Do You Believe?, edited by Antonio Monda,Vintage (2007).
This slim paperback contains brief interviews about God and religion with 18 well-known and influential creative personalities.
The interrogator is convinced that these talented individuals have something perceptive, illuminating and valuable to say about “religion’s central place in existence.”
The list of interviewees include Paul Auster, the late Saul Bellow, Michael Cunningham, Nathan Englander, Jane Fonda, Richard Ford, Paula Fox, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Lee, Daniel Libeskind, David Lynch, Toni Morrison, the late Grace Paley, Salman Rushdie, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Martin Scorsese, Derek Walcott and Elie Wiesel.
Antonio Monda is a cultural critic and writer for a number of Italian newspapers, as well as a film and television teacher at New York University. He is an ardent Roman Catholic who, in this work, enters into rigorous and candid conversation with six Jews, five Protestants, a Catholic, a Muslim and a remaining group of self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics.
Monda’s invariable opening question is “do you believe in God?” He also asks most of those interviewed to comment on Dostoevsky’s challenging statement, “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.” Most of his other questions concern the origin of the Bible, the Messiah, life after death and religious faith as a source of creativity.
As one would expect the answers are diverse and disparate – and sometimes unexpected and surprising.
Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, social activist and prolific author, asserts that “in the end the existence of God is the only true problem in which all other problems are subsumed and minimized. At times, I think that we are always talking about God without realizing it.”
He also makes it clear that there are moments when it is necessary to interfere with what happens in history. “For example, when life and human dignity are in danger, different cultures become irrelevant. The moment a person is persecuted for his race, his religion, his political ideas, he becomes – for those who think they have a religious spirit – the centre of the universe.”
Paley, an atheist, turned the tables on Monda, quizzing him about his beliefs, even as he was trying to ask her about her own. “Do you think you are happier than I am?” she asked him. The writer told Monda she had no longing for religion, but she mentioned that in the last 10 years (she died in 2007 at 85) she attended a synagogue, not for religious reasons but to connect to her community.
Auster, a writer, emphasizes his concerns with organized religion. “I believe that religions are stained, all religions. Think of how many times the name of God has been invoked to conquer or kill. Think of the Inquisition, of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, or of the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. The fundamentalist tendency of religion today frightens me, and I see around me a world filled with more and more fanatics.”
Bellow asserted that he doesn’t believe in petition prayers. “My requirements are trivial, I don’t bug God.” Also, “I see prayer as an intimate checkup with the headquarters of the universe.” When he was asked, “What do you think happens at death?” he responded, “I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.”
How will readers respond to this work? Some will find the material compelling – replete with intellectual and theological insights. Others, however, will find the one- or two-sentence replies to difficult questions too brief and fragmentary.
Ultimately, the brisk give and take format is stimulating, but little emerges that is ground-breaking or original. This is an ideal little book for group discussion, a helpful guide to some of religion’s profound and enduring questions and answers.