FAITH, INTERRUPTED: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
By Robert Lax
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, $26
Eric Lax’s latest book, Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey, is best described as a memoir. He combines elements of biography (Lax is Woody Allen’s biographer) and travel writing as he weaves together the important threads of his own life.
The threads are these: growing up the son of an Episcopal priest; his lifelong friendship with George “Skip” Packard (Episcopal bishop to the U.S. Armed Forces), whom he met at college; Lax’s efforts to obtain conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War; and, most important of all, his journey from dogmatic religious belief toward a more inclusive spirituality. The book is a subtle reflection on his faith as it documents his gradual movement away from organized religion.
The book begins with a church scene typical of the early 1950s: A priest in a small town is celebrating Communion for a small congregation. In clear prose the narrator describes the service in detail, pausing briefly to outline the history of the Episcopal church as it descends from Anglicanism. He then shifts focus from priest and parishioners to the young acolyte helping conduct the service.
A boy about 8 years old struggles to put the distractions of childhood out of his mind as he carries out his duties. It’s then the reader learns that Lax is the boy, the priest his father, and the church little more than an extension of his home.
All adults are aware of the gulf that separates them from the mysterious wonders of childhood. Lax, however, is doubly estranged from the young version of himself precisely because of his faith. Naturally, the boy feels a strong bond with his father, admires him, and accepts his religious teachings enthusiastically and unquestioningly. He goes through the motions of an acolyte as any other boy might help his father in what Lax describes at one point as “the family business.” Missing from the boy’s faith, of course, is any examination of what he has been taught, much less any doubt.
Lax demonstrates his skills as biographer when he recounts his father’s journey from England through Canada to the United States. This tale is one of lost love (leaving his first love, Enid, behind) and personal sacrifice as he embarks on a four-year course to become an ordained priest. Lax’s mother, Dorothy, a registered nurse, receives less attention and is described simply as more pious than his father. A strict constructionist whose religion comforts her, she serves as a counterpoint to her husband’s more practical approach to his vocation.
At college, the author’s studies in philosophy, and daily news reports of violence and body counts, help him determine exactly what his view of the war is in light of the draft. Rather than kill or be killed in Vietnam, he applies for conscientious objector status. Following graduation, joining the Peace Corps gets him a two-year deferment from the draft.
The Peace Corps assigns Lax to the Pacific island of Tsis in Micronesia, 2,000 miles east of Manila. That’s about as far away culturally and geographically from his life in the United States as he could get.
The section devoted to Lax’s time in Micronesia is an example of excellent travel writing through which he develops themes of exile, friendship and faith, as he charts his and his friend Skip’s different choices in life.
Skip -- in order to have some control over his eventual assignment -- enrolls in Officer Candidate School rather than be drafted. He has a twofold gift for keeping all of his soldiers alive while killing an extraordinary number of Vietcong.
Paths diverge as the comfortable faith of Lax’s youth is gradually replaced with a vaguer and less dogmatic spirituality, while Skip, despite his wartime experiences, moves in the opposite direction, becoming first a priest and then a bishop. The death of Lax’s father strikes the final blow to the son’s weakening faith when the author realizes that the paternal bond had been the mainstay of his religious belief.
In some of the most insightful passages of the book, Lax mixes discussions and correspondence with his father along with the latter’s sermons to explore questions of faith in an engaging way. Although this book is as much about a fascinating life as it is about religion, it will appeal to a wide audience both for its engaging subject matter and first-rate writing.
[Julien Carriere is assistant professor of French and Italian at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.]