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The Flight of Peter Fromm Paperback – October 1, 1994
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About the Author
Martin Gardner (1914 - 2010), the creator of Scientific American’s "Mathematical Games" column, which he wrote for more than twenty-five years, was the author of almost one hundred books, including The Annotated Night Before Christmas, The Annotated Snark, Martin Gardner’s Favorite Poetic Parodies, From the Wandering Jew to William F. Buckley Jr., and Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. For many years he was also a contributing editor to the Skeptical Inquirer.
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The novel unfolds as a retrospective by Homer Wilson, a Unitarian minister and teacher at the University of Chicago's theology school, after a breakdown during an Easter sermon by Wilson's fiery fundamentalist student, Peter Fromm.
Fromm, raised in a fundamentalist Pentecostal church, chooses to attend the University of Chicago for the express purpose of defeating the ideas emanating from one of the country's most liberal seminaries. While they have diametrically opposed views, Wilson, who does not beleive in God, remains involved with Fromm and tells his story.
This scaffolding is a set up for contrasts between Fromm's vise-like grasp on fundamentalism and Wilson's unbelief, and includes discussions of the ideas of prominent theologians such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. We see how a liberal education and the unfolding of life itself eventually dismantle Fromm's fundamentalism and lead to his breakdown.
For many, reading theology is a dry exersice in abstraction. As with writers such as Iris Murdoch, Gardner dramatizes such ideas in the form of a novel which draws them down into the human struggle and makes them much more accessible and compelling.
At the beginning of the novel, Peter Fromm is an ethusiastic Pentecostal Christian from Oklahoma, who decides to enter the ministry and to study at the Chicago Divinity School because he wants to prove that his evangelical faith can withstand the assaults of liberal Protestant theology. His chief mentor is a Unitarian minister, Homer (for the Greek poet?) Wilson, who no longer believes in God, but who wants to perpetuate the church as a vehicle for promoting liberal social and political causes. To accomplish that goal, Wilson believes that one can and should use religious language ambiguously so that traditional church goers will think they are hearing a traditional religous message, while the minister is carefully introducing a new, more liberal meaning. Wilson tells Peter that, in the ministry, one can either be a "truthful traitor" (i.e., publicly proclaim a liberal theology and risk having the church disintegrate as traditional believers bolt) or a "loyal liar" (i.e. camoflague one's liberal views in order to perpetuate the church while slowly changing its belief structure). There is a fascinating scene in which Wilson, by the careful use of ambiguous language, convinces Peter's religiously conservative mother that his beliefs are consistent with hers, when of course they are not.
As Peter's studies progress, he is introduced to the whole gamut of 19th and 20th century Protestant biblical scholarship and theology. Gradually, he sheds his traditional beliefs and adopts most of the liberal beliefs of Wilson and his other divinity school professors. Nevertheless, he is morally troubled at the thought of becoming a "loyal liar." He comes see liberal Protestantism as a gigantic humbug or charade, in which liberal theologians and clergy manipulate people through the equivocal use of language. Increasingly, he tries to get his professors to state their real beliefs unambiguously, but he cannot shake them from their equivocations. At the end of the novel, Peter finally concludes that he cannot stomach the thought of entering the ministry and participating in what he regards as a program of deception. In the penultimate scene, Peter suffers a kind of nervous breakdown and, out of pure frustration at one minister's double talk, punches the man. (The minister in question is a thinly veiled version of Norman Vincent Peale.)
This book is well well written and provides a nice overview of liberal Protestant thinking at the time Gardner wrote. Since, howevr, Gardner's purpose is to describe what he sees as a culture of widespread intellectual evasiveness in liberal Protestantism, the characters are a bit stereotyped. Nevertheless, the book is still very much worth reading. Although this book was written more than half a century ago, if anything, the trends described by Gardner have become even more pronounced than they were then. Reading the Flight of Peter Fromm may help Protestant lay men and women who experience cognitive dissonance between the traditional words of their church liturgies or the Bible and what they hear from the pulpit or in adult Sunday School classes. It may also be a good book for liberal Protestant ministers and divinity students, possibly shaking up some of their complacency. ("Would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as other see us. Would from many a blunder free us and foolish notion." Robert Burns)
At the end of the book, Peter Fromm believes in God but no longer in the Christian church, which seems to have been Martin Gardner's own position. (Readers may also want to consult Gardner's Notes of a Philosophical Scrivener, in which he explains why he thinks it is still possible, on a philosophical basis, to believe in God and in an afterlife.)