Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, by Frank Schaeffer

schaefferFirst, let’s get the terminology issue out of the way — although the title is a wonderful attention-grabber, Frank Schaeffer is not an atheist by any common definition of the word. I’d say he’s a very liberal Christian who attends an Orthodox church because he likes the liturgy, despite not believing in all the tenets of Orthodoxy. He’s certainly an agnostic in the sense that (I believe) every truly intellectually honest person is an agnostic — admitting that we cannot know for certain whether or not any god or gods exist — but on the whole, his praxis comes down on the side of tentative belief. He prays, even when he’s not sure who’s listening.

It’s worth noting that in the Afterword he thanks Samir Salmanovic, whose book It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian plays with religious descriptors in a similar way. Clearly, the two writers share the same approach: grab the reader’s attention with your title and get them thinking about what words like “atheist,” “Christian” and “belief” really mean.

I think the key to Schaeffer’s ambiguity about belief and unbelief is found in his subtitle: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace. The book, which unfolds partly as a memoir, partly as a collection of reflections on life and spirituality, argues — insofar as it makes an argument at all — that belief or unbelief don’t matter that much. If belief in God helps you give love, create beauty, and find peace, then that’s great. If your faith works against those things — as Schaeffer would probably argue that much of the evangelical world in which he grew up did — then it’s better abandoned. Relationships, art, moments of transcendence and joy — those are the things that matter, not what church you go to or whether you go at all.

Schaeffer is by no means a theologian and this book is not a book of either theology or a-theology — it’s a collection of thoughts, stories and impressions rather than a coherent argument for a proposition. This is sometimes frustrating — for example, Schaeffer draws a very clear line between following Jesus, whom he sees as loving, forgiving and accepting, versus following the Bible, a book he condemns as being mainly harsh and vindictive. But of course this entirely elides an important question: how do we know that Jesus is loving, forgiving and accepting — indeed, how do we know anything about Jesus at all — if we reject the Bible? Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God does not exist to tackle those kinds of questions. It exists as, perhaps, a series of postcards from Frank Schaeffer’s spiritual journey. 

If, like me, you read Schaeffer’s autobiography Crazy for God and were curious to know where the author landed spiritually after his turbulent journey from the home of one of the late twentieth century’s most famous evangelical preachers, to the secular life he now lives, then this book will answer your questions. If you are struggling yourself with how to balance your belief and your unbelief, a few thoughts from someone who’s walking along the same path — but who never claims to have any of the answers — may be helpful as well.



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Jesus Feminist, by Sarah Vessey

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copyI always feel that books with titles like “Jesus Feminist” (subtitle: “An invitation to revisit the Bible’s view of women”) are meant to be more attention-grabbing to people who, unlike me, don’t already believe that being feminist is completely congruent with being a Jesus-follower. To some extent, then, a book like this is “preaching to the choir” in the hands of a Christian feminist like me.

However, it’s great to hear a variety of voices joining the conversation, and Sarah Bessey has a lot to contribute to this discussion. I’ve categorized the book as a memoir, and it is partly that: Bessey tells about her own experience growing up in a conservative evangelical setting, marrying, and encountering various attitudes to women and women’s ministries within the different churches she was part of, all of which helped shape her own adult views of Christianity and feminism. What I particularly enjoyed, apart from her warm and frank voice, is that she writes from the perspective of  having grown up in and moved back to Canada (albeit with several formative young-adult years spent in American evangelical churches). Most of the progressive voices I hear coming from within the evangelical church tend to be American, so it’s good to hear someone from this country taking up some of these issues and sharing her experience.

Bessey goes beyond just sharing her own life story, however, to explore many issues around women’s role in the church, with time spent analyzing Biblical texts in context. One refreshing addition to what was, to me, a familiar survey of the issues, is her insistence that any exploration of the role of women in ministry must be placed firmly in the context of service, and particularly of service with our sisters in the developing world. This is an important point, although in making it Bessey passes over some troubling issues, such as the fact that many of those same developing countries where the Christian faith is growing and vibrant, and Christian women play vital roles in evangelism, are also the countries where Christians are most likely to be implacably opposed to equal recognition of women’s gifts in ministry, particularly if that involves ordaining women to the ministry. This is an uncomfortable reality that all of us Western feminist Christians need to grapple with, and I’d like to have seen it touched on here.

