I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household in Dallas, Texas, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties. It was a great time for the so-called “heart religion” in America: a conservative ascendancy in the national political scene was matched by a boom in church-building and attendance across the Bible Belt, and, with it, a surge in the Evangelical book and media markets. My house was filled with paperbacks covered with pictures of crosses on green hillsides or sunsets on the beach with a set of footsteps in the sand; it was filled with self-help books and child-discipline books; with Focus on the Family magazines; with cassette tapes of Amy Grant and Sandi Patty and Michael W. Smith. I read whatever lay to hand, and absorbed the teachings. But only one book from that time still has a place on my bookshelf.
One Sunday in the early nineties, my grandmother visited the bookstore at our church, intent on purchasing a book everyone in her Bible study had been raving about: a daily devotional called My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. There was a five-for-the-price-of-two special on, and she took the lot. She gave one of the copies to me, just after my baptism, in 1994.
It took me a while to get into Utmost (as everyone called it). Its language sounded a bit like Shakespeare to my ears: ornate and beautiful but also difficult (the author, I later learned, was a Scot who’d been born in the nineteenth century, and who’d been steeped in Victorian literature). But I liked having it on my bedside table, next to my Bible. As an Evangelical, I’d been taught to partake in a daily ritual of private reading and praying—the daily Quiet Time that has been a staple of the movement since the eighteenth century. I loved this moment in the day, when everything stopped, and a new world—the old, mysterious world of the Bible—seemed to grow up around me. Utmost, thanks to its mystery, beauty, and brevity (it contained one reading for each day of the year, of about two hundred and fifty words) was a perfect fit.
I began to understand that life in a liberal, intellectual milieu was going to be very different from life in a conservative, faith-based milieu.
In 1997, I left for college in New York. Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, I was also leaving behind the Evangelical culture I was raised in. As the years passed, I began to understand that life in a liberal, intellectual milieu was going to be very different from life in a conservative, faith-based milieu. Things that had had immense cultural capital in Texas were virtually unknown in New York, and the only way to discuss them, it seemed, was through a distancing, critical—often political—lens. In childhood, I hadn’t realized that there was a culture war raging in the country, but now I began to sense its contours, and to understand that I had a place within it, whether I wanted one or not. I also began to see how deeply politicized my childhood religious experience had been, with the pastor of my church urging parishioners to “vote for righteousness,” and stumping for politicians from the pulpit. At Barnard, I began to develop a political conscience of my own. I studied history and theology. I discovered who I was at heart: an intellectual Christian with a deep interest in discovering and telling the truth about history, culture, and religion.
For the most part, the split between my old and new worlds felt stark and unbridgeable, save for one thing: My Utmost for His Highest. Somehow, the book fit in as well with New York as it had with Texas. I still read it everyday, still loved it, still applied its lessons. I began to rely on the book in conversations with people back home, to use it to sooth relationships which had become strained. And I began to wonder about its mysterious power. What allowed Utmost to cross a barrier nothing else had?
Even before graduating college, I’d made a vow: If I were ever in a position to write and publish a book, I’d write about Utmost. For a long time, this seemed an impossible goal. Evangelical publishing was a world dominated by conservative, often fundamentalist branches, of the movement. It was most definitely closed to outsiders, and I—despite having been born and raised in its churches and camps and social groups, and despite still being a Christian—had become an outsider. At the same time, writing about one’s personal devotion to an Evangelical text wasn’t exactly the mainstream publishing world’s MO.
It’s a struggle many share today: the struggle to bridge the great divide. Call the divide what you will—Red State-Blue State; Republican-Democrat; Conservative-Liberal; Faith-based-Intellectual—by any name, crossing it seems to baffle the best of us.
In a certain way, this publishing dilemma—of figuring out where to place an intellectual, literary, historical account of a conservative-Evangelical book—reflected the struggle I’d been going through since leaving home. It’s a struggle I think most people in the United States share in some way today: the struggle to bridge the great divide. Call the divide what you will—Red State-Blue State; Republican-Democrat; Conservative-Liberal; Faith-based-Intellectual—by any name, crossing it seems to baffle the best of us.
In the end (after I’d been fortunate enough to find a wonderful editor for my book), this is what My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir became: an attempt to reach out from one world to another; to reconcile my two selves; to grapple with the divide. It combines memoir with a history of Oswald Chambers; his wife, Biddy; and My Utmost for His Highest.
I’ve been told that it’s not an easy book to categorize, blending as it does genres, styles, and viewpoints. This assessment makes me glad: in a time when the polarization of our country, our media, and our publishing worlds seems almost total, bending genres, crossing lines, and shaking things up seems like a good way forward.
It also happens to reflect Oswald Chambers’s theology. He believed that forcing people into groups and defining them as types not only skewed reality but “counterfeited” God. God, he argued, didn’t make types; He didn’t work in the mass. He bestowed each individual with a unique personality and a unique experience, and He wanted them to express these things fully, not to make gods of church or politics or any other affiliation; not to fit themselves into a man-made mold.
This message has sustained me over the years, as I journey through life and across states and continents. I hope it might similarly sustain others who are boldly living out the life—and the self—God gave them.
For more on My Utmost for His Highest, and to read the daily entry, visit Utmost.org.