Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Yep, That's Exactly What a Perfect, Godly, Pure Relationship Would Look Like

"When We Were on Fire" book cover.
If you are ex-evangelical, I very much recommend the book When We Were on Fire, by Addie Zierman. It's her memoir of growing up evangelical, getting out of that ideology, and her struggle to find a place in Christianity after that.

It's an engaging story, with just the right amount of specific little details so the reader feels like they are truly there, watching it happen. And I relate to so much of this- the little cultural markers of evangelicalism, the way that I continually sacrificed myself "for God" and didn't know how much damage I was doing to myself, the ignorant and totally-wrong reactions from Christians who can't understand why we no longer agree with this or that bit of ideology.

In this blog post, I'll focus on just the beginning third of the book, which is about Addie's relationship with her high-school boyfriend, Chris. Chris was so completely obsessed with following Jesus; everything he did, his entire identity, was consumed with a drive to obey God, no matter the cost. And so, of course, that meant he was the best Christian. That's the way we are supposed to live, according to what I was taught in church.

Also, of course, that meant he was planning to be a missionary. Because yes, in that ideology, the very very best Christians are the ones who become missionaries and go live in a some poor country with no white people.

Addie and Chris dated, off and on, for two and a half years. And every time they were "off", it was because "God told him" he couldn't date, and she waited for him until God okayed it again. Here's one example, from page 37:
The gist was that he would be leaving for Teen Mania to become a full-time intern in August, and he didn't want to get tangled up in the sticky web of a relationship. He didn't want it to keep him from following the Lord with his full, devoted heart. He didn't think we should talk anymore, didn't think we should spend Sunday afternoons driving around in his Toyota, didn't think we should be friends. The gist was that even though we weren't really, truly, officially "dating," we should break up, and the reason for this was God.


I was unsure how to cope with this sudden loss, the normal language of break-ups inaccessible to me because mine was for lofty purposes: it was God's idea, this parting, this emptiness. It was as though God and Chris had talked it over, and I was left alone to cope with the decision they had reached without me.

There was no place for anger, for the stages of teenage grief to unfurl in all their grandiose agony. Instead, I worked to bear up under it. So when, months later, Chris came back with a great wide smile and a new word from God on the matter- our relationship was okay now, a gift from the Father rather than a liability- all I felt was a deep surge of relief. The only thing I knew was that I had to do whatever I could to make sure he never left again.
About a year or two later, Chris did another internship with Teen Mania, this time for a whole year. Here's what happened after Christmas break (page 74):
But a few days later, the phone rings, and it is Chris calling from Texas, his voice crackly in the long distance. "I just called to tell you that I can't talk anymore," he says.

"What?" you say, pressing the plastic receiver to your ear. "Wait ... what?"

"I've sinned," he sighs. "I've been sinning. Teen Mania interns are supposed to break ties with all romantic relationships...and...all that time we spent together at Christmas..."

"Wait." You stop him, pulling the kitchen telephone away from your mom's curious gaze and the sound of garlic toast frying on the stove. You slide into the basement stairwell and shut the door behind you. "I don't understand. I mean... we saw each other... but we weren't like...together..." You replay his time home in your mind in fast-motion, trying to riddle out what he's saying.

"I've already talked to my team leader about it," Chris says. "He says I need to make a clean break of it... that I can't fully pursue God's will and stay connected to you at the same time." He pauses. "He says that you're causing me to stumble."

"I'm sorry," you say breathlessly.

"I'm sorry too," he says. You hear voices behind him, faraway Texas voices. The voices of the men who know about you, about your relationship, who believe you are a stone that is causing him to fall.

"Look," Chris says, "I have to go."

"Yeah," you say. "Sure, yeah." He hangs up before you can say good-bye.
It was so heartless, the way he treated her- and yet, this is exactly how I was taught dating is supposed to work. Back when I was a good purity-culture Christian, I never ended up getting approval from God to date any of the guys I had crushes on, so I didn't date. But if I had, if I was dating a guy who bought into the same ideology I did, then yes, oh yes, it would have been EXACTLY what Zierman describes here. (Please note, though, that the book focuses more on the "don't let anything, including romance, distract you from all-consuming devotion to God" aspect rather than the "purity" aspect. Their relationship definitely was a purity-culture relationship though. Chris made a contract about the rules and "boundaries" of their relationship, and Addie, Chris, their parents, and their pastor had to sign it. It doesn't get much more purity-culture than that.)

