There's a shocking statistic in Sue Fishkoff's new book, Kosher Nation: The majority of people who buy kosher products are not even Jewish.
Fishkoff, a national correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, made full use of her journalistic toolkit to deliver what is a fascinating look at a seemingly niche industry. Following the investigative DNA of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Fishkoff shines a light on a national food trend that needed investigation.
I recently caught up with Fishkoff on her cross-country book tour to discuss why rabbis push buttons in cheese factories, positive kosher wine trends and the kosher meat scandal that rocked the nation.
I'm sure you get this a lot. Why would non-Jews read a book about keeping kosher?
First, this isn't a book about keeping kosher. It's about two things -- the changing ways American Jews have looked at kashrut, which may or may not be interesting to non-Jews; and the incredible growth of the kosher food industry, which should be of interest to all Americans because it affects them all.
Considering that up to 40 percent of domestic food sales come from kosher-certified products, and Jews are less than 2 percent of the population, it's clear that most of the people buying kosher food are not Jewish. They might want to know why the ketchup or soup or breakfast cereal they pick up at the supermarket is kosher-certified. They might want to know what makes it kosher, and it's not because a rabbi blessed it. They might want to know the hidden costs behind the global kosher supervision and certification business. They might ask whether kosher meat is safer or healthier than non-kosher. With all the interest today in where our food comes from and how healthy it is, I think these questions are worthy of attention.
What are some common misconceptions about the kosher industry?
The most common misconception is that food is kosher because a rabbi has blessed it. The only blessings going on are those Jews say before and after eating or drinking, not in the factory where the food is produced. There's another exception: the blessing a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, says before slaughtering animals or poultry. But that's about it.
Another misconception is that kosher food is produced for Jews. While that's true of the so-called Jewish ethnic foods like gefilte fish and kosher-for-Passover matzo, even then it's not entirely true. Many non-Jews buy matzo, and sweet Concord wines from Manischewitz and Mogen David are popular among Asians and African-Americans as well as Jews. But the overwhelming majority of kosher-certified food products are mainstream items that everyone buys, usually without even noticing they're kosher. That label is there for the distributors, the supermarkets, and the 11 to 13 million consumers who buy kosher food on purpose for dietary, health or religious reasons that may have nothing to do with kashrut.
What have been the biggest changes you've seen in the kosher wine sector?
It's a lot better than it used to be! Until quite recently, kosher wine meant sweet, syrupy stuff, typified by the Manischewitz bottle everyone's grandparents kept for years in the corner cupboard, dragging it out for Passover and other holidays. The Herzog brothers were taking a big chance when they started making non-sweet kosher wines in the mid-1980s in California. But they were tapping into a growing trend. Today you can buy some excellent kosher wines, notably those from Hagafen Cellars in Napa, not to mention the dozens of great wines from Israel. And Jeff Morgan is making incredible kosher wines under his Napa-based Covenant label.
These wines are not cheap, which is another change.
Another interesting point is that this new emphasis on quality is driven largely by baalei teshuvah, or newly observant Jews. Because many of them know good wine from their non-observant days, they're not willing to accept plonk just because it's kosher. The kosher wine industry no longer has a pliant captive audience.
In your book, you devote an entire chapter to the scandal at the Postville, Iowa Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. Sholom Rubashkin, who ran the facility, was accused of many things including animal mistreatment, hiring illegal workers and minors and bank fraud, just to name a few. Has there been anything positive that came out of this scandal?
One positive thing that emerged from this scandal is that Jewish dietary practice and the kosher food industry are on the Jewish radar like never before, and in wide-ranging ways. Liberal Jews who have been talking about ethical kashrut for years -- the need to protect workers, treat animals right and respect the earth -- are now exploring the spiritual potential of traditional kashrut. And Orthodox Jews are waking up to the ethical abuses that can be perpetrated in the name of kosher food production, and are talking about their responsibility to ensure it doesn't happen.
Jewish dietary practice is a hot topic of conversation all along the denominational spectrum, and that would not have happened, unfortunately, if not for the publicity surrounding Agriprocessors.
Another positive outcome that has not yet occurred would be if Americans began demanding investigations into every slaughterhouse in this country, and if the authorities and plant owners took seriously their responsibility to prevent abuse of the animals and workers involved. It's time to clean up the meat industry. And if that makes meat more expensive, then let's eat less of it.
What was the strangest thing you learned while researching this book?
I learned a lot of strange things about bugs in fruit and vegetables, and the lengths observant Jews go to get rid of them. Kitchen mashgiachs, or kosher supervisors, spend so much time cleaning bugs from fresh produce that one certifying rabbi said they've become lettuce washers instead of food supervisors.
Factory automation has caused some odd permutations of kosher law. For instance, a mashgiach is supposed to add the rennet in the cheese-making process -- it's a delicate operation that could involve mixing meat and milk if not done properly, at least in the old days when rennet could be derived from an animal. Until recently, rennet was poured into the milk mixture from a bucket. But today, in most factories you push a button and the rennet is added automatically. Still, in order to get kosher certification, a mashgiach has to push that button. I talked to one mashgiach who slept in a room at the cheese factory, and every time his alarm rang -- every 40 minutes -- he'd wake up, push the button, and go back to sleep. He's so far removed from the actual physical process of making the food that the requirement seems a bit extreme.
Many of the laws of kashrut, and the requirements of kosher food production, seem unusual or arbitrary. For a people that enjoys food so much, we sure make it hard to eat.
Joseph Skibell's recently released third novel,A Curable Romantic, is hard to define. On the one hand, its premise couldn't be simpler: Boy falls in love. On the other hand, it's a complex narrative that stretches from Austria in the late 19th century to the Warsaw Ghetto. Not to mention it tackles male menstruation, demonic possessions, Jewish mysticism, and the international language known as Esperanto. Oh yeah, and the book also features a cocaine sniffing Dr. Sigmund Freud.
I caught up with Joseph Skibell after a recent reading at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta (where the great Southern author penned Gone with the Wind) to chat with him about his new novel.
How did you come up with the idea for A Curable Romantic?
Years ago, when I was a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles, the thought occurred to me that it would be fun to do a screenplay about Sigmund Freud working on a case of dybbuk possession.
Let me say here that a dybbuk, according to Jewish mythology, is the soul of a dead person that refuses to submit to divine authority after death in the heavenly courts. Instead it wanders between this world and the next, pursued by a horde of punitive angels. Through God's mercy, it's allowed to shelter from these angels in three places: a rock, an animal and -- God spare us! -- in the body of another human being.
Dybbuk possession and hysteria share a number of symptoms. After I started the book, I discovered that Freud had even written an essay called "A Neurosis of Demonical Possession," in which he says that "the demonical possessions of yesteryear are just misdiagnosed cases of hysteria."
This novel covers such a variety of topics and is close to 600 pages long. At any point in the writing process did you feel that you were cutting off more than you can chew?
All through it! I really loved writing it, but in terms of complexity it was beyond anything I'd done before. It's like a bar bet: write a novel about Sigmund Freud, Esperanto, and the Warsaw Ghetto -- oh, and throw a dybbuk into it. But the love story ties everything together.
All of your books have some Jewish component to them. Why does religion play such an important role in your writing?
Eugene O'Neill said something once about how "All the other playwrights write about man vs. man, but I write about man vs. God." And I guess that's true for me as well. As a literary motif, for me, the Jew is a figure that's not quite home in this world, and I'm interested in that tension, in the tension between a sense of absolute meaning and the day-to-day reality of life on this earth.
