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Surprised by Christianity

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Traveling Mercies
By Anne Lamott
Pantheon Books; 275 pages; $23 cloth

Anne Lamott isn't afraid to believe

By Kelly Luker

AS BABY BOOMERS mine through drugs, booze, casual sex, bioenergetics, encounter groups and Prozac to find some kind of there, there inside, it was inevitable that they would finally turn to religion. Not Buddhism or Tao, but Christianity. Boomers and Jesus are still an odd-looking couple and fairly suspect among the literati, cogniscenti and your basic artsy-fartsies, but with writers like Anne Lamott sharing their religious rebirth, that's bound to change.

A collection of essays, many of which first appeared in the online magazine Salon, Lamott's new book, Traveling Mercies, offers up one woman's walk--halting, stumbling, yet full of wisdom--along life's potholed little highway.

A leftwing activist and hardcore feminist, Lamott shares her horror upon discovering she was called to a relationship with the Holy Son: "I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian. ... I turned to the wall and said out loud, 'I would rather die.' "

To be sure, Lamott plows familiar sentiments in this passage. Famed Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of similar trepidation following his tap on the shoulder: "I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England." But where it once took great courage to doubt the tenets of Christianity, Lamott reflects the postmodern dilemma of admitting to faith.

Whether Lamott is writing about a friend's slow death from cancer or learning to be buddies with her cottage-cheese thighs, the message is the same: It really doesn't matter how messy life is--or we are, for that matter--it's about finding grace in the mess.

Although she published a couple of critically acclaimed novels, Lamott found wider recognition with Operating Instructions, a 1994 book that journaled her son's first year of life. That book hit a nerve with mommies (and nonmommies alike) who had threatened to "fwow up" if they were forced to read one more syrupy, sentimental, dewey-eyed memoir of motherhood. Babies are indeed the cutest things in the whole wide, wonderful world, but it took a writer like Lamott to admit there were days she wanted to bounce her kid off the wall--and had you laughing about it.

Lamott brings that same razor-sharp honesty and ribald humor to yet another institution that has suffered dearly from what I like to think of as the "Kathy Lee Gifford Syndrome." Lamott dives right into the wrestling match and lets us watch the bodyslams and half-Nelsons between conviction and cowardice. After admitting that she is a Christian, though a "bad Christian," Lamott adds, "I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation-theology enthusiast and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusy bon vivant. But it's not true. ... I am a believer, a convert."

You gotta love a gal who believes her nasty thoughts can drive Jesus into calling out for an escort service or drinking gin out of a dog dish. But Lamott is more than smart and funny; she weaves incredible beauty and aching tenderness throughout her experiences with alcoholism, addiction and, yes, motherhood.

Lamott, along with Nora Gallagher (Things Seen and Unseen) and Kathleen Norris (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith), is part of the new wave of "church-lit" memoirists and essayists who reflect on rediscovered faith in the age of secularism. Although each has something to bring to the table, it is Lamott who dishes up heaping platters of soul food.

With grace.

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From the February 24-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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