Is it Christian, or is it Heresy?
The questionable teen novels of Melody Carlson
Review by Linda Harvey, Mission America
Part Two: Deceiving Spirits
Strange spiritual practices surface in the Carlson novels, Bad Connection and Pay Back, books one and four in the series, "The Secret Life of Samantha McGregor" ( 2006 and 2008, Multnomah Books). Here the focus is astonishing and some would say, heretical territory. I would be among the critics in this camp.
The heroine is Samantha McGregor, an otherwise exemplary Christian teen, except for one small issue: she is having dreams and visions, usually involving people in danger, and she believes these come from God. After her first troubling paranormal experiences, she links up with Ebony, a policewoman and the former partner of her deceased policeman father. Concluding that the visions and dreams are probably from God (even though God has not told her that, nor given her any other clear instruction about them), Samantha allows the police to use her insights to track down and rescue a kidnapped friend (book one) and prevent a mass shooting at a high school prom by a troubled teen boy (book four).
Despite Carlson’s strong caution in an introductory note against taking the story too seriously or seeking these gifts for themselves, teen readers are sure to want to do just that. Samantha’s experiences do not resemble dreams and visions in Scripture, but are more like the wish list of every sensation-seeking adolescent. Carlson is charting tempting and high-risk territory, her stern advisory notwithstanding.
In the Bible, when God’s people experience visions or dreams, they are almost always given direct instruction or interpretation from a self-identified angel or from God Himself, or they are told the revealed meaning will come later. In the few cases where this does not happen, the dreams are not of such a compelling nature that the dreamer feels driven to act. An example is the experience of Joseph in Genesis 37. Joseph has two dreams: one, where his sheaf of wheat receives tribute from those of his family, and another where the sun, moon and stars bow down to him. No interpretation is given, but these are not dreams that need immediate response. The meaning does become clear at a later time.
Samantha, by contrast, has no dreams/visions in either of these two books that come from a self-identified angel or directly from God. All are left mysteriously unexplained, yet all disturb her and would drive most caring people to action. Most involve people she knows in danger; sometimes she becomes the person and sees through their eyes. For a teenager to ignore such dreams would be nearly impossible. And she is never provided clear direction about what to do, leaving her in turmoil over the uncertainty.
Yet any suggestion that she is a medium or New Ager is met with harsh denials:
“I am not a medium!....I’m a Christian and I believe that God gives me these visions and dreams. But it’s very different than being a medium. The Bible makes it clear that we should avoid mediums and psychics and sorcerers...and I do “( Bad Connection, p.184).
These vehement protestations pepper the book as well as the author’s note, which makes the presence of these un-biblical supernatural events quite confusing. Will most teens have the discernment to realize they are being duped? Not likely.
Samantha’s supernatural experiences bear a striking resemblance to New Age encounters, first, in not clearly originating from God. Her visions often start with a burst of light, which is the report given by many occult practitioners. Sometimes this follows an intense time of prayer. She is urged to learn to relax and meditate, which aids her ability to have visions ( BC, p.98,166-167). When she “needs” to prompt a vision in order to help the police, her best friend Olivia gives her advice: “Maybe you shouldn’t try so hard...Maybe God needs you to be more relaxed” (BC,p.52).
Her deceased father often seems nearby as Samantha senses his presence (Bad Connection, p.32, 95; Pay Back ,p. 71). Her brother and her mother mention this, too ( PB ,p. 71,158). Samantha knows it’s not right to pray to him, but she feels he is with God as she prays, and that her dad may know where her missing mom is ( PB, p. 101). She can even sense the presence of living people in trouble. Her missing friend Kayla seems nearby as Samantha rehearses for a school play ( BC, p.42). And by going to Kayla’s home and spending time in her room, Samantha is twice able to prompt visions helping to determine the missing girl’s whereabouts ( BC, p. 82, 187). This has all the earmarks of magic, where practitioners believe that personal items can prompt supernatural knowledge.
Scripture is often used by Samantha for direction. She simply flips to a passage and voila! She receives a needed clue from God (BC, p.43-44; p.59-60). To be fair, Samantha spends a lot of time praying. However, it’s curious that mentions of Jesus Christ are few and far between in these books. The name of God is brought up frequently. When Samantha’s mother becomes a believer after narrowly escaping murder by a felonious boyfriend, her new faith is in God; Jesus is not mentioned:
“’...I honestly felt like I met God, almost like face to face out there in the desert....And I told God I wanted to give my life to Him”’(PB ,p.158).
Throughout the stories, Samantha is constantly looking for explanations and clear direction from God, and is often quite distressed about how to decipher these mysterious visions. Eventually she accepts them with a level of comfort, even revelations of kidnapping, murder, her own mother’s life in jeopardy, and the threat of mass murder at a high school prom. The burden on her teenaged shoulders to correctly interpret the unexplained is enormous, and she frets over whether other Christians will think her gifts are “kind of New Agey” (BC, p .53). Her best friend reassures her, though:
“’....I think some Christians shortchange God. It’s like they want to put Him in this little tiny box. How can anyone say that God can’t gift anyone in any way He chooses? He’s God, isn’t He?....I believe God has lots and lots of gifts to give His kids...But maybe some of us are just too busy to notice”’( BC, pp. 53-54).
Is there any instance in Scripture where anyone failed to notice a dream or vision that was genuinely from God? Wouldn’t Jeremiah or Jonah have loved for God to leave them alone at times? They did not always want to continue in their prophetic roles, but they never doubted the origin of the messages.
Carlson has constructed tales that are deviously seductive for her target audience. What teenager wouldn’t want to believe she/he is getting messages from God? How exciting. Even more so, if you can occasionally bring them on yourself.
This is exactly why “contemplative prayer,” so-called "spiritual formation" and divination tools are becoming so popular today among teens. The undiscerning believer may think that a self-directed, stimulating supernatural experience through an altered state of consciousness means one has made contact with God. But the enemy uses our selfish desires for sensation and control over circumstances to deceive us.
And Carlson’s stories will, I’m sorry to say, lead many teens into just this type of false faith.