When I was in junior high my best friend was Alissa. But my other best friend was Christy Miller…the fictional heroine of a teen, Christian romance series.
Christy Miller lived in Escondido, California and had a rich aunt and uncle who lived on Newport Beach, allowing her to have a dazzling life filled beach friends and Hawaiian vacations and a hot Jesus-loving surfer boyfriend with “screaming blue eyes.”
During the first book in the series, Summer Promise, Christy finds Jesus. The rest of the series chronicles her faith journey as it grows more and more intwined with her daily life. It also chronicles her on-again-off-again relationship with Surfer Todd, who wants to be a missionary in Papua, New Guinea and won’t go to prom with her because he thinks it’s a poor replication of the wedding feast we’re going to have in heaven someday…or something. It’s all very spiritual.
The last Christy Miller book I read came out June 1, 2001. It was the book where Christy and Todd finally (spoiler alert) get married!
That was the summer I was heading off to college. I hadn’t yet met my husband, and I was still holding out for “my Todd.” I hadn’t met my sort-of-judgy Christian-college roommates. The Twin Towers hadn’t yet fallen in New York City, and I hadn’t yet asked the questions that were just beginning to simmer under the surface.
Christy and Todd said I do in a meadow full of palm trees, and the end of the series dovetailed perfectly with the end of an era in my life — the simple, Christian-romance part of my faith. The part of my faith that felt sure and simple and easy.
Everything was about to change.
This summer I decided to read the new Christy Miller books that have come out since I read the last one. Robin Jones Gunn, the author, has written two additional series about the gang since then — The Katie Weldon series, which chronicles Christy’s best friend, Katie, and a three-book series called, Christy and Todd: The Married Years.
I read them out of curiosity and also with a longing that I couldn’t quite name unit I put the last book down and promptly burst into tears in bed.
In the fourteen years since I read my last Christy Miller book, I got married and went to China and came back from China. The clinical Depression, which in all likelihood had been lying in wait for some time, staked a claim on my life and hasn’t really let go, all these fourteen years.
During those years, I made the kind of mistakes that are best described in four-letter words, so I started saying them. I clawed toward God and I lost him anyway, and I drank wine and tequila and flirted and raged and questioned everything and hit The Bottom and then, eventually, finally, found grace that was so much bigger than what I understood grace to be.
Fourteen years since I read my last Christy Miller book I have two sons and I go, sometimes reluctantly, to church and I struggle against the Dark that always feels like it’s trying to overtake me. I rarely insert Scripture verses or random spiritual metaphors into my everyday conversations — though I do work through my faith in my writing. I’m still trying my damnedest to find God, to follow him, to live in the beauty and mystery and goodness of his Truth. But I can’t seem to do it without sometimes saying words like “damnedest.” And even though I know that the best response to my fear and sadness is prayer, sometimes I drink too much wine and beige out to Grey’s Anatomy re-runs instead.
Fourteen years have past, and I’ve changed, but Christy and Todd, it turns out, have been frozen Han Solo-like all this time — stuck still in a sort of literary carbonite. I opened that first book this summer, and they sprung lithely to life on the page, still 22-years-old, still calling themselves God Lovers, still so sure that they understand what they means. They have managed — every last one of them — to stay on this virginal, certain path, to keep quoting Scripture, to find and marry other devout and sexually pure Christians.
In the Katie Weldon and Christy-and-Todd-Married series, the characters are still all close friends, still dropping nuggets of spiritual insight and metaphors about God into every conversation. (“The Teacher is always silent during the test,” was the big one in the last book I read)…and it’s all fine because, as my friend Leigh said in her post about Christy, “In RJG’s world…God always comes through. There are rarely situations in which platitudes don’t apply.”
If there are non-Christians in these books, you rarely see them, and they play only peripheral roles. They almost never have anything insightful to add to a conversation that always seems to be, ultimately, about God.
