Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: Days of Fire and Glory

When I read a note on Presbyweb about Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community by Julia Duin, I was intrigued because the book was by the well-known religion editor for the Washington Times and the subject was an Episcopal church in Houston (The Church of the Redeemer).

The book is about the rise and fall of the powerful renewal that began in 1964 in that church, led by a charismatic (in every sense of the word) priest: Graham Pulkingham. Duin moved to Houston in 1984, just as that renewal peaked and then crashed and burned amid the personal failings of Pulkingham and other key leaders of the church.

I was totally unfamiliar with Church of the Redeemer and this period in its history before reading the book. As a Houstonian of more than 30 years, I found it fascinating to read about the evangelical renewal that was sparked in Houston's East End in the 1960's through the mid 1980's.

Fascinating, and also profounding disturbing because of the way the renewal developed cult-like aspects such as an almost worshipful devotion to Pulkingham; authoritarian leadership; and unquestioning obedience of arbitrary and controlling rules for those who lived in community. In fact it was so disturbing that I had to put this book aside a few times to digest what I was reading. The revelation of the scandals that rocked the church at the end of the renewal period are sadly predictable, but to me less important than Duin's account of the way the congregation moved to the brink of idolatry of their priest.

Duin carefully researched the book and conducted innumerable interviews from which she puts together the historical narrative of this movement. Clearly this book is a very personal journey of catharsis and attempt at understanding the entire experience for the author, since she was a member of the Church of the Redeemer and a participant in some of the events she relates.

Psalms admonishes "put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save. (Psalm 146:3) ." The lesson of Days of Fire and Glory is never check your critical intelligence at the door of the church and place all your trust in the mortals who are the leaders of the church. There's a fine line between following an inspirational leader and falling into idolatry. A line that was crossed in this case with tragic results for everyone involved--particularly for the families of Pulkingham and other leaders.


Mary Beth said...

I grew up going to the Church of the Redeemer on weekends..from about age 7 to age 9; this would be the early 70's. We remained members in our own area church (Redeemer insisted on that) and it's a good thing, because we lived far, far away from there, though still in Houston! To me it was a magical, wonderful place.

I've read both of Graham Pulkingham's books, but they were written early on.

Later, when I went to College Station, my church was pastored by the person who eventually took over for Pulkingham.

I'll be interested to read this and see how it jibes with what I remember (as I was a child I'm sure it will be quite different!) and pass it on to others. Thanks for bringing it up! :) MBB

Quotidian Grace said...

I'd love to hear your response to this book once you've read it, MB! Your family attended at the height of the renewal at Redeemer.

zorra said...

My friends and I attended Redeemer occasionally during the early '80s and were very interested in the the community living and other aspects of what they were doing then. I still have a cookbook I bought in their bookstore. After leaving Houston in 1983 we lost track of what was going on there. I'm looking forward to reading this book.

Quotidian Grace said...

I didn't know you had a connection to Redeemer. I think you'll find some aspects of the community living quite disturbing. I'd love to hear your reaction to the book, too!!

Mary Beth said...

I've read the book. It was gripping...hard to put down...and very, very disturbing.

We were only visitors there, so we didn't see any of this. However, at one point my parents interviewed with some of the heads of households to get my sister accepted there...she was a drug addict etc. They would not take her because she didn't want to become a Christian. I think that is a good thing! (She is a Christian now, by the way...she might not be if she'd gone into a household...)

I'll be writing about this on my own blog too.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks, Mary Beth. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on your blog.