Readers hungry for a rousing indictment of America's religious right on the eve of the fall elections won't find it in Carlene Cross' new memoir, Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith (Algonquin, 276 pages, $23.95). Nor does she put a human face on the narrow slice of the American electorate that supposedly swayed the last two presidential elections. That's because Cross' book isn't so much about "fleeing fundamentalism" as it is a harrowing account of her escape from a marriage to a drunken, abusive, sex-addicted husband who happens to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister. This guy makes Elmer Gantry look like Billy Graham: He drinks like a fish, hangs out in strip clubs, hot-tubs in the nude with members of his own flock, and breaks into a rival church at night to scrawl Pink Floyd lyrics on the walls—in biblical Greek and Hebrew.
In addition to her manipulative sociopath husband, Cross presents all the usual stereotypes and clichés about rural life and religious faith: Farm wives in the red states, for instance, care about only one thing in life—baking blue-ribbon pies for the state fair. In another standard set piece, Cross has a religious epiphany while reading apocalyptic passages from the Book of Revelation in a Montana thunderstorm (doesn't anybody read the Psalms anymore?).
As her marriage collapses, Cross decides to read up on the history of Christianity on her own. She doesn't cite her sources, but Cross gets a lot of her facts wrong. Priests under Constantine, for example, did not dictate which 66 books would go into the Bible. The first 39 books (the Old Testament) had been canonized by Jewish scholars centuries earlier; the 27 books of the New Testament were also substantially agreed upon by the fourth century—Constantine's priests merely finalized the list. Cross then ticks off a list of atrocities perpetrated by the faithful—the usual stuff: the torture and execution of heretics, the burning of the Library of Alexandria in AD 391. Here again, though, Cross misses her target: The acts she describes were committed by early Catholics, not fundamentalist Baptists.
Fleeing Fundamentalism is a fast, funny read about the ups and downs of life as a preacher's wife in a parochial Seattle suburb—as well as the terrors of single motherhood under welfare reform—but it's funny at the expense of people of faith, who are presented as cartoons. After flirting with Gnosticism and transcendental meditation, Cross reaches a conclusion about religion that will be obvious to any thinking person with an ounce of self-esteem: True spiritualism is a matter of personal discovery, not blind submission to an arbitrary rulebook. It's enough to make the reader want to take the name of the Lord in vain, if only God were to blame.
Carlene Cross appears at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 284-1726. 7 pm Wednesday, Oct. 11. Free.