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Tell-all book stirs Baptist association to pro-marriage, anti-adultery stan

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Reacting in part to a controversial book by husband-and-wife ordained deacons at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., messengers of the fifth-largest Southern Baptist association in the nation overwhelmingly passed a resolution Oct. 25 upholding the biblical institution of marriage and condemning such sins as adultery and homosexuality.
“Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage” (North Point Press) is Dennis and Vicki Covington’s memoir of their marriage which, for many of its 20-plus years, was wrought with “adultery, drugs, alcoholism, abortion and sin,” as recounted in the lead review of the book on the Internet’s amazon.com bookstore. “One doesn’t know whether to admire Vicki and Dennis Covington for writing ‘Cleaving’ or to shudder and hide one’s head in the sand,” the review states.
Writing in alternating chapters, the Covingtons punctuate their bohemian-like behavior with, as the review puts it, “a goodly portion of old-time religion,” some of it from their experiences at Birmingham’s Southside Baptist Church, a church its pastor characterized as being moderate and “liberal” in its theology.
While not specifically mentioning “Cleaving,” the Covingtons or Southside Baptist Church, the resolution adopted by the Birmingham Baptist Association reaffirmed Baptists’ “commitment to the biblical model of sexuality, to the institution of marriage as the joining of a man and a woman before God.” The association said it “calls on Southern Baptist churches to maintain this witness in their public proclamation, order and discipline.”
The resolution also noted that “Scripture expressly condemns as sin such activities as premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.” And it noted: “… recent days have seen members of churches publicly flaunting such sexual sin as adultery.”
Only about a dozen of the more than 300 messengers attending the 166th session of the association raised their ballots in opposition to the resolution.
The vote was taken after the association’s membership committee declined disciplinary action against the Covingtons and their church after they resigned from their deacon positions.
David Prince, pastor of Raleigh Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham and author of the resolution, said the Covingtons’ book “was a factor” in the resolution being drafted and passed.
“The membership committee felt that what was being done is adequate, but that is not a general consensus in the association,” Prince said.
Dennis Covington told a Nashville (Tenn.) National Public Radio interviewer that, “We were both deacons and had other leadership positions in the church and were essentially asked to resign and we did after the public outcry about the book.”
Southside pastor J. Stephen Jones would neither confirm nor deny Oct. 26 the Covingtons’ resignation as deacons. Citing local church autonomy, Jones said it was a confidential matter within the church and that his church had made peace with the matter.
“We love the Covingtons dearly,” Jones said. “They are good people. We have responded to them redemptively and with grace,” he said, adding that the Covingtons, who teach writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, remain members of Southside.
One of the more controversial chapters in “Cleaving” deals with Vicki Covington’s abortion in the 1980s. Not knowing whether the child was her husband’s or the man with whom she was having an affair, she writes, “The suction was, of course, strong enough to pull the embryo from my womb. The cannula, curette, dilator, speculum, tenaculum worked perfectly. The baby we’d longed for was sucked away.”
Reading the chapter made him cry, Dennis Covington recounted to the Birmingham News earlier this year. “The abortion was the beginning of our spiritual life,” he said. “That baby was like Jesus — sacrificial blood.”
Another excerpt at the start of the book related a confrontation between Vicki Covington and the wife of a man with whom she was having an affair: “On a Tuesday night in January 1997, a woman appeared in the foyer of my house. She’d walked in without knocking. She had wild and beautiful dark curls. She was waving a handful of letters. ‘You’re (expletive) my husband,’ she spit. I made her go outside.”
Prince said he was ‘in shock” when he discovered expletives in the beginning of the book.
“The fact that anyone with teenaged children would put things like this in print, disclosures about their personal life, was shocking to me. The fact they were members and leaders of a Southern Baptist church only heightened my amazement that this was even going on.”
Vicki Covington, in the Nashville Public Radio interview, acknowledged it was painful to talk to their two teenage daughters about the content of the book, but noted both are “feisty feminists” who have stood by their parents.
