With the subtitle From Christian Cleric to Ageing Atheist, Charles Cornwall’s The Path at My Feet had me intrigued the moment I saw it. When I discovered Cornwall was a fellow Baptist minister who, disillusioned by faith, resigned his ordination in a neighbouring state and walked away from the church, I pulled out the credit card. Here was a ‘brother’ in more ways than one and this was a story I wanted to hear.
I imagined an honest account of doubt and struggle–the slow and painful road from certainty to emptiness, from the known to the entirely unknown. God knows, I’ve struggled enough myself. Here was the story of someone courageous enough to let those uncertainties speak and to follow their lead, intelligently and reflectively. Even better, to let me listen in.
I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. In fact, just pages in I felt gypped.
In the introduction, Cornwall’s writes of his ‘defection’ from Baptist ministry. It was the first yellow light. According to my dictionary, defection is ‘the desertion of one’s country or cause in favour of an opposing one.’ Cornwall’s story is really the desertion of one brand of fundamentalism for another. There is no desert place in-between, just a decisive step from darkness to light, from the ‘sanctimonious cant’ of Christian faith to the glorious liberty of reason.
Cornwall divides his book into two parts. Part One is his story told in five brief chapters: family, indoctrination, conversion, reverend, atheist. It’s honest enough and at times quite moving, but the biting sarcasm that pervades his assessment of his own experiences and feelings and those of others is deeply frustrating, even jarring. The lack of nuance or sustained self-reflection feels almost sad.
Part Two, by far the larger part of the book, is a collection of 15 essays, most originally published in the Australian Atheist. To be perfectly honest, the book would be better without them. Had Cornwall been able to stay with his narrative and not surrender the worth of his own story to poorly argued propaganda for an alternative literalism, this could have been a very challenging book. But it’s not.
What is most irritating is that Cornwall sets himself up as someone with insider knowledge, one who, because of his theological studies for ministry, is one of the few who has actually read the bible, studied it and is prepared to name it for what it is: an ancient ‘nonsense’ so full of ‘ambiguities, self-contradictions, absurdities, unscientific nonsense and historical inaccuracies’ that it’s next to worthless. His inference is that while many of those still within the church know it too, they are not prepared to tell.
I don’t mind a serious critique of the bible. There are some powerful and persuasive ones around and I’ve read many of them. But Cornwall’s critique is, sadly, so one-dimensional–an almost kindergarten understanding of ancient literature and sacred texts–that it makes you wince.
Cornwall contends that there are two types of Christians (just two!), those who take the bible literally and those who don’t. To the non-literalists he asks, ‘if Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, Jesus walking on water and Jesus turning water into wine are not meant to be taken literally, what about other similarly incredible stories like the virgin birth and the resurrection? Eliminate these on the grounds of consistency and the whole edifice of Christian dogma collapses in a heap of rubble — just like the walls of Jericho.’ It’s this simplistic logic that pervades Cornwall’s essays. So much so, he begins to read like a proponent of creation science: if God didn’t create the world in a literal seven days then our entire faith is bankrupt. Really? It is telling that in his 195 pages, Cornwall only references other atheists to make his argument. Oh, and Jerry Falwell to illustrate the counter view!
To be honest, I come away feeling as though Cornwall is still so very angry at this God he doesn’t believe in that he might have well have been wise to find some resolution for his anger before putting pen to paper. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Cornwall’s story. Actually, I would genuinely like to hear more of it. It’s the long, repetitive and poorly researched and argued sermon that follows that I could do without.
Cornwall concludes his book with some good advice: ‘Think for yourself. Don’t be a sheep brain and – to mix farmyard animal metaphors – don’t let yourself be led by the nose about what to believe. … Investigate widely. Keep an open mind’ and ‘finally, don’t be arrogant about the way you hold your beliefs.’ I really wanted to like this book, to be moved and challenged by it. Perhaps if Cornwall had taken his own advice, I might have been.