Full disclosure: I read this book as part of a pre-release group. I had already pre-ordered a copy for the January 24 release date when I was rushed a copy in early January to participate in an online discussion with the author. There is more to disclose. I went to college with author Sara Billups. She was ahead of me and was the editor of the literary magazine. When she left, this was my job (for a year). We may have had a poetry class together, as well. I have been watching her career for a little while (as she writes for the New York Times and whatnot) because I would love for her to succeed beyond her wildest dreams but also, more recently, because she started publishing a monthly newsletter (Bitter Scroll) for Christians who can no longer identify with the evangelical bull crap. (That’s a gross oversimplification, but I hope you get my drift.) She calls it a “newsletter on culture and Christianity” on her website. To be fair, I always begin a book with hope and expectation. I just have more reasons to be on board with this particular book, Orphaned Believers by Sara Billups.
What did I think about the writing? Not surprising to me, I found a great voice speaking to me from the pages. Billups uses narrative story-telling to make this book half-memoir and personal reflection, which is endearing, trust-building, and frankly beautiful. Beautiful is a word I would also use to describe her writing, as is surprising, at times (at least when she is in memoir mode), especially given the genre. I did find that it sometimes the writing didn’t flow (like when she was in historian/theologian mode). Sometimes Billups opens up a discussion or a conversation and then just leaves it hanging there and moves on. This feels intentional, but it’s not easy for my ADHD brain to just shift gears and move on. In the end, it all comes together, but the reader needs to become comfortable sitting with questions and “mystery” to the point that things sometimes jump around or lurch forward. I’m not ruling out that this was also an editing issue.
At the end of the book (the ending/epilogue was so good), I find myself asking myself about the genre. I mean, I expected it to be a self-help kind of Christian lifestyle book, but that’s not it. I also was expecting some sort of theological book, arguing the points of basic Christianity and blowing away the chaff that has built up enough to take over the modern, American church. Billups does offer us some hope and solutions of a sort, in the end, but this is more of a careful wending through Billups’ life juxtaposed with other Gen-X-ers with historical signposts along the way. It is the story of her father, who is dying of cancer, and how Sara deals with that in light of the Christian faith that he has handed down to her and that she has felt “orphaned” from for an adulthood. In so many ways, too, the book doesn’t take sides. She’s not here to pit anyone against evangelicals or even to hash out theology or very specific but large-looming things. She does cut through the bullcrap and she does make it clear that the church has gone far astray in some more general areas (yay for someone finally spotlighting consumerism/materialism as one of the main issues with the American Evangelical church!), but unbelievably (because how difficult to do and maintain) she actually leaves room at the table for everyone.
I found Orphaned Believers to be thoughtful, considerate, respectful, and humble. And calming. And a hand held out in an isolating darkness. Billups is not trying to relate to absolutely everyone, which did leave me a little high and dry on some of the Gen-X issues that I personally am parsing out, like the Purity Movement, and left me a little on the outside when she talked about “End Times Kids.” Yet, she makes sense out of the history of the evangelical church in America, so I was like, well this is important. And this is clearly her experience of hurt and disappointment with the same. And somehow, in there, just listening to her story woven with church history, I felt calm and hopeful. Billups is clearly studied and educated, as well as wise. So much of it resonated and I know would resonate with others I have been talking to, not just Gen-X-ers or kids who grew up thinking the actual apocalypse was just around the corner. The message of the book is hope for the church and a call for those who feel orphaned to rise up and reform the church.
Here’s another thing: I have mentioned this book several times in the past month to people in passing conversations. Nearly all of them have gone wide-eyed at the title. People want this book. People need this book. The pandemic and the wild parallel ride that has been politics and the evangelical church has left many, many people feeling as “orphaned believers.” (Some were feeling this way long before this, turns out.) When they hear the phrase, they reach out with their hearts: That’s me! And when I joined the pre-reading group, I was not surprised to find myself surrounded virtually by more of these orphaned believers, from their laptop perches across the country. As I have struggled (read: walked through some stuff) with church and faith in the past couple of years, I have noticed, slowly, that I am far from alone. I have rippled outwards and have found rocks in the water in concentric circles. Billups has formed a rallying point for these people, a light on a hill. As for me, watch out. If I see you sometime and we get to talking about anything even remotely about the Church, Christianity, evangelicalism, or even how I have been doing (like as a sincere question) or what 2022 was like for me, I might strong-arm this book into your TBR. I know these orphaned believers. I am one, though I know more-orphaned believers, and I intend to throw them a life preserver, even if it’s just the realization that this is a book, it’s a term, which means they are far from being alone.
There might have been some things that Orphaned Believers didn’t address that I really wish had been. Maybe that just means that I am waiting for the next book. Maybe that’s just because this book isn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. In fact, the book is a breeze of an older style of reflective book, a nice step away from the frenetic, self-indulgent books I often find when I go seeking. I would really like this book to become a part of the wider conversation that is taking place in the Church and the American Church. I have hopes and wishes that it will.
“…Spirit of God can work even, and especially, in our wandering” (p14).
“As a Christian, you may be called to hope for impossibilities. To think thoughts that are both logical and intellectually aligned with science and your senses—while grappling with the possibility of holy visitations, physical healings, and the giving of spiritual gifts. You sign up for the whole story, even the mysterious…” (p19).
“Christian trouble reaches down into the middle of us, where our identity is being tugged at by the market, our current cultures, and our own desire to win and be remembered” (p20).
