Saturday, October 29, 2005

Literature: The Flight of Peter Fromm by Martin Gardner

The Flight of Peter Fromm
Martin Gardner
Prometheus Books
New York, 1994
ISBN 0-87975-911-9

This book was suggested to me by my Minister at a First United Methodist Church. He had asked me did I like to read Christianity-related literature that “was way out there.” I have just completed a six month sabbatical not attending church, and during that sabbatical, I had re-read Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. Cahill’s book does its best to put Jesus in the context of his times without ever abandoning the Roman Catholic Myth. On the other end of my reading was John Dominick Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity. Crossan is an expert on the “historic” Jesus. Where Cahill had the typical Catholic take, Crossan considers Jesus just a hayseed rabbi who became a profound historical figure.

Then there is mathematician-philosopher Martin Gardner, who wrote a work of fiction describing his religious and spiritual coming age. Gardner presents the novel as the memoir of a University of Chicago Divinity School Professor, Homer Wilson, a Unitarian minister and atheist, about his protégé Peter Fromm, a pre-war Oklahoma Pentecostal, who instead of attending one of the hundred six-week bible schools funded by oil money churning out the Holy-roller righteous preachers by the dozen’s, chose to attend one of the most liberal divinity schools, ostensibly to go and straighten the school out and show its students the true way.

Wilson recounts his first meetings with Fromm and over the course of the book details Fromm’s personal history and spiritual evolution ending in an epochal psychotic break while delivering his first sermon after seminary on Easter Sunday at Wilson’s Midway Community Church. Here, Fromm descends into what at first sounds like Pentecostal glossolalia, but turns out to be the first stanza of Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky! Along the way Wilson describes some of the higher points of 20th Century liberal Protestant thought. Much is made of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, CK Chesterton, Karl Marx, and a plethora of lesser names, all influential in progressive Christian Thought. Wilson also recounts Fromm’s experience in the Navy during World War II, his sexual coming of age, as well as his changing relationship with his Sand Springs, Oklahoma home.

Peter Fromm’s evolution from Pentecostal minion to where he arrives at the end of the book is the story of first, the softening and ultimately discarding of fundamentalist ideology, traversing German Higher Criticism and Roman Catholicism (in that order), to a final resting place that neither completely pleases himself or his mentor. The story is a superb coming of age tome in the tradition of the classical Bildungsroman. It is also a fair juxtaposition of Christianity with Secular Humanism. I would recommend this book to any Christian wanting to expand his or her Christian vista without the aid of mind-altering substances or to simply read a religious development that did not involve the writings of CR Lewis or Hans Kung. It is brutally critical of Christian thought and faith and is thus a priori refreshing, even a decade after publication.