When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over
Addie Zierman joins a short list of writers who, with a literary hand, have realistically portrayed the pitfalls of their generation’s fundamentalist or evangelical youthful subculture. They’ve hit hard at the culture, expressing their confusion and anger at the church and authority figures while still, in the end, maintaining a seeker’s heart, holding on to God and even the community. The first such book I noticed was Shirley Nelson’s 1978 novel recounting a protagonist’s Christian college experience (THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, republished in 2004). But things have changed since then. Zierman isn’t writing in a fictional genre, and she hasn’t restrained the expression of her anger at “the Church People.” (If you take offense at the words disallowed on network television, you’ve been warned.)
"Zierman writes when she’s still young --- about age 30. Young for a memoir, though I did so myself in LEAVING HOME, chronicling my own journey away from the “faith of my fathers” to a faith and place of my own. For this new generation of evangelicals, Zierman’s is the best I’ve read."
Zierman grew up in an Evangelical Free church in Minnesota, steeped in Sunday school songs and Bible verses. In a prologue, she grabs your attention relaying a scene from her sophomore year in a public high school. It’s an organized “See You at the Pole” event, where Christian students publicly testify to their faith by meeting before school at the outdoor flag pole for prayer. But today it’s pouring rain. She can’t believe that she stands there devoutly alone, abandoned by all --- until she sees her friends all gathered in the foyer, praying in dry clothes and looking at her not with admiration but with pity. She concludes: “I thought I was choosing something extraordinary. I thought this would all turn out differently.”
Like the several authors (including myself) of the humorous JUST AS WE WERE: A Nostalgic Look at Growing Up Born Again, Zierman resorts to a distanced second-person “you” when describing childhood and adolescent situations that seem universally relevant if not painful. This is especially effective in part one, “Obsession.”
In high school Zierman emotionally attaches to an older boy, intense in his faith and missionary commitment. At his urging, she joins a highly controlled summer mission trip to the Dominican Republic. She’s young and devout. She tries to be compliant but is not quite fitting into the mold, especially at a Christian college, where her thrift-store funky sweaters aren’t in line with the poised and postured roommates and their Martha Stewart room décor. There her disillusionment foments. Every generation has its defining moments. She details her memory of 9/11, the day a boy --- the boy --- slumps next to her in the campus center lounge, “our first real conversation, silence.” His name was Andrew. And they would get married, teach English in China for a year, and settle back into the Minnesota suburbs.
These post-college years are the most interesting, trying to find and stay with a church that’s big enough, small enough and authentic enough for both of them. Andrew fares better than Zierman, who among the Church People doesn’t feel safe enough admitting her spiritual questions and “learned to drink [her consuming loneliness] straight down.” Toward the end of part three, “Rebellion,” Zierman writes a wonderful line: she’s hopeful because she’s had a conversation with a wounded Christian “who realizes that pity and love are not the same thing.”
Zierman writes when she’s still young --- about age 30. Young for a memoir, though I did so myself in LEAVING HOME, chronicling my own journey away from the “faith of my fathers” to a faith and place of my own. For this new generation of evangelicals, Zierman’s is the best I’ve read.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on November 20, 2013