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A Spiritual Journey of the World

An Interview with Jeff Sharlet

By Pam Kingsbury

The Bible 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 are.

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 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 in particular, "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 travels?

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 faith.

Talk about your website. 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 ( ), a daily review of religion and the press -- looking at the way stories about religion get told.

Killing the Buddha Web Site


Killing the Buddha:
A Heretic's Bible

by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet
Free Press, 2004
Hardcover, $25.00 (292 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-3276-3
      Southern Scribe Review



© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved