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A Memoir Of Taking Christianity 'To The Extreme'


Maggie Rowe has written a memoir about faith, doubt and yocks. "Sin Bravely: A Memoir Of Spiritual Disobedience" recounts the months that she spent in an evangelical psychiatric center when she was 19, an abiding Christian who worried that she just wasn't abiding enough. Maggie Rowe, who has produced and appeared in the Comedy Central stage show "Sit 'N' Spin" and is a screenwriter and satirist, including for the highly acclaimed show "Arrested Development," joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAGGIE ROWE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: First, let me get some of the obvious things out of the way. Are - in the comedy writers' rooms, are you the only one who can quote scripture?

ROWE: (Laughter) That's probably true, yes. And I still remember quite a bit of it. You know, there's a Bible verse that says if you etch the word of God onto a young child's mind, it will stay forever. And it's pretty true.

SIMON: You grew up in the Chicago suburbs.

ROWE: I did, yes.

SIMON: And what drew you to Christianity at such an early age? Because your parents were religious, but you really got religious.

ROWE: Right. My parents were wonderful Christians. They were religious, but they were not fanatical in any way. I was the one who took it to the extreme. I was told in Sunday school that you had to accept Jesus into your heart if you didn't want to go to hell. So of course I did that a thousand times. But the catch was you had to mean it with all of your heart. And that's a difficult figure to determine (laughter). There was a verse that said if you are luke warm rather than hot or cold, God will spit you out of his mouth on Judgment Day. And I felt like, I mean, I don't know. I'm lukewarm. I just want to watch "The Brady Bunch" and eat Suzy Q's (laughter). I'm not on fire for the Lord, so I tried to make myself generate this fire for the Lord.

SIMON: Yeah. Parallel to that, in high school and then in college, how did theater fit into your spiritual life?

ROWE: Well, I worried about it. I only would do roles that I felt were pleasing or edifying to God because I felt that if I did something that, you know, reflected badly on God then it would reflect badly on me on Judgment Day.

SIMON: Yeah. But theater is often where the most irreverent students wind up.

ROWE: Yeah. So I was an oddball in that community, and, you know, my friends would go to parties and they would drink and they would swear. Like, even swearing, that seemed to me like it'd be so great if I could just say [expletive] like my friends. You know, I wanted to be a normal kid, but I had the pressure of my eternal destiny weighing down on me.

SIMON: You went off to Cornell and had - well, I'll refer to it as a spiritual crisis and maybe it was a personal crisis.

ROWE: Yeah, it was both. When I went to college, I was so focused on this new experience of my life that I really just pushed down all of my fears of hell and damnation. And then I went to see this film. It's Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams," this Japanese art flick. And as I was watching it, it had these images of retribution. There's a young boy who disobeys his mother, and so his mother gives him a sword to drive into his stomach. And all of these images just served to bring all of this repressed material to the surface. And I heard this screaming in the theater, and then realized it was coming from my mouth (laughter). And three months later, I checked myself into an evangelical psychiatric facility. Their slogan was psychiatry where the Bible comes first. So that creates a little bit of a conflict sometimes.

SIMON: You had some differences with Bethanie in particular.

ROWE: Yes, yes. So Bethanie was the first woman I met when I was there, and she was one of these Christians that supposedly really wanted to help, but what she was actually doing was far from it. I had told her that I would get so upset about my eternal destiny that I would vomit. I was just so nauseous. It was - I just felt terrible. And what she said to me was, oh, you look in the mirror and you see someone who you think is fat and I was like, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not worried - the last thing I'm worried about is my weight. I'm not (laughter) like it would be - but she had determined that I had an eating disorder. And no matter what evidence I gave her to the contrary, she held on tight to that diagnosis.

SIMON: You were afraid of sin. I mean, you were afraid of burning.

ROWE: Yes, I was. And even if it wasn't a literal burn - because they would say that, they would say, oh, the fire is just a metaphor - but it was a metaphor for eternal suffering. But we're not crazy. We don't literally think it's burning (laughter).

SIMON: You learned a lot from the other people who were there, though, didn't you? I get that impression.

ROWE: I really did. I really did. And I mean, the one I learned the most from was I had a psychiatrist there who told me - it's the title of the book - but there's a doctrine called pecca fortiter, and it means brave sin. And Martin Luther coined the term, and basically the idea is that the most important thing is to understand God's forgiveness. And if you need to sin in order to do that, that's what you need to do. So my psychiatrist told me all these fears that you're having, it's drawing you further and further away from God. The best thing that you can do is to do exactly what you feel in your heart that you want to do. And, you know, first I objected. I was like, oh, I can't just sin. And he was like, well, what are you going to do? You're not going to - are you going to murder somebody, or are you going to put a gas bomb on a train? Like what - and his thing was follow what you intrinsically believe and then let the Bible follow, which was a pretty radical idea...

SIMON: Yeah.

ROWE: ...For me at the time.

SIMON: For a lot of people in show business, can't comedy be a kind of faith?

ROWE: Yes. And the ability to find even just, like, the absurdity of my situation, the fact that I - that it was a film. And I later read Kurosawa - there was a, you know, where he was talking about what he wanted the movie to evoke was fear of the afterlife (laughter).

SIMON: Oh my.

ROWE: So mission accomplished.

SIMON: Yeah, sounds like you're doing pretty well now.

ROWE: I think so. I think so. I'm - meditation was a big thing that really helped me out of this process, being able to sit with the fear and being able to say I don't know if I'm going to go to hell. That really was what I had to come to terms with. And it's a pretty horrible possibility, so it was a tough road to be able to accept that.

SIMON: Maggie Rowe - her book, "Sin Bravely." Thanks so much for being with us.

ROWE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.