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A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike
A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike
David M. Robertson
Knopf, 2004
304 pp., $24.95

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Reviewed by Michael G. Maudlin


Be Careful What You Pray For

The strange tale of the controversial Bishop Pike and his fatal quest for relevance.

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But in San Francisco, at the peak of his fame and influence, his life began to unravel. Though he eventually sobered up through AA, his second wife filed for separation in 1965 (and for divorce in 1966). Soon Pike was openly living with another woman, who later committed suicide after a fight with him. Growing more radical, Pike now actively argued against the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and the Incarnation. Heresy procedures were begun in 1962, '64, '65, and '66, growing in intensity, but each time the church decided it was not in the denomination's best interest to pursue a heresy trial. The church's reluctance to try the openly heretical Pike demonstrates the demise of this instrument of denominational adjudication.

Pike stepped down as bishop of Northern California in 1966, the same year his son committed suicide. This led to his explorations of sé;ances as a means of talking to his son. Pike was becoming an embarrassment to the church. After the death of his lover, he partnered with Diane Kennedy, a woman he had already been sleeping with, who was 29 when the 55–year–old Pike first hooked up with her. When his marriage to her in December 1968 led to church discipline—once again, one of the issues at stake was the means by which he arranged an annulment, in this case of his second marriage—he broke with his denomination entirely, claiming that the church was hopelessly out of date.

Pike and his new wife found a warrant for their position in a line from an Essene text translated from the Dead Sea Scrolls: "This is the time for the clearing of the way into the wilderness." As Robertson observes, "This declaration by 1969 had become a personal rallying cry for the couple as they disassociated themselves from institutional religion and a conventional livelihood, and proposed to study in Israel a historical Jesus far different from the accepted view of most of Christianity." In April of 1969, while Pike and his wife were driving to Qumran, they got lost and their car became stuck in the dirt. After ten hours of walking, Diane made it out. Five days later the bishop's body was found.

What are we to make of this strange story? No doubt God used this ecclesiastical gadfly to give voice to many just causes. Pike was an articulate and witty spokesman for racial equality, the poor, and the role of women in the church. But it all seems so accidental. Pike never seemed to recognize that giving voice to the prophetic makes some private demands on the prophet. And "relevance" is a harsh idol, demanding ever–larger sacrifices. Some aspects of the gospel will always be "foolishness to the Greeks."

Many Christians in the Fifties and Sixties worried that unless the church became more visible and more relevant, it would be relegated to the cultural sidelines. It is easy to see how Pike must have looked like an answer to their prayers. Perhaps the main lesson of this troubling biography, then, is that we should be careful what we pray for.

Michael G. Maudlin is the former managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and the editorial director of Harper San Francisco.

Related Elsewhere:

A Passionate Pilgrim is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

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