Any thoughts yet on what your next book will be about?
I'm working on a small book about the tales in the Talmud, and my daughter and I have written a joint travelogue about a week we spent together a year ago, visiting three guitar-makers. The book, which is almost done, is called My Father's Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: family, mortality and the end of childhood.
The religious blogosphere has been all atwitter as of late over the news that a Modern Orthodox Jew gave up her orthodoxy to compete on the new season of America's Next Top Model.
When asked by host Tyra Banks if she would break the Sabbath in order to complete a modeling challenge, the contestant barely paused before responding, "I would do it." With those four simple words, she defiantly threw off the yoke of her faith in favor of reality show stardom. As if that wasn't enough, she then proceeded to undress and show off her size 30G breasts.
To show you what everyone is talking about, take a look at the clip below:
Reaction, to use a term of related parlance, was fierce. A blogger for Jewlicious.com said he cringed when he watched the video. A commenter on TabletMag.com called it a tragedy. Another commenter noted the odd timing -- the video was released during the High Holidays, a season steeped in repentance (although, to be fair, it is also the fall season of new television shows).
This is not the first time Tyra was schooled in the quirky traditions of Jewish Orthodoxy. On her daytime talk in an episode dealing with menstrual cramps, a Chassidic woman informed the audience about the Jewish laws of marital purity whereby the husband and wife don't hug, kiss, or sleep in the same beds while she's having her period. Enjoy this classic clip:
But back to the issue at hand: By its very definition, a Modern Orthodox Jew (a group in which I reside) is someone who follows the dictum of Torah Umadda, the notion that both a secular and religious life can coexist. And so it's not surprising that Modern Orthodox Jews, more so than other denominations of American Jewry, are no strangers to reality television. One rarely sees a Chassidic Jew on reality TV, and it would be hard to discern a Reform or Conservative Jew, who, unlike the Modern Orthodox male who wears a skullcap, have no outwardly defining characteristics, from anyone else. (But our hats go off to non-Orthodox members of the tribe like Adam Lambert and Elliot Yamin, who both fared well on American Idol.)
(It should be noted that the term "Modern Orthodox" is a misnomer. Other brands of Orthodox Judaism are modern -- in the sense that they drive cars and live in the year 2010. In my opinion, it's not the best name, and a serious rebranding/renaming effort wouldn't be such a bad idea. But, alas, that's a topic for another article.)
Modern Orthodox Jews on reality television shows don't have the best track record. Daniel Brody and Lee Bienstock (both dubbed "The Orthoprentice") got fired on The Apprentice (although Bienstock ended up in the final two and eventually got hired by Donald Trump after the show finished taping). Dave Warshaw, a Modern Orthodox Jew from New York, became famous, but for all the wrong reasons. When he fell and smashed his head on the stage at his audition on So You Think You Can Dance, he became an Internet sensation when the video clip went viral.
This track record didn't seem to stop another Modern Orthodox Jew from participating in a recent reality show. Miami podiatrist and skullcap-wearing Andrew Gordon shacked up in the Big Brother house this summer without compromising his religious ideals. Nicknamed Captain Kosher by the other roommates, Andrew was very public and upfront about the restrictions an Orthodox life would have on him as a contestant. He couldn't participate in challenges on the Sabbath and even skipped an important house meeting that coincided with the somber fast day of Tisha B'av so that he could pray in his bedroom:
It's not just Jews, either; outwardly religious people of other faiths have staked a claim on reality TV. For example, several Mormons have done well on American Idol. (Brooke White and David Archuleta were both on the same season.) And a new TLC reality show features a polygamous Mormon family on the hunt for a fourth wife:
Esther Petrack, the America's Next Top Model contestant, at first chose to take pride in her Jewishness, telling Tyra she was from Jerusalem and taking the time to explain her beliefs. But once she realized that the rigors of the show would conflict with her Sabbath observance, Esther opted to switch gears and take pride in something else that made her unique: Her comedically enormous breasts.
This immediate about-face -- a proud Modern Orthodox Jew one moment and sashaying in a bikini and heels on national TV the next -- was a sad commentary. After all, the contestant is named after the biblical Queen Esther. That historical figure also competed in a beauty pageant, and even hid the fact that she was Jewish. But, when the chips were down and the time called for a hero, Queen Esther used the opportunity to reveal her faith and saved the Jewish people from imminent annihilation. It's her self-sacrifice that we celebrate each year on the festival of Purim.
Look, nobody is saying that being a Modern Orthodox Jew is easy. I'd be the last person to argue that wearing a skullcap all the time, only eating kosher, and not using electricity on Saturdays is easy. It's not.
But let's also be realistic here: I've often wished that I could be a contestant on The Amazing Race, but the bug-eating competitions (not kosher) and the flying on Saturdays (also not kosher) would put me in last place. (Although plenty of non-observant Jews have appeared on that show.)
Esther knew beforehand that competing on the show would conflict with the strict Sabbath rules she had been keeping until that point. And she decided that competing on the show, and the potential of a high-end modeling career, were more important. To be honest, she likely made that decision before the cameras started rolling. But the producers edited it in such a way that she appeared to be, as many grandparents would say, "finishing Hitler's work."
So, should the Modern Orthodox blogosphere be upset with Esther? Well, yes and no. She clearly left her Jewish beliefs at the door, but at the same time she also certainly gave it more than just a cursory thought. There was certainly inner turmoil, name-calling, and family backlash -- the perfect recipe for reality TV drama.
He comes from interesting lineage. His bother is a committed evangelical Christian, and his great-grandfather, Julius Culbreth, was a founding member of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
I caught up with Park to ask him about his new book, his beliefs, and what he thinks about religions who indoctrinate their children.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Because my son came home from pre-school one day talking about God. I had actually never heard him utter the word before then. Granted, his pre-school was run by a church, as seemingly most of the pre-schools in the Bible Belt are, but it was a mainline Methodist church that reserved the Jesus talk for a 30-minute-a-week lesson. And his impression of the divine was actually quite crude. He thought that God "screws on our head and pops in our eyeballs."
But religion was a topic that I had steadfastly avoided talking about with my children. Seeing how easily it took hold with my son, at the age of three, sent me into a panic. I realized that not only was he going to have questions that I needed to be able to answer, I was going to have to ask some of myself. I was 35 and I really hadn't ever come to terms with belief or non-belief. The Presbyterianism my parents were raised in, the secular humanism I grew up with, the Evangelicalism my older brother embraced as a teenager, my great-grandfather's Pentecostalism - these were just abstract concepts to me, and I liked it that way.
So the book was really an attempt to figure out whether religion was going to have a place in my life, and whether it should have a place in my parenting, too. It was a revelation, so to speak, that I couldn't ignore the topic of God forever, no matter how uncomfortable it made me. As I guess it often does, having children forced me to confront a key assumption about life, in my case, my suspicion, disinterest, and at times, disdain for belief of any kind.
You consider yourself a "none" - someone who replies "none" when asked their religion. Some stats show that "nones" are the fastest-growing segment in American religion. Why do you think that is?
Certainly the loosening of social norms in American culture and weakening of churches as institutions have something to do with it, as does the increasing diversity in our society. But I think it has just as much to do with the resurgence of Evangelicalism and its fusion with conservative politics. The religious right's strident rhetoric on homosexuality, for instance, made a lot of people say, "If that's what it means to be religious, I don't want any part of it." Instead of continuing to identify themselves as Catholics or Methodists or Presbyterians, which you can obviously do even if you don't go to church, they opted out entirely. And so you have this polarization which has only increased in the years since, as evidenced by the success of authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. While the percentage of atheists and agnostics is still small, there are fewer and fewer people willing to claim a community of faith.
