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Between Two Realities

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
p. 25 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0070

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Devangelical is an ambivalent coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl wrestling with the pressures of a rigid evangelical childhood and her philosophical, questioning nature. Set in the 1980s, the text is rich with nostalgic lingo of the memoirist’s youthful persona and her humorous but at times excruciating pulls between two realities: evangelical dogma and the “outside” colorful world that often seems more interesting. In the midst of pursuing the religious authenticity spurred on by her church youth leader, Erika Rae finds herself stepping outside her experiences and asking, what is the purpose of all this, or, what was our mission here again…which ultimately adds a smart, metanarrative layer to the text that would otherwise simply read as a personal journey away from a claustrophobic, repressed youth.

Rae’s strength is her exuberant, colorful scene-building skills. Rich with characterization, detailed setting, and deadpan dialogue, the reader is immediately drawn into a world of religious extremities without judgment. The author straddles the line between self-mockery and simple, seemingly obvious inquiries, strategies allowing the reader to be fully engaged and entertained with a religious fervor that is foreign to the layperson and made delightfully accessible by the author. One scene involves Rae’s youth group attending a new age festival with the intention of cleansing young heathen souls and spreading the word of Jesus. The youth leader, affectionately referred to as King Richard, a longtime mentor and spiritual guide for the young Rae, suggests the best kind of “spiritual warfare” entails dueling with the devil in his environment by engaging in an onslaught of religious debate, an integral righteous fight for a good evangelical. This kind of warfare is synonymous with many religious fervent groups, involving the notion that the pious must get their hands dirty and risk their own impurity in order to save wayward souls. Rae’s nuanced subtext suggests that evangelicals yearning to help others are actually living vicariously through non-believers by conducting these so-called missions. Everyone is under scrutiny, including the pious, Rae herself, and atheists, so that the reader is instantly immersed in a thoughtful meditation about the pitfalls of belief as well as its potential benefits.

Rae captures the rhythmic humor of her mentor Richard’s army-speak as the evangelical troops arrive at a new age festival for conquering:

Well soldiers, this is it…. This is what we’ve been training for. Now I don’t want to see anyone do anything stupid or blow our cover in there. No casualties. We’re basically gonna spend one hour in there and then meet back at the front doors at…” he glanced at his camo Swatch, “… eleven hundred hours. Any questions?”

Rae as teenaged spiritual warrior observes the surrounding “booths offering the Devil’s services: reflexology, fortune telling…massage…,” and wonders in her usual way, “Why are we here again?”, a pleading question that continues throughout the memoir. In this scenario, no one hears her because “the place was so full of noise, laughter—Steve Nick’s cackles—that they couldn’t hear me.” In truth, the fifteen year old often doesn’t feel heard by either her parents or the evangelical community. The external pressure of the constant religious vigor combined with her own inner doubts creates an undercurrent of anxiety as she pushes along through several misadventures. The reader is taken on a carnival ride into the uncanny chaos of an imposing religious world, and the writer has the ability to suddenly question what’s happening mid-scene without losing the book’s pacing or momentum. The group quickly retreats from the den of sin when Christine, a once staunch evangelical, is found sneaking a picture of her aura in a photo booth and then “wigs out” by quoting “the entire book of Deuteronomy.” Rae’s ironic response to Christine’s being taken in by pagan ritual is not disgust but curiosity, a pattern of inquiry persisting throughout the memoir. “‘What are you talking about?’ I asked incredulously. I had never heard of an aura before—let alone realized that a photo could be taken of one.”

Rae’s usage of clichés and snappy language is...

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