God in Their lives

It's been noted by certain reviewers and pundits that God's been having a rough time in the bookstores recently. In what seems a concerted response to the zealousness of the Religious Right — especially its effectiveness in politics — a spate of books has appeared proclaiming atheism as a more potent and realistic creed to live by than any expression of faith. Consider some of these works: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris' The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett. The titles alone tell the story.

Not that books with a positive spin on religion have dried up under this assault. That would hardly be likely in a nation built on a serious appreciation of the deistic. The problem with such books is that they're not the type to achieve a high profile outside of religious circles and, considering how the media works, they would either be ignored by mainstream reviewers or denigrated in print.

So it's interesting that, in his new book, Antonio Monda, who teaches in the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, takes a different tack than the more determinedly atheist works mentioned above. Titled Do You Believe?: Conversations on God and Religion, and published as a paperback original by Vintage Books, the work is a series of interviews with writers, artists, actors and film directors, in which the discussion centers on God.

Some of the people Monda has chosen include Michael Cunningham, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Martin Scorcese, Jonathan Franzen, Jane Fonda, David Lynch and the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

There are only a handful of Jews among them, and they amount to some of the "usual suspects," and one or two surprises. Among the former are Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, Nathan Englander and Elie Wiesel; among the latter are Paul Auster and Daniel Libeskind.

The central question in these discussions is: "Do you think God exists, and how has your answer affected your choices in life?" The query seems to have been fashioned so as not to reveal Monda — right away, at least — as a deeply religious person, a believer who would appear, from his prefatory remarks, to have bought the whole farm. (As he notes, at one point, he's "Catholic, Apostolic, Roman.")

But for such a committed believer, he is tolerant of those whose opinions diverge, often wildly, from his. Many responses, whether from the usual suspects or the unusual ones, are lively and, at times, fun to read.

Not that some aren't predictable. Take the late Grace Paley, for example. Anyone who knows her work — and especially those familiar with what she did outside of her literary pursuits — also knows that, in interviews, her animosity toward religion could almost be palpable.

Paley was born in the Bronx in 1920 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents who had fled from czarist repression.

In her later years, the short-story writer, poet and political activist split her time between a home in Vermont and her longtime apartment in Greenwich Village, where the current interview transpired.

"She insists that I call her Grace," writes Monda, "and she is curious about the fact that I want to talk about her relationship with religion. While she prepares green tea she asks how I came to get involved in a subject like this.

"I think it's the most important subject of our time. Rather, the most important of all time.

"Are you serious? …


"Tell me about your religious education.

"There is very little to tell: my parents were both atheists, and when they fled Russia they were against the rabbis no less than they were against the czar. …


"What do you feel when you meet a believer?

"I feel ambivalent: I respect his thinking and his belief, but at the same time I think he's deluded. …"


You get her point fairly quickly.

Other predictable interviews — at least for those who've been exposed to these authors' extraliterary pronouncements — come from Bellow and Nathan Englander. Bellow retells a bit about his childhood that readers of his novels and stories will recognize, insists he believes in God but doesn't resort to any sort of petitioning kinds of prayer — because, as he puts it, he doesn't "want to bug God."

Englander revisits his rebellion against the Orthodoxy of his youth, which, for such a young writer, must be the most "overtold" story in recent literary journalism.

'Closer to Their Roots'

Far more interesting are the responses provided by Auster and Libeskind.

Auster, the Brooklyn-based novelist, when asked if he thinks God exists, says he does not believe in him — and he uses that word, with that lower-case "h" — but considers religion "a fundamental element of existence."


"Were you brought up in a religious environment?

"My parents were not particularly observant Jews, but until the age of 14, I went to synagogue, and I remember my Bar Mitzvah with a kind of tenderness.

"Then what happened?

"I went through a crisis typical for people of that age. …


"How did your parents react?

"With … respect for my choices. But, I repeat, they were never real believers. My family belonged to that generation of Jews who came to religion after the war with an attitude that displayed above all a paradoxical sense of guilt. After the terrible sufferings of the Holocaust, many felt the need to draw closer to their roots.


"Do you miss something of that reality?

"There are things we miss in every choice we make, but I can't say I have regrets, and I'm sure I did the right thing.


"Why did you call religion a fundamental element of existence?

"Because only an ignorant person would say the opposite. Look at history, and what other conclusion can you come to?"


When asked if he believes in God, famed architect Daniel Libeskind responds, "I believe it's a question that always comes too late."

"What do you mean?

"That it's a retrospective question. Belief is an inescapable part of our daily experience. We believe the moment we see."

Asked what his idea of God might be, the architect explained that he didn't think it was possible to have one, and that perhaps it was only possible to hear him

"Have you ever heard him?

"Every day. I try to avoid the temptation to seek him only in moments of need.


"So you hear him, or feel his presence, also in moments of certainty.

"Absolutely. I believe that it's one of the very definitions of life. We didn't create ourselves alone."



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