The story has been told time and again. C.S. Lewis once walked into a room where a lively debate was in progress. A small group of people had been discussing the various world religions, seeking to understand what made them different from Christianity. As Lewis entered, they looked to him and asked for his response. His answer was simple and it was immediate. “Grace.” Grace marks the great difference between Christianity and every other religion. Grace is a concept foreign to religion; foreign, that is, unless granted by God. We seem to have a natural desire to work for our salvation–to offer to God what we have in repayment for His gifts. Christianity is the only faith that rejects works and insists on grace. Only by God’s grace, declares the Bible, only by God’s grace can we be saved; only by grace can we enjoy a right standing with God; our works merit us nothing.
Unlike C.S. Lewis, Joe Eszterhas may not be a household name, but you probably know of his work. His films have grossed over a billion dollars. You have heard of some of them, I’m sure: Showgirls received an NC-17 rating and Eszterhas gained infamy by suggesting that teenagers use fake IDs to view it. Basic Instinct captured a base but infamous screen moment that shocked viewers. His movies celebrated sex and violence and often the intersection between the two. He was once known as “the most reviled man in America.” He was a peddler of smut who grew wealthy writing it and who pursued that same smutty lifestyle with a devil-may-care attitude.
But it all changed in 2001. In March of that year he and his wife moved their family, their four sons, from Malibu to Ohio, where they had both grown up. Only weeks later Aszterhas was diagnosed with throat cancer brought about by a lifetime of smoking and hard drinking. If he were to live to see his children reach adulthood, he would need to change his lifestyle and change it now. He made the difficult decision to do so. After a month, he says, “I was going crazy. I was jittery. I twitched. I trembled. I yelled and Naomi and the boys. My heart was skipping beats. I had no appetite. I had trouble swallowing anything. The trache was still down my throat. I was nauseated, my knees were weak. … All I thought about every hour of every day was having a drink and a cigarette.” Overcome, he left the house and walked through his neighborhood trying to outwalk his addictions and cravings. Crying, hyperventilating, he fell to the ground and, to his own surprise, heard himself calling out to God. “Please, God, help me.”
“And suddenly my heart stilled. My nerve endings stopped torturing me. I stood trembling and twitching. My hands stopped dancing. I realized that I wasn’t jittery. Even the damn mosquitoes and bugs went away. My knees felt strong. I got up off the curb and stood up. I opened my eyes. I saw a shimmering, dazzling, nearly blinding brightness that made me cover my eyes with my hands. I wiped my eyes and opened them. The brightness faded back to day. I walked back home.”
In this moment Eszterhas was “saved”–a term he shied away from at first, but soon came to embrace. The man who had written movies glorying in sex and violence found religion. What was he saved from? “From the darkness that I had been drawn to most of my life, the evil I had spent so much time and effort studying and analyzing from the time I was a young man. … A child of the darkness, I wallowed in it…all of it…”
Eszterhas soon returned to the church of his youth–the Roman Catholic Church–which he had abandoned so many years before. There he found peace and comfort, or some peace and comfort at any rate. This book chronicles his growing understanding of this new-found faith and the challenges he faced as the peddler of smut who was no longer drawn to such darkness. It is fascinating to hear him wrestle with his decision to remain in the Catholic church. He hates the shallowness of much of the Catholic faith; he despises the empty homilies; he sees the same prevalence for immorality among priests today that he saw as a young child in his native Hungary. He has utter contempt for the Catholic hierarchy which has always worked to hard to cover up the vast scandal of pedophile pervert priests. At the same time, he is drawn to the Mass, admitting that while a local Protestant church offered much better teaching, he felt empty without the Mass. While at first he resisted adding Mary to his “pantheon,” (his term) he soon found joy in venerating her (believing, as his mother taught him, that while God is often too busy to hear his requests, He is never too busy to hear from His mother). Yet for all his respect for the Catholic Church, he goes to great lengths to ensure that his boys are never, ever, allowed to spend time alone in the presence of its priests and he reacts with disgust when a bishop is transferred to his town from Boston to escape the heat of scandal in that city.
The faith he finds and the faith he describes is really an amalgam of Roman Catholic theology and personal preference. He loves the Mass but hates the Roman Catholic insistence that homosexuality is unbiblical and wrong. He loves Christian community but dislikes so many church-goers. He seems to have swallowed the buffet line faith so prevalent in our culture. In a day where personal preference reigns supreme, Eszterhas quickly assembles a faith that suits his preferences even if not his church’s.
At times it is difficult to know whether the things Eszterhas writes about are symptomatic of a man who has yet to grasp the depth of his faith or if his faith allows behavior that sometimes seems to be in conflict. For example, four letter words are present throughout the book, though usually in a form such as “eff” instead of writing the word itself. He remains harshly and shockingly irreverent towards God, Christianity and other people. He seems to delight in sharing stories of attacking and humiliating others. Yet while the memoir is raw at times, it is never short of interesting anecdotes. Eszterhas has led an interesting life but also one filled with hardship and pain. Some of this has been of his own making; some has simply been the hand he has been dealt, so to speak. He is a fantastic writer and, while the book rambles, it always remains interesting.
There is one thing, though, that doesn’t quite add up. In Crossbearer Eszterhas makes it sound as if, post-conversion, he was unable to write. He tells of sitting at his typewriter day after day and coming up dry. But then, rather by surprise, he typed the opening words of this book and the rest of it began to flow as if driven by someone or something outside himself. But if his conversion was in 2001, how can he account for his first memoir, Hollywood Animal? This book was a tell-all tale that detailed his Hollywood exploits from the boardroom to the bedroom and everywhere in between (or so I gather from reading the book’s description and reviews). It was, by all accounts, graphic, lewd, and somewhat short of apologetic. And how is such a book consistent with his desire to no longer celebrate the profligate life he was saved from? It is an odd inconsistency.
I began this review with “grace.” Grace is the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. Sadly, for so prominent and so defining a characteristic, there seems to be little of it on display in Crossbearer. Its absence is this books’ greatest weakness. While we may delight in the fact that Eszterhas has found life beyond sex and violence and sexual violence, I could not in good conscience recommend this book as a spiritual memoir.