“Musical chairs. Except I thought, when God’s providing the music, everyone gets a chair.” – Who is My Shelter?
I am drawn to authors who are unafraid to tackle difficult topics with honesty. Rarely do our real-life stories end in neat packages tied up with pretty bows. We are not perfect. We make stupid decisions. Bad things happen to us. We navigate choppy, messy waters, dependent upon a big, gracious, faithful God to see us safely home.
Neta Jackson has been telling stories all of her life. A self-described bookworm, she experienced the thrill of publishing while just a senior in high school, when her short story about a mountain lion was published in Scholastic Magazine. Neta met her husband Dave while at Multnomah College; when she transferred to Wheaton during her sophomore year, they wrote letters back and forth two or three times a week. This began the literary collaboration that has stretched across the 46 years of their marriage and 120 books in several genres.
Though Neta and Dave do not always function as coauthors, they are each others cheerleaders, brain storming buddies and first editors. It was out of this supportive creative environment that Neta’s hit series, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, was born. Set in Chicago, the Yada Yada books trace several years in the lives of 12 cross-cultural women who are initially thrown together at a Christian conference. The main character, Jodi Baxter, is a mother of two teenagers and an elementary school teacher who, at first, can’t see what she’ll have in common with the others in the group. She is a “good Christian girl” from white suburbia whose world is forever changed as she develops relationships with black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, older and younger women.
The seven Yada Yada books spawned several sub-series linked together by common characters and setting. The House of Hope novels follow Gabby Fairbanks as her marriage falls apart and she learns how to rely on God. The Harry Bentley duo, written by Dave Jackson, tells the story of a middle-aged black man who takes in his grandson while embarking on a new relationship and grappling with the fallout from his former job as a cop. The SouledOut Sisters invite us into the life of Avis Douglass, the leader of the Yada Yada group, during a crisis point in her faith-life – a point that coincides with her meeting the spirited Kat Davies. The Windy City Neighbors, which Neta and Dave are currently writing together, trace a season in the lives of those living on Beecham Street.
Throughout each novel run themes of forgiveness, grace and racial reconciliation. Neta does not shy away from highlighting the very real problems that arise in cross-cultural relationships. Mistrust and misunderstanding arise frequently. Assumptions are made. Each character is forced to admit to her prejudices and decide if its worth working through the differences. This alone is brave and real storytelling, but Neta takes it a step farther. She includes characters who have done time in prison and who have been in and out of homeless shelters. She forces the protagonists – and the readers – to confront and dismantle the boundaries they have placed on the Gospel. She declares that the mercy of God runs deeper and wider than we truly realize.
Novels in the Christian market typically fall into a formula, which usually includes: girl meets boy, crisis, girl and boy are separated, crisis resolved, girl and boy live happily ever after. All very safe and sanitized (and often set in Amish country). Neta shuns that model. Her characters are flawed people who argue with their spouses, say stupid things to their friends, make bad decisions and aren’t the most stellar of parents. They are people exactly like you and me.
Neta manages to share the Gospel in each of her books without sounding falsely pious or preachy. Because her characters grapple with real issues, it is natural for them to wrestle with faith, ask questions and have doubts. It makes sense for them to speak of God. These scenes are not contrived or forced. Neta does not force God into the story to make it palatable for evangelical readers. He is there from the first page to the last page.
And He is good.
For all entries in the 31 Days for the Ladies series, go here.