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Leaps of Faith BY CHRISTOPHER COOK SAINTS & SINNERS By Lawrence Wright. 266 pp. New York: Alfred A.Knopf. $24.00. TWO TYPES OF READERS are most likely to enjoy the latest book from Texas writer Lawrence Wright those who have appreciated his magazine pieces in Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone, and those who hold an abiding curiosity for the American varieties of Christian religious expression. Wright, an Austin resident who is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, is the cornsummate magazine writer. Like other stories in Texas Monthly’s “here’s the inside skinny” genre, Wright’ s magazine pieces possess many of the dramatic elements of popular fiction: vivid characteriza,tion, suspense, irony, and an eye for detail. Not surprisingly, then, Saints & Sinners is a collection of what might have been six magazine stories. The subject of each story is a contemporary figure of some reputation more or less for notoriety within the sphere of American religious life. The six subjects are Jimmy Swaggart, fireand-brimstone evangelist with a penchant for prostitutes; Will Campbell, liberal Southern Baptist preacher with an aversion to religious dogma; Matthew Fox, Dominican priest defrocked by the Vatican for his New Age teachings; Anton LaVey, eccentric founder of the Church of Satan; Madalyn Murray O’Hair, lifelong warrior for the cause of atheism; and Walker Railey, the Methodist minister from Dallas who was charged with the attempted murder of his wife. Arguably, Walker Railey doesn’t deserve a place in. the book. Unlike the others, who earned national reputations for their influence on either theology and teachings of institutional religion or secular social life in this country, Railey is a minor figure. So why does he get a chapter in the book? Railey was the pastor of the First Methodist Church in Dallas, which Wright attended as a youth, and the minister was tried for the attempted murder of his wife. The personal connection with the author, along with the sensational nature of the murder accusation, seems to have provided suf Christopher Cook is director of communications for the Texas AFL-CIO and teaches communications ethics at St. Edward’s University. ficient justification to devote more than 40 pages to the Railey story. The Railey piece, which is the first chapter in the book, is more “whodunnit” than religious exploration. Since Railey was found not guilty of the attempted murder charge after publication of the book, the crime remains unsolved, though Wright makes it clear that he believes Railey is guilty. Fortunately, the chapter on Jimmy Swaggart, which follows the Railey story, kicks Saints & Sinners into gear. The Swaggart story is told with gusto and verve, complete with details on the fundamentalist preacher’s dirt-poor Louisiana upbringing. Swaggart’s extended family more sinners and backsliders than saints fill the pages as effectively as Faulkner’s Snopes family could hope to do. Wright clearly has done his homework on Swaggart, and the extended description of his lifelong relations with his famous cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley is fascinating. The fallen preacher’s sexual behavior, which also gets a thorough going over, provides a titillating, even prurient, narrative. But in the end, as with the Railey story, the reader is left wondering about Wright’s motives for writing his book. It is certainly tempting for the reader at this point to doubt Wright’s claim in the preface: that the book “is the chronicle of my search for faith.” Wright maintains that as a young Methodist he possessed faith that he later lost. He now wants the reader to believe that it is his personal quest for renewed spiritual faith that drives his efforts, which produces the book and thematically binds the six chapters together. If so, the reader wonders, then where’s the quest? Is the author looking for faith or is he simply looking for good stories? Subsequent chapters on Anton LaVey and Madalyn Murray O’Hair provide insight into something Wright does not reveal or perhaps the book that the author is so attached to the skeptical perspective of a reporter that he is unable to do what his subjects have done: choose to believe purely on faith. The O’Hair passages will interest readers who want to learn more about the fuzzy and disputed background of the famous Austin-based atheist. She belonged to the Women’s Air Corps during World War II, for instance, and once worked as a probation officer in Houston. She even applied for Soviet citizenship during her Trotskyite days and tried unsuccessfully to defect to the Soviet Embassy in Paris in 1960. In the end, Wright concludes O’Hair’s battle against God is a “spiritual struggle.” The chapter on Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, who we find ensconced in his 13-room house in San Francisco, offers even less. LaVey is dismissed as a lonely fake, a farcical advocate for evil. He probably is a fake LaVey seems too complacent to even bother concealing his own lies but Wright misses a connection worth making. A common error is to believe evil is so clearly malevolent and sinister that it is easily recognized. Hannah Arendt, believing otherwise, said that “evil is banal.” LaVey’s preening vanity is of the kind that is increasingly characteristic of American culture, where the powerful and powerless alike have come to accept lying, vanity and self-delusion as simply part of our daily lives. In that way, perhaps LaVey really is evil. In that way, perhaps we all are. Wright’s ostensible search for faith finally hits paydirt with Will Campbell. The Southern Baptist preacher with no congregation, who is distrusted by mainstream Baptists and has an aversion to church dogma, obviously intrigues Wright. Campbell will also intrigue the reader. Campbell, the Mississippi native who studied theology at Yale, was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Afterward, he was shunned by many when he took his message to members of the Ku Klux Klan. In recent years, he has offered a kind of “bootleg” ministry for country-music artists like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Campbell’s theological platform “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway” –is anti-institutional. “No institution can be trusted, including the institutional church,” he says. In fact, Campbell argues, the founders of the Christian church did not trust Jesus Christ. “The church fathers thought in order to preserve their man they loved so much they would have to build a big institution to contain him,” Campbell says. “What they did, in effect, was to construct a buffer against radical discipleship. Jesus was not a churchgoer! He was outside all institutions! That’s what got him into trouble in the first place. And yet somehow we’ve constructed this great fraud about Christianity.” In the end, Wright has trouble comprehending Campbell’s brand of Christian existentialism. Wright admits that his habit is to THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 _