Now, I'm a none, but a quiet one. It's not so much because I don't have the courage to be open about it, but because I tend to think polarization is bad for us. It does a disservice to both sides. It's too easy to paint the other in repellent caricature, when in actuality believers and non-believers have plenty of common ground. That's not to say that we should pretend to agree on everything and then join arms and sing Kumbayah. But we can coexist peacefully in this country, even lovingly, despite our different worldviews. That seemed to be possible when I was a kid, but I think we have lost touch with that sentiment, and there's fault on both sides of the religious divide.
Orthodox Jews make their children eat kosher. Evangelical Christians have children accept Jesus and get baptized at early ages. What are your thoughts on religion being force-fed to children?
I'm against force-feeding anything to children, even, er, food. What's really remarkable is the parents I encounter who are intent on force-feeding atheism to their children instead of encouraging free thought. But there is definitely a difference in bringing your children up in a religious tradition, which I have no problem with, and indoctrinating them. We can't dictate what our children will ultimately believe or disbelieve. Our responsibility is to be honest about our own beliefs and show the courage to let them make up their own minds. If they ultimately reject the theism or atheism in which they are raised, that doesn't mean that their exposure to it damaged them. I want my children to learn the open-mindedness required to consider the full spectrum of religious ideas as well as the critical thinking skills that will enable them to make their own judgments.
What one lesson would you hope people take away from your book?
Religion shouldn't be a taboo subject for non-believers, and vice-versa. Christians aren't all moralizing prudes intent on bringing the rest of the world to Jesus. And atheists aren't all dour, unimaginative jerks determined to argue the rest of the world out of their faith. Too often, we're so busy trying to protect kids from dangerous ideas that we fail to model the charity and openness to one another that we purport to value. Children of non-believers need to see that their parents take religion seriously -- its historical impact, its cultural influence, its importance in the lives of so many people on this planet.
Of course, that doesn't mean we have to give credence to beliefs that we find repugnant. But I don't know that our kids can understand the human condition without at least trying to understand other people's faith, and we as parents shouldn't be afraid to let them. And we might learn something ourselves in the process. For many families, religion is a source of community and identity and social support. For the most part, non-believing families don't have institutions that do the same thing. We need to be about more than just not going to church.
Jack Abramoff, he of felonious fame, is now working at a kosher pizza joint in Baltimore. As part of his "community service," Abramoff will spend six months working at Tov Pizza. I've eaten at Tov Pizza, before and I can say that its greasy environs surely qualify as community service.
There's talk that he should be working for the other local but higher-regarded Mama Leah Gourmet Kosher Pizza instead. Perhaps he is and just isn't telling Tov Pizza. I'm guessing either way, this probably doesn't bode well for Native Americans.
While it's certainly a bizarre choice for Abramoff to be doing his community service in such a public forum (couldn't he have worked in a quiet office somewhere?), he actually brings a lot to the table at Tov Pizza -- and I don't just mean beignets. After all, Abramoff used to own a kosher eatery in Washington, D.C. He may not have been flipping dough, but at least he knows the ins-and-outs of the kosher restaurant business. Perhaps, he's offering some business tips to Tov Pizza owner Ron Rosenbluth.
"We're all Jews, we're all on the same team," Mr. Rosenbluth told the Baltimore Jewish Times. "I'm more than happy to help a fellow Jew in any way I can." The free and unprecedented publicity Abramoff brings to his shop can't hurt either.
Abramoff likely welcomes this latest development, which paints a humble picture of him literally serving others. Any well-trained PR spin-doctor would say it's good for the Abramoff brand. Because if there's anything Americans like more than baseball and (kosher) apple pie, it's a good redemption story. It's like we're genetically designed to forgive and forget.
But anyone looking for a fresh reminder of the sins Abramoff committed (against various groups -- including Jews) need look no further than the mind-boggling new documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which chronicles many -- but not all -- of the outrageous illegal activities Abramoff was involved in. (One of the torrid tidbits left out of the movie is the sudden closing and firing of all the employees of a Jewish school that Abramoff founded.)
Abramoff's road to recovery is littered with the detritus of people and organizations that Abramoff -- employing a monumental level of chutzpah -- hurt along the way. In some ways, serving sub-par pizza is an apt metaphor for the fraud that Abramoff used to peddle.
His group, often referred to as Messianic Judaism, attempts to merge Jewish and Christian beliefs by convincing Jews to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ while still remaining Jewish. The group is an inauthentic bastardization of the original. (To use a modern metaphor, it's like the new, critically-panned Sex and City sequel.)
And so it's unfortunate that I feel a bizarre connection to them. You see, there have been many days that people thought I was a Jew for Jesus. I can understand their confusion. After all, I'm the son of an Orthodox rabbi who spent a year visiting 52 churches. Fascinated by Christians' zeal for their religion, I was envious. Not of their savior, but of their passion for him. I wanted to find out why they were so pumped about Jesus so that I could take those lessons and get jazzed about my own Judaism.
The resulting memoir, My Jesus Year, told my story. When the book was first published, many Jewish groups were turned off. At first blush, they assumed I was a Jew for Jesus, coming to convert their children. When they eventually realized my message was the opposite -- that the grass is not greener at the church across the street -- I was welcomed into synagogues and Jewish community centers with open arms.
Which brings me back to Moishe Rosen and his Jews for Jesus organization. At just about every stop on my whirlwind book tour, I was always asked the same probing question: "You visited so many different denominations. Why didn't you visit the Jews for Jesus?"
My pat response was as follows: Living in the Bible Belt, we are blessed to have at least two churches on every street corner. I could spend "My Jesus Decade" and still not get to every place. But the real reason I didn't walk into a Jews for Jesus sanctuary was subconscious. I knew that they, more than any other group I visited, wanted my soul.
As much as some Christians want to convert Jews to their religion, it's not the sole reason for their existence. It may be part of their doctrine, but it is not the sum of all its parts. And what missionary efforts they do have are geared towards all non-Christians, not just Jews. On the other hand, Jews for Jesus' sole mission is to get Jews (and Jews alone) to accept Jesus as their savior.
Most Jews are offended by their very existence. It's one thing for a Jew to leave his faith completely and become a practicing Christian. But to retain your Judaism while at the same time accepting Jesus as the Messiah is the religious equivalent of hyphenating your last name. Just man up and choose a religion.
True religion means staying true to your religion. The question then becomes: What does that mean? How much can you change your religion, veering off its original path, before you enter into a completely new religion?
While there's been huge disagreement about what it means to be Jewish (Reform Jews, for example, will vastly disagree with Hasidic Jews on the topic), just about everyone (including Christians) agree that being Jewish means not accepting Jesus. Indeed, tell a Christian that you have accepted Jesus into your heart, and they'll be adding you to their rosters in an instant. Conversion completed.
But the Jews for Jesus organization sees it quite differently. Born Jewish, accept Jesus, and now you're one of them. They're not a halfway house on the way to full-blown Christianity. They view themselves as your final destination.
In essence, they've co-opted belief in Jesus from the Christian community.
Thankfully, Jews for Jesus have been marginalized since their inception as a cultish fringe group and are rarely taken with any meaningful regard. So who knows what the death of Moishe Rosen means for the organization? Will it mean the end of an era? Or will it signal a renewed effort to proselytize his twisted vision?