I would be really interested to see how this book resonates with a Christian reader who isn’t already convinced that women and men are equally “one in Christ Jesus” and in Christian ministry. Would Sarah Bessey’s experience and arguments be convincing to such a reader? I don’t know, but I did find this a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

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Time+OutLiane Shaw’s memoir grabbed my attention because it’s about teaching emotionally/behaviorally disturbed children, a job she fell into almost by accident. Before becoming the YA author she is today, Liane Shaw was a special-ed teacher, but Time Out tells the story of how she ended up teaching in a classroom with a handful of elementary-school boys who were such serious behavior problems that they couldn’t fit into any other program in the school system. There was no structured programming in that school system at that time designed to meet these kids’ needs, and Shaw had no training specific to their problems, but she found herself drafted into the job simply because there was no-one else to do it — and because she learned to care about these kids.

This memoir is reminiscent, in some ways, of the Tori Hayden and Mary MacCracken books about teaching severely disturbed kids which I used to read when I was in my late teens and early 20s. However, while this book shares the gritty reality of teaching these types of kids that books like One Child and Lovey,  there’s much more of a sense here of a teacher who is really just figuring it out as she goes along and wondering if she’s making any positive difference at all in these boys’ lives. In other words, there are no heartwarming miracles here. That’s not to say that the book won’t warm your heart — it will. But rather than a single moving story with a hopeful ending there’s a tangled ball of stories with a variety of endings and, in the saddest cases, no ending at all — because teachers sometimes lose touch with students, and never find out how things worked out for them.

I was interested in this story because although I’m not a special-ed teacher, some of the adult learners I work with are the same kids who were the unsolvable behavioral problems in elementary school. By high school, most of those kids have dropped out of the system; those who manage to get things together enough to come back to school eventually often do it through adult-ed programs like the one I teach in. So I was intrigued to get the teacher’s-eye-view of what their early lives might have been like.

A huge piece of my philosophy in working with young people is to remember that I can’t be the magical teacher who fixes everything for them and makes their lives OK. I can be one positive person, who person who helped and encouraged them, along with other helpers — often set against a large pile of people who were negative influences or discouraged them. To bring one good thing into the lives of the people I work with is my goal — and I felt in reading this book that that was what Liane Shaw learned too in working with these very challenging kids. You can’t do everything, and if you try to, you’ll make yourself crazy. But you can do something.

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April 24, 2014 · 11:39 pm

Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

wildgodThis is an interesting book by acclaimed non-fiction writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who I know best as the author of the insightful Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This new book is something of a memoir, but it’s more reminiscent to me of David Carr’s Night of the Gun than of most memoirs (though the subject matter is very different). That is to say that instead of telling and reflecting on the story of her life as most writers do in a memoir, Ehrenreich (who seems, throughout, very uncomfortable with the idea of telling any part of her own life story) is examining her own past with the same journalistic eye she has turned on the lives of others, not so much remembering and recreating her past as putting it under the microscope.

And “under the microscope” is an apt place for her past to be, since one recurring theme in the story is young Barbara’s development into the scientist her father wanted her to be. The father-issues, and family issues in general, which are as dysfunctional as anything Jeannette Walls or similar memoirists have to offer, are sidelined here. The focus is not on how Ehrenreich’s admittedly screwed-up family made her the person she became (though inevitably, that’s part of the discussion), but on the search for truth in which she was engaged from a young age.

This “truth” took two forms: the hard scientific truth of the observable world, which Ehrenreich, raised an atheist, early embraced as her lens for understanding the world. But breaking through that worldview were a series of odd experiences she had a hard time understanding or labelling, beginning in her early teens — moments when the observable world of the senses seemed to slip away and she was left observing reality on a different level. She clearly finds it hard, even now, to describe those experiences in language that communicates well to the reader, though she does note that they were probably similar to incidents of “dissociation” as described by some people in the mental health community. Ehrenreich did not experience these as episodes of illness and did not seek help for them, but she did seek to understand them — a quest that she laid aside for many years in adulthood and then returned to in later life as she re-read her old journals and shaped her questions into this book.

The brief dissociative episodes climaxed in her late teens with a single episode that, for a person from a different background, might easily have been described as a vision, or at least a spiritual experience. It changed Ehrenreich and changed how she saw the world, yet she had no language, no framework within which to share or understand this experience. At this point in the story she acknowledges that many people have these kinds of experiences — people from a variety of backgrounds — and that one of the uses of religion is to give people a “container” within which to hold them. So an evangelical Christian might say that the Holy Spirit overcame them; a devout Catholic might come away from such a moment convinced she had been visited by the Virgin Mary; a Hindu or Buddhist might speak of achieving a moment of perfect enlightenment. But what does a smart, convinced and rather troubled young atheist do with such an experience?

