Killing The Buddha: A Heretic's Bible
Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet
It's high time progressives reached across the aisle and grabbed God back from the religious right. New left-leaning groups like the Clergy Leadership Network, Democrat Joe Lieberman's value-based presidential campaign, maybe you could even count the Vatican's firm stand against the war in Iraq--dare we call it a trend? If the nascent movement is looking around for additions to its required reading list, it might want to consider Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. A collection of writing that literally defies ideology, denomination, and creed, the book is the outgrowth of the Web site KillingtheBuddha.com, an online literary 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."
Editors Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet asked writers such as Rick Moody and Eileen Myles to each contribute a chapter inspired by a book of the Bible. The results are essays, short stories, memoirs, and lots of in-between. Manseau and Sharlet alternate the contributions with their own "Psalms," vignettes from a road trip in search of America's red-headed spiritual step-children. Their wanderings hook them up with witches, strippers, Buddhists, grieving mothers, hobos, and backwoods evangelicals.
Among the high points of the collection, author April Reynolds takes the book of Samuel with its search for leadership and brings the drama into a Harlem gospel church. A.L. Kennedy meditates on beginnings via Genesis, circling the question of why an all-powerful god seems to have so many humanlike faults. Manseau and Sharlet write about a witch who stars in the local theater group's production of Damn Yankees.
For other contributors, style seems to overtake substance. Darcey Steinke's "Song of Songs," for instance, is an interestingly written meditation on sex, but it doesn't really address the fascinating hypothesis in the Bible, that the relationship between God and humanity is an impassioned love affair. Killing the Buddha as a whole has surprisingly little intellectual heft--as if thinking too hard about life, death, creation, and destruction might wreck the cool vibe. The essays that try to tackle the big questions head on--the ubiquitous "Why do bad things happen to good people?"--seem to be just getting started when they come to an end.
Nevertheless, it's heartening to see a book jump into the fray and tackle the big spiritual issues of our day without the moral smugness and arrogance that taints most discussions of spirituality. The writers' bravery and inventiveness make Killing the Buddha interesting food for thought.