When my partner tells those unfamiliar with Christian evangelicals about his Pentecostal upbringing, his pat description is “everything but the snakes.” This glib remark doesn’t begin to penetrate the depths of a fundamentalist upbringing, but it does open the door to the slew of questions that inevitably follow: Have you ever spoken in tongues? (Only when it quickened my family’s going to Shoney’s for breakfast after church.) Were you allowed to date? (Only when the girls weren’t already dating Jesus.) This type of interrogation usually happens at a party after everyone’s tossed back a few and the conversation turns more intimate.
After all, what is more intimate than asking someone to talk about their breakup with God?
Not That Kind of Girl is a coming of age story that centers on the gradual fading of Carlene Bauer’s love affair with the Lord. Though she claims a particular type of fundamentalism, if I were to rank Bauer’s fundamentalist upbringing on an extremity scale of 1 to 10, I’d likely score it smack dab in the middle. Her non-denominational church was certainly evangelical, putting forth the belief that one must sublimate one’s time, talents, and resources on a ubiquitous quest to, as Saint Paul instructed, die to self.
Bauer’s childhood spiritual guides did their part to fill her with rapture anxiety by screening A Thief in the Night, and her Sunday school instructor effectively scared the children with stories of casting Satan from the foot of her bed with an exorcistic command. But there were no faith healings, no instance of being banned from watching The Smurfs or listening to The Beatles, and no epileptic episodes of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Those expecting the same kind of humorous yet unsettling look into the lives of America’s evangelical youth as presented in the recent films Hell House and Jesus Camp will instead be met by a floridly written memoir filled with persistent references to indie musicians, literary luminaries, and German philosophers.
While the tale does not evoke with the same wonder and bewilderment of these documentaries, it does give an honest portrait of one young woman’s losing battle to maintain her faith in God while living with human needs and desires. I found myself chuckling at Bauer’s references to the evangelical tendency toward selective amnesia and inept approximations of mainstream rock bands. She adeptly describes these communities in ways that will immediately be picked up by the sufficiently attuned ear:
I stood with everyone else but didn’t sing, and got light-headed from all the sincerity… Now there was no antidote to the stock phrases I had been hearing over the years that had begun to pain me whenever they were uttered… It sounded like effeminate earnestness, even when men spoke. It was a lingo. People picked up the phrases and passed them around like a contagion, which meant that they were perfectly happy to use what was lying about and say what everyone else was saying. There was no reflection on this habit, no idea that God deserved better than clichés.
Bauer’s two main struggles are with her need for perfection and with the persistent feeling of being out of place in every scene; both are common afflictions for those who have been indoctrinated with the belief that one must fit into the sinless “good Christian” mold in order to be snatched up by God at the End of Days. The result of such indoctrination is that Bauer makes impossible demands of herself. She seeks infallibility from God, her partner, and her friends, and is disappointed to continually discover all are rife with flaw and contradiction; that there is no “right” way to be a Christian or a writer (Bauer’s other passion), a sentiment that goes against her rigid upbringing.
I found myself wondering if Bauer could have maintained her childhood faith if those to whom she went for guidance hadn’t been so inflexible. Instead she turned to the Bible for answers, and as my partner once informed me, the worst way to persuade someone to maintain their Christianity is to encourage them to read the Bible—a thorough reading will only reveal more of the religion’s inconsistencies. To read the Bible is to discover the incongruous humanity in the religion. To read the Bible demands one confront the fact that faith cannot be empirically gained, a slippery slope to agnosticism for evidentiary types.
Bauer presents a collection of life-changing relationships, both platonic and romantic, as she crawls at a snail’s pace toward her departure from the fold. People enter and exit quickly with little indication of where they came from or where they disappeared to. There are brief mentions of a conversation with a schoolyard pal or a love interest at a party. At first I found this disconcerting, but upon reconsideration felt this could be a literary device: Bauer impresses on the reader just how fleeting these encounters had been for her, but the role all actions play in shaping the person we become.
Not that Kind of Girl is a lesson in the ways we drift toward self-discovery and settling into the person we are, which is different than the person we’d imagined we would be. It is an exploration of the undramatic and lackluster ways we shift ourselves, and are shifted by others. At its core, Not that Kind of Girl is a love story—not the kind where Prince Charming rescues the princess, but the kind where the princess stumbles several times, falls over and over again, and eventually figures out how to save herself.