11 October 2004
By Jeff Sharlet
Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible has just been published in paperback by Free Press / Simon & Schuster. When my co-author Peter Manseau and I set out to make Killing the Buddha, we wrote that “we had lost faith in the way faith gets talked about in America, the way it’s seen as either innocuous spirituality or dangerous fanaticism, perfume or mustard gas. After years of writing about religion, for newspapers and magazines and in letters to each other, we’d come to think that it is almost always both: Show us the truth and we’ll show you a lie, prove God is dead and we promise a resurrection.”
Great — but how do you tell that story?
Manseau and I decided to abandon the traditional journalistic approaches we’d learned and take a cue from Psalms, a book all but the most literalist of believers would typically think of as the opposite of journalism. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to develop this idea for a talk I gave to a group of 12 daily newspaper editorsfrom around the country gathered by Revealer contributor Diane Winston at the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. I wasn’t talking about Killing the Buddha, but the book was my first experiment in this kind of journalism, and it although it falls far short of the genre’s potential (buy the book to find out how!), I’m going to simultaneously plug the book and the new genre to which it belongs. What is the genre? Two parts new journalism, a dash of preaching for flavor, the principles of investigative reporting boiled down to their essence — the search for motivation. The results are not religious journalism — that’s between you and your God, or lack thereof — but, potentially, a better, deeper journalism about religion and the role it plays in American life. Here’s an edited version of my attempt to suggest some parameters — I’ll call it an agnostic, scripture-based initiative.
Religion, in the true broad sense, underlies, controls, permeates at least half the stories in the news, probably a lot more. Iraq, Iran, Israel — those are easy, we know those are religion stories. George W. Bush is a religion story. Stemcell research and gay marriage and school vouchers are religion stories, although not at all limited to the narrow pro and con set of beliefs with which they are typically framed. The question of race in America is infused with God, top to bottom, and anyone who covers immigration without thinking about conversion and apostasy and literalism might as well not be writing about it at all.
The reader wants to know facts, of course, but the reader also needs to understand all the stuff of what’s usually considered literature but might just was as well be called journalism: character and motivation and culture and sequence and consequence. What Paul, speaking of faith in the New Testament, called “evidence of things not seen.”
Now that I’ve brought Paul into the picture, I’d like to give a very brief Bible reading. MyKilling the Buddha co-author, Peter Manseau, and I started looking at Psalms a few years ago, not as part of a faith-based Bible study, but as clues to the stories we were interested in telling. They’re as good a starting point as any for reframing the questions journalists ask about what and how people believe and why it should matter to anyone else.
The poet and Dante translator Allen Mandelbaum calls Psalms “an inventory of the states of the soul.” That’s a good starting point for the kind of journalism I think readers want. So when you think about these excerpts, think of them as a much subtler and much richer version of that apocryphal Wall Street Journal notion, the idea that there are really only seven stories. Psalms has at least 150.
I’m using King James, because language matters as much, or more, than simplicity when we’re talking about religion.
Psalm 137, verses 8 and 9: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
Psalm 88, verses 4 and 5: “I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength. Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.”
One you probably all know, Psalm 23, verse 5: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
If these are states of the soul, what would we call them? Vengeance, despair, hope? Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe Psalm 137 is about some sick kind of hope, and Psalm 23, that’s vengeance. How about the the psalmist in the pit? Is he singing about despair, or a kind of peace, an acceptance of his sins?
This is not a Bible study. These are questions. They’re the kind of questions we should ask ourselves when we set out to report on “evidence of things not seen.”
Evidence is key. I’m not proposing mushiness. I don’t want less hard news when it comes to covering religion, I want more. I want to know about the numbers, I want to know who did what to who in what dark room and when – and in every instance, I want to know what the subjects of the story believed they were doing. Not the official story, not the perfunctory justifications: The fabric of belief.
That’s what religion writing has to offer every other aspect of journalism: The focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion writing. The “faith pages” languish while news stories revolving around real, actual belief, causing events in the world, occupy the front page.
I said they revolve around real actual belief. That’s what they do. They circle it. Nervously. They dip in, but they never get too close. Part of that is that nobody wants to seem like they’re declaring some truth about God. But what we need to report on is not God or the lack thereof, it’s the way people believe in these things, and what they do about them.
What do they about it? Sometimes, they run for president. Sometimes they feed other people. Sometimes they prey on little kids. Sometimes, they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes what they do defines the public sphere, sometimes, it seems to take place far beyond the public sphere’s boundaries. But that idea that belief is outside the public sphere, that it’s private, exists partly because America remains a largely Protestant country, but more importantly, for our purposes as journalists, because we fail to look for evidence of things not seen.
I’ve passed around three stories that look for that evidence in different ways. The first is byHector Becerra, a metro reporter who was assigned to write about Los Angeles families who’d lost children in Iraq. I liked it so much I asked him how he approached the assignment. He certainly didn’t consider it a religion story, didn’t consider himself a religion writer. But he ended up writing, in ordinary newspaper language, a really fine portrait of grief, of politics on the most intimate scale, of immigration and assimilation. And he did this by paying attention to what his subjects believed. Or, in this case, the story of a mother who lost her faith in God when her son died, what his subject no longer believed. This is a very basic story. The author is a good reporter, but all he’s done here is what any reporter should be able to do.
