Orphaned Believers: How a Generation of Christian Exiles Can Find the Way Home
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
*** This is the first in a biweekly series of off-the-radar reviews — of debut books, or books by smaller publishers, or academic books, or titles that might otherwise be missed in the deluge of new book releases.
Many Generation X-ers who grew up in or around Evangelicalism have a sense that the faith that they were raised in doesn’t exactly square with the sort of right-wing Christian nationalism that Evangelicalism has come to be identified with over the last decade. How, for instance, did Christians so enamored with Focus on the Family in the 1980s and 1990s come to identify so closely with Donald Trump, who has been married three times, had multiple affairs, and has become renowned for his evasion of the truth?
Sara Billups is one of those X-ers, albeit born into the tail end of that generation. Her new book Orphaned Believers: How a Generation of Christian Exiles Can Find the Way Home is primarily a memoir of her own struggles to make sense of this disconnect in Evangelicalism. As a Generation X-er myself, there was a lot of Sara’s story that resonated with my own experience. Many of the questions that plagued her over the last three decades were similar to the questions that plagued me. (Full disclosure: Sara is a friend that I’ve known for over 25 years, and a good portion of her story recounted in the book was familiar from our friendship and conversation over the years.)
Describing late Generation X-ers, like herself and myself, and younger generations as the “generation after modernism and certainty” (13), she offers her story in hopes that some facets of it will resonate with others, but also with the humility to recognize that everyone’s experience is different and that her story does not contain the answers for everyone’s struggles. Instead of answers, she offers the hope that those who question their faith are not alone in their struggles. In this regard, Billups’s story resonates with David Dark’s classic book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009).
Although Billups’s story will resonate most powerfully with other Generation X-ers who have lived through the 1980s and 1990s and have similar experiences and similar questions, it is a story for everyone who struggles with their faith and feels like they have been (or are being) pushed out of the church. One of the greatest gifts of Orphaned Believers, for Millennials or those of even younger generations, is that it provides a rich and very accessible account of the recent history (1980s and beyond) of how Evangelicalism got to the place where it is today. This history is presented through the lenses of three crucial powers that have exerted great force on Evangelical identity: the end times, culture wars, and consumerism.
Sara Billups is a gifted writer, who has been honing her craft for decades, and Orphaned Believers, intertwined as it is with her own experience, has been years in the making. It is a delightful read simply for the poignant story of her struggles with faith, but undergirding her story is some keen social and theological reflection that examines how Evangelicalism has changed over the last half-century and why one might find a way to continue to follow Jesus in the church in spite of all its failings.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com