An accomplished man of letters, Reynolds Price is also a lifelong Christian pilgrim who has thought long and profitably on the religious tradition in which he was raised -- and can articulate his thoughts on faith in a clear, simple and convincing manner. Like the Christian-focused writings of C.S. Lewis, Price's new book, "Letter to a Godchild (Concerning Faith)," takes delight in the paradoxes of Christianity: That one must become poor in order to become rich, surrender in order to triumph, and recognize that the ravening Lion of Judah is also the sacrificial Lamb of God.
"Do I contradict myself?" Price asks at one point, quoting Walt Whitman. "Very well then I contradict myself."
A professor of English at Duke University, Price enjoys only distant relations with what is popularly called "organized religion." But he nevertheless displays a profound knowledge of the road he has traveled, the cost of traveling it, and where it leads. It is this knowledge he shares with his godson, Harper Peck Voll.
"It has seemed feasible to me that, by describing succinctly, and as honestly as I could manage, the advancing line of my own religious life, I might provide a useful sense of how one person's existence shaped itself round an early inexplicable event and moved onward from there till now, the start of my eighth decade," Price writes. Recognizing that young Harper may not be able to understand and appreciate all he says in "Letter to a Godchild," he notes that his book, written in the form of a long letter, "was not intended to be a child's book or even something an adult could read to a child, but I haven't convinced myself that such a gift was pointless."
That last clause reflects one of the endearing hallmarks of this little book: Price's humility, the knowledge that there is wisdom in avoiding presumption and admitting that one doesn't have all the answers. Here and in numerous other instances within "Letter to a Godchild," the author demonstrates that he has taken to heart the fact that Jesus, as well as the prophets who preceded him, had far more to say about the evils of pretension, self-righteous pride and hypocrisy than about smoking, drinking, cursing or the other behavioral sins denounced weekly from well-pounded pulpits. But, for that matter, far from being the "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" of the old, sentimental hymn, Christ also spoke far more frequently about the horrors of hell than many moderns, and perhaps Price himself, would care to say. Jesus is the Lamb of God -- but he is also a Lion, and, to quote Lewis, "not a tame lion."
To Price, life itself is a miracle and a mystery -- or series of mysteries. Perhaps the largest mystery he faces lies in the fact that for 22 years he has been wheelchair bound, paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a cancerous tumor that wrapped itself around his spinal cord. Ironically, a medical procedure that would have freed him of the deadly growth, and not affected his ability to walk, was developed a mere two years after the treatment that left him in a wheelchair. A man of faith who daily faces such knowledge in the midst of unremitting pain has much to think about on the nature of God and why things happen as they do. Price has pondered such things at length and has accepted the truths articulated in the Book of Job: God's ways are such that we cannot know the wherefores and whys. We can only grab hold of what we do know, understanding that we perceive only partly what God is about, "as through a glass darkly."
There are two other inexplicable events Price recounts in "Letter to a Godchild": two brief visionary experiences he has had, one early in life, the latter at the time he first grappled with cancer. Of these, the second is of particular interest. It occurred shortly before he was to begin daily treatments for the cancer. Lying in bed one morning, he suddenly found himself standing on the shore of a huge lake. He was invited to wade into the water by a man he immediately recognized as Jesus. There, Price says, Jesus began to gently wash "the foot-long wound from the failed surgery that had gouged for hours deep into my spinal cord." He assured Price that his sins were forgiven and that he would be healed. Then the vision ended, leaving the reader to wonder, Healed? This kind, brilliant, wheelchair-bound man was healed?
Price explains: "My conviction, more than twenty years after that second vision, is that the experience was in some crucial sense real. In a human action that apparently lasted no longer than two minutes, I was essentially healed. By healed I mean that I was repaired in the sense that a man I had every reason to trust had guaranteed me a long stretch of ongoing vigorous existence. The fact that my legs were subsequently paralyzed by twenty-five X-ray treatments ... was a mere complexity in the ongoing narrative which God intended me to make of my life."
Price encourages his godson not to blindly trust every visionary perception that appears to come from God, knowing that such visitations are all too often merely the innermost cravings of the human soul for greed, lust and power over others. Above all, he says to young Harper, "I urge you to take yourself and your whole world as earnestly as, plainly, you and it deserve to be." That is, there are finger-signs along the life-road pointing toward God, and Price's humble book is one such sign. If readers dismiss the finger-signs out of hand, and God does not after all exists, they will live and die having missed out on nothing. But if they're wrong, they will have missed out on everything. So, Price seems to suggest, keep an open mind on these matters, and keep searching, knowing that those who seek will find.
(James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow.")