Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Guardian of Another's Faith: Father Joe by Tony Hendra, Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey

"I didn't know you were Mennonite," said my friend. He poured us both a hefty shot of Talisker, handed me a glass, and continued. "I understand the Protestant impulse, I really do. The search for, the belief in, some ideal community of believers. But ultimately the Catholic Church is there to come back to, with all its difficulties and compromises. It offers something approaching true mercy, because it's not going anywhere. Protestants don't commit themselves that way. If circumstances don't meet with their shifting standards, they leave and form a new community."

Feh - Catholics. You'd think the Reformation was the only time they'd been blindsided.

We bantered some more, before moving on to more pressing issues (like Joey Ramone's recent passing, and Angus Young's smashing new haircut). His critical barb, such as it was, was rather facile and common, but still had some bite to it. As I considered the merits of Catholicism versus the demerits of the endlessly fracturing Protestants, I pondered anew just what it was that compelled me to still call myself Mennonite. It basically boiled down to the deep and lasting impression made on me by one or two truly remarkable people during my youth. My first encounter with mensch (women qualify for this, too) was in the Mennonite faith apparatus. They were transformed within this apparatus; perhaps there was similar potential to be found for me.

I expect that's the way it is for most people. The deep issues of our formative beliefs aren't so easily set by clever sophistry or our own brilliant reasoning, but by the examples set by people who are undeniably mensch.

So it is with Tony Hendra, in Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. Hendra, best-known to my generation as Spinal Tap's long-suffering manager Ian Faith, gives a moving account of a really, really good guy who meets him at a crucial juncture of adolescence (young Tony's encounter with an almost comically conflicted "Mrs. Robinson"), and serves as a quiet and persistent icon, pointing to holiness. That such a person exists within the Catholic apparatus speaks volumes - at least, it does to Hendra.

Obviously, Hendra's memoir, while easily digested, wasn't enough to compel me to forsake my Protestant apparatus. I enjoyed the encounters with Father Joe; the encounters with Hendra, on the other hand, were frequently abrasive. Hendra doesn't try to paint a flattering picture of himself, which certainly serves his larger purpose. But I wondered at times if he was really as unselfconscious as all that, or if he wasn't perhaps a bit too self-conscious in his self-portrait as impatient, thorny satirist.

Hendra's method of expressing devotion to particular forms of Catholicism can also grate. What exactly is it about Vatican II that pisses off so many Catholics? I'm as snobbish as the next guy - I'll take Gregorian chants over Kumbaya any day of the week - but c'mon, pre-V2s: lighten up! You're Catholic. At least you've got Gregorian chants!

In the end, Father Joe, not Hendra, was the person I wanted to spend time with. Unfortunately for me, Father Joe wasn't the sort of person to write books; he was the sort of person to listen and pay attention to what his friends were really trying to tell him.

If this is an unnecessarily negative review, it hardly matters. Father Joe has already had its place on the New York Times Bestseller list, an indication it has pulled in a pretty good sum of money. I was tempted not to comment on the book at all, except I couldn't help thinking of a correlating book that was so much more compelling and convincing in its exploration of the same material: those unusual flashes in humanity that point to something larger and serve to keep a person, on some level, believing. Philip Yancey's Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived The Church is compelling because of its sensitive treatment of the subject, and convincing because it doesn't look askance at these people's flaws.

Yancey exists within a tradition that is, in the most generous sense of these words, "orthodox" and "evangelical". I realize those are words likely to throw most readers off the scent - frankly, those are words that throw me off the scent. But here's where one of Father Joe's gentle corrections to Hendra-the-satirist comes in handy: "I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world up into two kinds of people ... and those who don't." Yancey belongs to the latter category. And where a writer like Hendra chafes and expresses impatience with institutions and individuals, Yancey takes a deep breath, and patiently explores the nuances of personal longing and faith - any faith.

In effect, Soul Survivor introduces us to not just one of Yancey's "Father Joes", but thirteen. The list includes a few people from Left Field (Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo) along with some of the usual suspects (Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Henri Nouwen). It's a compelling picture of one person's faith as received through the prism of thirteen icons. Writing books, even for the gifted, is frequently onerous work, but Yancey seems to have savoured the time he spent on this one, and it shows. His love for this book is infectious, and he closes it with a welcome challenge to the reader: Make a list of the people who have shaped your life for the better, and try to figure out why.

If you have to talk about faith (and some of us do), that is the way to do it.


DarkoV said...

Re: Father Joe I struggled through this book; something gnawing at me while pile-driving through the words. I should have looked at the cover again. A quote from Frank McCourt, the acknowledged book-quip whore (my apologies to the ladies) of the last 10 years. Then news starting seeping out. The lies and invented conversations/incidents in the book. Disagreement about the central turning point in the book, his seduction and affair with an older woman. Hendra's own daughter came out in a London paper interview which published a review of her dad's lousy parenting skills. "Lousy" is a bit on the charitable side. Then, a review in the NYT (5/30/04) after which this letter to the editor appeared from one Michael McKean (sound familiar? Read on)
Creating 'Spinal Tap'"
To the editor:
In his review of Tony Hendra's "Father Joe", Andrew Sullivan refers to the author as an "architect of the peerless parody rock documentary, 'This is Spinal Tap.'" I wonder where Sullivan picked up that phrase?
Tony did a fabulous job creating his role, improvising his dialogue and maintaining the tone of the piece, as did every other actor in the ensemble. Unfortunatley, he stands apart as the only actor who has ever taken credit for the finished product. He did so years ago when he O.K.'d the ad copy for a Reagan-era theatrical project that listed him as "Creator of Spinal Tap." When called on this, he claimed to have no idea how such a silly thing could have happened.
For the record, the film's credits read, "Written by Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner and Harry Shearer," with an on-screen toast to the entire company for their improvisational brilliance. All of them.
I think Tony Hendra is at least one confession away from salvation.
Michael McKean

Ah, the forgive and forget (or is that selctively remember?) aspect of Catholicism is so tempting. Devil, get behind me!

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks for digging this up, DV. It doesn't much surprise me, for two reasons: 1) Hendra's frequent mention of his cocaine use, but more tellingly 2) his narrative approach, which was knit way too tightly to be believed. Still, given everything else that was said in the book, the "two types of people" statement is so profoundly at odds with it all, that I'm inclined to believe it could be accurately attributed to FJ.

But that sort of "detective work" is best left to textual scholars - heh, heh!

Whisky Prajer said...

I should add that any claim Hendra might have made re: "Creator of Spinal Tap" is transparently false to anyone who's followed the brilliant Christopher Guest (& Co.) post-"Tap".