Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith

by Carlene Cross

(Algonquin, 276 pages, $23.95, October, 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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As a strong-willed ten-year-old growing up on a cattle ranch in northwestern Montana in the late 1960s, Carlene Cross (now a Seattle public television producer) seemed an unlikely candidate to become the wife of a fundamentalist Baptist minister. "I was mesmerized by the modern world, [even though] the only place within less than two days' drive it could be found was in the pages of McCall's, Life, Look, or Harper's," she writes in Chapter 1 of Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith.

She admired Katherine Hepburn's gutsy independence and dreamed of escaping her rural life for the glamour of New York or Hollywood. In high school, she "discovered Ernest Hemingway and, with his stories, a new world of carnal sensations."

Her mother, the great-granddaughter of a Protestant minister, also seemed out of place, having no one to share her interest in culture or classic literature.

Her father, however, had strong Montana roots. The son of Slavic immigrants who came to America from Bohemia in 1910 and moved west as homesteaders, he didn't think much of preachers of any kind. As a young man, he and his brothers ran a priest off their land for going against their wishes and telling their devout Catholic mother that she was dying of cancer.

Fifteen years later, when a minister from the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission knocked on the door to invite Carlene and her siblings to Vacation Bible School, their father gave him thirty seconds to get off the property.

Carlene's mother prevailed upon her husband to give the Bible School a chance. When the mission started a year-round church in 1973, she dropped Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott for the Bible, taught by the church as the exact words of God, and books filled with end-of-days prophecies of Hal Lindsey.

Carlene was gripped by the words of Revelation. "Although I didn't want to be left out of all the exciting temptations in New York and California, I certainly wasn't keen to miss the Rapture and be left to endure the Tribulation," she writes. Her older brother left for Big Sky Bible College in 1974. She followed him the next year.

There she met the charismatic and brilliant "David Brant" (a pseudonym), whose good looks and dedication to the faith stirred her. "I felt as though I were a hologram, one that changed as it was tilted under the light: one tilt, I was a dedicated Bible smuggler [to then Communist Poland]; the other, a lustful sinner."

Their mutual attraction was powerful. David invited her to the winter banquet, and they began memorizing entire books of the Bible together. Without so much as a kiss, they decided to marry, which they did immediately after Carlene's graduation. Their wedding night was awkward and marital sex remained disappointing to Carlene, but still the couple had three children within four years.

From the outside, they appeared to have a perfect marriage. David, now a popular preacher at a fundamentalist Baptist church in Seattle, was hiding a terrible secret. He was addicted to pornography. Even before Carlene discovered that shocking news, she had experienced her husband's transformation from a fellow student who respected her intelligence and her personal gifts into a demanding head of the household who expected absolute submission from his wife in and out of the bedroom.

He also developed a serious problem with alcohol, which manifested itself in weekend night-clubbing with two other couples in the church. While David's preaching earned him adulation, Carlene chafed in her role as the loyal pastor's wife. Even the pornography and an episode of nude hot-tubbing with their friends were not sufficient grounds for divorce. Adultery required penetration, so her husband remained technically faithful.

If she ever truly had faith, the difficulties in her marriage destroyed it. She developed an escape plan that she could not share with even her closest friends. Her plan did not unfold exactly as she had hoped, but it eventually led to divorce and struggles to rebuild a life for her and her children.

When the memoir focuses on Carlene Cross' life story, it is compelling reading. Readers share her struggles and appreciate her courage and determination. They discover what it means to lose everything and to reconstruct a life.

In the end, they see David not as a monster but as a man damaged by his own childhood. He loses more and falls deeper than Carlene, yet at last constructs a new ministry. His powerful preaching is no longer built on fire-and-brimstone literalist interpretations of the Bible. Now he fills west coast churches through inspirational Christian living seminars.

The book's only serious flaw is in the passages where the author veers into arguments with the Christian Right. Even to readers who share her political views, the writing comes across as didactic and better suited for op-ed articles than a memoir.

The story is also not quite what the title advertises. It is not about a wife's flight from fundamentalism, but rather about her escape from a dysfunctional marriage. It is the story not of faith lost and regained, but rather of faith discovered for the first time after a detour of indoctrination into religious extremism.

Its most powerful message is neither religious nor political, but this: Healing is not complete without forgiveness. Though Carlene Cross now leads a separate life from her ex-husband, neither could be free of the painful past without the reconciliation that occurred when taking their middle child to the airport on her way to a Peace Corps assignment in Azerbaijan.

"I cried because I would miss her terribly, but I also wept for David. I suddenly understood that his burden was more than I had imagined. In a rush of tears, I forgave him for the past, releasing my bitterness toward him, casting it far into a deep abyss. In an odd irony of events, David and I had traveled along much the same path: youthful zealotry, a loss of faith, and finally, belief that spiritual growth is a road of discovery -- not of submission to a rulebook."

To that, even an atheist would add, "Amen."

Fred Bortz, the author of 15 children's science books, is fascinated not only by the scientific quest for knowledge but also by the role of belief in people's world views.