More Than I Could Ever Ask
By Lori Graham Bakker
Thomas Nelson, 256 pp. In "Mrs. Ramsey's Life," a small book bound in red leather published in 1852, the author tells of her wayward past. She flirts with men, swills spirits like a sailor, and back-talks her parents until, finally, she finds Christ. "Mrs. Ramsey's Life" was one of thousands of such spiritual autobiographies published in the 19th century. The books had a twofold purpose: to scandalize, and therefore sell; but also to lure readers away from their own sinful ways and set them firmly on the path of righteousness. The conversion story has been popular since Paul fell off his horse on the way to Damascus. In our day, the stories are often as predictable as Mrs. Ramsey's: Lonely childhood or neglectful parent leads to a turn to vice in the teen years. Alcohol is followed by sex, followed by a visit to Planned Parenthood. The debauchery is eventually followed by a tearful conversion at a Billy Graham revival or neighborhood church. After the conversion comes the ministry, a life of glory lived for God; the convert nurses the addicted, feeds the hungry, tends to the sick, and, above all, spreads the gospel to the unconverted. Lori Graham Bakker's story, "The Story of a Woman, Broken and Defeated Who Found That Dreams Really Do Come True," is one of these carbon-copy conversion tales. The beautiful blonde beaming at readers from the cover looks like she has always had her act together, but inside we find she was once a druggie, an unfaithful wife, and, in her view, a murderer: She had not one but five abortions before she found the Lord and repented of her sins.Lori Graham met not only Jesus, but Jim Bakker, recently released from prison after the PTL scandal, and the repentant couple fell in love. They were poor but happy. He bought her a zirconia ring, introduced her to his daughter, and married her. Today they live, and minister, on a piece of lakefront property in Florida. When not contributing essays on Isaiah 1:18 ("Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow") to women's study Bibles, Lori Bakker offers post-abortion healing through her organization Mourning to Joy Ministries.

On top of its cookie-cutter feel, "More Than I Could Ever Ask" has some distracting stylistic flaws, not least that it's not told chronologically; instead, Bakker zips back and forth from present to past, acquainting us with three different time periods: her tawdry youth, her courtship with Jim, and her present-day marriage and ministry. Chronology is the chief gift God gives memoirists. A writer who spurns it to write against the narrative grain is tempting disaster, and indeed Bakker's decision makes her book feel desultory and confusing.

But the book is not without merit. Like "Mrs. Ramsey's Life," its value is not so much literary as didactic and religious. I didn't pick up "More Than I Could Ever Ask" expecting to learn any great spiritual lessons, but, by Chapter 26, I was, in evangelical argot, convicted. "More Than I Could Ever Ask" made me realize just how very un-Christlike I am to fallen sinners. I don't mean Lori Bakker--her parking-lot toking and her frequent D&Cs didn't faze me. I mean her husband Jim. Pretty darn cynical when I opened the book, I took a liking to Lori Bakker and kept wondering how she could have been taken in by that adulterous PTL crook. Then I learned the Grahams (Ruth and Billy, that is--no relation to Lori) had been hoodwinked, too. They reached out to Jim Bakker as soon as he was out of prison and haven't stopped reaching since. But what about all the people Jim Bakker is leading astray in his so-called ministry? How dare he try to rebuild a public ministry after all the damage he did to the church in his selfish scandal days, I thought. Then, somewhere around page 200, I got the point. Jesus calls us to transformation, and he appears to have transformed Jim Bakker. It was me who was stiff-necked and judgmental. If Jesus Christ, and Billy Graham, can forgive Jim Bakker, I figure, so can I.

"More Than I Could Ever Ask" is not going to replace Cardinal Newman's "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" or even Patricia Hampl's "Virgin Time" or Kathleen Norris' "Dakota." But it does exactly what those 19th-century conversion narratives, boilerplate though they were, accomplished: It does work on the reader. "More Than I Could Ever Ask" newly convicted at least this reader of her sin, which, frankly, is more than I expect from Kathleen Norris.

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