And teens not only desire romances of their own, but stories about such romances—to see their experience reflected in narrative, to see people like them dealing with feelings like theirs.
Most tales of first love involve too much sin for Christian teens to enjoy them without guilt. But there is one kind of story that has captured the imagination of teens in courtship culture: a romance of extenuating circumstances that allows for teenagers to experience a kind of marriage.
It’s not that these teenage readers and viewers actually want to get married right away. They just want to experience first love, but they have internalized the ideal that marriage is the only acceptable context for this experience. The teen-marriage-of-extenuating-circumstances plot is a mini-genre with reliable appeal to teenagers in courtship culture.
We can see this in the success of three novels-turned-films-turned-pop-culture-phenomena: A Walk to Remember, the Twilight series, and most recently, The Fault in Our Stars. All three are stories where first love meets last love.
A Walk to Remember swept through the nation’s youth groups in 2002, when Nicholas Sparks’ 1999 novel was adapted into a film starring Mandy Moore and Shane West. Despite being widely panned by critics, it went on to become a modest box-office success; Christianity Todayran a piece in 2002 identifying it as “a hit with American evangelical audiences.”
Nearly every female student at my Christian college cherished fond memories of A Walk to Remember. It tells the story of pious high schooler Jamie Sullivan (Moore), the incarnation of everything Christian girls were told to be: kind, unassuming, unflappable in the face of ridicule, bold in asserting her faith—and a radiant beauty, of course. Jamie Sullivan sure knows how to work an ankle-length jumper, and her winsome Christianity looks so good on her that she is able to lure in a hot bad boy.
What then unfolds is a kind of twisted best-case scenario for an infatuated Christian high schooler, because Jamie has a whopper of an extenuating circumstance: leukemia. With only a year or two left to live, she is allowed the luxury of her own emotions: “I think God wants me to be happy.” Her boyfriend, in his passion, converts to Christianity and asks her to marry him, since marriage is the only way for them to legitimize and consummate their relationship.
Jamie is married at 18 and dies months later—and with her dies the chance that their relationship might ever soured, changed, or matured. Jamie is permitted to pursue her first love because it is, by necessity, also her last and only love. And so Christian teens were given permission to fantasize about a first love of their own— so long as marriage is part of the fantasy.
The Twilight series was less overtly Christian and less publicly celebrated in Christian circles, but nevertheless exerted a tremendous pull on young Christian women from the first book's release in 2005 to the last film's premiere in 2012. Twilight is, above all, serious about sex and romance. In Twilight, dating is every bit as dangerous as Joshua Harris says it is. Edward Cullen is constantly reminding Bella that he’s a threat to her, that they must cool their passions, be deliberate and cautious. There’s an in-universe explanation for this (he’s a vampire), but the Christian teen audience looks at Edward and Bella’s tortured, lip-biting longsuffering and sees a mirror—only a slight exaggeration of the kinds of conversations that young Christians in relationships have all the time.