Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Write-Up: Christy, by Catherine Marshall

I watched the TV series Christy in 1994, and again sixteen years later on the Gospel Music Channel.  It is based on Catherine Marshall’s novel, and it is about a nineteen year old girl, Christy Huddleston, who leaves the big city to teach in the Smoky mountains, working for a Christian mission.

For reasons that I detail here (though I flinch at some of what I wrote in that post), I did not care for Christy in 1994, but I really enjoyed it in 2010.  I have been reading Christian fiction lately, so I decided to read Christy, which is such an exemplary work of Christian fiction that there is a Christy Award for Christian authors.

It is a quality book, let me tell you that, higher in quality than most of the other works of Christian fiction that I have read.  While it does not use SAT words, the prose is a little less simple, so I feel a sense of accomplishment after reading it.  Moreover, the book has its share of religious discussions.  You have a pastor, David, who has been taught the historical-critical method of the Bible.  You have Miss Alice Henderson, a devout Quaker who still looks critically at Quakerism.  You have Dr. Neil McNeill, who believes that someone started the universe yet does not really believe in a God who cares for people, with all the suffering he’s seen as a doctor, his commitment to science, and the pain that he himself has experienced.  And you have Christy, a young woman trying to sort out and articulate what she believes and why.

There were many scenes in the book that made their way into the TV series and the movies, and there were scenes in the TV series and the movie that were not in the book.  The book also had scenes that I do not recall from the TV series and movies, such as the ones of Christy going to the city to request donations for the mission.  In many cases, the scenes were in a different order in the book from what they were in the TV series and movies.  In some cases, the book’s scenes were a bit different.  In the book, for example, the scene in which Pastor David is debating with Aunt Polly on her deathbed about what happens to people after they die (immortal soul vs. soul sleep?) presents Aunt Polly as having a bit more humility than she had on the TV show.  In the book, Aunt Polly had her convictions based on her interpretation of Scripture and her personal experiences, but she acknowledged that what happens after death is a much discussed and debated issue.

If I identified with anyone in the book, it would probably be David, the pastor, though I did not particularly care for David’s condescension to Christy.  David went to seminary and learned the historical-critical method.  He did not take all of the Bible literally, and he sought a naturalistic explanation for miracles (which I do not do myself, but I believe in other ideas of historical-criticism).  Yet, he admired Jesus as one who stood up for righteousness and justice, and he believed in an afterlife because, if nature manifests life after death through the seasons, why wouldn’t humans experience life after death?  David diligently serves the mountain community, but he questions his calling, since he entered the ministry to please his mother and sisters.  Miss Alice, who does not have the theological training that David has yet has lots of experience and wisdom, offers David valuable insights as he wrestles with whether to stay in the ministry or to leave.

Miss Alice was my favorite character in the book.  I pictured her as Tyne Daly, who played her in the TV series, even though Miss Alice in the book had blond hair.  Miss Alice encourages Christy’s questioning and attempts to figure out what she believes.  Miss Alice is a major proponent of reconciliation and sticking with relationships rather than ending them, which is a sore spot for me, but I still respected and admired her Christian walk.  In sharing with Christy why she believes that there is a God, Miss Alice referred Christy to the passage in John’s Gospel in which Jesus said that those who obey God know whether Jesus’ words are from God or are of human origin.  That seems to be a significant aspect of Miss Alice’s (and perhaps Catherine Marshall’s) theology: that one experiences God when one heeds God’s call to reach out and help someone, not just in a general sense, but when God calls one to help a specific person.

The book had valuable lessons.  I could identify with Christy when she wrote to businesses requesting donations, without telling the people with whom she worked what she was doing.  That led to disaster, as the mission began receiving a bunch of donations people did not want, and Christy ended up stomping on the mountaineers’ reluctance to receive charity, as well as the mission workers’ belief that one should not give to charity under pressure but only if one wants to do so.  Another part of the book that spoke to me involved sermons by David and Miss Alice.  David preached sternly against moonshining, and that offended people.  When someone got killed in a conflict over moonshining, there was a recognition that the funeral sermon needed to be tactful: it had to challenge the infighting and resentments within the mountain community, without appearing to attack the mountain people.  David let Miss Alice give the message, and it accomplished that very goal.  Miss Alice told the story of Lazarus.  Her message was winsome, but it firmly stood for what was right.

As in one of the movies, Dr. McNeill in the book repents before God while Christy is suffering from typhoid, saying that he loves Christy.  That would have been more believable had Dr. McNeill spent more time with Christy, as he did in the TV series and movies.  Moreover, I tend to recoil from non-believers being depicted as non-believing on account of some pain that they personally experienced, for many non-believers arrived at their conclusions for intellectual reasons.  Still, I do give Catherine Marshall credit for depicting Dr. McNeill as a good and caring person, even when he was a non-believer.

I should also note that, although Christy was a schoolteacher, there were not as many scenes of her teaching school as I anticipated.  A lot of the book focused on the surrounding community and its challenges.

I still enjoyed this book, and I can see why it is so highly-regarded.

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