“The more I read, the more I understood: The face of Christianity was changing”


Jessica Wilbanks 

When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss 

Beacon Press 

Hardcover, 978-0-8070-9223-1, (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 272 pgs., $26.95 

November 13, 2018 


How can a life guided by deep faith change once you’ve lost all belief in God’s existence? And what can happen if you try to find that lost faith again from a new perspective? 


Houston writer Jessica Wilbanks’s When I Spoke in Tongues offers compelling, evocative insights into these questions. In her debut book, she brings both personal experience and candor to the often risky process of baring one’s soul in a memoir.  


A key strength in Wilbanks’s narrative is her ability to draw readers into her thoughts and feelings while she, in essence, wrestles repeatedly with God. This, for example, is how she recalls the time soon after she realized she had lost the faith she previously shared with her parents and brothers:  


“The nights were the hardest. I felt so alone, lying in bed in the dark, and found myself wanting desperately to pray. I didn’t believe in God anymore, but my faith was like a faucet with broken handles. It kept coming in gushes and I couldn’t seem to turn it off. I needed a hand to hold on the other side of belief. And so I did something people have been doing for centuries—I made up my own God, the God I needed at that particular moment. I peeled the shell off the gruff, bearded God I had always been taught to worship and gave him a new name and a new face. I couldn’t decide whether this new God should be a man or a woman, so I decided in favor of both.” 


Her new gods did not exist in heaven. They were, in her mind, “located in real physical space, in the landscape that was more beautiful to me an any other place in the world—the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay.” 


Wilbanks’s book also describes struggles with other issues tied to her lost faith, including sexuality, anorexia, college life, work, personal relationships, and her mother’s steadfast hope Jessica someday would return to the world that had sheltered her as a child.  


As a University of Houston graduate student, Wilbanks began digging into Pentecostalism’s history and how it had taken deep root in parts of Africa. “The more I read, the more I understood: The face of Christianity was changing,” she writes. “Long ago the first Christian missionaries had trickled into the headwaters of the Niger River in twos and threes, clinging to British trade ships and braving malaria to spread the good news to the so-called Dark Continent. But now, just over a century later, private jets left … Lagos [Nigeria] on a daily basis, ferrying Nigerian evangelists toward waiting crowds at churches in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the increasingly secular West.” 


When I Spoke in Tongues can be good reading for almost all questioning their faith or their lack of faith. Likewise, it can be helpful to readers simply curious about faith and wondering why its presence or absence can affect all aspects of a person’s life.

Jessica Wilbanks is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, Redivider, and Ruminate magazine. In 2014, she was selected as a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Journalism. Jessica received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston, where she served as nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son.