For Freedom’s Sake: A Review of From Fear To Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls
Full disclosure: I was invited to contribute by one of the editors. I declined, while feeling honored to have been asked.
How many times have we heard the stories of people lost in addiction or some other pathology, their life transformed in a flash, now deep in the workings of some self-proclaimed “Bible-believing” church or ministry?
The stories in Travis Milam’s and Joel Watts’s collection, From Fear To Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls aren’t those stories. Milam and Watts have collected reflections of people raised in fundamentalist, Pentecostal, or other rigid faith traditions who found themselves straining against the teachings, social and cultural practices, and attendant personal, family, and interpersonal pathologies that resulted from their lives within these churches. Along the way are two excurses, including one by contributor Joel Watts on “King James Onlyism”, a phenomenon that is both strange and fascinating.
The reflections seem to follow a pattern, one that becomes clear after reading one or two: An introduction in which the author situates his or her family within a particular faith tradition; a sketch of the beliefs and practices; a detailed description of a time, or event, that planted the seeds of doubt in the person’s mind about those beliefs and practices; a somewhat longer description of a time or event that watered those seeds, having them grow. A wrap-up, sometimes with a confession of affection for those still within the tradition, sometimes not, sketching their current position, whether on a particular issue (a person moving from creationism to an acceptance of evolution, for example), or their changed position (from fundamentalist to vague pantheism).
The stories are varied enough to maintain either interest or curiosity while still following a pattern closely enough to keep readers intrigued. I, for one, would have preferred a bit more reflection; some of the stories, being confessional – perhaps “memoir-like” would be an even more apt description – have a raw quality about them that, while not off-putting, leaves little room for more sober reflection that comes with a bit of emotional distance. Also, with only one or two exceptions, most of the stories describe very little in the way of “fear”, at least textually. It seems to be the intention of the contributing editors that readers explore how moving from a tradition that emphasizes textual primacy, limits the exploration of meaning beyond simple correspondence, and denies the expression of moral ambiguity is expressed in and through these stories.
The “to faith” part also seems a bit misleading. With only one exception, the contributors do not seem to confess a movement “to” “faith”. Rather, they talk about how their faith changed over time as their experiences brought them to reflect on the inadequacies of their previously-held beliefs. This isn’t so much a journey “to faith” as it is a faith journey. Or, perhaps, I am reflecting my person, Wesleyan, bias here, including a reliance upon that grace that is active in our lives before we even know it is there.
These, however, are quibbles. This is an excellent jumping-off point for any individual or group wanting to explore the ways the Spirit moves in the lives of the faithful. Moving from fear to faith can be scary, as these stories attest; it is also what God wants for us, for as St. Paul says: We are freed for freedom’s sake.