Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lenten Project: Day Thirteen

I grew up reading Christian romance novels.  No, I devoured Christian romance novels.  Beverly Lewis, Lori Wick, Gilbert Morris--you say the author's name, and I'd probably read the author's books more than once.

It wasn't till I started reading more of the classics, like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Sir Arther Conan Doyle, Dickens, and Shakespeare, that I started to realise Christian fiction was a farce.  Most of it was horribly written, flat, inaccurate, and preachy.

But the deeper danger in Christian romantic fiction is that it brainwashes young girls into believing that those stories are the epitome of true Christian relationships. The patriarchal focus on women's submission to male authority was a strong theme, especially in bonnet rippers.  Many of the stories featured flat out abuse of women, with the main character eventually saving the male counterpart through her meekness of spirit.  Sadly, some of my favourite books by Lori Wick fell into this category.

This girl spends the whole book throwing away her
independence in order to be dominated by this man.

Most of these books just help cement the whole ideal of "get married, have kids, live happily ever after" that was pushed on us as kids.  Of course, my parents added that we should get married to someone called to be a missionary or pastor.  That was the highest goal.

I still feel like I somehow let my parents down by first marrying a lousy EMT (someone who helps people stay alive long enough to get to the hospital still isn't as valuable to God as someone who saves souls, amen?) and now a public accountant, who does other people's taxes all day long.  I struggle with the deep down suspicion that these two professions couldn't possibly be "pleasing to the Lord."  Unless one is "in ministry," one's life is wasted, I grew up believing.

I never read a Christian romance book that had an accountant as the main male character.  Have you?  Maybe as the bad guy, before he "comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ."  Then he renounces it all as filthy lucre and moves to deepest darkest Africa to be a missionary to the unwashed natives.  But not before finding a submissive "help meet."

A couple of my sisters have "made it" in life, though, according to the ideal presented in these romance books.  One is a missionary, another is married to a pastor and they're planning on going to the mission field.  The rest of us are failures, I guess.  My mother never talks on Facebook about how proud she is of the rest of us, but those two who have achieved the ideal get lauded a lot.  I don't envy them, but I feel sort of sad that the rest of us aren't as valued to get a positive Facebook mention now and again.

Even as a young girl, before getting into the Winslow series or Amish bonnet rippers, I read the young adult Christian fiction offerings of Bethany House publishers, like the Mandie books, a series steeped in racism and unreality.  While I did also enjoy the Nancy Drew books and Hardy Boys series, I always wondered why they weren't all happily dating or married by the end.  I knew Nancy couldn't keep on sleuthing forever, because she'd have to submit to her husband and stay home to honour him.

These books made me think that this really was the ideal: to marry, submit my will, dreams, and desires to my husband, produce a houseful of kids, and have a happy smile all the time.  Even better if I could play the piano at church every Sunday, too.

Taken alongside heavy preaching toward this same goal, these books were a poisonous pill.  I honestly believed I'd be a failure at life unless I got married right out of college.  My parents further encouraged that notion by telling us girls that we'd find our husbands at college.  Education was secondary to finding our mate.  We could use our degrees to help our husbands in the ministry.  It never entered my mind that I would ever support myself with a job, using the skills I'd learned in college.  The notion was absurd.  And worldly. The husband is the breadwinner, and the wife is his supporter in all things, and beneficiary of his generosity.

They told us about all the fun dates we'd experience, the courting culture at BJU, and that we'd be free to marry once we had our diploma in hand.  (Dad even made a vow to not attend or sanction the wedding of any of us girls until we presented him with our Bob Jones University diploma.  I think of my sister who got expelled and realise that it sucks to be the kid who is now going to graduate from somewhere else.  Dad takes his foolish vow very seriously, a lot more seriously than his daughter's heart.)

I'm still an avid reader today, but I have more discerning tastes.

My expectations about dating, based on these Christian romance books, were so far out of the realm of reality that I completely floundered once I got to college.  There were no "gentle eyed, kind-hearted men" who were attracted by my fervent attempts at a "quiet and godly demeanour."  BJU was and is filled with immature boys, some of whom turned out to be sexual predators.  My attempts to be submissive landed me in abuse situation after abuse situation, and I didn't even realise it.  I thought I was just doing God's (and my father's) will, just like all those characters in all those Christian romance novels I read.

What about you?  What were some of the books you read growing up?  Did you have a favourite Christian author or a favourite series?  How did those books shape your life?