As a teenager, I frequently reflected on the question – am I a good person? For the most part I believed I was a good person. While I didn’t always read Christian books, I read books that gave away good messages and made sure to stay away from the ones with vulgarity. I was a good girl. While my love for Harry Potter was momentarily questioned after watching Jesus Camp, I decided to seek out books with a Christian message. If a book spoke poorly of Christianity my blood would begin to boil. I became sick of Christianity being under scrutiny and was convinced that the world was against the faith. Reading a Christian book was a way to avoid a glaring problem that I would later grow to reevaluate and eventually change my stance (the problem of staying away from content that goes against your beliefs).
There were two book series that I returned to throughout the entirety of my middle school career and both were introduced to me by my mom’s friend Diane. Diane was a saved Christian which was a very foreign concept to me as a child. She encouraged me to not use the Lord’s name in vain and went to church as if it was something to look forward to, like going to Chuckie Cheese. My 12-year-old brain, which was used to church only existing on Sundays and holidays, had a hard time reconciling this idea. Diane knew I loved to read and bought me two books for my 12th birthday, both introductory books to a Christian book series.
The first was titled Here’s Lily by Nancy Rue and was the first in the Young Women of Faith book series. The series never made it to my favorites list but was one I kept returning to and thoroughly enjoyed. I even bought the books to donate to the church at Christmastime and for my younger cousin who is also a big reader. The Christian message was extremely apparent while reading though I grew to enjoy it. Imagine Lizzie McGuire in book form and she is a Christian. Yep, that is this series in a nutshell. I will admit, it isn’t a terrible concept nor is it executed poorly.
The other book was titled The Mystery at Johnson Farm by Hilda Stahl and the series was titled Elizabeth Gail. I never enjoyed these books as much compared to the Lily books which were much more modern. The Elizabeth Gail series was written during the late 1980’s. Regardless, the books held my attention and I read quite a few of them as well. The main character was named…take a guess. Correct! Elizabeth Gail, Libby for short. Libby was a foster child from a broken home who went to live with the Johnson family on their farm. The Johnsons were a devout Christian family. Try not to be surprised. The series was much blunter when it came to its Christian message, having a Full House type moment at the end of every book where Libby accepted over and over that Jesus is the answer.
These were my first introductions to Christian literature. They are far from terrible books. Actually, they are quite good considering. But they are manipulative at their core. Since they are children’s books it is a bit easier to forgive. That being said, I enjoyed reading a Christian message in my literature. I was raised watching that Full House crap that exists in a ton of chick-flicks and bad TV sitcoms. Secular culture isn’t exempt from having manipulative messages in their media that overtake good storytelling. Just turn on ABC Family, Lifetime, or a cheesy 90’s kids show. It isn’t hard to come by this content. And I absorbed it all in like a sponge (and am still recovering from it to this day. I am a recovering Christian media consumer). I was slowly but surely devaluing good storytelling for a Christian message that didn’t help me to think clearly or challenge me. I remained in the good ole Christian bubble.
Toward the end of my middle school career, I came across an author named Karen Kingsbury. Her books were for adults and I figured it was time for me to leave the young adult genre behind. After all, I was almost 16 (note – in case you were wondering, where I live middle school lasts from 7th grade to 9th grade and high school starts in 10th grade) and going to high school soon. I checked the first book out from her Redemption series, titled Redemption, from the library and began to read in the car while my mom drove home. I initially found the book to be quite boring but upon the awesome Jesus message at the end, I was pumped to continuing reading and continuing seeing characters get saved. I ended up reading the next two books titled Remember and Return and was so moved by the prodigal son retelling in Return that I temporarily considered it to be among my favorite books. I even went so far as to buy a copy to put on my bookshelf. Sure the books had faults but their message was a good one. The message trumped the poor character development, flawed structure, and inconsistent plot.
All of these books had a central thing in common. They contained the happy ending — the ending where they find Jesus and everything becomes perfect. It was a classic Disney moment without any of the magic. It was a move you to tears moment because the story served you deliberate tear duct switches to make you forget the story actually sucks and has been told before. There were times when I questioned these endings but didn’t think on them long enough to go through with my concerns.
An array of events in high school began to wake me up. During my sophomore year I shared a lunch table with a Mormon, some atheists, and a Muslim and all of them were honest and good to me in ways I had never quite known before. It was the first time I began to separate being a Christian with being a good person. I started reading books with swear words and sexual content (most of which were required for school!) and although it scared me at first, I soon grew to enjoy the raw honesty of these texts. I became engrossed in metaphorical language and symbolism used in great classics like The Great Gatsby and Shakespeare’s plays. I began to see complex character development that took things a step further than a Lifetime movie. What appealed to me most was looking at character psychology — how did said character end up the way they are? Why are they doing said action? Are their actions done purely to convey a certain message to the reader or does the character live beyond the page? Books like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Atonement by Ian McEwan were added to my favorite books list.
I began listening to music that wasn’t played on CCM Radio. By graduation I was questioning my entire belief system. I knew I believed in God and that I was a Christian, but I also knew that I wanted to seek out good art that Christians always seemed opposed to having any part. High school challenged me. College continued these challenges and helped me reconcile quite a few of them.
I began to see God in things that weren’t labeled Christian. A sour taste filled my mouth when I came across forced happy endings. I came to realize that I had been living in a world of cotton candy and now I craved authenticity.