23 June 2005

By Jeff Sharlet

If you could produce a TV program about religion, what would it look like? Who would you interview? What questions would you ask? Think about it. Then tell me, in the comments section below. Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25, I’ll have the good fortune to be part of a small symposium convened by WGBH, the PBS affiliate that produces Frontline, to think about topics and approaches for future programs. What do you propose? What would make a good program about religion, any religion? 

The participants will include PBS producers, foundation representatives with money to spend, and 20 “experts” to tell them what to do with it. Liberals, conservatives, believers, and skeptics can all rest assured that their perspectives will be represented.

Better yet — make sure your perspective is represented by sharing your ideas with me in the comments section below so I can give voice to them.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about: Disco balls. A pagan girl I met once, named Mary Dragon, explained her polytheistic religion to me thusly: “a spinning disco ball, a thousand glittering possibilities.”

One needn’t worship Hecate or Loki or Thor to recognize that as a fine metaphor for even the most conventional of faiths. On the other hand, what’s conventional? At the end of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, a book I wrote with Peter Manseau, we summed up the disco ball of American gods we’d encountered in a year of wandering the country. Or maybe it was summed up for us, by a prophetess in pasties, a holy roller Jewish-Catholic latina go-go girl who called herself Dina. We met her in a cinderblock box of a “club” on the plains outside of Geneva, Illinois.

“What’s a heretic?” Dina asked.

“You are,” we said.

“Me?”

By dint of circumstances if nothing else, she was; Club Exotica was six miles from Wheaton, Illinois, which along with Colorado Springs and Lynchburg, Virginia is a point on the Bermuda Triangle of fundamentalist America, the metaphysical zone in which shades of gray disappear and where God is a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Genghis Khan, wholesome in every regard but for the fury with which he regards sinners. And no sin is greater than the revelation of His creation. We were in Club Exotica because we’d been in Wheaton. We were at Club Exotica to see some flesh and movement because we’d earlier seen the stone-still face of Billy Graham 1,000 times in repetition at his official multi-million dollar museum. We were at this temple of cheap caveman thrills because it was there, in the middle of a dark ocean of flat land at the heart of the country, because a freight train without end had cut off our path back east and made Club Exotica a dead end with a brass pole and a disco ball. We thought of the disco ball Mary Dragon had told us about at Heartland, her idea of God, an endless number of reflections. We mentioned it to Dina.

“Totally,” Dina said. Then she asked us what we had seen when we’d looked into its mirrors. Stories, we said, and found ourselves nearly speaking in tongues, telling Dina about the smokein the air when we’d left New York City, and Isshizean Jean, the hermaphrodite terrorist angel of North Carolina, and her heart tattoo, and about the choir in Ft. Lauderdale that wore red and sang for blood. We told her about wishing we could speak Spanish with the Virgin Mary-tattooed gang banegers in Los Angeles and listing to people speak Elvish in Heartland, a gathering of a couple of thousand military pagans. We told her about one of pagans, “Skyclad,” dancing naked around his bonfire, and Dina’s big brown eyes went wide, her shoulders slumped, her professional sex kitten pose for a moment abandoned. She stripped for a living, she said, but she was an exhibitionist at heart, and she loved the idea of a bonfire surrounded by naked bodies dancing; her eyes swung around the room, undressing everyone in it, even the club’s manager, mean old Snowball, and setting them all in motion.

So we told her about Buddhists marching around stupas in rural Maryland, the witch shaking her hips in Crestone, Colorado. We told her about the buzzards we’d seen circling a dying calf when we rode the range with a cowboy pastor in east Texas, and the Dickheads laughing at the local bar of the “Baba Lovers” in South Carolina, and the Florida doctor who hunted tornados in Oklahoma as an expression of his Judaism.

Dina took a drink of the kamikaze we’d bought her and leaned back in her chair, a clear plastic heel in each of our laps.

“I’m a writer, too, you know,” she said, and then she told us about the things she had written, reciting poems and letters and stories, some of it funny, some of it sexy, some of it sad, a lot of it lousy, a little bit of it, like that of any writer, very wonderful. She was hard to follow over the soundsystem — ACDC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and Prince’s “Little Nikki” and Elvis’ “Fever” — but we caught a story about her junkie cousin — “she gets up in the morning and pushes her life into her veins” — and a sweet-natured poem about Hell, and a wistfully pornographic story about a man in a shower, “every bead of water like a jewel,” that Dina said had won her a state prize when she was thirteen.

“Do my stories sound like prayers?” she whispered, leaning forward, her long, bleached hair like a veil of smoke and incense between us and the rest of the club. She didn’t wait for our answer. Instead, she undraped herself from us and stood, her heels so high she towered above us.

“Don’t go.”

“I have to,” she said… [buy the book to find out why.]

–End of excerpt. The story is always slipping away. All we can do is mirror fragments of it. Like disco ball reflections, on paper or on tape or on film.

So spin the ball and tell me what you see when you imagine taxpayer-funded television about God, gods, and godlessness.