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Saints and Sinners.

When I began to read Lawrence Wright's Saint's and Sinners, a view of six contemporary religious leaders, I was troubled by two possibilities: that I would be subjected to the railings of assorted fanatics and learn little of their substance, or that I would grasp facts about their birthplaces and philosophies and learn little of their fire. Neither is true. The book outlines the six in a style that is informative and easy to read.

Saints and Sinners deals with character. It is sufficiently biographical, but at no point does it reduce itself to merely a timeline. There is interest in events but a focus on people, and Wright hands his readers the lives in full - a mass of facts interpreted with opinions, an engaging work. I do not, however, agree unreservedly with Wright's interpretations.

My first argument arose when I turned to the chapter featuring Will Campbell, the renegade Southern Baptist and civil-rights advocate, whom I have known almost literally since I was born and consider an ally.

While my own comments regarding Campbell would be overwhelmingly positive, Wright's oscillate. The same man he hails as a prophet and a legend is presented as unpredictable and irritating. The essay spills between opposites as it progresses, and I worry that it concentrates so fully on the perimeters that it neglects the crux. The preacher himself never loses sight of the crux.

I may be biased, but I considered it a stroke of magnificence when Campbell, speaking at my grandfather's funeral service before a numb and heartbroken family, instructed us to rise and applaud the life of the man he had come to bury. That's how Will Campbell operates. He has a knack for assessing any situation and selecting from the essential core, which is often quite simple. It troubles me, then, that Wright sees fit to attach polarized comments to Campbell's name; I have never known him as a member of an extreme. Although he has managed to provoke his share of controversy, he is a person who consistently extracts beauty from the middle ground.

The rest of the book has comparable swings in perception. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a renowned atheist who spends her life asserting that cause, is presented as an eccentric whose joys rise from the quality of contrariness. There is a sense of glee in the author's description of her devotion, almost as if O'Hair's militant and haphazard handling of her views serves primarily to increase her charm. The fallen evangelist Jimmy Swaggart is portrayed as relentlessly irrational and self-destructive, and Wright's comments about him are laced with underlying contempt.

Are these figures truly deserving of such celebration and condemnation, or does the author's own religious struggle affect his judgment? Each profile includes a recounting of Wright's troubled hunt to define his grasp of spirituality, and I wonder if his assessment of the leaders is colored by their role in this hunt.

The book is well researched. Wright's is not the sort of bias that holds roots in ignorance, and it does not obscure the facts. The essays are informal and intimate, lending the reader a sense of personal contact. And the rest of the cast of characters is also fascinating - the other chapters feature Matthew Fox, a revolutionary priest in trouble with the Vatican; Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, and Walter Railey, the Methodist minister accused of attempting to murder his wife.

In the end, the fluctuations in perception in this engrossing text prove to be useful, exposing a bit of saint and a bit of sinner in each of the six. But the greatest strength of Saints and Sinners lies in the effects it leaves: It does not contain six chapters of answers; it raises questions and piques curiosity. Wright's book inspires further searching, and it is through this search that his ideas will lead his readers to their own.
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Author:Gaillard, Rachel A.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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