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Believer, Beware "Gets" The Funny (And Poignant) Side of Religion

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The just published Believer Beware (Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau, Editors, Beacon Press) is the most amusing and touching collection of stories about religion, faith and loss of faith I've sucked up in years. (The perfect summer read too.) Recovering religion survivors (of all traditions) will embrace it in the same way that one revisits childhood memories that both haunt and comfort. Here is how Sharlet very accurately describes the book's charms and purpose in his introduction:

Caught between comics and scripture is the stuff of this collection, memoir. Memoir, after all, is euphemistic label for testimony, a cleaned-up manifestation of the comic book sensibility. Testimony provides the bones and the flesh of scripture, of religion lived, embodied, inscribed, and scrawled; "I was lost, but now I'm found" is one of its most popular story lines. The testimonies gathered here give that formula a twist: "I was lost, then found, but now I'm lost again."

I hate anthologies -- all that stopping and starting, just as you get into a writer. I loved this one though because it reflects the theme of my own disjointed weird life. I grew up as a missionary kid, pastor's sidekick, God merchant, Religious Right leader, you name it. I long since escaped if not to sanity then to a little more happiness. So I sometimes read other people's books about religion and most are from the outside in. Take it from one who knows this wacky territory, Believer Beware is from the inside out.

Who can beat this opening to "Please Don't Feed the Prophet," a story by Daniel S. Brenner? "God is a sweater that you grew out of. God is an old book on Soviet politics lying in a thrift shop. God is a friend from college that you want to get rid of but can't. God is a souvenir."

Believer Beware is laugh out loud funny, touching, irreverent and yet, in deeper ways, pays religion the ultimate compliment: it's worthy of scrutiny, debate, hate, love and loathing and measuring up on a very personal scale of intimate first hand experience. You may divorce religion but as the writer's in this book demonstrate, you never sever the ties, you'll owe "alimony" for the rest of your life. So this is a book for anyone who knows two things: first, that for better or worse religion is important; second, that experiencing religion can be a harrowing passage into the darker side of human frailty and sometime into liberating (even sublime) hilarity.

And yet... here is a book that does not reject faith per se but rather asks the question: what can faith mean to me after I discard the prejudice that too often comes with the territory of believing you have "the" answers? Readers will find brilliant writing here, world-class story telling by veterans of the trade, such as the luminous Jeff Sharlet, and newcomers like Quince Mountain, who tells the funniest story -- "Cowboy For Christ" -- of transgendered youthful disaster, fundamentalist religion, Bible camp and self-discovery that I've ever read (a story that made me want to read the novel of which this could be a first scintillating chapter.)

Here's part of Quince Mountain's set up at Bible Camp:

Until one of the deacons caught me lavishing Whitney's bare and salty beltline as she leaned back against a pile of sweaty saddleblankets polishing leather in the tack room, I was quite free, indeed. During the ensuing interrogations, I publicly denied any kind of sexual interest in girls (What?! She's like a sister to me--my sister in Christ!). I recounted my devotion, my service, their lack of solid evidence. The director, who called me out on the back barn porch and addressed me with his arms crossed, could hardly prove a longstanding sexual relationship. Still, my welcome at Bible camp was clearly limited to the end of the summer at best...

This is the second collection from the online magazine Killing the Buddha (which Sharlet and Manseau founded) published in book form. Contributions reflect the American diversity of religion, from Orthodox Judaism, to Roman Catholicism, to Islam, to Zen Buddhism and agnosticism. The book's unifying "thread" is that each author tells us about struggling with inherited or chosen religious expectations compared to what life actually hands them, and us. Reality has a way of trumping ideological purity!

What does the book "say"? That religion is a journey, and a funny one sometimes, not a destination. Or as Bia Low puts it in her story "Seeing Things":

Projections are our forte, but also our downfall. Our imaginations play tricks on us. How many entities, separate and distinct from ourselves, have been mistaken in nearsighted folly? If we, like Narcissus, cannot see the pond for our reflection, how can we know the depths beyond our skin? How can we hope to distinguish marshland from mirage? Mermaid from manatee? Lingcod from Loch Ness Monster? Friend from foe? Projections are meant to inform us about the Eden outside the sheath of our flesh, but more often they describe the interior into which we've been exiled.

Believer Beware is a door that leads from religious indoctrination to freedom. It is a book worth reading, vastly entertaining and (for me anyway) yet another liberating step from exile to better place.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism)