Pastel Covers, Real People

What I learned from reading 34 Christian novels.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture 2002.

In early January, a box thudded onto my front porch like a late Christmas gift from a distant relative in the Midwest. The 34 books contained within were the entries in the “contemporary novel” category for the Christy Awards, a competition inaugurated in 1999 to encourage quality writing in the fast-growing market for Christian fiction. My assignment as one of seven judges: rate the novels on a 1-to-10 scale in elements ranging from characterization to plot to overall enjoyment. (“If you hadn’t had to read this book for review purposes,” our instructions on that last point helpfully clarified, “would you have finished it?”)

In pastel America, both suffering and God are intimately present, and the two still have something to do with each other.

Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s safe to say that Christian fiction has an image problem. Hearing of my assignment, friends expressed emotions ranging from sympathy to shock. Many assumed I was wading through several installments of the Left Behind series (not so—those books reside in the “futuristic” category) or the Christian equivalent of bodice rippers (which have their own category as well). No one seemed to think that reading 34 contemporary Christian novels was a plum job. In short, you won’t score any points among the scandal-of-the-evangelical-mind crowd by being a Christy Award judge.

But only a few books into my three-month-long sojourn in the land of Christian fiction, I realized that I had been given an opportunity that every curious mind welcomes—a new cultural landscape to explore. In the December 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, David Brooks took readers on a tour of “Red America,” acting as a kind of docent guiding his latte-and-biscotti peers through the Bush-leaning regions on the map of the 2000 presidential election. Red America is where Christian fiction thrives, and like Brooks, I found more there than meets the eye.

What meets the eye first, however, is the covers. The palette of Christian fiction is heavy on pink, rose, fuschia, and pale colors of all hues. And also on cursive writing. The cover designers have done an admirably thorough job of targeting their market: not so much Red America as Pastel America. Twenty-seven of the 34 novels are written by women, who obey the writing-class injunction, “Write what you know,” by featuring almost exclusively female narrators. In a few cases, I suspect that I was going boldly where no man had gone before, at least to judge by one narrator, who explained at a particularly tense moment that she felt just the way you do “when another woman comes into your kitchen.” If you, dear reader, are a Christian man whose intellectual or artistic bent has sometimes made you feel just slightly less than manly in that muscular Promise Keepers way, I highly recommend a dose of Christian fiction. Within a few pages you will feel the testosterone coursing through your veins and start hankering for a good pickup game of football.

On the other hand, you may find yourself making a Costco run for jumbo-size boxes of Kleenex. The writers of Christian fiction, it seems, pride themselves on the art of catharsis. In the course of 34 novels, my fictional friends lost (or nearly lost) a dozen children to accidents or disease, endured 11 heartbreaking romantic separations, bade farewell to four aging parents, and discovered or disclosed ten terrible secrets about their past. I was unprepared for the sheer emotional amplitude of these novels, which only began to wear off after 25 or so. Since I did much of the requisite reading on airplanes, on several occasions I found myself on a transcontinental flight blubbering into my napkin.

The emotional fireworks do have the virtue of leading straight into the thorniest question of Christian theology: theodicy. The cultured despisers would have you believe that evangelical Protestants play fast and loose with the problem of suffering. But even the most conventional of these novels—which is to say, those most committed to getting each hero and heroine safely home before dark, hand in hand with their true love—take no detours around pain. Instead they throw their characters into it, and we overhear them agonizing, wrestling, and arguing with God.

And this is one salutary feature of pastel America: it is a place where both suffering and God are intimately present, and where the two still have something to do with each other. It’s easy enough, in the preternaturally youthful environs of Cambridge, Manhattan, or Berkeley, to laugh at the amount of time that soap opera characters spend in hospitals. It is also most fashionable to ask where God is when people suffer—theoretically speaking, of course. But who, I began to wonder after a dozen or two novels, has the clearer view of the human condition—the stay-at-home mom with aging parents (which describes both the readers and the writers of many of these books), or the young urban professional with a membership at the gym? Which one has more truly experienced the tangible reality of the Curse and the risks of love?

Ah, but now I myself have fallen into the most consistent pattern of all in these books. If the hero’s journey, so basic to Western literature, goes back at least to Odysseus, contemporary Christian novels are stuffed with errant Penelopes who find salvation—or at least narrative resolution—in returning to their knitting.

Consider Sharon Ewell Foster’s Ain’t No River, which is worth a glance because of the creative yet representative way in which Foster, the winner of a 2001 Christy Award for her first novel, plays changes upon this theme. Ain’t No River’s protagonist is Garvin Daniels, an African American lawyer in Washington, D.C. She wears DKNY suits, drives a Lexus, and wins multimillion-dollar lawsuits. She also faces racism in her law firm, which leads to an internal investigation based on trumped-up charges brought by a rival attorney. Placed on leave for three months until the investigation is finished, and alarmed by the increasingly erratic behavior of her aging grandmother, Meemaw, Garvin leaves D.C. and drives three hours to Jacks Creek, North Carolina, her birthplace near the Cape Fear River.

Foster’s tone is decidedly popular, laying on portions of symbolism every bit as generous as Meemaw’s helpings of pecan pie. With a title like Ain’t No River, you can guess that things aquatic will figure prominently in the story. And you can rest assured that no strand of plot will go untwisted, only to be woven back into a happy ending. But Foster’s ears and pen are tuned to the rhythm and pace of small-town African American life, from the barbershop to the beauty parlor, from the church to the basketball court, and her dialogue sparkles with a memorable concreteness.

Shortly after arriving in Jacks Creek, Garvin walks into the local beauty shop to glean some information from the proprietor, who is doing the hair of a woman named Esther:

Garvin knew the young woman saw her, even though she did not acknowledge her, had given no clue to Esther that someone was behind her. The young beautician was doing that thing that some country people do—that thing Garvin had forgotten being gone so long from home. She went on with her conversation as though Garvin was not standing there, so that there was time. Plenty of time to acknowledge a stranger, time enough to take in all the details, all the nuances . …A tactic that some unknowing stranger might take for slowness was actually a country-fried, gravy-smothered form of perception.

But for all its distinctive roots in black experience, Garvin’s trip back to Jacks Creek is a pitch-perfect instance of the Christy trope: an urbanized or suburbanized professional who must shed the trappings of her successful life to return to the small town of her roots. Five books into my reading marathon, I had already begun to play the game of spot-the-Penelope. They were waiting for me, novel after novel. The successful landscape architect who returns to her hometown to be with her dying mother (Johanna Verweerd’s The Winter Garden). The Atlanta divorcée who returns unexpectedly to “Job’s Corner” (Patricia Sprinkle’s Carley’s Song). The marketing professional, pregnant out of wedlock, who returns to “Cullen’s Corner” (Lori Copeland’s Child of Grace). Saint Paul told King Agrippa, “These things were not done in a corner,” but he obviously hadn’t read any Christian fiction.

To be sure, there were some variations on the theme. Nancy Roe’s Pascal’s Wager is set entirely at Stanford University, and its protagonist is a middlingly competent female graduate student—but its male lead ditches a tenured position at Stanford to teach at Wheaton. By the same token, Shaunti Feldhahn’s The Veritas Conflict has Clare Rivers, a mild-mannered Christian girl from the Midwest, enrolling at Harvard, where she encounters a Satanic conspiracy propped up by rabidly atheistic faculty members. Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home takes a businessman to rural China, where his long-lost college roommate is suffering for his faith. In a somewhat different vein, Elizabeth Musser’s elegantly narrated The Swan House takes its young white narrator from the genteel precincts of 1960s Buckhead to her nursemaid’s neighborhood on the other side of Atlanta. The vast majority of the remaining novels, taking their cue from Jan Karon’s pace-setting Mitford chronicles, simply do not take notice of the coasts and the cities at all. Even suburbia barely makes it on to the map.

This relentless pursuit of the smalltown life can be most charitably read as an Americanized echo of the Gospel of Mark’s preference for Galilee over Jerusalem, which in turn resonates with Daniel’s unflattering picture of Babylon. Jerusalem and Babylon have their charms—more than one leading hunk appears in these stories fresh from an Ivy League education or a big-city corporation, and one certainly shouldn’t suppose that Sharon Ewell Foster wishes her strong, confident women had stayed down on the plantation—but ultimately the Big City contains little but religious compromise, political machinations, empty wealth, and death for the one of true faith. You could read a lot of Christian fiction and never encounter Luke’s much more enthusiastic picture of the city, the place where the gospel spreads like tongues of fire (Jerusalem), crosses ethnic and language boundaries (Antioch), and leaps into the wider world (Rome)—the place where Christians first receive their name.

