When 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.
By 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.
Glennon 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.
I’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.
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.
Stitches is very much a companion book to last year’s Help, Thanks, Wow — a slim “gift-book” type volume featuring a handful of reflections on life and spirituality by Anne Lamott. The organizing principle in this book is, as the title and subtitle suggest, how do we patch up our lives and move forward after experiencing tragedy, loss and disappointment. While longtime Lamott fans like me might wish for a longer, meatier collection of essays like Traveling Mercies or Plan B, a book like Stitches or Help, Thanks, Wow is a perfect Lamott-lite introduction for those new to her work. Lamott’s trademark humour and wisdom are well-displayed here, though I’d love to read more memoir-type stories about her own life than are included here. Bottom line: definitely good and worth reading, but maybe a little too short and light for hardcore Lamott-lovers.
I’ve filed this one under “memoir” but I’m not sure that’s really where it belongs. Poet Christian Wiman writes about his own return to faith in the face of terminal cancer, but he doesn’t tell it as a traditional story. Wiman is a poet and writes like a poet rather than a storyteller, so it’s not really a narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of reflections by someone who grew up Christian, left his faith and returned to it, though not necessarily to the same conservative form of Christianity in which he was raised. The book is really, I think, about how we make meaning out of our lives — through faith, through art, and in the face of death. While there’s no overarching sense of story here, there are some really beautiful and insightful thoughts. I had the experience, unusual for me, of reading it as a e-book but wishing I owned it in paper, so that I could mark pages and underline thought-provoking passages to return to later. So maybe I’ll buy it when it comes out in paperback.
This memoir describes Hafner’s attempt to share living space with her aging mother and teenaged daughter for a year, despite a difficult past relationship with her alcoholic mother. The memoir moves back and forth between the present and the past and realistically depicts the stresses and strains of having three generations under one roof. None of the three women comes across as entirely a victim or a hero: each of them tries in her own way to make the relationship work, but each also makes mistakes that keep it from working. This story was interesting and sometimes moving, but I was disappointed to learn at the end (I can’t remember if it was in an epilogue or in acknowledgements) that Hafner’s mother was opposed to her publishing the memoir. It raised the question of whether, for a writer, documenting an experience is worth risking the very relationship you’ve worked so hard to build.
I’ve been delighted and enriched in the past by Nora Gallagher’s spiritual memoirs, especially Things Seen and Unseen. Her latest book tells about a period in her life when she faced an unexplained and troubling health scare and how it affected all aspects of her life, particularly her spiritual life. She’s insightful on the topic of how it feels to become a patient, shuffled around throughout the healthcare system as doctors (some excellent, some not so good) run tests and try out various theories on what’s wrong with her. For some readers, that may be the heart of the book. For me, having come to her work through her insightful and moving portrayals of the inner life of a devout liberal Episcopalian who at one time trained for the priesthood (though she chose not to be ordained), I was most interested in how her illness affected Gallagher’s spiritual life. While many people, in the midst of a personal crisis, find that their faith becomes stronger and the idea of an all-powerful God sustains them, Gallagher’s reaction was just the opposite. The concept of an all-powerful Father God seemed more alien than it ever had, and the idea of Jesus as that God’s divine Son was equally difficult to relate to. The human, suffering Jesus remained important to her faith, although attending church — once a staple of Gallagher’s life — fell by the wayside. It’s interesting, though sad in a way, to read a spiritual memoir that subverts the usual “Suffering brought me closer to God” script — but Nora Gallagher is always capable of surprising her readers. While this is not a book I’ll reread multiple times like I did Things Seen and Unseen, it offered some interesting insights and I’m glad to have read this latest chapter in Gallagher’s journey.
Rather like the Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman “Long Way Round” books I read earlier this year, Around the World in 80 Days is the accompanying book to the TV series of the same name. British actor, comedian and writer Michael Palin has, among many other post-Monty-Python projects, hosted several BBC travel series, beginning with one in which he attempts to recreate the 80-day journey of Jules Verne’s hero using only ground transportation and boats — a task that is surprisingly more difficult today than in Verne’s day, because the popularity of air travel has meant the loss of many routes formerly served by trains and passenger ferries. The challenges Palin faced on his journey around the world made for excellent TV and the book provides an interesting behind-the-scenes glance into the series. I don’t know if it works well enough as travel writing to stand alone if you haven’t seen the series. But I do highly recommend not just this but Palin’s other travel series, and if you enjoy them, there’s a book to go along with each one.