Review by Amy Lepine Peterson
From the spate of autobiographical writing that began in the 1980s to the veritable tsunami of personal narratives available in print and online today, it seems that the genre of the memoir has come of age. For Christians, though, the memoir’s tendency to find the arc of redemption in a single life is nothing new. We regularly practice sharing our testimonies, and we encourage the discipline of self-reflection, of “listening to your life,” as Parker Palmer says. From Augustine’s Confessions (the first spiritual memoir) to The Book of Marjorie Kempe (considered the first autobiography in English) to the wide variety of spiritual memoirs being written today, the genre has been uniquely shaped by Christian thought. Four recently published memoirs — two by pastors and two by bloggers — illustrate the genre’s power to shape Christian thought in return, by amplifying voices from the margins.
When We Were on Fire
Rachel Srubas, a Presbyterian minister and oblate of the Order of St. Benedict, directly addresses her place in the memoir trend in the introduction to The Girl Got Up. She relates an experience at a writing conference where a respected man hinted that too many women were writing memoirs, and they ought to move beyond the autobiographical. “I was both troubled and challenged by his remarks,” she writes. “How different were they from the criticism leveled at poet Anne Sexton when she wrote about her uterus? On the other hand, autobiographical writing, whether by men or women, is susceptible to narcissism and exhibitionism.”
But Srubas finds that even her academic writing is strengthened by connections to what life experience has taught her. It’s with this level of self-awareness that Srubas writes, addressing the purpose of spiritual autobiography, the story of her own life, and the ways that the stories of biblical women connect with modern-day women. The result is an understated, deeply meditative work blending autobiography with theology and poetry to the end of “retrospection with an eye toward the eternal.”
Though Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Srubas are both ordained, in many ways their memoirs could not be more different. Where Srubas’s book is like a rosary of personal reflections upon which to meditate, Bolz-Weber’s New York Times bestseller Pastrix is as brassy and in your face as the tattoos that cover the author’s arms. Bolz-Weber, a weightlifter and former stand-up comedian, does not shy away from the shocking as she recounts her story of drug and alcohol abuse, her return to God, and her calling to begin a church for those on the margins, the misfits, and the left out.
Entertaining, compelling, and not without some salty language, Bolz-Weber’s most powerful stories come out of the birth and growth of her church, The House for All Sinners and Saints. Home to those skeptical of institutional religion, it is a small congregation including alcoholics, cynics, and a notorious con artist. When it begins to attract more “conventional” churchgoers, Bolz-Weber is unhappy, and calls a meeting to discuss the church growth.
At the meeting, a regular churchgoer speaks up. “As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community,” he says, “I just want to go on the record and say that I’m really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t with my own mom and dad.” It’s that kind of grace — grace that shocks people on every side of any aisle — that Weber celebrates in her memoir of unusual faith.
Blogger and writer Addie Zierman does not have very unconventional stories to relate because she grew up in the heady evangelical youth culture of the 1990s. For those who did not, When We Were On Fire is a surprising peek into the powerful subculture of Jesus Freaks and True Love Waits, WWJD bracelets, and See You at the Pole. In lovely, well-paced prose, Zierman describes a youth shaped more by “Christian” culture than by Christ. Finding her place within that “on fire” culture, she neglects to develop a sense of herself apart from it, seeking mainly to be the good Christian girl whom the “missionary boys” want to marry. When the youth group ends, though, she finds that being “on fire” for Christ has left her only with ashes. Through depression, alcohol, friendship, and love, Zierman becomes the phoenix. Zierman’s story is compelling, but the most important work she does in telling it is the dismantling of Christian clichés. Each chapter begins with a word or phrase (such as lost, community, or church-shopping) and its definition within Christian culture. Near the end of the book, Zierman explains how many of these phrases have become what psychologist Robert Lifton called “thought-terminating clichés,” in which “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases.” Zierman realizes that the real work of faith has nothing to do with saying the right words (“I’m born again!”), but rather is about finding the real, complex, and often inexpressible truth at the heart of those words.
Sarah Bessey chose a highly charged pairing of words for the title of her memoir, Jesus Feminist. Behind that provocative cover, though, you’ll find a book as warm and welcoming as a cup of tea on a blustery day. Weaving history, theology, and her vision for the future of the Church, Bessey tells her story of growing up in a charismatic (or, as she lovingly calls it, “happy clappy”) family in Canada, studying in Oklahoma, working as a youth pastor’s wife in Texas, and eventually returning to Canada.
Rather than contributing to contemporary theological debate about the role of women in the church, Bessey seeks common ground for all Christians. Though she writes from a clear egalitarian perspective, her aim is to remind all of us of Jesus’ countercultural regard for women, and of the need for Christians to unite in working to liberate, protect, and esteem women who suffer oppression across the world.
Any spiritual memoir, like any good work of theology, illuminates new truths about the way that God has worked, giving readers renewed vision of how God may also work among us. As Bessey put it recently on her blog: “I think this is why I love reading or hearing people’s stories of faith — the wrestling, the falling away, the triumphs, the tenderness, the questions, the conversion, all of it. I feel like I’ll know Jesus better if I hear about how you love him or how you find him or how you experience love in your life.”
Thanks to these memoirs, we can see the face of Jesus a bit more clearly.
Amy Lepine Peterson teaches American pop culture and ESL writing at Taylor University.