Not long ago, my loving mother played an old cassette tape for some friends of mine, exposing one of my best-kept childhood secrets: I was once a 6-year-old evangelist wannabe.
I was Southern Baptist when I was little, with the accent to prove it. My father’s tape recorder served as both devoted congregation and patient baby-sitter. For two whole sides of that tape, I sang, I clapped, I gave my theological interpretation of Romans 6:23. I seemed to have a grasp on sin. But I knew about faith, too, changing the verse to call Jesus "my" Lord instead of "our" Lord. Apparently, I hadn’t yet found any scripture references to sharing.
Once I recovered from my embarrassment, I listened to the tape intently, surprised, trying to remember that little girl with the huge conviction. Lately my faith resembled a dried mudpie left in the sun too long: misshapen and lumpy, full of cracks and crumbling away at the edges. That’s about the time I heard lyrics by Leonard Cohen: "There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in." I wanted to believe him.
Then I found Anne Lamott, a writer who calls that lyric one of her favorite theological lines ever written. This is a woman who knows cracks and who will tell you about them. She seems trustworthy enough; she is a 44-year-old white woman with dreadlocks who worries about her thighs. And she talks about loving Jesus as freely and fiercely as my 6-year-old self did.
"I may be giving myself such airs, but I think that I’m supposed to spread the word of the gospel," she says. "I think that my work as a writer is of no cosmic importance except that I can spread the word of God’s love and salvation." Anne Lamott is just brave, or foolhardy, enough to call herself a Christian evangelist.
I can almost imagine her sitting down in the wilderness with John the Baptist to munch on some locusts and wild honey. But somewhere during the meal, she would probably begin to worry about how many calories are actually in a locust. Because she’s imperfect enough to think about such things—and honest enough to share her fears with the world, however mundane or absurd.
Lamott tried to talk about other things first. She had written five semi-autobiographical novels. At 35, she became a single mother and wrote Operating Instructions, a journal of her son Sam’s first year of life. She even wrote a book about how to write. Bird by Bird contains enough humor, encouragement, and practical advice to inspire both longtime and would-be writers.
Lamott didn’t exactly hide the fact that she was a Christian. She peppered her writing with references to her faith and her church community. Rae, one of the main characters in her novel Rosie, even became a Christian in the sequel, Crooked Little Heart. But then at readings to promote these books or to talk about writing, people came up to Lamott and whispered that they shared her faith. Someone would approach her, not to talk about plot development, but to present her with a gift, something "Jesus-y." Seeing such spiritual hunger, she knew then that she had to write explicitly about her faith, to tell her own story deliberately and honestly, not concealing the cracks.
The result of this undertaking is Traveling Mercies, a new collection of essays about her journey to Christianity, portions of which have been previously published online in Salon. (Her column there was voted Best of the Web by Time magazine.) Lamott claims she doesn’t tackle theological doctrine in her work, although Abraham, Isaac, and Elijah all make appearances. She’d rather tell you about how she coped with the death of her best friend Pammy at age 37, or her struggles with low self-esteem and body image, or what her "Enemy Lite" taught her about forgiveness.
Wearing faded black jeans and a black sweater, with a long pastel silk scarf draped casually around her neck, Lamott sat down for an interview in Washington, D.C., while on her recent book tour. Grabbing a packaged Rice Krispies Treat from her bag, she offers to share and jokes about "this new health food regime I’ve taken up."
ALTHOUGH SHE’S HEARING mixed reactions from listeners to Christian talk shows on this tour, Lamott tries not to worry too much about what other Christians may think of her.
"I’m not speaking for Christianity," she says. "I’m just talking about the fact that I was lost and then I got found, and it happened for me this way. And it’s pretty exciting if you have some of these same problems and insanities. It may work for you, too."
No one was more shocked that she became a Christian than Lamott herself. She grew up in Northern California, raised by politically active parents who were both staunch Democrats and confirmed atheists. Although her father’s parents had been Presbyterian missionaries, his emotionally cold childhood led him to reject Christianity. A writer himself, he chose instead to worship at what Lamott calls "the church of Allen Ginsberg, at the Roger Tory Peterson Holiness Temple, the tabernacle of Miles Davis." Religious people were thought to be ignorant, uncouth. Lamott’s family was "heavily couth."
Despite her family’s unspoken agreement to not believe in God, Lamott prayed secretly as a child, because she believed "in someone listening, someone who heard." Over time she crafted together a "patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus."
By her 20s, Lamott had discovered alcohol, drugs, and bulimia. Her father—who she calls her first god—died of brain cancer when she was 25. She kept writing, publishing three books. On Sunday mornings, wandering through a flea market, she found herself straying across the street into St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in a small run-down building in Marin City, California. Drawn in by the music, she sat in the back, and made sure to leave before the sermon.
She also began to feel Jesus pursuing her, felt him "hunkered down in a corner" of her room after she’d had an abortion and lay in bed "shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink."
Lamott hoped mistakes had been made, that Jesus was actually tracking someone else. She worried about what her progressive friends would think if she became a Christian. She fought and ran and drank and hid and cried and, finally, surrendered.
