A Devotional Memoir
- ISBN: 9780307947970
- Published By: Vintage Books
- Published: January 2018
Scholars of religion often seek to explain the ongoing power of faith commitments. I recently read two texts that refreshingly explore crises of faith in evangelical Christian communities. In his fabulous When Art Disrupts Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017), Philip Salim Francis argues that such ruptures are often spurred by departures from close-knit Christian communities. In her rich and fascinating My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, Macy Halford reflects on the slow arc of questions and doubts that both precedes and continues after these departures. Both texts turn to memoir in order to explore crises of faith. Neither, however, are memoirs in any straightforward sense. While Halford more closely hues to the genre of a personal memoir, her work is in equal part an intellectual history of Oswald Chambers, the Scottish preacher who penned one of the most popular Evangelical texts of all time, My Utmost for His Highest.
Halford begins by describing her discomfort and anxiety with the cosmopolitan environment she sought out as a young adult, which she experienced as hostile to the evangelical practices of her childhood. In the pages that follow, rather than trying to explain how one might leave evangelical Christianity behind, she addresses the question of how one might partially remain, or, at least, never fully depart. Living and working among an ambitious crowd of young professionals in publishing whose automatic response to the much-reviled US president at the time—George W. Bush—is skepticism and disgust, Halford finds herself embarrassed to learn that she shares something rather intimate with President Bush: the daily habit of reading My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. Despite having reached what many would consider a coveted position in the publishing world (working for the New Yorker) Halford’s sense that she does not quite belong sends her off to Paris to research the story of the enigmatic preacher who has shaped her daily practices and worldview in such powerful ways, both as a committed evangelical Christian, and as a questioning Christian exploring alternative life paths. In leaving the New Yorker behind, Halford is simultaneously seeking separation from both her cosmopolitan desires and her evangelical past.
What she finds so compelling in Utmost is not the conviction of Oswald’s argument, or the theology it affirms. Rather she argues that what brings readers back to this strange little book so consistently since the end of the nineteenth century is a “certain feeling” it induces. “The feeling I got from Utmost—focused, calm, powerful, full of hope, full of purpose, ready for action—was a feeling that was difficult to come by in literature” (233). And yet, it was Oswald’s extensive reading of poetry and fiction outside of the evangelical world—“those breeds of literature that traffic as heavily in mood as they do in ideas”—Halford argues, that helped to inflect his writing with this feeling. (The power of romantic modernism offers another significant moment of overlap with When Art Disrupts Religion.) Halford’s account of how she engaged with this text throughout her life is intimate and compelling. “The hours after dinner” during her childhood at home with her mother and grandmother in Texas “had been filled with [a] kind of ritual” (23). The devotional ritual she describes may come as a surprise to those accustomed to thinking of evangelicalism as eschewing such forms. Known as “the Quiet Time,” for Halford it “was perhaps the sweetest and most endearing of all Evangelical rituals, a moment in every day set apart for private praying, reading, thinking, dreaming. It was also, like all Evangelical rituals, unofficial and entirely voluntary.” And yet, as “a set of actions…performed daily for the purpose of honoring and communing with the divine,” Halford acknowledges that Quiet Time “veered dangerously close to ritual” (23). Oswald himself had warned Christians to “make a habit of having no habits” (24), but this habit of turning to Oswald’s thoughts each day was one that she couldn’t easily shake as she left behind her evangelical community in Texas for more cosmopolitan settings, and it was Oswald’s words that, year after year, helped her to come to terms with transformations in her own vivid self-imaginary.
Halford’s exploration of Oswald’s archives reveals much that many of his fans might find surprising: a protracted crisis of faith, glimmers that he might have trafficked in theologies of sanctification, and the realization that it was his wife who had done much of the work of editing, collecting, and publishing his writings after his death. Ultimately, however, Halford is unable to fully unravel the mystery of Oswald, or of her own relationship to evangelicalism. She can neither fully live her faith as her family would have, nor entirely move beyond it, as her own cosmopolitan aspirations might presume.
Part of what will attract readers to this text and to When Art Disrupts Religion is the way that both authors conceal as much as they reveal. Even if Halford’s memoir is explicitly her own story, she keeps a great deal close to her chest. As the review of her book in the New York Times points out, readers are left wanting to know more about her relationship with a young man (the “mountaineer”) who presumably helped to inspire her stay in France, where she continues to live today. Equally, I found myself curious as to the status of her evangelical faith. Has she left it behind? Is such a departure, in fact, even possible?
A deeply personal account of Christian change, loss, and transformation, this engaging, rich, and provocative book would make an excellent addition to undergraduate course discussions. Many students would likely see themselves in Halford—and perhaps even Oswald—in productive ways. Furthermore, scholars of evangelical Christianity at all levels will find numerous insights in this compelling account of a crisis of a faith that, rather than exploding in a singular moment of rupture, simmers slowly and is never fully complete. In this way, it contributes insights to debates surrounding the temporality of conversion to—as well as away from—Christianity.
Elayne Oliphant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York Univeristy.Elayne OliphantDate Of Review:January 30, 2018