What the Hell (House)? Discussing *Small Town Sinners* (Faith & Fiction Roundtable)

Melissa Walker’s YA novel Small Town Sinners (review to be posted

on Monday) is the subject of the Faith & Fiction Roundtable’s current book discussion.

The novel is focused on a group of teen members of the House of Enlightenment Evangelical church in the small town of West River as they prepare for their annual Hell House presentation/spiritual outreach project, and centered on Lacey Anne Byer, daughter of the assistant pastor.

If you’ve never encountered a Hell House in your town’s various Halloween observances, here’s a brief explanation:

“A Hell House consists of a group of horrific scenes within a type of haunted house. The customer walks through a sequence of tableaus designed to create terror and revulsion. The last scene is different; it is typically a portrayal of heaven. The visitors are then asked to accept salvation by repenting of their sins and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Hell Houses are a relatively new evangelistic technique used by many hundreds of fundamentalist and other evangelical churches in North America. One intent is to proselytize the unsaved public. Another is to promote certain conservative Christian beliefs.”

The House of Enlightenment’s Hell House includes several typical scenes:

  • “Gays and lesbians being tortured in hell for all eternity because of their same-sex behavior while they were alive on earth
  • Disastrous tragedies and loss of life resulting from drunk driving
  • Personal tragedies arising from pre-marital sex, notably
  • Women undergoing very bloody late-term abortions, complete with screaming, lots of blood, and particularly insensitive, uncaring health providers”

The last two items play critical roles (no pun intended) in the plot of Small Town Sinners. Lacey hopes to be cast in the leading role of “Abortion Girl” in this year’s Hell House, but since it’s the first year she’s old enough to audition for a big part, she’s made the understudy. However, she moves up when Tessa, the senior girl who was originally chosen for the role, has to drop out of the production…because she’s pregnant, and will be sent to a home for unwed mothers several hours’ drive from West River until she has the baby and gives it up for adoption.

While Lacey’s excited about her star turn, Tessa’s experience is one new development that’s fueling some new questions about her church’s teachings. Both girls had signed “purity pledges” and wore rings to signify that; and while it’s obvious that Tessa didn’t keep hers, Lacey can’t suddenly see her friend as a bad person because of it. Another catalyst for Lacey’s new doubts is the arrival of good-looking Ty Davis, returned to West River after ten years away. Ty’s grown up having had some different experiences than Lacey and her friends, and has his own reasons for wanting very little to do with Hell House.

I didn’t grow up in an evangelical/fundamentalist tradition, and I’ve never been to a Hell House – and it’s probably a good thing. I am not a fan of religious scare tactics; to me, they seem to run counter to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, and I would not respond well to this type of presentation. A few members of the Roundtable group have attended them, however – and they didn’t consider the productions to be very effective at the “salvation outreach” portion of their mission, although they did succeed in being plenty scary! A couple of group members wondered whether having teens portray “sins” the way they do in Hell House presentations might actually desensitize them to real problems like drunk driving, suicide, and the consequences of unprotected sex, and I’m inclined to share that view.

Members of the Roundtable are discussing Small Town Sinners on our blogs today. If you’ve read the book, please join us! And even if you haven’t, what do you think of Hell Houses?

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