Writing a book about religion seems a radical departure for Tim Egan, whose previous eight books have covered history, mostly in the American West. But judging from the talk he gave Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at Seattle’s Town Hall, his new book will be as good as “The Worst Hard Times,” for which Tim won the National Book Award.
Loved that book, but others say “The Big Burn” is even better. It’s beside my bed on a looming stack of books to read.
Tim and I crossed paths for a while when he was an intern at The Seattle Times. I also met up with him while teaching at the University of Montana. I was assigned to escort a visiting journalist from South Africa to a panel discussion. The topic was politics in the West – or something like that — and I only remember one thing about the panel: Tim knew more and expressed it flawlessly. Mostly I remember hoping the others would shut up so Tim could speak.
He did not disappoint on Tuesday night when he talked about “A Pilgrimage to Eternity,” which records his physical and spiritual trek along the Via Francigena, from Canterbury in England to the Vatican in Rome. He described himself as a lapsed Catholic, like about half of USA Catholics. He’d gotten to the point in his life where he was “too damned complacent,” but was then set in motion by two things: Trump dystopia (“Has anyone had a good night’s sleep since the election?”) and the death of his mother, who led him to a life of writing. She was a devout Catholic, but on her deathbed said she didn’t know what to expect, where she was going. I have my doubts, she told Tim.
If she had doubts, then where does that leave the rest of us with our “malnutrition of the soul,” as he put it. It was time, he said, for a “stiff shot of no-bullshit spirituality.”
Plus, he really likes the new pope. Pope Francis ministers to the poor, respects science and is named after St. Francis of Assisi, one of Tim’s favorites: “You have to admire someone who talked to wolves.”
Egan says he considers himself more of a time traveler than an historian, but it looks like there is lots of history in the book. Tracing Christianity from the 2,000 adherents 30 years after Jesus Christ’s death to the 2.3 billion today, the largest faith in the world. He stops along the way to tell the stories of Saint Thomas Becket, Saint Joan of Arc, Martin Luther and a couple of names hardly connected to spirituality: Napoleon Bonaparte and Oscar Wilde.
He pointed out discrepancies between what’s in the New Testament and how Christianity is sometimes practiced today, and talked about a miracle that might have happened to him.
The end of the evening came with questions from the audience, including the final one from Roger, a great journalist from The Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times: So after all this, did you (Tim) return to the church?
Tim, now a “lapsed but listening Catholic,” answered: “Some resolutions, but I’m not going to tell you what they are.”
Time to read the book.