Thursday, May 1, 2014

“When We Were On Fire” - Talking Evangelical with Addie Zierman

I recently caught up with my old friend Addie Zierman to talk about her new memoir “When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over.” Addie frequently discusses her faith, family and writing on her blog, “How to Talk Evangelical.” If you’re a Christian, it’s a must-read. If you’re one of the lost, Addie’s work is still very interesting and worthy of your contemplation.

Addie Zierman. Credit: Shane Long.
Addie and I agreed to swap books. I’d read hers and she’d read my new novel Broken Bones. Then we’d chat about the experience. On the surface, it seems our books couldn’t be more dissimilar. Hers is a memoir of struggling through the American evangelical subculture, and mine is a novel based on the month I spent stuck in a psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders. But they’re both about personal struggles, alienation, self-discovery, all that good stuff. I figured this exchange could be fun and educational. Mission accomplished.

Addie and I go way back. We crossed paths in our early teens when we both attended an Evangelical Free Church in Deerfield, Illinois. She was a local girl, immersed in all the church activities, and I was the new kid. A Jersey boy, I was frustrated and depressed that my parents had chosen to abandon our beach bum haven for this bland slice of the Midwest. My father had just begun attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School nearby. They were missionaries, “called” by Christ to spread the gospel. I felt like luggage.

Christianity wasn’t new to me when I met Addie. I was baptized as a baby at St. James Episcopal Church, a small chapel on the Jersey Shore. I have only positive memories of that church and the time I spent there. I remember the intricate stained glass portraits of the saints, the dried sponge feel of the communion wafers, the bitter red wine, Father Ken’s flowing purple robe, the gentle strength of his hand as he placed it on my head and blessed me. 

Perhaps I was too young to develop moral and philosophical qualms with the Episcopal Church, but as my parents transitioned into evangelicalism, and I entered my teens, things began to change. I became uneasy at the church Addie and I attended. I’d be listening to a pastor’s sermon and my stomach would knot up. I’d feel an intense pressure in my chest. I had to get out of there.

The sweeping proclamations about God and Jesus and how we should live inspired not awe or reverence but anxiety. The doctrines and statements of faith sounded random and unreasonable. The more I actually read the Bible, the more it struck me as a mess of bad advice and shady characters. I listened to the pastors speak and I couldn’t help but think: How could they possibly know what they are claiming to know? Many a sermon drove me to the brink of a screaming fit, but for the most part I just bit my tongue, doodled on my church program and longed for the day when I was old enough to leave and never come back. As the firstborn son of new missionaries, however, I didn’t have much of a choice. So I played the part. I stepped warily around the edges of this evangelical pool, waiting. 

Addie, however, was the most enthusiastic young fan of Jesus I’d ever met. And while our feelings for the church didn’t line up, I couldn’t help but feel attracted to her passion and energy. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. She was as stoked about Jesus as I was about surfing. But, as detailed in her memoir, faith wasnt easy for Addie either. 

Addie and I parted ways before my junior year of high school, when my parents moved to Ukraine and I attended a missionary boarding school in Germany. After high school, Addie sought out Christian colleges and churches and community groups. I wanted nothing to do with Christian institutions. Addie needed connection with other evangelicals who shared her values. I needed to connect with people who wanted nothing to do with the church. 

Today, I think it’s safe to say that Addie and I would disagree on almost all propositions about the Christian God and church doctrine. But we also have a lot in common. We both enjoy devouring good books. We both admire Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation. And we both love honest conversation.

Addie and I during a youth group bus trip to the Florida Keys, circa 1996.
During the years my parents spent toting me around to churches, conferences, missionary training sessions, Sunday schools and prayer groups, I met a lot of Christian peers. But I’ve never met one as authentic and downright kind as Addie Zierman. If another Christian friend from my early teenage years wrote a book about his/her faith, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, to be honest. But knowing the goodness of Addie’s heart, and experiencing first-hand her genuine care for others, I simply had to read her words.

Plus, Addie’s a damn good writer. So there’s that.

In her memoir, Addie shifts between first- and second-person narration. When she addresses what I consider to be the stranger elements of the subculture, she slips into second-person, which has the effect of drawing the reader into a vicarious experience. “It was my way of saying, this is my story but also this is bigger than my story,” Addie told me. “This is the story of many of us who had been in that culture.” 

