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CLEAVE: The Counter Agency

Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, by Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet
Free Press, January 2004 (hardcover) 304 pages [Amazon.com]

Film interpretation with an edge

The New Pantagruel
A quarterly electronic journal run by 'a cadre of intemperate but friendly Catholics and Protestants' which seeks to 'joyfully engage in earthly reality, insisting on seeing both the divine reflection and the demonic shadow...'

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Et Tu, Buddha? Beautiful Blasphemies, Heartfelt Heresies

‘Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible’ is a weeping beauty of a book, edited by ‘two religiously flippant intellectuals’ who think they’re swimming against the tide. But what the authors have mistaken for heresy is, in fact, electronic culture’s orthodoxy.

Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, by Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet
Free Press, January 2004

"Walking in the pouring rain
Walking with Jesus and Jane
Jane was in a turtleneck
I was much happier then."

- Lloyd Cole, "Brand New Friend"

"No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion!"

- Vladimir Nabokov (as "John Ray, Jr. Ph.D."), introduction to Lolita

"And a man's enemies shall be they of his own household."
- Matthew 10:36

Is there any cultural sin more gross and heretical than taking the truth claims of Christianity at face value?
If you ever get a chance to meet Jeff Sharlet, give him a good swift kick in the balls. You'll notice it's your foot that's hurting: the guy has nuts of titanium. Here's a man who's willing, possibly even eager, to deceive his fellow human into thinking he shares a belief system with them just to get the inside scoop of what really goes on inside their head, inside their meetings, inside their prayer life, their personal confessions of weakness, and all the other ugly things that come out where real human trust is taken to be inviolable. Sharlet, whose name is now synonymous with charlatan thanks to his authorship of the infamous "Jesus Plus Nothing" article in Harper's magazine back in March 2003, has now come out with a book based on his website that he and his editorial partner Peter Manseau co-created.

Sharlet's Harper's piece was infamous because it did two things simultaneously, which were completely at odds with each other: a.) it brilliantly exposed the inside mentality and daily life of the Ivanwald "family" while b.) only doing so as a result of a completely unethical act. Sharlet must have imagined himself as some sort of contemporary martyr, pulling a stunt that was the equivalent of Gloria Steinem's glory days, who was famous for dressing and acting the part of the Playboy bunny in order to get a job at one of their clubs so as to better document the—surprise!—sexism that inhered in the Playboy system. Sharlet was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover what everyone else pretty much took for granted-that these people ("America's secret theocrats"sshhhh!!!) actually believed what they were saying, actually were trying to practice what they preached. Can you imagine the horror? Is there any cultural sin more gross and heretical than taking the truth claims of Christianity at face value?

Sharlet's deliciously suggestive writing was loaded with not-so-veiled allusions to secret cabals, conspiracies and the Nazis—and, of course, that old chestnut himself, Adolf Hitler—the standby of choice when symbolizing just how ultimately evil your enemies are. Currently, Sharlet edits The Revealer at NYU with funding from the Pew Charitable Trust.

But really. This is supposed to be a book review. And with his industrial strength cojones, none of this groin-kicking is going to hurt him a bit.

Because here's my confession: I love the way this guy writes. I love the way he puts his sentences together. I love the way he makes you almost melt over the lyrical immediacy and thrumming intensity of the passion his writing evokes. How could you not like sentences like these, plucked from his post-9/11 rapture at the beginning of the book called New York New York:

"How many times can the world end? How many times can it begin again? As often as you survive. As often as you tell the story. The apocalypse is always now, but so is the creation."

A ‘forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be.’ Does that not sound great – and sexy as hell?
The thing is, it's a weeping beauty of a book. The tragedy is that most of its writers can only express the pain of loss, the bittersweet sorrow of their former days (or imaginary futures) of actual belief. In these doubtful times, they are strangely comforting essays, many utterly original, many others interesting and highly original interpretations of 13 books from the Bible. Additionally, you get 13 essays by Sharlet and Manseau based loosely around the theme of a spiritual roadtrip across America. Peter Trachtenberg's adaptation of Job is especially relevant to our cinema-obsessed culture, and this reviewer.

And yet. And yet ... When substance is lacking, it's amazing just how far the book takes you on style alone. Sharlet, Manseau, and their contributors all write in a language that is fairly sparkling with energy and glistening with the suggestion of meaning. The problem is just that: instead of a rock on which to stand, the entire book is more like a collection of swimmers showing off their strokes. The irony is that they believe they are swimming against the tide, when in fact it is precisely the tide of contemporary culture that keeps their heads above water and makes the swimming so easy. Is there any more marketable buzzword than the word "irreverent"? Is there any stronger gospel than the one that declares the absoluteness of relativity, the rigid and ridiculous demand of absolute objectivity in a post-Heisenberg universe? What Sharlet has mistaken for heresy is, in fact, electronic culture's orthodoxy.

It's a book with no title on the cover. Just a big red X over the clouds in the blue sky, a kind of reversal of the Passover symbolism, in which the creation tells the Creator whether we will let Him exist or not. It is what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that in the modern world it was God that was in the dock. It is what the ancients called hubris.

Sharlet's essential mistake is that he feels that the truth claims of any religion are only relevant, and therefore only potentially true, for those who believe in them. It's the old magic feather trick that everyone from William James (The Will To Believe) to Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) put into high rotation and constant replay since roughly the time that Nietzsche said that God was dead. Unfortunately, the depressingly simple yet elegant rules of logic require that either a thing be true or false, and that if true, no amount of wishing the opposite has any bearing on it,and vice versa.

And Christianity, Sharlet's secret obsessive compulsion, has a profound willingness to acknowledge its own possibility for error: St. Paul puts all his cards on the table in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19:

"But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

You can't get much more brutally honest than that.

