This is a book for the lonely, for the cynic, for the weary and burnt-out Christian. When We Were on Fire is a memoir about Addie Zierman’s spiritual journey from being ‘on fire’ to becoming burnt out, and the subsequent restoration of her faith and identity.
In each chapter she takes an evangelical cliché such as ‘WWJD’, revival, ‘Let Go and Let God’, as a prompt for that part of her story, contrasting the supposedly neat ‘ideal’ with the ‘real’. Anyone who has grown up as an evangelical in the ’90s will smile with fond recognition at her story, and I found myself feeling oddly nostalgic for DC Talk concerts, Amy Grant albums, and revival prayer meetings at school.
Towards the end, she writes this:
“Here’s how metaphor becomes cliché: it is overused until it becomes the name of a national movement. The Born Again movement of the 1970s for example.” P 211
This book is doing exactly the reverse of what she describes in the quote above: she takes the tired clichés of evangelical culture and delicately unravels them through her own story, until you are left with something more life-giving and true: metaphor. It is artfully, gently, beautifully done. Her writing is engaging and vibrant, with wispy and dreamy threads.
She writes her own story of the transformation from Super Christian to feeling burnt out and full of doubt, but I found myself in those pages: that yearning to be extraordinary and perfect, and the loneliness that accompanies it:
“I wanted her to feel what I felt, to understand that I had been fighting for so long to prove myself, and I was tired. I was just looking for a little rest.” p.111
I write as someone who has grown up in and loved the evangelical culture (though admittedly the British culture looked slightly different from the US one), and at times its fences and boundaries have protected me and given me clarity, and at times they have made me feel trapped. Addie writes about this paradox, not with a consuming bitterness, but with grace and humility and the kind of nuance and generosity of spirit that makes this book so outstanding, and so healing. It’s the kind of book that could have been an angry rant, but she rescues it from this by her self-awareness and recognition of her own flaws and mistakes. Grace and forgiveness whisper throughout her story.
Here were four elements I especially loved:
- I loved it for the love story. She writes so well the intensity and heartbreak of teenage love, and the unexpected and messy ways that real love makes itself known. This book had me tears in several places, and the grace and love revealed in her marriage was profoundly moving.
- I loved it for truth-telling. She captures so perfectly that longing to be understood, and the loneliness of being in a church where you are the only one feeling lost. She writes the listlessness of Depression poignantly and artfully:
“But the longer we stay here, the more I feel myself disappearing. I need God to reach out of the sky and grab hold of me with one big, invisible hand. It needs to happen now, before I lose myself in this sadness.” P 131
- I loved it for the writing. Addie once said she never set out to write a ‘Christian book’, she wanted to write a ‘book’. And this is a book that stands up as art in its own right. The writing is so graceful and the story told so vividly that I could see the flagpole in the rain, feel the white face paint in the evangelistic drama, and hear the M&Ms bouncing off the minibus window.
“I was not getting the steps right… I wanted to go back to dance when it was not about steps but about life. Tango as gospel. Tango as faith – as reaching for something in the dark. Moving because we are moved…” P 89
- I loved it for the conclusion. This could have been a very angry book, full of hurt and bitterness, but although she is honest about the damage that we can do to one another in Christian community, it is full of light and grace. She digs into the superficial ways that we tie up our faith, and tells something that feels more raw and real.
“Yes, faith is like being born again. But it is also not like being born again…It is not Before and After, a clean split, dark and light. It is gradual illumination, fireflies moving slowly toward you, softening the edge of the darkness so that you can see the beautiful mystery around you.” p. 122
It’s the best Christian book I’ve read so far this year.
Over to you:
- Which books have you found helpful when you feel weary and cynical?