Monday, March 23, 2015

‘My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College’ (Book Review)

Author Jeri Massi has spent much of her career reporting on sexual abuse committed by clergy at what are called “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist” (IFB) churches and universities. This research has led to books addressing legalism, patriarchy, and spiritual abuse in churches today. Since Massi is a novelist at heart, it’s not surprising that she would also find inspiration for fiction in these real-life tragedies. This is what Secret Radio: My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College (Twenty-Five Years Ago) By Grace Jovian (Jupiter Rising Books, 2014) is all about.

We’re introduced to college senior Grace Jovian, probably named in honor of GRACE, the organization that investigated Bob Jones University’s handling of complaints of sexual abuse. As the book opens, her summer vacation has been ruined and her spiritual foundation rocked by the discovery that all is not squeaky clean in her family. Upon returning to college, Grace begins to question everything she’s been brought up – brainwashed? – to believe. Once a model female student, her newly-found open-mindedness leads her to befriend the religious outcasts and butt heads with the college’s entrenched authoritarianism and androcentrism.

To be honest, I think this book and I got off on the wrong foot. One of the first things I noticed was that the cover and frontispiece unabashedly make “Grace Jovian” out to be the author. Sure, the copyright stuff and the “advisory” clearly show that the book is a novel by Jeri Massi, but who’s actually going to read those? I felt that the author or publisher was purposely trying to mislead the public into thinking this fictitious work was an autobiography and that the events told were true. Believe me when I say that questioning the author’s integrity is not the most enjoyable way to begin reviewing a book.

Once I got into the story, I’ll admit the Secret Radio sort of grew on me. Massi knows how to keep a story moving forward and hang on to her audience. Yet even as I turned each page, curious about what would happen next, there was a nagging feeling that all wasn’t right with the book. I don’t just mean to point out the typos and too-small margins. There were fundamental problems with how the novel was worked out.

When the reader first meets Grace, it seems that she has already rejected, in just one summer, everything her faith and identity has been founded on. Those of us who have gone through those sorts of experiences know that, in real life, it often takes years of reevaluating your beliefs before you can confidently claim to hold new positions. Grace, however, seems to do so overnight. We don’t see her struggling against, say, an entrenched belief in male superiority. She just decides it’s wrong, and assumes that the reader hearing her story will go along with that. It’s enough to wonder if the character really ever held those views at all. Or more appropriately said, Massi doesn’t convince me that her character was ever the “fundamentalist” she was supposed to have been.

I also am weary about who exactly is the target audience. Plainly clothed and 470-pages thick, Secret Radio is not exactly set to attract younger readers, and attract younger readers it must. Stereotyped black-and-white characters engaging in juvenile behavior such as snooping, pranking, and sneaking out doesn’t make serious literature. On the other hand, the issues discussed in the book are not what would normally be deemed “appropriate for children,” and debate over religious doctrine would likely bore most young readers. I think I would’ve preferred a novel addressing the same problems but in a way that would appeal to adult readers: a heroine who actually seems conflicted, realistic supporting cast members who lie on the continuum between “totally good” and “totally bad,” and a main plot incorporating the sorts of tragedy that inspired the story in the first place. Then I’d say Massi was on her way to publishing a winner.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.