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Group Efforts: a road trip to rewrite the Bible

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They bought a Ford Tempo for a dollar, saving it from the junkyard. It was more than a decade old, the tires needed to be replaced, and the windows didn't all roll down, but they figured the engine ran well enough to get them across the country.

They were a Catholic, Peter Manseau, and a Jew, Jeff Sharlet, and by January 2002, both had, they would later write, "lost faith in the way faith gets talked about in America." They thought the media tended toward extremes, offering stories of either "dangerous fanaticism" or "innocuous spirituality." They suspected most people in the country fell somewhere in between. So off they went in the Tempo, searching for stories to fill in the gap: stories of true believers, stories of heretics, and stories of people grappling with the role religion played in their lives. The result is their new book, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.

Manseau and Sharlet don't consider themselves particularly religious, but they've done a lot of thinking about religion over the years. They met in 1996 at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Sharlet edited a Jewish cultural magazine and Manseau designed exhibits and operated what they believed to be the last working Yiddish typesetting machine.

Manseau was raised in a Boston suburb by a former nun and a priest. His father kept vestments in the front hall closet and carried around holy oils in case someone died in front of him. He didn't have a parish--he'd transgressed by marrying--but he would hold mass in the dining room for a small community of priests who'd married nuns. Because his family was on the outside, Manseau never felt like he belonged to the Catholic church, but he studied religion in college, lived for a short while in a monastery, and, when he met Sharlet, was keeping a giant wooden cross over his bed (which he removed after realizing it could be "received strangely" by guests).

Sharlet describes his upbringing as "religiously eclectic." He lived with his mother, a nonpracticing Pentecostal, but identified as Jewish, like his father. His mother exposed him to a number of religions, taking him to visit monasteries, ashrams, synagogues, and churches, often where her friends were singing in choirs or ringing bells. For reasons that escape Sharlet's memory, a Buddhist nun camped out in their attic for a while, and when he was 16, his mother invited people of various faiths to pray over her as she was dying of breast cancer, as if to "audition each different god to see if it would help her."

Manseau and Sharlet left the center in 1997. A few years later, in November 2000, they founded an online magazine called Killing the Buddha, whose mission, they explain on the Web site, is to provide "a forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be." The name comes from a saying attributed to Lin Chi, a ninth-century Zen master, who was approached one day by an ecstatic monk claiming that the Buddha had just appeared before him. Lin Chi didn't share the monk's enthusiasm--if you meet the Buddha, he said, "kill him."

Lin Chi's directive, say Manseau and Sharlet, can be understood as a rejection of the truth as defined by any one ideology. "Buddha represents the dominant religious thinking of the time," explains Manseau, and after a year of publishing the Web zine, he and Sharlet concluded that the biggest Buddha around was the Bible. So they decided to rewrite it.

For five months straight and more than 15,000 miles, and on several shorter excursions over the course of the next year, the Tempo pulled into small towns and a few cities across the country. Manseau and Sharlet read the local newspapers and invited themselves into the lives of strangers, including a village witch, pagans, a doctor and storm chaser they refer to as one of the "high priests of nature worship," and a former rodeo star who founded the Cowboy Church in Mount Vernon, Texas, where, according to Sharlet, the pictures of cows looming above the altar serve as "icons of serenity and peace."

They slept on friends' couches, in motels, and in church basements. They fought, careered off the road, fought, had a toy gun pulled on them by a sheriff testing their mettle, and, at one point, in a vacant lot in New Mexico, nearly came to blows.

"We have different worldviews," says Sharlet. "We couldn't help but argue about ideas." Even though they had no itinerary, "we'd end up fighting: should we turn left or right?"

Before they left they enlisted the help of authors they admired, like Francine Prose and Rick Moody, asking each of them to reimagine a book of the Bible. Their submissions could be as long or short as they wanted, in any genre, but Manseau and Sharlet had one absolute requirement. "We told them to write scripture," says Sharlet, "something someone would get lost or found through--we didn't care which."

In the resulting book, out this month from the Free Press, Manseau and Sharlet's cowritten stories from the road--which they call "psalms"--are interspersed with, and echo, the solicited chapters, in sort of a call-and-response pattern.

"Like the original, this Bible crosses freely between genres," Manseau and Sharlet write in the introduction, "between history and prophecy, confession and myth."

Religious differences between people often get overlooked for the purpose of harmony, says Sharlet, though the differences can be "sharp edges, and the sharp edges are just as meaningful and vital as the common ground."

Killing the Buddha makes no attempt to file down any edges. "There's no way everyone can like everything in this book," says Sharlet. "It's like being in a congregation, where some jerk stands up and talks and you don't like him and you wish he wasn't there, but he is, and the transformative moment comes when you realize he is a part of you and a part of the story, so he's worth listening to. That's the idea of this book: it's a congregation."

Manseau and Sharlet will appear at 7 PM on January 26 at Transitions Bookplace, 1000 W. North. Call 312-951-7323. At 7:30 on January 27 they'll be joined at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, by Peter Trachtenberg, who tackled the Book of Job for the project. Call 312-281-4444. Both events are free; see killingthebuddha.com for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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