For readers who’ve wrestled with their religious upbringing, Jessica Wilbanks evokes a powerful sense of loss: the loss of the person she used to be, and of the person she might have become, had she stayed inside the fold.
On a research trip to Nigeria, Houston writer Jessica Wilbanks fills out a questionnaire after attending a Pentecostal church service. The form asks a series of intensely personal questions that transport her back to her rural Maryland childhood in the Pentecostal church, a religion she rejected in her teen years.
“I had started to wonder if it might be possible to believe again,” she writes. “Since arriving in Nigeria, I found myself murmuring prayers and thumbing through the small green Bible that I’d bought from a street vendor … I thought maybe that old Holy Ghost language might still be wedged inside me somewhere after all, sleeping like a baby, waiting for the moment when I was no longer ashamed to let it out of my mouth …
“There was only one problem — I didn’t believe in that God anymore.”
The subtitle of Wilbanks’ memoir, When I Spoke in Tongues, is blunt: A Story of Faith and Its Loss. But the narrative is not quite so straightforward. Rather than a wholesale loss of faith, Wilbanks experiences her break with the church as a long, messy divorce, marked by constant low-grade guilt and a wistful if unrealistic hope for reconciliation. Religiosity is so central to her early life that she struggles to create an identity without it. And the habits of faith — prayer, dropping in to church services, even attending a Nigerian tent revival — persist long after her actual belief has disappeared. The details are specific to Wilbanks’ life, but the themes will resonate with anyone who has felt a similar ambivalence about a childhood faith: a simultaneous longing for the security of that worldview and awareness that one can never hold it again.
Wilbanks grew up in a rural county on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, raised by working-class parents who read the Bible daily, subscribed to mailings from Focus on the Family and avoided Halloween celebrations. Her life revolved around the Rock Church of Southern Maryland, where she felt embraced by her extended family of churchgoers and, like them, waited for the Holy Spirit to enter her and speak in tongues. At a revival, pastors lay hands of blessing on attendees who fall backward, slain in the spirit; Wilbanks wants desperately to join them, but can’t. “I had all these nagging questions and doubts,” she writes, “and that must have been why the Spirit passed me by.”
Those doubts grow as she wins a scholarship to attend a private high school, where she is exposed to a secular perspective on evolution and sex education. Eventually, as a teenager, she rejects the interventionist God and end-times worldview of the Rock Church, going so far as to write it down: Jessica Wilbanks is no longer a Christian.
But the book exists because Wilbanks didn’t resolve the question of faith that day. In her early 20s she ducks into churches, searching for something she can’t quite name. When she meets another former Pentecostal at a party, the two stay up late, discussing the gap between their past and present selves. As a 30-something graduate student, lying awake one night, she wonders if “maybe somewhere deep inside of me I still wanted to fall, to fall and be caught.”
Wilbanks begins reading about the history of the Pentecostal church and discovers that its recent rapid growth — particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America — is poised to make Pentecostalism comprise a third of all Christians within the next two decades. One Nigerian group, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, counts at least 5 million members and draws hundreds of thousands to a single service. In a twist on missionary history, Nigerian pastors are coming to America to plant churches, including those of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, whose North American headquarters are in the East Texas hamlet of Floyd.
Wilbanks attends a revival there and decides to travel to Nigeria in a trip that is part personal pilgrimage, part interrogation of her developing theory that American Pentecostalism is a syncretic faith combining Christianity with Yoruba traditions imported via the slave trade. In Nigeria, clear answers elude her. She longs to feel connected to the enormous congregations around her, to give herself over to the collective effervescence of worship. She also sees the gifts of prophecy and discernment distorted in the worst way, as preachers scapegoat children in their communities for illness or disaster by accusing them of witchcraft and banishing them to the streets.
It’s a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Wilbanks doesn’t have room to fully flesh out her argument that the roots of Pentecostalism are in Africa. But there’s another question, perhaps more central to her story, that she doesn’t quite answer.
At the end of the book, Wilbanks visits her parents at Christmas. She accepts her mother’s invitation to attend the Christmas Eve service and brings along her infant son, whom she’s decided to raise without religion, “seeing compassion and kindness as values in their own right, rather than keys to the kingdom. … My days of seeking were over.” Although she seems reluctant to label herself agnostic or atheist, Wilbanks ultimately decides that she’s not a Christian.
What, exactly, ended her seeking days? Wilbanks says she no longer believes in a God who constantly battles the Devil for people’s souls, whispers prophecies in believers’ ears, and rewards adherents who rejected the world’s “sinful culture.” But at social-justice events she attends in her 20s and 30s, Wilbanks meets Christian activists who seem to share her politics and attend progressive mainline churches. It doesn’t seem farfetched to imagine Wilbanks falling in among a community that worships a compassionate, non-judgmental God.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t explain why leaving the Pentecostal church meant leaving Christianity altogether. Even in the book’s final pages, she seems ambivalent: “If a prayer rose up in my throat in some moment of happiness or fear, I’d push it back down. But I would never stop missing the old days.” Wilbanks is a memoirist but also an anthropologist who studies church history and practice in Nigeria. It would have been useful for her to turn her skills as a participant-observer on the experience of other Pentecostals who leave the church. Do most disengage from religion entirely, as she did, or do some migrate to other Christian denominations?
Even in the absence of these answers, Wilbanks evokes a powerful sense of loss that will resonate with readers who’ve wrestled with their religious upbringing. It’s the loss of the person she used to be, and the person she might have become, had she stayed inside the fold. The loss of the supportive community that churches offer longtime members. The security of having an explanation for life’s tribulations. The ability to believe, defying all reason, in miracles.
Leonard Cohen reminded us that there is a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in. The fissures in Wilbanks’ childhood faith let in a light that at first is blindingly harsh. Ultimately, it illuminates her path to a life that is more authentic — and, perhaps, it can be a lamp unto the feet of a reader on the same journey.