From Maryland to Nigeria, a woman tries to make sense of her loss of faith.
Wilbanks, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, grew up in an insular, working-class, Pentecostal home. Her sex education came from weekly mailings her parents received from Focus on the Family, and her pastor taught that signs of Jesus’ return were everywhere. By the time Wilbanks reached adolescence, she was uncertain about her faith. On Nov. 5, 1995, she declared, to God and to a scrap of paper she then shoved in her pocket, “Jessica Wilbanks is no longer a Christian.” That ritual reversal of the datable conversions so prized by evangelical Christians occurs about a quarter through the book; the rest of the memoir is devoted to the author’s forging of a new life. She experimented with alcohol and drugs and attended Hampshire College and then the University of Houston, all the while trying to maintain relationships with her parents and brothers. While in graduate school, Wilbanks became interested in the extent to which Pentecostalism had roots in West Africa. She received a grant and traveled to Nigeria to “immerse myself in the faith I had left as a child” and study “the history of Pentecostal Christianity.” After the trip, which included a near-fatal car wreck, she quit smoking, took up running, continued to try to maintain a good relationship with her family, got married, and had a child. The memoir ends with a lovely scene of Wilbanks, her son, and her mother attending a candlelit Christmas Eve service. However, the author never compellingly establishes the stakes of her trip to Africa, and her tendency to end chapters with lines that reach too hard for meaning—e.g., “those women’s eyes rested on mine, and I felt forgiven”—eventually grows tiresome.
Better read as an earnest account of an adult maintaining ties with her family of origin than as a story of life after religion.