Sometimes when you have grown up in a certain discourse community, or a group of people who share a common “language,” you learn to spout off sayings without even thinking about them. In the Christian world, some of these sayings include “born again,” “saved,” “lost.” You forget that outsiders don’t really know what these things mean. You yourself become desensitized to their real meaning. You can lose your faith when you realize that fellow church goers aren’t interested in probing for deeper meaning, or for deep relationships. Such was the case with Addie Zierman, who has recorded her experiences for curious readers.
Addie’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, shares the experience of someone who was steeped in evangelical culture from birth, thought she was on fire for God…and then fizzled out, realizing that what she’d always believed in was a lot of clichés that didn’t personally ring true.
Addie goes through a period of disillusionment, in which she starts to see that many of the Christians she knows don’t really care to get to know her and her problems; they want to gloss over the messiness of life with quick fixes, like “You will never be lonely with Jesus.”
“Yeah, but that thing about never being lonely? Sometimes I am,” Addie tells her Bible study group, and the leader responds, “Thanks for the feedback, Addie, we’re not really going there today. Now, let’s move on to question five” (a paraphrase).
Never being “heard” in Christian circles leads Addie to her rebellious-slash-depressed period, in which she tries to drown her sorrows in alcohol and an “almost” affair.
A turning point, if there is one, comes when Addie finds out she is pregnant. She decides she doesn’t want to be bitter for her son’s sake; plus, it feels like time to get over the past.
It’s sad to me that she’s still sort of cynical at the end; although the place she leaves the book might be just right for making her point that faith isn’t simple. A testimony can’t be broken into before and after, black and white, dark and light (and this is a point I’ve made on my blog, too).
I really appreciate Zierman’s honest look at how her faith hurt her. Particularly well done were her scenes dealing with her ex boyfriends, paragons of virtue she aspired to imitate. She makes the point that a heart can be broken even if one “saves herself for marriage”; this happened to her by her boyfriend Chris, who, in trying to be a model missionary, exploited Addie’s innocence and broke her heart.
I also was affected by the theme of Christian clichés throughout the book—or Addie’s point that certain “evangelical-words-turned-weapons” “have grown so heavy; they groan, now, under the weight of all their baggage.” Some of her examples:
Like when you say, Sorry, I’m dating Jesus right now in order to terminate the possibility of a relationship with all its messiness, all of its complexity, all of its potential for breaking your heart.
You say, I’m saving myself for marriage, as if the heart can only be broken by the act of sex…
You tell the Church People you are lonely, and they say, Let God be your friend or they say, What a friend we have in Jesus! And what you hear is that you don’t have the right to be lonely, that if your faith was stronger than this, bigger than this, you would be happy.
And then, the main point of her book (to me):
And it occurs to you that the real work of faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.
I read through this book ravenously, because it spoke to some of the same issues I am lately unearthing by writing to my roots. I feel Addie’s rage at being fed cliché after cliché without equally experiencing practical demonstrations of Christ’s love. The thing is, as she writes in her author’s interview, people like her ex, Chris, are so steeped in the language, the clichés of Christianity, that they don’t even realize that, in following a God-appointed “mission,” they are hurting others directly in their path—doing “what Jesus would never do.”
It’s not entirely fair to blame other Christians. As Addie admitted, and as I will admit, we are guilty of also being the “Super Christian, bowling over others’ feelings with [our] passion. [We] have been unkind and careless more times than [we] care to admit. [We’ve] missed the loneliness of others simply because [we weren’t] really looking.” Yes. I know I’ve done that. And I repent of it, and after reading someone else’s experience of being on the other end, I pray God helps me to stop it!
The F-bomb (along with lots of alcohol) starts showing up in the latter parts, when Addie enters her “rebellious” stage (warning, for you sensitive souls). Though it hurt my sensibilities, too, I did have to chuckle when she wrote, post-rebellion: “Though I’m trying to watch my language, sometimes fuck is just the right word” (paraphrased again). I see in Addie aspects of myself that I’m not proud of, but that are nonetheless there. She’s right; sometimes it is (the right word). Though I don’t condone swearing, I have to admit I do it sometimes; moreover, I think Addie’s done an important work in being real on the page so we imperfect Christians can finally relate.
I would have liked to see Addie delve deeper into why she fell so low. As my book consultant wrote in her review of this same work, it seems Addie didn’t quite reach as deeply as she could have to describe what plummeted her into depression. It seemed to come too quickly, without enough explanation. Maybe the excellent foregoing chapters of her childhood/adolescence were the explanation, though. I can testify that a long build-up of factors can suddenly mushroom into catastrophe; after a lot of disappointment in life, you don’t need a cataclysmic rainstorm to wash you out—maybe just a little sprinkle.
I highly recommend this book if you have issues with your faith or want to understand evangelical culture better. For me, the book has been inspiring on multiple levels: I feel both validated as a disillusioned Christian, and energized to write about my similar, yet different, experience. My memoir (currently in revision stages) ends in a better place than hers: that is, I don’t leave my church, and I discover a real answer for the clichés, which is The Hidden Half of the Gospel, or the message of my first co-written book, expected to come out in January. Maybe when the book comes out, I’ll send Addie a copy. I feel we could be good friends.