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The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God
By Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb
Bloomsbury / ISBN: 978-1-59691-143-7
As I've mentioned here before, one of the topics I find myself becoming more and more interested in these days is that of American religious thought, despite I myself being a long-time atheist with no plans to change my beliefs anytime soon; and that's because, with religious beliefs playing such a hugely important role in the US right now (a recent poll, for example, shows that a whopping 92 percent of all Americans believe in some form of "higher power"), when an American talks about religion they're actually talking about a number of other issues at the same time. An American is never just talking about God when they talk about God; they're also talking about the search for inner peace, the struggle to understand why evil exists, the process of both retribution and forgiveness. And ironically, they're also talking more and more about civil freedoms, political theory and personal responsibility when they talk about God; for example, one of the growing issues being talked about among the faithful here is that of neocon radical fundamentalists, of the religious hegemony they have so successfully created in the US over the last thirty years, this attitude that if you're not a Rapture-embracing, abortion-clinic-bombing political conservative then of course you're not really a Christian either.
And that brings us to the fairly new nonfiction book The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God, by a pair of young writers and personal friends named Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb; because their situation is very much like the one I'm describing, in that they are both literary hipsters who for a long time have hidden their deep traditional religious beliefs from their friends and peers, for fear of being mocked and ridiculed by this profoundly secular community of intellectuals. (And when I say "literary hipsters," I mean that collectively the two of them had already been published in places like Salon, The Believer and Harper's before the release of this book, and in fact originally met each other because of their shared love for indie press McSweeney's.) The book, then, basically addresses this situation, in ways both funny and melancholic; of what it's like to pursue a better understanding of faith through the atmosphere of rational, skeptical thought, of what unique challenges arise in the face of doing this while being a big-city hipster doofus, and of both the bad and good things that come from having to keep all this mostly a secret from most of the fellow hipsters you know.
And in general the two of them do a pretty good job, for reasons that I'll get into in a bit; but right off the bat, I feel the need to mention a pretty big fact about the book, one that heavily influences the way one even reads it, which is that the stories by Bebergal (the Jew of the twosome) are simply better than Korb's (the Catholic), and that in fact one half of the entire book ends up being quite better than the other half. Sorry, guys, but that's just how it is! And in fact, this brings up an interesting realization I've made in my life over the years concerning the differences between Christians and Jews writing about their religions, an understanding I never came to until finally starting to read more and more Jewish writing in my thirties; and that is that the adherents of those two religions are taught to look at their faiths in entirely different ways, ways that I'm convinced has a heavy influence over how such people even look at the world in general.
Because the fact is that Bebergal's stories are more analytical, more thoughtful, more full of original ideas; like the Jew that he is, he approaches the scriptures of his religion in an interpretative and metaphorical way, gleaning real-world wisdom from them and then forming his own original thoughts on the subject at hand. Korb, however, as the good Christian that he is, tends to tell much more literal tales with his half of the manuscript, literally quoting the scriptures from his religion word for word while also attributing them ("Matthew 4:16"), just like Christian intellectuals are taught to do when discussing Christianity. As a result, then, Korb's stories come off more as lectures, with a Big Point he is shooting for and with lots of referenced biblical evidence to prove it; but Bebergal's stories come off more as campfire tales, with him mostly discussing Judaic scripture in plain language instead of quoting it, and with a bigger emphasis on the conversation itself that the topics inspire. And this simply makes for better and more interesting reading, which is why I say that Bebergal's half is plainly better than Korb's, which makes reading this book a veritable exercise sometimes in start-and-stop frustration. (See, each guy writes every other chapter; and each chapter ends with a "postscript" by the other as well, in which they're allowed to jump in for a page or two and comment on what they just thought of the other's story.)
Now, maybe this is just my personal bias talking; maybe since I was raised as a Christian myself, in a city that was almost 100-percent Christian (within the American "Bible Belt" of the 1970s), of course I'm just naturally going to find the Jewish half of this book more exotic, and therefore "better." Or maybe this is just a natural limitation concerning the subject at hand, and doesn't reflect the writers themselves; maybe their creative skills are a lot more equal when both write on secular topics. Those are of course questions I can't answer -- you'll want to check out the opinions of others in very different positions in their lives for a more balanced look at those kinds of subjects, which thankfully in these Web 2.0 times you can easily do simply by jumping online. I can definitively state, though, that the book in general is above-average in quality, especially compared to the whiny Oprah-friendly pseudo-science New Age babble that constitutes so much these days of contemporary non-fundamentalist religious thought; this is definitely a book designed with intelligent urban hipsters in mind, with a brisk pace and a wry, smart style that is sure to engage, sure to provoke thought. It is bound to deeply resonate with a lot of you young spouses and parents out there, those struggling to balance a desire to go to church with their hatred for the radical right, those who want to live a more moral life but not be mocked by their coke-snorting artist friends over wanting to live a more moral life.
Like I said, when an American talks about religion, they're actually talking about a lot more than whether God exists or what the one true faith might be; they're also talking about society, politics, personal responsibility, the attempt to define an ethical code. They are talking about friends and lovers and children; of hopes versus dreams versus frustrations versus realities. Bebergal and Korb do a fine job in The Faith Between Us in addressing all of these issues and more, through the filter of a faith-based conversation that even I as a secular humanist found fascinating. It comes highly recommended today, even if you're not a particularly religious person yourself; and especially to all you Europeans who have a hard time understanding how America can be such a religious place, of how intellectuals can live within such an environment, and would like to hear about it from the standpoint of actual intellectuals.
Out of 10: 9.2