Faith, Interrupted

A writer dedicates a memoir to his lost religious faith – and the father who inspired it.

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    Faith, Interrupted
    By Eric Lax
    Alfred A. Knopf
    288 pp., $26
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A priest, a bishop, and Woody Allen all serve as spiritual advisers to the same guy. There is no punch line.

At various times in his life, Eric Lax has been counseled by his father, an Episcopal priest from Wales; a college friend who became a bishop; and the Oscar-winning director, about whom Lax has written several biographies (“Conversations With Woody Allen”).

Now, he’s written a memoir about a part of his life that he says he’s come to miss: his faith in God. Unlike many of the “new atheists,” Lax isn’t smug or strident – perhaps because he’s been an insider on both sides of the religious divide. Faith, Interrupted is a gentle, rueful book that most of all pays homage to his dad.

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Lax’s dad was a kind, thoughtful priest in California who gave 10-minute sermons and, during the civil rights era, refused communion to a wealthy patron because of the man’s prejudice toward African-Americans. He also wrote his son letters that could have been penned by Monty Python, and would tell teenagers he believed in the two-party system: one on Friday and one on Saturday night.

The fact that Lax can talk about the writings of Saint Anselm as well as name-drop celebrities makes “Faith, Interrupted” far less dire and self-absorbed than one might expect from a baby boomer writing about losing his religion. Lax’s polished writing style and lack of assurance that he has all the answers are also definite pluses.

Lax was his father’s acolyte, helping him at three services every Sunday (and sometimes Saturdays, too, if there was a wedding). “God’s house might just as well be his living room,” Lax writes of himself as a boy. He went to church camp every summer and could rattle off the services, word-perfect.

However, Lax writes, while he had the letter down, chapter and verse, he never learned the art of listening in prayer that seemed to come naturally to both of his parents. “My praying, which I did regularly into my thirties, was a one-sided conversation, with me the one yapping on.”

While the stereotypical preacher’s kid would have turned into a wild child during his teen years, Lax says he never rebelled. In fact, he took his religion so seriously that during the Vietnam War, Lax first joined the Peace Corps and then fought for conscientious objector status for four years.

Lax intersperses chapters about his stint on Micronesia, where “I felt that if I stood up in a hurry, I would bang my head against the universe,” with those of his friend, George “Skip” Packard, who ended up running ambushes in Vietnam so successfully that he never lost a man. Horrified by all the killing, Packard grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares for years.

In a twist, Packard is the friend who ends up going to seminary. He’s not so great at the preaching, at first, but does much better helping senior citizens and those in need. For him, faith means, “When all is said and done, you have to show up.” Or, as the Bible puts it, “Faith without works is dead.”

Meanwhile, in his 30s, Lax finds himself losing the solid assurance in God he had as a child. There was no crisis of conscience, he writes. He just started sleeping in on Sundays and found himself drifting further away from the Episcopal Church.

“When I was losing my faith, it took some time for me to realize it,” Lax writes. “I wasn’t looking to lose it; I just suddenly noticed there was a separation I had never known. I was like a car whose tires all have imperceptible leaks. Everything runs smoothly, until suddenly four flats bring you to a halt. Faith, I guess, is like love: It withers when unattended.”

As a biographer, Lax seems more comfortable writing about others’ lives. He remains an emotionally elusive presence. For example, he talks in detail about Packard’s health crises and the breakup of his first marriage, but shies away from discussing his own marital troubles – beyond saying that religion didn’t help him when he and his wife considered divorce. (They ultimately stayed together.)

After his father died, Lax says he lost his connection to the Episcopal Church. “The reason is pretty simple,” he writes. “He was in many ways the conduit to my spiritual life, and his death made me look for another connection, which I have yet to satisfactorily find; it turned out that for me, the Father in the Lord’s Prayer was less in heaven than he was in El Cajon.”

His father’s sense of Christianity was built on a belief in the importance of good works and following the Golden Rule. He was less interested in maintaining the trappings of formal religion, even in his own church. When his father was in the hospital, he told Lax, “If you take the Bible and look closely, you’ll see Christianity comes down to only one thing. That is to love one another. The miracles are all window dressing.” And that, Lax says, has been his guide through his life, “with and without faith.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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