Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pastor walks road to humanism

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Popular Christian writer and author C.S. Lewis said of prayer: "It doesn't change God, it changes me."

American Pentecostal pastor Jerry DeWitt found that prayer changed him, after a quarter of a century as a Christian minister, into an atheist. His earnest memoir chronicles the difficulties that eventually made him admit his real religion was humanism.

Hope After Faith begins with a seminal experience of conversion at age 16 at a Jimmy Swaggart revival in 1986.

Near the end of the book, in 2011, DeWitt attends a skeptics convention, where he is inspired by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, only months before Hitchens' death.

In between, DeWitt tries to be a concerned and world-changing pastor -- leading revivals, pastoring churches in Pentecostal and other denominations -- mostly around his hometown of DeRidder, La.

DeWitt's father, "a born dare-devil who possessed frighteningly backward beliefs about what it meant to be a man -- and to raise a man," died in a motorcycle accident when Jerry was not yet three. Some of his journey seems to be trying fill his longing. "All I want is a Dad," he would often tell his mother.

His school career is marked by social isolation, and he "hung out with the outcasts... and developed intellectually." After his conversion, he begins to find acceptance and fulfillment as a preacher.

While he experiences some apparently miraculous occurrences and vivid visions of heavenly support, he evolves through various changes in his attitudes toward Pentecostal doctrines like eternal punishment and the authority of the Bible.

Throughout, DeWitt expresses dissatisfaction with the imperfection he finds in various facilities, congregations, religious mentors and himself. His wife stays with him during his religious searches in spite of her discomfort with desperate financial situations and his frequent return to poorly paid ministry positions.

One job he feels good about is working in DeRidder City Hall, "studying zoning and city ordinances with the same analytical skills that I'd utilized when reading the Bible."

Back in ministry, DeWitt is horrified to find his word as a preacher carries more influence with believers than he can guarantee in terms of divine healing or comfort. He decides that if his prayers are not changing God by securing supernatural intervention, he cannot use people's gullible reliance on his spirituality even to provide perspective and hope in difficult situations.

After one devastating episode, "I could only obsess over the futile effort we had expended in seeking God's assistance. God had not helped us here."

When believers look for meaning, especially in dealing with death, DeWitt says "I assure you, every minister on the planet with a heart for his congregation is agnostic."

In the end, his inability to promise results leads him to abandon all belief in God, and to join Dan Barker's Clergy Project, a "ministry" to other religious leaders who have lost faith.

While he exposes the venal qualities of some religious groups and leaders, he never treats believers, or belief, with the kind of dismissive animosity some atheists have used while trying to disprove religion.

Although he never seems to progress beyond the very limited idea that religion is a system for putting in enough prayers and devotion to acquire temporal benefits, DeWitt (assisted by ghostwriter Ethan Brown) presents an interesting human story.

The title's assurance of hope after faith, however stated as a final stance, seems like little more than freedom from his own view of religion.

Manitoba teacher Bill Rambo is a Christian believer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 A1

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