For those who measure significance by media attention and celebrity status, the story of Bishop James Pike is a cautionary one. During his peak in the Fifties and Sixties, Pike was one of the most recognized Christians of his time, on par with Bishop Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham. From 1955 to 1961, ABC ran a successful Sunday-afternoon talk show hosted by the bishop, whereas both Sheen and Graham failed at weekly shows. Gracing the cover of Time, holding press conferences with Martin Luther King, Jr., giving provocative quotes to reporters, and enjoying a long run as a bestselling author, Bishop Pike was the public face of Christianity for many in America.
Which is all the more sobering considering how thoroughly he has disappeared from our cultural radar. David Robertson's biography, A Passionate Pilgrim, sets out to bring Pike back into the conversation. The subject must have sounded ideal for a biography—the story of an outspoken, thrice-married celebrity Episcopal bishop who prophetically voiced support for progressive causes, questioned the church's doctrines, experimented with drugs, dallied with séances, and died in the Israeli wilderness—but one gets the impression that Robertson found filling in the details less than inspiring. Pike's inconsistencies, his alcoholism, his womanizing, his sophistry in getting out of jams, his overspending (both institutional and personal), his narcissism, and the damage to those around him—especially the suicides of his eldest son, one live-in lover, and the attempted suicide of one daughter: all this makes for a punishing chronicle that gets darker as it goes.
Those who remember Pike as a liberal leader may be surprised to hear that he began his career as an agitator on the right. ...1
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