Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Q&A with author Dan Cryer

Dan Cryer, photo by Miriam Berkley
Dan Cryer, who spent 25 years as Newsday's book critic and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Pulitzer juror, and vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, a biography of the late Unitarian Universalist minister.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Rev. Forrest Church, and why did you choose Being Alive and Having to Die as the book's title?

A: I’ve always loved biography, and Forrest Church, my minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York, seemed like an intriguing subject. He was the son of a famous U.S. senator (Frank Church of Idaho, known for his investigations of the CIA during the 1970s), a prolific author, eloquent speaker and public intellectual, the most famous Unitarian Universalist of his generation.

And there was a scandal in the middle of his life: A married man, in 1991 he fell in love with one of his married parishioners. So his life appealed to me as a terrific story. It had the dramatic arc of rise, fall and eventual redemption.

The book’s title is based on Rev. Church’s own definition of religion: “Religion is the human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” Thus it’s an existential definition growing out of our humanness. It’s not necessarily dependent on belief in a sacred scripture or creed. We know death is inevitable; hence we ask the great questions about what life means. These are the religious questions.

Q: As you researched the book and interviewed Church, was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Forrest Church was known for his candor, but the depth of it in relation to himself – in our 17 lengthy interviews -- surprised me. He not only gave me entrée to anyone, including his family, who had ever known him, but his willingness to talk about his alcoholism and his affair astonished me. No doubt this openness was due, in part, to the fact that during this time he was dying from esophageal cancer, but it was also part of his personality. He was sunny and warm and felt he had nothing to hide.

Church later married that parishioner, business executive Carolyn Buck Luce, and they remained together until his death in 2009. Her forceful but loving influence was essential to his determination to stop drinking. There was redemption in that, but also in a sobered Church’s ability to go on to write such enduring books as Bringing God Home, So Help Me God and Love and Death.

Although he remained controversial among some Unitarians, because of the affair, his life and work made him revered among many more. We wish that our moral leaders could be pure, but they are only human after all. His very humanity, warts and all, was part of his appeal. He was like us.

Q: What do you see as Church's role among religious leaders of the late 20th century and the early years of this century?

A: Church was at the forefront of three key movements of his time: championing liberal religion, resisting the religious right, upholding the separation of church and state. I call him the anti-Jerry Falwell.

Church insisted that religion should not be equated with fundamentalism, that the Bible was a human-created text, that any God worth believing in was a loving being who embraced all of humanity and would not hate gays and would not exalt the United States above all other countries.

In the political sphere, the religious right made two false claims, that America was “a Christian nation” and that the wall between church and state should be torn down.

Church’s greatest achievement to counter these outrages was the magisterial book So Help Me God. In the pages of The New York Review of Books, a leading scholar heralded this history of the first five American Presidents and the religious issues of that era as the best book on the subject ever written.

Church and Falwell may both be gone, but the issues remain. Every week we read of school boards and city councils that ignore the separation of church and state. By contrast, Washington, Jefferson and other Founding Fathers recognized that -- in a nation of Methodists and Baptists and Catholics and Jews – social peace demanded that no faith could have official rank above others. Today, when we are more diverse than ever, this truth is more important than ever.                 

Q: As someone who was Newsday's book critic for 25 years, what do you think of the current state of the book reviewing business?

A: Frankly, it’s depressing. I know there are Internet enthusiasts who believe that we’ve entered a brave new world where the old print gatekeepers have been disenthroned and replaced by more democratic arbiters.

But the proliferation of do-it-yourself outlets only makes it harder to sift the wheat from the chaff. Yes, there are some reliable and smart book blogs, but there are so many more that aren’t. Certainly, you can find intelligent, if not thorough, book coverage on such sites as Salon, Slate and Maud Newton.

Still, I long for the New York Times Book Review that took the measure of far more books (and gave less space to tracking bestsellers). I remember when Newsweek employed three – three, count ‘em – book critics, when Time magazine put writers on the cover, when even provincial newspapers thought it part of their responsibility to take note of worthy new books.

The changes are hardest on so-called mid-list books like mine. The product of neither famous writers nor genre writers, they are finding it harder and harder to get attention.  But if reviews are getting briefer, or not happening at all, how will people hear about them?     

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a memoir of my mother, who died at age 42 when I was just eight. Since I have no memories of her at all, this will be a daunting project. Here’s what it amounts to -- trying to fill in a gaping black hole, to understand how we remember and why we forget, how we grieve or fail to grieve. And there is this fear: Will anyone care about my white-bread, Midwestern, Protestant 1950s?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For anyone who is dying or loves someone who is dying, I recommend Forrest Church’s Love and Death. In this beautiful little book, he not only chronicled his own walk through “the valley of the shadow,” but demonstrated how all of us might die with grace and dignity. It’s a gem.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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