By Rondi Bauer Olson
I was raised in a very conservation Christian denomination. Conservative, of course, means different things to different people. For me it meant rules. Lots and lots of rules. I had to wear a dress. I couldn’t watch TV or go to movies. And I couldn’t read novels. Or, at least, I wasn’t supposed to. There was not one volume of fiction on the library shelves of the private school I attended.
Fortunately my grandmother and parents weren’t such hardliners. Grandma snuck me the Nancy Drew Mysteries. My parents bought me many books in The Black Stallion series. But I sometimes felt bad for reading them. Once I even threw them all out. (Don’t worry, I recovered them from the trash!) I wasn’t a rebellious teen. I wanted to do what was right, but I didn’t know what God wanted from me. A good part of my adolescent was spent trying to figure out the difference between having a relationship with God and following the traditions of man. Truthfully, I’m still working on it.
Because of my experience, I have been drawn to spiritual coming-of-age stories. Although these stories are very similar to typical coming-of-age stories, they differ that instead of emphasizing moral growth they focus more on the protagonist’s belief system and challenges to it.
Often in literature and movies spiritual coming-of-age stories feature a protagonist who has grown up in a conservative evangelical Christian home. By the end of the tale, the main character has tossed out their “silly” notions of God and turned to a more humanist worldview. Clearly, this is not the example we want, but Christian literature hasn’t always had a good answer. The most familiar spiritual coming-of-age plot in Christian literature portrays the protagonist as an angry rebel who has rejected their parent’s beliefs. Eventually, after learning being bad isn’t so fun after all, they return to the fold. While this approach is safe, it didn’t answer the situation I grew up in.
Teens crave honesty, and often reject both secular and Christian models of spiritual-coming-of-age stories because the stories feel agenda driven rather than authentic. Teens also understand real life is ambiguous. They are not looking for moral certitudes. They want a good story. Any theme or lesson needs to come about organically, and not be preached. There also has to be room for a less-than-ideal outcome, or at least an unexpected outcome.
Young people do grow spiritually in the same way they mature physically and mentally. They will question and challenge the belief system of their parents. As Christians and writers, we need to embrace this truth and not be afraid of it, but trust that God can use an honest portrayal of questioning and even rejection of belief systems to draw readers closer to Him.
A few of my favorite spiritual coming-of-age books include: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Grave Mercy, by Robin Lafevers, and Ever by Gail Carson Levine.
What are your favorite spiritual coming-of-age books?
Rondi Bauer Olson is a reader, writer, and animal wrangler from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her debut novel for young adults, ALL THINGS NOW LIVING, was a finalist in the 2012 Genesis Contest and is scheduled for release in early 2016 by Written World Communications.