For as long as I’ve been writing, I have wanted to produce a memoir. I’ve read great memoirs on other religious groups: Frank McCourt’s account of Irish Catholics in Angela’s Ashes, Chaim Potok’s memoir-like novels on Orthodox Judaism, Tara Westover’s bestseller Educated about fundamentalist Mormons. Yet my own tribe of evangelical/fundamentalists, hardly a fringe group, is often misunderstood and portrayed by the media in ways that seem tone deaf.
Scholars of religion estimate that 90 to 100 million people in the U.S. identify as evangelicals. Another 25 million count as “ex-vangelicals,” raised in the faith but later rejecting it. Many of their accounts of dysfunctional families and churches end in bitterness and hostility to faith. My own life story is different. Although I experienced some of the worst that the church has to offer, I also experienced some of the best. In the end, grace melted the bitterness.
I’ve decided it’s time to tell my story, which includes painful detours, and yet has a redemptive trajectory. “I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets,” wrote the pastor and novelist Frederick Buechner. “Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human.”
Here are a few things revealed in my memoir that you probably don’t know about me:
I took my first airplane trip at the age of thirteen months, sitting on a millionaire’s lap as my father lay in an iron lung battling polio.
I went to five different elementary schools in six years, having to start over with a new set of friends each time.
During adolescence I shared a tiny bedroom with my brother in an aluminum trailer eight feet wide and forty-eight feet long.
I kept an ant farm and a large collection of beetles and butterflies, and wanted to become an entomologist. After all, there are a thousand pounds of living termites—and around twenty million flies—for every person on earth.
My Atlanta high school was named for a Civil War general and was all-white. Now it’s named for an African-American astronaut and is all-black.
A quack dentist pulled all of my 16-year-old brother’s upper teeth without Novocain; he’s worn false teeth ever since.
The church I attended refused membership to an African-American Bible college student named Tony Evans, who went on to pastor a megachurch in Dallas with 10,000 members.
My brother dropped out of Wheaton College his very last semester and became one of Atlanta’s early hippies. Meanwhile, I was preaching on a “chain gang route” to prisoners in zebra-striped uniforms; each had a chain around his ankle attached to what looked like a cannon ball.
All of my previous books have been “idea books” centered on a theme. This one, Where the Light Fell, is purely narrative and includes some big surprises. It represents a sort of prequel to my two dozen other books. Reading it, you’ll learn why I return so often to the themes of pain and of grace.
Where the Light Fell will be published in October. As I was finishing that three-year project, I also took on another. In search of some perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic, I returned to one of my favorite books on suffering: John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written during the bubonic plague pandemic of 1623. Donne wrote a profound account of his ordeal that became a classic of English literature (“No man is an island…”; “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”) The Guardian newspaper in England ranks it as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time.
I’ve given away copies of Donne’s classic, but not one of my friends has made it through the entire book. The language is Elizabethan, the syntax complicated (one sentence has 234 words), and the medicine and science are simply bizarre. And yet the heart of the book—a Job-like wrestling match with the Almighty—deals with the very issues stirred up by a global pandemic. I spent several months doing a modern paraphrase, taking the best portions of Donne’s Devotions and paraphrasing them for a contemporary audience. The pandemic of the 2020s, I found, has much to learn from the plague of the 1620s.
You may have seen my blog “A Time to Fear” posted on this website page in February. Some 60,000 readers engaged with that blog. That excerpt represents just one of the meditations by Donne included in the new book A Companion in Crisis. As of this week, that book is available as a 160-page paperback for a retail price of $14.99. You can shop for it here: A Companion in Crisis
There will not be a digital version for sale. HOWEVER, our friends at PenguinRandomHouse, the publishers of my memoir, are offering a free digital download of A Companion in Crisis to anyone who pre-orders Where the Light Fell—two books for the price of one! [Scroll to the bottom for offer details and instructions.]
At first glance, the two books appear to have little in common: one by the pastor of England’s largest church during a time of such contentious faith that Pilgrims fled to the new colony of America; the other by a kid from the racist, fundamentalist South four hundred years later, during a time of increasing secularization. Yet both circle around the universal questions we all ask at times, especially during a pandemic. Some questions never go away.
[ pen icons by Alena Artemova, from Noun Project]