During one of these books, a former friend asks Christy’s best friend, Katie, if she’s living with anyone.Whens she looks at him aghast, appalled, he says, “Hey, you wouldn’t be the first one who recited all her Christian principles to me at sixteen and changed them by the time she was twenty-one.”
Katie’s answer in that moment strikes me as so arrogant and naive: “Then I guess I’m one of a rare and nearly extinct breed of God-lovers who still lives and breathes what she believed back then.”
Except for…really? You still live and breathe exactly what you believed back then? Really? Because who had it all right at seventeen? Who could? In the absence of time and the wisdom and maturity and perspective it brings, we form ideals and rules and absolutes.
But then we hang around a while and learn that maybe we were a little pretentious back then, a little sophomoric in our “wisdom,” a little wrong.
In one of the columns compiled in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed writes this to students about to graduate from college:
“You are so…young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.”
This strikes me as wise. And true, also, of what we believe about God.
Jesus — who he was, what he did, what that means for us — this remains so howlingly, achingly true that I can still feel it burning through me. But also? There is so much about what I imagined it meant to follow Him that just isn’t true. That never was.
And it doesn’t mean that I’m not a “God Lover.” It just means that I’ve learned how fragile, how tentative, how oft-failing my love for God is. In my Tired Thirties, I’m less interested in being a “God Lover,” more humbled by the fact that I am loved by God. That I am called Beloved. That no matter how I fail, I am still loved.
If I’m honest, here’s what I wanted when I opened the Christy Miller books again: I wanted to come across Christy as a tired, thirty-something Mama with a tattoo on the inside of her wrist and a fractured friendship or two and a thing for cabernet. It’s not that I wanted to give up her faith. Quite the opposite. I wanted her to get a little battered around by life, a little banged up by her own doubts, a little scarred by sharp words and broken relationships and broken dreams. And I wanted her to be clinging to Jesus anyway.
It’s like this: for so many years, I looked to these fictional characters to show me what a godly life looked like. And I wanted Christy Miller to be able to show me now, when I’m in my thirties and it all seems so much harder and darker and more complicated than it was then. I wanted to look at these series again as into a mirror…and I wanted to see the Kingdom of God which is already here, yes,…but also so not here yet. Not yet, not yet, not yet.
I wanted Christy Miller to stand in the empty tension of that wonderful, terrible truth with me and scream until her throat was sore.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She’s been frozen in fiction all this time. She’s still twenty-two, still so absolutely sure.
This is not an indictment against Robin Jones Gunn for the books she has written, for the work she is doing to communicate to young women that there is a God who loves them, who wants them, who sees them. That is good and noble work, and I am grateful, in many ways, for the ways these books impacted my life when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
But also, I read the final series of these books desperately wanting to be able to identify, to feel validated. To hear Christy confess some deep failing so that I could say me too. But she didn’t. And I couldn’t. And maybe that’s why I ended up crying on the couch at 12:30 at night after I closed the book on my kindle.
Christy Miller didn’t say it, so I’m going to do it now. Here:
I love God and am loved by God and still it’s hard, and still it’s dark, and I peer into the heavens sometimes and I don’t see him, don’t feel him, don’t hear a whispered voice telling me which way to go. I have traveled far from Newport Beach and its constant sunshiny faith. My faith journey looks much more like Minnesota now — short, glorious summers and autumns. Infinite, cold, hard winters that almost make me give up every. single. year.
And yet. And yet. This is me, staying. This is me, standing in the emptiness, screaming, because life is not as it should be yet…but there is nowhere else to go. I still believe that Jesus is the most howlingly, achingly true thing.
And if you find yourself in the empty space of that tension, you are not alone, you are not a “bad Christian” or a lapsed God Lover or a mess.
Scream if you want to. There are so many of us here, screaming our throats raw for the beauty and pain of it all, for the already-not-yet of it, for the whole hard, holy thing —
and this too, is a song of praise.