ONE HAS ONLY to turn on the news to see that there are those determined to fit American faith into a neat arc — conflict, resolution, redemption — so that they may repurpose and repackage the forefathers as biblical superheroes. As long as man has been saying, this is what I believe, he’s been going out into the world to practice, bless, convert, and judge, but even true believers would have to admit: there is more to life than good versus bad. We are a nation that has been influenced by faith, yet needs to acknowledge the difficult truths of American history, the plurality of the American experience, the fact that we, as a nation and as people, quite often fall short of our own ideals. Our faith story is abstruse.
In this vein and tradition, Sara Miles and Megan Hustad have each written a memoir with these issues in mind. City of God describes Miles’s experience marking the ritual of Ash Wednesday by taking ashes out into the Mission District of San Francisco. In More than Conquerors, Hustad tells of her life as a young girl in a missionary family living on the remote Caribbean island of Bonaire and then near Amsterdam, and her attempts to reconcile their differing interpretations of those years once they return to America. Both memoirs involve women who go out into the world to change it: Miles, with her ashes, to remind us that we are mortal (to dust we shall return), and Hustad, as a member of a missionary family, to deliver God’s word. As different as they are, neither book presents a clichéd message about belief or believers, and both suggest that as it is with our collective history, so it is with memoirs about personal faith — there is value in examining the whole story, from looking at the entire tangled narrative.
Sara Miles feels nearest to God in cities, particularly San Francisco, the place where, as an adult, she herself converted after wandering into a church. The Mission District offers as lush a setting for City of God as it does for her nascent faith:
On crowded urban streets… it’s harder for me to avoid the knocking-together of lives that the Holy Spirit seems to relish so much. In the haphazard sprawl of a city, only the astronomically rich and walled-off can pretend that human ideas of order […] are stable. The sheer unpredictability of city encounters makes it impossible to presume, as many churches do, that God’s grace is sequential — measured out at regular intervals in baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage, burial — and will happen to everyone at the prescribed time, in the same way.
Her recollection of Ash Wednesday, 2012, is layered against a backdrop of the thriving Mission, with Miles detailing how the district has changed over the last few decades. Here is a personal history of her neighborhood and an account of what it means to visibly live one’s faith in a place that is, statistically, one of the least believing cities in America. Moreover, Miles is not deterred:
It’s hard to contain the human thirst for worship in boundaried religious rituals run by designated religious professionals taking place in set-apart religious buildings; God so seldom means just one thing to any individual, much less the same one thing at a time to a whole group.
And so worship spills out every place God meets people.
In walking us through a single day of distributing ashes in the streets of San Francisco, Miles examines the power of the ritual contemplation of sin and forgiveness, of pausing to admit the impermanence of life, of saying aloud that we will all return to the earth and marking ourselves with a reminder. “It feels way too dangerous to mix up the grungy facts of our bodies — blood, sex, breath, illness, dirt, death — with the Spirit, which most of us would prefer to imagine as elevated and immaterial,” she says. “Bodies aren’t stable, they’re vulnerable.” For Miles, Ash Wednesday is about the kind of faith that takes place in that imperfect flesh. Carrying ashes into the noisy, messy, and imperfect city — something with which she struggles even when she has set her mind to it — puts her closest to the meaning of the day.
One of the common threads running through both Miles’s and Hustad’s memoirs is the idea of plurality of belief. Even within the Christian tradition, even among those who claim the same God, there is no one narrative, no staunchly defined truth. Both books acknowledge the multilayered experience of believers. Miles’s desire to take ashes out into the streets is a reflection of her own faith and desire to reach others, but also an acknowledgement of the incongruence of Christianity itself. A nod to the idea that faith bonds communities but is an act defined and practiced by the individual.
Most striking in Miles’s book, though, is her willingness to admit her own flaws. She is not a pastor who sees herself as having to put up a front of unwavering faith. In fact, Miles’s story and her actions are more believable because she allows herself to be imperfect before others. To question:
Some days I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted the option of not engaging with anyone past a nod and a polite “adios.” I wanted to be a good vecina without leaving my house or letting people [...] help me. In short, I wanted the benefits of the Church, and the solidarity of a movement, without the costs.
In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes God’s great commandment unequivocal: love God; love your neighbor. But like the lawyer who challenges him, I often wished to weasel out of responsibility, hoping to calibrate who, precisely, was my neighbor; how much, exactly, I was required to love which people. […] And I really dreaded the parable’s implication that I could be saved by what they had to give.
Quite often it is Christ’s own words she questions, raising the inconsistencies of the traditional practices of the church that conflict with the words of the Gospel. Why should believers wear a mark on Ash Wednesday — which Miles likens to a tattoo on the face — when Jesus says not to practice faith so that men may see it? There’s a refreshing honesty to City of God; her actions on Ash Wednesday take on greater significance in light of her questioning. Even in her choice to believe, she struggles to put her faith into practice. Her faith lives with an ever-present doubt, and this is reflected in her writing.