Instead of a rock on which to stand, the entire book is more like a collection of swimmers showing off their strokes.
You take the highest and last refuge of meaning that a culture has and you give it to kids like these, and they will guarantee you a fast and fun ride to the bottom. And the ride really is fun. Until it's over. The last page flips over with such a desperate existential cry that you can almost taste the ashes. Not only is scripture not revealed and God doesn't exist, but now there's nothing left to either do or believe now that we've finished our mockery. You're reminded of the Roman soldiers torturing Christ—how much fun it must have been, not to kill the Buddha, but to kill the Christ, and how great must the despair have been once that fun was over. Even Publisher's Weekly, who should be in the business of promoting the book, call Sharlet and Manseau "two religiously flippant intellectuals."

But really, what did you expect? Being hip is getting harder to actually achieve in these post-ironic days, the way an erection is harder to achieve in a post-pornographic mediascape. Sharlet's book is spiritual Viagrait works, but only for a while, and watch out for the side effects. Like any drug, the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly. The book is subtitled A Heretic's Bible. On the website that the book is based on, the truth is right there in the advertising:

"Killing the Buddha is a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God. It is for people who somehow want to be religious, who want to know what it means to know the divine, but for good reasons are not and do not. If the religious have come to own religious discourse it is because they alone have had places where religious language could be spoken and understood. Now there is a forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be. Killing the Buddha is it."

Does that not sound great? Appealing? Exotic and alluring and, let's be honest, sexy as hell? Now imagine the above paragraph with the word soccer instead of the word religion. (And if you doubt how much sport is a religious experience these days, try a British soccer match for fanaticism and violence) Imagine what kind of website it might spawn:

Come on: if you don’t want to play, why do you want to be on the team?
"Killing Pele is a soccer magazine for people made anxious by stadiums, people embarrassed to be caught in the sports section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of athletics. It is for people who somehow want to play soccer, who want to know what it means to score a goal, but for good reasons can not and do not. If the athletes have come to own the soccer discourse it is because they alone have had places where sports language could be spoken and understood. Now there is a forum for the supposedly non-athletic to think and talk about what soccer is, is not, and might be. Killing Pele is it."

Sure there are escalating levels of commitment and belief, but come on: if you don't want to play, why do you want to be on the team? If you don't want to be on the team, why do you want to be in the stands? If you don't want to be in the stands, why don't you want to read the magazines or watch the shows? And if you don't want to do any of the above, except stand completely outside it and make potshots from behind the stadium, why do you think you have any right whatsoever to comment on the goings on of what it means, and if that if you do, that anyone should care? Answer: because we're smart, cocky, and we're really good writers.  

October 1, 2004

READ MERCER SCHUCHARDT is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Marymount Manhattan College. He is the co-founder of Cleave: The Counter Agency [www.cleave.com] as well as co-founder and publisher of Metaphilm [www.metaphilm.com], and Contributing Editor of The New Pantagruel [www.newpantagruel.com]. His writing has been published in Utne Reader, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, and Re:generation Quarterly, where he was the Contributing Editor on Media and Culture. His two books, Metaphilm: Seers of the Silver Screen, and The Disappearance of Women: Technology, Pornography, and the Obsolescence of Gender are forthcoming from Spence Publishing in 2004 and 2005.

This article originally appeared in the online magazine, The New Pantagruel (www.newpantagruel.com). Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright ©2004, Read Mercer Schuchardt. All rights reserved.

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02.13.05   Jeff Sharlet says:
Well, thanks for the nice words, Nate, but I think you've misunderstood the book -- and the history of writing in general. This is a book about different people and what they believe. It is not a book about what it is right to believe. It's a work of journalistic ethnography, not of theology. Your critique would make as much sense if applied to a book about, say, fly fishing. You might point out that's it a pleasurable read, and you enjoyed the stories of big fish that got away. Then you'd have to conclude, though, that the book is fruitless, since it doesn't point out that the only true joy can come in knowing Jesus, and therefore doesn't offer real solutions for the frustration experienced when those fish got away.C'mon, folks -- you got the Bible and millions of Christian works. Is it not acceptable to ever write about belief without bringing the hammer down?

