When We Were on Fire, by my dear friend Addie Zierman, is available today and I could not be more excited for her, for you, for your chance to read her finely wrought words. Addie is not just a stellar storyteller. She is honest about her faith foibles and quick to dispel my maternal compulsion to assign blame. Addie’s book tells the story about growing up Evangelical, and how that sometimes small, cliche world is both a warm and happy cocoon and an incubator for pain and disillionsment. Addie is hosting a synchroblog for people to tell their own stories of when we were on fire. So join the party. Buy the book. Read the book. And then hope she’s already at work on her next.
I signed my name to the contract. I promised that for one full year, not just nine months of a school year with holidays off for good behavior, I would abstain from R-rated movies, cuss words (as they are so called in these here parts), two piece swimwear, alcohol and being too close to boys. As I was, at the time, a Woman of God (or Valor, a term my friends and I employed regarding our righteous selves) I had not problem with the cuss words, the alcohol, even the boys.
My problem was that I was, I am, the product of parents who champion the rights of all people, yes even we lowly women, the inferior species. My problem was that I was the recent graduate of a liberal female college. My problem was that I thought the swimsuit rule was stupid, and furthermore, you can stick your R-rated movies dictum in you…ahem. Where was I ?
We were a large group, and I was the only person from East of the Mississippi and North of the Mason Dixon. I was most definitely in the minority. I wanted to be there, in this quirky group of former college athletes and seminary prospectives who knew their Bibles as if they had written the verses themselves. I wanted to move myself out of Pennsylvania, and immerse myself and my faith in something totally daring and quite frankly scary as all get out (again, as we say in these here parts). Here we studied and we prayed and we prepared meals together. We shared the work of cleaning toilets and teaching the Bible to college students.
And lo, it was good.
Until one day, in class, the subject of an Oscar nominated movie, The Piano arose. And I was bitter. I had not been “allowed,” under the contract, to see what was being heralded as an epic film. And I was tired, because I had surrendered my agency. I had stopped saying exactly what I felt and thought, because what I felt and what I thought were so different from what they felt and thought. Every time I suggested a feminine perspective or a literary reference, I was silenced. And I felt that avoiding R-rated movies just because they were R rated movies said more about fear and intellectual abilities than it said about some kind of righteousness earned by walking the invisible holy line of cultural appororiateness.
“Be in the world but not of the world,” the class intoned like children spoon fed soft bites of milk-dipped mana.
And I said, with very little forethought, “I am smart enough to engage in the sexuality or language of a movie and understand the truth of art, despite its somewhat ugly exterior.”
Oh, they did not rise up as one in support. No. They stared slack-jawed and eyes agog. For I had insulted their intelligence. I had undermined their prescription. And I did not do with a modicum of grace. Or respect. I did, however come to understand that for some people, ducking our heads in the slightly less icky PG-13 world is a way to avoid the ugly truth. That life is hard. That people endure impossibly empty lives. That there is sadness and death and an incredible paucity of solid, hold-in-your-hand answers.
I wonder, even now, if “dying to self,” means dying of the things that make me me. Do I have to give up the feminism that runs through my veins like water in a tree? Do I have to step aside from my mind that enjoys the challenge of wrestling with ideas? Does God require me to become like you, or him, or that other guy who has the spiritual battle worn Bible always cupped between two hands?
I was on fire, and I wore my flaming mantle, if not well, then with humble pride (ha). Truth is I was in the right place, and I did see the beauty of other ideas, and I am thankful God requires me to seek Him, wearing the skin He gave me.