Contains affiliate links
Spiritual Memoirs for Doubt and Deconstruction
Like many of you (I’m guessing), I grew up in church.
Got saved at six and baptized at ten or eleven. Attended a million Bible studies, a smattering of youth conventions, and up to three church services a week.
When I started college, I learned that you could major in Religious Studies (I was lucky that Florida State had a pretty robust program, too) and I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Religious Ethics, two areas that I felt I’d been undereducated in within the context of church.
I started attending a bordering-on-fundamentalist college ministry my sophomore year simply because my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s roommate recommended it. We all went together, so at first I didn’t notice the toxicity of the environment.
But things started to weigh on me, namely that my education and enthusiasm for taking an “intellectual” view on the church were not welcome when they came from me, a woman. In Bible study discussion pertinent to what I was studying in school, the leader would ask the men for assistance with interpretation. When I chimed in, I was met with awkward silence.
When the church was working to hire a new college minister, they asked the women how we felt about the prospective ministers’ wives, not how we felt about them. It just went on from there. It got really, really bad for me, to the point that one day I literally ran out of the service, out the church doors, and kept running until I was almost to the edge of the property. I sat down by a creek bed and cried, the mosquitos glistening in the late morning sun as they hummed around me.
That sunshine was the holiest thing I’d experienced at that church.
After that, I left church. Not just that church, but church in general. I mean, Daniel and I hunted around for another community, but I was working through trauma and unsure of what I believed, so nothing stuck. I spent something like a year and a half coming home from work and just sitting in darkness. Sometimes I would get in bed at 6:00.
I wasn’t angry with God, though I’m not sure I believed in God during much of that time. But I was angry that the language and community that made God real in my life had been stripped from me by bigoted men (and their female allies), and by a history of Biblical interpretation that left no room for continuing revelation and true honoring of everyone’s gifts.
The turning point was a book. Someone recommended Still by Lauren Winner, a memoir about a woman who loses faith during an identity crisis that stems from an unexpected divorce.
That word, Still, felt like chaos to me in my questioning, but her words helped me realize that Stillness could also look like peace, or like expectant waiting. I learned to take God’s silence as God’s listening, not as abandonment. And I’m so thankful for that, because here I am 6 years later starting the process to become a priest.
It is ok if your path is hard and confusing and weird. And I would understand if you left and don’t plan on coming back to this, or any, faith tradition. The pain can be unbearable. But if you’re questioning and need someone else’s words to bounce your scattered thoughts off of, here are my recommendations…
5 Christian Memoirs for Doubt and Deconstruction
While not truly a memoir, C.S. Lewis’ classic explores a lot of the practical and existential questions people have about the life of faith and the nature of God.
Lewis’ description of predestination versus free will in relation to time is something I come back to again and again when I’m asking the bigger questions, or exploring the nature of suffering.
Learn more here.
Rachel Held Evans was a former Evangelical whose path closely mirrored my own. Searching for Sunday is a vulnerable exploration of what it means to find church again after trauma, and I particularly like the way she organizes her thoughts through the Sacraments. (Evans died of complications from the flu in 2020.)
I wrote a full review of Searching for Sunday here.
Barbara Brown Taylor got ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church because she wanted to help wounded people. She served at a big city church and a small rural church, but after several years she found herself quietly crying in despair every Sunday.
Cultivating Christian community had inadvertently left her feeling more isolated than ever before. I wouldn’t recommend this book for everyone, but it was a good way for me to process some of the loose ends, particularly after I’d gotten over the initial hurdles of spiritual crisis.
Amy Peterson’s memoir about being a secret missionary in Southeast Asia inspired an entire blog post, which you can read here.
Peterson’s naive enthusiasm for the church put her new friends in ongoing danger and deconstructed her spiritual identity, but she was eventually able to throw out the bath water without losing the baby, so to speak.
Learn more here.
Lauren Winner’s vulnerable story of not knowing what to believe changed my life. In 2015, I reflected on what I learned from it here, but the gist of that experience was understanding the value of liturgy and habit for sustaining periods of doubt.
When you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can still know how to keep going. Prayers to pray, conversations to have, and questions to meditate on. I focused on social justice issues to sustain me and I credit my period of doubt for the creation of this blog.