Ehrenreich’s answer seemed to be, for a long time, nothing. Put it on the back shelf and get on with life. The intense and overwhelming experience was not repeated, and only much later in life, when going through her own journals, does she return to those early experiences that might be termed “spiritual” and try to puzzle out what they meant.

Believers who note the title and expect this to be a story of an atheist’s “finding God” will be disappointed. The key word in the title is not “God” but “wild.” This is, perhaps, the story of an atheist shifting her perception of reality a little to include the one belief that unites all religions: that there is something else “out there.” Something that can’t be measured using the scientific instruments and knowledge we currently have; something that we are connected to on a deeper level. But she is adamant that she cannot believe this “Other” to be in any way analogous to the God of Christianity or any other mainstream religion. If anything, what she’s reaching for in her conclusion seems to be a kind of paganism, an acknowledgement that animists are not entirely wrong when they imbue the sky and mountains and rivers with “spirit.” There is, in Ehrenreich’s view, something out there, if not someone personified as a god or goddess. Something that is deeply connected to the natural world but not observable by us in the way the natural world is observable — something that occasionally, for some people, breaks through our everyday perceptions, that some will choose to label as God or a god or the gods.

If this review sounds a little vague it’s because the book is too, sometimes, and it may frustrate those who are looking for a more traditional narrative such as you would generally find in a memoir. It’s also, as I said, frustrating for anyone who might have hoped Ehrenreich’s quest would lead her towards traditional religion. But I, reading it from the perspective of a believer listening to a nonbeliever’s narrative, found it fascinating to hear a spiritual experience described from the perspective of a person who didn’t view the world through a spiritual or religious lens. Ehrenreich’s narrative confirms my belief that this sense of “something else out there” underlies all religion — and of course, in my view, points to the reality that there really is something out there. 

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Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

orangeisthenew When I finally got Netflix one of the first things I wanted to watch was the highly-acclaimed series Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. About three episodes in and really enjoying the series, I decided to read the book. I was afraid reading the book might give me some spoilers for the TV series but really, they are so different that reading/watching one will have no impact on your enjoyment of the other. Orange is the New Black is an excellent and interesting memoir, and Orange is the New Black is a great TV series, but apart from superficial, surface similarities they don’t have a lot of do with each other.

The surface similarity is: both the book and the TV show that it inspired are about a middle-class, well-educated white woman named Piper who is sentenced to 15 years in a medium-security women’s prison for a drug-smuggling crime she committed ten years earlier. Piper, who is bisexual, used to be involved with a woman who ran drugs for a living and briefly got involved in crime through that relationship. Years later, when she is living a fairly typical middle-class New York life and engaged to be married to a man named Larry, Piper’s past catches up with her when her former girlfriend is arrested and charged and names Piper as having been involved in the drug-running operation. Piper pleads guilty and goes to prison for a short but eye-opening stay.

That’s the story of the book, and it’s pretty much the story of the TV series so far (although the series has been so successful I’m worried about that fifteen-month sentence; I wonder if they’re going to have Piper committing crimes in prison to get her stay extended so the series can stay on the air for ten years. I wouldn’t put it past American TV). But there the similarities end. Piper Kerman, the book’s author, shares only a first name and a few biographical details with Piper Chapman, the TV series character played so well by Taylor Schilling. The real Piper Kerman is a lot smarter and a lot more mature, and her stay in prison, while giving her a lot of insight into the lives of people different from her and into the problems inherent in the US prison system, passes fairly quietly and without a lot of drama. The other women she meets in prison are fascinating character sketches, but it’s a short book and their characters are not developed in-depth.

The TV series takes these background characters and fleshes them out wonderfully with a brilliant cast. It also adds all the drama the memoir lacks. I respect the real Piper Kerman greatly and think she’s an admirable person; she doesn’t seem like she would ever have been dumb enough or self-absorbed enough to make some of the bad decisions Piper Chapman makes on TV. But of course, it’s the results of those terrible decisions that make for compelling viewing!

One thing I liked a lot in the book that is missing from the TV series is that Piper Kerman had the opportunity, while in prison, to see the results of heroin addiction in real people’s lives, which led her for the first time to feel genuine remorse about her involvement in smuggling and selling that drug. That was an important revelation: while it’s obvious (and Kerman frequently asserts) that the “War on Drugs” in the US has been badly mismanaged and led to a lot of people serving prison sentences who probably shouldn’t be, it’s important also to have the balancing realization that a lot of these drugs are deadly and the people who help put them on the streets are genuinely hurting others. Even though a character in the TV series dies from a drug overdose, the focus of the story is on the corrupt guard who brought drugs into the prison; TV Piper never has the self-awareness to connect such horrific outcomes to her own crime.

