Believer, Beware, ed. by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau

How does a person live with the concepts of religious belief or non-belief without falling prey to fundamentalism or intolerance, or simply feeling foolish?

Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith

Publisher: Beacon Press
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Length: 288 pages
Author: Jeff Sharlet (Editor), Peter Manseau (Editor)
US Publication Date: 2009-07

This book is a collection of voices telling apocalyptic stories.

That doesn't mean they're talking about the end of the world. As the authors describe in their introduction, the word "apocalypse" in its pagan Greek form, "from which the Bible borrowed the term", means "lifting of the veil". Another word for it could be "revelation".

"The problem with revelation is that when brought down to earth, secularized, it loses all its grandeur and its absurdity -- the inherent kitsch of a beast with ten heads, the melodrama of the end of the world, that campy veil," the authors write in their introduction, titled, "The Apocalypse Is Always Now".

"It is not humbled by secularization, it is hushed. This is nowhere more disconcerting than in stories about religion that assume, in our modern age, that belief is a quality or even a quantity, an option or maybe even a substance, spirituality, the sort of thing that one might buy in handsomely designed organic cardboard containers at Whole Foods."

The second book to come from the writers behind the popular online magazine Killing The Buddha, Believer, Beware features 35 short, first-person accounts about faith. The writers describe their struggles with religious belief through stories that are at times funny, sometimes strange, and often touching. More than anything, these are revealing memoirs that emphasize the nuanced and subtle aspects of religious belief, any religious belief.

Discussions of religion in popular culture too often ignore those nuances and subtleties, and emphasize the extremes of belief or non-belief. As Chris Hedges writes in When Atheism Becomes Religion, "[T]here's nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a non-believer."

"The greatest danger that besets us does not come from believers or atheists," he writes. "It comes from those who, under the guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species...The battle under way in America is not a battle between religion and science; it is a battle between religious and secular fundamentalists."

How then does a person live with the concepts of religious belief or non-belief in general, without falling prey to fundamentalism or intolerance, or simply feeling foolish? This is the sort of dilemma people struggle with every day, but it's not often articulated in the forums of popular culture.

When Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseau and Jeremy Brothers created Killing The Buddha in 2000, it was aimed at "people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the 'spirituality' section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God." The spiritual writing that the site published grew into a book, Killing The Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, in 2004.

That book featured 13 well-known writers such as A.L. Kennedy, Francine Prose, Darcey Steinke and Rick Moody, among others, rewriting books of the Bible. "Creation via apocalypse: translation with a dynamite pen," Manseau and Sharlet described it in the book's introduction. It also included a section of Psalms, for which Manseau and Sharlet traveled across the US to gather strange and interesting stories about belief and religion.

There's a sense of kinship between Believer, Beware and those Psalms, but in an even more direct way. If the Heretic's Bible was like a consciousness-raising sermon, Believer, Beware is like hearing the voices of the congregation, and in many cases, the voices of the people sitting outside and struggling with the very idea of belief. Some of the contributors are professional writers, others are teachers, some are students, and (aside from their essays) some don't reveal anything other than their names.

A sampling of the section titles will give a good idea of the mixture of tones that recur throughout the book: a balance of irreverent, troubled, searching, melancholic and fun.

  • "God is Electric, Jesus Electrochemical"
  • "To Pardon All Our Fucking Iniquities"
  • "Bible Porn"
  • "Sects and the City"
  • "Cowboy for Christ"
  • "Jesus Gonna Strip You Naked"
  • "I Was a Prepubescent Messiah"

In one story, we meet Velvet, and "elf-witch", at an annual gathering known as Heartland.

"This is not to say that she was an elf, since, as she pointed out, elves are imaginary," the authors write in the introduction to the piece.

In another story, we hear the amazing rap of a woman in a park in Washington, D.C., who has a voice "like the love child of Muhammad Ali and Janis Joplin":

Jesus don't care.

Jesus love the hos,

Jesus loves you with the needle,

Jesus loves you with the five-hundred-dollar suit

Jesus loves you with yo honey,

And honey, Jesus love you too.

She's part of a team of street preachers from a local church, and when the writer asks the Reverend if she preaches at church, he says she does, but she's not preaching now.

"All that she's doin'? It's just mumbling'. That ain't nothin' but mumblin' 'bout the Lord," he says.

The variety of voices, the depth of thought and questioning that these essays reveal bring to mind William James, who wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience: "There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric."

In another essay from Believer, Beware, Jill Hamburg Caplan describes her quest in 1992 to find a Sufi master in Central Asia, only to discover (after five months of "confusion and strife" and no Sufi master) she'd been "hoodwinked" from the start in a strange and funny, pranksterish way, and this leads to a sort of revelation for her.

She writes: "We're all seeking something greater, the Sufi says. It is only our surface differences --and a world that can resemble a pileup of horrors--that blind us to the essential sameness of our need."

Every story in this collection is fascinating, and every one is imminently quotable. They are short, and at times feel like blog entries. There's no discernable structure to the collection, which gives the book less of an overall shape than The Heretic's Bible, but that doesn't take away from the cumulative power of the stories. At their best, it's easy to imagine these essays as a film by Errol Morris, or as episodes of This American Life.

More than anything else, the collection gives the sense of how complex and vital the concept of spirituality is to everyday life, right down to the question of belief or non-belief. Thomas Merton wrote in his Thoughts In Solitude, "The spiritual life is first of all a life." As simple as that sounds, it also creates a dilemma that can involve every aspect of day-to-day living, and these essays in Believer, Beware offer a fascinating exploration of that challenge.

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