There is a bookshelf in my Barnes & Noble.1 The shelf is about five feet high and another three feet wide, made of some polished, non-descript wood. On the shelf sit a hundred or so white women, their faces gracing the covers of small, paperback books, their hair in half-hidden curls, their eyes on the horizon. Behind them stand fields and forests and barns of red, resting in the muted green and gold light of the sun. Occasionally a strong and handsome man hovers in the background as well, watching in worn blue overalls, dimly seen. And taking center stage, in pastel blues and bleached-bone whites, are a few hundred bonnets of cotton and lace, gracing every female head, their tassels hanging shyly down across a field of soft-hued chins. Above this delicate horde of bonneted women, stamped in black and white, is a sign that reads CHRISTIAN ROMANCE.
I think about this shelf a lot. Sometimes I just stand in the store and wonder who all of these women are. There must be some special contingent of them out there, some unique modeling subgroup that continually dons turn of the century clothing and stares wistfully off into the distance. I wish I could talk to one. I have so many questions.2 Surely there are not enough of these books made for the models to earn a living off of them. So what else do they do, when they are between covers? Do they also sell lace gloves, or let their hair down occasionally for a Land’s End catalog? Do they have an ongoing, bitter rivalry with the milk-skinned, red-lipped army of brunettes that leer out of the vampire romance novels two shelves over? Do the two groups have crazy brawls at modeling conventions, Anchorman-style, aiming only at legs and torsos to avoid damaging each other’s faces? Or are they, perhaps, actually the same group of women, just done up in different colors?
I know very little about the books themselves. I have never read any of them,3 so I will not pretend to know what stories they tell, whether for good or ill. But the shelf itself tells a story, and that is the one follows:
Once upon a time, about two thousand years ago, a young Hebrew woman gave birth to a baby boy. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. Her husband was a maker of head coverings, and as the boy grew up, he learned his father’s trade, making keffiyehs and sudras and taqiyahs, working in loving obedience to his parents.4
When he had grown, he went walking throughout the land of Israel, making and selling head coverings of his own. And all who met him fell into awe, for he came proclaiming a new hat, one that no one had ever seen before. “Repent and be bonneted!” he said. “For the kingdom of love is at hand!” And he showed them many signs and wonders, hats that tied under the chin with strings, lace done up in crocuses and lilies, cotton white as winter snow.
The new bonnet took off so quickly that it soon ran afoul of the established hat makers of the time, who conspired together with the federal government to execute the man for unlicensed manufacture and distribution of consumer goods. Base lies were told about him, false witnesses came forward, claiming that the strings had gotten caught in saddles and farm equipment, leaving them with nasty rope burns on their chins and necks.
“Guilty!” the judge cried, and the man was beaten and mocked and hung on a tree. And, worst of all, they fashioned a hat of thorns and put it on his head, so that all might see his shame. “He made hats for others,” they laughed. “Let him make a hat for himself.” And when he had died, his customers took him down from the tree and put his body in a tomb. Yet he did not stay dead. For his life, his memory, his teachings—all of them live on in the bonneted heroines who sit on the small shelf in my Barnes & Noble, the shelf that is labeled, very appropriately, CHRISTIAN ROMANCE.
Or so the story5 always plays out in my head, as I stand there and think and people give me blank, nervous looks, wondering why I’ve been staring at this bookshelf for several hours. It’s that sign at the top that really gets me. In other bookstores I’ve seen it say AMISH ROMANCE instead, which I can only assume annoys Amish people as much as the Christian one annoys me. I suspect there is a Jacob Yoder or Abram Miller out there on some farm in Indiana right now, scribbling sarcastic, cutting takedowns of Amish fiction book covers by candlelight.
It’s the monotony of it all that really gets to me, the way every single cover looks exactly the same as every other, like a horde of beautiful, bonneted zombies. For the last five years or so, we’ve sort of culturally had a strange fascination with zombies. I’m not the first to have written this, I’m sure, but our dread of them seems rooted in our fear of the mass, our fear of losing our individuality, of having our personality and will swept aside by some sinister outside force, leaving us dull, stupid, and dead, unable to make choices, driven only by some insatiable, inexplicable alien force.6
There is a similar fear (among Christians and non-Christians alike) about Christianity, that to become a Christian is to become a zombie. A zombie in a bonnet, perhaps—but a zombie nonetheless. That all Christians should act the same way, say the same things, live in the same neighborhoods, not watch the same TV shows, and eat the same tender, scrumptious brains.
There is a story that Mark tells, about how Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up a mountain to pray.
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.7 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
There are two things I want to point out about this. One, Peter has a uniquely weird way of dealing with terror. Really, let’s not gloss over this point. He wants to make tents. You may want to spend a minute just dwelling on the absurdity of that.
Two, notice how Peter calls Moses and Elijah by name, even though he has never met them before. How does he know who they are?
It’s possible, I suppose, that they simply introduced themselves. Peeeeeter, I am Mooooooses. Build me a tent, or I will haunt you fooooreeeeever… Mark is not interested in giving us every detail of every scene he records. Yet I think there is something deeper going on here: that who you are, your personhood, your freedom, is only fully to be found in union with God. That the closer you draw near to him, the more you come to know who you really are. And the further you are away, the more you lose everything that makes you unique, the more you begin to fade into the gray, featureless mass of the crowd. Peter recognized Moses because Moses was so much himself that his name was apparent as his face.
This is the sixth column I’ve written for McSweeney’s. I may squeeze in one more before my time is done, though I’m a horribly slow writer and often start columns that I end up hating and never finishing. Usually, I get three or four emails from people for each column that does make its way to this digital print, and for the most part the people who write me are kind, thoughtful, and Christian. But they seem to be the kind of Christians who feel estranged at times from their own religion, people who feel a steady, invisible pressure to look a certain way, act a certain way, and generally conform to the image of the woman in the bonnet, and the man in the background. And their relief is quite apparent at hearing another story being told, however small and occasionally stupid.
The title of this column, Speaking for All Christians Exactly Like Me8, is sort of a disclaimer and sort of a joke. But it’s also proven to be sort of true. There are Christians out there like me. And hopefully someday one of them will write a romance book, and slap a cover on it that tells the right story.
1 Well, it’s not my Barnes & Noble. Somebody else owns it, and I happen to live nearby. Also, there’s a fifty to sixty percent chance that someone reading this in three to thirty years will have no idea what a Barnes & Noble is. So if you are reading this, future person, just send a beam message or whatever to my brain implants and I’ll explain it. Or you could Google it. Either way.
2 I do not have the same questions about the men on the covers. Because I know there is only one man, and he appears on every cover. His name is Collin MacGowan, the seventh son of a seventh son, born of an Irish ironworker. He lives on an isolated farm in southern Canada, and he is brought out once a year to stand somewhere and look bulky. The rest of his time is spent chopping wood, playing with small, adorable children, and restoring the walls of old stone churches.
3 Well, I’ve never finished any of them. I started a couple times, with a couple books. Never got past the third or fourth chapter. Mostly out of boredom.
4 Yes, I looked up all of those names on Wikipedia.
6 That and our fear of being eaten.
7 Suck it Clorox.
8 Just in case the eight minutes that it took you to read this caused you to forget the name.