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Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt Kindle Edition
|Length: 304 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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If those books are external memoirs (everything is on the surface), then Faith and Other Flat Tires is an internal memoir. It is a book by a bright, introspective woman who finds problems with religion in all manner of ways. An Eric Clapton concert is as likely to raise tough theological questions as does having to bury a childhood friend. Dilley's memoirs outline how she grew up a missionary kid and then became a 'melancholy Christian' before leaving the church. She eventually found that the same questions that drove her away from God ended up driving her back to faith once again. She returns to God hesitantly, with battle wounds and hope and also - get this - without all the answers.
As a memoir, this book is funny and honest. Dilley doesn't paint herself as a victim or a saint. She's awkward at times, painfully aware of her flaws and she bravely lays her selfish moments and bad choices along with her honesty and courage. She acknowledges that her tale is not a 'my life was the worst life ever' story. Rather, it's a tale of how a person can loose faith while still maintaining a 4.0 - how even the seemingly 'good' kids can find themselves stomping out of the church and slamming the doors behind them (literally) because their questions are not being answered.
As a spiritual book, Faith and other Flat Tires walks a very different line than others spiritual books I've read. (Thank God.) For one thing, it's not at all preachy. For another, it's wicked smart. Dilley knows her stuff - her theology, her church history, her convictions about social justice. When she takes a swing at the church, she's got the intellectual and emotional equivalent of a heavyweight behind her fists. This is a woman who has heard all the "good Christian answers" and yet can't reconcile that with the suffering she's seen in the world and the loneliness she's felt in her own heart. Dilley paints a clear picture of loss and bewilderment, of standing inside a church and a faith that feels like it's crumbling.
Christians who don't want to ask hard questions about their faith will likely be troubled by this book. It doesn't hold back. So also, people who want to walk away from the church forever may take issue with Dilley's refusal to settle for easy secular answers as well as easy religious ones. But for folks who are seeking for Truth with a capital 'T,' yet feel like they're out of place among the doughnuts-and-coffee-and-small-talk-after-church crowd, this book will come as a welcome read. I kept thinking, 'Man, I wish I'd been able to read this as a teenager.' At that time, the dichotomy of perfect Christian girl and 'other' seemed so stark in my mind.
Finally, as a work of non-fiction, this book is a delight to read. Dilley is a fantastic writer, and her flowing, conversational style deftly draws the reader from one striking metaphor to a vivid scene from her unusual life to a heady theological point, and then back again. The writing is funny, earthy, and philosophical in turn - sometimes all at the same time. The only complaint I could level at the book is that the references to Pilgrim's Progress that cropped up now and again felt strained to me. Maybe that's because I was forced to read that book as a kid and hated it. Dilley's simple, honest style sometimes seemed like it broke stride to side-step Bunyan's overwrought metaphors. This was a small enough thing not to detract from the point of the book, but I didn't care to hear about Bunyan's fictional journey when Dilley's real journey was going on.
SUMMARY: To keep with the car metaphor laid out in the book, Faith and Other Flat Tires is not a religious tract you found stuck under your windshield. Instead, it is like sitting in the passenger seat with a dear friend, driving through her life, discussing questions about God as you head down the road together.
Born between Generation X and Generation Y (1978), Dilley today is 36, the mother of two young children. She is the wife of Stephen Dilley, a rising professor of philosophy whose teaching and publications challenge the implications of neo-Darwinian evolutionary worldviews. Dilley's brother Nathan J. Palpant, PhD, is also part of the mix; he is a research scientist specializing in stem cell and regenerative medicine, and has collaborated with Dilley's husband, Stephen, in a book on bioethics and Christianity. Dilley herself recently reviewed Megan Hustad's 2014 "More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments" in the Christianity Today's Books & Culture, a leading conservative Evangelical journal. Aptly matched to MTC, she judiciously took the measure of Hustad, her fellow "3rd culture" (the vexed identity realm of missionary children who return to the US from extended stays in the field) refugee with an insightful analyses that for me exceeded those found in F&OFT. In her critique of MTC, it appears Dilley has transcended her melancholic diminishment-of-faith-years as a 20-something.
F&OFT joins the current "re-finding God" genre in which the memoirist takes some lonely sojourns down the alleys of spiritual darkness and malaise, and then undergoes insight/enlightenment/repentance, re-connecting with God in a graced conclusion. (Reflecting a postmodern sensibility, the more recent examples of this genre tend to be cautiously graced; so is Dilley's "conclusion" in F&OFT.) "Re-finding God" is a recurring staple within Evangelicalism, a sort of reliving of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In F&OFT, Mrs. Dilley's "bad girl" cred had its "baptism" when she was an English major who in earnest pushes against the confines of Evangelical culture. In her breakout she is encouraged by the hipster rebel "Damon Lucas" (acting as Dilley's Virgil in touring her through secular culture). Typically, the "re-finding God" genre wraps up with the errant sojourner becoming wiser and ready for spiritual renewal, the soul-corroding behaviors put solidly in the rear view mirror. In Dilley's case, the melancholic interregnum was interrupted when she met an exceptional Christian man (with a challenging intellect), fell in love, got married, moved to Texas and had kids. Such experiences force the transition to Christian adulthood.
