Why must Christian "chick lit" always reach the same destination as its secular counterpart-the altar?
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I don't know who coined thephrase "chick lit," but I can tell you when the genre started garnering attention-in 1998, when Viking published Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. A charming chocoholic London singleton obsessed with losing weight, and even more obsessed with finding true love, Bridget Jones changed publishing. Her diary was followed not only by a sequel, Bridget Jones on the Edge of Reason, but also by scads of other chick lit novels: Jane Green's Jemima J, Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic, Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, and on and on.
And now we have Christian chick lit. One reviewer called this new sub-sub-genre "Bridget Jones goes to church," and that's about right. The heroines are still chocoholics, they're still worried about their waistline, they're still on the hunt for a hunk. The difference is, they're believers. They scope men at church 20s and 30s groups, not at late-night clubs.
Some critics have greeted the advent of Christian chick lit with a certain disdain. It's just like Christians to be Johnny-come-latelys; now that the secular world is saturated with chick lit, the CBA gets on board. This could be seen as the perfect example of what Walter Kirn, writing in GQ two years ago, called a Christian alternaculture, in which "everything in mainstream culture gets cloned and then leached of 'sinful' content."
But I, personally, welcome Christian chick lit with enthusiasm. Chick lit, to be sure, is not Great Literature-but it is entertaining. It's fun to curl up with a light-hearted novel whose protagonist reminds me of myself. And who cares if Christian authors are, to some extent, mimicking Helen Fielding? Ms. Fielding, after all, was mimicking Jane Austen, and no one dismissively accused her of cloning Regency fiction and leaching it of 18th-century content.
So herewith, a brief introduction to my two favorite Christian chick lit heroines.
First meet Ashley Stockingdale, whose story begins in What a Girl Wants, and continues in this summer's sequel, She's Out of Control. (A third novel, With This Ring, I'm Confused, is in the works.) Ashley, who's begun to suspect that she's "single for a reason" instead of "single for a season," is a fun-loving patent attorney with a penchant for Prada. Ashley's best friend, Brea, is happily married; the single's pastor's wife has just announced she's pregnant; and Ashley is beginning to get sick of Sunday lunch at TGIFriday's with the church singles group. So though she insists that she "live[s] a full life as a Christian single, and [isn't] waiting for life to start when I get married," Ashley is starting to wonder who, exactly, her future mate is, and why he hasn't yet pulled up on a great white steed-or at least in a Mercedes SLK320.
Ashley's English alter ego is Theodora Llewellyn, star of Theodora's Diary and Theodora's Wedding. Thirty-something Theodora holds down a respectable white-collar job, maintains loving relationships with her slightly eccentric family, nurtures a romance with the sports-obsessed but amiable Kevin, and takes occasional trips to Greece. She also worships at the wacky St. Norbert's Church, where she organizes church fetes and befriends wise, elderly women. In two delightful novels, readers accompany Theodora through mishaps at the office, dating debacles, and a little undercover detective work. I was sad when I finished Theodora's Wedding. I will miss Theodora's company.
One would expect Christian chick lit to differ from its secular counterpart, and in some ways it does. There's much less imbibing. And the sexual escapades that are the sine qua non of secular chick lit are absent. (When Theodora's boyfriend surprises her with a weekend in Italy, she insists upon separate rooms.)
But there are also many similarities between the secular and Christian chick lit novels. The Theodora novels are undoubtedly inspired by Bridget Jones. They're set in England, and they follow the same diary format (though Bridget began her diary on New Year's Day, and Theodora begins hers at the end of June, noting that an unexpected case of chicken pox, which leaves Theodora in bed and quarantined, is actually a "blessing in disguise. I am determined to use the time to grow spiritually . . . by keeping a journal. . . . I know it's a bit unusual to start a diary at the end of June, but I've never been one to pander to convention"). On the whole, Theodora's Diary and What a Girl Wants feature the same witty dialogue, the same charmingly self-effacing and slightly insecure heroines, and the same endearing Greek chorus of friends that combined to make Bridget Jones's Diary such a success.
And just as Bridget Jones wickedly satires modern office politics and drunken London nightlife, the Theodora and Ashley novels cast a sardonic eye on contemporary evangelicalism. In Theodora's Diary, for example, Theodora's friend Charity-a perfect Christian who has umpteen children and who has never so much as returned a library book late-turns up at church hysterical because her daughter Zilpah "has been asked to peruse the most unsuitable reading material" at school. Charity has petitioned the teacher and the headmaster, but they only pooh-pooh her concerns.
