This YA novel featuring small town Christian young people gets many things right. The story is absorbing. The characters are believable and interesting. The themes and issues in the book–teen pregnancy, homosexual temptation, drunk driving, etc.—are issues that young people do face; the presentation is realistic and sensitive. The author shows respect for the beliefs of conservative Christian people. I thought the parts of the book where the main character and narrator, Lacy Anne Byer, is experiencing God through her “prayer language” (charismatic speaking in tongues) were particularly well written and understanding.
However, (you knew there was a however) I am somewhat annoyed by books in which it is assumed that Christians, young and old alike, have never thought about the things that they believe, and it takes some enlightened outsider to bring them to their senses and make them realize their parochialism and blindness. In this book, Lacey’s new boyfriend is that enlightened, understanding, broad-minded outsider who makes Lacey Anne see that the Christian answers that her parents have given her are inadequate and unsatisfying. I don’t have a problem with Lacey Anne questioning the things she has been taught; I would question some of things that Lacey Anne has apparently been taught. And often it does take a new person’s perspective or a new experience to jumpstart that questioning process. Tyson, Lacey’s new friend in the book, is so perfect, however, that his answers seem obviously right and good while Lacey’s conservative Christianity comes off looking ineffectual and untrustworthy.
It doesn’t help that the adults in the book are mostly hypocritical, in a mild, unthinking way. There are no real villains in the book (other than Satan); even the bully is seen to be reacting to the abuse he receives at home from his alcoholic father. However, Lacey’s parents have difficulty dealing with her friendships with kids who are not perfect Christians from perfect families, and Lacey’s dad, a pastor, is quite over-protective. I have dealt with what I consider to be over-protective families in my church and in the homeschooling community, and Lacey’s dad is not uncommon. However, he is something of a caricature and his views on homosexuality, dating, and teen pregnancy are not very nuanced or well articulated.
I also didn’t like the way the book strongly implied that if a guy is a nerd and artistic and creative in his clothing choices, and if he hangs out mostly with girls and gets bullied, then he might be suppressing his homosexual identity. Especially, he might be smothering those tendencies if he has grown up in a small town and been taught that homosexual behavior is immoral. Talk about stereotypes. Artistic men are not naturally gay and do not necessarily, or even probably, have same sex desires. And if one does have those temptations, I would argue, like the people in Lacey’s church, that it’s not a bad thing to reject homosexual behavior for yourself. In fact, I would still maintain that the repudiation of homosex is what the Bible teaches and what is best for a man or woman who is tempted in that way.
Overall, Small Town Sinners is a good book, but it does encourage the view that there are no answers, only questions. And parents are not the ones to go to with your questions; a kid your age from out of town who has experienced so much more of Life is more likely to know the meaning thereof than your small town, uncomprehending parents. My final complaint is that there is very little or no gospel in Lacy Anne’s church or in her ideas about Christianity, only rules. Ty, who encourages Lacey Anne to question that legalism, doesn’t have much concept of what to replace it with either. Forgiveness is discussed, but staying “pure” and avoiding sins (of the flesh) are the main focus of Lacey’s brand of Christianity.
I didn’t even get into the “Hell House” aspect of the plot, which provides an interesting bit of evangelical Americana for those interested, but you can read more about that drama at Linus’s Blanket or at Presenting Lenore. Take it with a grain of salt, and some questions of your own, but Small Town Sinners provides a good story and some challenging ideas for evangelical Christian teens and non-religious ones alike.