It's not everyday you find yourself standing next to a man holding a sign that reads "Rabbis Rape Kids."
But that's where I found myself. What's even odder, the conversation I was having with this man was not about the veracity of his sign's claim. Rather than being offended, I was more curious as to why he chose to attack a clergy member of my faith and not, say, a Catholic priest. The protester wasn't bothered by what seemed to me to be a missed opportunity. (Apparently he gets this question all the time.) He told me that his "Priests Rape Boys" sign is displayed when protesting in front of churches. "We just preach a good sin," he said, smiling.
This bizarre encounter was at a protest rally last week in Atlanta organized by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The Kansas-based fringe group never saw a protest they didn't want to participate in. They travel the country protesting everything from homosexuals to Jews to Christians to America itself.
They believe America, as a whole, is a sinful nation. They think America is doomed. The group has protested everything from abortion clinics to funerals -- including those of U.S. military, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Coretta Scott King. "It doesn't really make sense," a counter-protester told me at the rally. "Obviously, they're not spreading an articulate message."
Their easy-to-spot signs offer different variations on the "God hates" theme. "God Hates Fags" is probably their most famous credo (as well as their domain name), but not far behind is "God Hates the World," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and the just-plain-crazy, lazy "God Hates You."
Oh, and there's also this eloquent religious zinger of a sign: "Your Pastor is a Whore."
I had heard about their nationwide protests, and when I saw that they were coming to my town, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to catch the traveling freak show.
But I didn't really find a freak show. At least not with the folks from Westboro Baptist. The half-dozen hatemongers dispatched by the church were the very definition of peaceful protesters. A few adults and a couple of kids (yes, kids) made up their entire contingent. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm in no way condoning their vitriol. The heinous hate they spew is completely antithetical to mainstream values of faith. But their relatively calm demeanor as they stood at the center of this protest storm was eye-opening.
That's not to say they weren't a little, um, odd.
A woman in her 50s was using both arms to hold four posters up at once while she rattled off mini soundbites to me: "They deserve to know the truth ... Destruction has come nigh upon them ... Obama is a Muslim." While she informed me that everyone across the street is going to hell, she also talked about the biblical dictum of "love thy neighbor." I was having a hard time digesting the sincerity of that one.
After a few minutes, I walked across the street, the only one to make the trek from protesters to counter-protesters. In a way, I felt like a peace negotiator arriving at the other camp with a list of demands.
As happens often, the counter-protesters were causing more ruckus than the protesters themselves. The group of about 20 was an interesting hybrid of mostly gays and Jews -- working together against a common enemy. They were holding signs that declared "God Datez Fags," "God Loves Glitter," and the insightfully meta "Out of Context Verse." A group of "artful activists" known as the Feminist Outlawz were handing out bottled water.
A man calling himself Sir Jesse of Decatur, a public school teacher, was helping lead the counter-charge. He was tattooed, dressed in all black, and wearing a leather vest. But atop his head was a white cowboy hat -- a clear indication that he viewed himself as the heroic cowboy riding in to save the day.
The counter-protesters were shouting things from the adorable ("I love my rabbi") to the rude ("Why go to the zoo when we can see animals here for free?").
Neither the protesters nor their counterparts compared in size to the dozens of police and security forces who were protecting the protest's perimeter. In addition to those cops, it appeared that a SWAT team with automatic weapons were standing at the ready. A traveling caravan of cop cars followed the minions of Westboro Baptist around town for two days, going to half a dozen protest locales. Our tax dollars at work.
It's quite fascinating that such a hate group can get all this attention, especially considering that there were only a handful of them armed with nothing more than some posters and utter absurdity. Had a mainstream group with dozens of people planned a protest around town, my guess is that they would not be drawing this kind of attention from the public. (Not to get too meta, but would I be writing about this on the Huffington Post if it wasn't for their extremely peculiar beliefs?) All of this makes a statement about the legitimacy of extremism.
The folks from Westboro Baptist Church, despite how much we marginalize them, know all too well how to play the public and the media. With little more than the selection of some curious venues and a few press releases, these protesters have gained national attention.
In our headline-driven culture, it seems that it's not just the loudest voices that get heard, but the craziest as well. And what does that say about us as news consumers? Perhaps the real problem isn't so much that these protesters are hatemongers, but that we have an appetite for the types of controversy they sell.
I wanted to get the protesters' opinion on this, but when I turned to go back across the street, they were already leaving. With what seemed like military precision, they checked their Blackberrys, packed up their posters, and drove (with police escort) to the next stop on their traveling tour of hatred.
As you discuss in the book, religious zealotry has been the cause of much tragedy in world history. Is there an antidote to that or is that just the way things will always have to be?
Well, zealotry of both the religious and the nonreligious sort has been the cause of much bloodshed. If we are to blame Jesus and Muhammad for violence by proxy from the hand of God we must blame Marx and Lenin for the atrocities of Stalin and Mao.
As far as the antidote goes, I don't think pretend pluralism is the way to go. All religions are not one. They are neither the unified beauty the multiculturalists want them to be nor the unified ugliness the new atheists insist that they are. In a world in which the world's religions do so much good and so much evil, we need to see them as they are on the ground, not as we want them to be. I am not a "clash of civilizations" guy, but as any ordinary Muslim in Indonesia or Christian in Nigeria can tell you, Islam and Christianity are not one and the same. It is just as false to say that all religions are poison as it is to say that all religions are beautiful and true.
The way forward? To work to understand religious differences and then to try to find a way to respect and perhaps even honor them. On the question of race and ethnicity, we used to imagine that a colorblind society was the way to go. We are all human beings after all. Why should being black or Hispanic or Chinese matter? We now know that the way forward on race and ethnicity is not to turn a blind eye to diversity but to acknowledge, understand, and respect differences. Why can't we do the same with religion?
Do you consider atheists and their strict and steadfast adherence to non-belief a religion unto itself?
It depends on the atheist. Some atheists are religious. Some are even fundamentalists. Others are non-religious. It's way too simplistic to say that atheism isn't a religion because atheists reject God. So do Buddhists. So do Jains. So do Confucians. But that doesn't mean that Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism aren't religions.
In evaluating whether atheism is a religion you have to ask to what extent it walks and talks like other religions. Fine, atheism rejects God. But does it have an ethical code? Do its adherents gather into communities? Do they perform rituals? Celebrate holidays? Tell stories? Preach dogmas? The answer, of course, is yes and no. So like I say it depends on the atheist.
I have met atheists who are far more religious than most of my churchgoing friends -- zealots who join free-thought communities, work hard to make converts, and celebrate Darwin Day with a fervor exceeding most Jews at Purim. But other atheist friends of mine take their non-theism with a yawn, which is to say non-religiously. Which reminds me of the joke about the curious son who asks his father why he believes there is no God. The father replies, "I don't know. You'll just have to take it on faith."
The basis of your book is how all these religions differ, but don't you see commonalities in those that are monotheistic?
Of course there are commonalities. In the western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God or Jesus or Allah is said to be a creator, lawgiver, and judge. He (and He is most often thought of as male) speaks through prophets and in scriptures. And He acts in history -- from the glorious beginning to the bitter end. Moreover, when it comes to the mathematics of divinity, these Abrahamic religions are in common cause against the Buddhists (who traditionally say there is no God) and Hindus (who traditionally say there are many). But even these so-called Abrahamic religions differ when it comes to describing God. Can He take human form, as Jesus does for Christians? Or must he refuse not only a human body but also artistic representation, as Allah does for Muslims? More importantly, the Abrahamic gods differ sharply when it comes to the requirements they set forth for believers. What exactly does this one "God" require? The Five Pillars of Islam? The Seven Sacraments of Catholicism? Or the 613 mitzvot of Judaism?