“…if your identity gives you access to power, comfort does not demand reformation” (p20).
“In reality, no matter what worldview we hold, the earnest Christian who holds the opposite opinion is just as much ‘in’ Christ” (p21).
“There’s wilderness in all of us. We’re lost and found a little every day. Lost or found, followers of Jesus make up the church” (p29).
“’It’s alright to think about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day’” (Martin Luther King Jr., p53).
“…in the losing there is nothing hidden. In full, plain light there is hope for restoration…” (p60).
“…at any moment we could irrevocably ruin our souls for eternity. It leverages fear as a salvation tactic instead of grace. But salvation is a gift from God. It is not fleeting” (p79).
“…I grew up with parents and church leaders who have, unwittingly or tacitly, followed a fear-based salvation template that bypassed spiritual formation” (p79).
“…families who were suspicious of Christian spirituality and contemplative practices may have inherited an impoverished version of faith” (p79).
“…to the untrained eye it would appear we were more successful at being middle-class, white, Midwesterners than Christians” (p82).
“…we ended up buying like everyone else, too, to support Christian industry. We also spent energy that would have been better directed toward the deep resources that have connected and sustained the church throughout time” (p82).
‘“Jesus was both countercultural and drew everyone to belonging …. His church can again be a big tent with all nations imagining a strangely beautiful and universally compelling future” (p87).
“Instead, what often animates American discussions is a thin sense of freedom based on a myth of rugged individualism” (p101).
“Instead of a rich practice of using liturgy and listening prayer to form a foundation that could withstand a changing culture, I was fed vacation Bible school curriculum and Christian summer camp songs around the fire that burned out after the weeklong programs concluded” (p132).
“Instead, Ignathian indifference is an active and healthy detachment from a decision, person, or experience. In my life, it looks like coming to an open-handed posture in front of two sides of an idea or choice and being willing to let one or both things go if they do not bring me closer to God’s purpose” (p135).
“Our faith is supernatural, but it is also reasonable” (p136).
“There is something so wonderfully out of control about believing in a God we can’t prove” (p140).
“…the church as too often not been a countervoice of love but instead succumbed to anxiety and presumptions that led to self-preservation” (p155).
“It’s a compulsion to anticipate needs instead of the alternative of leaving margin for want” (p160).
“Praying, ‘God, do what you will,’ with full hope sometimes leads to a miraculous restoration and other things brings endurance for unanswered burdens” (p166).
“Jesus is the one who draws hearts that will be drawn. It’s not our job to do anything except love each other well and serve each other before ourselves” (p167).
“Instead of manifesting through an emotive spectacle, God is close in middle of the night ruminations. Jesus, with clear eyes, often works in quiet, away from stage lights and the merch booth, to bring consolation and hope. The Holy Spirit’s presence can burn through any fog of grief and bring healing—no cloud of gold dust in sight” (p168).
“…Jesus says, ‘If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me’” (Message Bible, p173).
“’Are we really nonreligious, or are our belief systems too bespoke to appear on a list of major religions in Pew phone survey? …. Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology, and Dolly Parton’” (Leigh Stein, p174).
“There is little difference between a self-help influencer and a Christian driven by self-preservation and comfort …. Anyone who decenters their own ambition to serve the poor and speak against injustice is closer to Christ than a cultural Christian” (p175).
“And none of us can make up a story more gorgeously decentered than the gospel story” (p177).
“Let’s go back to spiritual milk before solids, while looking for the swift work of the Holy Spirit to bring new hope and life. Let’s winsomely preach the truth” (p181).
“…to spend a lot of anxious energy skirting around that identity, for whatever reason, is tiring and kind of boring. God holds our identity, and we can stop striving” (p182).
“Simone Weil said a daring thing: ‘Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms’” (p182).
“But the Christian story redefines our identities away from people who produce and purchase. Jesus untethers our worth from work and lifestyle and invites a loosening of our grip on the things we buy and ways we fill our times” (p191).
“The pandemic invited us to reorient our hearts not in spite of but in the very presence of daily disuptions layered on top of fear, uncertainty, and lack of control. / In these moments, I sometimes oray Psalm 18:19. ‘He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.’ The Christian story offers a spaciousness of the heart, a peace that isn’t understandable and that holds steady with each daily trial, grief, and fear” (p192).
“’O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek / to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love’” (St. Francis, p194).
“’To expect to much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures’” (Flannery O’Connor, p195).
“In all contexts, Christians can choose to be who we are. To say, ‘I belong here,’ in humility, instead of taking a defensive, reactionary, or cloistered posture …. To be plain. To not hide” (p199).
“The role of Christians in this work is clear: we are invited to heal from any pain we have experienced, repent from any wounds we have caused, and embody a better way forward” (p205).
“The timeless, omnipotent Spirit of God wants to dwell in our bodies, which do and think stupid things. Which grow people and lose people. Which mourn and grieve and eat processed food and go to the movies. Which get old and slow. Which age and produce cysts, which divide cells and kill us from within. The Holy Spirit wants to dwell in our deterioration. Because the Holy Spirit is that good” (p212).
“It doesn’t matter of the church is reformed quickly or slowly. If our hearts are hungry or receiving complete nutrition. All that matters is Christ. Loyal, thick, bioluminescent, eternal love. Love kindled in our grotesque and gorgeous minds, bodies, souls, and spirits” (p214).