Let’s Write all the Stories (Reflections on an Unexpected Radio Dialogue with Robin Jones Gunn)

robin jones gunn dialogue

So, funny story.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post about my old fictional, Christian-romance-novel BFF, Christy Miller.

You can read the whole thing here, but the short synopsis is this: in junior high and high school, I read the Christy Miller romance series like it was my job. These idealistic Christian teens informed so much of my thoughts about life and faith in both positive and negative ways.

This summer, I finally got around to reading the two new series about Christy and the gang that author Robin Jones Gunn has written since Christy and Todd (spoiler alert!) said “I Do” in the last book I read 14 years ago.

In the new series, The Katie Weldon Series and Christy and Todd: The Married Years, Christy in the gang are still in their very early twenties…and their faith is still exactly the same.

Everyone still believes what they believed in high school. Everyone has managed to hold onto their sexual purity until marriage. Their “God Lovers” group still gathers for worship and Bible study, and even the far-away friends manage to exchange spiritual encouragement via Skype.

When I finished reading these books, I felt overwhelmed by the distance between this former fictional role-model and myself. In 14 years, so much of what I believed and understood about God and life and friendship and love had changed…but Christy Miller’s faith, life and relationships had all stayed exactly the same. Not in the physical sense of course. Christy and Todd moved in the books and so did their friends. There were new jobs, new challenges, etc, etc. But the geographies of their inner-lives were as pristine and unchanged as the Newport beach coastline where Todd still likes to surf.

And that was what was so hard for me. That’s what left me crying on the couch — the chasm between Christy’s simple faith and my complicated one feeling so humongous. It was the distance the rose-tinted soap-bubble of the evangelical world and the real, broken, messy one that I live in now, and it felt impassable to me.

So I wrote a post. And a lot of people read it. And I got invited to chat on Moody Radio about it and said Sure. Why not.

And then they told me that, by the way, the author of the Christy Miller series (and my junior high literary idol), Robin Jones Gunn, would also be on the air to “dialogue with me about my blog post.”

<Cue panic.>

We won’t talk about the pathetic “please don’t hate me” email I sent to Robin Jones Gunn on Thursday or the fact that I kept waking up in the night, sweaty and panicked about what I was going to say. In one moment, I wanted to cooly explain to the RJG and the Moody audience at large why Christy Miller is a farce; in the next moment, I wanted to beg RJG to love me.

Let’s just say that I’m not good at confrontation. Let’s just say I was a wreck.

But I did the radio show, and it ended up being interesting and leaving me with a whole new slew of thoughts about faith, fiction, and how to help each other on this journey. Here are a few reflections:

(You can listen to the full dialogue between Robin Jones Gunn, Chris Fabry and me here.)

1. Storytelling is a ministry, and like any ministry, it’s not one-size-fits all.

One of the interesting thing about the radio dialogue was how genuinely surprised Robin Jones Gunn seemed at my sort of intense reaction to Christy Miller. She’s fiction, she kept saying. Christy Miller is fiction.

And of course I know that. But she was so much more than fiction to me. During a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what it meant to live my faith, she was like an older sister, showing me how. In a youth group culture where students like me, were thrust into leadership roles without a lot of discipleship of their own, Christy Miller was the mentor that I didn’t really have anywhere else.

I believe that any time we partner with God to serve others, it’s a ministry, and I believe that was RJG’s heart when she wrote these books. It wan’t just fiction. It was a ministry to me.

And then, one day, I outgrew it.

This is not to say that I don’t think that there’s not room for improvement in the genre of “Christian fiction” — particular that which is being written for young adults.

While I’m not against escapism in healthy doses (If you read my What I’m Into posts, you know that I have an embarrassing addiction to Hallmark movies and sub-par TV shows.), I still have major reservations about fiction in which God and faith become a kind of escapism. I think that coming face to face with God should always lead us deeper into reality, not out of it, and so I worry about stories where God always comes through in the ways you hope he will. Particularly for a young or new Christian, I think it sets up false expectations about God and faith and can be really dangerous down the road.

And yet, it would be presumptuous of me to assume that because RJG’s books often do this, they are to be written off entirely. One only needs to glance at the hundreds of grateful blog commenters on her website and her exorbinant books sales (Over 5 million!) to know that her work resonates with people.

Perhaps, for some readers, the reality-fiction gap isn’t an issue. Perhaps they are able to simply accept that chasm and are able to learn and grow and to be encouraged by these books. I’m not one of those people. I used to be. But I’m not anymore.

It doesn’t mean it’s bad (though, as I said above, I think there’s room for improvement). It just means that it no longer fits me. Some ministries bolster you up for a time. At thirteen, the junior high youth group at my home church saved my life. At sixteen, it was the wild, on-fire youth church/coffee shop combo where we went for raucous Saturday night worship sessions and intense Christian ska concerts. (Heyyy Insyderz…).

At 18 it was The Sacred Romance, that instant Christian bestseller by John Eldredge, that ministered most to me and helped me to grow.

At 21, I lived in China, and the depression was creeping in, and it was the ministry of Alias nights with our fellow English teachers, where we passed around American snacks and felt less alone.

At 24, my world was falling apart and I felt alienated from church, and it was the Pizza Pub and their margaritas, the ministry of the Wisconsin Dells where I met my two best friends to cry and rage and hash out our faith.

I’m 32 now, and Christy Miller no longer ministers to me like she used to. Reading Christy and Todd: The Married Years and The Katie Weldon Series was like trying to go back to junior high ten years later. It doesn’t fit me. It would be like expecting that watching Alias on a tile floor with sleeves of Oreos now would have the same, healing effect that it did back then. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. There are different ministries for different times.

We grow and change and evolve and move on. We’re always supposed to move on.

2. Change (including change of beliefs) is a type of loss, and it’s normal and important to grieve that.

Right now, my life is hard…but rich. I don’t feel God in that fiery, sure way that I used to. But I am growing deep, deep, deeper into the soil of my world. I am spreading my roots. I am growing strong in the quiet soil of grace.

I don’t want to go back to the performance-based faith of my youth, the one where I was always trying to prove that I was a Jesus Freak, alienating myself from my peers, scrambling for God’s love.

And yet, reading those books conjured in me a hopeless kind of nostalgia. How simple it was then! How easy it was to love God, to believe everything would turn out okay! I remember meeting with my accountability partner on Tuesdays at Panera to talk about what we were learning “in the Word.” I remember the feel of that first love, how I’d fill entire journals with prayers in a month, how I’d raise my hands in uninhibited praise at that youth church where we went.

I still have Jesus. I still have my faith. But I’ve lost the trappings of the evangelical world — and much of its acceptance. I, who was once an evangelical poster child, was recently accused of leading Millennials astray with my suggestions of books to read when you’re struggling to read the Bible. For real.

I ran into my pastor the other day, and we talked a bit about this. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to before there were questions?” he said.

Yes.

My faith is changing. It’s supposed to change. But sometimes, grief gets all intertwined in the acceptance. And that’s what the Christian romance novel post was — a kind of eulogy, a dirge, the painful song of letting go — again — of the way I used to think life and faith would look.

3. It’s up to us to write the books we need to read.

One of the things that Robin Jones Gunn said in our dialogue that stuck with me was how fairly new “Christian fiction” is — how 50 years ago, there was nothing like this. And now there’s tons. She said that hers was just one perspective, and that I should write mine. That she was part of the first generation of authors doing this kind of writing, and that she was passing the torch.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about “Christian Romance” or “Christian Inspiration” as a genre in general — most of them cynical, all of them complicated. (Anytime “Christian” is used as an adjective, red flags go up for me. I wrote a little about that here.)

But this thing that RJG said about Christian fiction encouraged and inspired me anyway.

Because more and more publishers are springing up who are making space for authors to explore the gray areas of faith and life. My publisher, Convergent, let me use four-letter words in my faith memoir because they felt essential to the story to me. It’s possible that in another 50 years, the genre could look totally different. That it could include series with both grace and grit. With doubt and anger and 30-somethings screaming at God while holding a glass of cabernet.

Isaiah 43:18-19 says:

“Forget the former things;

do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland.”

There are a lot of us who are here — in our own kind of wastelands, desperate for a new thing. We want to see God here, in this desolate place where we’re at. We need someone to help us to believe that not everything here is barren.

And of course, it’s not. There are streams. The new things God is doing are springing up around us, and we are invited into that work.

So if the books you want to read are not out there yet, it’s because you haven’t written them yet. If the community that you long for doesn’t exist yet in your church or your neighborhood, it’s up to you to invite a few close friends over for cabernet or beer or tea or whatever and start the conversation.

It’s up to each of us to have the courage to go first — to choose vulnerability and truth and love.

So let’s write all the stories! Write them from the wasteland, from the seaside, from the mountain, from the alfalfa fields, from wherever you find yourself now.

Write. Sing. Act. Study. Teach. Lead. Nurture. Coach. Participate. Whatever it is you do, do it from the truest part of your soul.

Here, at the intersection of faith and doubt, belief and unbelief, heaven and earth…this is where the streams appear. They are cutting through the wasteland. They are making all things new.

44 thoughts on “Let’s Write all the Stories (Reflections on an Unexpected Radio Dialogue with Robin Jones Gunn)

  1. Wow. Talk about your “gotcha” interviews! I’m glad they warned you in advance, though.

    I most relate to what you said here:

    “I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about “Christian Romance” or “Christian Inspiration” as a genre in general — most of them cynical, all of them complicated. Anytime “Christian” is used as an adjective, red flags go up for me.”

    Same here, Addie. It’s a label that’s used far too casually, in my opinion, and careless branding of stuff as “Christian” has had the effect of watering down a divine message that is meant to be radical, revolutionary and life-changing and turned it into something that’s associated with often-trite music and silly videos about talking cucumbers. I hate the mass marketing of our faith.

    Oh, and just in case you’re reading this, George, I take back everything I ever said about Jar-Jar Binks and you selling out. 🙂

  2. Soooo many things to say about this. Let’s see if I can be brief:

    1. “We won’t talk about the pathetic “please don’t
    hate me” email I sent to Robin Jones Gunn on Thursday” OMG, I could have written this sentence. I can’t tell you how many “please don’t hate me” emails I’ve sent in my life.

    2. I get really twitchy when people use the “it’s only fiction” line. It sounds to me as though they’re using the fiction label as a shield. I know nothing about Robin Jones Gunn, and I didn’t listen to the interview (yet), so she could have used it with utter integrity. But damn it, I just want to say to authors: write it, write it because it’s true, stand behind it or adjust your perspective if you run across a truer truth, mention it’s fiction to make a specific point, but please, please don’t ever hide behind the genre.

    3. “It’s up to us to write the books we need to read.” This self-doubting writer needs all the encouragement he/she can get, and you just provided a big dollop of it. You remind me that the reason to write is because we have to–because that unique voice God has given us must be spoken. Bless you for that.

    1. I’m with you on the “it’s only fiction” stuff. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if RJG and I have a fundamentally different view on the purpose of literature. And is that okay? I don’t know. I keep going back and forth on the whole thing.

      1. I am perplexed that any writer would relegate their heart’s greatest work to being “only fiction.” It devalues the work, and why would anyone willingly participate in the hard work of creating what has no value?

  3. “Addie Zierman became disillusioned with life, disappointed with how life turned out, because she compared herself to a character in a successful Christian fiction series. Maybe you read them when you were younger. And then, Robin Jones Gunn, author of that series, joins us.”

    Seriously, Moody Radio?? 😛 But at least they hotlinked to your original post. As they say, “any publicity is good publicity.”

      1. Oh how I would love to rewrite that intro a little more honestly, but it would be a little mean to “RJG” I’m afraid, and not very Christian of me.

  4. I read the first set of Christy Miller books and as I grew up in Escondido they really really resonated with me. I wanted to be *that* girl. I am 36 now and haven’t read the new set of books yet. I most likely will one day. I laugh because I so agree with you. I read a lot of your blogs and have read We Were on Fire and think she and I could switch places!!! I totally get it. I really appreciated Toby Mac’s new song as I feel like DC Talk spoke to my teenage/young 20s self with their songs and while I still listen to them sometimes, “Love Feels Like” are men in their late 40s/50 who have lived an adult life and are singing about it being hard and empty. I’m not sure if I’m “allowed” to post it on here, but here is the link in case you haven’t heard it.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reWLIs51e2Y

  5. THIS “So if the books you want to read are not out there yet, it’s because you haven’t written them yet.”

    Wow. Maybe someday! 🙂

  6. Hmm.

    This unearthed some feelings and pet peeves. I actually never read the Christy Miller series when I was young – strange, because I read a lot of other similar series and don’t know how I missed picking it up or being given any of the series as gifts, but there you have it. I started reading it for the first time thanks to your blog entry. Would Todd be less of a jerk if I was still 13 years old? Because he is a flakey JERK.

    With the disclaimer that I didn’t listen to the podcast (yet)The “it’s only fiction” line feels like a copout. Yes, it’s “only fiction” but… this seems like an awkward thing for an author of fiction to say? Surely authors know the impact of their work and am I overly idealistic to think that maybe this kind of relationship with a series or novel is part of what I would hope inspired them to write? I would think your “relationship” with the books would be a high compliment to any author.

    I also understand and, on a better day, will probably agree with your point about “it’s up to us to write them” but I will be honest, right now I am tired. I am weary of doing everything “myself.” It is lonely. I was sharing about my own spiritual issues with someone and they said that “it sounds like you have been left to figure it all out by yourself” (or similar). It rang so true. Right now I am wondering… where is the balance? Where is the point where it doesn’t have to be up to me (not in a ~spiritual~ sense, so no one comment with “IT’S UP TO JESUS” please)? Where is the point that someone else can pave the path for a while, or at least walk along a little further ahead?

    1. Sarah…I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to in your last paragraph, but man oh man, do I resonate with that. Lately I’ve been banging on about how we have become the “you’re on your own” society–whether it involves tech support or simple survival in a Darwinian world where, if you have a crisis, the structures to support you are few and far between. It’s like there’s no room for “tired” anymore. I think it’s obscene.

    2. Sarah. I’m with you on the fiction line, and know exactly what you’re saying when you respond to that final point. When you’re tired and feeling alone and trying really hard not to give up on the wreckage of your faith, the whole “be the change you wish to see in the world” thing sounds like as much as a copout and platitude as any Christian cliche. I have been there, and I was a little bit there right after I finished that last book and spent the middle-of-the-night hours sobbing on the couch. In fact, in my please-don’t-hate-me email that I wrote to RJG before the interview, I told her that, to me, the best case scenario for all this was for her to really SEE us 20-and-30-something failed Christy Millers and write a series for US. Because I think that she could do it…if she wanted to.

      That said, in the moment of the radio interview, she constantly talked about “passing the torch” and how her story was just one and that there’s all these other stories to be written. And THAT time, I felt sort of empowered. In the hazy glow of the radio interview, maybe I heard what I wanted to hear from her. I heard her saying, “Your experience is valid. Write it.”

      I guess I was just trying to offer permission here. To remind people that their messy, tired stories are VALID and that even RJG thinks that there’s a place and need for them…even if she seems more or less unable or unwilling to tackle them herself.

      1. Thanks, Addie. That makes sense. And it would probably help to listen to the podcast – I feel like a jerk commenting without having done that, but I went into “how dare she say it’s just fiction” mode and some place of church trauma with the second part.

  7. The “it’s just fiction” comment bothered me. I’ve never read any of those books, so really don’t know anything more about them than what you have written. But I have read other “Christian” fiction and it has often felt very simplistic and idealistic to me. As someone who is attempting to write a novel, I want it to be complicated and messy because I think that people can relate better to that–I know I do. I think my friend Nicole said it well–and it’s what I aspire to also–when she wrote about “dark fiction” in her post here: http://www.nicolebaart.com/in-the-shadows/ : “I do believe that one of the main reasons we create art in the first place is to wrestle with life’s most difficult questions. The ones that leave us broken and hurting, wondering if the world is indeed a beautiful place or if we’re just fooling ourselves. This is why I write “dark fiction.” It’s not filled with horror or gore, but my books unapologetically explore the shadows. I don’t claim to have the answers. More often than not, I’m struggling through the very things I’m writing, feeling like a failure and a cheat as I fumble and fall. But I can’t stop myself–I have to go there. I have to see if there’s hope in the places that seem beyond redemption.”

  8. What an interesting choice for a radio station. I wonder if they were pleased with the results.
    As a fellow Christy Miller reader (yes I made it all the way through the college years), I’m also really interested in RJG’s “just fiction” defense (especially when so much of it mirrored her own life).
    I also feel this way about the Glenbrooke series, those true romances (written for adults) which made it seem like God was conspiring all the time to matchmake hot firefighters with women trying to figure out who they were.
    The thing is, for me, that I find a lot of truth in fiction, it’s just not usually Christian fiction.
    Two examples that break this mold are Hope Lyda’s books and the work of Sharon Garlough Brown, published by IVP. In these books, people pray, but things don’t always go the way they hope and I love that, because it’s so much more true of my life.
    This was rambly, but mostly I’m still getting over the fact that you were on the radio with RJG, and that maybe you gave her something to think about.

    1. The Glenbrooke series was THE WORST for me, mostly because of the rosy picture it painted of Christian community. All the couples were best friends! Everyone was married! If they wanted kids, they had them! All the husbands liked each other! None of the Christians were annoying or mean or hateful or broken! WTF.

  9. You’re incredibly brave. Writing is brave enough, but doing radio interviews created specifically for the conflict they will raise? Very brave.

    And I’m stupid excited to go and hear your voice – I don’t think I ever have before…

    1. Awww. I admit to having NOT listened to the playback of the interview, because there’s nothing quite as awkward as listening to yourself talk.

      And I’m not sure if I’m brave. I just REALLY SUCK at saying no.

  10. I confess that I’m new to your blog and that I am carefully reading your past blogs. I wasn’t going to comment considering the topic of Christian romance novels, but this blog touched me as you have with your other blogs. Thank you for being an example of writing from your heart. Your struggles and growth are areas that all of us are growing through and yet you speak from your heart. As a new writer I’m going to try my best to follow your example of open honesty. Thanks.

  11. How could she say that “50 years ago there wasn’t Christina fiction like this.” What about Grace Livingston Hill, who started writing at the turn of the 20th century, and wrote for like 50 years (and I’ve read ALL her books.) They are the same kind of pure Christian romance, with a few sermons on the End Times thrown in for good measure.

    1. I think she was generalizing. Certainly there was stuff, but it wasn’t a GENRE like it is today. Now it’s popular. You can find whole Christian Inspiration sections in bookstores.

  12. I can’t wait to listen! I’m so proud of you, lady. Point #3 is reminding me why I wrote my novel…and telling me to dust it off and actually query it. Hold me to it!

    1. Thanks love. (Sorry I never texted you afterward. The whole thing left e a drained pile of Addie scraps, and I mostly just read (nonChristian) YA fiction and ate chocolate all weekend afterward.)

  13. I have enjoyed these posts Addie, and found the radio chat really interesting. Have been thinking about what Robin said about the times she wrote more realistic, messy storylines but they were strongly rejected as not what her readership wanted… I think she said something about the teenage girls wanting Christy’s life to be different from real life so she could give them HOPE. I’ve been wondering about that. I know, for me, reading you gives me hope. Honesty gives me such hope. I read an old CS Lewis essay at the weekend called The Sermon and the Lunch in which he is reflecting on a sermon he heard about home life. He says “What worries me is the fact that the Vicar is not telling us at all that home life is difficult and has, like every form of life, its own proper temptations and corruptions. He keeps on talking as if ‘home’ were a panacea, a magical charm which of itself was bound to produce happiness and virtue…He is not talking from his own experience of family life at all: he is automatically reproducing a sentimental tradition -and it happens to be a false tradition.” I felt such relief reading it, after a crappy day, to hear Lewis say: home life is difficult. That’s the hope I need. I think the final words of his essay apply to our writing and storytelling too, as well as preaching: “In a word, must we not either cease to preach domesticity or else begin to preach it seriously? Must we not abandon sentimental eulogies and begin to give practical advice on the high, hard, lovely, and adventurous art of really creating the Christian family?”. Sorry for the long comment, but you and Lewis have been colliding in my thoughts this week! xxx

    1. That man was so incredibly wise. I swear, he has so much useful advice that seems to have been designed expressly for this age we live in! I’m going to look that essay up!

    2. Love these quotes Sharon. And I thought that part of the interview was interesting (and sort of sad!) But the reader email that she quoted…about how she was encouraged by Christy saying that married life is a lot more fighting than she expected? That’s where RJG was edging toward the real! Toward a serious preaching of domesticity (to paraphrase Lewis.) And yet she very rarely SHOWED that fighting, that realness, and when she did, it was all solved quickly and with a bouquet of carnations. That’s the part that didn’t ring true to me. She did add a few real life things…my criticism is that she never took them far enough. She skimmed the surface of pain and messiness and reality, never really allowing herself or her characters…or, finally, her READERS to sink all the way in. And to me, that seems like a loss.

  14. I really resonated with your first post on RJG, and I really love that you were willing to be brave and interact with her as a person! I got a lot from RJG books at one stage in my life, and so I think of those books with a fondness. However, what RJG said about them “just being fiction” worries me, because i think there’s a problem with that idea. It reminds me of what CS Lewis said about fairytales: “It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did”. That’s what I think the problem is– we don’t reach Christy Miller as a fairytale, we read her as a “school story”, we read her expecting what happened to her will happen to us. So I think the “I can write a sugary and happy and perfect story about a Christian girl who trusts God, but it’s just a made-up story” is a bit worrying because we take it for reality.

    1. Excellent point!

      Also, I was reminded of the time I gave the Twilight books a bad review and got a bunch of angry readers after me with: “Don’t be so hard on them! They’re just fiction!” Um, yeah, I know that. I didn’t think the vampires and werewolves were real. 🙂 But since when is fiction exempt from bad reviews?

    2. I’m totally with you (and C.S. Lewis) Steph. I love what you said about HOW we read RJG’s book — as a “school story.” That’s definitely how I read it and what I was trying to communicate with RJG…but she didn’t seem to want to delve into my questions directly. She sort of skirted around most of them, and I got the feeling that her thoughts on the purpose of fiction — Christian or otherwise — was pretty different than mine.

      I get that there’s a place for fun, fluffy fiction…hell, sometimes that’s what I want to read too! But I get really twitchy and nervous when a fluffy, fictionalized version of God is presented. My thought is that an encounter with God should always bring us further into reality, not allow us to escape from it. And that’s what I find so dangerous here.

      Anyway, thanks for adding that quote to the conversation. I think it’s a super helpful distinction and I wish I’d had it when I was on the radio!

  15. I love this. I know someone who is a “Christian” author, but is trying to break out of that category. Her books are about people leading by example, not convincing someone to say the Sinner’s Prayer and *poof* making everything OK forever. It’s hard going. A mainstream publisher told her they’d buy her latest book if she added a few sex scenes.

    1. Because sex is a real and important part of life…and the Christian lit world hasn’t figure out how to handle that, so they just keep skirting around it, writing Amish romances, where no one has sex. We need to have some CONVERSATIONS about this I think.

  16. So powerful, Addie. “We are always supposed to move on.” I’ll be thinking about that one for a while.

  17. Holy eff. You just became my new favorite author. Possibly my favorite one of all time. Ever. But it’s late and I have a sleeping pill in my system so I might just be crazy. Nope. Pretty sure I’m not.

  18. I’m way late to this party, but this is so weird since my sister and I run a humor blog reviewing Robin Jones Gunn’s books since they remind us so much of growing up evangelical in the 90’s (which was a troubling time for both me and my bangs). There’s something so comforting about those books but at the same time, whoa! some big problems there. We’ve tackled most of the Glenbrook Series by RJG and we’re hitting Christy Miller next, I think. I’m most excited to dive into Christy’s early 90’s fashion descriptions that await. Here’s our blog if you’re interested: https://undertherjg.blogspot.com

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