Among the other revelations in the book is the belief by Vicki Covington that one of her daughters is psychic and Covington’s admission to a sexual threesome with one of her husband’s fellow college professors.
Prince said the resolution did not target anybody by name, and its larger purpose was “to speak to the issues of the day, not only here in Birmingham, but throughout the country.”
“The association opposes these kinds of behaviors — by a very large majority — and we had a chance to speak to some serious issues. Monday’s [the Oct. 25] vote is what I thought it would be. Typical Southern Baptists are theologically conservative and believe the Bible and don’t endorse these things even though Southern Baptists are brokenhearted that they go on and even go on sometimes within a Southern Baptist context.”
Jones said the resolution was a “sensationalized” and unnecessary way of continuing the controversy over the Covington’s book, which was released in the spring.
“They want me to publicly defrock these people and I’m not going to do it,” Jones said. “We’re a wonderful church here. We love the Lord.”
He commended the Covingtons for their mission work in helping dig wells in El Salvador, which Dennis Covington uses as a metaphor in the book for the spiritual thirsting both he and his wife long for.
Jones said the whole issue was “blown completely out of proportion by individuals who, I think, kind of want to make a name for themselves.”
The association’s handling of the resolution was “atrocious,” Jones also said. “[N]o one ever saw the resolution before it was read and a few of the messengers that were there kind of ho-humly lifted their cards. There was never any discussion. It was passed very uneventfully and my guess is most of the people who raised their ballots didn’t even know what generated the energy behind this resolution. It sounded pretty good, it is pro-family, pro-marriage, that sort of thing.”
Both Covingtons are successful writers, having written seven books between them. Dennis Covington’s “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” a book detailing his experiences with snake handlers in Appalachia, was a National Book Award finalist in 1995.
“Cleaving,” which ranks 66,516th on amazon.com’s sales chart, has evoked strong reaction even among the secular news media and book reviewers.
Rebecca Bain, the Nashville Public Radio interviewer of the Covingtons, defended the book, saying many characterizations by the media sounded “tawdry” because they did not fully explain the book. “This is the story of two people who love each other very much, but are complicated people as are we all. It was a very brave thing to do,” Bain said.
Among individuals commenting on the book on amazon.com, one St. Paul, Minn., reader wrote, “This book should have been subtitled, ‘Everything That’s Wrong with the Baby-Boom Generation.'” The book “nauseated me in about fourteen different ways.”
A Birmingham, Ala., reader writes, “It is evident that Mrs. Covington feels that ‘being delivered’ one day years ago on the kitchen floor gives her the ‘all-clear’ to wreak havoc as she pleases and fall back on her faith when it is convenient. … The Covingtons seem to have broken all the commandments and remain unrepentant and unapologetic for much of it.”
Dennis Covington, when asked by the Birmingham News why they wrote the book, replied, “Because we are writers. We can write better than we can live.”
“Cleaving” falls into the growing genre of literary memoir, tell-all books produced by serious novelists for readers eager to examine the personal lives of their favorite writers. The genre gained notoriety a few years ago with the publication of novelist Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, “The Kiss,” a book in which the author revealed that as an adult, she had engaged in a sexual relationship with her father.
“We simultaneously got involved with other people [shortly after signing a contract for ‘Cleaving’],” Vicki Covington told Bain. “I think the word ‘affair’ is so heavy-handed now. I prefer to talk about these as relationships because in mid-life — especially when you’re older — there is so much more than sex for whatever you’re seeking outside your marriage.”
She told the Birmingham News that Harrison’s book “inspired me and helped me understand the relationship I was in. I have an obsessive longing for paternal comfort and safety.”
Vicki Covington told Bain, “We knew we could tell the truth about the past, and it was supposed to be a book about how the baby boomers have finally gotten it together. We go to church, we lead mission trips to El Salvador, we have children, we live in the suburbs. We went through all the drinkin’ and the druggin’ and the whorin’ around, but we got it together. Then we realized we don’t have it together. We did, but we don’t anymore. I guess we call that a mid-life crisis. We happened to be in the middle of one when we wrote the book.”

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle