Baptized in Shallow Water

By Donna Freitas,
an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Michael's College and the author of "Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise"
Thursday, July 20, 2006


A Journey Through Memory, Art, and Faith

By Charles Scribner III

Doubleday. 291 pp. $24.95

For me, memoirs summon up the sensation of the silky summer sand down by the beach that I can't wait to dig my toes into. I love that feeling of sinking, page by page, into another person's life. Memoirs can seem seductively easy to produce, too; as any writer knows, a few paragraphs of journal-writing a day eventually add up to something resembling a manuscript. A subgenre of memoir, the diary, has its own allure; diaries can provide the voyeuristic thrill of glimpsing someone else's soul, and they offer the promise of confessions to come.

In "The Shadow of God," Charles Scribner III uses the diary format to describe a single year, day by day, from one Feast of the Epiphany to another. This "spiritual journal," starting in January 2002, seeks to trace his "journey through memory, art, and faith" as he considers why he chose to convert to Catholicism in college. Unfortunately, Scribner's format falls flat. His is a journal without a narrative arc; there is little drama here to drive the story forward.

Scribner, a publishing veteran who has written biographies of Rubens and Bernini, grew up as the great-great-grandson of the founder of one of America's finest publishing houses, in the shadow of such godlike writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. His family's imprint published great theologians such as Paul Tillich, and Scribner's own conversion to Catholicism was inspired by the writings of authors such as Graham Greene. This is a promising foundation on which to build a personal story of faith and art. What words of wisdom had Hemingway shared with Scribner during his youth? What stories might he tell about growing up in a house graced with storied thinkers?

Regrettably, Scribner offers little in the way of such reminiscences, providing instead tales of governesses, schoolboy pranks, trips to the Ice Follies with his grandfather and family vacations in summer cottages, punctuated with mentions of Sunday Mass or meditations about Christianity. Even when Scribner recalls what must have been a pivotal moment -- when he learned, on a sunny July day at age 10, "that our most famous author, Ernest Hemingway, had died" after shooting himself -- he stops short of any meaningful revelations. "Two years later an entire nation would vividly recall where they were when they heard that JFK was shot," he writes. "But for me, the news of Hemingway's death had already preempted the drama." End of story.

At times, Scribner's journaling offers insights. He wonders at one point whether the miracle of transubstantiation at a Catholic Mass is "any more incredible or mysterious than the transubstantiation of air, of wind, through those [organ] pipes into the heavenly music of Bach or Mozart?" As his year winds down, he muses poetically on light's relationship to the divine in a passage that inspires the book's title: "From the burning bush before Moses to the star rising in the East to the transfiguration of our Lord -- light has forever been God's shadow. We hear his voice through the limitations of our human language and, more clearly if less literally, in the resonance of music, the holiest of arts."

In an introductory note, Scribner explains that midway through his journal-writing year, his son asked him why he became a Catholic; Scribner replied that he "was writing this book to find the answer." Not until two-thirds of the way through "The Shadow of God" does he provide any significant answer, and even then, his conversion narrative is interrupted repeatedly with prosaic digressions. Sadly, upon finishing "The Shadow of God," I found the sand still dry beneath my feet.

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