More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
240 pp., $25.00
Andrea Palpant Dilley
When my parents concluded a six-year stint as medical missionaries, moved the family back to the U.S., and put me in public school, I dressed up for Halloween as Amy Carmichael (1867-1951), the revered missionary to India. My peers mistook my white sari for a mummy costume. "Protestant missionary" was not one of the aisle tags in the costume department. Ten years later, I went off to college at a liberal arts school in the Northwest, ripped the Ichthus off the back bumper of my car, and—while sitting in smoke-haunted bars—came under the tutelage of "worldly" English majors who introduced me to James Joyce, Bob Dylan, and the blues. My decision at the time to leave behind my childhood faith was both a spiritual experiment—what do I really believe?—and a cultural one: What does life look like beyond the walls of the church?
In her memoir More Than Conquerors, Megan Hustad maps a similar story of growing up as a "third culture kid" who returns from the mission field, struggles to assimilate into American life, and embarks on a quest for faith and self-identity in a post-Christian context. Her book blends two genres: missionary memoir set overseas and spiritual memoir set in the city, reminiscent of The Virgin of Bennington by Kathleen Norris. (New York City, it seems, provides the perfect backdrop for the explorations of an awkward, midwestern-bred evangelical.)
After watching Billy Graham's Hour of Decision in the comfort of their Minnesota home, Hustad's parents moved the family to the Caribbean to serve as missionaries with a Christian organization called Trans World Radio (TWR). "Missionary kids [represent] a stronger strain of Christianity," writes Hustad of her childhood on the island of Bonaire, "better equipped for boredom[,] … accustomed [in church] to the sound of our thighs unsticking from gunmetal folding chairs," and trained to watch for scorpions in the shower and dead ants in their cereal. Her parents, too, are the resilient type. They punctuate their support letters with "PTL" for Praise the Lord. (The perfect texting shorthand before texting was a "thing.") When TWR sends them to Holland to train itinerant evangelists in the art of radio outreach, "PTL." When Hustad's father has a falling out with the director and cuts ties with the organization, "PTL." When the family moves back to Minnesota and struggles to make ends meet, even then, "PTL."
The coming-of-age story starts in St. Paul, where Hustad watched her restless mother rearrange the furniture in their living room week after week. Her mother's disillusionment became her own as she found herself lost and alone in the American homeland. "I was in the parking lot of Minnehaha Academy when I heard that the rapture was coming—and that this was something to look forward to," she writes with her trademark dark humor. Her girlfriend plays tennis and reads Frank Peretti while Hustad reads Hemingway and tapes pictures of Sophie Scholl, the anti-Nazi hero, inside her locker door.
When as a young adult she packs up a Ryder truck and moves to New York with her boyfriend, her identity as an outsider only inverts itself. Rather than standing out as the cynic among evangelicals, she is distinct from her new secular peers precisely because of her evangelical background: "Wow, flushed faces at parties leaned in to ask, what was it like growing up with adults so hooked on fairy tales? My ability to quickly change the subject eventually outstripped my embarrassment."
By way of escape, Hustad remakes herself. She attends parties held by "famous bad boy novelist[s]," takes a job at the Random House offices on Park Avenue, and after coming home from work, flings her manuscript bag onto the floor before stepping onto the fire escape to smoke in 40-degree weather. She is New York. And yet even then, she finds herself lost in a malaise, estranged both from the Christian church of her childhood and the urban temple of skyscrapers and city streets. Third-culture kids, she writes, feel "alienation in every cell of their body." That alienation drives her search for social and spiritual belonging and also motivates the core question of the book: Is Christian faith worth keeping or is it, as her secular friends would say, "a vestigial cultural tail" she's better off losing?
If Augustine's Confessions is one of the first Western memoirs and defines the genre for us, then a good memoirist writes in a spirit of transparent struggle and skilled reflection that turns a critical eye on the self, not exclusively on others. Hustad writes with a subtle but insistent disdain for her parents, whose only major faults are being unsophisticated and a little too earnest—the kind of people who watch Fox News, stockpile food, and "[stomach their daughter's] rebellion because they [hope] the light [will] eventually come back on." She comes through less as a sympathetic memoirist lamenting her flawed childhood and more as an anthropologist, visiting the rooms of memory and turning over the artifacts of her youth with a detached care.