Travels With the Holy Ghost: An Orgy of Skeptical Ecstasy

Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible , by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet. Free Press, 304 pages, $25.

Quick story: One summer midnight at age 19, I found myself hitching back to Brown from a near-deadly car crash in Truth or Consequences, N.M., when I was picked up by a splinter group of Okie fundamentalists who took me behind an abandoned motel and laid holy hands upon me. I’d had a hard life, the preacher assured me. (I was still sporting head bandages from my accident.) My father regularly beat me, he further divined, but I had found refuge in the saintly arms of my mama. (My parents, a psychoanalyst and an expressionist art-gallery owner, would have appreciated this.) Luckily for me, he concluded, I was on the brink of finding more reliable peace in the embrace of the Almighty.

“Actually,” I confessed after two hours of this, “I’m kind of partial to my independence.”

Rearing back, the preacher had to be physically restrained from decking me. “Independence, boy?” he thundered. “There ain’t no independence outside the Lawd!”

Thank you, Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, for delivering unto me an excuse to finally unload this yarn. I’ve been carting it around for three decades, just waiting for a couple of writers to come along and tell some God-thumping tales that would ace mine. And ace they most handily do. In Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible , Messrs. Manseau and Sharlet blast around the “Bermuda Triangle of fundamentalist America” encountering one-eyed cowboys and spiritual strippers and Diet Pepsi–swilling tornado-chasers, all of whom seek salvation in their own way, and who together explode the idea that there is One True Anything.

The duo-one a Jew raised by a “Pentecostal Hindu Buddhist,” the other the son of a Catholic priest and a former nun-met while working at a Yiddish library in Amherst, Mass. Together, they created a whip-smart Web site called http://www.killingthebuddha.com (“a religion magazine for people … both hostile and drawn to talk of God”), and hit the road, trolling for “homegrown heresy, belief in the raw.” They clearly had a gas doing it. Research took them to such venues as a church converted from a livestock auction house in Texas, complete with cross made of whitewashed horseshoes. They also visited a Baptist church in Memphis converted into a strip joint, where the baptismal boasted private booths with leather chairs low enough for the dancers to straddle. Always at the heart of their quest, driving it as much as bedeviling it, was the fact that the men who recently plowed airplanes into skyscrapers were religious to their pores.

Everywhere our authors traveled, they tried to puzzle out their subjects as much as vice versa. When a confounded 25-year-old witch in Durango, Colo., finally scrunched up her face and asked point-blank if they were Catholic, she was hushed by her mother, also a witch: “Don’t be rude,” the witch superior scolded. “They clearly don’t know what they are.”

Amen to that. But not knowing amped the authors’ search to a breathless frenzy: no abstract arm’s-length inquiry for these pilgrims. In a state of skeptical ecstasy, they channeled the most impious questions-Couldn’t God foresee the Fall? What game is He playing?-while treating even certified nut jobs as if each was “his or her own personal Moses and the whole world was one great burning bush, jumping with flames but not yet consumed.” In North Carolina, for example, they honored the devotees of a jolly Indian guru named Baba as much as the bar patrons down the road at Dick’s, who called themselves Dickheads. The more cult-like the contrapuntals, the better.

Of course, the linchpin of such a random road trip through religion-land is quality control: Without it, you keep banging one set of incongruities against another until a pattern emerges that you just hope might have meaning. There’s nothing worse than ecstasy that feels forced, unless it’s ecstasy that serves to cover up a lack of clarity. And so it is here: The transcendental insight isn’t always 20-20, and it’s so freighted with rapture that we occasionally lose the point. When everything is larger than life-inevitably, the red-bearded giant in a saloon will have eyes “as big as our heads”-you can trip on your own incandescence. But did I say these were smart lads? They did a smart thing: They asked 13 other writers to pitch in, alternating the authors’ “psalms” with Bible treatments of their own.

The result-not so much a rewriting of the Bible as giving it a super-charged hip-hop makeover-is uneven. Some of the chapters are beguiling, a few are exasperatingly overloaded with attitude, and a couple give off no light at all. Everyone seems to have taken a stiff drink before taking the plunge. But even the dimmer ones contain good lines: Lovers are so skinny in “Song of Songs” by Darcey Steinke that when they make love, their hipbones “make a clicking sound a bit like a record skipping.”

The best are nothing short of illuminating: For instance, when she explains why she no longer attends Passover seders, Francine Prose strips away the trappings of gefilte fish to expose the fact that Passover is essentially an unapologetic celebration of genocide-the killing of the Egyptian first-born. “From the start,” she writes, ” Exodus involves a series of bloodbaths-outbreaks of state-sponsored and divinely ordained carnage directed principally at children … good deaths, to be celebrated and cheered.”

No less revelatory is the final psalm by Haven Kimmel, aptly titled “Revelation,” written from the P.O.V. of an angel of the future, one of a committee of undergods whose celestial vision takes in the entire sweep of human history. The tone is both grave and exhilarating. So is the effect.

But pride of place belongs to Rick Moody, who recasts the story of Jonah with a numinous concoction about a “kosher fag” named Jonah Feldman of Maspeth, Queens, who suffers such a beating at the hands of local toughs in Lynchburg, Va., that he beseeches the Lord to explain why He doesn’t wipe out the burg.

A voice from on high replies, “Why shouldn’t I spare Lynchburg, which city houses more than sixscore thousand persons and many more presently being born? And if not for them, for the wild horses on the beach? And if not for the wild horses, for the swaying reeds they trample down? And if not for the reeds, for the crickets which linger there, and if not for the crickets, for the aphids which they disturb?”

(Fall silent, clumsy-fingered detractors of young Mr. Moody! Be still, false denigrators of your betters! Verily, he is nobler than a peck of your kind.)

An impudent book? Certainly. A stagy production? Sure, at times. But for all its hyperventilation, Killing the Buddha is a genuine stab at a saucy kind of spirituality that’s as bold as it is refreshing. “The God of my unbelief is magnificent,” reads the epigram (from a line by the Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn in 1946). It applies to the seekers in this book no less than to the Okie preacher of my acquaintance 30 years ago, and to anyone at all in search of Allah or Yahweh or Baba-which are, as our authors point out, “not different names for God but different names for longing.”

Daniel Asa Rose, former arts and culture editor of The Forward , is the author most recently of Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust (Simon and Schuster).