Treasure Valley Prays

Are You There, God?

standing with outstretched arms before a glorious sunset

Recently, I watched the movie, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.” The movie is based on Judy Blume’s book of the same title. Since I’ve never read the book, I’d like to be clear that I’m writing about the movie. I don’t know how closely it follows the book.

The movie opens in 1970. Margaret, a rising sixth grader, has just had a wonderful vacation at camp, and is eager to return to her familiar school in New York. But, not so great surprise, Margaret’s dad has gotten a promotion and the family is ready to move to suburban New Jersey. Margaret’s widowed grandmother isn’t happy about this either. She and Margaret have a close relationship, and she knows she’ll be lonely without her granddaughter in the same neighborhood.

Margaret soon makes connections with girls in her new school, and spends a lot of time gossiping with them and wondering about various aspects of puberty. I’m old enough to remember exactly where I was in 1970, and I enjoyed Margaret’s agony over her first bra, reluctantly purchased for her by her mother, who tried to talk her out of it. When her mother asks her how it feels, Margaret immediately responds that she can’t wait to take it off. “Welcome to womanhood,” replies her mother. I came to the movie to enjoy this type of nostalgic humor. However, I was surprised when the movie left me with serious questions about what children learn from their parents about religion.

Margaret is confronted by religious issues when she finds out something about her mother’s parents. She has never met them. There is a reason. Margaret’s father is Jewish, and her mother is Christian. Margaret’s mother was disowned by her parents when she married a Jew. Because of this, Margaret and her family don’t observe any religion, and Margaret has been told that she can choose her religion when she is an adult.

Margaret is horrified that her mother was disowned because of religion. She asks questions that make her parents uncomfortable, and then decides that at age twelve, she is adult enough to research religion. While visiting her grandmother in New York, she attends temple, where she is puzzled by the Hebrew. She visits a Black church with a classmate. A Catholic classmate tells Margaret about confession, and in an endearing mistake, Margaret blunders into a confessional and blurts out her regret for participating in unkind gossip.

At Christmas, Margaret’s mother impulsively sends her parents a Christmas card, and they respond. In an awkward sequence, the Christian parents arrive for a visit, followed by the Jewish grandmother. After relatively civil behavior at dinner, the grandparents get into almost a physical tussle over Margaret’s religious affiliation. Margaret is deeply distressed, and the next scene shows the grandparents getting into separate cabs.

I think this was supposed to be just one part of the coming of age story. The movie didn’t seem to treat the embarrassment of buying a bra much differently from the embarrassment of the family religious struggles. I was surprised by my strong reaction to this blandness. I saw Margaret as sincerely trying to make sense of religion. In my view, she wasn’t getting much help from the adults around her. The adults’ religious ideas seemed frozen. Either they tried to claim Margaret for their own religion, or they avoided any discussion of the subject. Was there nothing beyond that?

Those of us who regularly attend worship services often wonder how to involve young people. We may go to great effort to bond our children to our particular church. We may send them to a religious school or church camp.

The thing is, they will make up their own minds when they’re adults, whether we provide them with religious education or not. An adult child who wishes to leave a religion will do so. Is it counterproductive to pressure them? Is there another way we could point them onto a spiritual path, with some wisdom about how to find their way? If we insist they keep the same religious affiliation we have, do we interfere with their spiritual development?

I don’t want to read too much into Margaret’s story. The movie was intended to entertain, not to prompt soul searching. Yet I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards. Without giving her a particular religious “brand,” what could Margaret’s parents have done to equip her for spiritual inquiry? Why ignore religion altogether as a response to the family’s estrangement from the Christian grandparents? Why not talk about the teachings of Judaism and Christianity? Wouldn’t there be something to learn from both religions?

If nothing else, this movie reminded me to take young people seriously when they ask searching questions and religion and spirituality. It made me review the messages my parents and grandparents passed to me. What was helpful? What was hurtful? What made my own faith journey important to me?

Picture of Linda Worden

Linda Worden

Member of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church,
Boise, ID

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