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Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of "36 Arguments for the Existence of God"

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein talks about her novel "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" – a book that goes places bestselling fiction normally avoids.

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There's so much debate about religion today. Are today’s readers hungry for fresh ways of presenting questions of faith?
Of course they are. And they always have been. But it’s interesting that this debate [between atheists and people of faith] has become so clamorous in the last decade. There is something going on. For me, as an ex-philosophy professor, I feel like not since the Enlightenment has there been such a public discussion.

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I used to teach the Enlightenment in the 1970s and '80s and my students were not as galvanized by this question. It just seemed often very passé to them. Not true! So I think it’s terribly important to people to translate these perennial questions into terms that are starkly contemporary. Because they just keep reasserting themselves in different ways. And it’s just amazing. Every day when I look at The New York Times or some other paper, there it is. It’s part of human nature, these deep questions, emotionally fraught questions.

That was part of my original reason for turning to fiction. When you are a trained philosopher you’re trained to talk only to other philosophers. This has become part of the professionalization of the field and it is inaccessible to people outside the field. Everybody cares about philosophical questions, and so it seems to me that philosophers ought to be able to translate their expertise into terms that everybody can relate to.

You come from an Orthodox Jewish background. What does your family think of your novel?
I do come from an Orthodox background. I grew up in an Orthodox household and I am certainly the only one in my extended family who isn’t Orthodox. But I do understand religion from the inside very well. And what is so wonderful about being a novelist is that, even though I write about Orthodox Judaism – and even there, a very exotic branch of Orthodox Judaism, Hasidism, the more mystical branch – I’m now in very intense dialogue with a Jesuit priest who read the book and responds very emotionally to it. There’s the kind of universality. That’s the thing about fiction – if you’re true to the particular, the universality will come out of it.

I’m in very close contact with my sister who is Orthodox and my nephews and nieces all of whom are very Orthodox. I don't think my family is so terribly horrified by my belief system.

What comes next for you?
I am under contract to write a nonfiction book that is ostensibly about Plato. It looks like it’s going to be a book of dialogues, in homage to Plato, dialogues between Plato and thinkers through the ages including Father Abraham. And George Eliot. Plato banished the writers from his utopia and really thought that literature had nothing to add to philosophy. In fact he thought that literature was pernicious. George Eliot is going to give him what for!

Would you try another novel? The success of this one must be encouraging.
It is. Maybe. But, you know, they use you up these novels, in writing them. You want to feel that there is a good payoff. But even when I swear novels off I can’t stay away from them. I really do love novels. I keep reading them and sooner or later I start writing one.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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