On reviewing books, and "Hours of Devotion"
One small flame

The Faith Between Us

Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal: a former wannabe Catholic priest and a self-described "failed Jewish mystic." Close friends. Co-authors of The Faith Between Us, a book which charts their dialogue about everything from marriage proposals to veganism, parables and mysticism and the pursuit of authentic religious faith. Both men have long literary pedigrees; they've been regular contributors to McSweeney's and Killing The Buddha, and Peter is one of my colleagues at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Together, they fight crime. Okay, no, they don't. But they've written one hell of a book.

This book began with what has become, for many of us, a not-so-innocent and not-so-simple question: Do you believe in God?

We're nervous even to ask; simply posing the question reveals something about you, if only that you're earnest enough to care. And answering in either direction, yes or no, can often feel like a great risk, depending on the company you keep. This kind of exposure can be embarrassing. The question catches us with our, yes, Proverbial pants down.... We step carefully around the question: Do you believe?

To say that we believe means that at the center of our lives is an idea of God.

In the introduction, Scott and Peter talk about existing "on the religious fringe" as undergrads, preferring rock shows and girls to Bible study and campus-sponsored Shabbat dinners. (I know the feeling.) And about studying theology in graduate school, yearning to reconcile the desire for intellectual integrity with religious devotion that was unquestionably irrational, but was powerful nonetheless. (Yep. I know that feeling too.) And they talk about their friendship, and what it opened up for and in them.

These guys could be poster children for the kind of deep ecumenism that I value. Each is firmly rooted in his faith and tradition; each respects the other wholly and implicitly; and near as I can tell, each understands his own faith to be strengthened and vitalized by the prism of their inter-religious fellowship.

We do not live in perfect, unquestioning communion with our ancient laws and myths, but continually hear the collective echoes of those ancient, mythic voices. Our respective religious languages, interests, and sources -- from the Bible to its commentaries, prayers, hymns, and jokes -- infuse everything we want to say about God, and finally about all of God's creation, or the world.

The string "commentaries, prayers, hymns, and jokes" makes me happy. I often feel like the people who know and love Bible commentaries are missing out on the humor, and people who know and love religious humor are missing out on the commentaries. Not these two. Any duo who could pen the lines "God can never be exhausted by traditionally religious language. Not only does no one tradition ever capture holiness, but from pop songs to birdsong, tics to tattoos, we find it everywhere" is a pair of people with whom I feel significant common ground.

After the introduction, the book unfolds in a series of ten short essays: The Tic, The Clarinet, The Priest, The Mystic. (I'm waiting for the cook, the thief, the rabbi, and the lover.) Scott's story about a facial tic is funny, engaging, wry, and then suddenly bam! it hits me somewhere deep: "Because faith can often feel like this, an involuntary and embarrassing tug, an annoyance even, something that rises from beneath the service." Busted. How did he see inside me like that?

Peter's tale about mysticism leaps from excessive drug use to Rudolph Otto's natural history of the numinous. From bad acid trips and near-hospitalizations to the endless search for God that burned beneath. It's hard to write incisively about drug experiences, to do so in a way that resists the temptations of purple prose or easy pathos, but he manages. And then, he writes simply, "I discovered that all along God had been in the place I had never thought to look for him. God was in the world." And that insight illumines everything that came before.

I could go on. I won't; go read the book already. I'll tell you, though, that after each of these, the other partner in the dialogue responds, teasing out new insights by the sheer fact of the voices' interplay. In that sense, this is a very Jewish book: the whole thing is hevruta, the kind of back-and-forth paired study that's central to all Jewish learning. It's just that the text being studied here is the lived Torah of human experience, the Scripture we embody in our flawed, funny, anxious, reverent lives.

Scott and Peter have a joint blog here. You can find links to places where the book is available here. In this season of light shining in the darkness -- the first week of Advent; the early days of Chanukah -- this book feels to me like exactly the kind of light our world needs.

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