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When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming…

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and…

by Addie Zierman

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    Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman (akblanchard)
    akblanchard: Stories of young women coming to terms with the religious traditions in which they were raised.

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I have recently started reading Addie Zierman's blog and so decided to go back and read this memoir. She describes her growing up in the North American evangelical church, her early fervour and determination to be a "missionary wife" (not a missionary, I noted), her gradual disillusionment with evangelical culture and depression which almost leads to the end of her marriage. Finally she describes the restoration of her marriage and tentative steps to rejoin the church.

It feels odd to be critiquing something so personal, but I found the way sections switched in and out of the second person a bit unnecessary (and at the very beginning it was downright confusing.) She clearly identifies the church as the root of her problems, but I found myself blaming Chris for manipulating and denigrating her, Addie herself for choosing a Christian college to study at and then finally most of her difficulties seemed to me to be due to her depression. Her own mother and husband are clearly examples of "normal" evangelical Christians and while her interactions with the women in her bible study groups did seem superficial, I struggled to believe there was no truly welcoming, sympathetic church in the whole of the Chicago area. I wonder if she realizes how very young she did marry and how part of her rejection of her teenage and college ways was merely the process most of us (who do not choose evangelical colleges to study at) go through at college, when we meet people from a variety of culture and backgrounds and work out who we really are. ( )
  pgchuis | Feb 5, 2016 |
Besides being a local author and being able to identify with all the references to local places, I was also able to identify with the evangelical background having also grown up in it. The struggle to meet a certain formula to be a successful christian, always trying harder and harder but never getting it right. Then you give up and christianity begins something simple. Not something you have to get right, but just something that is because you are broken. You never really become unbroken, but you know there is something bigger, something meaningful that is there. And life moves on. ( )
  bmetzler | Aug 10, 2015 |
Someday, I hope someone writes a book about evangelical Christianity in the 1990s that blends memoir with history and analysis as did Barbara Grizzuti Harrison in her brilliant Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of the Jehovah's Witnesses (1978). When We Were on Fire is not that book. Rather, this new memoir by Addie Zierman presents the author's personal story only, with little deeper context.

Thirty-year-old Zierman's life has not been very far out of the ordinary: she grew up in an evangelical family, did everything she thought her fellow "church people" expected of her, became disillusioned and depressed, and is now seeking to rebuild her faith without the superficiality she found in the evangelical movement. Her personal story cries out for additional context. For example, she mentions in passing that her youth group leader boyfriend gave her I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG) , the 1997 book that influenced many young people to give up dating for "courtship", a more "biblical" (according to Harris) approach to finding a mate. Zierman describes the book's cover, but that's about it. How did IKDG affect her, given that she and her boyfriend didn't stop dating as a result? What did she think of the idea of "courtship"? Did it catch on with her youth group? Does the fact that the boyfriend who gave her the book later broke her heart prove Harris's point that "dating" only leads to disappointment and despair? Zierman doesn't tell us.

Same for "See You at the Pole", a nominally "student led" (but backed by a nationwide marketing team, Zierman does tell us) event which involved having Christian high school students meet at their school's flag pole to pray and show off their "See You at the Pole" t-shirts. According to Wikipedia, Buffalo Grove, the Chicago suburb in which her high school was located "has a large Jewish population". How did this impact the event?

One final example: Zierman refers to the controversy surrounding Amy Grant's "crossover" hit "Baby Baby" (some evangelicals, including Zierman's mother, thought their favorite female vocalist had "sold out" for secular top-40 success), but writes nothing about the even bigger furor when Grant left her first husband for country star Vince Gill. There were several times as I read this book, I thought that I know more about the background of this stuff than Zierman demonstrates, and I've never even been an evangelical (I know many people who are, however. They were up in arms over the Amy Grant divorce scandal).

Zierman's therapist thinks that Zierman grew up in a cult, but I don't think that's accurate. She grew up in a subculture, or as a member of a movement, but not as a cult member. The evangelical subculture of Zierman's childhood and youth may have had some cult-like aspects (such as "thought-terminating clichés") but the evangelical world is too big and varied to be considered a cult. It also has no central leader. Of course, there are cults within evangelicalism, but that's something different. The more repressive features of evangelical cults (stay-at-home daughterhood, Quiverfull) don't figure into Zierman's story at all.

Publishers Weekly gave this book a starred review and said that Zierman is a "writer to watch". Perhaps, but to me there was less substance to this memoir than I had hoped. ( )
1 vote akblanchard | Dec 19, 2013 |
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In the strange, us-versus-them Christian subculture of the 1990s, a person's faith was measured by how many WWJD bracelets she wore and whether he had kissed dating goodbye. Zierman led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling-- until it burned out. She chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, looking for what lasts when nothing else seems worth keeping.… (more)

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