Charity is frantic because "one of the main characters . . . is a witch. And there's all sorts of magic kingdoms and pagan creatures," and the book seems to promote "the worship of animals." Finally Charity pulls the offending book out of her bag-she didn't want to leave it at home because "you never know what powers these materials might have." Is it Harry Potter? Nope. Charity is freaking about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Theodora and Ashley also share with their secular cousins a certain plot line, what scholars call the marriage plot. The marriage plot has a venerable heritage. We find its origins not in Bridget Jones, but in the novels of the 18th century, typified by Austen. The marriage plot turns on pairing off a man and woman, testing them to see if the match is appropriate, and finally leading them down the aisle. The trajectory of a woman's life is one long courtship culminating in marriage, and marriage is the end of the story.
Chick lit, Christian and secular, has more or less followed the marriage plot. Bridget Jones gets her happy ending . . . in the arms of delectable Mr. Darcy. Her Christian counterpart, Theodora Llewelyn, similarly finds happiness by securing a diamond from the ever-faithful Kevin. Ditto Ashley Stockingdale and her beau Seth.
And that is perhaps the one place where Christian chick lit's imitation of Bridget goes too far. In their uncritical hewing to the marriage plot, these Christian novels tell an incomplete story.
The problem is not with any one individual novel. I don't begrudge Theodora her titular wedding. I hope she and Kevin live happily ever after. (Perhaps we'll meet her in a trequel, representing the sub-sub-sub-genre Christian mommy lit, sort of Allison Pearson meets Stormie Omartian.) The problem is that Christian chick lit as a genre seems motivated by the assumption that the happiest ending-the only ending that makes sense-is girl-gets-guy.
Indeed, this was the one thing that ticked me off when I first read Bridget Jones's Diary. I'd been reading along, utterly identifying with the plights and anxieties of neurotic Bridget, feeling equally worried about my dance card (would it ever be full?), my mother (would she ever quit haranguing about maximizing my beauty potential?), and my diet (if I ate cottage cheese and carrots all week, could I squeeze into that dress?). I sympathized when Bridget fell for the cad who really didn't care about her. I sympathized as her mom nagged her about her glaringly nude ring finger. I sympathized when she embarrassed herself on the job.
And then, at the end of the book, I stopped sympathizing. (In fact, I threw the book across the room.) What I had hoped-what I had assumed, actually, because I was new to the genre and didn't yet know its conventions-was that the novel would end when Bridget somehow learned to stop worrying quite so much about shedding pounds and finding Mr. Right. I didn't expect her to foreswear dating, give all her designer duds to Goodwill, and contentedly pork out as an act of resistance to a patriarchal culture that wants women to look like waifs. I just wanted her to begin to derive some sense of self from something other than a boyfriend.
And when Bridget finally won Darcy, I felt duped. Here I'd identified with Bridget for 200 pages-her struggle was my struggle, her saga was my saga, and I actually took some comfort in reading about her travails (misery loves company, I guess, even if the company is fictional). But there was no way for me to identify with wooing a billionaire attorney who would be played by Colin Firth in the film. Bridget went happily off to Never-neverland, and I was still at home with my dance card and my bathroom scale.
My wildly off-base expectations about Bridget's denouement now sound a little absurd. I've read over 40 specimens of chick literature, all of which end as Bridget ends-with the girl bagging the most eligible bachelor in London (or New York, or L.A.).
Yet some small, stubborn part of me expected, when I turned to the new Christian chick lit, a new ending. I imagined that the plot would not move us relentlessly toward coupledom, but might open up space for that Christian alternative-a hip, urban gal who finds a way of making peace with singleness, peace found through security in God, the community of the church, and the slow transformations of discipleship. After all, in the Christian moral vocabulary, marriage is a good thing, but it is not the only good thing. Singleness is also a good thing. Jesus, we might remember, managed to live a perfect life, and, Dan Brown's suppositions to the contrary notwithstanding, the only marriage plot it included was the eschatological wedding feast with the church.
Indeed, for Christians, marriage and singleness are not merely "lifestyle options," they are callings, and both the state of marriage and the state of singleness have something to teach the church. What marriage teaches the church is something about the communion between people that is now possible through Jesus Christ; what singleness teaches the church is the eschatological reality that singleness, as it were, trumps marriage. Singleness reminds the church that our most basic and fundamental relationship is not that of husband and wife, or parent and child, but with Christ and the rest of the church, as His Bride.
That I expected a plot twist in Christian chick lit is, perhaps, just as naïve as my original hopes for Bridget. For the contemporary church, with its emphasis on marriage and the nuclear family, so rarely proclaims this good word about singleness. Christian chick lit seems the perfect place for that proclamation.
-Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: A Spiritual Memoir. She regularly contributes to Books and Culture and The New York Times Book Review. Her latest book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, will be out from Brazos next April.
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