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Questions for Eric Lax on Faith, Interrupted
Q: Amid the current battles over faith and religion, there appears to be a silent majority of people who don’t align themselves either with the fundamentalists or the atheists, who don’t know quite what to believe about their faith. Your book gives a reasoned and passionate voice to this group; was that your intention?
A: It certainly was my hope. So many books about faith--and many written by really intelligent people--take a single line: “You’re crazy if you have faith” or, “You’re crazy if you don’t have faith.” I marvel at their surety. I’ve always experienced faith as a mystery, when I had it, and now that I don’t. But I have no assurance that I’m right in my thinking or that I’m even close to an answer about belief. I just know in retrospect how wonderful it was to have faith, and that I can’t fake having it when it’s not there. I suspect there are many people with my dilemma, and I hope that my experience will be useful to them as they struggle with their own changing faith, or its loss. And I hope as well that people of faith who read this will be understanding of friends who grapple with belief.
Q: You are perhaps best known for your books on film stars like Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart. What made you want to write your own story? And why now?
A: I’ve also written about life on a bone marrow transplantation ward, and the development of penicillin, so I like a lot of different topics. I’ve been thinking about this book for at least 10 years. I’ve long been curious about how people come to faith, how they keep it or lose it, and how they use it for good or ill. An omnibus book about faith didn’t appeal to me (nor do I have the scholarship to write one). As I thought more about the subject, I realized that my own story, intertwined with those of my father, an Episcopal priest, and my college roommate George Packard, whose youthful faith mirrored my own, might be a way to examine the subject in a way that would be enjoyable for me to write and also draw readers into a story that would prompt them to consider their own faith as well. As for why write it now, I’m at a point in life--my mid-sixties--where if you aren’t thinking about God and faith and what happens next, you’re not paying attention. As there are no definite answers to these questions, I knew the book had to be short.
Q: As you mentioned, there are two men whose stories are closely tied to your own faith journey, the first being your father. What kind of influence did your father have on you when you were growing up?
A: My father was a monumental influence on me. He was very funny, not the first thing you associate with a priest, and he had a great understanding of and sympathy for human nature. So although he was very devoted in his faith, he was not rigid. That doesn’t mean he didn’t strictly adhere to the teachings of the Church, but he understood and practiced forgiveness, and held love as the central tenet of Christianity. I was an acolyte from age 6 and was as comfortable in church as I was at home; being in church with my dad was like visiting him in his office. I learned my practice of faith by his example, just as I learned the value and enjoyment of humor through his jokes, puns, and shaggy dog stories.
Q: You write that you started losing your connection with religion after your father’s death. How do you think he would have reacted to your “interruption” of faith?
A: I like to think he would have accepted and perhaps even admired the honesty of it--and then would have prayed very hard that I find my way back to the Church.
Q: The other man whose life you chronicle is your friend George Packard or “Skip.” Why did the direction his life took become so important to you?
A: Skip and I were much alike in our faith as college students. We both were acolytes from an early age and we both were active in the college chapel. Then Skip’s army experiences--many officers considered him the best leader of an ambush and patrol platoon--and mine in the Peace Corps were so dissimilar that our lives were no longer parallel. After the army Skip entered seminary and in the years following, his faith grew in ways much different and deeper than my own. But because we started at more or less the same place, he has been a natural touchstone for me, and the direction his life in faith has taken is what for a long time I thought mine might be.
Q: What was the most important thing that you learned about yourself through the writing of this book?
A: In tracing the path of my spiritual progress (or regression), I was able to understand how I’ve come to where I am in a way I did not know before. One of the biggest questions most people have to answer is where we stand in our faith. Whatever the degree to which we believe or disbelieve, we have to honestly face our deepest feelings, reservations, and doubts. I think only then can we find our way to meaningful faith, or accept that we have none. And in that self-examination I came to realize that the foundation of the faith I had, articulated again and again by my father--that the heart of it is to love one another--has not disappeared, even if that foundation no longer is “religious.”
(Eric Lax photo © Patricia Williams)