"I hung my head and said, ‘[Forget] it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’ So that was my beautiful moment of conversion.
"It took me a long time to understand that surrender meant you were coming over to the winning side," Lamott says. "Surrender is empowerment. You’re quitting something that’s a losing proposition, the endless effort to cling to something that you were going to lose anyway."
Despite this dramatic conversion experience, Lamott didn’t leap into the realm of religious piety. In many ways, her faith has added a new layer to her struggles. She knows now, for example, that sometimes she thinks terrible thoughts that "make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish."
She obviously didn’t adopt a lofty language to talk about her faith, either.
Lamott believes that her irreverence, which led The New Yorker to dub her a "cranky Christian," reaches people who withdraw at the first signs of veneration. Some Christians might be offended by her language or manner of speaking, but Lamott hopes Jesus gets a chuckle, at least.
"I actually don’t think Jesus is sitting there thinking, ‘Why would you say that about me? That’s so rude.’ If Jesus doesn’t have a great sense of humor, we’re doomed."
A CHRISTIAN LIKE Anne Lamott won’t fit nicely into any boxes that society and the media want to create for people of faith. She uses words like "lurches" and "staggers," safe enough words for someone describing a spiritual journey. But then she calls herself a believer and even admits to being "born again." She owns up to having written "an anti-George Bush baby book." She tells a reporter from The Washington Post that they have to end their interview because "a woman from Sojourners is here, and we’re going to talk about Jesus! We’re going to get DOWN now!"
You don’t know which side of the church to seat her on: with the foot-washing revivalists or the politically left Christian activists. Truth is, she’d probably wander back and forth across the aisle, serving juice, talking to everyone.
Lamott wears her faith like a crimson colored woolen cape, on display, enfolding her, ready to open up and wrap around those standing nearby who might need its warmth. She doesn’t shy away from the essential brokenness of the world. How could she? It keeps slamming into her. It finds her at readings.
"In Philadelphia, there was this older woman who looked so unhappy. I thought I was making her unhappy. Like I had the power to do that, right?" She arches her eyebrows. "She came up to me afterwards, crying, and she said, ‘I’ve lost my faith and I can’t get it back, and I don’t know what to do.’ And I said, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and I wrote her name on my hand.
"Her name’s Mary. You should put that in your article," she says, pointing to my notebook, "so everyone can pray for Mary in Philadelphia because she’s lost her faith and it’s causing grief in her heart.
"I once told an Episcopal priest I knew that I couldn’t pray anymore. I didn’t think anyone was listening. He said, ‘You’ve got to stop praying. I’m going to pray for you.’ And it hadn’t occurred to me that I was someone who was worth somebody else’s prayer time."
In Traveling Mercies, as in her previous nonfiction, Lamott uses those closest to her to reveal much about herself, the world, and faith: her parents and brothers; Pammy; the church ladies of St. Andrew; and, always, her son, Sam, now 9 years old (who has begun charging his mother money for using him as writing material).
Critics may charge that Lamott is yet another memoirist who places too much importance on her own life and discoveries. Her material could indeed easily slip into the realm of the self-indulgent. But she avoids that by making you laugh, and her words zap quickly to your soul, even before you realize what she’s up to. Her revelations are usually universal ones, not disclosure simply for the sake of disclosure. By writing with such naked honesty, exposing her own secrets and foibles, she makes ours seem a bit less scary—or at least equally laughable. Sometimes that’s enough.
Neither success nor her trust in the Lord have completely released Lamott from her struggles with her appearance and her body. As I read Traveling Mercies, at times I wanted Lamott to be happier with herself than she seems to be. She describes a documentary in which old Gypsy women dance with an earned abandon, and she vows to begin "practicing cronehood." But a few pages later, she’s put away that thought and is comparing her body—harshly—to teen-age girls in bikinis on the beaches of Mexico. She comes to a faltering moment of acceptance after these examinations. It’s apparent, though, that this is a struggle she’s been fighting for a long time, one that maybe can’t be completely cured by conversion.
"I do think about how funny it is that I’m so devout and so religious and still think about my thighs. I don’t think Jesus even rolls his eyes at me anymore about this.
"Jung says that the wound is where God gets in. I think the dimples are where God gets in."
Anne Lamott reminds me what I keep forgetting as an adult, what I couldn’t have known at 6: Jesus isn’t there to take away our pain but to enter into it with us.
KIMBERLY BURGE is a writer and editor for Bread for the World and lives in Washington, D.C.
Books by Anne Lamott
Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith. Anne Lamott. Pantheon Books, 1999.
Crooked Little Heart. Anne Lamott. Pantheon Books, 1999.
Bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anne Lamott. Anchor books, 1994.
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year. Anne Lamott. Pantheon Books, 1993.
All New People. Anne Lamott. Bantam books, 1989.
Rosie. Anne Lamott. North Point Press, 1989.
Hard Laughter. Anne Lamott. North Point Press, 1987.
Joe Jones. Anne Lamott. North Point Press, 1985.