In the book, you write about how Islam has a problem with pride. What do you mean by that?
Each of the great religions begins with a sense that something is rotten with the human condition. But the religions differ when it comes to diagnosing the human predicament and they diverge even more when it comes to prescribing the cure. For Christians the problem is sin. For Buddhists it is suffering. For Muslims it is pride or self-sufficiency -- the sense that I can get along just fine without God. The antidote for this sickness, Muslims say, is submission to Allah, which will lead you on the right path through this life and into paradise in the life beyond.
Is Stephen Baldwin too big to fail? I certainly hope so.
Despite his pop-culture status as the youngest and least famous of the acting Baldwin brothers, Stephen has always held a special place in my heart. I've followed his acting career (which peaked with 1995's The Usual Suspects) and his career as a full-time celeb, which, besides a brief stint stumping for Sarah Palin, included appearances on a number of reality shows like The Celebrity Mole (twice), Celebrity Big Brother, The Celebrity Apprentice, and -- I kid you not -- the aptly titled I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!
But, perhaps most importantly, it's his career as America's most famous born-again Baldwin that gets me out of bed in the morning. As a religion journalist, I've seen the monks and the ministers. But it's Baldwin that keeps things exciting. You can always count on him doing something interesting. Like how he's currently bankrupt and asking for donations (more on that later).
There is no greater gift than the enigma that is Stephen Baldwin. I actually had the pleasure of spending a day with him, and he tried to convert me -- twice.
Baldwin suffered for years from drug and alcohol addiction, until his Brazilian housekeeper convinced the actor and his wife to bring Jesus into their lives. Baldwin started his own skate punk ministry (although I'm not really sure what that means), starred in a number of straight-to-DVD Christian action movies, became a cultural adviser to President Bush, and wrote a 2006 memoir about becoming a born-again Christian called The Unusual Suspect, an obvious play on the name of the one movie he's actually famous for appearing in. (Keep in mind we're talking about a guy who has starred in movies with less-than-holy names like Sex Monster and Threesome.)
But now it seems there's trouble in paradise. The actor is out of work and out of money, and it appears that you and I are to blame. In a conspiracy of biblical proportions, a new website called RestoreStephenBaldwin.org claims that "because of his convictions, it began to cost him the loss of several jobs and, most recently, a highly-publicized bankruptcy." Apparently, they claim, it was the ridicule hurled at Stephen (and ergo Jesus) that caused this happen.
I guess the residual checks from Bio-Dome and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas have all dried up.
But, dear reader, we can repent for our sins. For just a small donation, for the cost of a high-priced cup of Starbucks, we all have the power to save Stephen Baldwin. In essence, Baldwin's plea is offering us our very own chance at redemption.
In what has to be one of the most unintentionally hilarious videos (see below), the Restore Stephen Baldwin site is asking for public donations to help bail out Baldwin. They reason that if enough people give, "Stephen's platform will increase, allowing him to reach even more people with the gospel." But don't think of this as an ego trip or a financial windfall for Stephen. No, no, no -- stop being a cynical heretic. It's all for Jesus. The video concludes with the simple proclamation: "God will get all the glory."
On the one hand, it's quite amusing to witness the hubris of a famous actor asking for a bailout when average Americans are having their own tough kitchen table conversations about how to survive the economic downturn and simply pay their monthly bills. On the other hand, it's Stephen Freaking Baldwin. My Stephen Baldwin. What kind of America are we living in where Stephen Baldwin can't continue to preach his gospel? I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in that kind of America.
So, perhaps against better judgment, I made a donation. A tiny one, but a donation nonetheless. And I encourage everyone to do the same. If for no other reason than to keep Stephen Baldwin around in the public eye.
I caught up with Jenkins to discuss his new book, militant Muslims, and the current scandal surrounding the pope.
You write about the Church Councils of the fifth century and how it was almost decided that the church might formally abandon the notion of Jesus being both human and divine and describe him solely as divine. How would that change have impacted modern-day Christianity?
Part of the impact is ethical. Assume that the church proclaimed a Christ who was, in essence, divine. In that case, how could we talk about following or imitating Christ, if he was not once a man who had shared our weakness and our temptations? If he was just a God visiting earth as a divine tourist, how would we dare ask "What would Jesus do?" We could worship Christ but not try to change the world at his command. And how could we talk of atonement -- the core doctrine of Christianity -- if Christ had not fully shared our natures? Basic to Christian thought is the belief that we died with Christ, and rise with him. But for that to work, we have to share his nature.
The doctrine of Christ's humanity is also critical for the arts. Now, at various points in their history, both Judaism and Islam have had great traditions of depicting human figures, but often, they have condemned such art as a form of idolatry: you can't depict God. Christians maintained a sacramental vision by which God had reclaimed matter, so you could and should have visual images of Christ, which meant those incredible figures of the suffering Christ, Christ on the cross, and so on. The doctrine of Christ's humanity is responsible for a great deal of Western art.
In your book, you draw a line comparing militant Christians and Muslim extremists. In what ways are they similar and how are they different?
The level of Christian violence in that early era is amazing. You have bishops and patriarchs commanding armed mobs of holy men and monks, who they turn out against rivals, very much like Muslim mullahs or ayatollahs in Iraq or Lebanon today. They issue anathemas that throw rivals out of the community of faith, very much like modern fatwas. Mobs murder rivals over theological issues, they behead them and carry their heads around the street. Monks serve as private clerical militias, holy head-breakers. Religious controversy in Christian Egypt or Syria back then sounds a lot like the modern Middle East. I'm not suggesting that ethnic or geographical determinism made people act this way over the centuries. Rather, these are cultures with a strong belief in honor, with all the implications of revenge and vendetta, and violence is the only proper way to react against anything that seems like an insult to God, an attempt to take away his proper status and titles. As to how they're different? I don't see much difference in principle.
I wrote that book back in 1996, and it's been disturbing to see how the crisis has moved on since then. Much of the media response is based on questionable assumptions. However hard this may be to believe, there is in fact no evidence that Catholic (or celibate) clergy abuse children at a rate any different from other professions dealing with children: we really have no comparable figures to go on. (The limited studies we do have of public school teachers suggest a startlingly high volume of abuse.) Perhaps priests are better than Protestant pastors or public school teachers in this regard, perhaps worse: we just can't say. What makes the Catholic dioceses different is that they are pack rats who keep records from many years ago, which makes them easy to sue. The vast majority of cases that we've heard about in the past few years are also from the distant past, virtually all from before 1990. Attitudes to child abuse have changed amazingly through the years -- you'd be startled to hear what mainstream psychiatrists and therapists were saying about both offenders and victims back in the 1960s and 1970s. Catholic authorities are being blamed for decisions taken back in 1975, say, which were perfectly defensible according to the standards of the time, but which look so vicious and reprehensible through the lens of 20-20 hindsight.
Philip Jenkins' new book,Jesus Wars, is available on bookshelves now.
The first thing you need to know about Penina Taylor is that she was actually born a Jew, albeit to a couple of secular parents. As a kid, one of Taylor's friends introduced her to Jesus and her life would never be the same. She went to a Christian college, received a Bible Certificate, and even served as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade. For the next 17 years she became a hot ticket speaker in the Evangelical movement lecturing at churches, youth groups, and a smattering of other events.