The second piece, “The Medium is the Messiah,” is by Chris Lehmann. I asked Chris to write about the boom in media savvy evangelical churches, and what he did was really, really smart. Probably too smart for a regular newspaper, where you can’t talk so much about theology and history, but it points the way toward a better coverage of changes that are taking place in American Christianity — and also American politics, American media. Chris did this by looking at one church and taking its beliefs seriously enough to provide the context in which they make sense to those who hold them and the context in which they may seem problematic to those who don’t. For reference, I’d point to the endless cycle of stories about Christian marketing that report on it as if it were wacky and new.
Last is a short excerpt from Killing the Buddha, about a murder trial in Broward County, Florida and a gospel service held to celebrate the conviction of the killer and to pray for his execution. It’s very clearly not written to fit within a newspaper, but the reason I include it here is that my collaborator, Peter Manseau, was wise enough to perceive that what was covered by the local press as a redemptive sidebar to a crime story was, in fact, a vengeance story, and a political story about the unwritten deals between a black immigrant community and a white power establishment. The way we discovered that is we simply asked the people involved — they underststood that what was happening was unusual, something that didn’t fit the preconceived media narrative for black gospel church services.
Every religion story, whether it’s defined as such or not, is about ways of knowing, ways of seeing. If we don’t share the faith of the subject of the story, we need the flesh and blood of the belief in question and the ideas that animate it. We need to be able, as much as possible, to see as the believer sees, know as he or she knows, to imagine meaning as he or she imagines meaning. And we need the economics and the politics and the geography and the history and everything else that girds belief — not as proof that faith isn’t “real,” but simply as the structure that organizes people brought together not just by worldly conditions, but also by “states of the soul.”
Lest we forget the purpose of this exercise here on The Revealer: Buy Killing the Buddha. It’s not just a book of literary nonfiction “Psalms”; interspersed with the 13 journalistic dispatches by Manseau and me are 13 specially commissioned revisions of other books of the Bible by novelists, poets, and journalists we think “kill Buddha” (read the introduction, “Mortal, Eat This Scroll!” to find out what “killing the Buddha” means). Francine Prose on Exodus, Rick Moody on Jonah, Charles Bowden on Isaiah, Melvin Jules Bukiet on Ezekiel, A.L. Kennedy on Genesis, Haven Kimmel on Revelation, and more.
Here’s what the press had to say about it:
“A whip-smart… genuine stab at a saucy kind of spirituality that’s as bold as it is refreshing.” (New York Observer)
“A heartfelt meditation… an intriguing work that is unafraid of controversy.” (Denver Post)
“The most original and insightful spiritual writing to come out of America since Jack Kerouac first hit the road.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Daring and delightful… Heretics and skeptics, as well as true-blue believers, will find Killing the Buddha refreshing, inspiring and downright invigorating.” (Lauren Winner, New York Newsday)
“Without question one of the most eccentric and fascinating books of the year.” (Buffalo News, “Editor’s Choice”)
“A mix of hymn and history, poem and prophecy, story and sermon.” (NPR’s “Morning Edition.”)
“Fascinating… religious practices you don’t learn about in Bible school. (Boston Globe)
“[A book] that literally defies ideology, denomination, and creed… [Killing the Buddha] tackles the big questions of our day without the moral smugness and arrogance that taints most discussions of spirituality.” (Baltimore City Paper)
“One of the best reads of the year.” (Southern Scribe)
“Revelatory.” (Village Voice)
“A weeping beauty of a book.” (The New Pantagruel)
“A brave book, indeed.” (Shambala Sun)
“A mesmerizing platform for all the confusions, inconsistencies, and hardboiled epiphanies concerning spiritual belief in 21st century America.” (Time Out New York)
“An ambitious book in its scope and explicit desire not to find answers to the big questions, but to hone and shape the ways in which they are asked.” (Jewish Forward)
“Deranged, slightly anarchic anecdotes of unique spiritual questing… [A book] this pseudo-Christian nation needs.” (Mark Morford, SFGate.com)
“Shot through with epiphanies and controversy” (Vanity Fair)
“A collection [that] proves that fear and trembling are human but a sense of humor is divine.” (O, the Oprah Magazine)
“Quirky, far-ranging… it shouldn’t work, but it does. A literary leap of faith.” (Elle)
“Range[s] from the densely poetic to the whimsically academic and the truly hilarious.” (Montreal Gazette)
“A sensual, cosmic marinade…. It is book as quest and calling rather than text.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
“In a megacorporate, multinational, conspiracy-obsessed world, Killing the Buddha is a kind of antidote, rendering religion as a natural resource tapped by ordinary people in small, daily, idiosyncratic ways.” (Brooklyn Rail)
Right. So march down to your local independent bookstore and get yourself a copy for 13 lucky dollars, or get a copy from your omnipresent, megacorporate book behemoth right here.
And if you’re a journalist of any kind, pick up a good translation of Psalms while you’re shopping.