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SAINTS AND SINNERS by Lawrence Wright


by Lawrence Wright

Pub Date: March 23rd, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-57924-0
Publisher: Knopf

 Wright (In the New World, 1987, etc.) takes a poorly planned but intermittently entertaining journey through the American religious landscape. The problem here is that Wright's avowed intention is to ``search for faith,'' to understand religious belief and how it animates people's lives. Yet the six figures he profiles are patently chosen for journalistic sexiness rather than religious profundity. He offers two disgraced preachers (Walker Railey and Jimmy Swaggart), an angry atheist (Madalyn Murray O'Hair), and a Satanist who is either ``a complete fake,'' ``a tortured psychotic,'' or ``the Devil incarnate'' (Anton LaVey) before arriving at the only two subjects who might be thought to exemplify spiritual values (Catholic priest Matthew Fox and Baptist minister William Campbell). The upshot is that Wright's search never dips below the surface, reaching its New Age apotheosis in a sweat-lodge ceremony with Fox and the vague statement that ``something had touched me.'' On the other hand, the author does deliver blood-bright sketches of his motley crew, with the accent on shock (``Jimmy Swaggart stands behind her, pants down, staring at her ass. No doubt he thinks he is staring into hell itself'') rather than insight. Wright explores Swaggart's relation with his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and sees both as driven by the same demons; records O'Hair's rants against God and LaVey's rage against humanity (``I actually have more respect for vegetables than I do for people,'' says the diabolical dandy); and confronts Railey, a prominent Methodist minister suspected of strangling his wife. Campbell and Fox inspire Wright, the former by his manic social activism, the latter by his loose-knit spirituality. But these offbeat gurus offer too little, too late; many will wonder where the saints of the title can be found. Six slick profiles packed with gritty gossip; but as a religious quest, this never leaves base camp.