Broadleaf Books

‘The God Beat’: Journalists reflect on questions of meaning and transcendence

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“Write out of a sense of unease” is what Briallen Hopper, one of the essayists featured in “The God Beat,” was told by a professor in graduate school. As she explains in “Learning to Write About Religion,” it was the best advice she ever received. That recommendation could be the motivation behind this collection of essays. As the writers grapple with questions of faith (and the absence of it), they help readers wrestle with their own feelings of elation, confusion, and yearning.

Why We Wrote This

Journalists are expected to be hardheaded and focused on facts. What happens when reporters set out to cover matters of deep spiritual and religious significance?

The New Journalism movement of the 1960s and ’70s – in which writers like Joan Didion and Truman Capote blended subjective views with fictional techniques – “had a secularism problem,” argue Costica Bradatan and Ed Simon in the introduction of “The God Beat: What Journalism Says about Faith and Why It Matters.” New Journalism, they contend, “often ignored the questions of meaning and transcendence that lay at the center of the human experience.” 

That changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to Bradatan and Simon, who edited this vibrant collection of 26 essays. Writers were reminded that religion and spirituality – however defined or undefined – were “still very much pertinent in the modern world.” And this book proves there’s great promise in a still emerging genre. The writing here is crisp and vivid and unafraid.

In the essay “On the Threshing Floor,” Daniel José Camacho discusses his struggle to decipher his own identity. While he is suspicious of ancestry tests, he also admits that he’s curious, and that he has looked at his brother’s DNA results. By a relatively small margin, Spanish heritage dominates, but there’s also a significant amount of Native American and African roots there too. The author doesn’t want to erase those origins in a “melting pot of whiteness.” He shares with readers the cause of his unease: The DNA test can’t tell him how to relate to all this information. 

Why We Wrote This

Journalists are expected to be hardheaded and focused on facts. What happens when reporters set out to cover matters of deep spiritual and religious significance?

Instead, the author looks to the Bible to find a road map for his search for identity. He interprets Jesus’ baptism by John as “the moment that [Jesus’] identity was made absolutely clear.” Camacho adds that a sense of self-knowledge is a prerequisite for engaging in a life of service, saying that such a path “requires a type of baptism.” He points out that before Jesus “engages in any activism, God calls him ‘beloved.’” This naming isn’t what God needs to hear – “it’s what we need to hear.”

No matter where one falls on the spiritual spectrum, Camacho’s piece, originally published in Sojourners, is a wake-up call to ponder an inward life, and to be alert to the counterfeits that stand in the way.

Emma Green’s affecting piece in The Atlantic, “Will Anyone Remember Eleven Dead Jews?” follows the 180-degree turn that archivist Eric Lidji’s life took following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018. 

While socializing at his local synagogue, he heard about the massacre at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue; 11 Jewish worshippers had been killed. 

Previously “an ardent psalmist of Pittsburgh’s quirky charms,” as Green describes him, Lidji’s job until then had consisted of collecting posters of local Yiddish theater productions. But within hours, the Jewish tradition of laying artwork and stones on graves began on the sidewalks outside the synagogue where the shooting took place. The outpouring of emotion touched Lidji, and he knew what he had to do. These artifacts needed to be preserved.

Lidji and others formed a task force and began attending vigils, funerals, and religious events across and beyond the community. The goal was to chronicle the grief and confusion around the massacre – obtaining signs in solidarity and protest, sticky notes, digital reflections, and donations of whatever might appear “at the bottom of a purse or in a pocket emptied for laundry.” 

Lidji’s work – as well as his own faith in Judaism, renewed that October – continue on. When living memory is gone, the archive will keep the tragedy, and the hatred that caused it, from being reduced to a headline.

“In Praise of Gods That Don’t Exist,” originally published in Aeon, relates journalist and atheist Nat Case’s personal account of joining a Quaker community. The “confirmed skeptic” writes that doing so helped him “ask Whatever-There-Is a question” – and sometimes he received answers. 

History professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “Zen and the Art of a Higher Education” from the Los Angeles Review of Books revisits the 1974 classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” giving a robust argument for its place in today’s university classroom. 

Oxford professor of Indian history Faisal Devji unflinchingly objects to the oversimplification of religious harmony in “Against Muslim Unity” from Aeon.

Maybe in the end it’s Briallen Hopper’s “Learning to Write About Religion” from the Revealer that crystallizes the motivation for the assembly of all these works. Hopper says the best advice she ever got was from a graduate school professor: “write out of a sense of unease.”

Though one or two of the essays feels out of sync with either religion or spirituality, that’s a small quibble. “The God Beat” is a book to be reckoned with. It asks the reader to take it all in – whatever touches on both the holy and the unholy. It’s an invitation to listen, not to judge. And these days, that feels like a skill to be practiced.

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