SINCE PUBLICATION OF HER spiritual memoir Traveling Mercies in 1999, Anne Lamott has become a favorite of many Christian college students who relish passages such as this one:
"I did not mean to be a Christian. I have been very clear about that. My first words upon encountering the presence of Jesus for the first time 12 years ago, were, I swear to God, 'I would rather die.' I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing nonbeliever friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.
"But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; He was relentless. I didn't experience Him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up, mewling outside your door, you'd eventually open up and give Him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, the next thing you know, He's sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push.
"I resisted as long as I could, like Sam-I-Am in Green Eggs and Ham. I would not, could not in a boat! I could not would not with a goat! I do not want to follow Jesus, I just want expensive cheeses. Or something. Anyway, He wore me out. He won.
"I was tired and vulnerable and He won. I let Him in. This is what I said at the moment of my conversion: I said, 'Okay! Come in. I quit.' He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, He didn't shed or need to have His claws trimmed, and He never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a Savior, right?
"Then, when I was dozing, tiny kitten that I was, He picked me up like a mother cat, by the scruff of my neck, and deposited me in a little church across from the flea market in Marin's black ghetto. That's where I was when I came to. And then I came to believe."
Today, Ms. Lamott occupies a unique place in publishing: She describes herself as a left-wing pacifist who is also a born-again Christian. Her books-including five novels and several works of nonfiction-have sold millions, and her views are worth exploring because of her large following, particularly among Christian young women. Many enjoy her honesty but struggle to make sense of her unorthodox theology. WORLD interviewed Ms. Lamott by e-mail.
WORLD: I love your description of becoming a Christian. It (along with your essay about the "aunties" in Traveling Mercies) is one of the reasons I love your work. But you also write with incredible hostility toward conservatives, which most WORLD readers are, and embrace a lifestyle that many evangelical Christians would see as contrary to the Bible. I'd like to explore some of these tensions in this interview.
I'm struck by the line above-"He loved me, He didn't shed or need to have His claws trimmed, and He never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a Savior, right?" It's a completely different image than that presented by C.S. Lewis when he describes Aslan as not safe, but good. What do you think about that?
AL: I never actually read those C.S. Lewis books, only the nonfiction. My life was permanently changed by Mere Christianity. For me, Jesus is my cleft in the rock. He is my safest friend, my safe totally loving accepting big brother. I am not writing to try and convert people to fundamental Christianity. I am just trying to share my experience, strength and hope, that someone who is as messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared can be fully accepted by our dear Lord, no questions asked.
I do not have deep theological understanding or opinion, but I do not read the Bible as the literal word of God. I try to share my own resurrection story with people in the hopes that some of them who have left churches or been kicked out because of their beliefs or sexual orientation, will find something in my words and humor that make church safe for them again. That gives them the Holy Spirit nudge to try and find a spiritual community where they will be freely given, what I have been so freely given. I have never said that I am a good Christian. I just know that Jesus adores me and is only as far away as His name. I say, "Hi, Lord," and He says, "Hello, darling." He loves me so much He keeps a photo of me in His wallet. If I were the only person on earth, he still would have died for me.
WORLD: You were quoted as saying about heaven, "I'm a Christian who knows that everyone gets in. In fact, I want to be with the smokers and the Jews because I think they're inherently more interesting." Do you really believe that everyone (including Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, other mass murderers) goes to heaven? How do your beliefs about that affect the way you look at your life and your work?
AL: Yes, I believe that everyone gets in; that Gods looks at His children and sees only their grief-struck madness and pain: like the hymn, "Amazing Grace," that is sung to the tune of "Danny Boy": "I shall forever lift my eyes to Calvary, up to the cross where Jesus died for Me, I do not know, what caused Him to love me so; He looked beyond my faults and saw my needs."
WORLD: In some of your books you refer to God as a She. Why do you do that?
AL: I do not think God has a gender. I think God is neither male nor female; and at the same time, our Mother Father God, adoring parent. Certainly not the Old Testament idea of a white-haired old man with a beard in the clouds, judging and condemning everyone.
