J. C. Hallman interview: The Devil Is a Gentleman

Chris Hallman, Fiction class of 1991 and author of The Chess Artist, has published his second book: The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe. The book is a vivid account of his personal experiences visiting eight different modern American religious groups, including The Church of Satan (make it your home page, folks), the Unarians (a UFO religion), Scientologists (I will not be linking to this one), Christian Wrestlers, American Athiests, Covenant of the Goddess, and the Monks of New Skete. Chris will be reading from his book at Prairie Lights July 21st.

Not content to simply report the insights gained by spending time with these organizations, Hallman deepens the whole kit & caboodle by weaving it all into an American zeitgeist uberstory via some terrific William James scholarship, channeling the father of American Philosophy and Psychology into pluralistic wonderment and teasing out numerous surprising parallels among ostensibly very different religious doctrines. This reader was up very late three nights in a row gobbling this stuff up. Well written and, it seems to me, of some importance, the book recounts a series of adventures into the spiritual bent of life now in our bizarre, pious empire.

See the San Francisco Chronicle review for another enthusiastic take on it. And without further ado:

EG: Can you summarize for us the basic tenets of William James's philosophy? What made him different among the intellectual giants of his day?

JCH: From a writer's point of view, James is probably most remarkable for being the origin of "stream of consciousness." This is James's metaphor for how the brain works -- he first conceived of it in 1880, and published it later in the decade. Obviously, this has had a big impact in how all kinds of narratives are executed. Gertrude Stein, for example, was James's student and worked with him on studies on automatic writing that probably influenced her later work.

The stream of consciousness filters down to all of literature. Stories weigh in on the same thing James was after -- the action of the mind. More generally, James is thought of as the father of the science of psychology, though he wouldn't have followed either of the paths it took after he died -- psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He was also the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, which helped kick start the field of comparative religions and which I took as my model for The Devil is a Gentleman. And he helped found Pragmatism, which meant, in brief, celebrating variety even in something like truth.

EG: The world, including America, with the rise of fundamentalism and hardening of rigid religious doctrines, seems at present to be going in the opposite direction from William James and his pluralism and Pragmatism. What led you to write about William James now?

JCH: Coming to James was really kind of an accident. I was broke after my first book came out, looking for something to write about and trusting my curiosity. I heard about this UFO cult in California whose prophecy of nearly three decades was about to fail. I could barely afford to go to their first meetings after the prophecy fell apart. But I did go -- on the hope that it would be something that I could write about. That gamble paid off.

While I was out there I had the idea that the people I was visiting might capture something about what I remembered of William James. I bought Varieties again and took a look. It fit nicely, and I was on my way. James applies just as well now as he did a hundred years ago. The battle lines are pretty clear: the right, religion; the left, secularism. Ironically, James was a liberal who wanted to defend and justify religious experience. Not religious organization, but experience. So what he ultimately does, as a thinker, is attempt to heal that basic rift in the world. He applies not only to that goofy UFO group, but to everyone else as well.

EG: How did you choose which religious groups to visit? Did James' work itself lead you to investigate specific modern American religions, or were the James scholarship sections retrofitted to address different aspects of James's thought that seemed to emerge from your experiences with these groups?

JCH: I limited myself to groups that had a strong American component and came about in the 20th century. But those were just loose rules. The James influence went both ways -- sometimes the research led me to one group, other times it was the other way around. For example, the first scholarly paper I read about Scientology said that L. Ron Hubbard had once listed his sources for Dianetics: Descartes, Taoism, Korzybski ... and William James. I kept finding connections all over the place.

EG: In the chapter on Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, you describe them as "good guys," and I was struck by the fact that they were the only ones who didn't take themselves totally seriously. What did you make of the fact that here you have a religion which the adherents take with an apparent grain of salt? They seemed to be having the most fun. I'm thinking of their clothing and weaponry fashions and their heavily stylized rituals that appeared to be performed with a tiny bit of tongue-in-cheek.

JCH: What was interesting to me about the Church of Satan was that they took ritual very seriously even though they didn't believe in a literal deity. Their rituals had the power of satire, however you would describe that. Which accounts for the fun part. They weren't alone in being the good guys, though. The more benign groups, in general -- the witches, the druids, the monks of New Skete -- all found a way to celebrate individuality and creativity, and usually did so by leaving their beliefs abstract. In general, when beliefs, as in fundamentalism, become too literal, they head toward what James called "the wrong side of religion's account." Then they're capable of what even the Church of Satan would call "evil."

EG: You mention in the book that the Scientologists followed up with phone calls for six months after you left them. Have you heard their reaction to the book? Was your publisher nervous about including that chapter?

JCH: Well, I can still talk to you about them, so that's good. No reaction from Church officials, but Tom Cruise keeps leaving me voicemail. As to my publisher, nervous is probably not the right word. Let's just say they paid close attention to that chapter.

EG: After the Christian Wrestlers chapter, in several places you mention annoyance at the theatricality and entertainment component of their spectacles. What do you think James would have made of the rise of megachurches in the U.S.?

JCH: James hated everything big. The corporate sentiment ruined religion, he would have said, and did so long before anything like megachurches came along. He would have said the ceremonies, such as they are, were full of "second-hand automatisms." For James, religion was how one struggled with life. It was hard. He would have been much more interested in the Christian Wrestlers, whose shows at least pantomimed a struggle.

