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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.
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:
It wasn't [my roommates'] fault that I had come to Northwestern a little tired, a little broken, a little unsure of who I was … How could they know that it had taken only two girls to welcome me into the evangelical world all those years ago in junior high? That just as easily, two girls could push me away from it?
The two girls who had welcomed Addie into the evangelical world were Kim and Alissa, her two best friends and minor characters throughout the book. They're sidekicks, around for the action as well as the hard times, and they act as steadying forces when Zierman's mind rushes with worry, doubt, or fear. They also throw Zierman's bachelorette party just before she marries Andrew, a smart, quiet guy she met as a college student. This part of the book was one of my favorites, mostly because it involved the church I grew up in: Willow Creek, "one of the country's largest evangelical megachurches." I doubt many people have gone skinny dipping in the man-made baptismal pond out front, but Addie, Kim, and Alissa did it that night, "ripping off our clothes and running toward the pond, leaving jeans and sandals and bras strewn haphazardly on the well-manicured grass." This scene is so compelling not only because of the personal connection, but because it perfectly captures both the camaraderie of young girlfriends and the rebellion of young Christians, which seems so treasonous when committed but, in retrospect, is almost entirely harmless and pure fun.
After her first year of marriage, after a stint teaching English in China with a group of fellow Christians from an "ultraconservative college in Michigan," after the loneliness of a foreign country and arguments about the place of women in the church, after joining a house church on their return to the States and experiencing more legalism and niceness than truth and vulnerability, after all this—the realization hits. Zierman is slipping into depression.
In this section, Zierman deftly exposes the underbelly of the evangelical subculture, the way it values and rewards performance and loses track of those who do not or cannot perform. She is in the thick of depression now, and unable to unwrap its dark tentacles from her mind. But she is afraid of confessing her anguish, afraid of being told she just needs more faith, more prayer, more God.
Andrew, her husband, is growing increasingly frustrated with his inability to understand Addie's condition. In one especially touching scene, she draws a picture for him when words fail her—a line for her, a line for their house church, and a question about whether her trajectory will ever get back on course. "Andrew looks at the paper for a long time. I can tell from his face that he still doesn't understand. But he loves me. He loves me. And. He loves this church. I can see him battling as he thinks about it."
Zierman's portrait of marriage during depression is unflinching, and the union is further threatened by her regular, excessive drinking. She starts by pouring herself an extra glass of wine, then talks of margaritas in threes and fours with friends, and of mastering the art of driving drunk. At one point, she almost kisses another man, but even that doesn't curb her drinking. She falls further into the clutches of depression as she succumbs to the cycle of drinking and shame, hiding herself more and more from her husband and her church.
It is not a neat, happy return to evangelicalism that wraps the book up. Rather, Zierman ends with a series of steps that bring her back toward God, and God back toward her. She is about to have a baby, which gets her thinking about family and her future. She looks up Chris, her old boyfriend, on Facebook, and finds him living a pretty normal life—drinking a beer in one picture, posing with his wife in a bikini, this man who had expected Addie to dress more modestly. He, too, was a mixed bag.
She goes to a good therapist. She takes slow steps back to the church, and it looks different than it had previously. She looks different. "The future will be a mix of both these things," she writes. "The devotion and the cynicism. You have to find a way for them to coexist within you. Let them destroy each other, and your fragile faith may shatter entirely."
The lessons from this book are legion, though rarely explicit, which is refreshing. Zierman is a gifted writer, one who refuses to exempt herself from the same scrutiny she directs outward. There is much for the church, in all its iterations, to glean in these pages. We need to remember, if we cannot, what it feels like to be an outsider. We need to remember, if we feel only exclusion, that community runs on vulnerability.
I do wish that Zierman addressed her drinking problem more deliberately in the book—I wonder if she is sober now, or if her problems with drinking occurred strictly during her time of severe depression. I don't mean to demonize drinking by asking these questions, but to suggest their relevance to the life of a narrator I came to like so dearly. But most of all I learned that when we light the fire within, the burning can consume us in dangerous ways.
Laura Turner is a writer in California, and a contributor to Her.meneutics. Her blog on faith and entertainment appears at Religion News Service.