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Saints & Sinners: Walter Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Anton LeVay, Will Campbell, Matthew Fox
by lawrence wright
knopf, 266 pages, $24

Lawrence Wright’s memoir of a few years ago, In the New World: Growing Up With America, 1960–1984, was billed as “a biography of the Baby Boom generation,” the familiar story of political awakening amid the traumas of assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, etc. Here we have a spiritual sequel—the account of a discontented baby boomer’s search for larger things.

An essayist for Rolling Stone and a self-described “rationalist,” Mr. Wright’s idea is to come to terms with religion through an intimate study of six spiritually minded people, to attempt to “try on” their various faiths. “As a genre,” he writes, “the book presents itself as a travel adventure, in which the protagonist enters foreign territory in order to discover something valuable about himself; the only distinction here is that the traveller is moving through regions of belief rather than culture . . . . My object was not just to see the sights but to change—to enlarge—myself. This is the chronicle of my search for faith.”

As earnest as this search might be, a reader attempting to follow along encounters two obstacles. The first is the slightly sappy quality evident above, a weakness for melodrama that casts doubt on Mr. Wright’s credentials as a level-headed rationalist. The second is his way of intruding into the narrative, so that we may not only observe the people he’s interviewing but watch in wonder as the author is “enlarged.” 

Nor does it inspire much confidence in our guide to note the superior air with which he recalls the “snooty, pious, and sanctimonious” Christians of his childhood in Dallas”which seems a pretty snooty, pious, and sanctimonious remark itself. These folks he has now come to view “with a mixture of envy and pity.” Envy, because their “delusions” at least afford them solace unknown to the author; pity, because their narrow-mindedness so often leads to “pointless guilt trips.”

Only a man undergoing “enlargement” could show so little humility. It seems not to occur to Mr. Wright that a sneer is perhaps not the best starting point for a spiritual journey. Regarding with pity those superstitious types he has since outgrown, he fails to notice that, whatever their faults, they undertook a journey of faith long before he himself got around to it. His religious quest, like his generation’s storied political struggles, begins with a summary dismissal of the experiences and insights of previous generations—which have little or nothing to teach rationalists like himself. His is a generation of “guides,” not mere followers. 

But as the “New Age” movement attests, when a sixties worldling sets out to seek the divine he tends to gravitate instead toward the strange, the novel, the guilt-free, the carnal and titillating. So in the first two chapters we examine the lives of Dallas minister Walker Railey, whose disgrace in sexual scandal proves that “the pursuit of goodness is a treacherous path,—and Jimmy Swaggart, another “overreaching preacher outdone by his carnal nature”—two spiritual straw men embodying the “hypocrisy” of traditional Christianity. Here our itinerary includes a visit to the motel room where Swaggart entertained his ladies”the better to understand how in the search for faith “one may discover at the end not enlightenment but the dark side of oneself.”

At the end of the book, safely removed from these “sinners,” we meet the “saints”: a liberal-minded preacher named Will Campbell, whose defiance of narrow theological “categories” and institutions appeals to Mr. Wright; and Father Matthew Fox, a Roman Catholic media hound who has just been suspended by the Dominican order.

In between these groups, Mr. Wright profiles Satanist Anton LeVay and professional atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. (Where in this sternly empirical study of Faith, one wonders, are the ordinary faithful?) “I wanted to look closely at the places in life that society had declared off-limits,” Mr. Wright explains. “In this manner, I identify with LeVay”in fact, it was my own interest in the forbidden that had drawn me to him in the first place.” People like LeVay and O’Hair are not simply to be dismissed. Consider, after all, “the moral courage required to explore the dark, uncertain territories of the human spirit that we name atheism and Satanism. To my way of thinking, there is a certain saintliness involved in carrying so much hatred directed at them from people who are unwilling to accept these archetypal aspects of themselves.”

If not exactly “saintly” in any rational sense, LeVay does make an interesting study, and Mr. Wright in the end does an effective job exposing his theatrics and his fabricated past. In fact, he pretty much dismisses LeVay as a charming fraud. But what’s all this brooding about “archetypes,” the “moral courage” of the depraved, and the “uncertain territories of the human spirit”? It was “an interest in the forbidden” that landed Railey and Swaggart in their fix, and one doubts that either of them would claim credit for moral courage. To that extent, they are wiser men than Mr. Wright, who mistakes boldness for courage and thus can’t quite shake the idea that sin carries a certain dark glamour—a sophisticated view widely endorsed by thieves, drug dealers, adulterers, pornographers, and others brave enough to defy their conventional archetypes and explore those “uncertain territories of the human spirit.”

At each stop in the tour our guide offers us his penetrating insights. Man, it turns out, has a carnal nature. And “behind the mask of holiness” even the believer can be “all too human.” Sometimes people are hypocrites. And suffering occasionally makes people question their faith.

It is no doubt to his credit that Mr. Wright came to grasp these truths, and perhaps in Rolling Stone all this passes for probing reflection. What grates is the tiresome pretense of sophistication, the air of bold originality as Mr. Wright “discovers” theological truisms he might have learned in Sunday School.

“I suppose that early on in my life,” he broods, “I felt a need to choose between my allegiance to the worldview of reason, knowledge, and experience . . . and that of faith. It’s religion I can’t handle. I just can’t surrender, I can’t give up my integrity even if it were possible to have a larger experience. It’s just not me. I can’t make this leap of faith.”

And yet reason itself turns out to be the missing partner in this rationalist’s search, for he never does pause to ask the fundamental religious question: “Does God exist and can we know Him?” It might even be that faith and reason are compatible after all, as some pretty enlarged types like Socrates, Aquinas, Milton, Pascal, and (in our time) C. S. Lewis and Mortimer Adler have concluded. The whole Reason-versus-Faith conflict is just lazily assumed, setting up Mr. Wright’s posture as brave freethinker venturing into the frontiers of unreason.

Just how gullible our Man of Reason can be becomes clear in the final chapter, where Mr. Wright is played for a sap by Fr. Fox. An old fool of the New Age, Fr. Fox has brought attention to himself over the years by theorizing that Jesus was a widower and Paul a homosexual, by regularly referring to God as “She,” and by hiring a Zen master and a witch named “Starhawk” to aid in his San Francisco-based ministry. His widely published disputes with the Church hierarchy have made him a “theological superstar.” In his struggles with Cardinal Ratzinger and other backward types in the Church, particularly in their intolerance of abortion and homosexuality, “Matt” speaks for Christians “searching for some new way of fitting religion into their lives.” Matt, indeed, would dispense with the whole “fall/redemption model” in favor of his own “creation-centered model,” a Christianity of crystals instead of crosses whose Swingin’ Savior shrugs off sin and asks only that we all “get in touch with our joy.”

True, Mr. Wright does pause to wonder vaguely who would give a hang what Matt thought about anything without the “Father” before his name, without the moral authority of the Church whose moral authority he challenges. But instead of making for Rome to interview Ratzinger—if not a “theological superstar,” at least a genuine believer who might have made for a good chapter—our guide gazes longingly into the crystals. In the final pages, we are offered a glimpse of priest and pilgrim burrowing—buck naked—into a “sweat lodge” full of burning coals, an ancient Indian prayer ritual from which both Larry and Matt emerge feeling somehow renewed, and fully in touch with their joy.

Our journey, then, turns out to be one long, tedious evasion, a quest for the new and relevant meandering back to the dreariest elements of paganism. Nor, in the end, is our guide’s problem really a lack of faith; it’s an excess of faith. Never seriously doubting his own disbelief, he makes “Reason,” “Independence,” and “Intellectual Integrity” his unchallenged dogmas, and, seeking enlargement, winds up more cramped than ever within the confines of his own ego.

Matthew Scully was formerly Literary Editor of National Review and a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle.

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