"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


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 interesting.

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 Ignorance.

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 that.

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 about.

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 committed.

How did you decide to write about religion?
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 humor piece.

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.