12.06.04   Nate Wilbert says:
Please allow my thoughts on Killing the Buddha, The Heretics Bible. I thought the book was mesmerizing at times. The style of writing frequently struck me as lyrical, similar to what Read said. There was at least one funny point in the book. I’m talking about the time Sharlet and Manseau were given a “love potion” for each other. Of course, it was intended to produce harmony between them, nothing more. The writing was addictive in a sense as well. There were times I could not put it down, while at other times, I was disgusted to the point of stopping my reading. In the end however, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was very disappointed with what I saw as the theme of the book. That theme would be a rejection of any one truth system as an explanation for reality. In the beginning of the novel, Sharlet and Manseau write: “Faced with modern day atheists or fundamentalist or guys who thump thousand year old Zen aphorisms hard as any Bible, Lin Chi would probably say the same thing: Don’t be a chump. A single story never explained anything (p.2).” Throughout the book, this rejection takes two forms. First, Sharlet and Manseau write on the religious practices of various people from various religions, occasionally offering small comments on them, but not in a quest to discern the truthfulness of them. This is in keeping with their introductory statement quoted above. Second, many of the authors of the 13 books revised in this “Bible” dwell on questions of pain and suffering in this life yet offer no answers for these problems. After reading this book, I might be tempted to agree with the statement from Jonah Feldman in the revision of Jonah, that it is better to die than to live (p.229). The hopelessness I found could be turned to hopefulness should the questions posed be reviewed from a Christian perspective. Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is suffering. Does that mean there is no God (p.183, 185)? When God punishes that sin, does that indicate He is a mean and capricious God (p.33)? When God chooses to allow the free actions of men to occur, even evil actions, does that mean God is impotent (p.206)? Does that mean that God doesn’t care about those against whom evil works (p.131)? When God doesn’t speak words into our ears because we desire it (p.179), does that mean that God didn’t give us a series of revelations about Himself over time? These revelations would include His desires for us in this world, and the hope we can have through His grace which he displayed publicly for all to see through the undeserved death of His Son, as a payment for our sins. If they are truly struggling with these issues, I would ask that they open their hearts to the truths found in Christianity. I do not think they successfully refuted any of the answers Christianity has given for the questions they presented. The essay on Job is perhaps the only essay of the group that even tries to address solutions proposed, but like the others it provides no alternative answer. Peter Trachtenberg writes at the end of his essay, one of the best I would like to add, that he knows what we’re going to say (p.132). I agree. It wasn’t a funny essay. It was a waste of time. It seems that the various authors have already made up their minds that there is no one version of the truth about reality. However, I wonder if their time would be better spent examining various truth systems further, and in the case of Sharlet and Manseau, doing so in addition to examining the people who make up those systems? Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s good that they are examining the people and their actions. Even Christianity (my religion) urges it’s believers to examine themselves regularly to make sure that they are in the faith. We know that the truly saved believer is saved unto eternal life, but that we are still in our sinful bodies, and must constantly be on guard against the desires of the flesh, and moreover against those who would masquerade as true believers but in reality are deceivers. I think Sharlet and Manseau perform a function for religions similar to that of a watchdog group for governmental agencies. But I think this function is only half of the solution. They specialize in religious reporting, yet offer no comments on the truth claims of the religions. Perhaps Sharlet and Manseau could use some insight from author Nancy Pearcey when she rights about worldviews in her book “Total Truth.” In addition to their watchdog functions, they could try applying her grid to those they encounter to see if their beliefs stack up against reality. She says, “every worldview or ideology has to answer the same three sets of questions:1. CREATION: Translated into worldview terms, Creation refers to ultimate origins. Every worldview or philosophy has to start with a theory of origins: Where did it all come from? Who are we, and how did we get here?2. FALL: Every worldview also offers a counterpart to the Fall, an explanation of the source of evil and suffering. What has gone wrong with the world?? Why is there warfare and conflict?3. REDEMPTION: Finally, to engage people’s hearts, every worldview has to instill hope by offering a vision of Redemption-an agenda for reversing the “Fall” and setting the world right again. (Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, p. 134).”I think Killing the Buddha, The Heretics Bible is ultimately a work of fruitlessness, because it only tells half the story. It discusses actions, without providing answers for the questions raised by those actions. It refuses to acknowledge anything as truth, and thus offers no explanation for reality.Nate

11.13.04   Jeff Sharlet says:
One couldn't ask for better readers than Paul Chau and GM Jape, so I don't have much to add here. Of course, one couldn't really ask for a better and sharper critic than Read, either -- I just wish he'd actually read and respond to my work rather than the anti-Christian bogeyman who haunts him.Read suggests that my insinuation of a "fascist conspiracy" in the religious right (an odd phrase, since I've explictly rejected the term "conspiracy" in numerous media outlets and in conversation with Read) does not challenge the truth claims of Christianity.Agreed. One hundred percent, absolutely. The truth claims of Christianity are safe from the thuggery of those who steal and kill under the guise of Christianity. Now, what do we do about the killers and the thieves? Read's answer to me, in our long subway conversation, was: Nothing. Well, that's one theological stance. Not one I'm comfortable with, but so long as Read doesn't start thieving and killing, why, he's entitled to it. What he's not entitled to is aburdist misrepresentation of my views or those of any writer, Christian or otherwise, who believes it is right and good to challenge the thieves and killers. There are those make that challenge in Christ's name, and there are those who aren't sure about the divine but are sure that murder is a sin. Let us do our work, Read, and return to "media ecology." You might also want to dip into history. Hitler was not Christian, and I certainly never suggested so, nor that Christianity is besmirched because a few shmucks in Arlington (whom, it should be said, also know that Hitler wasn't Christian) think he's a swell model.Last, an issue GM Jape raises: that of my readership. And here we're talking about "Jesus Plus Nothing," I assume, not "Killing the Buddha." Yes, some readers of that article did think it revealed some all-encompassing truth about Christianity. They're wrong. They're reading of the article was as ideologically blinded and paranoid as Read's. In subsequent interviews, I've done my best to disabuse them of that foolish notion. So long as they hold it, they're playing into the hands of those who'd recast Christianity as American nationalism, a powerful minority within American Christendom that nonetheless need not carry the day, so long as publications such as Godspy and The New Pantagruel can lose the two-ton chips on their shoulders and stand up for the Christianity in which they believe, not the thuggery in which some ostensible co-religionists dabble.Through that article in Harper's, I've had the good fortune to correspond with Christians among the magazine's readership who, like me, think that murderous corporate nationalism is, um, BAD. As in, so bad that it's more important to fight that than to kick people in the balls because they don't adhere to orthodoxy, as revealed to one academic media ecologist at Marymount College. Some of these Christians are former members of the Family, or the Fellowship; they testify from personal experience to the virulent and ugly distortion of Christianity within the movement to which they once belonged.That, to my mind, is keeping with the best tradition of criticism, a genre rooted, in the West at least, in Christian testimony. Such Christians are defending their faith; would that Read do as much.

