teen fiction vs. real love

[being human: the absence]

As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here.  It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection.  When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.

Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie.  I wonder if it’s any good, I thought.  What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud.  I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.

However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion.  When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.

If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book.  The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward.  All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point).  He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason.  There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers.  Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.

Am I generalizing? Sure.  There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love.  However, they are few and far between.  As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.

What are these books teaching?  It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that.  It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.

The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy.  In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection.  The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together.  In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”.  It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret.  If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality.  These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.

Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed.  These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”.  Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm.  Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce.  When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?

As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters.  And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures.  The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship.  As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people.  When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need.  They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down.  We are human.

I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness).  Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives.  Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.

If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us.  When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection.  For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.

Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving.  It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace.  Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13.  Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet.  But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it.  That is, after all, what our God does for us.

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Read this:  Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste).  Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites.  Ask me about it!
John Donne.  Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.

*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.

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what God’s been telling me this summer

I’m back at school.  Classes don’t start until tomorrow, though, so I’ve still got a few hours of freedom before I have to start worrying about everything.  I’ve still got a lot to tell you about things learned on vacation and during the summer, but I thought it apt to focus on God’s hand in my life this summer.  It’s been crazy.

Existential crises abounded.  The whole idea of being pre-med loomed, I could see the deadline, and the weight of my choices crippled me.  Granted, I gave them a bit too much weight.  But still.  I struggled over this for a long time.  There was one day of our trip, when we were in Denmark, when I just remember sitting on a windowsill and knowing that I was shaking inside.  The more I thought about it, the bigger my choice seemed.  I was scared of making a wrong decision, being considered stupid, not accomplishing anything.

But God spoke to me in the quiet spaces of hotel rooms and restaurants, and through the kindness of my little brother one night as I blubbered out my confusion, desire for greatness, and desire for God.

I prayed that God would replace my desires with His, give me peace, and help me to rely only on Him and not on the approval of others.  I prayed that He and He alone would become my hallowed thing.

And He spoke to me quietly and began to do these things.  I realized this: it doesn’t actually matter what I do, because I can serve God in whatever I do.  This “clarity” that I kept praying for may never come in the way that I wanted, and that was okay.  My focus was skewed.  I had been focusing on what I could do, and these things that I had wanted when I should have been turning my focus to the One who is with me always.  Everything in my life has to flow from that one relationship.

And it was at this point that God began to give me clarity as to what He wanted me to do.  That’s how it seemed at the time, but looking back, I suspect that I only began to listen at this point.

I worked as an intern for a nonprofit, LINC NT, when I got home, and the very first thing that they said they needed was someone to write stories for them.  That may not sound as shocking to you, but I’d been applying for jobs elsewhere and getting nowhere.  It was as if God had said, I want you here, and I want you writing. 

I wish I could remember all of the people, articles, and books that came my way at this point, but they were so numerous that I felt a little bit inundated.  I’d click on an article in a magazine, and it’d be about this very issue.  People came up to me independent of each other and mentioned my writing.  And then, a few weeks ago, I met with my pastor to talk.

We talked for almost two hours that morning, about art, literature, England, and my future.  And after our conversation, I stopped for tea and wrote, because I needed to process.  I trembled.  And here it is.

I knew I had to drop Chemistry.  I don’t really want to be a doctor.  Not really.  Because although I love the idea of it, I don’t think I’d be as happy in the day-to-day aspect.  It’d be stressful, and I’d have to separate myself from feelings about patients,people would die, and I wouldn’t be able to write.  I wouldn’t have the time.  But you make time for what you love!  I wouldn’t though.

And the most terrifying decision and admission came out then.  Everyone else has witnessed my passion for quite some time, and I think I just had to admit it to myself.  I love stories, and I am a creature driven more by story than anything else.  I want to be surrounded by them, inspired by them, and create them.

I want to write.

Why not do the thing I love most?  I have been blessed with a Great Love, and I know that not everyone has one.  And I want to be a writer, however impractical that may be.

I don’t know exactly how, and I don’t know at all how my life will pan out.  But who really does?  And this is a crazy thing.  As I told a dear, encouraging friend that night, I never thought I’d be that person who doesn’t have a distinct plan, who just goes where she thinks God is leading her.  Who just trusts that God will lead her and jumps.

And I’m scared.  I’m terrified – I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared of anything in my life.  This is a big step for me, and writing doesn’t exactly ensure a stable profession.  But I think it’s a step I have to take.  And I know that whatever I do, God’s going to provide me with what I need.  I don’t know that He’ll give me what I want.  And that’s a very good thing, because He knows so much better than I do.

I dropped Chemistry.  Looking back, I couldn’t even remember what had possessed me to sign up for it in the first place.  This summer, something just shifted.  And ever since that decision, God’s been giving me confirmation, guidance, and unbelievable peace.  I’ve read some really fantastic books – I just finished Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle.  The latter was intensely appropriate, recommended to me by another dear friend.  It’s all about being a Christian and a writer, and every page held something that I’d been thinking about or needed to consider.

Exactly two weeks after that decision, I got those articles published, which was lovely and confirming.

