contains many of humanity's most enduring stories. In the reading of the
first few chapters of Genesis alone, readers learn that life isn't
always fair, people aren't always kind, and the ways in which families
are particularly cruel to one another. It might even be safe to argue these
stories have become a part of the Western collective unconscious.
Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, founding editors of the online magazine
Killing the Buddha approached thirteen contemporary authors asking each
to retell a story from the Bible. In the introduction, the editors write
"Like everyone else who knows how to read or count the stars, we've spent
our whole lives studying scripture." Manseau and Sharlet set out to talk
with Americans about belief. On their yearlong road trip, they drove south,
west, then north, and back discovering the width and breadth of religious
belief in this country. The resulting collection, Killing the Buddha: A
Heretic’s Bible, is one of the best reads of the year.
On page three of KILLING THE BUDDHA, you wrote, "because all the people we
spoke to told us it was no coincidence we showed up." Do you believe, as
Bill Moyers says, "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous"?
Hmm. That's a good question. It's tempting to say yes, because it's a good
metaphor, but no. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Which when you think
about it is even more thrilling. Here's this staggeringly complex system, a
machine so grand and intricate that it is truly random, and two parts that
will click -- writers and people with great stories -- sweep past each other
unpredictably. I'd like to think God is as delighted by the surprise as we
Would you like to introduce yourself and your co-editor?
Peter Manseau and I met in the late 90s, working at a strange, brilliant
little nonprofit called the National Yiddish Book Center. Yiddish was the
secular language of Eastern European Jews. With a few exceptions, it's
extinct now. So our job was to find and preserve the books that had been
written in this language. People threw them away, since they didn't know
what they were. We hauled them out of the trash. So that gave Peter and me a
model for thinking about stories. You need to go out and save the ones
others would just throw away. After we left that organization, me for
journalism, Peter for academe, we stayed in touch through
KillingTheBuddha.com. When we were invited to make a book of it, we at first
thought we'd just write some essays. Then we had the idea of a kind of
dinner party, with all kinds of other writers. Our own writing in
conversation with theirs.
How were the contributing writers for the book selected?
Primarily as the result of a lifetime of passionate reading, followed by a
binge of reading to acquaint ourselves with anyone we hadn't heard of. We
weren't looking for big names, or authorities, or even the finest writers,
although we ended up with a few of each. We were interested in people who
dealt with religion *implicitly.* There are writers whom we love, like
Kathleen Norris or James Carroll, who are dead on in their approach to
religion. But for this, we were more interested in the sideways approach.
And then there was coincidence. We were in South Carolina when a got a phone
call from le thi diem thuy, who wrote our Book of Ruth. She'd read an essay
of mine, about the death of my mother, and wanted to talk about. Her own
mother had just died, and she'd taken her to back to Vietnam for the
funeral. As it happened, Peter and I were spending a lot of time with a
young mother, herself the daughter of members of a sort of benign cult, and
we were thinking a lot about mothers and daughters and the book of Ruth when
thuy le called. I'll grant
that one was maybe divine providence.
What was the co-editing process like for you? The two of you?
A battle, trench warfare every step of the way. And we're glad it was. There
are some popular myths about writing, authorship, and collaboration. The
idea that writing comes from an ethereal muse, or that a single author
conceives a story (never happened; it's always a collaboration of some
kind), and that the best collaborations are a meeting of like minds. Uh-uh.
What makes Killing the Buddha work is that we disagreed on *a lot,* and so
we had to talk, often pretty passionately, about what it should be. The
result is so much better and smarter than what either of us on our own could
have accomplished. We think that might be a model for religious community,
too. It's not about finding people who believe just like you do. It's about
being in a church, or a temple, or gathered around a campfire singing, and
you need to sing along with people whose voices ain't always pretty. You
need to work with the guy you think has it all wrong. You need to recognize
that his or her god is as real, in some senses, as your is. That's
collaboration. Anything else is an echo chamber.
Is there any simple answer to the question, "What did you learn while
putting together the book?"
Compassion. Not sympathy, but compassion, an appreciation for the suffering
and joy of everyone you meet. Suffering and joy are intrinsic to most
religious or spiritual belief, in a way that they're not involved in any
other aspect of our lives. You want to see all God's creation? Then you need
to learn to look with compassionate eyes. It's hard. We often failed. But we
learned through doing the book that it's not something you can give up on.
Compassion is a work in progress.
Were any of the trip's highlights cut out of the book? What didn't make
the final cut?
Oh, lordy! All told, we traveled for about a year, spread out over two
years. The stories we didn't tell! In Miami, we got cursed by a Santeria
shop owner (Santeria is a combination of West African religions and
Catholicism, popular with Cubans) who thought we were spies from Castro.