Sara Miles found God as an adult. Megan Hustad was raised as part of a family with roots deep in an evangelical tradition, but as Miles does, she leaves room for doubt. Her parents, island missionaries, sought to convert with a radio operation on the island of Bonaire. She is generous in her description of believers and nonbelievers alike but realizes that she lives a life that shaped her before she was old enough to understand. Her older sister interprets the events of their upbringing with more bitterness, and More Than Conquerors is Hustad’s attempt to reconcile the disparate narratives her family has made of their shared experience. As adults, she and her sister are compelled to try to define themselves independent of their parents’ work. Hustad’s father becomes increasingly influenced by conservative media. Her mother wants to reach out as she grows older but doesn’t know how.
Throughout, Hustad renders her parents with empathy. Early in the story, she writes:
This is not a story about pious blowhards whose unbending conviction alienated their children forever.
Mistakes were made, but not the ones popularly imagined.
Which is to say that the Christians I know best are brokenhearted.
Herein lies the strength of the memoir: that Hustad is able to admit to mistakes and show missionary life as something other than the idyllic crusade it was purported to be, and yet manages to keep from engaging in an angry anti-missionary rant. Neither extreme would get to the truth to her experience. Instead, without sermonizing or offering interpretation, Hustad manages to let the events speak for themselves.
Hustad also writes, with humor, of the way that missionary work asks those of different sects to work together toward the same goal. For instance, on one occasion, Hustad’s sister brings the wrong Bible to Sunday school: apparently her family does not pray the right way. A fellow missionary, particularly judgmental about the rules, recommends, “praying not for a specific outcome, but instead for God’s perfect will to be done unto you and your family.” Hustad says: “My mother clutched this advice like a life raft, a blanket, a hedge against unintended consequences.” But these occasional moments of levity add up to a serious predicament: the sense that the individual expression of faith has become something that at least some other believers feel called upon to moderate, measure, and judge.
Hustad and her family are out on the front lines doing what they believe is God’s work, when their mission comes to a halt. Because of a dispute with a superior, and in spite of his having trained for the position, Hustad’s father is not recommended for a coveted post in Russia. Instead, the missionary organization, Intracare, offers a place in Sri Lanka. The Hustad family declines, yet returns to the United States with a profound sense of disappointment. As Hustad says, “Rejection is hard to process when your worldview presumes that nothing just happens,” that outcomes are ordained by God.
Throughout Conquerors, Hustad examines the actions of her family alongside the shifting trends between denominations of contemporary Christianity. For instance, when people in her congregation begin to raise their hands during worship — something she sees as a fad — Hustad remarks that it only increases her desire for simplicity:
The hand-raising’s primary effect on me was to heighten my appreciation of the Apostles’ Creed. Unemotional, almost mechanical in tone, it dropped the sanctuary’s temperature […] and fed a question: Was there a correlation between how matter-of-factly a belief was expressed and its sincerity?”
As with the practice of Ash Wednesday for Miles, Hustad finds value in restraint and in a stripped-down version of truth that predates Protestantism: The Apostles’ Creed. Both she and Miles have a longing for faith that is accessible and free of judgment. Hustad, like Miles, resists any impulse to moralize to the reader, or to sum up the meaning and value of her family’s work. She writes with the same matter-of-fact attitude that she has come to prefer in her experience of religion. She practices what she preaches: she allows us to draw our own conclusions.
Toward the end of More Than Conquerors she speaks of having to justify her life as a missionary to a world of nonbelievers, and she gives a list of possible answers she offers in conversation. None of them ever seem quite right. She muses on the new religion: the doctrine of entitlement:
I finally figured out why “You deserve it” bothered me. It had bothered me because it was itself a statement of faith. People said “You deserve it” to reassure themselves and one another that our efforts are rewarded. Seeing as I had recently gotten rid of one faith, I didn’t appreciate being asked to embrace another — especially one so similar to the first.
In this way, Hustad shows us to be a nation that’s replaced one type of believing with another. We’ve traded the revelation that takes place in churches for the kind that says I deserve to have it. We’ve abandoned traditional worship, but not the idea that we are special. It turns out that the self-righteousness Hustad encountered in the missionary field is alive and well even in a country that might call itself faithless.
Neither Sara Miles nor Megan Hustad is a character that fits into the neat arc of a faith story, nor is either account a prescription for how to save the world. But City of God and More Than Conquerors are memoirs that venerate the predicament of the believer. How do we integrate faith in our lives? How to define belief for ourselves beyond the confining judgments and traditions of others? Each author carries her faith out into the community; each reveals her own humanity; each, though she meant to change the world, winds up changed. Whatever we think we might know about the stranger with ashes on his forehead, or the pastor wearing the vestments of her church, or the child of the missionary family, there’s probably more to the story.