published Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Cooper: Chattanooga native has new book on church life here in the 1970s

Hamilton Cain says he’s no regular churchgoer and certainly has disengaged from the Southern Baptist faith he cultivated while growing up in Chattanooga. But he’s realized, at age 46 and living in Brooklyn, N.Y., his faith of origin has given him some values with which to help navigate life.

His book, “This Boy’s Faith,” released last week by Crown Publishing Group, is a memoir of being raised in Chattanooga by fundamentalist parents and having much of his life revolve around his Baptist faith.

What Cain found, he says, is the discipline and self-sacrifice he learned from his childhood faith have been instrumental in helping him deal with the medical issues his firstborn son has undergone.

Eight-year-old Owen, who has spinal muscular atrophy, spent his first birthday amid seven months in the hospital and has needed resuscitation several times during his tenuous life.

“You look at every possible thing to bolster your spirits, to keep your energy

up,” says Cain, a former book editor and now a freelance writer. “The values [from his faith] were really, really important in learning how to take care of him.”

During Owen’s younger years, he says, it was as natural to look back to his own childhood as it was to look ahead.

It’s important, Cain says, “to have those values in my tool kit. I want to emphasize they were [useful] tools, not something to run away from.”

People who grew up in Chattanooga in the 1970s, as I did, will remember many of the incidents he recalls, such as the 1972 Jersey Pike oil tank fires, the 1973 flood, the 1974 airplane hijacking saga (in which a hijacked plane landed at then-Lovell Field) and the 1974 kidnapping/slaying of his dentist, Dr. Robert Elliott.

Cain uses the actual names of his parents in the book but does not use his church’s name — it was Brainerd Baptist. Neither his parents nor his sister, who is not named, still live in Chattanooga. Most of his friends and adults in the church are given pseudonyms, a fact acknowledged in an author’s note.

“Most of the names are changed,” he says. “It’s a standard memoir technique. There’s kind of a license to manipulate — a creative license.”

Some people, including Cain’s parents, come off as less than sympathetic. His mother, for instance, has a “grim smile tugging the corner of her mouth” as she tells him she and his father can’t come help with his ailing son because “we’re barely well ourselves.”

In flashbacks, he also has his mother, once the principal of Brainerd Baptist School, use incorrect grammar and frequently express her displeasure in him, though the church apparently recognized him as somewhat of a Bible whiz.

“If I, her A student, couldn’t serve as her apostle to the world, bipedal proof that she’d walked the Earth, yearned for better things and swallowed disappointments,” he writes, “then what good was I?”

Cain admits he was “caustic [in] some parts” but says the fact people are viewed in positive and negative lights is “true in life and families.”

“People are human,” he said. “That’s part of the story. As I was writing, I came to appreciate [my family] in a noncynical way. The person I believe I was hardest on” — by seeing himself as pious and better than his peers — “was myself.”

Since I grew up in the same general time and area of the city as he did, I told him I found his portrayal of life and times in an upper middle-class suburban Southern Baptist church as leaning toward caricature, something the book’s news release said Cain was trying to avoid.

The portrayal is similar to the way the South is often pictured in Hollywood and in national publications — somewhat dull, syrupy religious and lacking in social graces.

Cain says that’s also what bugged his sister, who was educated as a lawyer and is now a pastor’s wife and mother of several children.

“There’s a fine line,” he says. “I may have drifted a little too close to caricature in some [parts]. I was both trying to be true to the story and put it in the tradition of stylized Southern writing.”

Cain describes himself today as a Christian “who practices when he can” and feels “the occasional desire to go to church, to sing and to have prayer” but says, “I’m not burning to do it every week.”

The book, he says, is an effort to “bring a more human presence to a Baptist upbringing.”

“Whatever sense of community I have, I learned [at church],” he said. “It was the religion that was in me, and in certain ways still is. It just took me a long time to realize it.”

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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