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HALL OF FAMEon March 19, 2005
Robertson, a writer new to me but apparently one of some renown whose other books I will be sure to look out for, has written a sobering account of the 196os through a particular prism, the charismatic Episcopal bishop Jim Pike. Pike was a radical theologian and a moving speaker, whose positioning of himself as an effective force for change took him to what were pretty much the limits of free expression within the church through the 1950s and exploded, as did so much else, in the 1960s.

Here in San Francisco he is still remembered, if vaguely, as the man who held press conferences (some of which were televised) at Grace Cathedral at the top of Nob Hill to discuss his latest activities, boycotts, rebellions, hirings and opinions on national and international affairs, not only on matters of religion, for he cast a wider net. He wrote an article, "How My Mind Has Changed," which made public his doubts about the Virgin Birth of Christ and about the three-personed nature of the Trinity. He called for a stop to the practice of "speaking in tongues." More traditional Christians grew skeptical, then became resolutely opposed to his liberal ways. His heavy drinking and his affairs with women caused his wife, Esther, to seek a divorce, and their four children suffered the most.

One of them, Jim Junior, in fact killed himself in New York City, and this put the Bishop into a real tailspin. Like Conan Doyle before him, he took to seances to raise the spirit of his boy. And then he came to believe that he would find redemption out in the desert, and the whole world was shocked when his body was found in the wilderness. Robertson recites all these numbing facts ably and with deep understanding. The spectacle of a man's search for meaning is a brutal one, as he goes, punchdrunk, into one cul-de-sac of faith after another, but Robertson persuades us that, underneath it all, we are all human and we all make mistakes sometimes. He has sympathy for even Pike's most outlandish choices, and his book is all the better for it.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon January 17, 2013
The case of James A. Pike (1913-1969) is sad. Once the dean of the largest Protestant church in the world, with a highly-watched TV show, after three arraignments for heresy (see If This Be Heresy, and The Bishop Pike Affair: Scandals of Conscience and Heresy, Relevance and Solemnity in the Contemporary Church (William Stringfellow Reprint)), he resigned his bishopric. Pike's son, Jim Jr., tragically took his own life in 1966 (Pg. 159-160), and a heartbroken Pike turned to psychic séances (see pg. 166-167 & 188-190, as well as Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead)), and Pike's last book, The Other Side: An Account of My Experiences with Psychic Phenomena details his participation in these.

Robertson explains, "The conviction that he was living at a unique 'moment of truth' in the history of Christianity prompted Pike in the mid-1960s to write two of his most controversial books... His later interest in spiritualism was perhaps a desperate grasping after kairos [the supreme moment]." (Pg. 49) On reading English bishop John Robinson's Honest to God, "Pike's response to this book was the most galvanic of his religious enthusiasms to date." (Pg. 121)

He admits, "he also increased the pressures and risks within his private life. For example, he continued unsatiated in his extramarital affairs... Having recently joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Pike announced to his family, friends, and selected laity ... his decision to become permanently 'dry'... despite his inevitable lapses, he usually was able to sustain his vow of abstinence for the rest of his life... He was unwilling ... to also give up his chain-smoking of cigarettes and constant consumption of coffee, but his health and appearance improved somewhat after he stopped drinking." (Pg. 126)

He recounts, "the six-year campaign to prosecute Pike for heresy ended with a statutory whimper, not a judicial bang... The arguments ... had become centered on Pike's personality---the censure concentrated totally upon his manner of writing and his personal truthfulness---rather than the theological ideas he advocated." (Pg. 182) Ultimately, "Pike had made up his mind to offically leave the Episcopal Church." (Pg. 214)

In 1969, "After the apparent resolution of the heresy charges against Pike ... the couple [Pike and his third wife] had taken a celebratory trip to Israel to visit the Essene archaeological sites at Qumran. She and her husband had rented a Ford and driven into the desert... The Pikes had become lost... the car became stuck... [Pike] was unable to keep pace with her as the two of them attempted to walk out of the desert. He insisted that [she] go on alone, and send back help... The border policemen ... sighted an unmoving figure... The only mystery was what had compelled Bishop Pike to attempt the dangerous climb to the top of the wadi's wall, from which he had then fallen to his death." (Pg. 6-8)

