When Your ‘Story’ Gets in the Way of Your Testimony: Lessons from Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering
Early on in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison relays the familiar fact that gifted storytellers frequently prove to be the most deceptive members in recovery groups. As a for-instance, she points to the candid words of Charlie, a member of a 1959 AA group: “It has always been a hazard for me to speak at an AA meeting because I knew that I could do better than other people. I really had a story to tell. I was more articulate. I could dramatize it. And I would really knock them dead.”
Why do we assume that the former atheist, drug addict, or Wiccan is more sincere in her Christian convictions than the person with a more conventional story? What secret ingredient certifies their faith as more genuine?Most of us know from personal experience that “knocking them dead” doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with honesty. Since their habits often force them to lead double lives, addicts tend to be good performers anyway, and for this reason, the enthusiasm of a crowd is actually quite a dangerous prospect. The ability to fool others is bad enough, but the real hazard in these circumstances is becoming intoxicated with your own voice. The people who are the most lost are the ones who have come to believe their own lies.
Many of us who follow Christ have experienced a similar conflict when we’re asked to share our testimony — the story of Christ’s gracious reclamation of our lives. We may give lip service to convenient bromides like “it’s not about me,” “it’s all about Jesus,” and “to God alone be the glory,”1 but the truth is: Concerns for our audience often beat out God’s glory on our list of priorities. As much as we love God, we really want people to like our story, to like us.
Unfortunately, there’s always someone out there with a testimony that’s much more interesting than yours — someone whose past life displays such profligate self-destruction that it makes your own feeble stabs at rebellion look like something out of The Little Rascals. But there’s a bigger problem. When it comes to exotic testimonies, the market is flooded. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, these prodigal exhibits are a mainstay at Christian conferences and special church services featuring guest speakers, and there’s no sign this particular train is slowing down. In the midst of this growing frenzy, what often goes unacknowledged is the mounting pressure to stand out, hone your craft as a storyteller — knock them dead. As with Charlie in that 1959 AA meeting, performance takes precedence, and we run the risk of forgetting that the ability to perform is as much of a liability as it is a gift — an all too convenient excuse to continue the double life.
Especially in Evangelical circles, we have very few scruples about giving platforms to people with highly dramatic conversion stories, and this well-intentioned strategy often backfires. By now the roster of pitfalls is all too familiar: It can and does encourage dishonesty and embellishment; it brings unhelpful attention; it fosters an unhealthy celebrity culture that caters to the baser instincts of all involved. (It doesn’t help that many of these testifiers are often very young in their faith.) However, perhaps the most unfortunate byproduct of this abiding infatuation with exotic testimonies consists in its two faulty, though unstated, premises: 1) that the degree of prodigality on display in the person’s former life enhances their credibility and 2) that a dramatically compelling testimony is necessarily a complete testimony. Since both of these assumptions usually go unvoiced, we should probably examine them more closely.
First, why do we assume that the former atheist, drug addict, or Wiccan is more sincere in her Christian convictions than the person with a more conventional story? What secret ingredient certifies their faith as more genuine? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of us would find some way to connect a broader experience of the world outside the Church with a deeper perception of the cost involved in following Christ. After all, the apostle Paul comes after Saul of Tarsus, right? Though not everyone has the severe privilege of a Road-to-Damascus experience, it definitely seems to come with some added spiritual benefits.
But the fact remains: Not all of us have criminal records or a history with tarot cards and backyard séances. Nevertheless, every one of us needs to be saved by Christ. While the gory details will certainly be gorier for some, the basic need remains consistent across the board. In this sense, the mild-mannered CPA who puts all his faith in his own assets is in much the same position as a Warlock or a hired assassin. There’s no question about whose biography is more interesting, but there’s also no question regarding their mutual need for Christ. What we’re talking about here is a matter of degree, not kind. Like the motley group of addicts wincing under the fluorescent lighting of a church basement or high school gym, these three have all put their collective eggs in the wrong baskets. The fact that some of those baskets are more interesting than others is a detail that’s more cosmetic than crucial.
At this point, some of you may be wondering about Christ’s response to Simon’s indignation in Luke 7? A woman whose “sins are many” has just interrupted a very respectable dinner party with a provocative anointing ritual. In response, Jesus offers a parable to Simon: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon is tracking: “‘The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.’ And he said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’”
Given this principle, doesn’t it make sense to construe the exotic testimony as evidence of a greater debt and thus entailing a greater sense of love and gratitude? Not necessarily. What distinguishes this woman of many sins from Simon is not the outward manifestation of her wayward lifestyle, but her contrite heart. Seen from this standpoint, Simon’s own covert and decidedly more socially acceptable form of rebellion vastly exceeds hers because his public performance conceals an unrepentant heart. Socially respectable rebellion may look boring, but its consequences are far more grave. This is the dynamic that fuels the severe mercy on display in so many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. When “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” reaches its shattering conclusion and the Misfit says of his late victim, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” we could just as easily apply this sentiment to Simon. My aim here is not to discredit the notion that a great debt can vouchsafe a higher level of devotion. Clearly it can. Rather, I want to point to Simon as a reminder that those of us with the greatest debts are often the best at concealing them, both from others and from ourselves.
Faced with the dramatic dead-end of a rather prosaic addiction history herself, Leslie Jamison confesses, “Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes — that was the hardest thing to accept.” This is a very shrewd observation, and it’s one that’s likely to resonate with many of us, especially if we think our story doesn’t measure up to the dramatic standards the world expects. We all want to be seen as exceptional and for Christians it’s only natural that this desire also prompts us to exaggerate our pre-Church sin resume.2 Jamison’s book offers a helpful rejoinder to this tendency to get as much dramatic mileage out of our pasts as we can, and instead recommends the more subtle freedom that comes with simply admitting that we need help … like everybody else.
Dallas Willard, himself a huge supporter of the AA model, was fond of saying that church services ought to eschew the evasion of social etiquette and follow the format of an AA meeting: “Hello, my name is Cameron McAllister, and I’m a recovering sinner.” Part of the wonder of this model is that it puts all members on equal footing, and it neatly dismantles the two misconceptions we’ve been dealing with — namely, the idea that our unique vices make us special and that the exceptional nature of our past somehow precludes our ongoing struggle. “One day at a time,” as the healing cliché goes. Notice also that the ideal AA model avoids the Charlie Syndrome by encouraging everyone to tell their stories — not just the folks with criminal records and tapestries of tattoos across their torsos. A broader platform is less amenable to celebrities and attention-mongers.
The idea that impressive testimonies — the ones that lead to conference invitations and book deals — signify happy endings is one that’s sadly disproven time and time again. If we look to Scripture, we meet with abundant examples of men and women who started so well and finished so poorly. We need to zealously remind ourselves that we’re still in the recovery process. As the late Fr. Thomas Hopko once said, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.”3 That’s a sentiment that would meet with a hearty “amen” in most recovery groups.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t tell our “stories.” The unique circumstances in which the Lord met you remain deeply significant. That’s a story you need to tell, and it’s a story I need to hear. I am, however, going to join Willard and Jamison in championing the AA strategy of emphasizing that, at their core, all of our stories are the same — we’re train wrecks in desperate need of help, and there’s nothing especially unique about that. In short, your story matters, but so does everybody else’s.
1 Lest you think I’m trying to set up camp on some lonely stretch of moral high ground, I’ll just say that it takes one to know one.
2 Our current sin resume is another story entirely.
3 Many thanks to our own Ethan McCarthy for drawing my attention to Fr. Hopko’s 55 Maxims of the Christian Life several years ago.
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