By Rachel M. Srubas
Reviewed by Bromleigh McCleneghan
Writing Workshop Participant ’11
Liturgical Press, $16.95
A word about me, as a reader: I am not big on conversion narratives. I am, perhaps, out of step with most Christians, but I grew up as a preacher’s kid in the home of a mainline Protestant pastor and then became a mainline Protestant pastor. Oh, we’re fully differentiated and all, but my sisters and I all still go to church and have some faith in our adulthood. We’re cradle Christians.
Thus I sometimes struggle to resonate with spiritual memoirs of the “I once was lost and now am found” variety. Too often, I feel, they portray everything about the past as terrible and dark, and now, after having seen the light, everything is hunky-dory in the light of God’s goodness. I exaggerate, but testimonies can grow predictable if the particular details of each experience of grace are not explored; if there is insufficient self-reflection or theological depth in describing God’s work in an individual’s life. It’s not that such stories aren’t important, nor holy, but simply that they don’t make very good books.
Rachel M. Srubas’s book The Girl Got Up: A Cruciform Memoir is different, insofar as it is both a powerful testimony and a very good book. Srubas had a difficult early life, and demonstrates beautifully what suburban ennui and brokenness look like, how social change and cultural history shape an individual life: her spiritual memoir is the narrative counterpart to The Moral Order of the Suburbs and the Middletown studies begun in the 1920s. Yet, she details this life in a way that neither claims herself as a victim nor blames her parents unfairly. She is both child and agent; member of a family, and yet oft-scapegoated familial outsider.
Her story begins with a poet’s eye for color and place, and with a pastor’s desire to explain the complexities of her characters. In my own writing, I’ve struggled with how to tell a story about hurts suffered at the hands of loved ones and others, about those yet living, as well as how to be honest in my own failings and foibles. As I have extolled the virtues of this book to everyone I’ve met in the last weeks, I have marveled at Srubas’s skill and wisdom. Forgive the crass assessment, but hers is the only book I’ve ever read in which a pastor bravely talks about how much terrible sex and banal drug use she engaged in as a young person . . . and does it in such a way that any congregation would be proud to have her as its pastor. Her discussions and descriptions of these activities are complex; there is regret that things might have been different, but unlike far too many conversion stories, there is no shame here. Srubas tells readers exactly what we need to know, and nothing more. We have enough details to understand the story, to locate ourselves within it, but there is nothing titillating, nothing exhibitionist here. Also unlike many conversion stories, we are not made to understand that God was ever absent. This is a spiritual memoir, and the theological reflection Srubas brings to bear on her own story does not fit into a clean arc or a clear-cut story of before and after. The narrative decisions Srubas makes in telling this story are both lovely and smart, and pastors and religious leaders would benefit from study of her voice.
The Girl Got Up is also an important read for pastors because it convicts us as writers and interpreters of Scripture: as those who write sermons and newsletter articles and pastoral e-mails and perhaps things for broader audiences. This book is artful; its text has been carefully crafted and labored over, its meanings mined and layered. It no doubt took Srubas more than the week most preachers have to pull together a sermon, but its lessons—of mulling over meanings and truth, connections and complexities—are critical. How quickly do we jump to naming “the point” of the sermon, the lesson of the text; how quickly do we determine the “pastoral response.” Most of our stories—both personal and biblical—take time, wisdom, and reflection to understand in their complexity, but if we take that time, if we allow truth to unfold, we will be able to live in faith and abide in scripture in ways we never thought possible.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is a participant of the Collegeville Institute’s writing workshops (Summer 2009 and 2011). She is the Associate for Congregational Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. She is coauthor, with Lee Hull Moses, of Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2012).