11.03.04   GMJape says:
I cannot see why Mr. Churchardt is so insistent that Mr. Sharlett's various writings are always judgements of "Christianity" and what is really at stake here is "the truth of Christianity." Perhaps a specific example--replete with quotations--would help me out. Where does Mr. Sharlett "equate the Gospel with its practitioners?"As I see it, Mr. Sharlett considers particular Christians in particular contexts ("Christianities"), and while he may imply or make judgments, they pertain to a much more limited sphere than the monolithic "Christianity" that Mr. Schurchardt feels is under attack. I have never had the impression that Mr. Sharlett's writing puts "the Gospel" on trial with "its practitioners" as the star witnesses. At the same time, I am positive that many people disinclined to be more open-minded will read Mr. Sharlett's work in exactly that way. We should distinguish between the author's intentions (which may be debated) and the way his work is received. One might argue that there is an intentional duplicity--that Mr. Sharlett knows very well that he is playing at being an understanding and perhaps even "neutral" personality, but at the end of the day he means to deliver the expected right-wing loonies' heads on a platter to his readers. I am not making that argument, but I can see it as a legitimate line that others might want to investigate. Has Mr. Sharlett ever written for an "insider" publication? If he did, what would he say then?In any event, I believe Mr. Schurchardt is pursuing what is always a false question--"Is Christianity true?" This question has been popularized for pragmatic reasons by modern-minded rationalist-apologists, some of whom knew better. I think of C. S. Lewis, with his disembodied, ahistorical, fictitious "mere Christianity. To the question of, "Is Christianity true?" we must ask "Whose Christianity?" or else begin with a host of unexamined assumptions about "(mere) Christianity." Only certain kinds of Christians at certain times in history pose this pseudo-basic question, "Is it true?" From my perspective, they do not know what "it" is. Outside of the Protestant, especially Evangelical, world, the question is always: "Is the Church authoritative?" (For vintage Calvinists who took Luther and ran to certain logical soteriological extremes, all questions about truth aimed at persuasion/conversion are irrelevant except perhaps as goads for the elect who have not realized their election to realize it. The elect are the elect; if you don't get it, you will or you won't, and it doesn't depend on any human agency, for there is no such thing as human agency.) For if one is in a position to speak of "the church" as a real rather than imaginary, "invisible" institution, one sees a radical gulf between one's own position, which calls for a very embodied assent of the will., and another that focuses on an assent of the mind. (Of course this does not imply that to non-Protestants the rational intellect is irrelevent, maginalized or condemned. History shows this attitude to be prevalent in all kinds of churches though evidently far more damaging in the Protestant world.)I will also note that Mr. Schurchardt is very hasty to insist that the New Testament clearly teaches that there is only one true religion. There are conflicting statements from Christ on the matter and a diversity of interpretations and theological traditions that do not fall into neat "liberal" and "conservative" categories. Again, Mr. Schurchardt seems to unwittingly universalize a particular set of assumptions and interpretations which are not representative of "Christianity" but rather a particular Christianity.If Mr. Schurchardt wishes to continue pressing Mr. Sharlett to consider "the truth of Christianity," I suggest posing the question this way: have you ever been among a community of religionists whose beliefs and practices struck you, if even for a moment, as illuminating more than the intramundane, more than their own imagined world? Have you ever experienced a taste or vision of a world beyond the world?

10.30.04   alexander caughey says:
It could be said that in crossing the Rubicon, a certain amount of patience is required, for in that act of measuring up to all who would endeavour to provide us with an alternative view, is found the vision of all who would also dare to do likewise. Is it in the nature of living that we are all to be provided with the right tools, to enable us to fathom the mysteries of life, or is it the nature of things that we are all cursed to be denied the understandings that are so prevalent in the lives of those who would endeavour to persuade us that they are able to do that which we cannot. Religion may well be an opiate but it is also a deep well of untapped sight into a world beyond which we cannot enter in our present form. That as Paul of Tarsus, rightly reminds us, there is no hope beyond the reality of our being, found when we are alive as a human being. That life is beyond all that we comprehend as being human, should also inform us that we can all view life, in its myriad of expressions, by simply being all for those who are also able to do likewise. That our esteemed authors of some repute in beer drinking, or offering thereof, should feel the need to deny us the pleasure of partaking in a free glass of beer, has created a sense of foreboding in me, knowing that in that glass of beer lies the wherewithal for me to ponder why I should spend my time contemplating why two entertaining authors are not spending more of their time, sharing beer with each other and less time, entertaining us with their antics of bitching each other, as if they had ambitions to equal Evelyn Waugh, in his successful forays into the world of bitching, for the sake of entertaining those who were too dumb to appreciate his wonderful works of art. I salute both authors and their generous contributions to our time, well spent absorbing their gregarious outlook on sharing life, with those of us who need the sort of wisdom that can be found when staring into a beer glass, in need of refreshing.