It would have been interesting enough had the story ended there. But, like all good yarns, there was a twist, a third act not even Taylor saw coming. Her spiritual journey led her right back to Judaism.
She first made a pit-stop in Messianic Judaism, starting a Jews for Jesus synagogue and even creating a Messianic Passover Haggadah. She eventually dropped the Jesus part and returned to Judaism, where she is now Orthodox, married with four kids, and living in Israel.
Her stranger-than-fiction life story is recounted in her new memoir, Coming Full Circle. I caught up with Taylor to ask her about her spiritual journey, her feelings towards Jesus, and to find out if she has any regrets.
Why did you feel it was important to write about your journey?
My goal in writing the book was not just to communicate the more intricate details of my journey, but to enlighten. I wanted to help religious Jews understand the phenomenon behind why a secular Jew might become a Christian. I wanted to help Jewish community professionals across the religious spectrum to understand some of the factors that lead to such a choice as well as the culture and mindset involved in it. That way, these professionals might be better prepared to deal with such individuals when they encounter them as well as being able to understand them and what their needs are, especially when they are attempting to re-enter the Jewish community.
I also wanted my book to provide enough information for the Messianic Jew who might pick it up, to understand why I gave up my belief in Jesus. It was not my intention to preach, but it was certainly one of my goals to encourage to them to re-investigate Judaism and to understand that Judaism has rejected Jesus as the messiah for good reasons, reasons really worth taking a look at.
You write about starting a Messianic "Jews for Jesus" synagogue in Maryland and how you led some of your Jewish family members into that movement. Looking back now, how do you feel about that?
Most of the people who I brought to a faith in Jesus over the 17 years I was a Christian were not Jewish. While I now know I was wrong in what I taught them, that doesn't really bother me as much as the Jewish people whose lives I affected. One of the biggest regrets I have in my life is that I had a part in a couple of close family members becoming Christians and they have not yet returned to Judaism as the rest of my family has.
I suppose that's part of why I feel so strongly about using my gifts and talents to talk to Jewish people about Judaism and Christianity, encouraging them to develop a meaningful and relevant Jewish experience, rather than seeking it in another faith. I feel like I have a personal tikkun (corrective) to make and so I've devoted my life to this cause.
I think most Jews feel uncomfortable when Christians try to convert them. Coming from someone with your personal history, do you feel differently? Do you empathize with Christian missionaries at all?
There is an ongoing debate here in Israel about Christians who are missionaries and those who are supposedly not. Charles Spurgeon, a highly respected and influential preacher from the late 19th century once said that, "a Christian is either a missionary or an impostor." I know that all Christians who believe their Bible believe that it is their duty to proselytize. When I come across such an individual, I empathize with them only so far as I understand where they are coming from and what their motivation is.
That having been said, I usually find myself wanting to get into a discussion with them so that I can show them the lies that they not only believe, but actively preach. While it isn't my goal to destroy a Christian's faith, it is my goal to give them pause, so that maybe they won't proselytize to Jewish people they come across.
Outside of something theological, what's the biggest day-to-day difference between living the life of an Evangelical Christian and being an Orthodox Jew?
The answer to that question is practically another book in itself! The difference between living as an Evangelical Christian and being an Orthodox Jew really boils down to a difference in mindset. Instead of going through life with this feeling that as a person I am inadequate and therefore needed Jesus to make me adequate before God, I understand that as an Orthodox Jew, every aspect of my life has one of two purposes -- strengthening my relationship with God and elevating the mundane everyday things of life to a level of holiness, and then being a conduit to bring that holiness back down to earth.
Instead of my motivating factor being the fear of burning in Hell forever, my motivation is one of determination to fulfill the purpose for which I was created.
How has the Orthodox community treated you, especially now that you're going public with your full story?
When I first came back to Judaism, I came back on the heels of a situation where the Orthodox community had recently been infiltrated by missionaries pretending to be new converts to Judaism. Their abuse of the community set the Jewish world on its head and everyone was afraid of it happening again. As a result, it took me a while to earn their trust.
I worked very hard to establish myself as an honest baalat teshuvah (returnee to Judaism), and built a reputation of honesty and transparency, which has earned me a great deal of respect. At this point, I and my family have been completely accepted into most of the Orthodox community and I feel very much a part of it.
I think that going public with the story has helped the Orthodox community to better understand Messianic Judaism -- both its dangers and its appeal. It has also helped raise the alarm that there is a need for pro-active educationally based counter-missionary programming for this generation.
What do you hope your children learn from your experience?
My greatest hope for my children is that they will treasure their Jewish heritage, understanding that it is a precious gift from God. I hope and pray that they will take their experience growing up in my home and be able to transmit the love and passion for G-d and Judaism that they experienced here to the next generation.
I grew up with a synagogue inside my house and a church across the street. My dad and most of my siblings are rabbis. I married the converted daughter of a former Christian minister. Not to mention I spent a year going to 52 different Bible Belt churches.
I've seen some of the best and worst houses of worship (both Jewish and Christian) and, in my opinion, there are lots of things that synagogues can learn from churches. Indeed, the list could go on and on. To get started, I'll just post three ideas.
1. First-time visitor parking When I visited the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, I didn't plan ahead. If I had, I would've realized that not all of the mega-church's 22,000 members could park in their (albeit sprawling) parking lot. Like a major sporting event, there was plenty of "off-site" parking where people hopped on shuttle buses to bring them to the church building.
But, luckily for me, New Birth is a church that has mastered the fine art of welcoming newcomers. I drove straight up to the church sanctuary and right next to the handicap parking were spots that were painted for "First-time visitors". It reminded me of the "New mom parking" I've seen at some grocery stores.
It's an overall theme of welcoming and customer service, which leads me to the next item...
2. Customer service
I once heard Bernie Marcus speak to a roomful of rabbis. Marcus is the co-founder of the Home Depot and a major Jewish philanthropist. What he was telling the clergy gathered was as follows: when a customer walks into the Home Depot, they know that they can go up to anyone in a bright orange apron and ask them any question. Where can I find another one of these lug nuts? Do you sell the paint color Evening Peruvian Lily here? There is no stupid question you can ask a Home Depot employee, Marcus explained. Those in orange aprons are there for one reason and one reason only: to help customers. (It's no surprise that Home Depot's competitor Lowe's is launching a new campaign highlighting the helpfulness of their sales associates.)
So, too, Marcus continued, synagogues are in the customer service business. "In many respects," he said, "you have to stop thinking like a scholar and start thinking like a retailer." With their Hebrew prayers and insular communities, synagogues can be a very intimidating place. There are lots of options for "customers" (other synagogues, outright apathy, etc.). Synagogues need to stand out and rise to the occasion by offering great customer service, in very much the same way churches have ushers who greet you, show you to your seat, and so on.
Synagogues can even improve with something as simple as proper signage. For example, when you walk into a Home Depot store, you know exactly where the restrooms are located. At most synagogues, it would take some snooping to find that. I was discussing this with a rabbi once and he said his synagogue was different. His synagogue had signs, showing new congregants where the restrooms, sanctuary, and clergy's office was. I looked around; he was right. Only problem is the signs were in Hebrew. Enough said.
3. Study the work of Synagogue 3000 A national non-proﬁt organization called Synagogue 3000 has a singular mission: to revitalize synagogue life in America. Its efforts cross over into many categories, everything from more inspiring prayer services to ways to attract new congregants. What's more interesting to me is that one of the ways it seeks to learn how to better a synagogue is by looking to churches to see what techniques can be brought back to the Jewish world.
