Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday Musings: Mary Sue and Gary Stew

I love having teenagers. If you don't love hanging out with your teenagers, you may be doing something wrong, because they can give you such a challenging new perspective on the world.

The twins have developed some fairly strong opinions in the last few years regarding most modern "Christian Fiction". They study favorite contemporary authors because writing has been their main passion since they were 12 years old, filling notebook after notebook writing stories, along with hours reading authors who have mastered the art. They have found many favorite authors, except in one area. Christian fiction.

It is a rare moment when they can stand sitting through a mass produced, pop fiction Christian book. They love books written by authors who just happen to be Christian, such as Tolkien considered himself, but when they write as "Christian Authors", and most especially for the young adult age, the characters quite often lack depth or have a manipulating feel about them. They and some friends have a term for these characters, found most often in Christian circles: Mary Sue, or if a male, Gary Stew.

Mary Sue is the perfect role model. Perhaps she is the main character, or perhaps she is the wise mother or aunt of whom the main character will eventually emulate to become her own Mary Sue. She is the good teacher, trying to do right when the world conspires against her, or she is perhaps the daring and exciting heroine you will want to become if you ever hope to be awesome too. Whichever the plot requires, that's Mary Sue. (Please note that Mary Sue also finds her way into the secular world. Anywhere an agenda is promoted, Mary Sue or Gary Stew will be there.)

If you've ever read Elsie Dinsmore, you've read the perfect example of a Mary Sue. I have passed through an 8 year old stage with three kids and I have one who is currently that age. Not one of them obsessed over being perfect to the point of death. I prefer the Mary in the Secret Garden. Admittedly, as a parent I do have some sympathy for an author choosing somewhat of a Mary Sue character in children's literature, but that's a different subject.

On an adult level, read an honest biography sometime of Amy Carmichael, then go read one of the many mass-produced Prairie Romances. By the end of the novel, the romance character will finally become Mary Sue with her wonderful Gary Stew. Amy Carmichael would instead be loaded with continued challenges, and even maintain quite a few personality faults to the bitter end.

One is real. One is Christian fiction. In the end, which story really inspires? If the former inspires, why do we write so many characters who are like Mary Sue and not like Amy Carmichael?

The problem here is that Mary Sue cannot exist in this world. We are all fallen sinners with selfish thoughts, bad tempers, pity parties, an annoying habits. We work through these every day, but God can take the most fallen of us and do great things for His glory. However, Christians today don't want role models of depth that are being sanctified, they seem to want perfected role models. With only a few notable exceptions, I never see a Christian book published that has a struggling hero whom God used for His glory, like you see in the Bible. Look at David. The guy wouldn't make the cut in the world of Christian fiction. Last I heard, adultery and murder were not a Gary Stew quality. Peter? Please. Or look at Abraham and his interesting life rabbit trails off of God's promised course. Then there is Noah. God picked a man who, right after the terrible ordeal, would immediately run out and plant grapes for wine, then proceed to get drunk. A good Christian story would have ended with the flood and not added that awkward little event. There are exceptions, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, or perhaps Daniel. I can't think of a major faux pas for Daniel, but a lack of described sin doesn't mean it didn't exist somewhere.

Throughout history, only one Human pulled off perfect, and He did it because He knows what it looks like. We really don't fully understand the depths of such a thing and our characters usually just end up annoying people with their outward platitudes. In my opinion, we should stick with what we know in our human characters, and give Glory to the One Who Is.

My head-strong, very non-Mary Sue twins want to be authors someday. Authors who happen to be Christian so they don't have to write for some industry expectation in the genre. They want original characters who lack perfection but through whom great things can still happen.


The movie industry is very similar. One of the most popular movies in the last few years in Christian circles, produced by a distinctly Christian company, was one of the worst we've sat through in some time, when it came to plot and character development. All of us still cringe that it won awards and people swooned over it. I won't name it out loud because I'd probably get black-listed for disliking what I'm told to love. Yes, I liked the message it was trying to convey. I can totally stand up for the message, but why can't we have decent writing and characters to go along with it? A few characters did work through a significant change, but they did it suddenly and perfectly. None of this "two steps forward, one step back", like the rest of us have to deal with.  Of course, if you step into reality you may have a bad influence somewhere, like we meet in real life, instead of perfect, something real life is not.

Today, in some circles, (please note the word some), Christians have become nothing more than caricatures of the perfection we want everyone to see, instead of the brokenness that brings glory to God for His grace towards a wretch like me. The books and movies reflect this mentality. They seem to believe they best witness by being this perfect character, and though perhaps they will have some persecution for a time, ultimately they can show the world that all will go wonderfully for them and they'll have that happy ending for following the script. A Christian's humanity of falleness is stripped away and rejected as a bad influence, and with it we see only the glory of human behavior for following the life script, instead of the glory of God. This isn't to suggest, of course, we ignore what is right and celebrate the rotten behaviors we often see in the secular world, where there are no consequences to poor behavior. Quite the opposite. Usually it is the consequences of our behavior that points the strongest to the wisdom of God's law, and our need for a savior, especially when it is a daily struggle. In truth, it is in personal struggles where we need Christ the most. However, you cannot find the need for Christ when you only see the need to follow a good Christian life script.

We still watch Christian movies, even one by strictly Christian companies with an admittedly admirable agenda. I love the messages and sometimes a gem comes out. Yes, the twins still read Christian fiction sometimes and search for something that reads less like a manipulated example on how to behave just like Mary Sue, and instead reads more like the Bible, where humans sometimes fail, but God does not fail them. They hold out hope for something that reads realistically, and less like the glorification of a non-existent perfect personification of a Christian. Who knows? Perhaps my artistic children will start a new, truly original and honest trend in one of these industries.

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