10.29.04   Read Schuchardt says:
"There are two kinds of charlatan: the man who is called a charlatan, and the man who really is one. The first is the quack who cures you; the second is the highly qualified person who doesn't." - G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, Feb 15, 1908Jeff Sharlet is a good man to drink a beer with, and a good guy to have as a intellectual combatant. I'm honored by the fact that there exist a measurable THREE (3!) other people online (in addition to Jeff and I) who have actually read either his writing or my criticism of it, and have bothered to respond. As iron sharpens iron, I'm hoping this continued exchange will make us both sharper. It was my suggestion, when Jeff first called to threaten me with a libel law suit, that we take our "dispute" public and go ballistic on each other, for if Jeff had indeed sued for libel, that could have been a potentially newsworthy item, rather than the big yawn that most of our collective writing actually engenders in the 5000-channel universe of 21st century mass media. I mean, religion? Please. Get something relevant to talk about, like the newest iPod. My suggestion was that we create a Chesterton-Shaw type public relationship, and hotly dispute everything (so that the New York Times would finally take notice of the book he and Manseau co-authored) while maintaining a Chesterton-Shaw type private relationship, which would allow us to go fishing together on weekends. Jeff's spirit of cooperation allowed us to share a beer and a very long subway hall conversation, leaving both of us exhausted at the end. And so personally, I hold Jeff in very high esteem, while critically, I have to say that the substance of Jeff's response confirms much of what I'd already said or implied in my initial review -- that Sharlet displays 1.) a habit of misreading texts (my "nuts of titanium" comment was not a compliment, but a metaphoric extension of the phrase "brass balls," which is a reference to the bearer's arrogance/presumptuousness), 2.) an admission that he cannot write that well (the piece I liked best turns out to be written by Manseau, not Sharlet), 3.) an inability to see the one-to-one comparison between being a non-athlete writing about what soccer "is, is not, and might be" and being a non-believer (in any creed) writing about what religion "is, is not, and might be", 4.) an ongoing willingness to let fly casual insinuations that are crafted to smear by association (last time it was Nazis; this time it is the phrase "anti-semitism" and the reassurance to "relax; I'm not calling the wonderful Godspy anti-Semitic" which leaves the distinct impression that his next thought was, "But I could, and oh boy, if I did...." in such a way that it basically says, "You've been warned.") and 5.) a dodgy way of avoiding the one real criticism I actually made.But since Jeff takes himself seriously when discussing the topic of religion -- he not only runs a religion website, published an article in Harpers on religion, co-authored a book on religion, and now runs another website on religion -- I thought I would take him as seriously in rebutting what I felt was a common misperception that he seems to consistently make in his reporting on Christianity. It is a common enough mistake that I was hoping to disabuse him of, and that is to judge the faith by its practitioners rather than by its truth claims. Flannery O'Connor's response to this was simply, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." And it is this one charge, the only serious charge I made, that Jeff never actually answers in his response to my review. It is simply this: you cannot dismiss, as much as you might like to, the truth claims of Christianity simply by tarring-and-feathering-by-association the individual or collective practices of those who claim it as their creed. I am a fairly typical example of what Sharlet rails against: in writing my very "un-Christian" review of Jeff's book, I most likely offended a number of people for using "strong language." Leaving aside the debate of what language Christ used when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, the point remains -- just because I may call myself a Christian while practicing un-Christian book-review habits does not condem Christianity -- it simply condemns me for hypocrisy. And it is Christianity, not Jeff Sharlet, that condemns me. But this is a simple and silly example compared with the serious human crimes that are out there.For Sharlet, it seems, we CAN confuse the truth claims of the faith with its subsequent practitioners when we are dealing with "the worst sons-of-a-bitches to walk the earth in the 20th century." And this is the mistake that Sharlet makes in fierce syllogistic form: IF Hitler was evil (and he was), and IF Hitler was a Christian (very debateable, but for the argument's sake let's say he was), THEN because of his evilness, Christianity must not be true. Not only must it not be true, but anyone in politics after 1945 who claim Christianity is true must be on the path to Hitlerian-like levels of genocide, massacre, and holocaust.My simple response to this was that Christianity may or may not be true, and that even Christianity acknowledges this -- which is why I quoted Paul's syllogism -- if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ was raised, and our faith is in vain. That we cannot know (scientifically) gives Christians reasons for humility. That they can believe on the reasonable grounds of historical testimony and faith nevertheless gives them reason for an ultimate hope. Sharlet's special gift for pointing out the hypocrisy of Christians is a fine talent to have, and I typically enjoy his writing on these and other issues in both the Revealer and Killing the Buddha. And parts of his Harper's piece struck me as consistent with some right-wing politicos I've heard about or met. Where he goes wrong is not in pointing out the eternal problem of hypocrisy (which, by the way, is an equal-opportunity sin that afflicts all faiths), but in throwing the baby of belief out with the bathwater of hypocritical action.It was Christianity that taught that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so it should come as no surprise when, Christian or not, people throughout history commit acts that range from mildly annoying to unspeakably horrifying. Sharlet's style of insinuation seems to be that Christians are especially guilty of this fault in human nature. In fact, it is the opposite of the truth, but Christianity IS unique in that it has the audacity to claim to be the one true religion (by claiming Christ as the only son of God and the only path to God). This audacity is in fact audacious; but audacity is like brass balls -- it may appear arrogant or presumptuous, but that does not categorically condemn it as untrue.Jeff may even be on to something with his not-so-subtle insistence that the religious right is a fascist conspiracy. This in and of itself, even were it true, does absolutely nothing to dismiss the truth claims of Christ and the gospel. This is what Marshall McLuhan had to say on the subject: "But as far as the society of men is concerned, the private opinion about any of these matters is quite insignificant. The revealed and divinely constituted fact of religion has nothing to do with human opinion or human adherence." Sharlet's real problem may be with some contemporary American politicians, or it may be with Christ himself. His confusing of the two was all that I was railing against. That they might confuse their sense of mission or foreign policy with Christ's great commission is indeed something worth talking about, for disastrous results can and have occurred