Killing the Buddha by Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet

I often find it is interesting and instructive to study an issue by looking at the grey areas; the borderline between out right rejection and actual belief. I especially find this to be the case when discussing belief in God. Doubt is often the stimulus for faith. I enjoy reading books, fiction and non, that deal with faith, divinity, or the supernatural in interesting ways. So it was not unusual for me to stumble on to the web site Killing the Buddha, The site’s manifesto offers this explanation:

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.

This struck me as a worthwhile, and potentially interesting, project and I have often clicked over to see what they were up to. More recently, I was reminded of the site and decided to pick up the book of the same name.

Killing the Buddha : A Heretic’s Bible is hard to describe. In its most basic form it is a series of essays alternated with stories from life on the road in search of the weird underside of spirituality in America. The road stories are told by the web site’s founding editors Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet. The essays are told by a variety of writers but are a loose attempt to recreate scripture for the modern world. These essays take on various books of the Bible but from sort of angry, modern, heretical perspective. It is as if the authors approach the Bible not as divine revelation but cultural and historical literature to be deconstructed and reinvented. Instead of the traditional Christian “what is God trying to tell me”, they ask “what does this say about humanity?” The result is a sort of religious and literary anthropology. The perspective isn’t exactly hostile but neither is it particularly sympathetic either. It has a certain cynical fascination; interested in exploring the ideas but ultimately rejecting the traditional answers.

When it works it can be quite interesting. Genesis, written by A.L. Kennedy, is a meditation on the importance of beginnings, of the human search for where we came from and why we are here. It is part autobiography and part existential angst; a musing on who exactly the God of Genesis is and what that might mean. It is by no means an orthodox view – this is a heretics bible after all – but it does make you think; it has something to say. In discussing her own life and the events outlined in the first book of the Bible, Kennedy reflects on the relationship between God and man. Is God the watchmaker or the absentee landlord? Is prayer simply self-therapy or does God really listen? This type of writing is worth while because of its basic humanism. We all struggle with issues of origin and meaning; where did I come from and what does it all mean? Different conclusions maybe but similar questions.

Another thought provoking chapter – Job, written by Peter Trachtenberg – is a discussion of what is traditionally thought of as the problem of evil. What does a world full of suffering and depravity – a world of Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Killing Fields, of Kosovo and Rwanda – say about it’s creator? This is a meaty subject and one of the more difficult aspects of faith. Trachtenberg’s take is a little darker and more cynical than mine, but it sheds new light on the book of Job because of its unique perspective. The author views Job as the “most truthful story in the Bible.” Trachtenberg brings respect to the story but also a sense of fatalism. He simply can’t get past the ugliness of the world so he ends up seeing God as a sort of split personality, Creator and Destroyer. In this way history, and the story of Job, is a wager between God’s good side and his evil side:

The Book of Job describes the wager from the point of view of its unhappy human marker – the die that is thrown, the coin that is flipped, the card that is turned over and over and over until its corners are torn off and its image worn almost beyond recognition. For Job the wager is a tragedy. for God, of course, it is a game.

As I said, Trachtenberg’s perspective is too dark and too full of despair in my opinion but it is skillful and thought provoking writing.

The book kinda goes downhill from there unfortunately. The remaining chapters seem overwrought short fiction with little connection to scripture or belief. They strike as the bad side of “creative writing.” They are for the most part a weird sort of attempt to meld the minor prophets with magical realism or some such literary trick. They are first person narratives of characters plucked out of some fictional world, often with a touch of the supernatural. Perhaps I should go back and read the books of the Bible they are correlated to, but I found them inexplicable. Jonah Feldman the Kosher Fag of Maspeth New Jersey? Velmajean the miracle working retiree manipulated by the mega-church pastor and visited by weird men in black overcoats? The Book of Revelation as some sort of mistake by super intelligent beings beyond earth?These stories left me confused and uninspired. They seemed to mock and belittle scripture rather than illuminate it from different perspective. For me it spoiled the more challenging stories the book began with.

Alternating these chapters are stories from the author’s travels around America; their spirituality road trip. Some of the stories are interesting. They describe a very odd church run in with a homicidal cross dresser; a church seeking spiritual highs from revenge; pagan communities in Colorado; and tattoos and the Virgin Mary in East LA. Again, the weakness of the stories is their disconnectedness. Are they interesting snippets of the underbelly of American religion? Sure. But do they have much to tell us about faith or the lack thereof or about religion in general? From my perspective, not really. If you find that sort of thing interesting then they make for good reading. If you are looking for a larger connection between the threads laid out in the book I don’t think you will find it. In this way the book becomes a collection of short stories and vignettes that lack a punch as a whole. They are almost like a collection of columns from a popular journalist, they capture history and thought but the whole is not bigger than the parts.

In the end, I began to wonder if I am simply not their target audience. Despite all my doubts and fears, I am too strongly in the believer camp; too orthodox to really appreciate a heretics Bible not literary enough to appreciate the creative writing aspect. Perhaps if you are a metropolitan agnostic who is interested in religion as a social phenomenon and fiction as a lens on that phenomenon, then you will find this unique book more to your liking. For me the concept held promise but the product ultimately failed. Maybe that is why you need to Kill the Buddha . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).