For example, a few years ago it invited Rick Warren (the mega-pastor who gave the invocation at Obama's inauguration) to give a workshop to a group of rabbis on how they can do better outreach at their synagogues. Here's a guy who ministers to one of the biggest churches in America, sitting in a room with a bunch of rabbis, giving them advice on how to better run their synagogues. Everything from member retention to community outreach to fund-raising was discussed.
"Jews need to be more quote-unquote evangelical," Ron Wolfson, the co-founder of the Synagogue 3000 initiative and a professor at the American Jewish University, told me. "We need to do a better job of presenting Judaism to our own people."
Synagogue 3000 has lots of resources on its website and was also kind enough to post some video clips on YouTube from that Warren intervention. I've posted one below:
So those are just three ideas to get the conversation going. Nothing on this list is against Jewish theology. I'm not saying we should bring Jesus in the synagogue. But what I am saying is that it wouldn't hurt a synagogue to put up some signs indicating where the restrooms are or grab a bucket of paint and mark a few spots in their parking lot for newcomers. It would go a long way.
Over time, I'll post more suggestions on other ways synagogues can learn from churches. Feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments section below.
I'm writing this essay on a U.S. Airways flight from Tucson back to Atlanta, where I live. I'm on my way back from a speaking gig at the Tucson Festival of Books, the final stop on what has become a whirlwind 18-month book tour traversing more than 20 cities and over 40 speeches.
On the one hand, I couldn't be more thrilled to be returning home. Having a day job, I've had to squeeze these extra-curricular book tour events into tight time constraints. Which basically means speaking in one city at night and catching the 5 AM flight (with a 3 AM hotel wake-up call) back to Atlanta to get to work on time the next day. It's an exhausting schedule, to say the least.
Like George Clooney's character in the Oscar-nominated Up in the Air, I find myself going from one airport to another -- a revolving carousel of terminals, gates, and baggage claims fast becoming a blur in my brain.
On the other hand, I feel blessed and, quite frankly, humbled. Most first-time authors are lucky to just score a few gigs. Moreover, I know this experience may never happen again, so I've learned to enjoy it while I can. After all, for brief moments throughout, I often get treated treated like a celebrity. Fancy hotel suites, green rooms with my name on the door, people asking for my autograph, and some even asking for pictures with me. What rookie writer doesn't dream of such adulation? Many cities even shuttled me around in a limousine -- although there was that one time where they sent a Hearse instead. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere.
But what I actually found more enjoyable than the star treatment was being given a front-row seat to a rich and textured slice of Jewish Americana. The book tour for my memoir, a religious romp through the Bible Belt, got me invited to Jewish community centers in places like San Antonio, Louisville, Los Angeles and to synagogues in Tampa, Boulder, Stamford, and everywhere in between. I visited the coasts, the heartland, and discovered a rich tapestry that is the American Jewish community circa 2010.
I've seen tiny Jewish communities on the precipice of tremendous growth. In Kansas City, I ate at a Subway restaurant that had rabbinic supervision and had received kosher certification, one of only a handful in the country to do so. In Charlotte, I was amazed to find a bustling campus of Jewish activity. In Rochester, I ate at a delicious kosher restaurant which pops up every week in the sanctuary of a synagogue, and then quickly gets hidden away each Saturday. Yes, it doesn't take more than some good kosher take-out to impress me.
But I also visited cities that once had thriving Jewish communities and were now dying. The older generation were getting older and the younger generation never returned after college, opting instead for a brighter, different future in more bustling and lucrative towns. It was a recession-era story, retold in spiritual terms.
Ironically, it was in these struggling cities, where I found the most inspiration. Their numbers may have been dwindling, but that was only serving to embolden those who were still there. These strong-willed Jewish community members were staying. They were taking a stand as if in a battle to save the very soul of their town.
They were working on new initiatives, new programs to bring in new members. A renaissance and revitalization was just around the corner, I was told. For these down-on-their-luck Jewish communities, it was a divine tale of "Yes, we can," writ large. And I found myself being inspired by their against-all-odds road to redemption. Sharing time with these scrappy Jewish communities pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, I got jazzed about my own Judaism. Here I had come to speak to them and, yet, time after time I found myself learning so much more from them.
And so as I wind down this little adventure, it is not the inconvenience of early morning air travel that will ultimately stick with me; the lasting impact will more likely be the grit and determination of those I met.
The flight from Tucson to Atlanta is getting ready to land and it's time to put away my laptop. When the plane lands, I will go home, catch some sleep, and wake up for work tomorrow. It will be just another day, but it will be a brighter one, one enriched by the people I've met and the faith they inspire.
In the end, she came out -- as we all should -- more understanding of our religious neighbors. Her book is a great example of how those on any side of the religious, political, or cultural divide can retire our preconceived notions by walking a mile in someone else's shoes and come out a more tolerant and well-rounded individual because of it. In that sense, we should all try to emulate Welch's open-mindedness.
I caught up with Welch as she embarked on her book tour to find out what motivated her to go on this journey and what she learned from the experience.
What made a self-proclaimed liberal atheist Jew decide to go to church?
My Sundays needed structure. No, I think my attraction to the church grew out of repulsion. I grew up thinking of myself as a born atheist, bristling at public expressions of faith, at being shoehorned "under God" by the Pledge of Allegiance. Berkeley was very accommodating of that attitude. For the most part, I didn't have to deal with religion if I didn't feel like it. And so from the vantage point of my little sliver of experience, I thought of our country as a pretty secular place.
The violent realization I had when I moved to Virginia for graduate school was that this is a very Christian country, with around a quarter of Americans self-identifying as evangelical. And in spite of my smug self-conception as a tolerant person, I had this calcified, unrecognized prejudice against evangelical Christians. Their politics angered me, their culture seemed silly. Most of all their vocal efforts to see the world converted to their views made me, frankly, afraid of them.
Around the time I was reckoning with this stuff, George W. Bush got re-elected, an event that was flat out unthinkable to me. The polls showed that an organized, mobilized block of evangelicals played an instrumental role in helping him secure that victory, and following the election there was an avalanche of media coverage about this scary, militaristic zombie-force of evangelicals bent on hijacking government.
So this made me feel entitled to answers: If evangelicals believed they not only had a right to meddle in what I believed, but also in how my government operated, I thought I had a right to know who they were.
There was a complicating element: I knew a handful of evangelical Christians in Virginia, and they didn't align neatly with my conception of what evangelicals were like. So I was drawn to the navigation of those inconsistencies, and to challenge my own prejudices by experiencing firsthand the tactile reality of evangelical life.
Why undercover? Why not pose as yourself -- a journalist with questions?
Before I began attending Thomas Road Baptist Church, I dimly believed that I'd attract suspicion if I presented myself truthfully. That dim sense was affirmed by my early interactions: although I didn't tell anyone I was working on the book, during the first months I spent at church I told people I wasn't a Christian, that I'd gone to Yale, that I was "curious" about Christianity. And I was greeted as the gawking outsider I was. The church members I met witnessed to me, directed me to passages from the Bible, spoke to me in guarded, prepackaged narratives.
I understood their suspicion. There's a widespread impression among evangelicals that secular progressives would like to see them flushed out of the culture. Look at the strange currency of the war on Christmas, an annual pageant of outrage that from my point of view seems like goofy satire. Many evangelical Christians buy into it because in them resides a potent fear of endangerment, for which there's plenty of real-world evidence: a lot of secular progressives treat evangelicals with derision, the media feeds a public appetite for exposes on their churches, and we celebrate when their leaders are disgraced, humiliated, or revealed as enjoying the same behaviors they built careers on decrying as sin.
