As we’ve discussed in the past, the evangelical memoir genre has become a trend in evangelical publishing and, like most publishing trends, it is very much a mixed bag. At its best, the genre is a refashioning of traditional conversion narratives, but one in which the writer describes the process of coming to a healthier (and sometimes more orthodox) Christian faith after growing up in a Christian sub-culture that was often anything but. At their worst, these books simply become lazy and vindictive exercises in point-scoring, a way of saying all the cruel and dishonorable things the author wished they had said to their parents, pastors, or friends.
Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire belongs more to the former category while a book like Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched belongs firmly to the latter category.
Though it comes a few years after the trend seems to have peaked, D. L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home is decidedly in the Zierman camp rather than the Turner, which makes it valuable reading even for those who have grown weary with young evangelical memoirs.
There are three particular strengths in Mayfield’s book.
The Seriousness of Mayfield’s Witness
First, Mayfield is an undeniably serious person. One of the frequent problems with evangelicals of a more progressive bent, a description which I think would fit Mayfield, is that one can’t shake the feeling that they’re not being wholly honest with themselves or their audience about their intentions as a writer or church leader.
One of the common moves from more dissident evangelical writers and groups is to, perhaps ironically, insist on a more literal interpretation of certain biblical texts, particularly the texts that concern a narrow slice of political issues. If Jesus said to sell everything and give to the poor, well, we need to do that. While we’re at it, we should embrace Christian non-violence since Jesus also said to turn the other cheek.
Viewed in isolation, it’s a powerful picture of Christian discipleship and can also feel like a stinging rebuke to an Evangelicalism that has become more comfortable, in an uncritical and unhelpful way, with American ideas about property, violence, and warfare. It’s also an unsurprising thing when one considers church history: At times of widespread unfaithfulness amongst God’s people it is not unusual to find Christians calling for a return to simple Christian piety. Erasmus made similar overtures in late medieval Europe.
The trouble is that with many of these progressives their literalism is quite selective. They want to be quite literal with scriptural texts concerning the poor, violence, and immigration. But Romans 1? Well (tugs collar)… (loudly clears throat)… well, Paul was just a misogynistic first century Jew, right guys? Who needs him?
The unfortunate subtext with so many post-evangelicals is that they seem to be chasing after bobo respectability more than anything else. And as Jesus said about such people in another context: They will have their reward in full. Unfortunately, this inconsistency and blatant lusting after mainstream acceptability also dramatically mutes what would otherwise be a powerful prophetic witness in other areas of life.
This is what makes someone like Mayfield so helpful. Her book is about what happened when she and her family actually moved into an apartment community with a group of refugees, hoping to witness to them about Jesus and finding that they were radically unprepared to do so.
And here’s the key thing: When it got hard, Mayfield and her family didn’t leave. They stayed.
Whatever else you say of the book, it’s clear that Mayfield and her family have paid a high cost to follow Jesus. And, unlike many progressive memoirists, that cost is not “the evangelicals exiled me but, hey, all my prog friends think I’m awesome!” and then laughing all the way to the bank. That isn’t really a cost. That’s just finding a new ideological tribe while enriching yourself off the naivety of your old one. What Mayfield has done is different and is far more honorable.
Second, Mayfield is not blind to her own weaknesses and inconsistencies.
A more properly Christian name for a memoir would, of course, be a conversion narrative. But to work as a conversion narrative, there needs to be a real narrative in which repentance is a pivotal point in the story. There’s a before and an after; I once was blind, but now I see. That is very much the case in Mayfield’s book.
More over, the conversion that happens in it is an interesting one, an exemplary example of the possibilities inherent in the young evangelical memoir genre. The movement is from a more ritualistic, formalistic version of Christian faith to a stripped down, simple sort of faith that is lived out amongst the poor and forgotten.
It is, indeed, a conversion that sounds very like the Gospels and, for that matter, sounds very like the sort of conversion that the early Reformers called for when they argued against formalism in religion. Certainly it is a conversion that the humanist reformer Erasmus would have recognized, as too would the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer. It is, then, a deeply Protestant sort of conversion, something that recognizes the dangerous formalism that can develop in comfortable churches and replaces it with a radically simplified piety which flows naturally from the moral law.
Specifically, Mayfield goes from being the relatively well-off white evangelical out to save the inner cities to a far more reflective, careful Christian who simply desires to be a good neighbor to those people who share her home place. There is one scene late in the story in which Mayfield sees a group of suburban youth group girls in her neighborhood and recognizes them, not because she knows them personally, but because she sees the old version of herself in them (apologies for the long excerpt; I didn’t know a better way to cut this up):
There is a knock on the door, and it startles me. I am trying to cook dinner, and it is very hot in my ground-level apartment. We had just moved in, we were returning to the Pacific Northwest after being gone for three years. We picked an apartment complex on the far outer edges of the city of Portland, because that’s where the cheapest rent was. Our neighbors are mostly refugees and immigrants, and it is an incredibly diverse blip in otherwise homogeneous Portland. In our complex alone, over eighty languages are spoken.
