Review

Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church

by Dan Cryer

Forrest Church was a leading light in Unitarian Universalism, a religion that is often said to be “about the questions” and surprisingly difficult to describe in a few sentences at a dinner party. Yet Church was able to cogently frame this intricate expression of humanism and social justice through original sermons, meditative books, good stories and self-deprecating humor, thus making it more comprehensible and accessible, and, thereby, more consequential. 

"Cryer...provides a superb overview [of Church] with this very manageable..biography of consistently engaging, incisive prose that can be easily understood by any lay person."

Even better, Church wasn’t articulating a set of religious beliefs so much as having a discussion about how to live in a world filled with poverty, discrimination and violence. In fact, he was most at home where politics and religion intersected. “The Falwells, Robertsons, and their ilk failed to grasp that deist leaders like Washington and Jefferson were more akin to Forrest Church than to any fundamentalist,” writes author Dan Cryer. 

So Church is a man most of us want to know more about, but his oeuvre is overwhelming as it contains hundreds of remarkable sermons, dozens of articles, and14 books. Cryer (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) provides a superb overview with this very manageable (307 pages) biography of consistently engaging, incisive prose that can be easily understood by any lay person (despite the author’s PhD in U.S. History). You get the life of an extraordinary man (complete with scandal --- alcoholism and an affair that almost derailed his ministry), a trip back to the hot-button political issues that dominated the second half of the 20th century (the subject’s father was Senator Frank Church of Idaho), and wind up with Rev. Forrest Church leading the charge against a religious right determined to make the U.S. into a Christian nation. 
 
That said, the Reverend’s mission was never to tell us about himself so much as to help us plumb the meaning of our own existence, and while this biography is as far as one can get from a self-help book, it’s exactly that. Church challenged people to understand, to love, and to “live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.” He attempted to alleviate our fears by exploring why we were fearful.  Most of all, he was an enthusiast whose shared quest through history, philosophy, and religion for understanding, compassion and action continues to inspire. And this comes through on every page, just as it did from the pulpit.
 
Disclaimer: Laura Pedersen attends Unitarian Church of All Souls, where Forrest Church served as Senior Minister from 1978-2006 and Minister of Public Theology from 2006-2009.
 

Reviewed by Laura Pedersen on November 17, 2011

Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church
by Dan Cryer

  • Publication Date: October 25, 2011
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312599439
  • ISBN-13: 9780312599430