Although a religion writer by trade, I confess that some faith traditions and practices have remained mysterious to me, eluding understanding even for a reporter covering America's increasingly pluralistic, spiritual landscape.
But I've found that fiction can sometimes do what forbidding, serious scholarship cannot: provide insight into another's faith and, in the process, make more comprehensible their beliefs and practices.
Consider the Protestant missionary experience. Reading books like Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, or Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord gives you an instant - if shorthand - sense of what motivates that venerable, altruistic impulse. Similarly, the explanations and rich atmospherics of Chaim Potok's novels set in the Hassidic Jewish community. Or, before these writers, Graham Greene's and Flannery O'Connor's fiction, infused by the authors' Catholicism, and Nikos Kazantzakis - notwithstanding his excommunication by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Despite my travels to India, Nepal, Thailand and Japan in my 30s, including a 15-month editing job in China, Eastern faith traditions have proved challenging. This is especially true of the more esoteric concepts outside of the life experience of a typical, late 20th/early 21st Century Westerner.
I was reminded of this reading a new novel, Cobalt Blue (Roundfire Books), by Peggy Payne, who I met at Duke back in the 1960s, when many of our more inquisitive contemporaries were exploring Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
In Cobalt Blue, Payne's protagonist is a 38-year-old artist named Andie, living in the upscale, white bread, golf and retirement Mecca of Pinehurst, North Carolina. Without explanation - beyond the breakup of a longtime relationship - she suddenly finds herself in the grip of sensual compulsion. Neither conventional therapy ( "You're describing ...a religious experience, a manner of spiritual awakening," the doctor says); nor a visit to a Quaker Meeting provides answer to why she is engaging in uncontrollable sexual encounters.
Finally, after consulting an eclectic range of sources, from The Idiot's Guide to Meditation to Swami Muktananda's Play of Consciousness, Andie comes to believe that she is possessed by an explosion of psychic energy, "kundalini rising," an aspect of Tantric yoga. Coiled at the base of her spine, the spirit is, in her words, "a serpent made of pure life force that can climb up though your body to your highest chakra just overhead."
Further confirmation of her possession comes in a pre-Katrina visit to New Orleans, from a Jackson Square tarot reader and a Voodoo priestess, the latter providing a form of exorcism - and release. Still, the question remains, what to say to Andie's Pinehurst artist friends:
"Should she try to explain to them what happened? The kundalini, the exploding life force, an eruption of compressed love, risen from the base of her spine up and up toward God. Or was the force itself God? Her friends wouldn't laugh, either one of them, outrageous as it might sound."
Payne is well qualified to tell this story. She is married to a psychologist, and her previous novel, Sister India, was set on the banks of the Ganges, in a disharmonious guest house for Westerners that is the antithesis of the one sweetly portrayed in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Her first novel, Revelation, told the story of an intellectual pastor who shocks his liberal, Chapel Hill, N.C., congregation by telling them he believes God is speaking to him.
This time around, some of Payne's readers may themselves be shocked by some of the explicit sex in Cobalt Blue, yet she is determined to use the Hindu concept to make her point.
"Kundalini is hardly a household word in this country, so I knew I was facing an uphill task in making this mysterious energy the heart of a novel," Payne said in an email. "But I felt called to do it. Using the intimacy of fiction to write about direct experience of the divine seems to be my job. I can't say what makes me feel that, but I'm deeply convinced of it and satisfied as long as I'm giving it my all."