in the name of Christ (as well as Moses, Mohammed, Marx, Mao, etc) -- no one is denying that. But invoking the name of Christ does not actually mean that God is on your side, nor does it mean that you're getting the whole story of what Christ wanted. True religion, by the account of both old and new testaments, is remarkably simple yet often overlooked: mercy, justice, humility, visiting widows and orphans, and keeping yourself unspoiled by the temptations of the world. None of these commands, nor any of Christ's commands in the Sermon on the Mount, justify genocide or any other atrocity committed by politicians or generals claiming to be religious. Others in the discussion have helpfully offered to explain my view: GMJape offers my view as typical of evangelical minds in that "outsiders can't critique religious insiders" and that is so close to correct as to be off by a mile: the outsider's critique is precisely what any insider needs, and that was what was so good, for instance, about Jeff's Harper's piece. What I was railing against was that outsiders can't claim to understand insider's motivations if they mistakenly equate the Gospel with its practitioners. I'll be the first to admit, readily, that Christians are the reason Christianity has such a bad reputation -- but that still leaves unanswered the question of Christ's claims. Paul Chu's more considered response was that the ontological trumps the epistemological -- well that may be so for the believer (and it "may" be so in fact), but for the existentialist existence precedes essence, and Jeff's writing seems to be coming more from that outlook than any other. But Chu's comment that we can't feel soul-level ambivalence about "truth claims of any sort, nor concern about the fate of a culture," I would respond by saying that is exactly what everyone on this list is feeling -- that is what motivates Jeff Sharlet to write, Read Schuchardt to respond, and three other people to add their comments. The truth is worth an argument, and the fate of culture is worth an argument, and this is simply where we're having the argument. Dismissing it with the pre-emptive despair that it will all be ground to dust eventually is like saying you're not having dinner tonight because you might die this afternoon. You MIGHT, but meanwhile, aren't you getting hungry? Meanwhile, I did appreciate what I considered to be Paul Chu's most insightful comment, which also deserves commenting on: "For there is something more heretical out there than taking the truth claims of Christianity at face value: taking the actual truth of Christianity for all it’s worth, for all the power and meaning it radiates, whether you can or will believe it or not." On the one hand, it's pretty funny to picture a person doing as Paul suggests I'm doing: "Truth doesn’t depend on us holding our breath and believing it as hard as we can." and I can well imagine, in these and other writings, that indeed may be the unintended effect. Touche. At the same time, I believe Paul is pointing out the total impotence of the Church by this very admonition -- it is precisely *because* Christians do not "take the actual truth of Christianity for all its worth" that Christianity is in such a shambles these days. I'm reminded of Adolf Holl's book, "The Last Christian" wherein he argues quite convincingly that St. Francis of Assisi was in fact the last Christian the world has seen, because Francis was the last one to sense the total and completely radical nature of Christ's commands, and the last one to say, yes Lord, in response to them. Today, St. Francis is a lawn statue bird feeder, another commodity symbol of our Christian capitalist culture, and so Paul Chu's admonition stands as a judgment not only of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of my own writing but of Christian practice nationwide. Instead of holding our breath, or even writing in weblogs, real Christians should be out there serving the call of the gospel. The widow and orphan rate, however, keeps climbing.Paul (and Jeff), your favorite atheist writer was a lot more influential on Nazism than Christianity ever was. Here are two well-known quotes on the subject :"I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers." - Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul"[In place of religious belief] Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the "Will To Power," which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behavior than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance."- Paul Johnson, Modern Times Finally, Jeff Sharlet's tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater not only affects his judgment of Christianity versus those who practiced it, but it also colors his view of anything related to Hitler. Surely Sharlet is aware that the national highway system, and the Volkswagen Beetle, were two of Hitler's ideas, and that they came from the mind of a mass murderer do not make them any less "good ideas" than if they came from a benign blog writer. If there is a Jewish ban or even cultural taboo against Volkswagen automobiles or American highways, since American culture immediately adopted both after the war, then it's news to me. I even know Jews who take Bayer aspirin for their headaches, despite the fact that Bayer manufactured Zyklon-B during the war. The point is that you cannot deal with historical complexity with grand sweeping assertions and associations, and that is an ugly habit that Sharlet would do well to rid himself of.It is also worth noting that Nietzsche's relationship to Nazism and Christ's relationship to fascist political power are alike in one way but very different in another way, and that difference is dependent precisely on the ontological reality with which we are faced. To quote Crane Brinton from his book, Nietzsche, "Nietzsche called for the Superman. Mussolini and Hitler answered the call. It does not matter that in all probability Nietzsche would have scorned them as perverters of his doctrine, would have opposed them bitterly. It does not even matter that had Nietzsche never written these men would in all probability have come to power much as they did. They have found a use for Nietzsche, a use he probably never intended his words to provide."And here is the difference: Nietzsche would have opposed them bitterly, and said they found a use that his words were never intended to provide. But they will not answer to Nietzsche. If the dead are raised, however, then all of Christianity's hypocrites will answer to Christ, for Christ created, sustained, redeemed, and judges them. If the dead are not raised, then Sharlet is doing precisely what he ought to do, which is to condemn the sinner along with the originating sin of his or her creed, which is not the truth but the most perfectly vicious lie ever to have sustained 2000 years of critical abuse.In closing, I should hasten to add that I admire Sharlet for his talent, his courage, and for what I see as a long-needed revival of the religious question and conversation, and for doing so in a liberal and liberating way that avoids the standard "preaching to the choir" that so many religious publications are incapable of not doing. I applaud his work and his efforts whenever and wherever possible, I attend his book parties, I recommend his writing (which may only be slightly less scintillating than Manseau's, after all) to both students and colleagues, and I offer him free beer whenever I can. If we disagree, we disagree about one and only one thing, and until he is convinced otherwise, I'm sure we will be content to celebrate our commonalities rather than our differences. Unless, of course, he calls to sue me for libel again...

