My impression of publishing a novel, even a self effort, is that you have to treat it the way the Victorians treated pregnancy. Pretend nothing is happening until you’re ready to present your offspring in public, decently covered and safely removed from the tasteless work that produced it.
Before I finished my novel, I knew better than to “talk it away.” Did you know that’s really a thing? If you talk too much about your ideas, you can use up so much of the energy that you never actually write them. I’ve sucked the life out of more than one story concept that way.
But the novel is finished. Finished. Edited by the thorough Illuminations Editing, proofed by the excellent Miss Red Pen. I’ll be working with Book Baby in the next few weeks to get it formatted, uploaded, and printed.
So now — to heck with Victorian sensibilities. I want to talk about it.
Meet the characters… please?
Bekah Richards is twenty years old and ready to launch her life. But considering that she grew up in the highly authoritarian Fellowship of True Christian Churches, “launching” is a lot more complicated than most people realize.
[The apartment] was a converted garage, consisting of a small living room, a smaller kitchen, a cozy bathroom, and two cubbyholes they called bedrooms. Laney liked to stand in the middle of the house, spread out her arms, and shout that they were “livin’ the dream!” She still didn’t understand just how ironic her joke was for Bekah. At twenty years old, Bekah was living in her own place, not married, and working a full-time job. She wasn’t living any dream she’d been given under Martin Branner’s pastorate.
- Martin Branner is the head pastor of the Fellowship, which he inherited from his father. He’s old now, but still dynamic and charismatic. Under his leadership, the Fellowship has thrived, including surviving a painful church split eleven years ago. But Martin makes an announcement that might send the church right back into chaos again.
“Friends,” he said, “I don’t know how much longer I’ve got on this earth. Just like Jesus on the cross made provision for his mama, I want to make provision for all of you. I am officially retiring as pastor of the Fellowship of True Christian Churches. I am anointing my son Robert in my stead.”
Applause interrupted him. Rob smiled broadly. Bekah thought she detected relief in his smile.
Martin lifted his hand to still the applause. “Let me finish, friends. I am moved to tears today to see our separated brethren back with us. I am deeply, deeply grateful to say that Brother Kenneth has confided to me that they will return to worship with us. I hereby anoint my nephew Kenneth as joint leader of this Fellowship.”
It was the cue to cheer, and everyone cheered, because everyone loved Martin Branner.
Kenneth beamed. Rob looked as if somebody had hit him in the stomach.
- Kenneth McDaniel is Martin’s nephew. He’s the one who, eleven years ago, stole a sizable portion of the flock and started his own church. He’s returned now as one of the head pastors of the church.
During that afternoon’s lesson time in the sanctuary, Bekah ventured a question. “Brother Kenneth, what is grace?”
Kenneth frowned slightly at the interruption. “That’s something you should already know.” He gazed over the pews and then nodded at Meghan. “What is grace?”
Meghan answered promptly, “What God gives us so we can obey him.”
“Oh, well, I did know that,” Bekah said. “I was just talking about it with a friend of mine, and he said…” She stopped. She hadn’t meant to identify her friend as male.
Kenneth studied her for a noticeably long moment before addressing the entire group. “A lot of people think that grace is a license to do whatever you want to. You can sin as much as you want, and just ask God’s forgiveness afterward. But grace is—well, what Meghan said it was.” He paused to bestow one of his warm smiles on Meghan. “It’s the power of God in our lives to keep his commands. The only way he can give us grace is if we are humble and obedient. He doesn’t overlook our sin.”
Swinging his brass-headed cane in one hand, Kenneth stepped from behind the pulpit. “Girls, don’t let some smooth-talking gent tell you that you’re ‘under grace’ and can sin without consequences.” He looked directly at Bekah. “Trust me, a lot of young men would be glad to convince you of that.”
- Rob Branner, Martin’s son. Much younger than Kenneth and much less the typical Fellowship pastor, Rob is a promising ally for Bekah as she tries to make more of a life for herself and the other women in the church.
“But didn’t you want to be a pastor?” Bekah asked. “I mean, a real pastor, not a youth pastor.”
“I guess,” Rob answered. “As Martin Branner’s only son, my options were limited.”
“Oh.” Bekah thought over his words. “Then you understand how I feel about being a girl in the Fellowship.”
“About that,” Rob said. Bekah tensed, but his voice was mild. “This little ruckus you started up. Looks like you had ideas of overthrowing the current dictator.”
Ty Williams is Bekah’s supervisor at work, a good friend, and engaged to Bekah’s housemate. And takes it a little too personally when Bekah returns to the Fellowship.
“No,” Ty said quickly. “Don’t do that. Don’t let them take that away from you too!”
“They aren’t taking anything from me! They aren’t making me do anything. This is my decision.”
“Yeah, and it just happens to line up with what they want you to do.” Ty’s frustrated gesture took in the church, the campus, and Bekah in her buttoned-up blouse and long skirt. “How do they get in your head like this? I don’t understand anything that’s happened today!”
Nate Briscoe and Meghan Chisholm are Bekah’s childhood friends and fellow rule-breakers.
“I was just telling Bekah that she needs to move back to campus,” Meghan said.
“Well, yeah,” said Nate, his smile bright against his dark skin. “It’s wild times here, Bekah. Every night, we let the root beer flow while we rock out to Bliss and Crosby.”
Gospel songs by Philip Bliss and Fanny Crosby made up fully half the hymnal used at Bible Way. “Oh, please, Nate,” Bekah said. “You know I’m a Charles Wesley girl all the way.”
It never occurs to Nate or Meghan to expand their horizons like Bekah did. They’ll just make room for themselves within the system — until the system closes in on them.
“Don’t worry about me,” Nate said. “I know what I’m doing. Remember you said that to me?”
“No,” Bekah answered.
“When you got the job and moved off campus.” He gave a short laugh. “Funny you didn’t mention the famous Ty at the time.”
“I barely knew him then. And I am worried about you.”
“Well, thanks. But don’t be. It’s all right.” He wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “You better get out of here before somebody sees us talking.”
Bekah didn’t see him again until just before supper. She was walking from the garden with a bowl of tomatoes, and saw Nate at the wheel of the McDaniels’ van. He parked in the middle of the Oval and hopped out, holding a sheaf of papers in one hand. Bekah watched him pull a lighter from his pocket and set the papers ablaze.
Then he opened the side door of the van, tossed the burning paper into a large cardboard box inside, and slammed the door shut.
Bekah dropped the tomatoes as the interior of the minivan exploded.
Gradually Bekah realizes that the few problems she sees in the church are indicative of much deeper flaws in the system. Except that they aren’t flaws, they’re features; and the Fellowship never has taken kindly to being challenged.
The novel isn’t based entirely on my own experiences. Some elements reflect my own struggles, but I’ve also borrowed stories from the many cult-like church survivors I’ve either known or read about. But with the fall of Bill Gothard of IBLP, Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, and the whole Josh Duggar mess (his family is part of Gothard’s cult and probably fans of Vision Forum), it’s a pretty timely story. Never mind that I’ve been writing it for four years, and didn’t foresee that preachers all over the internet would steal my plot points before I could publish it
My launch is projected for autumn, but if things fall into place, it could be earlier. Meanwhile, thanks for letting me talk about my baby… I mean, my novel. I’ve put a lot of myself into it, and can’t wait to share Bekah’s story the world.
She’s pretty stoked, too.
“And I really wish you’d stay here.” Kenneth smiled, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “You’ll make a great housemother one day.”
Bekah smiled back, but thought, “I think bigger than that.”