Mandie Shaw, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Elsie Dinsmore were close companions of mine throughout the teen years. I also enjoyed as occasional playmates Sierra Jensen and Christy Miller.
I now regret some of those friendships.
As a voracious reader, I devoured practically everything that came my way, from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to the entire Anne of Green Gables series to War and Peace and even an ill-fated attempt at James Joyce's Ulysses. And while I initially loved homiletic literature like In His Steps and the Elsie Dinsmore series, and the ubiquitous Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen novels, I've since wondered if those novels did more harm than help.
Ruth Graham's excellent article in Slate discusses the merits of Christian "chick lit" as a "grounded alternative to the Gossip Girl landscape." This is likely a fair comparison, although admittedly I haven't read the Gossip Girl book series, now eclipsed in popularity by the TV series of the same name. What I question is whether Christians should be reading, or writing, anything that merits comparison to Gossip Girl, and whether today's variety of popular Christian fiction is healthier—or more "grounded"—than its secular counterpart.
Elsie Dinsmore, for those who haven't met her, is a very good 12-year-old in the antebellum South, who is cared for hand and foot by slaves and spreads kindness and doormat-like subservience among everyone she meets. Questions of slavery and Dinsmore's pampered upbringing aside, Dinsmore's Christianity is unlike anything I've seen anywhere—including the Bible. Even Jesus and Paul got angry when occasion demanded; in the 26-book series, Elsie never does.
Here is a typical narrative arc in the Sierra Jensen genre: The heroine goes about daily life, interspersing said life with prayers, generally out loud, beginning "Dear Lord, please …." When crisis hits, Jensen prays more earnestly, and a miraculous coincidence resolves the crisis to everyone's satisfaction. And life goes on.
Granted, author Robin Jones Gunn includes some character development and a plot structure on par with Nancy Drew (which isn't saying much, but certainly made me happy at age 12). But the series' approach to faith is supremely unrealistic and could even be damaging to young readers. Heroes and heroines in Christian teen novels progress along a normal life trajectory, for the most part parallel to secular books in the adventure/romance genre, but add prayer and subtract four-letter words and sex scenes. The basic message: The Christian life is basically the secular life, with a little addition and subtraction.
This should not be.
The Christian life is or at least strives to be entirely different from a secular one. Christians have a different focus, a different purpose, a different incentive for living. The faith we share should change our lives at the core, not just at the frosting level of prayer before breakfast and during trauma.
This is why I don't quite agree with Graham's categorical lumping of Christian chick lit with Catherine Marshall's beloved Christy. In Christy—one of my favorite novels—a girl sets out to conquer the world and, in so doing, meets her God, herself, and her spouse. Faith is dealt with unflinchingly as a sometimes harsh and unfathomable reality; it is not icing on the cake, the "Dear Lord, give me this dress, and I will be happy" faith of so many teen Christian novels. It's a faith that allows Alice, one of the main characters, to be raped in her teens by a pastor friend, and allows Christy to see death up close for the first time in the barren backwoods of Appalachia. The faith is one that grows and stretches its followers rather than letting them escape reality.
Of Christian chick lit, Graham writes, "As far as girlish escapism goes, it's better than holding out for a Prada purse." But is it really? "So fixed on heaven they are no earthly good" was a popular derogatory description in my grandmother's generation—and could just as well apply to the heroines of Christian chick lit today. Perpetuating faith as a golden key or get out of jail free card when trouble hits doesn't encourage readers to grapple with the reality of a faith that often does not answer prayer, at least not in a way we can understand or expect. It's easy enough to disengage from the world's problems; we don't need popular literature to tell us that faith is at root a quick fix.
I want books that offer a faith that is real, a faith that informs my view of the world and helps me inhabit it better. Adding prayer and deleting bad language and sex scenes from a mediocre chick lit novel seems a terrible recipe for healthy entertainment. Perhaps such novels are best left in the bargain bin at the Christian bookstore.