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Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church Hardcover – October 25, 2011
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“The book critic Dan Cryer ably captures the theologian who was the son of a United States senator and became a champion of liberal political causes in religion. In this inspirational biography, Mr. Cryer, a member of the All Souls congregation, recalls Mr. Church’s ups and downs (two decades ago, he fell in love with a married parishioner; he also overcame alcoholism) and his legacy…In his typically ‘aphoristic’ style, Mr. Church wrote, ‘The goal of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.’ Mr. Church accomplished his goal, as does the book.” ―The New York Times
“One of the most intriguing people I have met as a journalist, Forrest Church was publicly popular but privately inscrutable. He thought long and hard about religion and politics, was at home in both spiritual and secular spheres, wrestled to live an ethical life yet proved as flawed as any of us, and struggled to cope with the shadow of a famous and once-powerful father. But I knew him only in passing, and longed to know more. Now, thanks to Dan Cryer's prodigious reporting, I understand more deeply the source of his eloquence and the agony of his search. Even if you never heard of Forrest Church, you will find this man's pilgrimage worth your time.” ―Bill Moyers
"A biography as winning and smart as its subject." ―Booklist
"This book will appeal not only to Unitarians and religious seekers, but to anyone who cares about the role of faith in American life." ―The Boston Globe
"A sensitive and insightful biography.”--Tikkun.org
“Dan Cryer's compelling biography of Forrest Church limns a quality liberal religion archetypically misses -- struggle. Cryer's beautifully wrought account of Church's remarkable rise as a major Unitarian-Universalist minister, and more importantly as a person, melds politics, family, and theology into a riveting account of Church's joys and tragedies. This is a moving, even transforming book about the central issue Church struggled to clarify -- the very human meaning of life.” ―Jon Butler , Howard R. Lamar Professor of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies and Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University
“This splendid biography is worthy of its sparkling, accomplished, and inspiring subject, capturing the life and bountiful spirit of Forrest Church in rich detail.” ―Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University
“Forrest Church pulled no punches when it came to his own foibles. Dan Cryer doesn’t either. By virtue of his candor, Forrest made himself far more accessible to people while he lived. Cryer has done the same thing for us now that Church is gone.” ―William F. Schulz, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA and current President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
“Forrest Church was a great prophetic voice and grand public intellectual. This book helps preserve his precious legacy!” ―Cornel West, New York Times bestselling author of Democracy Matters, Race Matters, and many other books
“Dan Cryer’s penetrating, fair-minded biography of the prominent New York Unitarian pastor Forrest Church offers a portrait not only of a fascinating religious intellectual constantly confronting his own demons but of the best traditions of liberal American Protestantism, which uphold the separation of church and state and liberty of conscience for all. It was Church’s fate to live out his ministry during the decades when the religious Right has attempted to convince the public of the lie that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Church stood against that lie and Cryer presents a compelling analysis of both the man and his times, with much to offer atheists as well as religious believers more interested in questions than answers.” ―Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason
"Cryer's quietly moving biography affirms the enduring power of Church's liberal religious creed, which urges us to find God all around us and in the hearts of our fellow human beings, whatever their religions." ―Wendy Smith
About the Author
DAN CRYER is the former book critic for Newsday. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. A long-time member of All Souls, he lives in New York.
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Don't wait--get one as a gift for that person who has everything, then order one as a gift for yourself. This book should be read as an instant classic.
Cryer, as a journalist, strikes a balance between thoughtful historian and passionate storyteller. As someone allowed tremendous access to Church and his family and friends, you can tell he truly cared for Church, wanting to be sympathetic, even as he finds it difficult to forgive Church's serious errors of judgment, but still maintains his journalistic honesty.
Thus, the narrative builds powerfully as Church gets a death sentence in the form of an incurable cancer in his late 50's, but then through heroic medical care survives three years longer than expected. Spoiler alert: Cryer's deceptively simple recitation of the events at the end of Church's life may bring you to tears--it did for me even on repeated readings.
If in addition, you are interested in American domestic politics, the uniquely American battles of evangelical and liberal religion for America's soul, the claims that the USA was founded as a Christian nation by our Christian founding fathers, you will find a lot to chew on here.
Rev. Forrest Church was a very young man when he was selected, or injected, into the position of senior minister at All Souls Church in New York City, and Dan Cryer tells a suspenseful tale of how Church grew into the job. Church may have wished to be a reclusive writer and thinker, but he also ran and grew a congregration and, as the son of Sen. Frank Church, he was called upon to be in the public eye and represent liberal religion in the news media. He was also enlisted in the service of charity and civic improvement.
You will also learn about the best communicator of the ideas of liberal religion. Over time he went from atheist to believer in God, an expansive definition of God, described in inclusive language that wouldn't offend those congregants who were humanists. How he went from religion nerd to mensch is quite a story.
Church weathered several crises caused by his own weaknesses, an adulterous affair with a congregant whom he later married, alchohol addiction, workaholicism and cigarette addiction. Cryer does not spare the reader from the justified lashings Church received as he revealed all over the years. But Cryer is obviously sympathetic to Church and keeps the suspense going as Church tries to master himself, and learn from his mistakes. Indeed, Church's sermons and books were about love and death, and how to live a life worth dying for--Cryer keeps us guessing: will Church succeed in living in the moment with gratitude, as he preached all those years, or will he wallow in self-pity, fear and desperation?
Forrest Church was the son of long-time Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church. His parents - both fixtures in liberal politics - passed along to their son not only their beliefs but also their need to serve society. Frank served by entering politics and doing good during the turbulent 1960's and 1970's. His son served society in a pastoral setting - helping his parishioners with life's problems, both large and small. He was an excellent speaker and a prolific writer and was a rising star in the liberal religious movement during his 30 years as senior pastor at All Souls.
But Forrest Church had his own problems, which became harder and harder to hide. He became an alcoholic - a "functioning" one he was called - and he had marital problems, breaking up his marriage in a very public way. He found true love - "soul-mate" as he and his girlfriend, later second wife, referred to each other. His divorce from his first wife badly split the All Souls community in the early 1990's and cracked the facade Forrest Church presented to the world. But soon after Forrest Church's life began to come together again, he received the devastating diagnosis of esophageal cancer. He went through chemo, the cancer went into remission, but came back in force in 2008 and he died about a year and a half later. He was 62 at his death and he was pleased that he had lived longer than his father and grandfather, both of whom had died at age 59. He left behind both a loving family that came together during his illness and the grief-stricken members of his pastoral family.
Dan Cryer, who was a long-time member of All Souls, interviewed Forrest Church at length during his last days. He writes a biography of the man and does a little psychological dabbling as to what made Forrest Church the man he turned out to be. It's not intrusive in any way, as Cryer is looking at a man who - basically - turned out just fine and became an excellent contributing member of society. His moral slip-ups are not unlike what the rest of us go through in our lives. As a biographer, Dan Cryer does a superb job at recounting the history of the U-U church and the doctrinal beliefs that attracted Forrest Church.
I would have liked to have known Rev Forrest Church. Though I never had that pleasure, I feel I know him a little trough Dan Cryer's excellent biography.