Friday, June 13, 2014

When we Were on Fire by Addie Zierman

I grew up a Pentecostal minister's daughter. My life was youth conventions and Sunday services and orchestra practices, Sunday school and camping trips and Wednesday night Bible Study and Friday night youth groups. I love Christ; but I sometimes hate Christians ---this was a hyperbolized, slipshod statement I would throw around to speak to the fact that a lot of His followers and their traditions and rituals gave me the creeps. But I never gave up on God. I always knew that at the heart was Jesus and if Jesus was there then all of this zealot fringe could be stripped away to expose His purpose at the core.

This. Zealot. Fringe. All of this permeated with a sort of zealous energy exacerbated by the commercial success of things like WWJD and See you at the Pole and purity rings, the evangelical counterpart to anything musically popular and the zest of marketing collateral---SWAG--- with heavy acronyms, drenched in the 90s passion for symbol and emblem: loud, florescent, proud.
But we were teenagers! We were kids. We hadn't figured out or own identities and it was so easy to conform to the evangelical tropes flounced at us in colour and light. Teenagers who loved hyped euphoria so gymnasiums full of swaying youths, light percolating from the semi-dark, staccato percussion of the thrum of drum beats of worship songs, the rousing call to actions, the heavenly tongues and spirit slayings were a spiritual mosh pit.  It was a world I was sure I should want to fit into; but not one I completely understood.

Addie Zierman has captured this world pitch-perfectly. A girl unsure of herself, desperate to be popular, desperate to conform to the Jesus Freak high that permeated her friends and her older boyfriend. She wanted so much to be in love…. And so much to love… .and so much to be on fire….

The book in its early incarnation was titled after Addie’s blog “How to Talk Evangelical” and if you speak the vernacular of 1990s hyper-high neon-lit evangelical craze, then this book will be a cocoon. A safe space. Addie is brave enough to speak for those of us who have gone on and settled down ( I don’t identify Pentecostal anymore and have left the rather more charismatic publically-spirit filled notions of my upbringing behind ) and tucked some of the more pronouncedly and beguilingly..erm…unique tenets of our past in our pockets.

She parades them and with this, a vessel full of memory and confusion and insecurities, for me, was overturned.
She speaks to the hopes and dreams ---in vivid detail—I am sure many of us young, spirited teenagers yearned to live out. A high school where being a Christian was the norm and the language was spoken fluidly --- no translation required . “If they came to Jesus,”, she ruminates during See you at the Pole, “jthese people in this school, none of that would matter anymore. We would all speak a common language. “Hey, how is your walk with God?.” They would say an would be asking me and I would be able to tell them.”

I identified so acutely with Zierman’s reminiscences that I felt that she was speaking to me on a deep level I keep hidden from my current Christian walk. I don’t retreat into thinking about some of the rituals of my background. I am lucky enough to have remained a Christian while removing myself from several of the puzzle pieces that---with me---just didn’t fit—when it came to belonging to a charismatic denomination and a fire-filled generation.

When she began to speak about her fear of being called to the mission field, I thought she had stolen my Precious Moments diary from my hand. For this, fair reader, tied with becoming a minister’s wife, were my greatest fears as a youth:
“Already, you feared that God might want to send you to those places. You’d been in Sunday school long enough to know how the story goes: the voice of God comes down from the sky and asks you to go and where you don’t want to go, to do what you don’t want to do. And you have to do it anyway.”

I am a firm believer that one steps into their faith when they leave their home and home congregation. Only then can a young person fully decide whether they believe their religion for themselves, or whether it is a product of tradition and obeying one’s parents. Zierman’s life and her incendiary relationship with God becomes more complicated when she attends university and subsequently when she marries young and settles on her own. Indeed, a missions excursion to China triggers an under-the-surface anxiety that rifts her relationship with God and also to her husband. In the last half of the book, Zierman’s candid recollections and bold extrapolation of every sinful thought and act are paraded and splayed like a deck of cards. She is, in short, remarkably brave to dig so deep into herself: using pronouns so that we readers who may feel the same way can, yes, appropriate these feelings; but also identify and most wonderfully cocoon ourselves in the safety of sameness.

Alcohol, straying into the tepid waters of an almost-affair and a rail against church institutions are how the raging fires, now strange embers, are settled and Addie must discover what parts of herself are hers and what parts are the bad fruits of an environment she was pressed into that she must cut away.
She removes religion from faith and her walk and herself and her marriage are stronger because of it.
And while she journeys she never bashes the faith, she never strays from God. Instead, so like me, she wrestles with the human extensions of His house on earth.

I read this book in one sitting, absolutely dazzled by its candor--- feeling lucky and nostalgic, bemused and safe.

My one disappointment with the book was the amount of swearing. I can’t help but feel that Zierman has ostracized part of what could be a potentially larger readership. We’re not talking a word or two for emphatic example, we’re talking several f-bombs. She does explain on the Convergent blog this decision and I commend her for mulling over it and defending it; but there are people I would recommend this book to that I feel I cannot due to the explicit language.
It is  a case of knowing one’s audience and while Zierman certainly understands her readership in so many ways, she bars, I believe, an even wider readership with an unnecessary (in my opinion) infusion of language.

We speak Evangelical, yes, but we need not speak in f-bombs to do it

(but gosh, the “feeling led” the prayer warriors the Christianese KILLS me. I laughed so hard ) Also her treatise on sex, marriage and being born-again are so spot on!


“Remember that first jarring moment you understood that the world was divided? Remember Amy Grant? She was the darling of evangelicalism, the first contemporary Christian musician to score a platinum record and show the world that evangelicals could achieve excellence in the arts” (this quote for Sonja)

“When he talked about faith, he used words like revival, words like spiritual battles and prayer warrior and sacrifice. He signed his e-mails and letters with the phrase Consumed by the Call”

“You sing, one song ending, someone starting another, worship strung together like lights on a string until the last song ends and the sound of the final note is so perfect, so absolute, that you all somehow know it is time to turn the motor back on, go back in.”

“I was so tired. I’d spent the last four years defending a faith I was sure was being attacked” ├čremember when you realized that your faith wasn’t being attacked? All the peer pressure and hatred that boiled up in the words of Christians I never experienced in high school. I was fine. But I had my armour on anyways. Gosh. What a world.

“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 crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.”

 I received this book from WaterBrook/Convergent 

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