Leaving Ruin

Jeff Berryman
New Leaf, 361 pages, $20.95

On the dust jacket for Leaving Ruin, essayist Annie Dillard writes that Jeff Berryman "has taken an evangelical preacher and turned him into the most unexpected thing: a human being." The damningly faint pastoral praise notwithstanding, it's true. Cyrus Manning is a compelling character not because of his physical appearance (completely bald) or his rhetorical skills (cannot boil a sermon down to three points) or his rigid moral scrupulousness (has a temper, occasionally swears, and admits to lust), but because he earnestly tries to seek God and serve his fellow Christians in spite of it all.

Berryman taught theater at Abilene Christian University in Texas from 1990 to 1996 and has performed several plays with Taproot Theatre Company in Seattle since moving there in 1996.

Before it was a novel, Leaving Ruin existed as a play. Pastors and others praise the play on Berryman's website (www.jberryman.com).

Another Grief Observed

Each chapter in this otherwise first-person narrative begins with a comment about Cyrus from one of the parishioners from the First Church of Ruin, a barren West Texas town of 26,000 "somewhere between Odessa and El Paso." These windows into the congregants' thinking anticipate a church vote to decide whether the Mannings will be forced out. Things are not looking promising amid such rousing endorsements as "I think he's odd, don't you?" and "You think he loves Jesus enough?" and "Maybe the next guy will give us some sermon outlines."

Cyrus knows this, describing his own prospects as a "peculiar disease that's mostly fatal called they-don't-want-me-here-anymore." His wife, Sara, talks early and often about possible jobs that she could find to tide them over. His two sons approach their father with their own sense of foreboding, and are not comforted. If all of that weren't enough, the book's title, Leaving Ruin, has roughly the same dead-give-away effect as naming a movie after the Titanic.

Worse, and less predictably, the unexpected death of a friend deepens into an existential trauma as questions of calling, cosmic justice, and faithfulness come crashing down on his head. In a moment that echoes the tragedy of King Saul, Cyrus is left to grapple with God's distance. The most wrenching passages of Leaving Ruin approach those portions of A Grief Observed, in which the author tears at everything he has ever known or loved in an attempt to wrest some consolation from a seemingly uncaring universe. More than once, the reader is led to wonder just how Cyrus will leave Ruin: intact, broken, or in a body bag.

Pastors are plunged into difficult controversies: styles of worship, gender roles in church leadership, and onerous expectations for their own preaching. In stark business terms, more churches now compete for fewer warm bodies to fill the pews, using livelier worship, various outreach programs, lowered requirements for membership, and an increasing expectation that the pastor's sermons will lift, inspire, and exhort and yet somehow manage not to upset too many people. Acting like consumers, parishioners often march to the church a few blocks down for any reason.

The marketing for Leaving Ruin seeks to capitalize on the fact that Cyrus' experience is not atypical of the life of pastors. On Berryman's website, one drama director wished that his one-man play version of Leaving Ruin could be seen in "every seminary in the land." Such a broad run would be a good way to empty seminaries.

But Leaving Ruin also conveys something that many pastors have experienced: the sense of calling that brought Cyrus into the ministry.

This calling is called into question as his world unravels, upping the ante both for the possibilities of disaster and redemption. The end of a poem quoted in his story captures his desperation in a way that I could not hope to understand:

"If I miss the mystery of God

I'll die."

Jeremy Lott is the son of a Baptist pastor and production director of The Report, a Canadian news and opinion magazine.

Related Elsewhere

Leaving Ruin is available at Christianbook.com.

Jeff Berryman's website includes pages on the play, the book, and more.

For more book reviews, see Christianity Today's archives.

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