10.27.04   alexander caughey says:
That the issues of life are able to be discussed from a variety of angles and with a willingness to present our views, with the thought that some will appreciate our input, should be part of the value system of all who aspire to freedom of expression, that does not defame or inspire intolerance.

10.26.04   GMJape says:
I have only just begun reading Jeff & Peter's book, but I did read the Jesus + Nothing article when it came out and heartily liked it. Jeff is right in all that he says about it in defense, and some blame must fall on the editors of the New Pantagruel. I think Read's review works the way evangelical (and other minority identity-group) minds typically do: outsiders can't critique religious insiders unless they are Bill Cosby, and that's still iffy. The Jesus + Nothing gang is close to home (Jeff spelled out the connections) so the assumption is, here's this liberal in a liberal magazine trying to mark the "religious right" as a fascist conspiracy. I am quite sure that people at Harper's and certainly many of their readers (I don't recollect the ensuing letters) made that standard connection. As already noted, "the ontological trumps the epistemological," and Read's closing refusal of that idea is also an evangelical protestant reflex. Yes? No? How so? That might be an interesting discussion.

10.13.04   alexander caughey says:
In contemplating, I have realised that your analysis is best described as another personal outlook on your reaction to living. As such it should be respected as your contribution to our common knowledge.I believe this should be our approach to all who would offer their view of any aspect of living.When we attempt to suggest that our own view is more truthful than another, we are attempting to steal the limelight to satisfy our own need to be seen as the purveyor of all that is the truth.That religion so often steals the limelight from our absolute need to live in our spiritual dimension, would suggest that religion is our poor excuse for not moving from the ease of a religious culture to that of our life of sacrifice of all, by living in the Kingdom of Christ. That for most, religion has become an end in itself, should encourage us to always question our beliefs and to respect those who offer their perspectives on religion, by questioning all that needs to be questioned.

10.12.04   pjc64 says:
Hi, I’m Paul Chu; I wrote the “Towers and the Church” feature on Godspy last month. I won't comment on the issue of factual errors, but I can say from my own purely theocentric and spiritual standpoint that I find myself far, far more in sympathy with Jeff than with Read. For there is something more heretical out there than taking the truth claims of Christianity at face value: taking the actual truth of Christianity for all it’s worth, for all the power and meaning it radiates, whether you can or will believe it or not. Truth doesn’t depend on us holding our breath and believing it as hard as we can; truth is there. The ontological trumps the epistemological; while Jeff may or may not be able to explain the hold that questions of faith exert upon him, I think I can. (No offense, Jeff.) And I fail to see why Read can’t. (No offense, Read.)You see, I believe Christianity is true, and I assume Read does, too. Expecting Jeff to be immune to the effects of truth because (I guess) he doesn’t believe in them, is like expecting him to be immune to gravity because he criticizes Newtonian physics. If Jeff had profound ambivalence about soccer, I’d ignore him; for all the World Cup qualifiers you can watch, soccer just isn’t real enough to justify soul-level ambivalence. And, if I may say so, neither are truth claims of any sort, nor concern about the fate of a culture. (which is, sooner or later, to be ground to dust anyway — Ozmandias, call your office.) I respect Jeff’s ambivalence about religion, and not only as a sign of perserverence and good faith (albeit in the non-theological sense). Religion is generally done so badly, with so little room for God and so much evil done in its name — some by the Family types and their cronies, some by Osama bin Laden, and some — let's face it — by me, and maybe even you. Ambivalence is the kindest, most positive reasonable reaction to religion, short of life-transforming, soul-rattling, taboo-breaking surrender — by which time it isn’t about religion anyway, but about God. As my favorite atheist writer put it: “"Whither is God? … I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers! But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? And backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?”Yes. It is. But know that there is One who comes “on that dark night, in silence and alone, [the] house being now all stilled…” Killing the Buddha should scandalize no one, least of all Christians; we’ve all killed God already, and look at what it got us.

10.09.04   alexander caughey says:
If Evelyn Waugh is not to be honoured for his contributions to the world of unbecoming bitchiness, then I feel we have done him a dis-service, to wit I should add that Waugh's genius for being all that he could be to his reading public, also extended well into those whose appetite for his books was somewhat muted by their lack of appreciation for fine reading. Your moral indignation is well understood but entertainment is always appreciated by those of us who lack the finer gifts of being able to entertain in so royal a fashion, errors and omissions excepted.

10.09.04   Jeff Sharlet says:
Last I knew, Evelyn Waugh's "bitchiness" did not include factual errors and disdain for those morally relativistic enough to be murdered by the various butchers of the 20th century. Honoring Read's talent as a writer, and recognizing his shortcomings as a critic, I'd argue that a more apt comparison is Westbrook Pegler, circa 1962, when his prose had been honed to such a knife's edge that the once wildly popular columnist could no longer find a berth beyond the anti-Semitic press (relax; I'm not calling the wonderful Godspy anti-Semitic); and when his amorphous rage at a world that did not share the vicious rapture of his personal revelation was so great that he blindly struck out at former allies and all those who did, at least, share a concern for the state of perception. "MY suffering," he cried; "my angst alone is true." That's not "bitchy," it's just sad.

10.09.04   alexander caughey says:
Read Mercer Schuchardt's appraisal of "Killing the Buddha" by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau, is to be appreciated for its cutting edge sarcasm, re-enforced with the sort of filling only found when shopping at an outlet for explosives. We are all entitled to our opinion and to express that opinion in a manner that will create some debate on whether Mr. Schuchardt's views are fairly expressed or merely indicative of a style of bitchiness more prone to the extremes of Evelyn Waugh, when he was enjoying himself. Entertainment for entertainment's sake is also a prerogative of our arts and farts elite, whose appetite for writing to suffocate an opinion, not shared by them, has been savagely exposed for all to savour, in this splendid contribution on how not to appreciate "Killing the Buddha". I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Schuchardt's piece of artistic in temperament and look forward to reading more of his expose's on life's little gems, even those of tempered steel or titanium. Jeff Sharlet's right of reply is welcomed and well appreciated, for adding some balance.