For me, F&OFT, in addition to chronicling Dilley's spiritual struggles and judiciously veiled youthful misadventures, revealed the contradictions and simplistic assumptions of late 20th century evangelicalism. The earnest faith legacy of her parents (who as medical missionaries truly "walked the walk") as portrayed by Dilley seemed unequal to a rising and erosive secularism and the seductions of a media-oriented youth culture at the millennium, the time of her malaise. The propositional faith of the momentary accepting Jesus as your Savior (as she did as a child in the African mission field) -- without some years of hard reckoning with WHO Jesus is for YOU, WHAT he is accomplishing in this world and WHAT he wants of YOU -- makes that childhood decision an abstraction. And it becomes a dimming abstraction as one enters early adulthood where the questions about God's goodness inevitably arise. Meanwhile, the culture around you is a real experience -- for good and ill. (Further, secular culture has no interest in encouraging a spiritual wrestling that may result in a challenge to the individualistic assumptions of that culture. Mirroring this, Dilley asks on p. 107, "what did Jesus have to do with literature, film and Friday?" Note the past tense "DID" instead of the present DOES.) The frequent conclusion is that your grade school faith decision is no longer abreast of your present life, leading to a spiritual crisis.
So what were the whip-smart, inquisitive Andrea Palpont's God issues? It turns out they were no different from those of any thoughtful Christian - mine or yours, young or old: "Why does God seem so distant? Why do people suffer? Why does the church appear dysfunctional," etc.?
These are of course the queries of a young person whose ideals are out of alignment with her perceived reality. And recalling a period of "spiritual individuation," she was prompted to rhetorically reflect: "And how else do you talk about faith but in terms of doubt and disappointment?" Was that ALL there was to Dilley's faith?
Allow me to respond: Early on, Christian parents and Christian educators need to be forthright and proactive with their children about God's sacrificial love for us in Jesus (hey, HE knew disappointment!!), and that this vulnerable yet "perfect love" is WHAT we are called to increasingly give ourselves to (act on) throughout the stages of our lives. Further, we do this in a world that is shot through with evil, injustice and violence. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, Jesus knew how to live in the presence of his enemies and stay faithful. Committed Christians in Africa know this well.
Continuing, Christians need to get that "accepting Jesus" at one moment in time is NOT a commitment to be a disciple to Jesus. It is a good intentioned proposition that you claim, and at best it only stands you on the threshold of the life of faith ahead of you; and THAT life Jesus defines as loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul and mind, i.e. giving everything of yourself to God. It is nothing else.
For the saving of His beloved humanity, God asked everything of Jesus in Gesthemene, and Jesus was obedient. To be a disciple of Jesus - endeavoring to change and "conquer the world" with profound agape love - means our own deepening obedience, which grows our Christ-likeness over the years. This also means whether in happiness or suffering - and stages in between, we gradually come to know joy (contentment) because we have "put on Christ" (per St. Paul --- and have NOT "taken him off" Monday thru Saturday!). As Irenaeus of Lyons rightly opined: "Christians are made, not born." As we are daily being made, we EXPERIENCE Christianity as life itself, in its abasements and aboundings; its joys and sorrows. This means that when doubt comes, we have already built a spiritual framework for engaging it. (Dilley is on the cusp of belatedly discovering this at the close of F&OFT, but with a thin framework to aid her.)
With Jesus-obedience and -commitment as the faith norm, I wonder if Dilley's parents helped form the faith of her and her siblings in just such a manner. Did the family's church, Spokane's Knox Presbyterian, ask and aid this kind of commitment from its members? Does Dilley's alma mater, Whitworth University, offer a challenging "Christian Formation" program in its liberal arts curriculum? Rhetorical questions, I admit.
I found the greatest omission in "F&OFT" is any real engagement with Jesus. The second omission is like the first: no chewing on, meditating or dueling with Scripture. Dilley's NIV mostly stayed shelved and shut during her disillusionment with Christianity. Despite this, it seems that God somehow met her in her growing disappointment with her secular culture realm of alternative rockers, literature and art films. They didn't fulfill, and timorously Dilley seeks again to find God in the church and its people, where she also meets her future husband Stephen Dilley.
Andrea Palpont Dilley must surely realize that her memoir-based arrival in the Evangelical limelight in 2012 will be short-lived. She'll be 40 before she knows it. So this gifted writer will need to find new turf to stake out if she wants to fulfill her promising yet fraught authorial debut in F&OFT. One suspects she'd be an inspiring creative writing instructor. Meanwhile, as a faculty wife with two young children, it won't be an easy task to find time to write or teach. But there are already promising authorial accomplishments as indicators of things to come: the aforementioned review of Hustad's MTC; a cover story in Christianity Today on the democratizing benefits of missionary work in Africa; and a reflective piece on why she and her husband are financially sacrificing to send their children to a liturgically-oriented Christian school whose mission is based upon - are you ready? - FAITH FORMATION of its young students.
I predict this increasingly accomplished writer will have an important presence among the next generation of evangelical Christian movers and shakers. And more power to her.