EG: The saddest group, to me, were the Atheists. Their numbers pitiful, their gathering cynical, disorganized, and argumentative. They seemed like lonely souls who weren't quite comfortable even with each other. You make the point that Atheism takes on some of the forms of religions. What made you include them in your book?

JCH: When you write about religion, you can't possibly be comprehensive. There's just too much there. All you can hope to be is representative. That's why I included atheism. Ultimately, even non-belief is a form of religion because it, too, is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. The American Atheists were struggling, it's true, because their leader had died and they were trying to keep the movement going. This made them similar to some of the other religions I was looking at, and gave them a certain poignancy as well.

EG: You visited the "dog monks," the Monks of New Skete. It's the last chapter, and you say in it that they were perhaps the group that you felt closest to. They are also the ones closest to being part of a long-established and organized religion (Eastern Orthodox). What is it about a religion that's in it for the long haul, compared to new groups that haven't had as long to perfect their rituals and beliefs, that was able to hold you better in its embrace?

JCH: Actually, it wasn't the age of New Skete or Orthodoxy that drew me at all. All religions try to give the sense that theirs is a long-standing tradition, with deep roots. For non-traditional systems, this often means harkening back to what can be discerned of pre-Christian religion. But really most of them -- and much of Christianity as it's practiced today -- are modern inventions.

I liked New Skete not because it was old, but because it didn't apply tradition uncritically. It celebrated individuality and creativity. They accepted the world as it stood, with all its variety, and in this way they embodied something central to James.

EG: How does the famous dog breeding and training program fit into the spiritual life of the monks?

JCH: The monks are generally pretty wary of being pigeonholed as dog monks. It's caused them some problems. Nevertheless, they did talk to me about how raising dogs informed their faith. A central characteristic, even a defining characteristic, of religion is that very often it's based on hierarchies, whether it's deacon-priest-bishop-cardinal-pope in Catholicism or the various stages of enlightenment leading to "clear" in Scientology. Often it's a kind of disappointing aspect of religion, at least to an outsider, because it seems to echo military ranks. The monks had an interesting take on this. The relationship between a man and a dog is hierarchical, and so is the relationship between man and God. A dog is most happy when it knows its place, when it rises as high as it can in the pack and finds its proper location -- with people, that place is a step further down the rung. This is roughly analogous to how people can understand their relationship with God. Less, but not necessarily subservient. That relationship helps to raise people up to what they can be. It's like leaven, one monk told me.

EG: Early on you mention William James's experiments with mind-altering substances. I understand James was a fan of nitrous oxide. Did he have religious experiences on it? He also tried mescaline, though I believe he claimed it had no effect on him. What was James's take on the role of altered consciousness in religion?

JCH: James did dabble. As a guy who was interested in varieties of consciousness, he sort of had to. But it's actually incorrect to say that he had religious experiences from drugs. He said repeatedly throughout his life that he never had a true religious experience, and the closest he came had nothing to do with substances of any kind. Ultimately, James's experimentation says more about his open-mindedness than it does about a link between drugs and religion.

EG: Your tone throughout the chapters is very even-handed and respectful, even though you remain skeptical and deliver to the reader what you think about each belief system. How did you arrive at your own perspective and point of view in the book? I mean, it must often have been tempting to ridicule or go for a big laugh at the expense of some of these people -- I'm thinking of the Unarians, the UFO cult. Yet you resist that and instead give the reader a kind of unvarnished and often touching and charming picture of these people and what they are doing.

JCH: I wanted to have it both ways. Some of these groups are pretty odd, you can't get around that. But there's something about the world, and about these belief systems, that makes them attractive to people -- they have adherents. I wanted to get at that, to portray these people in such a way that you began to get a sense of what was potentially attractive about them. Partly, too, it was a technical problem: Can you describe a Christian wrestling match in such a way that a sophisticated, skeptical reader came to care about the outcome?

EG: Have your own views of religion changed as a result of writing this book?

JCH: I became more Jamesian, more forgiving probably. The oddness of the world surprises me less.

EG: William and his literary brother were close their whole lives, though they had their differences. Do you see any influence of William's thinking on Henry's fiction?

JCH: Definitely. This brings us around full circle a bit. Henry was very interested in William's work, while William was just baffled by Henry's. So I think it's possible to measure William's influence on Henry, and there have been scholarly efforts in that vein. For Henry, I think, William was tapping into some of the basic irreconcilable ambiguities about existence. William wound up wanting to resolve those, but Henry, I think, chose to take them as simply a description of how the world worked, and wanted to employ them. It's interesting -- fiction, ironically, is the only place where we get certainty. If your husband tells you he loves you, you choose to believe him. But if a narrator tells us A loves B, you can take it to the bank.

Henry James begins to tinker around with this after his attempts at theatre failed miserably in the mid-1890s. He experiments with ambiguity to capture a part of reality and to create drama. It's not a stretch to say that this is another way in which William James, whose major work on psychology appeared in 1890, helped give momentum to the literature of the twentieth century.

EG: What are you working on now?

JCH: I'm writing an article about Pleistocene rewilding for Harper's magazine.

1 comment:

the plunge said...

Awesome interview. Totally interesting stuff, Chris and Grendel. I shall most definitely swallow your book whole as soon as I receive my copy. Keep up this great vein of front-line reporting, Chris!