A weekly review of reviews about religion and media.
By Jeff Sharlet
Reasons to Believe: John Marks, a novelist and former producer for 60 Minutes — and a former evangelical — can’t find any persuasive ones in his new book, subtitled One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind, which Jonathan Kirsch, writing in the LA Times, describes as “a work of courageous investigative journalism as well as a memoir of startling self-reflection.” Kirsch, a writer of popular history books about religion, seems more fascinated with Marks’ motives for writing the book than the book that resulted.
Marks explains that he was provoked into writing “Reasons to Believe” while on assignment in Dallas for a “60 Minutes” piece about the “Left Behind” series of bestseller novels loosely based on the end-times scenario of the Book of Revelation. One of the interviewees confronted him with the fundamental question of evangelical Christianity: “Will you be left behind?” On reflection, Marks was forced to concede that, by the lights of his questioner, he was “doomed to cosmic incineration” because he had embraced the corruptions and temptations of the secular world. “I will be destroyed, as will my wife, my son, and my gay friends,” writes Marks, summing up how he was regarded by his born-again kin. “It’s nothing personal. They love me, but salvation knows no loopholes.”
So this is a book about a particular subset of fundamentalist evangelicals, a distinction likely not lost on Kirsch but apparently too subtle to make it into his review, which presents the book as a tale of a prodigal son discovers he doesn’t even want to go home again.
But Kirsch is a little bit confused about where exactly Marks is located now. “Journalists and religious true believers stand on opposite sides of a chasm,” Kirsch starts his review. “The journalist is trained to ask how he knows what he thinks he knows; the true believer is satisfied that everything he truly needs to know is contained in a text, a dogma, a practice.” That’s awfully generous to us journalists, and pretty stingy toward true believers. Then again, the two species aren’t so far apart. Journalists also believe that what they they truly need to know is contained in “a practice”: journalism. They believe that by asking questions, by demanding facts, they will arrive at something called the truth. That makes them true believers, too.
Which isn’t always such a bad thing, after all. Marks is currently on the road with filmmaker Craig Detweiler, an old friend from his evangelical days, promoting a film they’ve made together called Purple State of Mind. It sounds like My Dinner with Andre for people interested in American religion, a conversation between skeptical Marks and Detweiler, who is still a believer, the author of a book called A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture. The fact that these two men are able to have a conversation — and, presumably, one interesting enough to document — is one more bit of evidence that the chasm between journalists and believers is not always so wide. Here’s the schedule for the film/book/conversation tour, complete with live music at several events.
The Age of Shiva: The Washington Post‘s usually thoughtful Michael Dirda turns in an oddly shallow response to The Age of Shiva, the long-awaited follow-up to Manil Suri’s excellent first novel, The Death of Vishnu. And the weird thing is, Dirda knows it. “Given so much that is impressive in The Age of Shiva,” he writes, “why, then, is the novel perplexing? The overall answer will seem completely shallow: The book simply isn’t a page-turner.” The problem, Dirda, thinks, is that the novel, the story of — well, that’s not quite clear, but it seems to follow the life of an ordinary Indian Hindu woman amidst decades of Hindu-Muslim conflict, beginning with the Partition in which at least half a million were killed — offers “precious little fun for the reader.”
Perhaps not. Perhaps the reader ought not be “burdened” with “info dumps” about the Hindu-Muslim conflict. After all, Indian literature is hot right now not because it tells stories of slow, grinding violence and the depressing complexity of political conflicts, but for the same reasons Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a classic colonialist’s tale of Indian exoticism Holly Berman excoriates below is a bestseller: India is supposed to transcend all that. India is supposed to be timeless.
Dirda, a critic of wide-ranging and eccentric tastes, surely knows better, and Suri may indeed have produced a diatribe instead of a story. If so, it deserves Dirda’s condemnation. But not in these terms. Try to imagine a review of Holocaust novel that complained that the story provided “precious little fun.”
The Banality of Evil: There isn’t much fun in Tony Judt’s essay in the latest New York Review of Books on “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe.” “Modern secular society has long been uncomfortable with the idea of ‘evil,’” writes Judt. “We prefer more rationalistic and legal definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, crime and punishment. But in recent years the word has crept slowly back into moral and even political discourse. However, now that the concept of “evil” has reentered our public language we don’t know what to do with it. We have become confused.”
Judt is the author of Postwar, an extremely useful synthetic history of Europe since World War II that for all its insight and narrative drive tends to sleight religion. That may be why he doesn’t realize that many of the arguments about how official memory of the Holocaust can obscure the “problem of evil” that he lays out in this essay with admirable clarity have been made before in Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life. What Judt contributes is a European contextualization for the “banalization” of the Holocaust narrative. It’s nimble history, a persuasive analysis for what was first the neglect of Holocaust history and what has since become a dangerous obsession, making this essay a useful counterpart to the news reports about Sarkozy’s new Holocaust curriculum for French 5th graders.