For an excerpt of Carly Gelsinger’s memoir, read her essay in our recent issue.
As one who’s taught in Christian Higher Education for decades, I’ve experienced both healthy and hostile environments. The hostile culture allowed no one to question the authority of the leaders, who bullied employees, purged those viewed as too liberal, and of course, mandated women exercise their voices only in the most submissive and modest manner imaginable. Groupthink was the norm, there was no intellectual freedom, and strict uniformity was substituted for unity. Leaders professed Christ was Lord, but friends and I began to whisper amongst ourselves that the organization was functioning like a cult.
Thus, when reading Carly Gelsinger’s new memoir, Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith, I couldn’t help but find it relatable, in some senses. Although my experience was nowhere near as dramatic as hers and my former school’s doctrine made no room for sign gifts, I empathized with the fears Gelsinger felt, the faith she lost, and the ultimate decision to walk away.
As the book begins, Gelsinger testifies to her prayer of salvation at seven years of age in a Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School, a prayer that earned her a stuffed bunny. Years pass, and at thirteen, she becomes what some might call “seeker friendly,” searching for friendship and a place to belong in Pine Canyon, California, where she lives. She lands at the local Assemblies of God church. The compelling story that follows is both jaw-dropping and humorous, deeply disturbing and honest. Above all, it is told in the voice of teenage Carly, a voice that brilliantly staves off hindsight from its much older, much wiser adult author.
Being raised by Beatles-loving parents, Gelsinger astutely juxtaposes their ten-year renovation of a barn into their dream home with her own immersion into the charismatic church. While she doubts her Dad’s ability to finish the project, she becomes increasingly sure of her own experiences in this church, which convinces her that God will save her only if she exhibits spiritual ecstasy in worship services and perfect purity outside of church. That VBS prayer would never suffice.
Gelsinger is terrified of her first experiences at the church, traumatized by the chaos as well as doubtful of whether it’s Spirit-led. Worship services go on for hours, as the pastor preaches repetitive, stream-of-conscious sermons and the altar call doesn’t end till congregants are speaking in tongues or slain by the spirit on the floor. Yet she wants so badly not to be alone, she submits herself to the church services time and again, as though she were forcing herself to eat spinach because she believed it was good for her. Eventually, one night, she joins in. She feels baptized by the Spirit, testifies to speaking in a language characterized by glorious Z sounds, and enjoys the praise and admiration of her fellow youth. She belongs.
Told in present tense, the story often leaves us readers breathless; indeed, as quickly as the commotion in her church must have erupted on those countless Sundays, Gelsinger’s story erupts and erupts again with one, no two, no a dozen equally astonishing encounters, conversations, and worship services. The narrative circles in on itself, helping readers sense what must’ve been Gelsinger’s own myopia as she deepened her commitment to the church’s every activity.
All along, however, Gelsinger describes both her sincerity—how she longs to know God!—and her hesitation—but is this really how He works? While enjoying her newfound friends and role models, Gelsinger shows how the pressure to serve God becomes inextricably bound to the rules typical of such anti-intellectual, fundamentalist congregations: prohibition of all things deemed secular; a heavenly father who loves conditionally, offering special gifts and inviting them into his secret place only if they are 100% obedient; and of course, extremely modest attire the girls must wear, lest they be blamed for their own sexual assault, as Gelsinger was.
What we understand the more we read is that this was no benign religious sect. The very youth group engineered to keep the kids out of trouble ensnares them in spiritually abusive cycles and gaslights them by making them distrust their own perspectives. In compelling details, Gelsinger portrays the relationships within the church: the pastor’s wife who taps on her chest one, two, or three times, depending on how immodest she viewed a girl’s clothing to be (three is the worst); the youth pastor’s wife who tells Gelsinger the Beatles’ poster, a beloved gift from her brother, hanging over her bed, is evil; Gelsinger and her friends who take turns pursuing holiness and enjoying rock music; and the absolute authority of the men in charge, to whom the women, shrouded in their collective false consciousness, willingly submit.
Gelsinger maintains her naïve voice yet develops intense dramatic irony. We, her readers, know what she doesn’t yet know at that age. We want to shake some sense into her and get her help, but we’re powerless to do so. Somehow, all along, she knows the questions nagging at her will ignite an unquenchable fire of doubt, or perhaps, of reason, and that it will burn down her house of faith.
And eventually it does—as their beloved home burns, too, amid wild fires raging in the canyon. Left homeless, the church helps them in significant ways—and to Gelsinger’s credit, she avoids painting church members as one-dimensional characters, showing as well their good intentions and generous spirits. But the damage has already been done. The “name it, claim it” gospel has become ash and rubble. What god Gelsinger thought she knew, she no longer believes.
As the memoir wraps up, Gelsinger explains how hard it is to rebuild faith. It’s not an easy thing to just receive it, as evangelicals like to say. It is not free. And after enduring all the trauma in her adolescent church experiences, how could she step into any church again? She somehow has to learn to trust others again and especially, trust herself. She has to heal. Although this last part of the book does not depict this process in nearly as much detail (I longed for more details here myself), it is carefully and tenderly wrought.
And eventually Gelsinger, with her husband and children, finds solace and a warm welcome in a liturgical church. We see that she’s rebuilding her faith, one stone at a time.
Julie L. Moore is the author of four collections of poetry, including Full Worm Moon and Particular Scandals, both published in The Poiema Poetry Series by Cascade books. Moore’s poetry has also appeared in Image, New Ohio Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Verse Daily. Her essay, “Silent Night,” was also featured in Relief’s latest print issue. An Associate Professor of English and the Writing Center Director at Taylor University, Moore worships at R.E.A.L. Community Covenant Church, a congregation dedicated to multi-ethnic community and racial reconciliation in Marion, Indiana. You can learn more about her work at julielmoore.com.