So the notion that they'd trust a liberal, atheist writer to fairly represent their stories, or that they'd act naturally around me, knowing the filter through which I was viewing them, was just unrealistic.
For any undercover book, I think the only possible redemption for the methodology -- for the betrayals woven into it, for winning trust on false pretenses, for the narrative theft -- resides in the value of the result. Do the merits of the work justify the means by which it was obtained? In my case, I'd like to think the value of a detailed, humanizing portrait of evangelicals from a secular perspective, deepened by the story about how its creation changed me, meets a real deficit in cross-cultural understanding. Could it have been written any other way? No. The intimacy of my experience, which is really the hinge on which the book swings, would have been impossible had I presented myself truthfully.
Ultimately, I can't be the arbiter of whether or not my deceptions were justified. They're justified if the book connects with readers.
What was the biggest surprise you found during your journey?
The biggest surprise for me was the individual reflectiveness of church members. I think I'd had this stereotype of evangelicals as blisteringly arrogant dogmatists. But I observed instead humility and a kind of obsessive self-reflection, enacted through prayer. They call it listening to God's voice, but from it seemed to me like a constant internal pat-down of conscience, which really resulted in care with choices, and a movingly ample capacity for selflessness and generosity. I learned a lot by their example.
A secondary surprise was that I felt implicated in the ignorance I observed -- relating to gay rights, to the environment, to feminism. I started to believe that their reactionary attitudes on these subjects were a result of profound insularity, which itself seemed the legacy of a culture that rejected them: mine. Why would they open themselves up to influence from a culture that made no space for their beliefs?
Who is the target audience for your book? More specifically, do you think evangelicals -- and Christians as a whole -- will enjoy your book?
The book's appeal for secular progressives, I hope, is implicit. I think we like to think of ourselves as very tolerant, but we're comfortable being nasty to evangelical Christians. I think Internet culture has really exacerbated this attitude. It allows for hostility that would be unacceptable in life, where interacting with flesh and blood people counteracts any budding impulse to reduce someone to a disgusting cartoon. So I want this book to restore some humanity.
I'd hope that evangelicals would be interested in reading the book to see how their ideas and culture translate to a person working very hard to take them seriously, who nonetheless doesn't share their central beliefs.
Since the book has now been published, and you've been "outed", have any of the people you wrote about contacted you? If so, what was their reaction?
Well, I actually outed myself long before the book came out. I thought it was important to do my best to emotionally prepare the people to whom I'd lied, and to be available to them for questions. So I went back to Lynchburg last year to talk to some people I'd been close to, to reveal to them who I truly was and what I'd done.
Their initial reaction was shock, of course. They were understandably wounded. I hadn't known this, but they thought something terrible had happened to me. So to find out that not only was I doing just fine, but also that I'd had this agency, that I'd done something to them, that I'd been secretly recording the events of their lives and that I'd stolen them for use in this book -- I think that was deeply disturbing news. Worse, not only had I lied about being a Christian, but I was an atheist, someone who -- from their perspective -- had no moral center at all. I've tried to understand what it must have felt like to assimilate that news, but it's something I'll never fully be able to imagine.
So they were hurt, and immediately suspected I'd written a jeremiad. They wanted to know if I'd set out to embarrass people.
After long conversations about what I did and why I did it, something incredible happened: they each extended me acceptance, affection, and forgiveness. I never could have asked for that. I don't have the right to impose expectations on anyone's reaction. But they've been generous and lovely with me. I'm still in touch with a close friend from church, and with one of the pastors. I believe if it weren't for the geographical distance, I'd be in better touch with everyone.
Any ideas yet on what your next book will be?
Right now I'm working on a project based on letters my grandfather sent to my grandmother during World War II, which lushly detail his Zelig-like experiences on the European front -- on the beaches of Normandy, in Paris, in the Hurtgen Forest, at Dachau. My grandfather destroyed my grandmother's letters as he received them, so part of the work of my project is restoring her narrative as a young Communist living with her mother in Brighton Beach. My grandparents were also persecuted for their politics at the start of the McCarthy Era, so I'm working to get my arms around the scalding disappointment of that experience, to have sacrifice rewarded with vilification and ostracism.
So, you know, another light, easily accessible subject. Sometimes I wish someone would come along and force me to write some short, breezy essays.
In these tough financial times, when Wall Street bankers are villains and unemployment hovers around 10%, seeing a boss belittled to toilet cleaning is the equivalent of watching porn. And that's exactly what nearly 40 million people watched as they stuck around after the Super Bowl for America's #1 new show.
CBS' Undercover Boss, based on a hit British reality show of the same name, has a ridiculously simple premise: High-falutin higher-up spends a week working entry-level positions in his own company. The catch? He's incognito, so people treat him as a new recruit and not the boss, giving him unique entree into the daily grind of lower-level life in his own company.
Of course, someone of authority going undercover among his minions is not necessarily a novel concept. In ancient times, there are tales of kings dressing up as paupers so they could mingle amongst their subjects and tap into the people's true thoughts of the monarchy.
And when a leader can't disguise himself, you can always hire an outside consultant. Restaurants like Taco Bell and others have been doing that for years - employing taste-testers to randomly show up, undercover, to check in on franchise locations. It's even what churches are now doing, hiring mystery worshippers, to infiltrate services to let them know how they can improve Sunday prayers. Sorry, God, but your old prayers just aren't getting the ratings they used to.
Furthering the myth of a riches to rags tale, the producers make the CEO sleep in low-rent motels, and every episode starts with the head honcho entering a locker room and changing into a company uniform - as if every company in America can be described in such a cliched made-for-TV formula.
All the CEOs featured so far work for corporations that have vast tax-bracket discrepancies in their workforce (i.e. companies who employ minimum wage workers - toilet cleaners, burger flippers, etc.) And if those employees have a health crises (dialysis patients have already been featured in two of the first three episodes) or a foreclosed home, then all the better. It's all concocted by the reality TV gods to better serve the storyline.
It's that storyline that is Undercover Boss' winning recipe. It's edited into a remarkably feel-good show. It could have easily spiraled into a self-aggrandizing love-fest for the corporate set. But it didn't. The same way that the USA Network's White Collar, which fetishizes the art of the con in a post-Bernie Madoff era, actually makes the audience root for the swindler.
Indeed, the overarching theme of the show is one of self (and corporate) improvement. It's about redemption. It's about comeuppance for the all the little guys struggling out there. It's about how to make the world a better place. Even the show's promos tout it with the tagline, "Be inspired."
But it doesn't end there. We, the viewing audience, feel triumphant watching the lowly workers get recognized for all their hard work (not to mention extra gifts bestowed to them by the CEO at the end of each episode). But it's actually the CEO that comes out on top as the proverbial hero in this tale. It's the CEO who "gains" the most by the lessons he's learned. He's the one whose life, we are informed in voiceover narration, has changed for the better.
The ivory-towered CEO gets a lesson in pathos to great dramatic and personal effect. And it doesn't hurt that empathy is our zeitgeist's current feeling of choice, as eloquently detailed in Jeremy Rifkin's new book, The Empathic Civilization -- which is currently rocketing up the charts thanks in part to the Huffington Post's book club.
CBS has created a show where fat cat execs hop off their perch, spend time with the little people, and leave with a better understanding of what it takes to make a living nowadays. Call it the first truly recession-era reality show. Or just call it porn.