Down in the Chapel

Joshua Dubler explores the powerful and often surprising role that religion plays inside a prison.

Down in the Chapel, by Joshua Dubler, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp.

"To the lifers," says the dedication page of a new book. Those are prisoners who have no hope of freedom. They'll never go on a date or sit in traffic or watch the big game from the couch with the kids. 

But they still seek. And, as revealed in Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, they still find.

A Christian inmate named Al locates God in the Bible, which he considers a direct link to the Almighty. Baraka, a Muslim, believes God comes to us through a chain of humanity over the eons. And Vic, an atheist, has his own goal in sight: the victory of reason over those with cock-eyed theories about, say, how language affects how we see the world.

We meet all these men within the first few pages of "Down in the Chapel." Soon, we're listening to them debate religion with all the impenetrable wonkery, cocky bluster, and mutual affection of sci-fi buffs arguing over the best "Star Trek" series. They even expertly toss around events and concepts like the Council of Nicaea, tikkun olam (a Jewish tradition that means "repair of the world"), and good ol' sophistry.

Where are we? As prisons go, nowhere particularly special. Just a maximum-security facility near Philadelphia called Graterford Prison. Its chapel offers programs for Catholics and Christian Scientists, Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of Native American faiths and Episcopalians. There's even a 350-pound inmate thought to be a Satanist who's actually a gentle, non-violent Wiccan. He had to spend two years fighting bureaucracy to get the right to wear a silver pentagram around his neck as a sign of his faith. 

"Down in the Chapel" author Joshua Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, protects the privacy of inmates by using pseudonyms. He also focuses little on their crimes for the debatable reason that their worst moments don't define their character.

But we still learn much about these men. Readers parachute into dozens of conversations in the prison's chapel, which Dubler visits on a regular basis. He worked with prisoners there for six years but focuses "Down in the Chapel" on a single week around 2006.

Dubler, a secular Jew who gets grilled about his own faith, is an important character in the book himself. He argues with the inmates, reconsiders his own perspectives, and ponders dilemmas.

Like, for example, the one facing a prisoner who killed a man. The inmate tried to make amends with the victim's brother while out on parole, but the brother was unswayed and wants to murder him.

A chaplain suggests the inmate follow the model of Jesus, prompting Dubler to question whether following Jesus's teachings would get the inmate killed on the outside.

"If what he must do is die," the chaplain responds, "then that is what he must do." Dubler feels a kind of chill. Readers will, too.

Dubler also digs into the stereotype of "jailhouse religion" as a cruel fraud, a bid by imprisoned hucksters to manipulate through faith. One inmate believes the chapel serves a purpose as a place where inmates can gain privileges, exercise power over other inmates, and even gain protection.

Dubler sees something else entirely: Men who genuinely believe and often find comfort in certitude that they always knew God – always – but simply strayed.

This certainty, he writes, "expunges from the past whatever uncertainty may have been." In the past, they were blinded by denial. Now, he believes, they see what they believe their hearts always knew.

"I can't peer into psyches," Dubler contends, but he sure sounds like a man who can.

"Down in the Chapel" is not an easy book to read. It's dense and weighed down by academic concepts. The theological debates among prisoners and the author himself can be hard to follow, especially if you don't have a Ph.D (or two).

This complexity is exactly the point. It's not a stretch to say these prisoners and their religious leaders are offering graduate-level courses in religion just about every day in the Graterford Chapel prison. The inmates reveal sophisticated intelligence, a longing for spiritual truth, and a desire to engage with others.

Yes, many of these prisoners hurt people and destroyed lives. Their actions and justice itself keep them behind bars, sometimes forever. But faith flows in and out like the air itself.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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