The Lands are an extremely religious family, and the logic of the novel is rooted in Christian belief. The family's deep faith propels their behavior, beginning with Jeremiah's decision to drop out of college to become a plumber after being picked up by a tornado and surviving unharmed—a truly miraculous event. This event situates miracles and religion as the central concern of the novel and asks the reader to question miracles, faith, and how these supernatural happenings interact with events on earth.
Reuben grows up knowing that his father's faith is the sole reason that Reuben survived his first 12 minutes of life with "spongy" asthmatic lungs. This initial miracle lays the groundwork for Jeremiah's role as a miracle worker throughout the rest of the novel, and situates Reuben as the primary recipient and witness of these miracles. By beginning the novel with the miracle of his birth and following soon after with the description of the tornado, Reuben makes it undeniably clear that miracles, and God by extension, are immensely powerful. For Reuben and Jeremiah in particular, these events become concrete proof that a higher being values their lives and looks out for them.
Notably, for much of the novel Reuben is the only character who bears witness to his father's miracles. He's the only one to witness his father walk on thin air, and he's the only one to notice that Jeremiah's small batch of soup somehow manages to feed a party of five. These miracles create a ready comparison between Jeremiah and Jesus, while Reuben as the sole witness and narrator of the novel becomes his father's “disciple.” This relationship is reinforced after Jape Waltzer shoots Reuben and Jeremiah. Following a march with his father through Heaven, Reuben returns to earth, his asthmatic lungs miraculously healed after what should have been a fatal gunshot wound. Jeremiah, on the other hand, dies despite suffering a gunshot wound that shouldn't have killed him. This final miracle suggests that Jeremiah dies to save his son, just as Jesus died to save humanity. By telling his story, Reuben turns into a disciple of both his father and of God, while the novel takes on some of the same qualities as the Bible itself.
Though the novel's characters all believe in a Christian idea of God and religion, Davy is the only character who seems to question the degree of influence that God has on his life. Reuben attributes this to Davy's competency and confidence. He remarks that Davy finds the idea of a fatherly God annoying, as Davy wants life to be something that one undertakes alone. He'd prefer to be fully responsible for his triumphs and his failings, rather than be able to thank or blame a higher power for bringing them upon him. Reuben, on the other hand, describes himself as weak and therefore in need of a fatherly God to watch over him and treat him mercifully. Notably, even after Jeremiah sacrifices himself and Reuben finds himself cured of asthma, Reuben makes it very clear that he continues to worship and credit God for his successes. Reuben is unable to forget the fact that he's alive because of God.
Jeremiah, Reuben, Swede, and eventually, Roxanna are able to find love and a sense of community with each other because of their belief in God, their respect for Jeremiah's relationship with God, and their shared knowledge that God guides and controls everything they do. While Reuben never goes so far as to say that Davy suffers the fate he does because of his unwillingness to fully accept the power of God and religion, he also presents overwhelming evidence that religion is immensely powerful and useful—it's twice the reason that Reuben is even alive. Reuben goes on, breathing with unhindered lungs, to marry Sara, build his own house, and be a parent because of his and his family's faith in God. Further, Reuben would certainly argue that Davy's freedom continues thanks to God, suggesting that whether one truly embraces religion or not, it's an inescapable force in all lives.
Religion Quotes in Peace Like a River
I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.
But the whole thing bothered Davy, and with Dad out of earshot he'd say so. You couldn't get blown around in a tornado, he said, and not get banged up. It didn't make sense. It wasn't right.
Swede challenged him. "Are you calling Dad a liar?"
"Of course not. I know it happened. It just shouldn't have. Don't you see that?"
How could we not have faith? For the foundation had been laid in prayer and sorrow. Since that fearful night, Dad had responded with the almost impossible work of belief. He had burned with repentance as though his own hand had fired the gun.
I feared the outcome of honest speech—that it might reach forward in time and arrange events to come. If I told Swede I wanted Davy back, even at the cost of his freedom, might that not happen? And if I said what I sensed was the noble thing... might that not bring despair on this whole crusade of ours?
Were Dad's heart my tablet I'd have taken it up and erased Davy's name, so terribly did I wish to stay, and had it been whispered to me that all of Roofing had burned... I'd have rolled down the window and shouted thanks to Heaven...
Led? This was supposed to mean the Lord was in charge and paving your way, such as letting you get fired so you'll be free to leave town, or sending you an Airstream you can go in comfort. Dad knew something about being led, I realized, yet this I could not buy.
"If you like Mr. Andreeson better as an enemy, then keep him one. Maybe that's your job as a boy—as a brother. My job is different."
"Because I'm the dad. I have to heed the Lord's instructions."