A quirky, ultimately unsatisfying investigation of religious belief.
Journalist Hallman (The Chess Artist, 2003) set out to get at the essence of religious commitment by exploring communities that inhabit the “fringe” of America’s faith landscape, from Druids to the monks of New Skete. He lunched with one of the nation’s leading Satanists, and with members of the evangelical Christian Wrestling Federation. He joined a group of Michigan-based atheists in their Godless March. While hanging out with Wiccans, he discovered some contradictions in this Goddess-worshipping, earth-friendly spirituality: Though ostensibly feminist and green, modern-day Wicca was founded by men and flourishes in cities. William James’s 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience guides this inquiry. Indeed, the great fin-de-siècle psychologist becomes the author’s spiritual doktorvater, and woven throughout these reports from the religious front are reflections on James’s life and thought. Sometimes the forays into his writing are illuminating: Hallman’s description of the monks of New Skete, who breed and write books about dogs, is enriched by James’s observations about the relationship between dogs and their owners. But often such asides are more distracting than instructive, and at times—when, for example, the author detours from a Wiccan conference in Seattle to a paragraph about James’s distaste for the Emerald City—they seem no more than an elaborate game of association. Hallman’s reporting is vivid, his prose sure and clear. But the book has a voyeuristic tone; both intrigued and repelled by his subject, the author trades in spectacle. He asks incidental ironies to do too much work, as when he hears a Satanist sneeze and says, “Bless you!” Hallman fails, finally, to offer enough analysis. The trip into Wicca, Satanism, canine monasticism and devout atheism has been fun, but what are we to make of it?
Interesting, but not insightful.