A Book Review of Sorts | When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman

Jul 22, 2014

I don't remember how I came across Addie Zierman's blog. I read a post, then another, then another, and found myself somewhere between holding back tears and wanting to yell out. In relief from reading the truth that I've felt for so long but couldn't put into words, in anger over a somewhat similar past and the pain I've experienced and had to work through as a result. When I found out Addie was coming out with a personal memoir, I knew I needed to read it.

Having grown up in a super "evangelical-on-steroids" Christian culture, Addie's faith was measured by the steps she took, or didn't take. Every decision was molded by cliche religious terms and lofty ideologies that made going through heartbreaking experiences something a strong enough faith should be able to handle. She writes about first love, living her teenage years under the expectations of someone else, having her heart broken by a boy and by so much more, and finding herself among the unraveled mess of it all.  The chapters are broken down, rightly so, into four stages: Obsession, Disillusion, Rebellion, Redemption. Thus has been her journey.

The book arrived at a time in my life when I'm working through some similar things. Analyzing just how much the past has influenced my present, how I can't go back but need to at times, trudging through the collapsed walls of my faith as I try to hold on to some semblance of the foundation, all the while doubting the foundation was ever truly solid to begin with.  As I read the pages I felt my heart rise to my throat more times than I could count. I grabbed a pencil, underlined, starred all the sentences that stopped me in my tracks. 

A recent road trip allowed me to devour the book in two days. I'll be honest, I had a little wake up call after I closed the book and set it down. I had arrived at the last page and felt slightly disappointed at first. Disappointed because there wasn't a quick answer for me. There wasn't a 10-step guide to continue my own journey through this struggle of redemption and reconciliation. And as quickly as that disappointment came, I saw just how strongly the culture of my own had disillusioned me into thinking that's all it would take.

Thankfully, my eyes have been opened to the possibility of Freedom. As I shake off the chains of expectations, of preaching points that I had allowed to shape my every move, of the heaviest of heavy feelings that I could never be good enough for anyone, I see glimmers of light. To read about this sort of redemption in such a beautiful way in the words of someone else invites more light to come. The light that I don't have to be good enough because Someone Else is, that the truth is complex and can't be summed up by cute little phrases, and that my definitions of holiness and prayer have been stuck in a tightly sealed box.

I don't want to review chapter for chapter or discuss too much about the book. I'd like for you to find all that out for yourself if you're interested. But I would love to share some of the things that stood out to me, the sentences I was compelled to underline. They are thoughts and feelings I haven't been able to string together on my own, and this book will forever be one of my favorites for that reason. 

//  "...his faith had become an axis of rotation around which no one could freely turn." (pg. 91)  

//  "If I had it to do over again, I would have danced like Buenos Aires. I'd be a helicopter leaf, a snowflake falling, I would have stayed there spinning wildly and lovely across the dark, lonely sky" (pg. 91) 

//  "I didn't know where; I just knew that I would go. I had claimed for myself an extraordinary future; I had done it years ago as I sat on a swing and stared up at the wide, starry sky. I was meant to leave this all behind". (pg. 98)

//  "When she said, "How's your walk?" I heard suspicion....I remember this moment so clearly because of the response it evoked when I felt my faith being questioned, felt myself slipping down the spectrum.... I wished she could touch my hand and see my history unfold in a quick succession of images... I wanted her to feel what I felt, to understand that I had been fighting so long to prove myself and I was tired. I was just looking for a little rest." (pg. 111)

//  "...the memory of even the most extraordinary act of God can so easily slip away in those moments of your endless hunger....Maybe if I'd been able to stand up and talk about the darkness, it would not have consumed me." (pg. 129)

//  "It's the knee-jerk reaction of the evangelicals that gets me. In one swift motion, an entire faith community has moved into a defensive pose, as if to say, "I dare you to challenge me on this, the core of my faith". It almost feels like a taunt." (pg. 140)

//  "Once I'm aware of their faults, I can see nothing else, and I hang on to slights- real or imagined- with a firm grip. I want to let go, but I can't stop seeing them for who I wish they were. For who they're not." (pg. 144)

//  "I have been that girl; there is always the chance that if something hadn't gone awry, I could still be her." (pg. 146)

//  "I don't think Depression. The word seems categorically reserved for the truly broken, and I have no good reason to be depressed. There has been no blunt trauma to my life, nothing I can point to and say, "Here- this is why I'm so sad." People go through tragedies every day and bear nobly up under enormous amounts of pain. I have nothing like this, but somehow Depression has found a way into my life through a different door: loneliness." (pg. 154)

//  "You understand that your journey now will include unlearning this. It will be about creating a new picture of prayer to hold in your hands." (pg. 186)

//  "But when we go [church], I feel myself snap shut like a steel trap. Andrew drapes his hand across my back as we sit in the back row, and we raise our eyebrows pointedly at each other when anything feels off. Something trite is passed off as gospel, and I squeeze his hand desperately."

//  "Yes, faith is like being born again. But it is also not like being born again. Unlike the newborn infant, the new Christian has memory, memory that spans back into the darkness from which he came. He is not so much born as waking...every moment to new realities. To a new way of looking at humanity. To grace and to peace and to love." (pg 212)

//  "You tell the Church People you are lonely, and they say, "Let God be your friend" or they say "What a friend we have in Jesus!" And what you hear is that you don't have the right to be lonely, that if your faith was stronger than this, bigger than this, you would be happy." (pg 213)

//  "And it occurs to you that the real work of faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus." (pg. 213)

//  "You are beginning to understand that even the best goals and intentions can be corrupted. That the blind devotion to any Mission can turn dark. You have learned that it is impossible to divide things neatly, and that the second you begin to define something, you limit it. There is no such thing as "cut and dried" in a world of broken humanity. Gray bleeds into gray bleeds into gray, no matter how you slice it." (pg. 220)

//  "The future will be a mix of both of these things: The devotion and the cynicism. You have to find a way for them to coexist within you. Let them destroy each other, and your fragile faith may shatter entirely". (pg 234)

//  "If you read the Bible at all, it's in fits and starts. In many ways, you find yourself still trying to recover from the ways it was hurled at you all those years, the way you hurled it back at others. There was a Way you read the Bible in those high school days. There was a Way you turned the words into cliche, into their own special language, and now a certain amount of baggage remains lodged in the thin pages. You are trying to work through it, but you're not quite there." (pg. 224)

Interested in reading more? You can find a copy here.

Did anything come up for you as you read through the quotes? Any familiar feelings as you read a little bit about her past with a legalistic Christian sub-culture?


  1. I'm so glad that you reviewed this book. I hadn't heard of it before, but I'm going to try to get my hands on a copy immediately. Being thrown into the legalistic Christian sub-culture as a teenager really did a number on my views on faith and religion and it's something I'm still trying to work through for myself. I'd love to talk with you about all of this someday, Kelsea!

  2. I think so many of us had similar legalistic/hyper evangelical Christian upbringings. And that's REALLY hard to get over. I'd LOVE to read this book!

    And I really like your new header too!