Faith, Interrupted is a profoundly personal, deeply felt exploration of the mystery of faith—having it, losing it, hoping for its return.
The son of an Episcopal priest, Eric Lax develops in his youth a deep religious attachment and an acute moral compass—one that he is willing to go to prison for when it leads him to resist military service in Vietnam. His faith abides until, in his mid-thirties, he begins to question the unquestionable: the role of God in his life. In response, Lax engages with the father who inspired him and with his best friend, a Vietnam War hero turned priest. Their ongoing and illuminating dialogues, full of wisdom and insight, reveal much about three men who approach God, duty, and war in vastly different ways. Lax provides an unusual and refreshing perspective, examining religious conviction sympathetically from both sides as one who has lost his faith but still respects it.
Excerpted from Faith, Interrupted by Eric Lax. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Lax. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Eric Lax is the author of medical/science books Life and Death on Ten West, an account of the UCLA bone marrow transplantation unit, as well as Woody Allen: A Biography, each a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat, about the development of penicillin, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.
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: In writing Faith, Interrupted you went back through piles of old letters and documents. Was it at all difficult to relive your past so closely?
A: First, I was astonished that I had saved so many letters. My teens through my thirties are quite fully documented by letters I sent to my parents, and those they sent to me, as well as dozens to and from friends. Of course, it was a sobering experience to literally run into the person I was 40 years ago. Some of the stuff I read made me cringe, but then some of it made me feel I was a reasonably thoughtful guy. But it wasn’t difficult to go through the letters—although there were times that memories good and bad flooded in—so much as it was enlightening. For instance, I had long felt that I didn’t tell my parents very much when I was in the Peace Corps and was grappling so intently with being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War on grounds of religious training and belief. Then I discovered that my most coherent writing about it was to them. Without the letters, I don’t think I could have written this book. I would have had to come at it another way, because I would have had to rely on memory, which we tend to shape to our purposes over the years, instead of being able to draw on the actual feelings and descriptions of the time.
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: Do you ever wish that you followed the path that Skip did and had become an Episcopal priest?
A: My father always said that you don’t decide to become a priest; you answer a call from God to become one. There were times in my teens and twenties when I thought I heard at least the first rings of that call, but it never was strong enough for me to answer it. So, no, I don’t wish that I had followed Skip’s path, although under different circumstances, it would have been interesting if I had.
Q: Can you tell us more about what led you to take the position of a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War?
A: In the months leading up to my graduation from Hobart College in 1966, the scale of the war in Vietnam increased greatly and it was clear that the draft awaited pretty much everyone who didn’t have a deferral for graduate school. From the start of my senior year I had given thought to whether I was a CO and if so, what was I willing to risk? I concluded that my religious training and belief taught me that killing was wrong, and I had the support of the Episcopal Church, which had long honored such a stance. I rejected the option to be a non-combatant medic because I felt that whatever I did would only support the war and put soldiers back in a position to do what I was opposed to. By declaring myself a CO I was not evading the draft. I believed I could be called to serve the country and was happy to do that in any capacity outside the military. I was born in Canada and could have gone there, but I wanted to work within the law as a citizen and take the consequences. If that meant going to prison in lieu of being drafted, were my CO denied, I would do it, and I told that to my draft board.
Q: Looking back a little earlier, do you think that you would have joined the Peace Corps if not for the Vietnam War?
A: Yes. The Peace Corps ideally suited my talents and needs. I was drawn to the idea of service, and I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted as a career. I wasn’t looking to take an advanced degree in English or go to law school, so it was a great way to do something responsible and gain time to come to a decision about what I wanted to be. Without the Peace Corps, I don’t know that I would have ended up a writer. The Peace Corps was also the perfect choice for someone who didn’t want to be drafted. So in all honesty, joining served two ends.
Q: Are there other memoirs that you’ve read that inspired your own work?
A: Memoirs are a lot like Tolstoy’s description in Anna Karenina of unhappy families—each is distinctive in its own way, though in the case of memoirs, they don’t have to be unhappy. The point is, every memoir is unique to the person telling it, and so the story and how it’s told are unique as well.
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.”
“An intelligent, elegantly composed and open-hearted memoir. . . . Valuable, even instructive. . . . [Lax] is a writer of gentle precision and clarity.” —Los Angeles Times
“Lax has written a steady, quiet love letter to a faith he has lost. . . . Sympathetic and engrossing.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A poignant, sensitive and thoughtful memoir that illuminates the complexity of the phenomenon that we call faith.” —Karen Armstrong, author of The Case for God
“Candid and heartful. . . . Faith, Interrupted resonates because Lax confronts questions common to believers everywhere, and he does it without pomposity, self-righteousness, or condescension.” —America
“A gentle, rueful book . . . Lax’s polished writing style and lack of assurance that he has all the answers are . . . definite pluses.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Heartfelt. . . . An honest and affecting memoir.” —Boston Globe
“Lax is a good storyteller, careful with words and reflective of the many ways in which he has had to ponder the eternal questions. This is not a book that ends with faith restored, God in God’s heaven and everything right with the world. But it is a book in which faith is taken seriously and, in the end, respected, even if the author cannot count himself among the faithful.” —Faith Matters
“Insightful. . . . Although this book is as much about a fascinating life as it is about religion, it will appeal to a wide audience both for its engaging subject matter and first-rate writing.” —National Catholic Reporter
“Vietnam . . . was at the core of the experience [Lax] recounts as part of his spiritual journey. . . . This book brings back with warmth, compassion and riveting detail what those days were like. . . . [A] deeply touching and personal meditation.” —The Globe and Mail
“Spiritual memoirs rarely command the same interest to others as they do for their authors, but Lax’s ability as a writer . . . makes his memoir an exception. . . . Lax’s journey, told with a fine sense of narrative shape, is a kind of paradigm of the spiritual struggles of the first wave of the Baby Boom and will speak eloquently to that generation.” —Library Journal
“Eric Lax’s moving and riveting memoir reflects a Christian boy’s struggle with faith and doubt, tradition and discovery. His encounters with other beliefs reflect as well his sense of empathy for, and solidity with, victims of destiny.” —Elie Wiesel
“Jesus said that he who would save his life must lose it. Does that go for faith, too? Do you have to lose it to save it? If there is any single question that Eric Lax’s luminously honest loss-of-faith memoir most clearly raises, this would be it. We live in two faith cultures. One culture only wants to hear how you lost your faith, the other only how you found it. But some of us have a foot in both cultures: dubious as plain believers, equally dubious as plain unbelievers. Eric Lax’s unfinished, interrupted story is a good one for us, and for better or worse our name is Legion.” —Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography
“In an age when it’s so fashionable to mock religious belief, Eric Lax gives us a quiet, very moving meditation on his own spiritual trials and turns.” —Paul Hendrickson, author, The Living and the Dead