An article about “Faith, Interrupted,” the newest book by Eric Lax ’66, L.H.D. ’93, appeared in The New York Times last week. The author, Lauren Winner, says Lax, “has written a steady, quiet love letter to a faith he has lost.”
She discusses the progression of the book and then states, “Memoirs that succeed do so in part because the writer’s question is also, somehow, the reader’s. I am a reader who has – amid many doubts – clung with tenacity to faith, and I found that my questions hovered around this sympathetic and engrossing book, too. The explicit question is, How did one man drift away from faith? But for me the book provoked another question as well: What kind of faith might be possible even after the verities of childhood have passed away?”
Lax graduated from Hobart College in 1966, majoring in English. At Hobart, Lax was a member of the swim team and active in several political and media activities. He was class secretary-treasurer and a film critic for the campus newspaper, radio station and humor magazine. Following graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and served in Truk and the Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific. He returned to Washington, D.C., and worked as a Peace Corps fellow until he left in1971 to begin freelance writing. His books include “Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking,” “On Being Funny,” “Life and Death on 10 West,” “The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat,” “Woody Allen: A Biography,” “Paul Newman: A Biography,” and “Bogart.” His articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The Atlantic, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and the others. An officer of International PEN, he lives with his wife and their two sons in Los Angeles.
The full article about the book follows.
The New York Times
Lauren F. Winner • July 1, 2010
Almost 25 years ago, Richard Gilman wrote a wonderful account of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism and his subsequent loss of faith; what begins as a tale of finding faith becomes, amid Gilman’s feeling that the church is stifling him sexually and intellectually, a story of “faith dissolved.” Devotees of Gilman’s “Faith, Sex, and Mystery” can place Eric Lax’s new book right next to it on their shelves.
Lax, best known for his biography of Woody Allen, has written a steady, quiet love letter to a faith he has lost. Lax’s father was an Episcopal priest, and his early years were shaped by the rhythms of the church calendar and participation in church services. Then (in the only section of the book that feels a tad predictable) came college Western Civ class, which prompted Lax to rigorously examine his deeply held but previously unquestioned beliefs. Lax’s faith frayed further with the death of his father, when Lax was in his 30s. This was not, in his telling, an anguished crisis. Rather, when his father died, Lax lost not just a beloved parent, but also his “conduit” to faith. He began to consider each part of the Nicene Creed: did he really believe in a Jesus who had ascended to heaven and was seated at the right hand of the father? After his mother’s death, Lax felt he no longer had to “fake” Christianity and could freely admit that he no longer found core teachings, like the doctrine of the Incarnation, “plausible.”
But the Christian story continued to shape Lax’s moral and political sensibilities. As a student he embraced pacifism and joined the Peace Corps rather than serve in Vietnam. A lifetime of church had convinced him, Lax explained to his father, that “killing was wrong” and that “Jesus was an example of pacifism and nonviolence.” Referring to John 15:13, Lax said he would be willing to die for his friends, but not to kill for them.
Looking back, Lax recognizes that his appreciation for Jesus’ ethics is not exactly faith: “Even though I still find His example worth following, . . . that is a far step removed from where I started.” (It is curious that Lax retains the capitalized pronoun – a mark of continued wistfulness, perhaps.) God, Lax writes touchingly, has become “very hard to find.” Lax not only respects his still-¬religious friends; he finds that he envies them.
Yet Lax does not seem interested in cultivating a spiritual life shot through with doubt. He doesn’t want an ambivalent (or, one might say, mature) faith; rather, he writes, recalling the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, “what I wanted to have was what I’d always had, but the faith I had accepted without question and could articulate with catechismal rote could not be recaptured.” Of course, many of us come to a place where such faith is neither possible nor even desirable; I suspect my own small Episcopal church would be largely empty on Sundays if anyone who ever questioned the Creed, anyone whose faith life included seasons of aridity, stayed home.
Memoirs that succeed do so in part because the writer’s question is also, somehow, the reader’s. I am a reader who has – amid many doubts – clung with tenacity to faith, and I found that my questions hovered around this sympathetic and engrossing book, too. The explicit question is, How did one man drift away from faith? But for me the book provoked another question as well: What kind of faith might be possible even after the verities of childhood have passed away?
Lauren F. Winner teaches at Duke Divinity School. Her books include “Girl Meets God,” a spiritual memoir.