The Magazine

Left Behind

An evangelical loses his faith but fails to gain insight.

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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Reasons to Believe

One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind

by John Marks

HarperCollins, 384 pp., $26.95

Novelist and former "Sixty Minutes" producer John Marks was religiously "born again" at age 16, but later abandoned Christianity. He remains fascinated by religion and by religious people, but cannot persuade himself to return to their fold. Reasons to Believe is Marks's story of how he ostensibly became reconciled to his unbelief.

Five years ago, he was helping Morley Safer film a story about the "Left Behind" series by evangelist Tim LaHaye, whose mega best-selling novels about the end times tell of those who are "left behind" when Jesus Christ raptures His church. Having returned to his native Dallas to interview a charismatic evangelical couple about their end-times theology, he was confronted directly by their question: "Will you be left behind?"

After 381 pages, we learn that, yes, Marks ultimately does expect to be left behind-if, in fact, such a "rapture" occurs. "I don't find Jesus Christ, as savior, to be a convincing or even compelling idea," he told the winsome evangelical couple in Dallas. By his own admission, Marks is a "pessimist, a hedonist, a committed, happy, straight-up pagan." But as a youth and young man, Marks had been like his evangelical interlocutors, shunning liquor, pre-marital sex, and profanity, while earnestly praying and reading his Bible every day.

Later in life, Marks became sexually active, tried marijuana, started drinking, and studied philosophy. He lost his evangelical faith but retained his belief in God, until losing even that when reporting on the horrors of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s. While retaining friendships with believers, Marks's politics swung left, and he for a time adopted an "irrational dread" of the Religious Right because of its "hatred of the world."

As a journalist in his thirties, married and a father, Marks somewhat overcame his dread and, instead, returned to a sense of fascination about religious people, especially evangelical Christians. In preparation for his book, and now in his early forties, he set out on a rediscovery of the evangelical world, traveling cross-country and spending hundreds of hours in mega-churches and Bible studies and Christian concerts. He discovered, and partly admires, a great ferment in America's religious life, as millions turn away from traditional churches towards non-denominational Christianity. Marks calls this revolution "one of the great American dramas of our time."

Having relocated to western -Massachusetts from New York City after a job loss, Marks gained an intense interest in a nearby site where Mohawks and French soldiers massacred Puritan settlers in 1704. He particularly focuses on one survivor, the Rev. John Williams, who endured his captivity in Canada to write a hair-raising memoir, "The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion." Two of Williams's children were murdered in the attack, and his wife was slain during the march to Quebec.

The Reverend Williams found his consolation in the Book of Job. Marks is also intrigued by an ancient grave marker's inscription near the site: "Our fathers trusted in thee, they trusted and though didst deliver them." He believes this scriptural hope aptly describes American evangelicals who want to recapture America as a Christian nation.

Marks has pleasant memories of his own slice of Christian America. Raised in posh Highland Park encircled by Dallas, he believes his childhood more resembled the Eisenhower era than the actual years of the 1960s and '70s. The enormous Methodist church to which George and Laura Bush belong sits on a corner near Southern Methodist University. And Robert E. Lee's statue is located just south of Highland Park. Marks was an Eagle Scout, attended Sunday School, and played high school football in an estuary of American Protestant culture.

But his education and his profession snatched him way. As a college student his Christian faith began to fade. In West Germany during the mid-1980s, he demonstrated against U.S. missiles, wore a beret, stopped brushing his teeth, and spoke often of Nietzsche. While visiting Strasbourg, he fell to the floor of his hotel room and believed that Satan had "welled up inside" him. A subsequent backpacking trip became a "pilgrimage away from Christ."

"After I walked away from Jesus Christ, my life improved dramatically," Marks recounts. He married a non-devout Jewish woman, had a son, and pursued his vocation in journalism. His rejection of religion accelerated. While living in Berlin, he met an aging transvestite who had stood up against Nazi and Communist repression of sexual minorities. He wonders why this courageous friend cannot enter heaven, having shown more virtue against tyranny than many Christians had. Marks recalls that his rejection of God culminated in Bosnia.

By his own account, Marks never personally witnessed killing or atrocities. But he was overcome when he learned that a victim of ethnic cleansing was holding onto hope of his sons still being alive, when in fact, unbeknownst to him, they were dead. Marks did not have the heart to tell the man, but he wondered how a deity could preside over such tragedy.

Although Marks supposedly abandons all belief in God, his absorption with, at least, the theory of religion remains nearly obsessive. And this book is his struggle to answer the question-"Will you be left behind?"-from the Dallas evangelical couple.

Repeatedly recalling humanity's greatest crimes, Marks cites the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Stalinist terrors, the world wars, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. "A god has overseen this nightmare?" he asks. Such a deity has no right to his loyalty or belief, he concludes. "Leave me behind." But Marks also recounts the death of the Puritan Reverend Williams's wife, whose husband remembered, before she was slain by a Mohawk warrior, that she "never spake any discontented word as to what had befallen us, but with suitable expressions justified God in what happened."

Mrs. Williams's gruesome demise at the point of a hatchet, a metaphor for the world's horrors, haunts Marks. The Puritan martyr, having witnessed the murders of her children, still died with her faith intact. Marks wonders if her death could "mean something ultimate?" Despite his professed rejection of God, Marks mostly declines to answer his own question.
Reasons to Believe fails to be very satisfying, not because of his conclusions but because he fails really to have any.

Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.