I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.
I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.
I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.
Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.
Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.
Back in 2014 I reviewed Martin Fletcher’s novel Jacob’s Oath. Set in 1945 during the weeks following Germany’s surrender it told the story of two young Jewish lovers in Heidelberg as they struggled repair their horribly shattered lives and together move forward. The novel was a big hit with me, so much so it ended up making my year-end Best Fiction List. Enjoying Fletcher’s novel as much as I did I vowed to read his earlier novel The List should the opportunity ever arise. ‘
Lo and behold, one Saturday afternoon while meandering through the shelves at my local public library what did I find but a copy of The List. In the mood for a little fiction I decided to give The List a shot, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Jacob’s Oath. In the end, while I enjoyed Fletcher’s later novel Jacob’s Oath more, I found The List a satisfying read.
Published in 2011 and just like The List it’s also the story of a pair of Holocaust survivors during the aftermath of WWII. This time it’s Georg and Edith, a young married couple from Vienna who’ve found refuge in London. While thankful to have escaped the Nazis, nevertheless their struggle to move forward with their lives hasn’t been easy. While Georg seeks employment and Edith deals with a difficult pregnancy, both nervously await word from the Continent that some or even any of their relatives survived the Nazi onslaught. Meanwhile, Georg and Edith along with the rest of Britain’s Jewish refugee community must contend with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, fueled not only by the belief such refugees are taking away both jobs and housing from native Britons but also anger over British soldiers killed and wounded by Jewish fighters in Palestine.
Like I said earlier, even though I liked Jacob’s Oath more, The List still delivered the goods and didn’t leave me disappointed. (However, I did see a major plot twist coming a mile away, but that’s OK. It’s rare I can detect these things in advance.) Who knows, I might even give his latest novel Promised Land a shot.
For years whenever I’d haunt the shelfs at my local public library I’d seen Carlene’s Cross’ 2006 memoir Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith sitting on the shelf, but never borrowed it despite how promising it looked. Finally, one day at the library my curiosity got the better of me. While grabbing books right and left I added hers to the growing stack of books clutched in my arms and headed to the check-out desk. It was a wise move because Fleeing Fundamentalism is an outstanding memoir.
In her 2006 memoir, she recalls her life beginning with her childhood in rural Montana, college days at an unaccredited Bible college, an evangelical minister’s wife, implosion of her troubled marriage, successful attempts to obtain a degree from a bona fide university while raising a household of young children, and finally her departure from the evangelical fold.
As a former evangelical myself, much of what she wrote resonated with me. Just like me, she wasn’t raised in a fundamentalist Christian household but embraced the faith as a young child one summer in a Vacation Bible School (VBS). (On one hand one wonders if it’s ethical for religious groups to proselytize among children. On the other hand, as a civil liberation I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the state prohibiting groups from doing so.) Later, as a young adult just like Cross I also experienced the religious zeal exhibited by many youthful converts. (Besides attending Bible college in Montana, she also spent a summer in Europe ministering to her co-religionists behind the then Iron Curtain.) Finally, perhaps more than anything it was our college experiences, academic and otherwise that were instrumental in guiding us away from evangelical Christianity.
Like so many other lives, one wonders to what degree a fateful decision here or there would have profoundly changed her life, For example, had she not attended VBS one summer, would she still have embraced fundamentalist Christianity? If she did not date and later marry her boyfriend from Bible college, would she have married a stable, loving yet Christian man instead of the troubled, self-destructive one who years later she needed to divorce and prompting her to obtain a quality education in order to support her family?
Fleeing Fundamentalism is more than one of those “I left the faith” books I’m so fond of reading. She’s a superb writer and once I started her memoir I couldn’t put it down. Just like the subject of my previous post Devil’s Game, Fleeing Fundamentalism is a surprisingly good book, so good it could end up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list. Therefore, I can recommend this fine memoir without hesitation.