There is a knock on the door, and my daughter races to open it. I follow right behind her, holding the baby on my hip. When we open the door there are three teenagers standing there: two girls and a boy. They smile and talk in a rush: “Hi, we are having a Bible club out in the courtyard and wanted to know if you had any kids that wanted to come?” I am dumbfounded. For a minute, I just stare at these visions of youthful goodwill. The girls are wearing long skirts and T-shirts advertising their youth group; they boy is wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops. I look into their faces, and they are serene. They don’t seem nervous, or agitated. They are very comfortable with what they are doing, or else they are very good at faking it.
I stammer something out to them–“sure, maybe we’ll check it out”—and my daughter is clinging to my knees, asking to go, my baby is starting to try, and I can feel the sweat running down my back. They push a flier into my hands and smile at me and they move on to the next apartment.
I am taken outside of my body. What do I look like to them? Do I look like I belong? My daughter ins in preschool, and her hair is wild and messy and her clothes are mismatched. They probably think she is poor, I realize with a start. They probably think she needs evangelizing. I live in one of the run-down apartment complexes on the edge of the city, the ones where people are barely treading water: the type of complex where you deliver food boxes at Thanksgiving, where you deliver presents at Christmas, where you drive a big blue van up once a week called “the Bible Bus,” and help all those poor, needy children.
I want to ask these bright young things, “Do you know that I used to do that too?” Instead, I throw on more presentable clothes, strap my baby to my chest, and take my daughter out back into the middle of the courtyard so we can experience the Bible club together. My daughter loves it. An awkward thirteen-year-old paints a Disney princess on her arm. There are kids playing soccer with some gangly older boys. There is a little water station, and animal cookies, and on a tree stump I see a young volunteer laying out the story of the gospel for two children using a cube, each side telling a different section of the garden-fall-sin-redemption story.
I hang out in the back, hovering close enough to keep an eye on my daughter. Some of the kids think I am leading the club, however, due to my skin color. The Bible club kids start performing a skit, and they are so good at it. Loud, funny, assured–something about a little boy who lies, who doesn’t listen to his parents, who is disrespectful to his teacher at school. The kids laugh and laugh at the teenager who is pretending to be a naughty little boy, how he sticks out his tongue and huffs around in annoyance and anger. My daughter’s face could split with delight, her blonde hair bobbing amid the sea of black and brown hair around her.
There is a teenager with short hair and an intense air about her, and she is the teacher of the group. After the skit, she explains what it means to the kids. She holds up a white cloth heart, and she starts to pour a rusty brown liquid into it. As she goes over all the bad things that the naughty boy did throughout his day, the white heart gets dirtier and dirtier. This is what sin does, she says calmly to all those children. This is what your heart looks like to God when you sin.
My own spirit shrinks within me. I drift off into my mind. I think about what I used to believe about God, how I tried so hard to make myself clean and pure and told others to do the same. Now I think about these kids, and I know just a tiny bit of the troubles they may be facing in their small lives—the financial instability, the rent hikes, the lack of nutritious food, the bullying at school, the ways they have to navigate the world for their parents, the ways they have been forced to grow up much too soon. The teacher leads the kids in a prayer of repentance, and then everyone is off to run wild in the grass.
Mayfield’s treatment of the story is balanced and admirable. On the one hand, it is easier to feel judgmental toward the youth group. After all, this seems like precisely the sort of thing James has in view when he says,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
On the other, these teenage Christians don’t know any better. They’ve grown up in an evangelicalism that is blind to the things Mayfield has come to see through her time living amongst immigrants, refugees, and the poor. What can reasonably be expected of them? They’re doing what seems right to them—and they really are sharing something with the children that is true. They really are creating a space that the children enjoy.
It may be tone-deaf and jarringly ignorant about the difficulties facing these children, of course. But, then, Mayfield reasons, that is how she used to be too.
Repentance stirs up anger toward sin. It also leads to humility. Mayfield balances those two things in her book better than any other young evangelical writer I’ve read.
Finally, the style of Mayfield’s book works well given the argument it’s making.
Many of the memoirs I’ve read focus on a chronological narrative, moving from childhood to the present. Others are topically organized, explaining how the writer has shifted in how they think about various issues. Mayfield’s work is different—the book is structured to model the process of assimilation that immigrants and refugees go through and it is organized around short vignette-style reflections. As such, it is much more impressionistic than many of the memoirs. Even so, the images Mayfield is able to create with this style are often much more striking, as in the above example.
I suspect that this style helps to balance prophetic denunciation and humble self-awareness. The nature of this more impressionistic style is that the focus is constantly shifting, something that is more blurred and atmospheric suddenly is pulled into focus while something else that was crisp until a moment ago is now backgrounded. It works.
Significantly, it works by making the places and people that Mayfield has known in her time living amongst the poor central to the book, rather than creating something that is narrowly focused on her own conversion, which, indeed would have been the sort of book whose existence would have undercut its thesis.
When I picked up Mayfield’s book I wasn’t sure what to expect. Though we both have ties to the group existing around Christ and Pop Culture and Christianity Today, my intuition has always been that we come from opposite wings of that big tent. There are things about what I perceive to be her wing that concern me but, then, there are also things about my side of things that concern her, no doubt. I did feel confident going in that I would be reading something that is both responsible and compelling. Mayfield is an elegant writer with a soft heart. But beyond that I had trouble knowing what to expect.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that I both enjoyed her writing and that said writing was equal parts prophetic and penitent. As I said above, that is a hard balance to hit; it’s one I often fail to find in my own work. If for no other reason than that, Mayfield’s book is worth reading.