Healed and Forgiven, North Carolina's Literary Lion Looks to the Future with Optimism
Religion and Reynolds Price are inseparable, yet the relationship is far from conventional.
Church, he says quite candidly, isn't the place for him. But he also says he has literally been touched and given new life by Jesus Christ. He tells the world his sins have been forgiven.
In 1996, he offered his version of the Bible's Gospels and the life of Christ in The Three Gospels: The Good News According to Mark, the Good News According to John, an Honest Account of a Memorable Life. And, last December, he plunged headlong into the heated, often bitter, debate about the apocalypse and the second coming possibly being at hand with a provocative article in Time magazine entitled "Jesus at 2000."
His interpretations and version of the Gospel are sure to rattle many. He holds, for example, that Christ assisted in the suicide of Judas by tying the knot on the rope from which the disciple hanged himself. Unbowed by critics, Price plunges ahead by expressing his faith and belief through his writing.
"The older I get...I just can't comprehend the necessity that so many human beings have--and especially those human beings that set themselves up as God's best friends--to condemn right and left or to judge...everything they see," Price said, his voice rising during an interview with MetroMagazine. "In the first place, Christians have specific instructions from Jesus not to do that. And Jews have specific instructions from God--'Vengeance is mine, not yours.'"
Price is convinced that he personally has been forgiven and healed by Jesus. He endured a near-death experience with spinal cancer: Seared by pain, he emerged through what he now describes as "a keyhole." The experience left him crippled for life, burdened by a "thorn" in his flesh never to be removed. But it did not steal his creativity or his energy: He has been more productive than ever, doubling the amount of his work while working to plumb Christianity to new depths.
Who are we? Why are we here? And, as he sought to answer in his 1999 book Letter to a Man in the Fire, does God exist? If He does, does He care?
Price is convinced God does exist. And in the Time magazine article he affirms his belief that Jesus came, saw--and healed. "It would require much exotic calculation...to deny that the single most powerful figure--not merely in these two millennia but in all human history--has been Jesus of Nazareth," Price wrote.
The North Carolina-born writer tries to emulate Christ in some respects. "I find myself incapable of rejecting human beings because of the choices they make in their daily lives or the accidents they walk in to," he told MetroMagazine. "I don't think I was intolerant before (the cancer). I certainly was not a Puritan. After going through my account of death, I feel no necessity whatsoever and have absolutely no rights whatsoever or the moral superiority to condemn anyone else for violence against another creature."
With one exception: "I would make every effort I could to stop violence against another human being, especially a child."
Price distances himself from people who have abused Christ's commission to spread the Gospel--the last command of Jesus before ascending into Heaven. "... in light of the appalling failings of Jesus' followers, that last command goes on contributing heavily to the evils of national and religious warfare, institutional and individual hatred, imperialism and enslavement," he wrote.
What drove him away from organized religion was the matter of race, which forced a separation from his black friends. He admits that he "wasn't thrilled by my first experiences with Christianity. I became uneasy--very intensely so--when I was 15 or 16 years old. There came that moment for any Southern boy or girl who had playmates and...said good-bye to them because they were different."
Raised as a Methodist, Price has never terminated his membership in that faith. But he chuckles as he describes himself as "not functioning" in the church.
Price said he couldn't accept the fact he had to be separated from them, especially in the pews. He said the times made it unthinkable for blacks even to consider going to a white church although whites could attend black churches if they chose to do so. "I talked with my relatives and my minister about this, and they said, 'That's the way it is; that's the way it's always been; and that's the way it always will be. I decided if that was to be the degree of tolerance within the church that I would seek Christianity elsewhere."
Price became aware of the racial divide as a teenager in Raleigh, where he attended Broughton High School. He went on to Duke to pursue a fledgling writing career and there he encountered race again. Enough was enough.
"When I came to Duke (in the 1950s), here again within the chapel, the worship framework--even in an institution dedicated to human awareness--services were still segregated. It worried me a lot. I didn't do anything about it. I didn't write anything about it, but I stopped going to organized religious services."
Though segregation in churches, at least officially, is not the problem it once was, Price sees something else he doesn't like: "Churches over the last 20 years or so have become so near to social clubs--with bowling leagues."
But don't expect Price to lead any protests or to turn his back on God. "I'm in my own space here. I'm a worshipful person," he said quite solemnly. "I'm not proud of not going to church, but that's a fact about me."
His "space" is a pleasant home in Orange County that's surrounded by trees, where he often sees deer wandering by. Although not an outdoorsman--he remembers being told by his late mother, "Get your nose out of that book and go outside!"--Price said nature reminds him to appreciate the creative power of God. But he also claims no special knowledge of God's plans. "He plays His cards pretty close to the vest."
When talking about the importance of family, Price has few doubts. "Your mother and dad made you what you are," he says. His father, William, died 21 days after being told he had lung cancer--on Reynolds' 21st birthday. His mother died several years later after a battle with cancer that lasted four years.
To this day, Price wears a pocket watch attached to a chain around his neck. "It's just like one my father had," he said with reverence. William's watch was stolen, but Reynolds wants some day to find it. "I hope I see it in a pawn shop or something."
