Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of Faith and Other Flat Tires, a new memoir about faith, doubt, and the search for truth. I had a chance to ask her a few questions about her book . . .
Tell us a little bit about how this book came to be. When did you first get the idea to write it? How did everything come together from there?
After coming back to the church in my mid 20s, I felt a distinct sense of calling to write about my story. What I went through is a fairly common experience. A lot of us at some point in our lives struggle with faith and sometimes leave the church for a number of years. We have to leave the church (and sometimes faith) in order to find it again. I wanted to normalize that experience for others and tell my own story in a way that brought doubt back inside the space of the sanctuary and encouraged people to share their questions in community.
I’m also a nerdy English major, so trying to write a book is the ultimate challenge. I feel really fortunate that Zondervan picked up my book project and took the risk of working with a new, unknown author.
As a new author, what part of the writing/publishing process did you enjoy most? Least?
The downsides: Far and away the biggest challenge in writing this book was trying to balance two lives as a writer and a mother. I landed the contract within months of giving birth to my first child and had to spend hours locked away in my study. I felt torn between writing and parenting. The biggest challenge with finishing the book has been putting myself out there for public scrutiny. I’ve discovered that publishing a memoir can be a very lonely, vulnerable experience. I sometimes feel as if I’m running buck naked through a shopping mall. People are just going about their business while I’m painfully exposed.
The upside: In response to the book, some readers have reached out and expressed a desire to dialogue about faith and doubt. Being invited into other people’s lives is a complete privilege. I love it. I get emails from old college friends saying in so many words, “I’ve kept my faith struggle hidden but I feel like you’ve emboldened me now to be open about my questions.” Or I get emails from strangers saying, “I’m not a Christian but I’m really curious about faith. Tell me more about your views.” These kinds of exchanges are really humbling and gratifying.
You started with faith, went through a period of doubt, and ended back with faith. How is your faith different now than it was before you went through that time out doubt?
Yes. I feel more at peace with my questions and more settled with faith. If my beliefs weaken on any given day, that’s okay. I still lay claim to the Christian faith and put myself in a position to ever so slowly, haltingly make my way deeper into the Christian pilgrimage. I’ve also learned how to relax and not fight so hard against faith. In simple terms, I would say I’ve learned how to lean into God’s grace. My beliefs and questions—although they matter a great deal—are not the epicenter of my faith or faith at large. God is. And ultimately, I have to believe in a God who’s humored by my confusion and loves me not in spite of but because of my honest doubts.
A lot of evangelicals are worried about the trend of college-age adults leaving the church in droves. As someone who left the church and found your way back, what’s your take on this? Do you think there is cause to worry or is a time of questioning and exploration a natural part of the faith journey for many young people?
My answer to the question “Should we worry?” is both yes and no. First, the “yes” part. A recent Barna Group study indicates that 3 out of 5 young adults leave the church permanently or for an extended period of time. That’s a very sobering statistic. The reasons for this recent trend are complex and multifaceted. Although we can’t control all the causes, we do have some say in how we can respond as a church community. Speaking as someone who left the church for a period of time and then eventually came back, here are few insights:
- Be serious about discipleship. Send your kid(s) to pastors, priests, and professors who can talk with them about their questions and doubts.
- Give them reasons to believe from science and philosophy. Recommend books, blogs, or DVDs by Christian apologists.
- Think deeply about where you send them to college. Some kids need a secular environment to push against, others do well in a traditional Christian college setting.
- Raise your kids in intergenerational community. Let other Christian adults walk with them in their faith struggle.
Second, the “no” part. Active doubt, as opposed to passive skepticism, can be a very healthy, normal part of faith. It’s often a sign of soul searching and truth seeking. So I would encourage parents and youth pastors to hold their youth in an open hand and trust that faith worth keeping can stand up to scrutiny. Try not to react. Walk with your youth. Equip them, disciple them, and let them work it out over time. Jonathan Merritt says in his new book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, “I can cherish the faith of my father and grandfathers. But I also need to take hold of it myself… Like Peter, every generation must see Jesus with their own eyes and learn to follow him in their own way.”
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Faith and Other Flat Tires?
Most of us who’ve been raised in the church think about doubt and faith in opposition to each other. But I believe doubt can be a robust part of faith. In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Flannery O’Connor calls this the foundation prayer of faith. She’s not alone in her view, either. Look at Job, Lamentations, the Psalms. Look at Mother Teresa and other great saints of Christian history who’ve gone through episodes of the so-called “dark night of the soul.” Doubt plays a significant part in the Christian experience. As readers respond to my book, I hope they come to this liberating conclusion: that their doubts belong inside faith and inside the sanctuary. I believe God welcomes our struggle and honors our honesty.
What types of books do you like to read during your downtime? What are some books you’ve enjoyed lately?
Lately, I’ve been reading Daniel Silva’s spy thriller series featuring the character Gabriel Allon, Steig Larsen’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and then Still by Lauren Winner. The first two are just fun fiction reads. The third book is nonfiction. I love Winner for her stripped down writing style and her honest, insightful reflections on faith. I secretly envy her Jewish upbringing, too. I think she understands the Judeo-Christian tradition in a way that I never will. I grew up in an evangelical Presbyterian church, going to VBS every summer and eating hot dogs at after-church potlucks in the park, so I have no clue about the Jewish traditions regarding faith, food, or culture. Knowing about some of those traditions would enrich my understanding of Christ the Jew, Christian theology, and Christian practice as a whole.
What are you working on now? Do you have any plans for another book in the next couple of years?
Right now I’m in the process of trying to promote the book. As a partial introvert, I sometimes want to crawl under a rock and let the parade go by. But I have to get out there and publicize the book through readings, radio interviews, and publications. Without a known author name, I’m reliant on others to share the book with people in their communities. And that’s very humbling.
Looking forward, I’d love to write another book. Faith and Other Flat Tires ends at the point where I return to church. Beyond that point, I have a lot of story left to tell about how I re-integrated back into Christian community, how my husband and I went through the depressing and often hilarious process of finding a church, and how we finally settled into the Anglican tradition.