Some spies -- neither of us even speaks Spanish. She sprayed a "magic" oil
on us. Twenty minutes later, we both got splitting headaches. Sometimes we
brought this kind of trouble on ourselves. In Chimayo, New Mexico, we both
ate dirt, along with several thousand Catholic pilgrims who believe it has
healing power there. Not bad. Kind of gritty. But bad for the stomach, it
turns out. In Crestone, Colorado, we spent a week living about a labrynth.
In Troy, Alabama, we had a great time in a bar with a couple of sorority
girls and an old homeless drifter. Sounds seedy, I know, but it wasn't -- we
all just got into telling and hearing stories about religion, each of us
coming from a totally different world. And getting fall-down drunk but never
losing hold of the
storytelling. It really was a religious service.
What was your most memorable day of the writing?
What an interesting question. I think for me it was drafting the skeleton of
Broward County, Florida. Usually one of us would just start writing about
something, and the other guy would then jump in and join the riffing. The
Broward County chapter is about this really dark spell we'd gone through in
Miami, where we'd gone to look for Santeria. The Cuban Americans wouldn't
talk to us -- they thought we were spies. One of our computers got stolen.
And we wound up attending this church of fascist (literally) Caribbean
exiles. One of their own had been murdered by a serial killer who turned out
to be a false preacher. He'd been convicted, and they had the most rousing
gospel service I've attended to celebrate -- and to pray that he get the
electric chair. They sang "Power in the Blood" with a whole new meaning. So
I started writing this up a week later, recovering sort of, at a friend's
house in Nashville. We'd met up a great songwriter there, Clare Burson, and
I sat in my friend's living room listening to one of Clare's CDs -- one song
"Mysteries Revealed" -- over and over even as I hummed "Power in the Blood"
to myself and wrote the skeleton of that chapter, which is essentially just
a long, long song about this vengeance gospel choir, about race, blood,
lies... It was a terrifying experience. Now, if I listen to a beautiful
rendition of "Power in the Blood" like Mahalia Jackson's, it still scares
me. I remember sitting there and thinking, realizing deep in my bones: Faith
is dangerous. It can be.
You've been touring promoting the book, what question have you not been
asked that you'd still like to be asked or were hoping you'd be asked?
"Can we buy movie rights?" Actually, some guy did ask us that, but he was
crazy. No movie deal yet. Otherwise, readers are really pretty smart. They
asked good, tough questions, more than I could have imagined. I was
surprised that not many picked up on -- or asked about, anyway – the
political subtext of the book. It's very much about democracy, a radical
idea of democracy. It's a dark book in a lot of ways, but I think that's
where the hope in it lies -- the discovery that there is this incredible,
raw, democratic impulse in even the most authoritarian -- or the most flaky
-- faiths. Everyone wanted to convert us, but when they didn't, they wanted
the conversation to continue. People love free speech. They love
storytelling. And that, to me, is democracy.
What would you say specifically about the South as a locale in your
The South is well-represented. Darcey Steinke, Haven Kimmel, Randall Kenan,
April Reynolds. New York City is probably better represented, but that's not
surprising given the economic realities of publishing in America (aside: The
south needs more publishing houses!) The southern stories we told: a
Pentecostal exorcism in Henderson, NC; a Baba lover compound in Myrtle
Beach, SC; Broward County, FLA; an itinerant preacher from Alabama, who we
ran into in central Florida; Nashville, which was just this swirl of things,
a church that had been turned into a brothel, the death of Waylon Jennings,
a mosque that prayed to Jesus for protection from violent Christians... Mt.
Vernon, Texas, where we went to a cowboy church... There'a a lot of south in
there. One thing that made us sad was that our publisher -- really first
rate, by the way, and that's not flattery -- nonetheless was just a little
blind to the South. We traveled all over the country on the book tour, but
except for a great week in North Carolina, skipped the south. But that's not
just our publisher's fault. That's the reality of book buying in the South.
The South needs more bookstores. More publishing houses. It needs to look to
its literary future as well as its glorious past. No more faux Faulkners!
(and I LOVE Faulkner). More attention to what's happening now. Southern
Scribe, Oxford American, these things are great. But the South needs more.
And the rest of the country needs that to come from the South, too.
Are you likely to write a sequel?
We're making a radio documentary about the people we met on the book tour
that should play on NPR's "All Things Considered" this fall. And we both
sold second books -- Peter's is called "Vows," about his family – his father
is a Catholic priest, his mother is a former nun. I'm working on one called
"Power in the Blood," which is an exploration of the dangerous side of
Talk about your website.
KillingTheBuddha.com is sort of like the ongoing experience of the book.
It's an unpredictable congregation. Reportage, memoirs, even recipes --
anything that reveals the presence of religion in the world and the world in
religion. Lately, I've been putting a lot of energy into a new website as
well, The Revealer (
www.therevealer.org ), a daily review of religion and the
press -- looking at the way stories about religion get told.
Killing the Buddha Web Site
Southern Scribe Review
A Heretic's Bible
by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet
Free Press, 2004
$25.00 (292 pages)
Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved