Issue Date: February 8, 2008
Reviewed by CYNTHIA D. BERTELSEN
Born from a survey conducted in 2003 for La Repubblica newspaper, Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion contains brief interviews with members of Americas intelligentsia about religions central place in existence. The premise is promising, if these people are indeed those who subtly and subliminally shape Americas thought processes. Antonio Monda, a cultural critic and writer for the Italian publications La Repubblica and La Revista dei Libri, teaches at the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, Tisch School of the Arts, in New York City. A traditional Catholic, Mr. Monda states in his introduction that, from the perspective of my own religion [Catholic, apostolic, Roman], Ive always found less than convincing the position of those who recognize the existence of God and the divinity of Christ but dispute (or even have contempt for) the church.
In Do You Believe? Mr. Monda works with a somewhat skewed sample, since he personally knows most of the final 18 interviewees. The interviews are arranged alphabetically by last name. The list includes Paul Auster, Saul Bellow, Michael Cunningham, Nathan Englander, Jane Fonda, Richard Ford, Paula Fox, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Lee, Daniel Libeskind, David Lynch, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, Salman Rushdie, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Martin Scorsese, Derek Walcott and Elie Wiesel. Several others whom he asked to participate declined to be included in the book. Mr. Monda names no names, so the reader has no idea who self-selected themselves out of the sample.
Mr. Monda assumes that readers will know who each of his interviewees is and provides spotty introductions to their work and their place in the pantheon of modern intelligentsia. For example, in the interview with Salman Rushdie, nowhere does Mr. Monda mention the fatwa the Ayatollah Khomeini declared on Mr. Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses.
The breakdown of religious affiliation among the interviewees is five Jews, one Catholic, five Protestants, three agnostics, three atheists and one Muslim verging on atheism.
Aside from the major question -- Do you believe in God? -- the questions asked of each interviewee vary widely, with a few exceptions. Mr. Monda asks most of the interviewees to comment on Dostoevskys statement, from The Brothers Karamazov, If God doesnt exist, then everything is permitted. And several writers cite the work of Flannery OConnor in response to another of Mr. Mondas inquiries, Are there writers who have confronted religious subjects whom you admire? In response, only Mr. Rushdie mentions one of the people Mr. Monda includes in this book, Saul Bellow. Mr. Monda asks a majority of the interviewees to comment on their religious education and upbringing.
Some of the most intense interviews are those with film directors Spike Lee, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, actress Jane Fonda, and Elie Wiesel, the writer/philosopher and Holocaust survivor. Mr. Wiesel says, as does Mr. Monda at the beginning of the book, that, In the end, the existence of God is the only true problem, in which all other problems are subsumed and minimized. At times, I think that we are always talking about God without realizing it.
David Lynch, who grew up in a Presbyterian family, discusses his practice of transcendental meditation as a way of connecting to the divine. He says of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the religious figure who influenced the Beatles in the 1970s, I think hes a holy man, and I owe him the discovery that the possibility for happiness dwells within us.
Mr. Monda reflects his personal beliefs in the question that he shoots back to Mr. Lynch, What about that is different from St. Augustines Noli foras ire, in te ipsum redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas (Go not about, retire within: Truth dwells in the inner man.)? Mr. Lynch replies, Transcendental meditation is a mental technique that I practice twice a day; it allows each human being to dive into his own ego and reach pure consciousness and pure happiness. In St. Augustine, on the other hand, its all closely tied to Christian revelation.
In the interview with Jane Fonda subtitled Christ was a Feminist, Ms. Fonda discusses her conversion to Christianity, inspired partly by her perception that Christ showed a revolutionary friendship for women. Ms. Fonda, who describes herself as a serious Bible student, is a believer in the apocryphal Gospels, which prompts an exchange between her and Mr. Monda about religious orthodoxy that reveals Ms. Fondas skepticism about institutionalized religion.
Martin Scorseses discussion of his Catholic upbringing and its effect on his movies is interesting, as is writer Toni Morrisons speaking of her early fascination with Catholicism. Though her mother was Protestant, Ms. Morrison received a Catholic education and says she experienced a crisis when Vatican II changed from the Latin Mass before she developed the more intellectual approach to God she favors now. I dont believe in a God the father, Ms. Morrison says, who at another point tells Mr. Monda, I believe in an intelligence interested in what exists and respectful of what is created.
The interview with the late Grace Paley makes for diverting reading. The writer, an atheist, turns the tables on Mr. Monda, quizzing him about his beliefs even as he is trying to ask her about her own. Do you think you are happier than I am? she asks Mr. Monda. Ms. Paleys parents were atheistic Jews from Russia, and while the 83-year-old writer tells Mr. Monda she has no longing for religion she mentions that in the last 10 years shes started attending a synagogue in Vermont, not for religious reasons but to connect to her community.
There are intriguing moments in these interviews. But Mr. Mondas goal -- to illustrate how religion and spirituality, or the lack of it, permeates the work of major players in Americas cultural life -- falls short. As a European, Mr. Monda is accustomed to intellectuals shaping public opinion. But the days when books, magazines and newspapers heavily molded American political thought and public opinion seem far away. Today Internet blogs, talk radio, television, music and film generally crowd out print media in terms of the general publics choices for information.
Do You Believe? presents a number of important questions that individuals and discussion groups could use to explore their own thoughts on the subject of belief. But the one- or two-sentence answers given to these deep questions may fail to satisfy readers looking for something more profound. The brevity of the book and the large number of interviewees precludes the depth that a topic like God and religion demands. Reading these short, tightly edited interviews is like eating a low-fat serving of fish at 6 p.m., leaving one salivating over a TV ad for greasy pizza an hour later.
Cynthia D. Bertelsen lives in Blacksburg, Va., and is an oblate of St. Meinrads Archabbey.
National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: firstname.lastname@example.org