I highly recommend both reading the book and watching the series (though the series, being made for Netflix rather than the networks, is definitely not for those who are uncomfortable with raw language and graphic scenes!!). Just remember that they are two very different works of art, each great in their own way. 

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When We Were on Fire, by Addie Zierman

when-we-were-on-fire-682x1024When We Were on Fire is a raw, intense, very personal memoir about growing up in the thick of 1990s American conservative Christian culture. Many of the cultural details of the world in which Addie Zierman came of age will resonate with those who lived through it — “See You At the Pole” prayer gatherings, WWJD bracelets, Christian rock concerts, and the obsessive focus on finding a path in life — including a partner — that fit “God’s will for your life.” Essentially, this is a young woman’s story of how she grew up in that culture and discovered as a young adult that she no longer believed in much of what she had been taught and was ill-equipped for marriage and maturity. It’s about a journey out of fundamentalism into an adult appreciation of life and faith. 

While Zierman doesn’t reject every aspect of her Christian faith, or blame the church for every bad thing that happened to her, she is unflinching (and sometimes quite funny) in pointing out the limits of that worldview and the ways in which she failed — at least partly as a result of her religious environment — to develop an adult approach to life and relationships. She’s a good writer and the book is compelling and very readable. If I have one critique it’s the same one I’ve levelled against some other memoirs (Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a prime example) in that Zierman still seems to be very close, both chronologically and emotionally, to the events she’s writing about. Allowing a few years to pass might have made the book a little richer and deeper by giving a greater sense of perspective on her young-adult struggles, but on the other hand there’s a raw immediacy here that might have been lost if that were the case. That concern aside, When We Were on Fire is a memoir that will probably be interesting to most people who’ve grown up in a conservative religious world and come to question the faith that shaped them. 

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I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

iammalalaBy now I guess most people have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to go to school and speak out about girls’ right to an education. This very readable memoir tells Malala’s story in her own words, situating her tragedy and triumph in the place she comes from. The reader will learn a lot about the Swat Valley area of Pakistan, the Pashtun culture into which Malala was born, and the way in which the Taliban gradually gained power in the region. We also get to know Malala’s family, particularly her father who is obviously a major influence in her life and was crusading for the right of young people of both genders to be educated before Malala was even born. It’s clear as the story unfolds that Malala gets her activism from her father but also that her desire to get an education and to speak out for her right to do so came naturally from the person she is. The other thing that came through quite clearly to me in her story is that even though Malala is a crusader and has been caught up in political and religious conflicts that many adults don’t even fully understand, she is also a teenaged girl. At the time she was shot (at age 15) her life consisted of going to school and giving interviews and speeches about the importance of education, but it also consisted of competing for top grades with the other smartest girl in her class, worrying about her physics exam, arguing and making up with her best friend and her brother, and comparing her life to that of characters in the Twilight novels.

Anyone who’s heard Malala’s story and wants to know more about what happened to her, and see her story in the context of what’s happening in Pakistan today, would enjoy reading this book.

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Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed, by Glennon Doyle Melton

carryonwarriorGlennon Doyle Melton is the blogger behind the very popular “Momastery” blog, famous for searingly honest glimpses into her life and the lives of her family. She’s a survivor of alcoholism, addiction and bulimia, whose primary message is that radical honesty — embracing and sharing your weakness rather than trying to appear strong — is the only thing that gets us through the madness that is life. Her book has the same frank, funny, generous tone as her blog, and fills in her story in a more chronological way. She’s a Christian whose work is loved by readers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the non-religious, because her stance is one of absolute openness and acceptance.

My favourite statement from Glennon comes from the intro to her blog, where she writes: “I love Jesus, gay people, adoption, and rearranging furniture. In the interest of combining all my loves, I have asked Jesus to help me adopt Nate Berkus.” If that statement makes you laugh and warms your heart, then you’ll probably love both her blog and her book, so check ‘em out.


