During the late 1960s the most radical and controversial figure in the world of American Christianity was Episcopal Bishop James Pike of the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. My path crossed his briefly in 1969.
A former Roman Catholic in training for the priesthood, a trained attorney, Pike no longer fit the religious restrictions of Catholicism and so he migrated to the Episcopal church which was more tolerant of his somewhat controversial views about all things Christian. In short, he was the Bishop Spong of his day for those who recognize the name of episcopal Bishop John Spong of current controversy.
I was then a young pastor and recent Fuller Seminary grad at the time and newly involved in arranging Christian travel to the Holy Land which I continue doing to this day as the Holy Land Guru.
Our travel strategy then was to find famous religious figures, recruit them to provide lectures and then encourage pastors from their denomination to bring people from their churches to travel to the Holy Land and through this strategy gather a large group to travel to the Holy land with the major figure offering lectures at points along the way. It was a sound strategy and offered many a wonderful journey to the Holy land.
It was this plan that brought me and my colleague in the travel venture, a beautiful Greek lady called Elena, sister of the president of the travel company, to the home of Jim and Diane Pike in the hills of Santa Barbara California in the spring of 1969. We came to recruit Jim to be the focal point around which to create a large group of people to travel together to the Holy land later that year or the next.
The setting of their home was informal and friendly and relaxed and Jim (as he insisted upon being called) made us welcome. But there was something about this environment that I just could not put my finger on that was somehow unsettling and weird and yes unclean. I remember driving back to LA after our successful meeting with Jim and having the distinct feeling that I wanted to take a bath. Never happened before or since. And yet I liked him as a person and he was gracious to us without a fault.
But why did I have this strange feeling? Took a while to discover the reason for that but let’s not get ahead of the story.
Seeing the Pikes had not been to the Holy Land before themselves we agreed to arrange for them to go there to get acquainted and provided them with airfare and hotels so they could get comfortable in Israel.
That was the only time I met Jim Pike.
What was he like? He was a brilliant, warm, chain smoking, alcoholic and very conflicted and complex man, struggling to deal with the recent suicidal death of his son and with his multiple failed marriages and his doubts about Christianity. Because of his attacks on settled Christan dogma he had recently been threatened with a heresy trial by the Episcopal church before he took leave of his role as bishop of California. And it was after this series of events that I crossed paths with Jim. I found him enormously engaging and interesting and a terrific conversationalist.
And so the Pikes, with our help, departed for Israel in September 1969.
One ill fated day, they decided to try to try to find a roundabout way from Bethlehem through the wilderness to Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls had been discovered some years earlier. This was an act of foolishness, fatal foolishness as it turned out. The Judean wilderness is unforgiving and brutal and no place for unprepared travelers.
And so on a whim Jim and Diane apparently decided to strike out on their own from Bethlehem heading East in the general direction of the Dead Sea.
They had no emergency supplies. As I recall they had a single Coca Cola. Within hours their car became stuck and they found themselves stranded. Nobody knew where they were and they were on their own.
Pike was still convinced that if he struck out to the East that he would find his way down to Qumran and be able to find help and return to rescue Dianne.
Diane told him to remain by the car in the shade and she backtracked and went to find help. When she returned with the help Jim was no where to be seen. He had apparently decided to test his theory and struck out down a wadi that it turns out was a dead end
He never made it.
Dianne was rescued and Jim’s now mummified body was found at the bottom of a crevice some days later in a remote area no where near Qumran. He had fallen and killed himself. He was buried in a cemetery in Jaffa near Tel Aviv..
After his death much was written about Jim Pike and it explained to me why I had felt so uncomfortable and yes soiled when I emerged from his home in Santa Barbara earlier that year. Having abandoned traditional Christianity, his experimentation took him in many unwholesome directions. Apparently that home had become the place where seances were regularly conducted as he tried to raise the spirit of the dead son and also there was talk of sexual orgies being staged frequently there.
So my instincts were apparently correct. He was a tragic figure that could have been so important to the Kingdom of God had he taken another direction. What a wasted life..
So among my many experiences is the realization that I indeed played a part in the death of the infamous Bishop James Pike. And now, as the famous radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.
-Dr Robert Grant aka The Holy land Guru September 3, 2013
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