~ notes from an uncommon journey ~

Books That Made a Difference: When We Were on Fire

Note: This post is part of my occasional series Books That Made a Difference.

Addie Zierman is another one of those people/online friends/writers that I don't remember exactly when or how I first discovered. But when I did, I loved the name of her blog, How to Talk Evangelical (which reminded me of this book); it has had a place on my list of Favorite Blogs: Christian Faith & Doubt since I debuted this design. And I loved even more its "thing"--on it, she reexamines her faith, one evangelical cliché at a time. Because...yes. Evangelicalism certainly has its clichés. (Perhaps that's like all traditions. Maybe it's even unavoidable.) But oh, the damage that has been done by so many of those clichés. :sigh:

Anyway, we have a lot in common, Addie and me. We've both lived significant portions of our lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area--I, my first 20 years; she, her college years and now. We both left home for a far-away evangelical college--she left Illinois for Northwestern College (now University of Northwestern) in St. Paul, and I left Minnesota for Cedarville College (now Cedarville University) in Ohio. We both ended up living long-term near where we went to school. We've both been technical writers, creating user manuals for computer software companies. We both loved Alias.

Oh, and we both grew up in a Christian subculture, experienced depression, and became disillusioned. She's returned to faith, while I...well, that's yet to be determined.

She tells her story in her first book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over

In short, I loved this book and highly recommend it.

But to leave it at that would be to paint an incomplete picture. It would leave out how close to home it often hit for me.

The book's synopsis reads, in part:
In the strange, us-versus-them world of the 90’s Christian subculture, your faith was measured by how many WWJD bracelets you wore and whether or not you’d "kissed dating goodbye."

Evangelical poster-child, Addie Zierman wore three WWJD bracelets, led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian rock. She was “on fire for God,” unaware that the flame of her faith was dwindling until it burned entirely out.
It didn't have to be the 90s and you didn't have to call yourself evangelical. Because in the strange, us-versus-them world of the 80s Christian subculture, your faith was measured by how many of the DOs you did and how many of the DON'Ts you didn't, from the (partially-man-made!) list.

And because I was an Independent Fundamental Baptist poster child and--out of fear, I attempted to keep the list. I was a "goody-two-shoes," unaware that I was doomed to fail, by the very nature of there being a list, a list that not only your faith was measured by but that your worthiness apparently depended on, too.

Oh, and evangelical was a dirty word. Like liberal. Evangelicals were liberal, which just meant that they believed slightly differently than we did and had slightly-more-relaxed standards of practice, but--I didn't know that, since it was constantly being implied that because they didn't dot their Is and cross their Ts just like we did, they were probably going to hell.

But then I went to Cedarville, which I still sometimes marvel that my parents let me do, and without even realizing it, I became one--an evangelical. (The irony in reading about Northwestern is that while, in my parents' eyes, it was terribly liberal and therefore not to be considered...it sounds like it was a lot like Cedarville. Just...wow.) And it was a lot less strange, and it was a lot less us-versus-them. It's where I discovered that grace didn't just "get you in the door," it was how God treated us generally and how we were supposed to treat each other. And Dr. Dixon talked about there being a difference between biblical mandates and institutional preferences, and it felt revolutionary. And he talked about it being their last chance to treat us as children or their first chance to treat us as adults--and choosing to treat us as adults. And he talked about their being some leeway in the rules, some things open to interpretation by individual RAs. And it all felt like Freedom City....compared to where I'd been.

Oh, and I discovered a vibrant brand of Christianity--based on grace and experienced with joy. A kind I'd never seen before. If I was ever "on fire for God," it was while I was there--and shortly thereafter.

I have a clear memory of shortly after college when I was riding the bus to work one day and reading my New Testament. Another passenger saw what I was reading and was convinced I was doing it because someone was "making" me. I insisted I was reading it because I wanted to. That desire did not last.

And like Addie said of herself, "I almost can't remember what it felt like to be that girl...." Because of everything that came after: getting in touch with my emotions (especially about my childhood) for the first time, multiple rounds of questioning and doubts, disillusionment that has only grown, depression, and--of course--the death of RLK.

It is all of that that makes me so relate to Addie's experiences of being depressed in a church setting and feeling disconnected from the people in that church setting. Like this, from chapter Sixteen:
When I tell Sheila that I'm leaving [the church], she looks at me, surprised. "Why?" she asks.

"I'm just lonely," I say finally.

"Well," says Sheila, looking concerned, "if we had known you were lonely, we would have done something. We all thought you were too busy for us."

I'm sure, in this moment, that she's telling the truth--that she honestly didn't know. That none of them did. But I can't forgive them for not seeing it. For not seeing me.

"I'm sorry," I say, even though I'm not quite sure why I'm apologizing. What I want to say is that for a year of Thursdays I have met with the church ladies at Coffee on Broadway for morning Bible study--and still not one of them ever even asked.
Can I just say? Yes. You feel like you are falling apart in front of people, and you just want someone to notice and care. And they don't notice. (And you wonder if they care.) And when you finally work up the courage to say something, they blame you for not saying something sooner, or they respond with something equally unhelpful--unsolicited advice, uncalled for platitudes, unfitting verses--the ways are myriad.

It's safe to say the book triggered me, even. Multiple times. To tears, sobbing tears.

So if it triggered me, why did I love it so much? Because Addie tells her truth, unflinchingly. Because she doesn't whitewash away the sad parts, the unpleasant parts, the this-didn't-work-for-me parts. Because she has such a way with words--simply exquisite prose. Because while we'd connected online before the book came out, now...she truly does feel like a friend. Because I know we get each other; we so get each other.

If you were ever "on fire for God" and watched that fire flame out, if Christian faith and depression have ever been any kind of a mix for you...and you want to feel a little less alone and a little less 'crazy,' read this book.

I will give one spoiler alert: If you're the kind of person who thinks that all the swears are always wrong, you'll have a problem with this book. But I encourage you to read her explanation of why her Christian memoir includes those words.

And I'll end on a lighter note:  In talking about her college experience, Addie relates the following interaction:
"So," he asked, as we rounded the curve of the sidewalk and came up on the dorm buildings, "what's your major?"

"English. How about you?"

"Missions," he said, a sort of confident finality in his voice. "I'm pretty sure I'm called to the Middle East. Or maybe Africa."

And then he gave me That Look. The one that says, Hey there. Want to live in a hut in the jungle with me?
This so reminded me of the Hey Christian Girl tumblr, that I just had to do this:


  1. So honored and touched by this review friend. THANK YOU. (Also that Ryan Gosling meme cracks me up every. single. time.)

  2. you make me want to read it. i resonate with what *you* write about that shadow world.


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