Stories ofreligious celebrities are profiles of quirkiness

May 09, 1993|By Diane Winston

SAINTS AND SINNERS.

Lawrence Wright.

Knopf.

266 pages. $24.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the former Baltimore housewife who campaigned relentlessly to end prayer in public school, was one of Lawrence Wright's early heroes. Her passionate defense of free speech, as well as her stinging critique of capitalism and Christianity, won her a place in his pantheon of courageous free-thinkers. Imagine his chagrin when, in doing a profile of her for Texas Monthly magazine, she slapped him with a nuisance suit.

Such ironies and inconsistencies are the stuff of Mr. Wright's new book, "Saints and Sinners," which profiles six well-known religious figures. That Ms. O'Hair, possibly the nation's best-known atheist, and Anton LaVey, a Satanist, are included with Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic clergy demonstrates the author's desire to explore the ability to believe as much as belief itself.

Early on, Mr. Wright says his aim is to "attach myself to various believers in order to try on their faiths and see what, if anything, fit me."

In a sense, this book takes up where his memoirs, "In the New World," left off. The earlier work described Mr. Wright's coming of age in the Dallas of the 1960s -- a time and place marked by violence, racial antagonism, sexual mystery and religious pieties.

"Saints and Sinners" seeks to discover the possibility for genuine spiritual commitment despite the harsh realities of contemporary life.

Mr. Wright's unflinching self-examination made reading "In the New World" an act of self-discovery. His experiences were different from mine by virtue of gender, region and religion, but most of the feelings he analyzed so acutely and eloquently were shared by many who grew up in that unsettling period.

The book's revelatory quality was enhanced by the engaging intimacy of Mr. Wright's voice as narrator.

His knack for taking his own pulse works less successfully in his new book. While the descriptions of what and why his subjects believe are captivating, his own spiritual peregrinations are much less so.

In this case, Mr. Wright's exploration of his peculiarity -- middle-class Southern Methodism -- never breaks through to universal significance. Quite simply, his own religious grapplings are much less absorbing than the stories he has to tell about others.

The profiles, apart from Mr. Wright's self-reflections, are well written and informative. The subjects, in addition to Ms. O'Hair, are Walker Railey, the Dallas minister accused of the 1987 attempted murder of his wife; Jimmy Swaggart, the television evangelist caught consorting with a prostitute; Mr. LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan; Will Campbell, the idiosyncratic Baptist preacher who has ministered to both civil rights marchers and the Ku Klux Klan; and Matthew Fox, the Roman Catholic priest who has been censured for his New Age syntheses.

These are all safe subjects -- religious "celebrities" who have been written about extensively. Each represents a quirky point of view that makes them less-than-ideal candidates for one's own religious ruminations. But Mr. Wright's insightful reporting and entertaining writing make each story worth reading.

Seen through Mr. Wright's eyes, Ms. O'Hair comes across as feisty, intelligent and exasperating. But despite her outspoken stands, he does not find, as he had hoped, "a life that was recklessly authentic and accepting of the consequences."

Rather, he concludes, "I came to see O'Hair as a religious phenomenon, in the same way that antimatter is an expression of matter. She was a black hole of belief."

Not surprisingly, Ms. O'Hair and her fellow subjects seem less than eager to be probed by Mr. Wright or to serve as his foil. Still, when he can stay out of his own way, he captures the eccentricities of each person he encounters.

I am sympathetic to his quests -- both to understand the role of religion in American society and to find integrity in his beliefs. Yet I do not think he fully accomplished either in "Saints and Sinners." Missing the mark in his own odyssey is unfortunate for him; failing to illuminate the current complexity is a loss for the rest of us.

A former Sun reporter, Ms. Winston is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Princeton.

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