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Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

pastrixI’ve been a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber since I read and reviewed her first book, Salvation on the Small Screen?, in which this liberal Lutheran pastor watches and comments on twenty-four hours of evangelical Christian television on TBN. I sometimes read her sermons on her blog, Sarcastic Lutheran (the name alone would be enough to hook me). In many ways she’s the stereotypical hipster liberal Christian — she pastors a small church plant that welcomes gays and lesbians as well as anyone else who has trouble fitting into the traditional church mold; she peppers her writing and even her sermons with swear words; she’s famously covered in tattoos. And these are not pre-conversion tattoos that she wears as a reminder of her troubled worldly life, though she definitely did have such a life before becoming marrying a Lutheran minister and re-converting to a more welcoming brand of Christianity than the one she knew growing up in the Church of Christ. No, Bolz-Weber’s tattoos include an icon of Mary Magdalene, whom she calls her “patroness,” on one forearm, and Martin Luther’s quote “Simul Justus et Peccator” (“a saint and a sinner at the same time,” very loosely translated) around her wrist. The tattoos, like the swear words, are part of who she is as a Christian and as a pastor.

What I love about Nadia Bolz-Weber — apart from the fresh, funny, honest tone of her writing — is how willing she is to confront her own prejudices. She writes with great perceptiveness about the time she got conned while trying to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and fearlessly explores how much her own self-righteousness, her desire to be seen as a hero, got her into that situation in the first place. She writes about her shock when her edgy, experimental church gets invaded by middle-class people from the suburbs who look like everybody’s parents. She writes about forging a friendship with a conservative Christian blogger who publicly attacked. In every situation she faces, she’s always quick to identify her own weaknesses and flaws, which allows her to at least attempt to extend a hand of fellowship even to those who might be quick to reject such a hand if it came attached to a heavily tattooed arm. In other words, she believes in loving not just the marginalized, but the marginalizers, which is a much tougher call.

While I said that in many ways she fits the stereotype of “liberal Christian pastor” — emerging church, LGBT-affirming, non-traditional — there are key ways in which Bolz-Weber does not fit the “liberal Christian” paradigm. She has no interest in Jesus as a good moral teacher or a good example: she’s the first to admit that she’s incapable of emulating a good example or applying any good moral teachings Jesus might have on offer. Instead, she’s very traditionally Christian — more specifically, traditionally Lutheran — in her insistence that God’s grace must be at the centre of the gospel — the radically accepting grace of God that offers a welcome to every sinner, every outcast, and every self-righteous conservative. Just as Nadia and her church, the House for All Saints and Sinners, are trying to do. This is the best and most engaging memoir I’ve read this year; I found it almost impossible to put down, and recommend it very highly.


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Torn, by Justin Lee


Despite my affinity for such books as Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate and the much more recent Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu, I have to say that if I were to pick one book to recommend to people regarding the current tension over same-sex marriage and gay relationships in Christianity, it would be Justin Lee’s Torn. Lee skilfully combines his own story of growing up as a deeply committed evangelical kid who struggled to come to terms with the fact that he was gay, with a broad look at the “bigger picture” of how gays and lesbians are treated in churches today. As the subtitle suggests, he seeks to suggest a way forward through one of the most contentious debates of our time, and he speaks with the voice of someone uniquely qualified to understand both sides of the story.

Those who uphold the traditional Christian position on sexuality often dismiss gay Christians as people who ignore clear Biblical teaching in an attempt to justify their own sin. Anyone who thinks that way needs to read Justin Lee’s story and appreciate how very much this devout young Christian man did not want to be gay. Like many others before him he prayed earnestly to be free of attraction to the same sex and explored ministries and programs that promised to deliver him from homosexuality. Not only did he find that neither prayer nor counselling changed his orientation, he also discovered that most of the “ex-gays” he met in these ministries were really very far from “ex.” In other words, he found that for him and for most of the people he encountered, the “solution” most frequently proposed by the church — God will take away these evil desires if you really have faith — simply did not work.

Justin Lee is also unique among the authors I have read on this subject in that he takes the other “approved” option — lifelong celibacy for gay Christians — very seriously. But he is also very serious, and honest, about helping straight Christians see what this means. Not only a life without intimate, loving companionship, but also life without even the hope of such companionship (at least most straight Christian singles who would rather be married can cling to the hope of Mr. or Ms. Right coming along someday, and know that if s/he does, their marriage will be accepted by their church community). He also examines the Biblical passages dealing with homosexuality and looks at them both in the sense of what’s being said in terms of cultural context and the meaning of words, and also how they fit into the larger context of the Bible as a whole.

Lots of readers will not agree with all of Justin Lee’s conclusions but I find it hard to see how any reader could fail to be moved by the experiences he writes about with such moving honesty. Even if you hold very firmly to a traditional Christian view of sexuality, I believe that you will emerge from reading this book with a more thoughtful perspective on the issue and an understanding that the church needs to do far more to show real Christian love to gays and lesbians in the pews.


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