Review of Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, by Andrea Palpant Dilley (Zondervan, 2012)
This review first appeared in Issue 23: The Stories We Tell. Reviewed by Tamara Lang [T]o discuss all that Andrea Palpant Dilley’s memoir Faith and Other Flat Tires is, I must first mention what it is not. This book is not a script. It is not a perky depository of answers to all of the difficult questions of life. It is not a story of perfect fulfillment, of inviolable peace, or of ruddy children galavanting about in an orchard of ripe answers. There is nothing easy about this memoir. Instead, this book is nothing more and nothing less than the story of an actual woman. Dilley allows us a passenger seat alongside her own struggles and tensions, her loss of faith, and her eventual finding of a melancholy peace. We move with her through stages of belief so subtle, and yet so unique and personal, that we cannot help but resonate. It is the progression of these stages that lends Dilley’s memoir its greatest stamp of honesty. Dilley embodies past stages of her life in such a manner that we gain an intimate association with the many personas that she has adopted, from the missionary kid climbing guava trees in Kenya, to the mildly deviant English major sporting a red pixie cut, to the production assistant with a propensity for dysfunctional relationships. Each of these personas moves beyond a mere life stage to become its own vivacious character, a person whom we come to know almost as we know the transitive identities of our own friends. Dilley writes with a perspective that, though informed by the final-page identity of her own present, is nonetheless defined by the narrative’s present. There is only the subtlest hint of self-judgment as she describes the illicit behavior of her past, for through this we come to see the extent to which she accepted these actions at the time. Our transition between identities is thus as smooth and natural as her own, guided not by some final end point but by the organic developments of her own life. There is no preachiness in her story, for this would be untrue to her life as she lived it. The result is a narrative which is vibrantly genuine, defined by a stark honesty that does not incriminate Dilley but rather allows her to bring us into her own refreshingly imperfect life. Dilley’s childhood is described in terms of a “third-culture” effect, in which her identity as a Kenyan missionary kid is put into tension with her later identity as an American teen. The result, Dilley tells us, is a state in which no culture is home. This effect can be extrapolated to describe Dilley’s adult life. Throughout this memoir, Dilley describes the identities through which she has sought to define herself: as a Christian, an ex-Christian, an English major, an advertising assistant, and so on. As these identities develop they come into tension with each other, so that the intellectual rebels against the false simplicity of the church, the young professional pushes against the black-and-white morality of her youth, and the comfortable American woman mourns the suffering she has seen in Kenya. Often, these struggles create a Christian/secular dichotomy. This book recounts the elimination of that dichotomy. As Dilley cycles through these chapters we begin to see her self-descriptions break down, until she comes to know herself in the wholeness of these incomplete identities. At this point the gap between cultures and sub-cultures ceases to keep her from finding a home. Rather, this space becomes her home. Dilley describes this quest for home through two different types of journeys. Structurally, she arranges her memoir around the story of Pilgrim’s Progress; her chapters are grouped under headings of landmarks from Bunyan’s tale. In arranging her story thus, Dilley has sought to show how her life story converges with the iconic allegory of the Christian life. However, although the parallels between Pilgrim’s Progress and Dilley’s story are notable, this structure can at times cheapen Dilley’s own story. Her faith journey is far more expansive than an allegorical formula, and the paragraph summaries of Pilgrim’s visits seem both out of place and limiting. The second consistent metaphor within Dilley’s work is that of transportation. The cars that she drives are nearly always named, and from these names we can derive symbolic significance. For example, when returning from a young friend’s funeral, Dilley sits in the back of a Ford Escort as her mom explains how Losokwoi’s body was the “escort” for his soul. Dilley’s car is at times a shrine, at other times a manifestation of her anxiety. Through the motif of driving, Dilley has expressed the restlessness of her faith journey while emphasizing the hope of a destination. Yet, we are not meant to understand that this destination has been reached; the memoir memorably ends with Dilley driving into a desert, whispering the words, “Here we go.” I read this memoir while seated firmly in my own desert. In terms of Dilley’s memoir, my current self can be found around page 89—like Dilley, I am a twenty-year-old English major harboring a secret resistance to the church, to faith, even to God. It seems, sometimes, that all that I used to believe is slipping through my fingers like drying sand. Paralyzed by dread, I sit unmoving within this slow, shifting absence. Dilley puts a voice to this silent decline. Scraping the Ichthus sticker off her bumper, she tells us that “I was purging myself not of faith necessarily, but of a particular kind of faith and of a Christian culture that I associated with spiritual certainty. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t want a Jesus fish on my car.” From this initial point of resistance, Dilley moves farther and farther from the church until, for a time, she no longer identifies herself as a Christian. Oddly enough, this admission resonated with me more deeply than any cheery word of promise might have done. There’s something good about words of encouragement, but there is something necessary in words of darkness and doubt. It is the silent companion who speaks to us most, the fellow traveler whose brokenness breaks into our own. Our shared story becomes a solid, soulful thing, a bond between camaraderie and despair. This is a special place, tinged with a touch of the sacred, and it is a space that I found within Dilley’s words. --- Read Issue 23: The Stories We Tell. Tamara Lang is a Southern California native with a joint passion for words and the ocean. She studies English and Biology at Westmont College and is currently studying abroad in Kaikoura, New Zealand.
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