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In Search of Sanctuary: Reviewing Young Evangelical Memoirs

July 23rd, 2015 | 21 min read

By Jake Meador

“All I wanted was a safe place to be. Like so many, I was in search of sanctuary.” ~ Rachel Held Evans

I. Exhaustion

On a cold rainy day in the suburbs of Chicago, Addie Zierman’s mom pulled into school to drop off her teenage daughter. They were an hour early because Zierman, a student leader in her youth group, planned to attend the annual See You at the Pole event where evangelical students rally round their school’s flagpole to pray for the school and witness to their peers. After assuring her mother multiple times that yes, she really did want to do this, Zierman trudged out of the van to stand by the flagpole and wait for the other students.

And wait. No one came. But rather than go inside and dry off before school began, Zierman chose to stand by herself and pray–a lonely witness to her non-Christian fellow students. She stood that way in the rain for nearly an hour, all the while aware that deep down she wanted that experience; she wanted to be the only student who cared enough about her school and her witness to show up and stand out in the rain for an hour. She was cold and miserable and she was also… happy.

And then a friend tapped her on the shoulder, and politely asked what in the name of Sam Hill she was doing. But this would not be an heroic witnessing opportunity brought about by her powerful act of courage. It was a fellow evangelical who came out to tell her that See You at the Pole had become See You at the Water Fountain. Her friends had been inside the whole time. Zierman had been standing outside for an hour all alone when her Christian friends were only a few hundred feet away in the warm, dry school calling down Jesus without her.

Such was the adolescent zeal of a young evangelical growing up in the early 2000s. Zierman’s story is memorable, but not unique. The past five years have seen a deluge of young evangelical memoirs and they’re all saying the same thing: Young evangelicals are exhausted. In some cases, they found their way to a healthier faith. Others attempted to recast their Christianity as something that wouldn’t be quite so draining to practice. Others still haven’t found what they’re looking for and have written their books in hopes of finding some sort of consolation. But why, exactly, are young evangelicals tired?

When We Were on Fire is the title of Zierman’s memoir, a title which sums up her story quite nicely. Zierman grew up in a typical suburban megachurch just outside Chicago: middle-to-upper-class, deeply concerned with evangelism, and keen to impart the church’s mission to its young people—of whom there were plenty. But that’s not what ended up happening in most cases. Captive to an ecclesiology that was unable to offer an account for how young people ought to live within the church, these churches often gave their young people far greater responsibilities than those entrusted to adult members while also failing to give them what they needed to fulfill those responsibilities.

They were expected to go into large schools filled with their friends and neighbors and transform those schools through witnessing and leading Bible studies and prayer groups, while also dealing with the normal academic and personal struggles of adolescence and maintaining involvement in the church youth group, regular attendance at youth group events, and (somehow) a GPA good enough to get them into a good college. Given such onerous expectations, exhaustion isn’t an unexpected fluke; it’s the natural outcome.

For their part, these churches were not completely blind to the immense difficulties facing their youth. And yet the means of support they offered to them—age-targeted ministries where they could spend time with peers and suitably cool adults from the church—often compounded the problem. They gave their children a highly customized approach to Christian piety and tacitly encouraged them to evaluate churches and ministries on extra-biblical—or flatly anti-biblical—standards. And, of course, these youth groups required a great deal of work from the youth to be maintained. Sponsoring adults could provide homes for Bible studies and movie nights; the church could provide finances to help fund weekend outings and special events. But it was the students who had to find the time in their aforementioned schedules to participate in those events and it was the students who had to coax non-religious friends into attending events that often seemed like little more than alcohol-free parties and youth events with a lame veneer of Jesus sloppily applied across the surface.

They had to be salesmen with a product they couldn’t possibly be expected to sell. It’s no surprise, then, that these students arrived at college on the edge of breakdown. It would have been more surprising if they hadn’t. In a different context, CS Lewis suggested that modern schools were like breeders who castrated their horses and then bid the geldings be fruitful. So also was the evangelical ministry to young people in the late 90s and early 2000s. And the unhappy fruit of this era is the ever-growing genre of the millennial evangelical memoir.

II. Performance


A few weeks before his 13th birthday, Jonathan Merritt crawled out of bed late one night and ran into his parents bedroom. He woke his dad, a baptist pastor, and said that he wanted to become a Christian—even though he’d been in the church his whole life and had previously prayed to ask Jesus to save him. “I know you think I became a Christian many years ago, but I didn’t,” Merritt told him. With his dad walking at his side, they went back to Merritt’s room, Jonathan prayed and when he was done his dad kissed his forehead before returning to bed. Merritt describes a peaceful feeling washing over him as he crawled back into his bed and comfortably fell asleep, at rest in a way he hadn’t been in some time.

Most millennial evangelicals have a memory of a similar scene at some point in their adolescence. Multiple friends of mine have been baptized multiple times and I can’t think of a single peer from my childhood church that didn’t claim to have prayed to ask Jesus into their heart multiple times “just to be safe.”

Why did we do this over and over? Why did we break down in tears and go talk to a counselor every summer at camp after the camp fire? Answer: For the same reason so many of us arrived at college feeling completely exhausted after 18 years of evangelicalism: The Christian faith imparted to us often consisted of a long list of expectations that could be fulfilled through effort and pluck independent of genuine spiritual formation and without the use of the tools given us by Christ to aid that formation.

There’s a scene elsewhere in Merritt’s book Jesus is Better than You Imagined that most every evangelical family will relate to. The Merritts were driving to church and, as all evangelical children are prone to do when on the way to church, Jonathan and his brother were bickering in the back seat. As the family pulled into the church parking lot, Merritt’s dad turned around and sternly told his sons to knock it off. “You’re Merritts. You need to act like it.” From this and similar experiences Merritt took the principle that it was better to simply ignore whatever sin issues or struggles exist in one’s life and get on with pretending to be a good, upstanding Christian who never struggles, never sins, never has doubts or questions. Merritt is hardly alone in this. Jason Boyett begins his memoir O Me of Little Faith with a tedious confession of all the ways he faked maturity as a Christian young person. Zierman, in her much more successful book, tells a similar story from her early days at Northwestern College in St Paul MN.

But there’s something odd about this complaint and specifically about the language of mask-wearing. In his classic book Mere Christianity CS Lewis uses the same language, but for him this act is an essential part of maturing in the Christian life. Writing about Christian ethics in the latter portion of the book, Lewis tells his readers that the best way to learn to love a difficult person is to pretend that you already do. Lewis refers to this decision to act in a way contrary to your feelings as wearing a mask. And, if you wear a mask long enough, Lewis says, you begin to grow into it.

So why is the advice Lewis gives (drawn from Paul) viewed so differently by these memoirists? In Lewis, the end of the mask is that the person would literally grow into Christ. We are quite literally putting him on, to use the Pauline language. But the intent behind the similar commands given to us by well-meaning youth pastors, parents, and peers often tended toward quite another end. Merritt’s father didn’t tell him to act like a Merritt because that was the way to put on Christ; he told him to act like a Merritt because they were almost to church and he wouldn’t have his children behaving that way in front of the other church members. It’s the difference between formation and performance, in other words. In the former, the mask is effecting a deeper transformation. In the latter it’s simply a form of branding or reputation management. For a generation that grew up on advertising and has, as a result, become steeped in a cynical way of looking at the world, any type of mask is thought of as a lie; a withholding of your authentic self. It’s the equivalent to McDonald’s trying to rebrand as health food even though everyone knows better.

Of course, marketing language is hardly a new thing in American Christianity. George Whitefield was renowned as much for his abilities as an orator and entertainer as he was his preaching. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin frequently attended his meetings not because of any interest he had in the Gospel but because he found Whitefield’s effect on the crowd fascinating. The Second Great Awakening brought a new level of technique and drama to the preaching of the Gospel, as pioneers like Charles Finney developed methods, such as the altar call and anxious bench, for producing new converts. Then came Billy Sunday, a former baseball player, who incorporated his past life into his preaching in order, at least in part, to make the whole thing more entertaining. More recently, Bill Hybels did the ecclesiastical equivalent of market research before launching Willow Creek Church in Chicago. (Though she didn’t grow up there, several of Zierman’s close friends from high school attended Hybels’ mega church and Zierman herself was quite familiar with the church. One particularly entertaining moment in her memoir is actually set at the Willow Creek campus.) More recently still, disgraced former pastor Mark Driscoll routinely deployed trendy business language as part of his preaching in Seattle. To take only one example, he frequently spoke to his congregants about the difference between “working in” your life and “working on” your life, a concept found in Michael Gerber’s business book The E-Myth published in 1988. (To my knowledge, Driscoll never gave Gerber credit for the line.)

So the idea that the Christian life is in one sense a marketing campaign for a product has deep roots in American evangelicalism. No doubt, a number of factors feed into this tendency, but the point here is how it affected the spiritual formation of these memoir writers. Without exception, these authors speak of the need to perform, to play a part, to be a good witness—all in reference to their non-Christian peers and fellow parishioners for whom they must appear to be mature Christian young people. In other words, there is a desired outcome that is contingent on their ability to perform in the way their parents and peers expect. If they fail to model Christian behavior to their peers, they’re a bad marketer and those peers won’t buy what they’re selling. If they fail to model Christian behavior to their fellow parishioners, they’re a bad Christian and may not belong in that community. Predictably, this created enormous pressure on these young people, leading to exhaustion and burnout. The burnout then would throw these authors back to the question of whether they were a Christian at all—hence the repeated professions of faith described by Merritt.

Yet when we turn to the biblical use of this concept, this idea of “putting on” Christ has quite a different end: In both Romans 13 and Galatians 3, Paul connects the idea of putting on Christ quite closely with our ability to love our neighbor and to resist sin. Indeed, in Galatians 3 this language of putting on Christ isn’t used in an imperative form at all, but as an indicative. You have put on Christ, Paul says, therefore love all your fellow Christians because you are all heirs of Christ. In Paul, this “mask” is not something we put on ourselves as a way of protecting our reputation or persuading others to become Christians. The “mask” is given to us in baptism and makes us heirs to all the promises of the Gospel. What was given to these millennial writers as a burden is in scripture a sign of God’s covenant with his people.

Unfortunately, the language of marketing and branding is so ubiquitous in the contemporary United States that most of these writers never successfully escape it, even as they leave evangelicalism behind. “Being on fire for God” gives way to “being authentic,” as it so clearly does in Boyett’s book, for example.

The sense of cultivating an individual brand through the performance of a role is still front-and-center in Rachel Held Evans work, sometimes far more explicitly than it ever was in 90s-era evangelicalism. Consider her A Year of Biblical Womanhood, for example, in which Evans copies AJ Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically in order to lampoon conservative evangelicals. Sometimes this specific project called for performance in the most literal sense of the term, as when she camped out in the yard during her period. Often these memoirists are not rejecting the fundamental characteristics of their childhood faith, but are simply applying that ethos to a new set of values or beliefs. Notorious megachurch pastor Ed Young and his wife stayed in bed for 24 hours and streamed it live on the internet in order to make a dubious point about the Christian life. Evans held a sign saying “Dan is awesome” by the interstate in order to make a dubious point about the Bible. Explain to me the difference. The religious-life-as-marketing ethos remains, even if classical evangelical theology does not. In the end what is most striking about these memoirs is how close the authors actually end up staying to the evangelical methods they think they have rejected.

III. Emotion


In Girl at the End of the World Elizabeth Esther tells the story of her escape from a fundamentalist cult led by her grandfather. Esther describes herself as having something of a rebellious streak throughout, a tendency that on the whole serves her well in the face of the abusive cult she grew up in. In one particular episode, she tells the story of her first kiss with a boy she dated for a short time in high school.

“His lips meet mine, and they are soft, warm, and gentle. He takes his time. We kiss and kiss. I feel as if I am being chosen. I am suddenly very present, exquisitely aware of every tiny detail. I’ve only felt such heightened awareness when scared. This is the exact opposite. My stomach muscles relax, my breathing slows, every inch of my body responds to his warm embrace. Slowly, everything bad drifts far, far away. All my feelings of not being good enough, of never having enough love, dissipate in the glow of his affection. I want to stay right here in this moment forever. When we finally break apart, the sun is almost gone. It is dusk. I have to run if I am going to get home before dinner. We kiss once more, and then I am running across the field. I am as light as air. I can run a million miles. I can fly. I don’t care whether I get punished. This feeling. This feeling!”

As many have said, the medium is the message and here the form of Esther’s writing actually suggests a great deal about another signature characteristic of many of these memoirs. We’ve already noted that these memoirs are for some of these writers a form of branding. One defining characteristic of this brand is the emotion of the prose. Though none of the other books are quite as purple as Esther’s prose above (and the rest of Esther’s book is not so extreme) there is still a strong emotional argument that stands behind the books and announces itself so loudly that cooler forms of argumentation are answered indirectly via an avalanche of emotion. To be clear, the problem is not with emotive prose, but with the ways it is being used in many (though not all) of these books.

Why does emotion play such a strong role for many of these authors? Part of it is due, no doubt, to the unique nature of the memoir as a genre which by necessity will be more emotive in parts. Yet some of the recent young evangelical memoirs are florid even by the standards of memoir, as in the excerpt above. So what is driving this style of prose? American Conservative writer Rod Dreher might have the answer: After Tullian Tchvidjian’s resignation at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Dreher said that we live in an age where ecclesial authority is no longer credible. This problem first began to emerge in the 1980s and 90s as prominent religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart fell into scandal, but it has become more pronounced in the aftermath of the Catholic sex abuse scandal which broadened the scope of the authority problem beyond evangelicalism. The problem this creates is that religious authority does not simply hang in the ether doing nothing; religious authority is what binds and unites religious communities. So in the absence of credible religious authority those religious communities begin to splinter. Thus religious authority must be replaced by something. One way of understanding millennial spirituality might be that it is a quest to find an alternative grounding for religious piety and life within religious institutions which can replace the apparently discredited religious institutions of the past.

These young evangelicals are no exception to this generational trend. And their cynicism toward the institutional church isn’t always without reason, as we’ve already noted above. 90s era evangelical churches were often highly dysfunctional and grounded in uniquely flawed visions of the christian life and the church’s identity. Unfortunately, the combination of institutional mistrust and the emotivist solution has a way of flattening religious experience. There is a sharp difference, for example, between the genuinely abusive behavior of Esther’s cultic church and the more complex issues of church life discussed in Evans’ Faith Unraveled, for example. Some of Evans’ antagonists in the book do behave badly, but Evans never describes anything like the level of dysfunction in Esther’s church where her uncle was both serving in leadership roles in the church and was frequently cheating on his wife. (It’s possible, of course, that there were significantly worse issues in her churches that Evans never discusses, but on the testimony of their books alone there are sharp differences between the extremes of Esther’s cult and the fairly typical, though still significant, problems with Evans’ Bible belt evangelicalism.)

But in the absence of shared institutional identity or even a more general shared membership in some cultural entity like “evangelicalism,” the only language these writers have to develop anything resembling a shared membership is a kind of subjective, highly personal emotive prose that isn’t able to offer accurate descriptions of reality by making the necessary distinctions between various emotional experiences. Put another way, this language’s only referent is the experience of the person speaking, so it can’t help being inherently individualistic and subjective. Nor can this prose offer anything like a clear set of principles or shared commitments. Indeed, this point may go some way in explaining how Evans would endorse the bizarre moral reasoning of a writer like Dianna Anderson. Anderson’s argument, as best I can parse it, is that individual experience is unquestionable and sacrosanct. A writer like Evans almost has to accept such an argument because it shares a similar foundation with her own work. The prose (and, by extension, the thinking) is propelled forward by the experiences and feelings of the author, so if Esther feels abused and Evans feels abused, both will describe their experiences in similar ways—even if what is going on at Esther’s church is far uglier than anything Evans has experienced.

A further difficulty is that the lack of nuance in diagnosing the ills of 90s-era evangelicalism makes it difficult for these authors to imagine themselves as members of a community that does not share their experience or that does not treat emotion in the same way. Thus many of these writers, though not all, have tended to imagine themselves as being lone ranger Christians rather than members of the body of Christ. Evans is the most obvious example of this ecclesial exile, although in her latest book she seems to have turned a corner by joining the Episcopalian Church. Matthew Paul Turner’s memoir Churched has the same tendencies. Turner, whose old blog was called (tellingly) “Jesus Needs New PR,” uses his memoir to tell the story of growing up in a conservative baptist church in the south. Unfortunately, his remarkably condescending and bitter tone, which even Frank Schaeffer would find a bit overwrought, makes it impossible to discern if his church was actually that bad or if he’s just exceptionally petty and vindictive. But this is the problem with prose that relies so heavily on emotion as a propulsive force.

What we’re left with then is an isolated individual, assailed by many foes and bereft of the support of recognizable communities. Esther’s father is as much a villain in the book as is her church. The same is true of Turner’s family and Zierman’s Super Christian boyfriend as well as some of the professors at Evans’ Christian college.

Within this space, emotion becomes a powerful way of establishing trust and reaching out to your fellow isolated individual. In the absence of a common identity arrived at via church life or some other form of shared membership (family, neighborhood, etc), it seems that it’s only through the comparison of past wounds that we can arrive at fellowship with our fellow human beings. Thus the prose of these books is a sort of compensation for the absence of any sort of given membership which one belongs to on the basis of love and grace. Membership cannot be assumed as a given; it must be obtained through effort—effort in the form of weeping enough over the latest tragedy to make the news or writing a memoir confessional enough to elicit a similarly tearful response from readers. This, of course, brings us back to a latent performance-based approach that these writers have largely failed to escape, even if they have left behind the faith of their youth.