Fundamentalist Christians call me when I am on radio shows, and tell me I am going to hell if I don't change my ways and practice right-wing Christianity; and I cannot tell you how little I care what other people make of my deep love and connection for my very dear Lord and Savior, Jesus.
I will not read the letters in response to this interview, because many of them will be so toxic and so sure of themselves, and so full of hate for everyone else besides their particular congregation of Christians, that it does no one any good. I see the world as an emergency ward, and since I am one of the people who has been lifted from the swamp of chaos and addiction and self-loathing, I offer the orange juice and graham crackers of God's love to everyone I come in contact with: I sit with people, listen, give them a shoulder, and a glass of the living water.
WORLD: I read some of the customer reviews for your book Blue Shoe on Amazon.com. You have many passionate fans, but their opinions about the book tend to fall in two camps. Some fans fault your main character for being self-absorbed and unchanged by her faith. Another reader expressed "disappointment to lose such a gifted writer to the zombie-treading world of the born-again Christians." When you hear these different critiques, which one bothers you more?
AL: Neither one bothers me at all. This is the price of fame and being a public personality. I get many many hostile letters and phone calls (mostly from the Christian right). I get sickening hate mail and phone calls from the Christian right, which my son sometimes has to hear if they come in over the answering machine. So I am pretty used to criticism. However, I sell millions of books, and some people love my fiction, and some people hate it, and some people love my nonfiction, and others think it is total narcissistic ranting. So I just have to listen to the words that form inside me, and get to know the characters who are inside me, and I try to get that down on paper and turn it into the most true, luminous, hopeful narrative I can.
Even my close friends were horrified when I converted, in 1986. Now they know that Jesus is the reason I am still alive, and so full of spirit and juiciness and joy and honesty. Two of them have converted, so that is a joy to share our love of the Bible and Jesus and our churches. It's none of my business what other people think of me. I can only tell my own truth. I am not going to censor or tailor my work so that I do not offend people-or so that more people will love me, or I'll sell more books, or the New York critics will appreciate me more (since I am one of a very few number of left-wing politically active Christians who are also prominent writers).
I know Blue Shoe is my best novel. I love all my novels like they are my children, but I don't particularly think they are good novels. But they are funny and sweet and they seem to give hundreds of thousands of people a spiritual uplift and a good laugh.
WORLD: You have said, "A lot of people I know were brutalized by their Christian childhoods. That includes my father, who was raised in a very strict Presbyterian missionary home in Tokyo. I know it really hurt and scared him to be raised a Christian. To him, Christianity seemed to be a religion that was about saying no, and about a God who crossed His arms and would have things only one way." Do you think your dislike of Christian legalism has pushed you toward antinomianism, where God doesn't care about things like adultery?
AL: I don't actually know what antinomianism is. I think God grieves for the harm we cause each other; and for how devastating it is when we commit sin and hurt others, especially children; how joyful God and the angels are when we find our way back to living humanely. But I just recoil at the hellfire and brimstone condemnation and shaming language of extreme right-wing Christianity (and politics). My father was raised by a minister who could not be vulnerable and tender with my father, and his wife, my grandmother, was very cold and stiff and pious, which is why my father called Presbyterians God's frozen people. But I am a Presbyterian now, in an integrated church that welcomes everyone, and I just can't spend too much time figuring out all the legalisms and chasms and age-old hatred that separates people of faith from the love of God.
I heard a rabbi tell a story of an old woman who asked the rabbi, "When I get to heaven, will everyone I love be there?" and the rabbi said, "The way you will know it is heaven is that you will LOVE everyone who's there."
WORLD: Would it be fair to say that you value the state of a person's heart over his actions?
AL: I don't think in those terms. I believe Jesus loves all the children of the world; all of us, even when we are in sin and madness. I do believe that faith without works is excruciating for the believer, because I know that the way my cup is filled with the water of the Holy Spirit is by giving it away-that we are not hungry for what we do not have, but for what we do not give.
