When I was eleven years old, my dad got us hooked up to the Internet for the first time. As I’ve mentioned before, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the web at the time apart from asking Jeeves if he was gay and waiting 45 minutes for a five-second gif of Goku punching Frieza to download.
Thanks to the dearth of other options, the primary destination for any newly-wired child in those days was the chat room. I spent several of my formative years in the Geocities rooms, talking to total strangers about their pets and their sexual proclivities, crouching meekly behind my chosen handle: GingerSnaps12. “Ginger Snaps,” because that was my dog’s name, and “12” because I was pretending to be twelve. Not thirteen, which was the actual minimum age for Geocities chat. My reasoning must have been that I could pass for twelve easy, but thirteen was too much of a stretch.
By the turn of the new millennium, chat rooms had started to die off and were supplanted by instant messaging programs, chief among them AOL Instant Messenger. The authors of today’s book, In the Chat Room with God, were a bit slow to cotton on to the changing landscape. No self-respecting teen used a chat room in the Year of Our Lord 2002. Then again, there’s a lot of things in this book that no self-respecting teen would do.
In the Chat Room with God represents that most futile of beasts, media that seeks to make Christianity hip and relevant to the modern adolescent. It was written by two brothers: Todd, who heads Hallmark’s book division, and Jedd, who became a Christian stand-up comedian in an attempt to wrest the title of “Least Cool and Street-Credible Job” from his brother’s grasp. Who better to penetrate the six inches of ossified irony shielding the heart of the average teen and show them how legit God really is?
Our tale traces the online travails of four teens (well, five, but the last comes in at the very end and is completely tangential to the story). They are as follows.
Blake is our main character. He’s God’s best pal and utterly insufferable. You’ll see what I mean later on.
Ace is my favorite character in all of Christian literature. He’s single 4 life! He lives wherever! Hobbies? Yeah, right! Way too cool for school is our Ace, and in no way a straw man representation of the “average” teenage drug addict.
God also has a profile, by the way. His hobbies include “sustaining life and energy in the universe.” God’s…kind of intense. Also, one of his names is “Abba.”
Crys, Jenn and Blake are hanging out in a public chat room when a shifty character called Rogue9 starts asking for “nekkid pics.” Blake admonishes Rogue9 to “be a man,” “have some class,” and “show some respect.” In the real world, this would result in Blake getting called the N-word until he’s forced to log out. In the fantasy world of In the Chat Room with God, Rogue9 is chagrined. Impressed by Blake’s attitude, Crys and Jenn invite him into one of their private chat rooms.
Blake starts spouting off about God. Because, despite throwaway lines about how he’s really into track or biking or some other third athletic thing, Blake is very much a one-note concerto. He won’t shut the fuss up about what he’s learned in his youth group, which is interesting, since all I ever learned in youth group is that gay people are diseased and Mariah Carey needs to wear more clothes. When Jenn admits that she doesn’t believe in God, Blake answers thus:
After that riposte, which was totally not written by a middle-aged man who yells at kids to pull up their pants and stop loitering outside of convenience stores, Jenn demands proof of God’s existence. That’s when sh*t gets outrageous.
After a while, though, everyone decides that the most logical course of action is to behave like the intruder really is God–and not, say, a fifty-year-old hacker with three child pornography convictions–and spill their most personal problems to him. For example, here’s Krys talking to God about divorce.
This is when my favorite character shows up. Ace, a shiftless derelict whom Jenn befriends at school, becomes curious when his new pal claims she talks to God in a chat room. That’s how we know Ace is a stoner–because any clear-headed person would immediately end the friendship for fear of being kidnapped by Jenn’s cult “family,” trussed up like the Whore of Babylon, and ritualistically exsanguinated atop an altar in the woods.
Blake, as you can see, has gotten mighty proprietary about access to God. I hesitate to run straight back to the cult well, but really, isn’t tight restriction over access to the deity one of the hallmarks of nutty religious sects? It won’t be long before Blake claims his friends can talk to God only if they’re sitting in his lap.
Anyway, as is his wont, Blake tries to evangelize.
Blake balks at Ace’s drug use. He tries to give Ace the D.A.R.E. treatment and incorporates some street lingo for added impact.
Krys is similarly disgusted by Ace’s dissolute ways. It turns out she has personal experience with drugs.
Finally, Blake decides to end the conversation by dropping the ultimate truth bomb.
In the Chat Room with God has a firm grasp of the issues most pressing to teenagers. Its grasp of how best to address those issues is somewhat less firm. I won’t dissect every little point, because I don’t want this post to become me soapboxing for another thousand words. Instead, I’ll focus on the most galling problem: the book’s attitude toward sex.
In the Chat Room with God wears its abstinence-only heart on its sleeve. The authors take great pains to link sexual activity with disrespect and shame. In their eyes, sex does nothing but destroy a girl’s reputation and expose her to disrespect from horny men. Girls who have sex regret it without exception–especially Krys and Jenn.
Early on, Krys reveals that she is not a virgin. She laments that no man will ever want to marry her, because she isn’t pure. Jenn initially contends that she is a virgin, but later admits that she lied out of embarrassment. Blake tells the girls that they’re still pure in God’s eyes and that, if they were his wives, he wouldn’t care about their sexual pasts.
The problems with this are myriad. Young women are scorned and derided for their sexual expression, but not because there’s something inherently impure about sex. If anything’s impure, it’s societal attitudes toward young women. It’s precisely the atmosphere of shame and secrecy and Good-Girls-Don’t that engenders disrespect in the first place, and the remedy for that is teaching teen girls that their sexuality is okay–no matter how they decide to exercise it. One Nice Guy like Blake generously lowering himself to accept “debased” creatures like Krys and Jenn as his wives does nothing. In fact, it only perpetuates the idea that men are the arbiters of a woman’s worth.
I just have really strong feelings about teenage girls, you guys. Their lives suck. Dreck like this makes them suck even more.
Ladies’ Man Blake
Because Blake is a saint who would totally marry a girl even if she were a dirty non-virgin slut, Jenn and Krys both begin to develop crushes on him.
Wait a minute. What the heck is a “Herb?” Let’s check out the helpful “21st Century Slang” glossary in the back of the book.
Well, okay. That certainly sounds like something that someone somewhere might have said. They probably got punched in the knee immediately afterward, but still.
Summer rolls around, and our heroes have to part ways. Blake is biking across the country. Krys is going to Montana to live with her mother. Jenn is sitting at home alone with her acne. Ace…died or something. One of the characters mentions that they’re worried because they haven’t been able to get a hold of him, and then he’s never mentioned again.
Do they all get back together after the summer? Do Krys, Jenn and Blake start dating? Does God make the big jump to instant messaging? Does anyone actually care that Ace has disappeared off the face of the earth? Who knows?
Better question: who cares?