Even the title of Addie Zierman's memoir is evocative: When We Were on Fire. A good title will tell you a lot about a book, and indeed there is a lot to learn from this one. We know, for example, that the titular "we" are no longer "on fire," that it happened in the past. We know this is about more than just one person, although whether the "we" is a constant voice or a changing one remains to be seen.
Most telling is that last bit, "on fire," a resonant phrase for anyone even passingly familiar with the evangelical subculture of the 1990s. "Fire" was the favored metaphor for a deep and burning passion for God. Consuming. Refining. To be "on fire for God" was the highest compliment, the deepest mystery, the truest sign that you were wholly his.
Things Go Sour
In many ways, Zierman's upbringing in the church closely paralleled my own. We both grew up in suburban Chicago, had groups of friends who weathered the peaks and valleys of Christian faith together, and attended small, liberal arts Christian colleges. With some of her friends, Zierman started a prayer group at her high school, and when she describes it I feel sure I was there: "'God, we just pray for revival,' I started, and I loved the way the words sounded on my lips….'Lord, we claim this school for You.' I believed that my words were a flag planted in the concrete. A promise taken by force of faith."
But there are points at which my experience and Addie's begin to diverge. Where I found freedom and honesty in the faith of my youth, Zierman found strict rules and legalism. Nowhere is this more evident than in her experience with her boyfriend, Chris.
Chris asks Addie to sign a contract after they start dating, saying that they will restrict their physical affection only to hugs and hand-holding, for one, and that they will put God ahead of their own relationship at all times. Addie signed, as did her parents, Chris's parents, their youth pastor, and the church's senior pastor. This imposition of boundaries, placed on young women by the young men they dated, wasn't entirely foreign to me as a young Christian, but it never seemed like a good idea. The subculture wasn't especially keen on dating for fun, or dating to get to know other people or yourself. There were rules governing everything—quiet time, prayer, Bible reading, street preaching. Chris's faith, "an axis of rotation around which no one could freely turn," ultimately drove the two of them apart. One night he told Addie he felt like God was calling her to break up with him. What do you say to that? When you couch your confused emotions in the language of God, as Chris had, no one can argue.
Post-Chris, Addie's experience in the church went sour. At Northwestern College in Minnesota, she had to get used to being one of many Christians, rather than one of the hard-core few back in Illinois. Zierman writes: