardinal crime in New Hampshire. And by the birdy alertness visible in the darting eyes of my grandmother’s crones, I could tell that—in their view—my mother had not escaped her just reward.
Barb Wiggin looked at Owen as if she were revising her opinion of how “cute” he was, and the rector observed Owen with a detachment that was wholly out of character for an ex-pilot. The Rev. Mr. Wiggin, such a veteran of Christmas pageants, looked at Owen Meany with profound respect—as if he’d seen the Christ Child come and go, but never before had he encountered a little Lord Jesus who was so perfect for the part.
“He sounds a little sicker than I had in mind,” Dan told me on our way back to town. “I may have to play the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come myself. Or maybe—if Owen’s too sick—maybe you can take the part.”
But I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play.
“YOU CAN’T TAKE A MIRACLE AND JUST SHOW IT!” [Owen] said indignantly. “YOU CAN’T PROVE A MIRACLE—YOU JUST HAVE TO BELIEVE IT! IF THE RED SEA ACTUALLY PARTED, IT DIDN’T LOOK LIKE THAT,” he said. “IT DIDN’T LOOK LIKE ANYTHING—IT’S NOT A PICTURE ANYONE CAN EVEN IMAGINE!”
Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.
“IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN EASTER,” Owen Meany said. “DON’T KID YOURSELF—DON’T CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN.”
In both classes, Pastor Merrill preached his doubt-is-the-essence-of-and-not-the-opposite-of-faith philosophy; it was a point of view that interested Owen more than it had once interested him. The apparent secret was “belief without miracles”; a faith that needed a miracle was not a faith at all. Don’t ask for proof—that was Mr. Merrill’s routine message.
“BUT EVERYONE NEEDS A LITTLE PROOF,” said Owen Meany.
“Faith itself is a miracle, Owen,” said Pastor Merrill. “The first miracle that I believe in is my own faith itself.”
“IF WE CAN DO IT IN UNDER FOUR SECONDS, WE CAN DO IT IN UNDER THREE,” he said. “IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE FAITH.”
“It takes more practice,” I told him irritably.
“FAITH TAKES PRACTICE,” said Owen Meany.
I remember the independent study that Owen Meany was conducting with the Rev. Lewis Merrill in the winter term of l962. I wonder if those cheeseburgers in the Reagan administration are familiar with Isaiah 5:20. As The Voice would say: “WOE UNTO THOSE THAT CALL EVIL GOOD AND GOOD EVIL.”
As always, with Owen Meany, there was the necessary consideration of the symbols involved. He had removed Mary Magdalene’s arms, above the elbows, so that her gesture of beseeching the assembled audience would seem all the more an act of supplication—and all the more helpless. Dan and I both knew that Owen suffered an obsession with armlessness—this was Watahantowet’s familiar totem, this was what Owen had done to my armadillo. My mother's dressmaker’s dummy was armless, too.
But neither Dan nor I was prepared for Mary Magdalene being headless—for her head was cleanly sawed or chiseled or blasted off.
“YOU HAVE NO DOUBT SHE’S THERE?” [Owen] nagged at me.
“Of course I have no doubt!” I said.
“BUT YOU CAN’T SEE HER—YOU COULD BE WRONG,” he said.
“No, I’m not wrong—she’s there, I know she’s there!” I yelled at him.
“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!”
What has happened to me has simply neutered me.
“SINCE I DISCOVERED SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THAT I WAS LIVING IN A WORLD WHERE NOTHING BEARS OUT IN PRACTICE WHAT IT PROMISES INCIPIENTLY, I HAVE TROUBLED MYSELF VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEORIES. I AM CONTENT WITH TENTATIVENESS FROM DAY TO DAY.”
Because he’d wished my mother dead, my father said, God had punished him; God had taught Pastor Merrill not to trifle with prayer. And I suppose that was why it had been so difficult for Mr. Merrill to pray for Owen Meany—and why he had invited us all to offer up our silent prayers to Owen, instead of speaking out himself. And he called Mr. and Mrs. Meany “superstitious”! Look at the world: look at how many of our peerless leaders presume to tell us that they know what God wants! It’s not God who’s fucked up, it’s the screamers who say they believe in Him and who claim to pursue their ends in His holy name!
“YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND,” said Owen Meany—his voice breaking a little. I assumed it was the telephone; I thought we had a bad connection.
“THAT IS WHERE THIS COUNTRY IS HEADED—IT IS HEADED TOWARD OVERSIMPLIFICATION. YOU WANT TO SEE A PRESIDENT OF THE FUTURE? TURN ON ANY TELEVISION ON ANY SUNDAY MORNING—FIND ONE OF THOSE HOLY ROLLERS: THAT’S HIM, THAT’S THE NEW MISTER PRESIDENT! AND DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE FUTURE OF ALL THOSE KIDS WHO ARE GOING TO FALL IN THE CRACKS OF THIS GREAT, BIG, SLOPPY SOCIETY OF OURS? I JUST MET HIM; HE’S A TALL, SKINNY, FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY NAMED ‘DICK.’ HE’S PRETTY SCARY. WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIM IS NOT UNLIKE WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE TV EVANGELIST—OUR FUTURE PRESIDENT. WHAT’S WRONG WITH BOTH OF THEM IS THAT THEY’RE SO SURE THEY’RE RIGHT! THAT’S PRETTY SCARY.”
When we held Owen Meany above our heads, when we passed him back and forth—so effortlessly—we believed that Owen weighed nothing at all. We did not realize that there were forces beyond our play. Now I know they were the forces that contributed to our illusion of Owen's weightlessness; they were the forces we didn’t have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in—and they were also lifting up Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands.
O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You.