Evangelicals. Without them, no “President Trump,” no Sean Spicer. There are tens of millions of them. They want to establish a theocracy, partnering with conservative Catholics. Their brand doesn’t resonate with millennials. In a couple of generations, they’ll be a fringe group—like the Amish, but nastier. Let’s be frank: they’re racists, through and through. Transracial adoption is the ultimate act of appropriation. They think we’re all going to hell. They don’t preach judgment any more—it’s all about “love.” Bad taste, bad hair, bad suits. They hate sex. They’re obsessed with sex. Those sex manuals! They quote from the Bible endlessly, but somehow they miss all the verses about the poor. They’re so angry! They’re so soft and sentimental. They’re so dumb. They hate science. They love war and long prison sentences. Their real religion is capitalism. They’ve mixed their faith up with politics. They’re relentlessly individualistic. They move in lockstep. They can’t think systematically. Islamophobic, homophobic, climate-change deniers. The last bastion of patriarchy. Their lingo! They “just want to tell you.” I can see them coming a mile away, with their phony smiles. They’re stealthy—you could be talking to one of them without even knowing it!
We need a big essay—the sort of thing the late Robert Silvers published, may his name be blessed, though this essay couldn’t appear in the New York Review of Books, where the track record on all things evangelical is dismal—surveying the history of the post-evangelical memoir from, say, 1990 to the present. The subject might even occasion an interesting book.
Most of the writers in this subgenre were raised evangelical, though some were converts who later deconverted. Some of them, by the time they are writing, have left the faith altogether; others have moved away from evangelicalism while remaining Christian, as is the case in Macy Halford’s My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, one of the best books of this kind I’ve read over the past twenty-five years or so.
I should tell you at the outset that it’s a very strange book, neither fish nor fowl. It’s as much about Oswald Chambers (1874–1917), author of My Utmost for His Highest, as it is about Halford herself, and it includes in its meandering course a good deal of biographical information about Chambers and informed speculation on his inner life, but it’s not a biography.
It is also—very much so!—a biography of a book in the vein of that series from Princeton University Press (Lives of Great Religious Books). Halford tells us that, since she was thirteen years old (she’s now in her late thirties), she’s read in Utmost more or less every day. But she has done more than that. She’s pieced together the complex publication history of Chambers’s best-known book, which was compiled by his wife, Biddy, after his death, pairing a Bible verse for each day of the year with brief reflections quarried from Chambers’s writings. (An “updated” edition appeared in the early 1990s, intended to make the book more “accessible” to contemporary readers.) Halford has also sought to understand its place in the larger history of modern evangelicalism.
And yet, while she has made use of the tools of scholarship—in the Chambers archive at Wheaton College and elsewhere—her relationship with her subject is intimate in a way that scholarship typically precludes. I was reminded of Nicolson Baker’s idiosyncratic book U & I, a defiantly personal testimony by a reader of John Updike. For Halford, Chambers is often “Oswald,” and (given the sly sense of humor running through her book), it’s clear that she knows how this will provoke some readers while no doubt delighting others (especially women, perhaps; she remarks several times on a sense of kinship with other women who are also “Utmost” Christians).