The Revealer likes to harp on a theme, a rather vague notion of democratic religion writing — the sort practiced by journalists more intrigued by the many manifestations of faith and faithlessness than by Religion’s official proclamations and courtroom exhortations (Stay out of the schools! Get into the schools!).

But we’re reminded from time to time that a common “manifestation” is that of the soul who just doesn’t care. The last two days we were in Chicago, fourth stop on a tour for our new book, Killing the Buddha, a collection of true stories about unusual beliefs across the land. Everywhere we go (the royal we, by the way, is more than an affectation in this instance; the book has two authors and 13 guest stars), we ask people to share their stories of finding God, losing God, talking to God — etc.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Our first stop in Chicago, a lovely bookshop that caters to a “recovery” crowd, was a study in the latter case, a roomful of “spiritual but not religious” souls, people who dedicate themselves to reading about the world’s faiths, people who’ve lived hard lives and by God (or Goddess, or Higher Consciousness) want some answers. Now, please.

Secularists and true believers alike are fond of dissing the therapeutic narcissism present in some new age practices; less-noted, however, is the even more deadening hyper-rationalism beneath the auras and the chakras, a kind of blunt, individualistic utilitarianism — extreme curiousity in service of a fundamental uncuriousity.

Reporters are just as guilty of this pragmatic-but-reductionist worldview — too many times now,The Revealer has been asked: “So, overall, would you say that religion is good, or bad?”

The answer, of course, is: Yes.

A case powerfully made today in the letters column of Salon.com. Yesterday Cintra Wilsonadded more virtual ink to the Book of Mel, the ongoing frenzy surrounding the upcoming release of Mel Gibson‘s biopic, The Passion of Christ. Wilson notes that despite Gibson’s attempt to turn the pope into a publicity machine, the real news about the film’s marketing is in the grassroots — particularly, she writes, with a group called Outreach, dedicated to making Gibson’s Passion “the best outreach opportunity in the last 2,000 years.”

Well, it sure beats the Inquisition.

Ah, hell — that line is a perfect example of the kind of faux-knowing tone Wilson adopts for the rest of her article. The Revealer has begun to wonder whether the real story around The Passionis not so much its alleged anti-Semitism as the odd combination of indignation and bemusement with which so many journalists and secularists have responded to the film — or rather, to rumors of the film, since so few have actually seen it.

It’s not as if this is the first conservative Christian depiction of the Christ story. Gibson can hardly hope to compete, for instance, with The Jesus Film Project, which claims 5.5 billion “exposures” of its celluloid Gospel, and offers the movie in 848 languages.

That doesn’t stop Wilson, or her “interview” subject, the Rev. Mark Stanger of San Francisco’s “premier mainstream Episcopalian church” (a friend of Wilson’s, with whom she wanted to dish “the dirt” of the movie) from talking about Gibson’s flick as if it were Plan 9 from Outer Space on steroids, a movie so bad it’s dangerous.

Maybe it is; but that case isn’t made here. Rather, Wilson and Stanger conflate The Passion with the “theater” in which Stanger saw it, a megachurch called Willowcreek, described by Wilson — quoting Stanger — as a “real red-neck, weirdo community.” (The Revealer knows Willowcreek, which is, indeed, a new strain of church; but “red-neck” and “weirdo” hardly apply to solidly suburban congregation). Wilson and Stanger are unafraid. “Do you think [the congregation assembed to watch the movie] were mostly Evangelical-style Christians?” Wilson asks (note the capitalization, as if evangelical was a denomination). “I would think so,” responds Stanger.

What a scoop — an evangelical church filled with “Evangelical-style” Christians. The Revealer can’t wait for Wilson’s report on the cathedral filled with “Catholic-style” Catholics.

But one snide remark does not undo another, so The Revealer happily turns to the letters page of Salon for democratic religion reporting in action. It’s the best example of public debate we’ve seen in awhile, a kind of collective storytelling that’s intellectual as well as pragmatic, emotional as well as analytic.

It’s too bad it takes a movie star and a strong dose of snark to elicit such small-p passion, but we’ll take it where we can get it, and hope to see a similar range of ideas in all the big-P Passion reporting still to come. A leap of faith, indeed.