Thankfully, some of the memoirs do escape this fate as the authors do eventually come to a sort of resolution in which they are able to see themselves as members of the church. This is the consolation that can be found in the final third of both Zierman’s book, which is easily the best of the lot, and Esther’s Girl at the End of the World. It is also unmistakably (and happily) present in Evans’ Searching for Sunday, which is the best of her three books.

In each of these cases, the combination of strong marriages (all three women describe their husbands in beautifully affectionate language that one can only admire) and the kindness of ordinary Christians helps them work through their struggles with church life. A woman asks Zierman how she is and actually listens rather than mindlessly regurgitating evangelical truisms. A man gives Esther a prayerbook. A friend invites Evans to church without putting any pressure on her to keep attending. These small mercies become the entry point through which these authors slowly reenter the life of the church.

IV. Lazy with the Love of Good


In his poem “Two Hangovers,” the Ohio poet James Wright describes a bluejay he once saw bouncing up and down on a tree branch, “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself to entire delight, for he knows as well as I do that the branch will not break.” If there is a single way of understanding these young evangelical memoirs it is that the faith of our childhood did not give us the ability to abandon ourselves to delight. It didn’t teach us to be, in Chesterton’s phrase, “lazy with the love of good” because it did not teach us that the branch would not break.

The defining trait of 90s era evangelicalism as experienced by these writers is its frailty. Always we had before us a list of things to do and never did we hear about the idea of Sabbath rest. Ours was a piety of wretched urgency. We had no confidence that our faith’s foundation was sound; that our God was at work in the world and that our work in that world was done out of gratitude to him rather than a deep-seated fear of him.

To be sure, this confidence has eluded the memoir writers because it far too often eluded their parents as well. Michael Spencer wrote about this in his essential 2003 essay “Wretched Urgency” (linked above) in which he bemoaned the revivalistic tendencies of American evangelicalism which often neglected spiritual formation and church life in favor of a truncated, half-baked understanding of evangelism. The authors of these memoirs, in other words, are in many ways simply adopting their own generational forms of the same besetting sins that marked their parents’ generation.

Properly understood, the Christian faith ought to free us from this sort of Sisyphean spirituality. It does so on an individual level by assuring us that there is nothing we can do to merit the love of God, so we may as well stop trying. In a few cases, these memoir writers eventually come to this realization. That adults who had spent their entire lives in the church could “discover” this idea in their mid-to-late 20s is thoroughly depressing as well as being a devastating indictment of late 20th and early 21st century evangelicalism. This is hardly a new idea, after all. Luther famously advised a friend to “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” Rightly understood, this assurance not only comforts the individual as they relate to God, it also frees us to live joyfully in God’s world. Because Christ has entered the world, because Christ has died, and because Christ has conquered sin and death in the resurrection, we can be at ease as we work in the world. Our virtue exists because we can be “lazy with the love of good.”

In his song Hymn #101 Joe Pug writes that he has “come to be untroubled in my seeking.” Though Pug, as best I know, isn’t a Christian, that is a marvelous statement about the Christian life. At rest in the reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, Christians can pursue the good work given to us freed from the anxiety that so marked the evangelicalism of both the boomers and, in a quite different way, the millennials. The lazy love of the good is the antithesis of (and answer to) the exhaustion that marks these memoirs.

And yet this lazy seeking is not idle. We do not escape exhaustion through apathy or failing to act. Rather, we escape this cycle of exhaustion when we are able to act with cheerful confidence. Remember your stories—the first thing Lucy and Susan do after seeing Aslan resurrected is ride to the White Witch’s castle to awaken the slumbering animals inside.

And the second thing they do is ride to battle. To be lazy with the love of good is not to be bent by apathy or driven to a disengagement with the world. But it is to be propelled into the world in a wholly different way, riding into battle as part of a membership whose roots go back millennia and that is now stretched across time “terrible as an army with banners.” And as we march the song on our lips will not be one of wretched urgency and anxiety; it will not be the desperate cries of lonely people seeking out fellowship. It will be the joyful cheer of a baptized body bound by love and grace—”the peace of Christ makes fresh my heart / a fountain ever springing / all things are mine since I am his / how can I keep from singing?”

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).