Erika Rae, Devangelical

Publisher: Emergency Press

2012, 170 pages, paperback, $16

It’s the eighties and worldly temptations are threatening to destroy the best of America’s young Evangelicals. Madonna songs are turning girls into sluts, rock bands are hiding satanic messages inside their albums, and taking place throughout the country is the most insidious of high school rituals—the prom.

The hedonistic temptations of Generation X are no match for memoirist Erika Rae who decides to fight back for her teenage soul. She ravages her cassette collection, throwing out Bobby McFerrin and Mozart while saving Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. She avoids sleepovers and performs an exorcism on a Goth girl at church camp. She even quits Christian school in order to be a good example for heathen teenagers at a public high school school.

Devangelical humorously chronicles Rae’s zany romps through her Evangelical upbringing—from goofy youth group games involving pureed baby food to a constant obsession with the end of the world. The memoir’s first half devotes itself to Rae’s teen years as she’s rapidly pulled into the temptations of the world while trying to keep firmly planted in Evangelical culture. Throughout adolescence, she dodges places of sin such as movie theaters and slumber parties, preferring instead to ride in her church’s second-hand Day-Glo splattered bus to Youth Group field trips—the most memorable of which includes a performance hosted by strongmen who blow up hot water bottles and rip telephone books in half to demonstrate the almighty power of Jesus.

Underlining the wacky antics and hilarious descriptions of eighties pop culture, Rae offers surprising insights from the inside of a subculture that prizes radicalness, though has been dismissed because of what many consider to be its extreme fundamentalism. She explains that, as an evangelical, she had to substitute normal teenage experiences for Christian alternatives, ensconcing her even further in a constant obsession with the spiritual.

I believe a significant shift happened in the minds of young Evangelicals of my generation. Whereas the older generations believed that demons and angels existed and fought for spiritual ground, my generation believed that demons and angels fought over the pebbles. Every single thought or movement we could potentially make in a day was being watched over and influenced. If we lost our keys in the morning, it was a demon of confusion trying to make us question a God who would throw such stumbling blocks in our path. When we found the keys later that afternoon, an angel had cleared the path and led us to them.

Her paranoia grows until her desire to be a radical Christian causes her to unwittingly join a small cult headed by a janitor at her Christian college and has to backpedal out, causing her to question her faith and culture. This turn lays the foundation for the unraveling and more serious self-searching of the memoir’s latter half, which follows Rae as she gets married to her high school sweetheart, attends a secular graduate school in Hong Kong, learns kung fu, and makes Buddhist and even atheist friends.

Though the memoir focuses on her teenage years, the most stunning insights and writing belong occur when Rae faces a crisis of faith as an adult. As she loosens her once tight grasp on her Evangelical faith, she becomes what she calls a “devangelical—a person who has grown up in—and, consequently, out of the evangelical church.” Because of her status as someone who grew up on the inside, Rae is able to fairly examine the problems with Evangelical culture with a good dose of nostalgia, evenhanded analysis, and lots of I’m-not-afraid-to-laugh-at-my-self moments that will both charm and entertain readers.

It is the memoirist’s voice that anchors the book, and Rae’s irresistible, irreverent, yet non-judgmental approach to her subject is a refreshing take on a highly polemicized and often personal subject. Devangelical is more than a hilarious Evangelical coming-of-age tale. It’s a tongue-in-cheek yet soulful memoir, broadening our perceptions of judgment, forgiveness, and the sometimes absurdly difficult mysteries of faith.

—Jane Hawley