Anyone who spent the mid-90s in an evangelical enclave will appreciate Addie’s dissection of these cultural anomalies. She writes: “Remember that first jarring moment when you understood that the world was divided? Remember Amy Grant?” You probably don’t, so I’ll explain. Amy Grant was a purveyor of some pretty lame Christian music, but she turned “mainstream” (in the evangelical eye) when she began singing about romantic love and other non-Jesus-related topics. This was controversial for some reason. Plus, she divorced her husband, which meant she got a big ol’ A on her forehead. Everyone had something bad to say about Amy Grant. Poor lady, all she wanted to do was make crummy country music.

Addie riffs on Christian cultural phenomena with wit and precision. She juxtaposes Alanis Morisette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” with DC Talk’s “I Don’t Want It,” a sex-phobic anthem (my words, not hers) that became hugely popular among abstinence promoters. DC Talk (especially their album “Jesus Freak”) is perhaps the best musical example of 90s evangelical absurdity. This pop-rap trio turned out severely overproduced records that targeted a subculture within a subculture, attempting to portray themselves as edgy while promoting conservative evangelical values. Addie also recalls her experience with the bizarre phenomena of “Christian ska” that exploded during this time period with bands like The Supertones and The Insyderz. (Dissecting this musical genre would require a few thousand more words, but perhaps I’ll attempt it some day.)

Addie shares my fascination with the language of evangelical Christianity. Analyzing language is a major focus of Addie’s blog, and she does it incredibly well. Words like prayer warrior, Jesus freak, revival, born again, prayer chain — these are carefully chosen words. They are full of intensity and power, but they’re also dogmatic. A single word or simple phrase actually contains a doctrinal statement’s worth of meaning, at least to those immersed in this environment. 

Speaking of one of her early crushes, an “on fire” missionary kid, Addie writes, “When he talked about faith, he used words like revival, words like spiritual battle and prayer warrior and sacrifice. He signed his e-mails and letters with the phrase Consumed by the Call.” I may not have believed the “consumed” signature if I hadn’t heard so many similar expressions myself.

Credit: Addie Zierman.

As I was reading Addie’s book, a reoccurring thought struck me: Everything an evangelical kid did carried with it the full weight of eternity. When Addie began to fall for this on fire dude, she writes: “I am his; I am his forever.” Part of this is the natural 13-year-old response to assume that the first remotely romantic interest will last forever. But, in this environment, eternity is everything and everything is eternal. Fleeting emotions become eternal contracts. Everyday acts of “sin” carry eternal consequences. I don’t think this was at all intentional, but this everlasting dynamic gave me a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. When I was submersed in the evangelical world, I remember feeling the same thing, like the oppressive bulk of “eternity” was constantly being dumped on top of me. “Everything was very weighty,” Addie said when I told her about my aversion to eternity.

“When We Were On Fire” is divided into several parts. In the “Obsession” part, Addie analyzes her relationship with Chris, a young evangelical who attends the same church. She writes: “Chris had sought me out, a girl who was submissive, compliant, unformed… he needed my weakness the way I needed his strength.” This quote jumped off the page at me, because it perfectly describes some of the problems I’ve had with evangelical Christian social structure. In my own experience, I feel like a lot of young women in evangelical communities are prodded into this submissive state in order to serve the goals of the larger patriarchal institution. I don’t think this feeling Addie describes is random or accidental, but part of a desired outcome.

“I felt like I needed to prove myself to him  I had to prove myself in my faith,” Addie said. “There were certain expectations for a woman, for a girl. They had to do a lot with modesty.” Addie is a strong and independent Christian woman, but I read this book, at least in part, as the story of her struggle against the designs that a male-dominated system had for her.

It was therefore very refreshing to read Addie’s description of meeting her husband, Andrew, who seems like he doesn’t have a controlling bone in his body. I’ll leave the story of their emotional and spiritual connection to Addie, because she describes it beautifully in the second half of the book. I found the honesty and mutual respect that defines their relationship to be one of the most powerful aspects of this memoir. Together, they seem to live out the love and humility I believe Jesus spoke about.

If you’re interested in these themes, or if you have first-hand experience with American evangelical culture, you need to read Addie’s book. When you do, be sure to stop by her blog, where the conversation is always ongoing, thoughtful and lively.

Cheers to you all!


  1. Thanks for this review of Addy's book. I have it, just haven't read it yet. I love Jesus, but I'm frustrated with the American Christian Evangelical church, so I think there will be much to consider as I read her book. Maybe I'll pick yours up, too!

    1. Thanks fellow Jersey-ite! You'll enjoy Addie's book (and, if I may be so presumptuous) you may enjoy mine as well!