Tuesday, August 19, 2008

J.C. Hallman's "The Devil is a Gentleman": Book Review

Warning: a serious study, but for the "educated general reader" rather than theologians or those looking for earnestly subversive fringe-cult press ravings. It's admittedly a quite misleading title for this book. [Subtitled closer to the topic: Exploring America's Religious Fringe.] The phrase comes from a William James quote that if the devil is a gentleman than God is certainly no such character. But, it may set up expectations that this is a salacious prowl around the netherworld of bizarre cults and sinister devotions. (Admittedly, the Satanists alternately tongue-in-goateed cheek and in deadly intent intersect with this stereotype of tweaking taboos.) Even with them, however, Hallman labors to excavate the scholarly foundation for devil-worship and its appeal within today's society. He takes his interviews seriously but knows when to lighten up or bear down. The result's a thoughtful, sustained comparison of James' pioneering efforts to understand religion as a human construct within the context of the past American century's diversity of newer religious (and one anti-religious) sects.

The search starts with curiosity, as Hallman investigates, respectively, Uranian seekers of alien contact, revived Druids, and wrestling evangelicals. As he learns more about James' own thought, Hallman begins to ask deeper questions, from the heirs to LaVey's Church of Satan, and tests Jamesian tenets against the technocracy asserted by Scientologists. He begins to grow more wary, and perhaps restless, as he pits James' own elasticity of categories with the determinedly "anti-religious" faith community known as the American Atheists, at their national gathering. Then, moving towards a more deeply informed understanding of how beliefs shift and transform as a new self-definition of a specific religious sect emerges, he explores the progress and alteration of beliefs among neo-Pagans and Goddess worshippers in Seattle. Finally, Hallman meets both skepticism and acceptance of how a religious community must look into itself and ask hard questions if it wishes to survive without deceiving itself or distorting its credo. This emerges with the neo-pagans as they must adjust their earlier claims for pagan origins and supposed continuity in the light of recently discovered historical fact.

He finds this self-scrutiny occuring most powerfully with the Orthodox Christian monks of New Skete, living among and inspired by their best-selling dogs. Hallman, a lapsed Catholic, intersperses a biographical arc that links a critical introduction to James with his own travels at America's "religious fringe." While his lack of stimulating chat with some of these groups makes for only intermittently engaging insights, Hallman is honest about those he interviews. If his informants are limited by their robotic recital of a "sales pitch," a sound-bite, or their own mantra, Hallman separates their sought-after beliefs from their mundane, calculated, or cynical presentation. He respects those who trust him enough to speak with him, and learns to distinguish the charlatans from the sincere, no matter how outlandish their outward claims of interior revelation may be. Much of this book, in the early and middle sections, is slower going as Hallman warms up to the quest and labors to understand James' difficult concepts. It picks up the pace as it continues, reaching with the pagan and monk chapters, for me, its most rewarding insights.

Hallman writes thoughtfully and carefully, but at times there is simply too much cogitation on James, other times too much of the mundane boilerplate on the cults and their often dull spokespeople. Many of the chapters read as if moderately engaging, intellectually sophisticated articles that might appear in media like The Atlantic, Harper's, or the NY Times Magazine. This itself is not a criticism, merely an observation: the book is pitched at the serious reader with a solid education who's able to grasp theology, sociology, philosophy, and theology. But, not every term is explained with the clarity it needs; James as cited by Hallman does not always speak with the elucidation one would wish. James can waffle and baffle. Hallman can get tongue-tied in interpreting James; this is not his own fault, but it does show the complicated intellectual maneuvering of James and how challenging "Varieties" remains for readers today. Therefore, sufficient patience to re-read and cogitate their reports is needed to appreciate this narrative.

Hallman's combination of theological student and sociological adept makes his own struggle to find meaning as complicated as that of William James. You share Hallman's frustration with James' own refusal to be pinned down. You also may be bored or indifferent to more than one of the religious or irreligious Americans Hallman hovers about. Still, this is about as close as most of us will come to 'Varieties of Religious Experience' as re-examined a century later; Hallman labors to interpret James' own convoluted attempts to define what the purpose of belief is. Hallman agrees with James. Religion and belief should matter more that they work 'pragmatically' (a loaded term for James) for the individual seeker rather than as scientifically verifiable assertions.

Late in the journey, among the neo-Pagans, Hallman applies James' distinction between the "healthy souls" who are optimistic and live life without questioning the tenets they affirm and the "sick souls." Many drawn to read this book (as with I suppose Hallman, James, and myself), will find themselves in the latter category. Any belief we hold positively or negatively must be wrestled with and won through painful searching; we are not blessed with (or we have lost with our education, life experiences, or maturity) the gift of solid faith. Hallman learns that the academic and rational "old idol of hypothesis verification was its own over-belief, the way it had divvied all of us up into a babble of scientific cants and lingos, had made us fanatics blind even to our own fanaticism, unhappy and seeking, desperate to try anything that tasted like truth." (245)

America is the sick soul. How can we, he wonders, tell each other what this truth would be? Hallman, inspired by James, comes to assert: "the religion he stands by must be the one which he finds best for him, even though there are better individuals, and their religion better for them."

This book also, if in passing, finds what happens as the groups on the margins grow, bicker, and try to prosper. Hallman, weary after seeing over and over how various fringe groups struggle as they are co-opted into the mainstream, notes precisely how scripture becomes Scripture: when the teachings of the original founders are divorced from their context, and applied to circumstances that are removed from that context. This is not an inspiring transition, at least as Hallman witnesses this discourse. I leave it to you to find out which group enacts this wrench out of context!

Hallman reminds us how "cult" groups and "extreme" factions either keep splintering or survive by adapting to the monotheistic template of the West: even if they oppose it bitterly, these groups and factions are driven to take on its legal trappings (chaplains, dogtags, governmental recognition, tax-exempt status), demographic indicators (atheists asserting their same "rights" as a recognized community as do believers), and managerial attitudes (how to perpetuate the ideals and rituals after the founders depart or the original predictions fail to be fulfilled).

Even if one rejects religion, one must address "the attendant dilemma of curiosity": this, Hallman derives from James, is the definition of religion. Hallman suggests that our consciousness forces us into "the great side effect" of "metaphysical quandary." (247) The neo-Pagan chapter seems to signal Hallman's breakthrough into this humbling realization that humans must create their own religion (or anti-religion, which only confirms this humanist tendency) and, furthermore, acknowledge that they are doing so rather than receiving a revelation from above. This takes courage.

The neo-Pagans mature by similarly having to re-define themselves as their origins are de-mythologized and they find that they really are a modern invention and not some attenuated survivors from a spurious Burning Times or an untenably matriarchal Eden. The Wiccan Goddess is still real, however, "'because human energy goes into making Her real. . . . She is a metaphor because, great though she may be, She is finite, like any other concept, whereas reality is infinite.'" This Wiccan theologian that Hallman quotes sums up our modern conception of belief and our necessity for such-- despite our inability to "prove" it. (248)

In the last visit, to New Skete, the splits that bedevil the tiny monastic community show how, whether in semi-permanent daily communal fashion or in the conventions and conclaves that the previous lay groups have all constructed, the difficulty of humans getting along with each other as they seek to agree on a common path towards spiritual maturity remains.

The author builds a narrative that aligns his geographical journey with his intellectual inquiries. As he sums it up (in a remark not included in the book itself): "Really, I imagined the whole thing as an arc, beginning with curiosity, moving into interest with the wrestlers and satanists, disillusionment with the scientologists, quandary with the atheists, and then recovery with the monks and witches." I agree that the neo-Pagans and the monks emerge as most fully aware of their "religious experience" in their honesty as to their failings and advances towards spiritual maturity. Hallman enters these encounters, therefore, nearer the culmination-- but don't expect a "road to Damascus" epiphany-- of his own parallel quest for meaning. They both fit his narrative and impel his own realization of his own "variety" of the individual's religious search.

There are memorable comparisons between dogs and humans and God from James that appropriately gain elucidation at the later stages of Hallman's search. Perhaps more attuned to this section being myself a dog lover, I found that the canine-divine analogies are astonishing and merit reflection. Perhaps, like James then and the monks later speculated, we relate to the divine as dogs act towards us: fearful, awed, confused, embarassingly eager to fawn and flatter, utterly in thrall to a greater power whose intentions and actions we are both wrapped up in totally and helplessly even as dogs have no idea, literally, what we are doing with the rest of our lives when they do not directly encounter us. I fumble to understand this with my own analogy: it's like a dog having no inkling that our term for his species is God backwards; the connection if only by happy coincidence etymologically exists, but as a dog has no idea of this, so we humans literally have no inkling of how we truly fit in to a divine plan far beyond our daily powers of limited perception and constrained comprehension.

Hallman concludes his study after his visit to New Skete, going as far as he could go with James as his mentor. The "cash value," again with Hallman's analogy extending James' analysis, varies by believer, and we will not always hold dear the same beliefs as our neighbors. But, this understanding comforts Hallman within a modern "world pluralistic by accident rather than by design." (309) He starts where he ends, uncertain of his spiritual destination, but with James as his guide, he feels a bit less baffled and marginally less confused at why we have such a hard time-- at least we sick souls-- in our conflicts with our own postmodern, secularized, lack of easily attained and confidently defended belief.

(Written back on Dec. 27, 2006, but I found it today when I encountered by accident his earlier narrative, "The Chess Artist," and I wanted to read what I'd penned about Hallman earlier. A gentleman himself, he kindly corresponded with me about this review and I incorporated his phrase about the book's "arc" here for clarification of a point I'd limned in my original Amazon comments on "Devil.")

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