10.08.04   Jeff Sharlet says:
It'd be mean-spirited to me to complain when Read has A)given my book one of the kindest compliments it's received ("weeping beauty" -- man, didn't mean to make you cry, Read); B)extravagantly praised my genitals; and C)bought me a beer when I called him to charge him with libel after this review appeared in the New Pantagruel. But hell, apparently I believe everything's relative, so I guess I'm free to swing away.Read Mercer Schuchardt's a fine writer himself, a brilliant guy, and one hell of a sloppy, irresponsible critic. This review contains several factual errors, and an interpretation so cock-eyed, so to speak, that I wonder if it's all part of the media hoax Read proposed we launch together. I've been promising New Pantagruel a response for some time, but I'm just going to rail about it here, since I spoke about this review with Godspy publisher Angelo Matera told him it's libelous and incorrect, and am thus surprised to see the piece appear uncorrected.1. The book is co-authored by Peter Manseau and myself. Read repeatedly refers to it as my book alone. After he first published this, he told me he thought that was "really" the case. This confused me, as Peter's name is published in just as big a font as mine, and Read had plenty of time to ask us about this erroneous impression before his review, when he attended our book party. The beautiful lines Read attributes to me were written by Peter.2. As Read well knows, I did not deceive the subjects of the Harper's article he begins with. The first day I visited Ivanwald, I told the house leader my name, the publications I'd written for, and that I was working on a book called Killing the Buddha. I did share in prayers to Jesus, just as sincerely as I ever did growing up in and around a number of churches. When issues arose that disturbed me -- such as the group's admiration for Hitler's "organizational tactics," or its willingness to overlook the dictatorial nature of some of its international allies, I asked questions and said that I did not agree with the answers. None of the people I wrote about has ever disputed the factuality of anything I said; indeed, one subject said I'd been dead-on, and wanted me to know that there was nothing in the article -- which included additional research into the group's political allies among the strongmen of the world -- that he hadn't known. 3. I didn't imagine myself as a "martyr" -- again, as Read knows. I didn't know the group had any political affiliations when I joined, and went at the recommendation of an acquaintance familiar with my work who knows that I write about religious experiences.4. That "old chestnut," Hitler, doesn't seem to bother Read. It didn't even bother him when I told him that Hitler was a staple of conversation, that the group was instrumental in securing the release of several former Nazis and Nazi associates in the late 40s, that longtime core leader Gus Gedat, an enemy of Hitler by the 40s, nonetheless had agreed in the 30s that God had appointed the Germans to "hunt" Jews, and who, after his rehabilitation, was instrumental in blocking investigation of other former Nazi sympathizers in German government under the banner of reconciliation. Nor was Read disturbed to learn of the organization's association with the late General Suharto of Indonesia, credited with killing a half million to a million of his own citizens depending on who you ask, and of launching a genocidal war against East Timor. Of course, they were Godless communists and had it coming, all of them -- communist babies, communist old women and children, whole communist villages. Need more? How about Salvadoran general Carlos Eugenios Vides Casanova, convicted by a Florida jury of the torture of thousands? Deng Xio Ping, architect of the Tiannamen Massacre -- a man the Family thought they could do business with. Chile's Pinochet? A Christian leader to be admired. General Costa e Silva, who seized power of Brazil and set up a police state built on torture? Terrific guy. Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines? Led his own prayer breakfast. Let's move on to Africa: Siad Barre of Somalia, P.W. Botha of South Africa, Daniel Arap-Moi of Kenya. Perhaps it's Read who's dabbling in moral relativism. Me, I'd just call these guys some of the worst sons-of-a-bitches to walk the earth in the 20th century. 5. What the hell does a Harper's article have to do with the book, anyway?6. My nuts are actually made of tempered steel, not titanium.Ok, onto the wacky "substance" of Read's review. "Sharlet's essential mistake is that he feels that the truth claims of any religion are only relevant, and therefore only potentially true, for those who believe in them." Huh? Apparently, Read didn't bother to read the Harper's article that so disturbed him. The views of that group are certainly relevant to everyone who has to share the planet with them. And that stuff about how it's ok to kill a half a million people if you're doing God's work (which one member of the group eagerly assured me of)? It's not true. Period. The end. Now, in Killing the Buddha, I'll confess that we did forget to conclude each chapter with a handy moral, or a guide to true and false in the previous chapter. As for God not existing... huh? I just plain don't know what Read is talking about. This is a God-filled book, as well as a god-filled one. True, some of our other contributors are not believers, but I guess we're so morally relativist that we thought they could still participate in the conversation.Last, Read closes with a confusing sports metaphor I'll try to clear up:Q. "if you don't want to play, why do you want to be on the team?" A. Huh? What team?Q. "If you don't want to be on the team, why do you want to be in the stands?"A. So I can see, dude.Q. "If you don't want to be in the stands, why don't you want to read the magazines or watch the shows?"A. Hey -- I like TV.Q."And if you don't want to do any of the above, except stand completely outside it and make potshots from behind the stadium, why do you think you have any right whatsoever to comment on the goings on of what it means, and if that if you do, that anyone should care?"A. I'll turn to my favorite Anglican writer: "For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar into the heart of itself as a symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is."Of course, I'll never achieve that, or anything close. But the morally relativistic thing to do would be not to even try, which, I gather, is what Read would have preferred.Or maybe not. He did say some incredibly kind things. I just wish that, publishing this the second time around, he'd fixed the errors.

09.30.04   Godspy says:
‘Killing the Buddha: a Heretic’s Bible’ is a weeping beauty of a book, edited by ‘two religiously flippant intellectuals’ who think they’re swimming against the tide. But what the authors have mistaken for heresy is, in fact, electronic culture’s orthodoxy.

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