It might be hard to believe there was a time, not long ago when radical Islam, political Islam, Jihadism or call it what you will wasn’t seen as the enemy of Western civilization. During the last half of the 20th century there were other ideological movements, both secular and nationalist successfully competing for hearts and minds throughout the Middle East and Islamic world. Instead of al-Qaeda and ISIS it was Pan-Arab regimes in Egypt and Syria, nationalist groups like the PLO and Communist entities like Iran’s underground Tudeh Party and the Soviet-backed rulers in Afghanistan dominating the news and giving Western leaders headaches. Seen as threats to America and its allies, over the years Western intelligence services gave covert support to the ideological rivals of the above-mentioned groups. These rivals were anything but secular, preaching “Islam is the solution” and advocating a reordering of society based solely on religious lines. Decades later, after the decline of both Arab nationalism and Pan-Arab nationalism, collapse of Communism, and Iran’s bloody transformation from pro-Western absolute monarchy to Islamic theocracy the region’s political landscape has changed dramatically. Now the heirs of our one-time Islamist allies are now our enemies.
The story of how this all unfolded can be found in Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam by Robert Dreyfuss. Published in 2005, Devil’s Game takes a long and detailed look at decades of secretive intelligence operations that in most cases in the long run ended up doing more bad than good. While it might have taken me a while to get into this book, once I did I couldn’t stop. Dreyfuss writes well and from what I can tell did a lot of research in writing his book.
I think at the end of the year I need to do a post featuring the year’s surprisingly good books. When I spied Devil’s Game at the library I had no idea I’d enjoy it as much as I did. So, even though it was published well over ten years ago, Devil’s Game is an intelligent and informative book and therefore essential when it comes to understanding today’s Islamic world.
I’ve been wanting to read Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China for over half a decade. Not long after I saw it advertised in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog I stumbled across a number of favorable reviews, both in newspapers and on book blogs. I figured I’d read it eventually, and then one day I noticed a copy was available for download from my local public library. As I burned through Midnight in Peking in what seemed like not time I knew I’d made the right choice. But like many backlist selection I’ve featured on my blog I also realized I shouldn’t have waited over five years to finally read it.
Our story begins in 1937 in pre-Communist Peking (Beijing), China. Two years before fighting erupts in Europe Japanese and Chinese armies have been battling in China for almost a decade. With Peking surrounded by the Japanese and about to be invaded a young English woman is murdered, her mutilated corpse found dumped on a street corner like discarded refuse. Two detectives, one Chinese the other British are soon tasked with finding her killer(s) but as the fruitless investigation wears on, her father, a middle-aged single father and academic, begins to smell a cover-up. Can her murder be solved before the Japanese invade the city?
Midnight in Peking is more than just a murder story. It’s also a portrait of a forgotten China, a gritty world of opium dens, brothels, poverty, and corruption during waning years of European colonialism. Many of the events described in the book take place in the “Badlands” a rough, vice-filled stretch of town where Peking proper and the European-dominated sections of the city meet. Unlike the rest of Peking it’s here Chinese and Westerners rub elbows, if only to engage in less than wholesome pursuits like gambling, drinking, prostitution and bribery.
I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight in Peking, so much so it easily made my recently posted Top Five Books of Summer List. There’s a good chance French’s excellent book ends up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list as well.
For well over a decade the paperback edition of Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible sat ignored in my personal library. Don’t get me wrong, I’d always intended to read it but with so many other books available to me through libraries both public and personal it just never happened. Then one day I realized I could read God’s Secretaries for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge because Nicolson’s 2003 book deals with England, specifically that nation’s attempt to produce what we Americans commonly refer to the King James Bible. So, after all those years I finally cracked it open and began reading it. And I’m glad I did, for God’s Secretaries is an impressive book that’s both intelligently written and well-researched.
With unbridgeable chasms between rich and poor, aristocracy and peasantry, Jacobean England was a dived realm. Religiously, the kingdom was far from unified as Calvinist reformers battled their high church brethren for control of the Anglican Church. English Catholics were seen by those in power as theologically and morally corrupt as well as agents of England’s enemies. Anglican clergy shuddered as dissenting Protestant sects offered viable alternatives to the dominant Church of England. Faced with these challenges, men of faith and power believed it was time for a new English translation of the Bible, one that was perfect and majestic enough for all of England to call its own and thus heal the country’s deep religious wounds.
God’s Secretaries is one of those rare books that wasn’t exactly what I thought it was but nevertheless still enjoyed. That’s because it’s much more than I expected. Yes, as advertised it shows the process of how the King James Bible was created. But it’s more about that moment in human history from which such a treasure of the English language heroically emerged, from the larger than life personalities of the assembled translators (darn near each one an intellectual giant) to the Gunpowder Plot to plague outbreaks and royal intrigue.
God’s Secretaries is an outstanding book and easily one of the best I’ve read this year. As you can probably guess I have no problem recommending it.