Pas­tor walks road to hu­man­ism

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

world-chang­ing pas­tor — lead­ing re­vivals, pastoring churches in Pen­te­costal and other de­nom­i­na­tions — mostly around his home­town of DeRid­der, La.

De­Witt’s fa­ther, “a born dare-devil who pos­sessed fright­en­ingly back­ward be­liefs about what it meant to be a man — and to raise a man,” died in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent when Jerry was not yet three. Some of his jour­ney seems to be try­ing fill his long­ing. “All I want is a Dad,” he would of­ten tell his mother.

His school ca­reer is marked by so­cial iso­la­tion, and he “hung out with the out­casts… and de­vel­oped in­tel­lec­tu­ally.” Af­ter his con­ver­sion, he be­gins to find ac­cep­tance and ful­fill­ment as a preacher.

While he ex­pe­ri­ences some ap­par­ently mirac­u­lous oc­cur­rences and vivid vi­sions of heav­enly sup­port, he evolves through var­i­ous changes in his at­ti­tudes to­ward Pen­te­costal doc­trines like eter­nal pun­ish­ment and the au­thor­ity of the Bi­ble.

Through­out, De­Witt ex­presses dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the im­per­fec­tion he finds in var­i­ous fa­cil­i­ties, con­gre­ga­tions, re­li­gious men­tors and him­self. His wife stays with him dur­ing his re­li­gious searches in spite of her dis­com­fort with des­per­ate fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tions and his fre­quent re­turn to poorly paid min­istry po­si­tions.

One job he feels good about is work­ing in DeRid­der City Hall, “study­ing zon­ing and city or­di­nances with the same an­a­lyt­i­cal skills that I’d uti­lized when read­ing the Bi­ble.”

Back in min­istry, De­Witt is hor­ri­fied to find his word as a preacher car­ries more in­flu­ence with be­liev­ers than he can guar­an­tee in terms of di­vine heal­ing or com­fort. He de­cides that if his prayers are not chang­ing God by se­cur­ing supernatural in­ter­ven­tion, he can­not use peo­ple’s gullible re­liance on his spir­i­tu­al­ity even to pro­vide per­spec­tive and hope in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.

Af­ter one dev­as­tat­ing episode, “I could only ob­sess over the fu­tile ef­fort we had ex­pended in seek­ing God’s as­sis­tance. God had not helped us here.”

When be­liev­ers look for mean­ing, es­pe­cially in deal­ing with death, De­Witt says “I as­sure you, ev­ery min­is­ter on the planet with a heart for his con­gre­ga­tion is ag­nos­tic.”

In the end, his in­abil­ity to prom­ise re­sults leads him to aban­don all be­lief in God, and to join Dan Barker’s Clergy Pro­ject, a “min­istry” to other re­li­gious lead­ers who have lost faith.

While he ex­poses the ve­nal qual­i­ties of some re­li­gious groups and lead­ers, he never treats be­liev­ers, or be­lief, with the kind of dis­mis­sive an­i­mos­ity some athe­ists have used while try­ing to dis­prove re­li­gion.

Al­though he never seems to progress be­yond the very limited idea that re­li­gion is a sys­tem for putting in enough prayers and de­vo­tion to ac­quire tem­po­ral ben­e­fits, De­Witt (as­sisted by ghost­writer Ethan Brown) presents an in­ter­est­ing hu­man story.

The ti­tle’s as­sur­ance of hope af­ter faith, how­ever stated as a fi­nal stance, seems like lit­tle more than freedom from his own view of re­li­gion.

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