Sometimes you read a book and it shines a light on something completely different. Addie Zierman’s memoir When We Were on Fire did that for me. She writes of growing up evangelical in the 90’s, of the certainty of that subculture that if you did and said all the right things all would be well and effortless. I became an evangelical in the 70’s and I recognized her world. She had different popular bands, and different slogans, but the certitude that you could Get It Right was the same. Now don’t misunderstand, evangelicalism does get much right — the call to a relationship with Jesus Christ and to plunge deep into Scripture are two very right things. But the belief We Can Get it Right and Must Get it Right has dangers.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with World War II. As a child, I knew the Hollywood version, where the heroes almost never died, even when things looked their darkest. I read history some to know that wasn’t totally realistic, but still the war ended in a resounding victory less than four years after Pearl Harbor. One of my favorite books growing up was called Great American Fighter Pilots of World War II, and my favorite chapter was about the Marianas Turkey Shoot. In the war against Japan, American fighter pilots started with big disadvantages, since the Japanese Zero was a better plane. But about a year before the end of the war, the Americans had a new fighter plane, the F6F, that outshone the Zero. The result, the Americans had a battle that seemed easy, like target practice (hence the name “Turkey shoot”). I loved this story — things only stay hard for a short time, then they become easy.
Another childhood memory: sitting in my living room, the radio is playing To Dream the Impossible Dream. I listen to the words and think that is how life ought to be. To dream the impossible dream, to fight the impossible fight, to dare with my last ounce of courage. Can these two memories be reconciled? Is life an impossible dream, requiring courage and self sacrifice, or is it a crisis that can soon be resolved? I think I attempted a reconciliation; to believe when the crisis came you should dare everything, hold nothing back, break through the opposition and things would sooner or later become easy.
The evangelical faith I found in college adopted this notion of dare everything and break through to victory. Is it not what Jesus did? He suffered and died, and on the third day he rose again. Then the Spirit came upon the church at Pentecost, and the church began to spread. But unfortunately the church grew complacent and overly traditional, and compromised. We needed to rediscover the fire, get serious again and turn the world upside down.
Addie was taught the same image. Do the right things, it may be hard at first but you’ll soon be victorious. She wasn’t prepared for doing the right things, and finding life was still hard. Neither was I. When I’d been an evangelical over twenty years, a realization hit like a shock one day. I’d been a Christian over three times as long as World War II had ever lasted, (even for the British who fought for six years), and I still hadn’t gotten to the easy phase. I wondered what I might have gotten wrong, came close to giving up on the faith, but got to a new understanding. I’d been emotionally misunderstanding the promises of God for years, interpreting them as recipes to get to the easy phase. They are not keys to an easy life. They are assertions to cling to when life is hard, to remember God is with you.
At the same time I first read Addie’s book, I saw a comment Winston Churchill made to a friend during the war. Americans, he said, are prone to thinking once you have made the key decision, all will go well. Evangelical theology has the same tendency to oversimplification. If you’ve done the key thing, given your heart to Jesus (and that is key, I’m not suggesting it isn’t), all should be well. But I’ve come to realize that perhaps the standard narrative of Scripture is not the hero who finds faith in God so all becomes easy, but the hero who finds faith in God, and clings to that faith and God’s promises when circumstances remain bleak.
I’ve just recently read again the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. My old style of thinking returned: what great faith, what a great victory. If only we had the same faith. But I look again, and realize the story isn’t quite like that. Yes, Elijah had faith and saw a great victory. But it wasn’t the kind of victory that made everything easy from then on. Jezebel was still out to get him, king Ahab was still lukewarm in faith (at best). A real ultimate victory would have been to unite Israel and Judah together once again, make the two one kingdom, worshiping together at the temple in Jerusalem. That didn’t happen. This story too, like the stories of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the unnamed heroes of faith in the last verses of Hebrews 11, is about someone who had faith, who say the hand of God sustain his faith, but did not yet see the resolution of all problems.
Yesterday I started Night Driving, Addie’s second book. I felt a twinge of disturbance at the beginning. She’s still struggling with those same issues of life being messy that she described in When We Were on Fire? Why? Then it dawned on me. My disturbance was the old longing for instant and dramatic victory, only slightly readjusted. You learn that life is hard, that God is with you in the hard times but doesn’t always instantly remove the hard parts; that does not bring on its own instantaneous victory where you adjust your expectations once and then proceed serenely with perfect patience through the ongoing messes of life.