Thursday, June 4, 2009

Keeping faith: Piers Paul Read looks inside the Church

Published in the Portland Phoenix

His publicist calls Piers Paul Read "the anti-Dan Brown." She's capitalizing on a buzz-worthy name, sure, but it's a fairly insightful description of a man whose latest book, The Death of a Pope, explores not the Brownish theme of the Catholic Church secretly at work in world affairs, but rather its inverse — how worldly factions seek to transform the traditionalist Church through its cloistered traditions.
Read is best known to a generation of readers as the author of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (J.B. Lippincott, 1974), about the high-mountain plane crash that killed several members of a Uruguayan rugby team; the survivors, strengthened by eating the flesh of their dead friends, made a nearly impossible trek to civilization and rescue.
"I had quite a sheltered upbringing," says the soft-spoken Englishman, who stopped through Maine last week for a reading in Augusta (but, oddly, not in Portland). As a young adult, he says he was "very revolutionary," promoting Marxism in Latin America, but came to doubt whether his socially disruptive efforts would really help people in need. That period in his life both was part of, and deepened, his quest to overcome insularity by inquiring deeply into the outcomes of efforts by those who claim to know the ultimate unknowable, God's will.
His understanding of that struggle lends a quiet weight to the smooth, quick readability of The Death of a Pope. Set in the days between John Paul II's death and the election of Benedict XVI, the book follows the forces swirling around the conclave of cardinals that selects a new pope, including conniving princes of the church, radical Catholic missionaries, and innocents who find themselves involved.
The end leaves much room for speculation about what comes next, but suggests an answer to the age-old question of whether salvation is earned by words, deeds, or faith alone.
The Death of a Pope | by Piers Paul Read | Ignatius Press | 225 pages | $21.95