When Sunday school teachers talked to us about the qualities girls should look for in a husband, the #1 right answer was always "he loves Jesus more than he loves me." Find a man like that, that is the perfect Christian husband. And that's what I see, when I read about how Chris treated Addie, treating her like a temptation that he needed to reject in order to obey God fully. He probably didn't want to break up with her, over and over- it must have hurt him too- but he was always willing to do it if that's what God said. Decisions about dating and breaking up must be based on the possibly-random whims of a God, rather than considering how it affects your partner. In this ideology, there's no room for compassion and empathy toward the partner whom God decided needs to be dumped. (I've heard many testimonies about how "God told me to break up with my boyfriend, and it was so hard but I obeyed God and now everything is so much better" and not one acknowledged the pain that said boyfriend must have felt.)

Find a man who loves God more than he loves you. That's what I wanted, back then. That was the correct answer. And if that plays out in reality, of course it will look like how Chris treated Addie. Ready to break up at a moment's notice if that's what "God" said. It's incompatible with love.


One more thing I want to share. This is my favorite part of the entire book. From page 75:
You're a little bit weepy on the night that you sit with Felix in the dark of his parked car. It's been a bad time for you. The letters from Chris have stopped coming, just as he said they would. When the phone rings, it is no longer him, standing in the hallway of his dorm, telling you his stories. You have caused him to stumble, so he has kicked you out of the way. You are lonely. Felix is dabbing at the tears on your face with his long fingers. He swallows, and you are close enough to his neck to see the way it makes his Adam's apple more along his threat.

He's a senior, a friend from youth group. He is handsome. He knows that he is handsome. He has good hair and perfect lips and a tall, built body. The girls like Felix and Felix likes the girls and because of this, he has gotten himself into trouble more than once. So in a renewed commitement to personal purity, he has taken his devotion to abstinence to the next level: a dating sabbatical. A break from girls altogether. He is dating Jesus.

Sort of.

Right now, it feels as if he is dating you.

You can't see anything outside of the car, though you know you are in a housing development, one of the rich ones with lots of big trees, lots of little empty turnabouts like the one where you are currently parked. Inside, the numbers on the clock cast a green glow on Felix's sharp features. He leans toward you so that you are forehead to forehead, and you can feel your heart lurching erratically. He stares at you. You stare at him. He moves so close that you can feel the five o'clock shadow poke against your breathless cheeks.

You inhale sharply and back away, and the magic breaks. You put your two small fingers against his lips. "You're dating Jesus, remember?" you say.

That is the truth in this moment- not the beating of your heart against the darkness, but the unbreakable promise to God that forms the context behind it. Felix has vowed not to date girls, and you know what happens when you come between boys and their vows.

Besides, you are supposed to be waiting. Waiting for Chris, who is in Garden Valley, Texas, also dating Jesus, and consequently, not speaking to you. He is fighting the forces of evil and doing great things for the Lord. You are supposed to be quiet, reserved, watching over the horizon for the beginning of happily ever after. Not alone in a dark car with Felix and his perfect lips.

You should have let him kiss you.

If you had, maybe this would not be your story, your journey, your burden. If you had done what you wanted to do instead of watching over the boys and their vows... if you had allowed yourself to be hurt the usual way that teenage boys hurt teenage girls instead of falling so nobly on the sword of the Spirit, a constant sacrifice, dying again and again to your own desires, then maybe it would not have gone like this.
Damn. Yes. "You should have let him kiss you."


As I said, I totally recommend this book if you are ex-evangelical. Zierman vividly describes what it's like to internalize evangelical anti-self ideology, to not even realize how angry you are about it until years later, to dodge Christians who want to ask you "how's your walk?" and "hold you accountable" but they just don't get it. Her descriptions of living in China are also spot-on. (She and her husband taught English in China for 1 year.)

And in her relationship with Chris, they were both totally committed to God and followed all the rules like perfect Christians should. And that's why everything went so wrong.

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