He often drew pictures with his father, especially of elephants. His parents provided plenty of books, and he confesses to having been a "voracious reader" even in his youth--not surprising, given his lifelong work. And despite problems involving smoking and alcohol, Price never had a doubt that he or his brother was loved--quite dearly. He fondly remembers keeping the house dark on the days during World War II when his father was an air raid warden in Asheboro. The young Price kept up his reading, often using a flashlight.
In public schools, Price said he was blessed to have demanding teachers. "Teachers were and have been the most important influences on my life with the single exception of my parents," he said. "From first grade through graduate school, I was fortunate to have a number of great teachers."
He warmly remembers Crichton Davis, who taught him in the 8th grade when he lived in Warrenton. "She encouraged both my drawing and painting and my writing," he recalled. "She had published a number of short stories in national publications and gave me the first glimpse of a writing life."
In Raleigh, he encountered two legendary teachers.
"In the 11th grade, I encountered the famous Phyllis Peacock (who died at age 94 last year) who very quickly encouraged my drawing and painting and my writing," Price recalls. "She seemed to me to be even more encouraging of my writing. I wrote a number of things on assignment for her in junior English. Then I began volunteering short prose sketches and poems. I've still got a lot of those pieces of work, and certainly looking back at this point so many years onward they don't seem to me to be strikingly original or strikingly good. But Phyllis detected something in them that aroused her enthusiasm."
Nonetheless, she gave Price no breaks. "She was tough, no question about it. She was certainly not the first. I had other teachers who held my nose firmly to the grindstone in reading, writing and arithmetic. So Phyllis came as no shock. In fact, she was more exhilarating."
Then there was Celeste Penny. "She was even more demanding and feared in the years of her supremacy," Price said with a laugh. "Again, I found her to be tremendously useful. She instilled a kind of fear I don't think I had had since starting grade school. She really let you know when you used the wrong tense of a verb or the wrong person or pronoun or case. Those mistakes would produce dire consequences."
His teachers had directed and fostered Price's desire to write to the point that he had no doubt about his career. "I had really set in place my ambitions to be someone who was going to write and teach for the rest of my life," he said. "I didn't see a need to choose one or the other, and luckily it has never been a necessity to choose between the two.
"Oddly, the only time I can remember Mrs. Peacock suggesting something to me was when she suggested that I think about the ministry," he said. "I never gave that serious thought even though religion is very serious to me."
Price said his roots are important to his life and work. He loves North Carolina, especially Raleigh and Durham where he has spent his adult life. But as the Triangle transforms into a metropolis, he wonders what lies ahead for the area in the new millennium.
"I moved to Raleigh when I was 14 and I left when I was 22," he said. "Now, I live 25 miles away. I've spent the rest of my life in rural North Carolina with the exception of my four years in England [at Oxford University]. Obviously, we have grown in good and bad ways. It hasn't wallowed out of control, but I can take the wrong exit off the Beltline in Raleigh and I don't have the faintest idea where I am.
"A lot of the woes of metropolitan America have been wrought upon us. Anyone who travels on I-40 realizes that we have made mistakes in just the last 20 years. On the other hand, the mental atmosphere of the area has opened up in so many ways. We are so much more cosmopolitan--in the good sense of the word."
He remembers attending Civic Music concerts for only pennies, and having few choices for entertainment. "Now, I would be drowning in an excess of choices."
In many ways, he sees a bright future. "Where would we be in another 35 years? I'd love to live another 35 years, get to be 100 years old and still know who I was and what a tree was," Price says with a hearty chuckle. "I don't know what your grandchildren's lives are going to be like, but then my grandparents could have had no idea that theirs would live in a country where there were no longer slaves.
"I hope that doesn't sound dementedly optimistic. I think it's realistic."
The dizzying pace of technology also encourages Price. He is grateful for computers, and he said there is no way he could have been as prolific in his work over the past 15 years without one. And he often communicates with friends and colleagues by e-mail.
When discussing challenges that do worry him, such as overpopulation and the environment, Price sees mankind's intelligence as an advantage. "It's hard to believe we are not going to invent our way out of a lot of these problems. I have a sort of blind faith in ingenuity," he said. But Price was quick to add one note of caution. "I may be wrong--as any kind of faith may be."
Even if he is wrong, Price prefers the life of being an optimist.
"I certainly do look to the future with hope," he said. "I don't believe the future or the new Millennium or whatever you want to call it looks inevitably grim and dire. I may be absurdly unrealistic in feeling that way. I certainly have knowledgeable and intelligent friends who take a far bleaker view than I do, simply on the grounds of what we have done to the environment around us.
"But I suspect that the basic optimism or basic pessimism comes to most of us in our mother's smile--if not in our genes. People are born to think the glass is half empty or half full. I've just been somebody who, most of the time, thought it was half full.
"It certainly makes life an awful lot easier to live," he added forcefully.
He said his father gave freely of his love and his fun nature, cherishing every moment he was in the presence of his family. "I have a lot of friends--and my father was one of them--who any time any one person was out of eyesight they thought they would never see that person again," he said. "Every night of our lives, even after I was a grown man, he kissed me and my brother and my mother goodnight.
"Technically speaking, he was right. But it was an exhausting way to look at the world, and when he died at 54--he clearly died from lung cancer; he had smoked hard since he was 14 or 15 years old--he physically had impaired his body. But I also think he was emotionally exhausted at the end.
"He was a great clown, a great wit up to the end. If he couldn't have laughed, he would have died far sooner than he did."