By W. David Myers
Once upon a time, a devout Roman Catholic boy from West Texas fell hard for a fair maiden with long tresses. Emboldened by her golden beauty and enchanted by her eyes, the Catholic swain gathered his courage and asked her out. Alas, she politely declined, telling the crestfallen young man that she could never go out with him, for he "was not a Christian." He pleaded his case, pointing to his devotion to the Virgin Mary and long years as a "knight of the altar," abstaining from breakfast so he could serve at daily 7:30 a.m. mass. It was all to no avail—in her mind, the lad did not "know Jesus," had not been "born again," and thus would never sup with said fair maiden at the heavenly banquet. Astonished and brokenhearted, I took a Mormon to the high school dance instead.
I thought about that young man from El Paso while reading John Marks' "Reasons to Believe." Marks, a former reporter for U.S. News & World Report and "60 Minutes," used the loss of his position at the TV news magazine in 2005 as an occasion to revisit his lost Evangelical faith. His book recounts that faith and surveys the contemporary American Evangelical scene, filtered through a loose reading of American and biblical history. While informative, this historical account is superficial at best and occasionally misleading (Would Calvinist, predestinarian Puritans really understand and get along with some of the pastors of modern megachurches?).
At its best, Marks' testament is a moving memoir of a Texas boy and the rise and fall of his Christian faith. Baptized a Presbyterian in Odessa, influenced by a lovely Methodist relative from Checotah, Okla., raised in Highland Park (north of Dallas) and affiliated with the Highland Park Presbyterian Church, scorched by the fiery preaching of Denton Bible Church, Marks is an excellent guide to the Evangelical topography of America, particularly North Texas.
Marks moves carefully forward in tracing not only his entry into Evangelical Christianity in high school but also the gathering forces of skepticism and doubt that eventually caused him to leave that faith behind.
From the beginning, though, he is painfully aware of another side of the story. The book opens by describing an encounter with a Christian couple, Don and Lillie McWhinney of Texas, who pointedly ask Marks whether he will be " 'left behind.' " Marks knows what they mean: According to conservative Evangelical thought, God will rapture his people away (in the twinkling of an eye) to save them from the tribulation the reprobate will suffer under the tyrannical will of the Antichrist, before the final destruction of the world and heaven's reign.
Tim LaHaye has rendered this period graphically in his fantastically popular "Left Behind" novels. In my own life, a boyhood friend had posters depicting the wreckage of suddenly driverless cars and passenger airliners hurtling to their doom as God spirited the pilots away or air-traffic controllers mysteriously disappeared from their posts. This friend's poster worried me enough that I never let him do the driving. Thinking about it now, I wonder if Evangelical Christians should be allowed into the transportation industry.
As he progresses, Marks describes his encounters today with believers in a variety of settings, his goal to show the Evangelical movement as it stands today, right now. This is why Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell do not appear in the account: They are Evangelicalism's past, not its present or future. Instead, Marks looks at the various missionary movements (Young Life, for example) megachurches (Denton Bible Church) and political ideas (David Barton's spirited rejection of any constitutional basis for church-state separation).
Even when discussing institutional and intellectual developments, though, Marks focuses on individuals, and he is moving and eloquent in describing the folks he meets along the way. Marks provides a sympathetic primer on a diverse movement and people united in their "personal relationship" to Jesus. He does a fine job of describing this relationship through interviews and his own past. He does not ridicule the possibility of a personal friendship with a man dead 2,000 years, for he remembers his own life well. At the same time, he recognizes just how nebulous the experience is and so refrains from overdefining it, letting individuals tell of their own understanding.
Marks' sympathy for individuals accompanies a growing unease over the modern trajectory of Evangelicalism and where that might lead the nation. The increasing political focus of leaders and their determination to force the nation as a whole away from a destructive course into the paths of righteousness demanded by God worries the author.
It is not an accident that he describes the horrors he witnessed during the Bosnian-Serbian crisis (which extinguished his remaining faith). Nor is it coincidental that his loss of belief begins as he travels through Europe as a young man, seeing the cruel results of the last century and slowly relinquishing the feeling of security and faith that once held him. There is a very fine chapter in which Marks discusses the end of his faith in Marburg, Germany, where he confronted the long history of Protestantism as well as the destruction of European Jewry. At the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where he went to see the graves of his wife's relatives and that of Franz Kafka, he began to realize that if his faith were correct, then Kafka, one of his favorite authors, was at that moment burning in hell.
Near the end of the book, Marks returns to the left-behind issue by pairing the moving story of Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, badly burned at the Pentagon on 9/11 (by an airliner deliberately flown into the building by a man who, presumably, did not think his God would leave him behind either) with a book signing to promote LaHaye's "The Rapture" (symbolically on June 6, 2006—6/6/6, get it?). It is here in the book that Marks, as sympathetic an observer as Evangelicals could want, decides that for all his appreciation of lovely individuals and their contributions to American life, he fears Evangelicalism's possible success. More and more, the movement speaks directly in terms of spiritual warfare that Marks believes will rip the political fabric apart as the zealous followers of a faith-based politics clash with the millions of Americans who will never accept it.
And finally, Marks confesses that the last century of genocide, war and exploitation, much of it either in the name of religion or condoned by it, has left him unable to accept the idea of a benevolent deity standing behind it all. "Leave me behind," this former Texas Evangelical writes.
Only those who have believed or at least understood the power of Evangelicalism can really comprehend the force of that phrase, wrenched out of John Marks seemingly against his will and after a long struggle with the ghosts of his past and the tenuous hope for a better future.
Reasons to BelieveBy John MarksEcco, 365 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times