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For the last seven years, Pastor Gerald Schwartz has managed to hide from the gossip and reproach of the church counsel. His sermons are dense treatises on epistemology and faith that carry the full intellectual impact of his Princeton education. His sesquipedalian vocabulary and seminarian logic goes right over the heads of the local yokels - a fact that Pastor Schwartz does not recognize. He is too deeply wrapped up in an alcoholic fog and a clueless obsession with why his wife left him.
Bishop Mainlaver teams up the stolid and stiff Pastor Schwartz with the more freewheeling Pastor Weiss from the syndicated church in the next town over. One of the playful aspects of the book is the use of names. If you know a little French, you might not be surprised to find that Bishop Mainlaver compulsively washes his hands. A little German reveals that Pastors Schwartz and Weiss are opposites. Where Pastor Schwartz preaches impenetrable sermons full of theological theory, Pastor Weiss instructs his flock on practical subjects, explained in straightforward terms. Pastor Schwartz drowns his sorrows in drink, Pastor Weiss uses new age self-esteem to keep his spirits up. Pastor Schwartz over eats and underestimates the value of looking good and taking care of himself. Pastor Weiss works out and pays meticulous attention to his appearance. When Pastor Weiss's philandering is revealed to his wife and his congregation, he moves in with Pastor Schwartz so they can help each other get their lives on track.
The supporting characters in the story are a panoply of quirks and psychological flaws. The thread that binds them is the willful repression of anything that might make them uncomfortable or require any self-analysis. Edna holds back the guilt of a terrible thing she did as a young mother by exposing the flaws in others. The scions of the church's founding families bicker like dysfunctional siblings. Clarence sits on the couch and watches TV to avoid confronting his feelings of inadequacy after an accident disables him.
When Betty's son comes home from the big city to announce that he and his cousin want their gay marriage blessed in their home town church, the townspeople must face the issues they had been ignoring for so long. As you should expect, this leads down a quirky path that ends with the church being destroyed.
Ash Wednesday pulls back the curtain on church life with lighthearted humor. Be careful looking back there though - you may recognize members of your own congregation or even yourself in there. The story line is a bit to light to give this book four stars, but the fun characters keep it out of the two star cellar. So I rate it three out of four stars.
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