Not that a taste for domesticity is limited to Christian fiction. Even a certifiably hip novel like Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award-winner, The Corrections, sends its leading man on a trajectory from Manhattan to the Midwest. When your game is the interior development of character, and when you believe, as writers of Christian fiction clearly do, that family and community are the soil of transformation, the small town presents itself as by far the most appealing milieu. Where else do people even have time to talk these days? The writers of these novels instinctively know that you can’t build a novel, nor a life worthy of one, out of lunch every third Tuesday.

And speaking of The Corrections, perhaps I can answer the question my friends inevitably asked—“So, are they any good?”—by comparison to Franzen’s on-Oprah-and-off-again blockbuster. At the level of character and motivation, these novels as a group are more than a match for their counterparts on the mainstream bestseller list—a qualified compliment, to be sure. Where Franzen’s characters only rarely display motives more complex than those of dogs in heat, the Christy Award contenders do justice to the experience of most Americans—and most human beings—who make sense of their lives in a series of anguished and exhilarated encounters with something divine, mediated through family, friends, and lovers. (And with the exception of one publishing house whose style sheet seems to require breasts, in the plural, to be called “bosoms,” I found these books surprisingly candid about sexuality. Indeed, the sexual chemistry in these pages is much more realistic than the uncontrolled rutting that serious novelists now seem to consider de rigeur.)

But Franzen does have something that nearly all of the Christy Award contenders lack: he delights in the amazing tongue called English, insists on uncovering something in the words themselves, and flirts with poetry. True, Franzen and his ilk often take their experimentation several bridges too far, but there were precious few moments in my hours with the Christy Award books where I stopped to savor a word, a phrase, or a paragraph that said something no one had said properly before. From the linguistic conservatism of these novels, you’d think the apex of Christian literature was the morality plays, not Milton.

But even here all was not disappointment. Jan Karon deserves her bestseller status, with a graceful precision of language that puts her imitators to shame—though 2001’s Mitford installment, A Common Life, is wondrously unconcerned with providing anything resembling a real plot. Hidden in The Church Ladies, Lisa E. Samson’s true-to-type novel (small town, love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness), is a narrator with a bracingly honest and unmistakable voice.

And then there is Jamie Langston Turner, whose novel A Garden to Keep will surely advance her reputation as the Christian novelist that serious book lovers read. The length of this novel—415 densely printed pages—may obscure the economy of its story, which mercifully involves no Odysseus—or Penelope—like journeys. It is no more and no less than the story of a failing—but not yet failed—marriage, told by Elizabeth Landis, an amateur poet who discovers her husband’s extramarital affair on the same day that she becomes a Christian. While this pair of inciting events could easily turn to melodrama in other hands, in Turner’s they set in motion a perfectly tuned story of self-discovery, as Elizabeth tries to make sense of her husband Ken, her children, and herself:

As you relive events, the past bleeds into the present, the present turns into the future, and the future reverts to the past. It’s all part of the same long line called life. There are no shut-off valves, no neat walls between then and now and someday. Ken used to say at times that I lived in the past, but he didn’t understand. I live firmly in the present, but the past always escorts me like an enormous, devoted entourage.

And yes, I know all the rules against you in scholarly writing. But this isn’t scholarly. It definitely isn’t scholarly. It’s like I’m sitting on a sofa in somebody’s living room telling my story as it comes to me, hoping my voice will eventually find its true pitch and settle into the song.

Maybe somebody will read this someday and say, “Oh, so that’s the way life works. That’s what love means.”

A Garden to Keep has its shortcomings. It is considerably too long, with digressions worthy of Herodotus on matters both personal and literary. Equally frustrating, the laws of copyright (or the parsimony of her publisher) apparently prevent Turner from having Elizabeth actually quote any of the living poets she rhapsodizes over in those digressions, instead resorting to periphrastic summaries.

But this is a story that keeps its promises. At the end of the novel, as at many moments within it, Turner executes a linguistic pirouette with such finesse that I was reluctant even to turn the page for fear that the words might somehow disappear. I suppose this is what I was looking for when that boxful of fiction landed on my doorstep: a story that must be true, a story that could only be true if the gospel was true, a story whose truth testified on its own behalf. It was worth reading 34 books to find one.