Anne Lamott’s bestselling novels and memoirs have dealt with issues ranging from motherhood and grandmotherhood to illness and the art of writing, but her through-line has always been faith. In her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow, she offers wisdom on prayer, leavening her ideas about religion and spirituality with the token humor and self-deprecating wit that has made her such a sensation among readers across all faiths. In this exclusive essay for Bookish, she talks about what it means to identify as a Christian alongside the likes of Jerry Falwell and Ted Nugent.
I am a staunch Democrat and a devout, if terrible, Christian. What this means is that I am socially and fiscally liberal, an old style bleeding heart liberal, who loves Jesus and tries to be His faithful servant, supports gun control, abortion rights, and tries to love everyone as a brother or sister.
Some days go better than others. Like many people, I am equal proportions of narcissism and low self-esteem, so every now and then, on festive occasions, I get wrapped up in my own petty distractions, obsessions, and needs. But as much as possible, I try to help take care of the poor, the aged, the hungry, and scared. I get to keep starting over.
That’s what being a Christian means to me. There is, in truth, very little snake-handling involved. Still, it can be quite embarrassing: When non-specific spiritual people—let’s call them the Nons—hear the word “Christian,” they think of public Christians. Upon hearing that you are a Believer, they instantly think of stages full of Christians on TV, waving their arms like palm fronds in a hurricane. Now, I mean no offense if you frequently appear on the stages of televangelists, fronding for the Lord. I know that is not a real word, but it should be.
When Nons hear the word “Christian,” they do not instantly think Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Abraham Lincoln, or other profound and visionary heroes. They think Jerry Falwell, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, people who seem close to hysteria in their convictions. They think Jim Bakker and Ted Nugent, who asked his audience, in an editorial, whether the country would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.
I don’t want to get distracted right now by complex political controversy, but, uh: no.
Nons hear about Christians, and they see us cringing before the image of hell’s flames. Yikes. If I believed in those literal flames, it would be such a stretch for me, as I am extremely sensitive and worried, with a low pain threshold. They think we fear the devil as represented by Al Pacino or Trey Parker, not as the dark energy of addiction that has destroyed our own lives, and the lives of our most beloved; the painful and deeply human craving for power and domination, both in families and in national positions, although I am not going to name names.
But what I believe, and what my moderately left—and right—wing Christian brothers and sisters believe, is that Jesus preached a gospel of radical sacrifice, of giving away everything we possibly can—our time, our money, our prayers—to the have-nots, the same old/same old suffering people of this world, widows and whole nations.
Let us go in peace then, to be people of goodness and service and sacrifice. I keep trying to do better, like most people do, but I don’t have a magic wand. I am learning as I go; and boy, am I humbled by my failings. And “humbled” is always a great place to start anything, from being a better parent, writer, mate; or still, after all these years, trying to save the world.
Anne Lamott is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Help, Thanks, Wow, Grace (Eventually), Plan B, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions, as well as seven novels, including Rosie and Crooked Little Heart . She is a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.