My life is about Jesus, my son and family, my church: I am very political, too, and I spend hours every day ministering to the broken, to suffering alcoholics, visiting the sick and people in convalescent homes. I teach Sunday school, and work with our youth. And I write, from a base of being a child of God, redeemed and healing, sometimes slowly-I try to bring hope to people who are very sad and sick, to carry the word of Christ's love and shining presence into a terrified and hungry world. I think people do the best they can.
WORLD: You've said, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." You've written passionately about your dislike of Republicans. Does God hate Republicans?
AL: No, God loves everyone, just the same. Adores them, adores them. I have several Republican friends, and we just do not talk about politics, because I am such a passionate peace-nik and liberal, in all my views. Every single one.
My priest friend Tom actually said that line, about creating God in your own image. I believe it's true, though. We do the best we can. I mess up right and left. My career is a history of messing up, making bad choices, saying things I later regret, wishing I were a holier person. But I live in the love of Jesus. He lives in my heart. I think He has a fantastic sense of humor. I think He rolls His eyes at me. I seek spiritual counseling from my pastor frequently because of my fury about the direction this country is going. We talk and pray and it is too intimate to discuss at a public level. I think God loves Muslims just as much as He loves Christians, loves Jews, invites us all to the banquet, but does not give us a choice as to who we are going to sit next to. Maybe a Sunni Muslim! Maybe a gay couple.
WORLD: Your works are heavily autobiographical. Not only are you unflinching when you write about your own life but you also write about your family and friends. First, has Sam reached the age when he's embarrassed to be a character in an essay? What does he think of Operating Instructions-a journal of the first year of his life? What do your friends and family think about being subjects of your writing?
AL: Sam has only read sections of Operating Instructions, and has loved it. I think someday he will read it as a profound love letter to him. I will not be writing about him again for a long time, as he is just about to turn 14. He reads all my essays about him, and has given me permission to publish them. My friends love everything I've ever written about them, because I would never tell their bad secrets or make them look foolish. My mother was very hurt by the essay in Traveling Mercies, but it was the truth, and the truth sets you free (although first, like the bumper sticker says, it will make you crazy). The stuff I write about my family is only the tip of the iceberg. Like all families-even seemingly perfect Christian families-we have all the horrible behaviors stretching over generations; alcoholism, incest, violence against children and wives.
I do not tell their secrets, it is not my right now. But what happened to me belongs to me. I always tell my writing students this-that they own it. They were terribly damaged, often by Christianity or other religious paths, and writing about it, whether as fiction or not, gives them the chance to heal it. You have to feel it again to heal it. When you write it down, it brings it into the fresh air and sunshine of the spirit. I advise people whose fathers had sex with them, to write it as fiction, and change the biographical details so that the living will not be shamed and ostracized. Some of the most savagely beaten and incested people I knew grew up in fundamentalist families, with fathers who were preachers of the Word. We are all sinners. That's why Jesus came, to heal the sick; like me, like all of us.
WORLD: In Blue Shoe Mattie has a difficult time with her mother. You've written a lot about the difficult relationship you had with your mother. What do you expect Sam to write about you?
AL: He hates to write. Praise the Lord. We have an incredible relationship; and he knows the Lord. We pray together every night.
WORLD: How has becoming a Christian changed the way you view your work? Do you see yourself as a "Christian novelist"? Do you admire the work of any Christian novelists, theologians, or other writers, past or present?
AL: I think I answered the first question here: Becoming a Christian changed my everything-even my DNA. It is the reason I am alive, and coupled with sobriety, the reason I am so full of love and work so hard and am so so so loved by friends and even readers. I tell the truth now, I live in my truth, and I owe it all to Jesus, and Jesus is in my last four novels, because Jesus was in my life by then, in my heart like a puppy in a Christmas stocking, looking at me with such love and compassion.
I do not consider myself a Christian novelist so much as a novelist who is a Christian. I consider myself a novelist of no importance. I think of myself as a missionary, and an emergency ward worker on this hurting planet.
I love C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Fredrick Buechner, Phillip Yancey, Kathleen Norris; I love Luci Swindoll and all the works by the Women of Faith (Zondervan).