Christian-themed memoirs show range of experience, wisdom

Faith-based memoirs attract large audience

The Denver PostJuly 2, 2011 

It would be easy to assume that the recently published Christian-themed memoirs Through My Eyes and Adam's Gift have little in common, except that they are riding a wave of interest in God-and-me tales.

Through My Eyes is the life story of Tim Tebow, 23, the youngest son of an evangelical missionary, a record-setting University of Florida football star (who famously suffered a concussion during a game against the University of Kentucky in 2009) and a rookie Denver Broncos quarterback.

A work of decency and devotion, Through My Eyes — co-written with Nathan Whitaker — follows Tebow's God-determined journey from being a hope in his father's prayer to an endangered fetus to a phenomenally determined football player, ending with his NFL experience.

The other, Adam's Gift, is written by Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor who lost two churches and was defrocked when he continued to perform covenant ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. The book's subtitle is A Memoir of a Pastor's Calling to Defy the Church's Persecution of Lesbians and Gays.

If anything, the two works seem to express how different Christians are in wrestling with their faith and our world.

Tebow recounts how his mother, Pam Tebow — against the advice of a doctor in the Philippines — declined to terminate her pregnancy, although it was a fragile and potentially dangerous one.

Creech, a North Carolina native, recalls how an anguished young parishioner named Adam came out to him and put the pastor on a path to a greater understanding of the church's role in homophobia.

Against abortion. For gays and lesbians. It's hard to find two more divisive themes bedeviling American churches and engaging our national political-cultural conversations.

Yet each book has its merits, and each shows why this genre of religious memoir is finding a larger audience these days. Each is guided by a personable — if occasionally self-aggrandizing — voice. And each offers insights into the very human and difficult task of understanding one's life in relationship to the divine — in these two instances, Jesus Christ.

There is no shortage of memoirs on the bookstore shelves dealing with matters spiritual. Among the stacks — and no longer confined to religion sections — is a growing number of Christian-centered works.

There also is an increasing number of readers buying them, not as voyeurs (although it's hard to discount Tebow's celebrity status) but often as fellow seekers.

Heaven Is for Real, Todd Burpo's non-fiction tale of his 4-year-old son's near-death experience (co-written with Lynn Vincent), was recently No. 1 on The New York Times' best-seller non-fiction paperback list.

Through My Eyes (HarperCollins) debuted at No. 6 and has moved to No. 5 on the hardcover list. Although modest by comparison, Duke University Press is in its second printing of Adam's Gift.

Some of these memoirs are making their way to the big screen. Spring brought Christian surfer Bethany Hamilton's 2004 book, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, into multiplexes with AnnaSophia Robb as the devout Hawaiian surfer who lost her arm to a shark. In May, Bishop T.D. Jakes, producer of the faith-infused family comedy Jumping the Broom, announced plans to film Heaven Is for Real.

Since Augustine of Hippo penned Confessions, autobiographical efforts have offered readers tales of crossroads and crucibles, doubt and faith, despair and hope. At their best, they give readers a prism through which to understand their own moral, spiritual, ethical choices and challenges through another's struggle.

Tebow goes on the defensive early in Through My Eyes.

"We all have life experiences that can bless the lives of others," he writes. "Whoever we are. Wherever we find ourselves. Whatever we're involved in, no matter our age or station in life. Stories that, when shared with others, can make a positive difference in the world."

This is a generous salvo. It is also the second time he mentions "age" in as many paragraphs. Which makes it read like an attempt to block those who wondered, when the book contract was announced, whether it was a bit premature for a 22-year-old to be writing his life story.

Maybe it was. In terms of his journey as a Christian, the book's weaknesses (including an over-reliance on the words "blessed" and "platform" and the Bible verses that start each chapter) support the sense that it is the passage of time that steeps us, humbles us, enriches our understanding. It raises the question: Can a person really acquire that learning so young and be ready to write a book for the rest of us?

Tebow's desire to have a say — "to set the record straight" — makes sense. Since the time he played for Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and while starring at the University of Florida, Tebow has been written about. While in high school, he was the subject of an ESPN documentary called The Chosen One, which highlighted his home schooling and missionary work in the Philippines. ("I couldn't help but be embarrassed by its filming," he writes in one of a number of sweetly deflecting quips. "And the title was the worst part of the embarrassment.")

Conversationally written, Through My Eyes gives readers a highlight reel — with commentary — of his biggest moments.

He shares the story of accepting Christ at age 6: "There came a time during which, for several nights in a row, I went to bed thinking, 'What if I'm in a car accident or something else happens tomorrow? I want to end up in heaven.'"

He addresses home schooling, his philanthropic endeavors and how he began citing Scripture on his eye black.

But the axiom to "write what you know" holds best. When young Tebow begins to fall in love with football, Through My Eyes becomes an engaging read. And when he gets to "the Swamp," sports fans should be pleased. Nearly play-by-play descriptions of Gator games deliver a "through his eyes" immediacy.

Through My Eyes is rife with acts of discipleship and tales of physical discipline. He recounts sharing the "good news" on the streets of South Florida and in the Philippines. (Although one wishes for a richer sense of the people he helped "save.") What's missing is the tussle of the soul that makes spiritual memoirs potent. Through My Eyes is no Tebow Agonistes. His faith, at least as he describes it, has yet to be rattled.

This is not an issue merely of youth so much as adversity. Surfer Hamilton, 21, is young, too. But the loss of her arm and possibly her career make her story one of tribulation and triumph.

For all his achievements, Tebow has a lot of life ahead of him. One wonders how — or whether — the next couple of decades will temper his views, not upend his faith but give lived wisdom to his voice.

Adam's Gift is rich with what is missing from Tebow's book: struggle (both personal and communal) and the kind of self-scrutiny that can come with age and practice.

Creech's tale begins on a May morning in 1984 with an angry visit from a parishioner who wants to leave the church. "I won't be a member of a church that thinks I'm some kind of pervert, that doesn't want me," he tells his minister.

A lifelong Methodist who heard his calling when he was a teen in Goldsboro, N.C., Creech writes, "As a pastor, my mission was to help people overcome whatever damaged them spiritually, whatever diminished their capacity to trust God's love. ... Although I didn't realize it immediately, Adam's visit that Wednesday set the rest of my life and ministry on a new course."

That journey has peaks and valleys for Creech and for his congregations. He loses a church in Raleigh, N.C., because of his involvement with gay-rights issues but is then asked to become pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb.

The bulk of the book recounts Creech's church trial in Nebraska in 1998 for performing a covenant ceremony for a lesbian couple, thereby defying the Methodist Book of Discipline. He was acquitted but was defrocked after a second trial.

Few of the characters in Adam's Gift are spared the discomfort of having their cherished, lifelong beliefs about Christ, the Methodist Church and sexuality tested.

Adam's Gift poses difficult, utterly current questions about the meaning of God's love, social justice and the institutional laws of a particular denomination.

That might sound like inside baseball for the John Wesley crowd, but fear not. With often rich, always empathetic prose, Creech proves to be a pastor — who honors the minds but challenges the ideas — to a large and varied flock of readers.

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