Pike's rocky journey should perhaps be instructive to any moderns (John Spong, perhaps?) who think to follow in his footsteps.
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on April 3, 2012
I grew up going to All Saints Episcopal Church in Carmel, California, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. During much of that time, Bishop Pike was the head of the Northern California Episcopal Church, so I was well aware of him as a controversial church figure. Even as I drifted away from the organized Christian churches in my late teens, I was stilled intrigued by this seeker of truth. This biography of Bishop Pike does a good job of detailing and explaining his movement from Roman Catholic to mainstream Episcopalian (and cold war liberal) to a challenger of orthodox Christian beliefs (and radical political figure) as he sought to find and re-connect with spirituality and its application to the real world. His complex psychology, his alcoholism and affairs, his difficulties in his relationships with his family, and his combativeness with opponents in the church are fairly and clearly examined, even as readers get a clear sense of a man who kept looking for more, not content with the established (and establishment) "truth" in his church. I came away from this book with a much better idea of the man, his life, and his immersion in a deep religious search that unfortunately ended with his death in the Judean desert. This is a balanced book that tells us as much about the times of the 1950s and 1960s as it does about this extraordinary and yet troubled man.
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on March 31, 2005
This is the biography of Pike that we've been waiting for. Robertson's achievment is awesome and this book is marvelous. Pike's many difficulties -alcoholism, ambition, theological posturing, difficulties in his family, with his women- are finally choreographed into the submissive background where they belong, as the three-dimensional Pike emerges broken and whole - a man addicted to action. Believing, warring, loving, campaigning, preaching, living and dying - Pike sat astride the rhythm of unrelenting action, for good or ill. Those who look to the inconsistencies in James Pike to find the living parts are looking too far. His great personal truth was in his every action- wild and true, beautiful, violent. Passionate Pilgrim brings it all before us. David Robertson's intelligence arrives with a stash of new ideas and insights, a scathing sympathy for his subject, and the ear of a real writer. Anyone interested in Pike's story will be mesmerized by this book that demonstrates better than any other I can think of the ecstatic dimensions of biography that can be achieved by perfect prose.
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on August 28, 2008
Bishop James A. Pike of the Episcopal Church was one of the 1960s' first iconoclastic clergymen to become widely known in radical circles. "Jesus was a revolutionary like the Viet Cong!" and "The God of law and order is dead!" are typical statements quoted in David Robertson's biography, these on page 196. Bishop Pike had his share of supporters and plenty of enemies. He was an early marcher in the Civil Rights Movement.
It is no simple task to define the motives of a complex, driven man who has such volatile appetites. Robertson accomplishes as much as an author can. The biography should be read anyway for its parallel history of the growing disunity in the Episcopal Church, which is still a factor nearly forty years after Pike's demise.
Lord Acton's dictum, "Power corrupts," should be amended to read "A lust for majesty corrupts." From >A Passionate Pilgrim<:
1) p. 71: Joseph L. Blau, professor of philosphy at Columbia University, complained of Pike's "expansionist, imperial policy."
2) p. 149: The Theological Committee censured Pike for past actions it characterized at "self-aggrandizement" and "publicity-seeking." Pike balked and threatened to gather support among his political allies.
3) p. 108: "When we elect a President of the United States . . , we do not ask him what he does with his genitals. We want him to do what he was hired to do well. We tacitly agree that his sex life is his own affair." The committee's report was kept at its request from most laity on a "need-to-know" basis.
4) Darby Betts accepted the offer to be Pike's archdeacon but discovered soon after his arrival at the California diocesan offices that his unspecified duties included acting as "majordomo" to Pike, attempting to prevent the bishop from publicly embarrassing himself with women or alcohol.
5) p. 176: The same month that the >Time< article appeared, Pike and Diane Kennedy had become physical lovers. Pike was supporting three households--his own with Bergrud (his other lover) in Santa Barbara, the apartment he maintained in her name and used as an office, and Esther Pike's household (the Bishop's soon-to-be ex-wife), including their two children in San Francisco.
In John Osborne's play >Luther<, the great reformer railed against such behavior by the clergy:
Tetzel: (Luther) said, "I've been to Rome once, and they didn't look very subtle to me. They were lifting their legs at street corners like dogs."
Cajetan: I hope he didn't see any cardinals at it. Knowing some of them as I do, it's not impossible.
The clergy's wrestling for the soul of the Church continues as always.
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