Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
Salvation Lost, Misplaced
On the curling flyleaf of my zip–up, genuine leather–bound, fully illustrated Bible are the words "I was saved March 12, 1958." Early cursive, passive voice, turquoise ink. The Bible of John Marks might well bear a similar inscription: "I was saved April 28, 1979." But, with this postscript: "I was unsaved February 18, 1984."
Salvation lost, misplaced, remembered fondly. Jesus Christ, the author of that salvation. And who the author of its reversal?
And, perplexing in a different way, who the author of the finely written survey of contemporary evangelicals, Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind? Is it John Marks, veteran journalist, novelist, former 60 Minutes producer, erstwhile Christian? Or John Marks, King Agrippa? Only this time, King Agrippa as the author of the Books of Acts; he, the "almost persuaded," recording not just the miracles, struggles, conversions, persecutions of faithful, truly faithful, followers of Jesus, but his own battles with belief as well. This author who writes this story of evangelicals in America today was once a devout young man who claims that his faith in Christ was genuine, he felt the presence. It was the real thing. Until it wasn't.
And still, throughout this sometimes random catalog of Christians, John Marks, the almost—the once—persuaded, writes wistfully of his own close calls with faith.
Marks is King Agrippa, but he's Job and friends as well. And when God thunders, "And where were you when I created the heavens?", John Marks thunders in reply, "And where were you at Auschwitz?" and retires the field. This is the deal–breaker for Marks. Death and Destruction may have heard rumors of mutiny born, incarnate, crucified and resurrected, but John Marks has no interest, not so long as evil walks the earth unchained.
He dates his loss of belief in Christ to a late–night conversation in Germany in 1984 and to a dream a few weeks later when "I believed that Satan welled up inside of me in a Dostoyevskian moment." It would be nine years more before belief in the existence of God would end as well. The year, 1993, Marks on assignment in Bosnia, face to face with the savage slaughter of the sons of a Muslim family. Marks thinks in that moment that he will soon return to his safe, pleasant, American life, where he is slated to grow old and in the end see heaven, while these murdered boys must suffer now in hell for all eternity because they don't know Jesus.
Another decade will pass before a conversation in Dallas, while on assignment for 60 Minutes, when Marks is asked about his own intentions for eternity. "Will you be left behind?" a kindly Texan asks. Marks calls this book his attempt to answer this question, this earmark, this branding query, of every evangelical.
For all that, Marks portrays no plastic piety in play but rather tells us stories of devout Christians who struggle and contend. The young widowed missionary shot 22 times while working in Iraq, a woman whose faith won't waver as she's told she may expect pieces of shrapnel to emerge from her skin for the rest of her life. He speaks clearly the theology that underpins the politics. (And he sees with a clear eye the dangers of agendas, which would make of us a country where the flag bears a cross.) The reader is still made to sympathize as faith holds firm in face of suicides and devastating family sorrow.
To be sure, there is plenty of fodder to feed long prejudice. The reconstructionist, the premillennial dispensationalist, the dominionist, the theocrat, the Young Earth creationist, appear beside Republicans, homeschoolers, and those "with a death wish for the world," who view the rapture as the start of guilt–free revenge. Marks bemoans "a fantasy, a delusion, a belief in the invisible and the supernatural that has overwhelmed the reasonable consideration of cause and effect" with regard to Israel, Iraq, and stem cell research. And yes, yes, he writes about the woman who designs Bible classes for infants (Pat the Bible), but Marks, whose default setting is a sort of kindness, would have us understand that every family has an aunt who knits odd booties. He has his reductive moments, writing that these evangelicals "can't be understood without their drums and electric guitars," but he is more than evenhanded.
And yet in the end, the catalogue of evangelical activity is neither comprehensive, well organized, nor deeply interesting absent the subtext of author as Prodigal Son. The real drama is enacted by evangelicals on their game, heaven–bent on converting John Marks, hoping to succeed where lesser men and God perhaps have failed. This is a book about plastic surgeons, and every single one of them thinks John Marks needs a nose job. John Marks, a man who could (and at a reading I attended, in fact, did) present a deeply understood and beautifully articulated presentation of the Gospel. More than retailing rote understanding, he shades with nuance and can describe with thoughtful eloquence the mystical particulars of grace. He speaks of a country he has not just visited but lived in. Lived in, then left, as he says, behind.