"GodTalk," CJOB 68 Radio, Winnipeg, Canada, 11/6/05
"To the Best of Our Knowledge," Wisconsin Public Radio, PRI, 2/22/04
"Afternoons with Bruce & Colin," WTIC AM News Talk 1080, Hartford, CT, 10/16/03
"The Ian Punnett Show," WFMP Radio, St. Paul, MN, 9/29/03
"The Morning Show," KBEM, IPR, Minneapolis, 9/29/03
"The Glenn Mitchell Show," KERA, NPR, Dallas, 7/10/03
"Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know?" Wisconsin Public Radio, PRI, 4/19/03
"The Leonard Lopate Show," WNYC, NPR, 4/17/03
PW Daily interview: "What's So Funny About God?" 4/8/03
"Book World," Voice of America, 3/19/03
"The Smoki Bacon & Dick Concannon Show," TV 23 Boston, 3/18/03
"Beyond Words," KCLU, NPR, Santa Barbara & Ventura County, 3/8/03
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN D. SPALDING
What’s your book about?
It’s an exploration of religion in America, but it’s
not comprehensive or academic. I wrote about people and things
that interested me—a casino chaplain, a psychic ghostbuster,
rebirthing therapy, the Christian Wrestling Federation, etcetera.
I’ve always been fascinated by what people believe and
how their beliefs shape their lives, and I’ve made writing
about that something of a personal quest. But the book isn’t
restricted to America. I also walked the ancient pilgrimage
route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and I visited the
home of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in London.
I wanted to see his personal electric shock machine. Very
Your book plays on John Bunyan’s
seventeenth–century classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Obviously, there are differences between your book and his.
Yes. For starters, John Bunyan wrote his book while in
prison, and I wrote mine as a free man. The Pilgrim’s
Progress is an allegory of the life of faith in which a pilgrim
named Christian sets off on a journey to the Celestial City.
To get there he has to pass through a dangerous world full
of nonbelievers, wicked deceivers, and plain old imbeciles.
Bunyan’s characters represent types. There’s Lord
Hate–good and Feeble–mind, Mr. Money–love and
By contrast, the people in my book are
real, and they’re true believers. I discovered on my
“journey” that the world of belief can be just as
strange, and just as perilous, as the world of nonbelief.
Do you consider yourself a pilgrim?
Sure. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, we’re all solitary
seekers trying to find our way in the world, uncertain where
to turn at times. “Pilgrimage” is one of the oldest
metaphors for life, and we can all identify with it, regardless
of our religious beliefs. The Pilgrim’s Progress was
one of Vincent van Gogh’s favorite books. As a young
man, van Gogh wanted to be a Protestant minister. In 1876,
he gave his first sermon, entitled “I Am a Stranger on
the Earth,” based on The Pilgrim’s Progress. The
first line went, “It is an old belief and it is a good
belief, that our life is a pilgrim’s progress. . . .”
In what sense is your book a “digress”?
Life involves getting lost just as much as it does finding
the right way. I think much of contemporary religion and spirituality
wrongly emphasize that the purpose of faith is to provide
us with clear answers, directions, and certainty. For many,
faith is largely about rewards—what God can give us if
we believe. But I think faith is a way of life. It’s
about the decisions we make, and how we treat others as we
try to find our way. Life is tough, and faith isn’t easy,
and even the most determined pilgrims get lost and wind up
going in circles. Vincent van Gogh would certainly agree with
You write a humor column for Beliefnet.com
called “The Sick Soul.” What does that mean?
It’s a concept I stole from the philosopher William James.
He said there are two kinds of religious temperaments—the
healthy–minded and the sick souls. Healthy–minded
people have the sense that all is right in the world and that
God is on their side. They’re happy campers, and they
don’t ask a lot of questions. They tend not to see the
evil that resides within and around them. Sick souls, on the
other hand, view the world as a darker, more complicated place
where evil lurks and death awaits. They live with few certainties.
You’d think James would have thought
healthy–mindedness was preferable, because it sounds
better. But not only did James consider himself a sick soul,
he thought it was closer to what authentic religion is all
That’s gloomy inspiration for
a humor column.
Most humorists and satirists are sick souls. Jonathan
Swift, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker all wrote
from a dark place. In fact, they make me look healthy–minded.
Did those authors influence your writing?
Not really. Twain and Mencken wrote extensively about
religion, but they were far more caustic than I am. Joseph
Mitchell was more of an influence. He was a New Yorker reporter
in the mid–twentieth century, and he wrote wonderful,
vivid stories about eccentric New Yorkers—saloon keepers,
gypsies, swindlers. My favorite was the “don’t–swear
man,” a guy who spent forty years handing out more than
six million “exterminators”—cards urging people
not to use profanity. Mitchell wrote with what he called “graveyard
humor,” and I admired the genuine fondness he had for
the people he profiled.
Were you raised religious?
Yes. I was baptized Catholic but raised Baptist. When I was
around eight, my mother started taking my two younger brothers
and me to a fundamentalist Baptist church. Every sermon was
full of fire and brimstone. I used to lay in bed at night
praying for hours that I wouldn’t go to hell. Fortunately,
we stopped attending that church in my early teens. Although
we were never really accepted there because my father was
a non–churchgoing Catholic, we were outright ostracized
when my mother got divorced. Parents wouldn’t let their
kids come to our house, and several of the church ladies told
my mother that our difficulties as a family, financial and
otherwise, were God’s punishment for a sin she must have
How did you decide to write about
It was an accident. Though I majored in philosophy in college
and went to divinity school, I wanted to be a writer, and
to write about things other than religion. My first job after
grad school was as an editor at Santa Barbara Magazine, where
I wrote mostly about books, art, style, travel, and celebrities.
I also freelanced more of the same on the side. But what I
really wanted to write was humor. I just needed a niche.
Then I got a job at HarperSanFrancisco.
One of their authors, a wonderfully eccentric German theologian
named Uta Ranke–Heinemann, had a “nervous breakdown”
the first day on her national book tour. Harper sent me to
escort her around the country. She was sixty–seven years
old and she was nuts. The daughter of a former president of
West Germany, she wore the same green leather dress every
day, and she always carried a bag containing twenty–five
to thirty pairs of handmade white gloves. She flew into hysterics
all the time, screaming at hotels if her phone rang or if
she heard a noise in the hall. She once cut the phone cords
in her room “to teach ze hotel a lesson.” After
the tour, I wrote a story about it called “My Travels
with Uta.” (It’s in the book.) Friends thought it
was hilarious, and I got it published—my first religion
So you stuck with religion?
Yes, among other subjects. It occurred to me that few people
write humorously about religion. A lot of writers I know don’t
know much about religion or care to. I know a lot about religion,
and I care deeply about it, so I’m comfortable approaching
it through humor. Other writers I know feel religion is too
serious a subject for humor. But I think that religion, as
history shows, is a profoundly human enterprise that is as
susceptible to folly and absurdity as any other human undertaking.