Thursday, October 3, 2013

We Have Been to Gray Places: A Review of Addie Zierman's When We Were On Fire

by Charity Erickson

I cannot tell a lie. Because, as we all know, liars go to hell (Revelation 21:8). But the hard truth is that Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith (Convergent; releasing October 15, 2013) is a book that’s going to wreck some people.

This memoir didn’t just hit close to home for me as a See You at the Pole alumnus and former evangelical-culture warrior; it also spoke to me in an eerily specific way because so much of it takes place in my own backyard, in the coffee shops and Christian college campuses of Minnesota. In fact, when I came to a scene where we find our narrator settling into a black faux-leather chair at a Caribou Coffee, I looked down to find myself in the exact same coffee shop chain, the exact same chair.

So that was unsettling.

But as I kept turning the pages, it wasn’t the physical place anymore that was resonating; it was the emotional space. The emotional setting Zierman describes is achingly familiar to me—that dark exile from a faith that claimed to be a sanctuary and stronghold, an idyllic fantasy that so many of us found to be nightmarish in reality—I found it so true to my experience that I had to recuse myself to the Caribou restroom and cry some terrible, racking sobs.

This book is difficult, but we need it, because its story is ours: the evangelical youth who were supposed to be the ones to “take back America for God,” we who were to usher in the revival, we who gave-it-all for Jesus and wound up drained and disoriented. Zierman, while sticking close to her personal narrative, makes use of the second person—a device so terribly overused in the Christian blogging world, and poorly too—but it works to nice effect here, emphasizing the connection of her experience with that of her readers:

"You organized a prayer rally. You stayed up all night pinning white ribbons to small square fliers that you distributed the next day at school. When you stood that night around a flagpole with a great crowd of your peers, holding lit candles and praying aloud, you felt as if the world could absolutely change in this moment. That this rally with its growing numbers could be the catalyst for some kind of revival. (186)"

Yes, we did.

But now we, like Zierman, have been to “gray places,” visited by that oppressive fog of doubt, wishing against hope for a miracle but uncertain whether we should even ask for one. It’s just that we’ve been burned before. We were on fire, you see.

I appreciated this work for its honesty, for the cathartic release it affords, and for the grace it offers to those still working out their faith. Zierman names the truths behind the evangelical vocabulary (the original working title of the book was How to Talk Evangelical) but she also provides us with some new language, phrases like “cultic relationships,” and “thought-terminating cliché,” useful and fitting additions to religio-cultural semantics. (And on a similar note, I would like to personally thank Zierman’s therapist, “Rachel Martin,” who gives us permission to punch a few pillows to exorcise the Ghosts Of Youth-Group-Boys Past.)

I recommend When We Were on Fire as a well-paced, vivid memoir that doesn’t sweep any dirt under the rug. It is a sometimes disturbing, but thoroughly touching and artistically gratifying window into a life of passion gone awry. I am so grateful that this story—our story—has been recorded with such hope and respect for the faith that so many of us long to love. Addie Zierman, thank you. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill. She received a free advance copy of the book, but was not otherwise compensated. Except she obviously liked the that's compensation of a sort.

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