GROWING UP steeped in evangelicalism in the New Jersey suburbs, Carlene Bauer knew all about cognitive dissonance. Uncomfortable with emotional suspicion of the churches she grew up in, she prayed that she might someday find one that “didn't mind if you wanted to enjoy life in a big city rather than drag its inhabitants toward repentance,” as she wrote in Salon earlier this summer. She took the leap into New York after college, without money or connections, and began trying to make her name on the city’s inbred literary scene. As she carved out a living working in publishing and writing for Salon, Elle, the New York Observer, and the New York Times Magazine, she struggled to hold together the disparate lives of a New York intellectual and a struggling believer.
Bauer tells her story in her first book, an engaging memoir titled Not That Kind of Girl (HarperCollins). She opens with a retelling of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel of Matthew. The account is moving along swimmingly: there are those wise virgins with the oil for their lamps and the foolish ones, of course, without. The bridegroom comes and the wise virgins with their brightly burning lamps are welcomed in to the wedding feast while the fools are off looking for an open 7 Eleven that sells lamp oil.
But then, Bauer deftly slips herself into the persona of one of the wise virgins and begins to imagine what happens when she realizes that the wedding feast is kind of lame and the bridegroom is “an insufferable boor.” Has she been wasting all her time being the wise virgin instead of living? Can she leave? Is it too late to catch up with the foolish girls?
For the majority of her memoir Bauer is, quite literally, that second-guessing wise virgin. Growing up she was the kind of girl who, though drawn to the Smiths, U2, REM, Nirvana, censored herself, drew her own lines as to what was acceptable and what was not. “My sister and I had a ‘this far and no further,’ which was Nine Inch Nails.” she tells me over iced coffees at a bakery in Manhattan. “There was something about it that seemed more real in its darkness … I did a lot of censoring.”
The pages of Not That Kind of Girl are bursting with references to relics of an evangelical upbringing that insure the reader, whether he or she grew up in Sunday School or is a complete outsider, that she was really there and she understands—a welcome message to each party, respectively. She casually references personalities and experiences that no young evangelical could miss: Josh McDowell, the overused phrase “unequally yoked,” Bible studies, and campus Christian fellowships, just to name a few. “I didn’t care if it translated to anyone other than people [who grew up in evangelical culture],” she explains, laughing. “That was definitely the not-so-secret message to people who had been there. If you weren’t there, it’s pretty clear what it is, and if you were there…” she trails off and makes wide eyes behind hip librarian glasses.
Bauer’s story is obviously more than the sum of its references, whether to Christian culture or pop music, but for the post-evangelical reader, her inside knowledge offers a rare gift: commiseration. As she gets older, over the course of the book’s middle chapters, she encounters all of the same cultural pleasures that many more curious young Christians discover along the way. On more than one occasion she mentions J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, she reads Thomas Merton, and loves Flannery O’Connor.
It’s not just that Bauer’s taste in books and music resemble the interests of many young evangelicals, her experiences ring very familiar as well, particularly as they relate to love interests and sex. In fact, much of the publicity around the book has focused on the fact that it is, almost entirely, sexless. Bauer relates several incidents where meeting someone at a party ends in bed, but in the morning she leaves with her virginity intact. Clearly the “everything but” experience is quite universal.
As Bauer makes her way through life in New York City many of her friends begin to pair off into couples, including her long time roommate, leaving her alone with her thoughts. By chance she came across a collection of Iris Murdoch’s writing that led her to desire “an open, airy house in which we all might try to rid ourselves of selfishness.” She temporarily finds this openness in the Catholic church, which she describes as “the church of dissenters and mystics.” But after a year spent taking the necessary classes and achieving confirmation in the Church, the impending faith crisis that the reader, and Bauer herself, saw coming, arrives.
Her decision to walk away from the faith she had been raised in, though perhaps brewing under the surface throughout her life, arrives in the book simultaneous to and just as suddenly as the world changed on September 11, 2001. Sensitive to the ways 9/11 has been used as a signifier for a wide variety of things in the eight short years since it occurred, Bauer handled this portion of her memoir with much delicacy. “I thought to myself, ‘God, September 11th? I’m going to do that,’ she admits. “But that’s what happened. But I was very careful to not get hysterical, because I didn’t feel that way.”
“I guess I had enough pretending that anything was caring about me,” she tells me, not smiling for the first time in our two-hour conversation. “I didn’t want to think about anything that may or may not exist.” She attempted to return to church a few times after feeling like it was over, but a combination of the Catholic church’s priest scandal which broke in the following months and the emergence of Evangelicals as a far-right political force served to further affirm her choice.
In the August 31, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, literary critic (and son of a priest) James Wood examines a new book by Terry Eagleton, a Marxist Catholic, as an answer to the recent onslaught of popularity of the "new atheists" Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. He ultimately concludes that Eagleton’s book fails, as his antithetical nemesis do, to acknowledge the multiplicities of religious experiences, and Wood instead calls for a kind of “theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.”
This brand of atheism wouldn’t bash believers as the new atheists often do, in fact it would in many ways sympathize with them, though not to the point of belief. But whether or not Wood knows it, we already have many fine examples in this category. Listen, for example to the recently released album Curse Your Branches, by former Pedro the Lion front man David Bazan. Or read Not That Kind of Girl.
Bauer says she wanted to “write a book about females that didn’t feel like it was dripping with estrogen,” to simply write well “so that it didn’t feel tossed off or glib or cheesy, to give readers an excellent reading experience, and to write a New York story.”
“Finally,” she explains, “if you had been raised evangelical or religious and had found yourself captive to it in good and bad ways, if you were still living it or had left it behind, you would feel that you had not been alone in what had happened to you.”
This is theologically engaged atheism. This is disappointed belief. Not That Kind of Girl is an excellent book not because it fulfills its author’s ambitions, but because it surpasses them. Bauer doesn’t just articulately tell her story or write a book about being a woman in New York, she makes an entire generation who everyday run the gauntlet between devoted Christian, insecure doubter and tentative heretic feel less alone and certainly less frightened of where they land.
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