The other night my wife and I watched Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Like the 1970 book by Judy Blume, this is a coming-of-age story about girls entering into the scary and wonderful world of puberty. Since the producers of the movie wisely kept the setting of the film in the early 1970s, for us watching this movie was mostly a nostalgia trip (if Margaret were a real person, she would have been one grade behind my wife, and two years ahead of me). But as the title suggests, there is an interesting spiritual subplot percolating alongside the adventures of first kisses and training bras.
Margaret Simon is 11 years old during the events of this story; she is the only child of a loving family where dad is Jewish and mom is Christian. As we meet Margaret, she is tentatively seeking God through prayer — hence the title of the book/film. For Margaret, God is a mystery, not an assured experience; and because God is a mystery, Margaret is not entirely sure that God is even there. But as she navigates the perils of life on the verge of adolescence, she turns to God both to express her own spiritual yearning but also to work through the complexity of her feelings as she navigates moving to a new school, making new friends, discovering boys, managing peer pressure, and discovering the wonder of her own body as she takes her first steps into the mystery of puberty.
The movie never really tells us how Margaret (beautifully and sensitively portrayed by Abby Ryder Fortson) came to explore prayer — after all, neither of her parents practice the religion of their upbringing. The grandparents, however take their faith much more seriously. Margaret’s Jewish grandmother regularly attends synagogue, and is thrilled with Margaret decides she’d like to attend. At the beginning of the story Margaret has never met her maternal grandparents, who turn out to be ultra-conservative evangelicals; but she does meet them as the story progresses.
It turns out that Margaret’s mom (played in the movie by Rachel McAdams) has been estranged from her own folks, who disapproved of her marrying a Jewish man. But faced with Margaret’s questions about her missing grandparents, she sends them a Christmas card, which leads to their coming to the east coast to visit their daughter and meet their granddaughter for the first time. Although the visit goes well at first, the grandparents cannot resist telling Margaret how much they want her to attend church — which leads to a rapidly escalating argument where the Jewish grandmother squares off against the Christian grandparents, each one shouting louder and louder to express their conviction that Margaret belongs only in their religion.
Mom and Dad try to explain that they want Margaret to choose her own religious identity when she grows up, but the grandparents won’t listen. As each make their arguments for why “Margaret is Jewish” or “Margaret is a Christian,” finally her father growls, “Margaret is nothing!” — oblivious to just how bad that must sound to the girl, who is listening with growing alarm at this row.
And at that point, Margaret has had enough. The girl shouts her way into the argument, making it clear that she has no intention of being a pawn for other people’s religious agendas. Here’s Margaret’s words in the book:
“Stop it!” I hollered, jumping up. “All of you! Just stop it! I can’t stand another minute of listening to you. Who needs religion? Who! Not me…I don’t need it. I don’t even need God!” I ran out of the den and up to my room.
The movie raises the stakes even higher, with Margaret declaring she’s not even sure she believes in God.
Margaret does not abandon her experiments with prayer. Both the book and the film end with Margaret yet again asking God if God is there. While she made a very grown-up decision to have nothing to do with the divisive nature of religious observance, she continues to explore spirituality, entirely on her own terms. For Margaret, spirituality is not unlike puberty: it’s mysterious, and scary, and a great big unknown, but it also promises to be an adventure.
I suppose Margaret’s story is not all that unusual: of a young person who becomes disillusioned by religious observance because it’s too apparent how grown-ups weaponize their church or synagogue (or mosque, etc.) membership in order to promote their personal vision of God or spirituality. What I love about Margaret Simon is that while she sees through the aggression and hostility of religion and therefore wants nothing to do with it, she doesn’t entirely give up on the mystery of God.
Margaret Simon is a fictional character, of course, but she is an archetype for so many people, especially young people, in our day who have found that religion gets in the way of their relationship with God. Margaret does not want to choose between Christianity and Judaism — or between her grandparents. I think she is kind of a literary patron saint for anyone who finds that their desire to meet God in a variety of contexts might mean that they need to hold religion — even the religion they grew up in — lightly.
I’m not suggesting you pray to “Saint Margaret Simon” of course. But perhaps the next time we feel a conflict in ourselves between our deeply embodied desire to connect with God spiritually, and the kinds of artificial boundaries that institutional religion sets us between humanity and God, we’ll remember Margaret Simon — and we, too, will find the courage to see “I don’t need it!”