Monday, September 08, 2014

More on: Born Again, Again

I am very pleased to have published my first piece with the Guardian, "Born Again, Again."  In that piece I refer to  an e-mail exchange I had with the author of "A Time to Cherish" the wildly successful Born Again Christian YA romance novel, Robin Jones Gunn.

Gunn was warm, helpful and thoughtful in all of her responses to me, and I wanted to include more of our conversation, very little of which made it in to the final piece.  Below are my questions in bold, her responses, which have been edited for length, and my thoughts are in italics.

Christy struggles when her best friend begins to question her faith. What, if anything, were you saying about young girls' frienships?
[...]As I wrote the series I always tried to imagine what a girl like Christy would think or feel when confronted with normal coming of age situations. Friendships are all encompassing during those years. In several of the stories Christy realizes how valuable friends are. She wrestled with keeping her friendships even when her BFF’s no longer agree with her. Relationships are a process and every single one of them requires careful thought and consideration because every life is of great value.
I guess you could say I was trying to communicate to young readers that they have the power to think. Think for themselves. Think things through. Think outside their own experiences, their own culture. Think about what the other person is going through and what they’re thinking. The stories weren’t designed to tell readers what to think. I just wanted them to think and not get rooted in a bias at a young age. A small life is one where you keep out anything or anyone who is different from you. You don’t take risks and you don’t extend grace. You don’t think. You let someone else do all the thinking for you. Christy grew as a character throughout the series because she was forced to think.
 On re-reading "A Time To Cherish" one of things that struck me most potently was just how didactic the book is. Of course, it only strikes me as overtly political because it espouses politics very different from my own.  While Christy herself often struggles with what to say to Katy, her best friend who is dating a non-Christian (he is also a vegetarian, wears Birkenstocks and eats health food, so he's basically a liberal Boogeyman) it is never in question that Katy is playing with fire or that Christy is right to worry about her friend. I'm fascinated that Gunn believes the book promotes free thinking. Perhaps it does promote thinking, but only within the rigid frame of BAC dogma. There's no dialetical conversation happening. 

"A Time to Cherish" is when Christy and her long-time crush Todd finally get together. What about Todd makes him "perfect" for your heroine? What were you trying to say to girls about potential boyfriends? 

Todd was good for Christy because he was an only child, his parents divorced when he was young and he grew up at Newport Beach with his dad. He came from a different background than Christy who had a younger brother and parents who were still together. She grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Opposites attract. They always do. What Christy gained from her relationship with Todd was an opening of her worldview and her understanding of what it looks like to be a patient and caring friend. Todd loves his friends. He’s loyal to them. They are family to him. Todd is also steady and sure in the way he chooses to honor God in his life. But Todd is also oh-so clueless about so many basics in life since he pretty much raised himself. He comes across as unreliable and too independent and insensitive a lot of the time. 
I remember having a rousing discussion with a reader a few years ago at a youth event where I was speaking. She thought I made Todd too “real” in that he should have done everything just the way Christy wanted him to. He didn’t fit the mold of a truly romantic hero because he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and he didn’t bend his future plans to accommodate Christy. I just smiled because if there’s anything that the exasperated reader discovered from the books about real life potential boyfriends it’s that they’re in process, too. Like Todd, they’re coming from a background that’s most likely different than yours and they’re trying to figure out their life and their future.

Again, I'm thrown by Gunn's belief that she's made Todd too "real." Over the series, if I can recall, there are a lot of times when Christy wants more from Todd than he's willing to give. But later on, he tells her that he was allowing her room to grow in Christ first, and that she had to be free to make her own decisions. (She goes on to regret those poor decisions, and Todd helps her surrender her shame to God.) Todd being "too real" ends up being what makes him so admirable in the books -- he puts God first. It's a false negative -- he's not really too clueless, he's not really an idiot, it's just that Christy doesn't understand why he's doing what he's doing. The onus is on Christy. Which leads me to the big doozy problem scene... 

In the Carl's Junior scene, Todd tells Christy what it is that he likes about her: 

"There's something I've wanted to tell you, Christy. I hope you'll take this the right way. One of the things I really appreciate about you is that you don't come on to me. Do you know what I mean? [...] You let me make the first moves, and that really helps. [...] Girls have no idea wha tthey do to a guy when they come on to him. Not only by touching him but also by what they wear. I love the way you dress. You always looook good. Really good. Yet you don't try to show off or, you know, tease a guy. [...] I want you to know [...] you've been helping make our relationship what is is by letting me be the initiator and by having so much... 'dignity' is the only word I can think of. You treat yourself like a gift. A treasure. And that comes across. It makes you absolutely beautiful, Christy. You have no idea." 

Could you explain to me what you were hoping young girls would take away from this scene?

Again, I’m not sure I was super intentional about the take away in this scene. As I was writing these books my husband and I were working with a group of teens and I was always hearing their real life drama. Many times I’d spend an evening listening to a bunch of teens figure out their relationships and the next morning I’d sit down and write a scene where Todd and Christy were having the same conversation. I know that over the years I’ve heard from many teen guys, including our own son, that there are lots of girls who jump in and take the initiative in getting relationships started. They often end up being the one who then keeps the relationship going. Guys admit they will go along with whatever a girl gives them or does for them. But then the girl is left wondering if he’s really into her or just taking advantage of her.  

I do not believe that Gunn gave that dialogue to Todd in hopes that it would make young girls "think and not get rooted in a bias at a young age." I believe that is a very blunt, intentional guide to how young BAC girls should conduct themselves -- chastely, demurely, with deference to young men. Of course I find the politics here problematic -- they're not my politics. 

 (No spoilers here, but I would call this downright misogynist, paternalistic and furthermore to be fetishistic in its estimation of sexual innocence.)

But this paragraph does reflect Gunn's religious and sexual politics (always intertwined for BACs) so it figures that she doesn't see it as being "super intentional." 

And could I just remind that one of the intentions of feminism as described by Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,”:

"Feminism expects a man to be ethical, emotionally present, and accountable to his values in his actions with women – as well as with other men."

Do you have any advice for a reader like me, who has lost her testimony? 

A “testimony” by definition is simply a “story”. As I see it, you don’t lose your story. There’s no way you can lose something that is ongoing. Your story is still in progress. Every story takes lots of twists and turns. Every human does the same as we figure out who you are and what is true.

My advice? Turn to God. Every life is redeemable. Every wrong choice is forgivable. Fresh starts. God’s mercies are new every morning. Shame off you, grace on you. That’s the truth written on every page of God’s one book, the Bible. In Hebrews 11 it even says that Jesus is the “Author and Finisher of our faith”. It’s not up to us to be good enough for God. If it was possible under our own strength we never would have needed a Savior. Every relationship is of extreme value to God. When we mess up he doesn’t want to “get” us back like someone seeking vengeance. He wants to get “us” back. He wants a relationship with us. That can only happen when we turn to him, receive his forgiveness for all our foibles and let him transform us into the person he longed for us to be when he created us.
It means a lot to me that Gunn was so heartfelt in her response. She obviously does care that we all feel God's love and that we surrender our faults, sins, and shame to Him for forgiveness and grace. 

That said. 

Testimony does not mean "story." The Oxford English Dictionary defines "testimony" as "Verbal or documentary evidence." "Testify," first used in 1393 is defined as "To bear wintess, to give proof of, to assert or affirm the truth, or to attest." When I lost my testimony, I lost my sense that even the idea of God, of a deity, of a universe with a cogent Agent, either in or out of time, was true. 

In the end, there was darkness. 

And the darkness was good