But even if I hadn’t… I’ve felt more peace since accepting this.  And since I’ve decided, I’ve been writing more every day.  And the more I write, the more I realize just how much I love it.  I love making sentences, the way a pen feels between my fingers, the way my handwriting spindles out, big words, analyzing and digging, creating characters, when people like my work, speaking True things.  I love writing. And the more I realize that, and the more I focus on God, the more that desire for greatness begins to fade.  I might never make it.  But I’m starting to care less, because I’m happy writing.

So, I don’t know where exactly I’m going from here.  It won’t be easy, and it won’t always make sense.  But I will continue to look to the Immutable and trust that He knows where I’m going.

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Read this: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat…. whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, [was] the steady, unrelenting approach of Him  whom I so earnestly desired not to meet… I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed… The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy.  The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”  C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

“Plato spoke of the necessity for divine madness in the poet. It is a frightening thing to open oneself to this strange and dark side of the divine; it means letting go our sane self control, that control which gives us the illusion of safety. But safety is only an illusion, and letting it go is part of listening to the silence, and to the spirit.” Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

…seriously, these books are gold.

good friday

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  Romans 5:1-11

God’s love is absolutely unfathomable.

We are terrible.  Fallen.  Rebellious and turned away from God, refusing him and choosing our own sin.  We think we can live without him, we blame him for things, we fall.

And yet.

God loves us.

We’re absolutely awful, and He still loves us enough to take the punishment that we deserved.  I talked to someone yesterday about this, why we need faith at all, or why God can’t just forgive people.  And I didn’t have a fantastic answer to that, because it’s a very tough question.

But I thought through it a little bit.  God must be both just and loving.  If God wasn’t a God of justice who punished wrongdoing, then He wouldn’t be a good God.  And we wouldn’t want to follow a God that’s not good.  That’s just… crazy.  A just God must rule the universe, and so we must be punished.  We deserve to be punished.

But God is also loving.  He wants to share that perfect love with us, and bring us to Him forever.

The sin, however, still stands.  The damage has been done (by us), and somebody must pay for it.  Somebody has to take the blame.  Forgiveness always comes at a cost… and He took that on Himself.  He absorbed our blame when He died on the cross and took the weight of sin upon himself on our behalf.  And as He took that sin upon himself, God turned away from Him in that moment.  Can you imagine? It’s like being ripped apart from yourself.  And he did this all freely– John says that He gave up his spirit.  It was a conscious choice, for you and me.

It’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard.  I think this is part of the reason that stories of sacrificial love resonate so strongly with us– because it’s an eternal truth, one that we find beautiful. A Tale of Two Cities is still one of my favorite books because of the profound sacrifice of Sydney Carton (sorry if I spoiled it…).  Sacrifice is beautiful because it’s true and it’s happened for us.

The story gets even more beautiful with the resurrection from the dead, the craziest, awesomest, and most pivotal event in history.  It gives us eternal life and reconciliation.

Death for life.

Happy Good Friday, and, (if I don’t come back soon), Happy Easter!

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antiquing

Hello again!  Sorry I’ve been absent so long.  I was visiting my grandparents this past week for Christmas, and it was lovely and wonderful seeing everyone (I even interviewed my grandfather about his life, which was cool), dancing with cousins, and going antiquing!

My grandparents collect and sell antiques, which is something that I never appreciated until very recently.  I remember being dragged into countless antique stores as a child, my little brother and I bored out of our minds as our parents and grandparents scoured the store.  Old chairs.  Bottles.  Lunchboxes.  Who cares?

The best was when there were Persian rugs in the back.  That made for some fun times when my brother and I climbed the stacks, ran around, and leapt from stack to stack, being adventurers until our mother or the store’s owner angrily dragged us down.

And although I still don’t understand the lunchboxes or salt and pepper shakers as much, I’m a total sucker for old books, jewellry, and clothes.  I just love old things!  I bought my friends Christmas presents, and I also got myself a few marvellous things that I stumbled across…

My favorite finds (in hastily taken, poor quality pictures!):

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1.  The book.  I stumbled across John Donne’s sermons.  Whose previous owner had handwriting that looked like the Burmese written language.  In a book from 1932.  NO BIG DEAL OR ANYTHING.

2.  These jewellry pieces, my dear readers, are scrimshaws.  Sailors used to carve them out of ivory or whalebone and send them back to their sweethearts.  I passed the case at least four times and stared at them (especially the pin) every time.  They’re simple.  But so… romantic?  Intensely personal?  I don’t know.  I started writing out a short sketch of who the previous owner might have been, and it ended up as a seven-page story about an Irish sailor and his chestnut-haired girl.

And this is why I love old things.  This is why they matter to me.  Because each of these pieces holds generations of stories and has witnessed so much life, love, tragedy, and history, and it’s now witnessing mine.  Thinking of who might have owned it first, made it, loved it, or cherished it gives a certain weight and beauty to each piece that could have been considered plain or “old”.  This is how my story ended (with me finding the scrimshaw):

The girl will see in the detailled lines of the plain whalebone the care and love of a sailor and the struggle that he and his love endured.  And she will find it beautiful once again.  The scrimshaw will finally be worn again to gain a new life’s story to remember.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.  Another year rolls by, and we’re one step closer to becoming antiques ourselves.  Cheery?  Not at first glance.  But think of the stories you will possess by the time you’re as old as some of these pieces.

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