Mary Gordon, at age 12, so much wanted to be a Christian martyr that she seeded her shoes with thorns to cause her feet to bleed. It seemed to her a better idea than growing up to marry a cop. Later, she would write her splendid novels, bear witness to evil, and cherish religion for providing a vocabulary of “restlessness,” “torment,” and “consolation.” Salman Rushdie, born a Muslim and now “a hard-line atheist,” wonders, “What kind of God is upset by a cartoon in Danish?” and finds “solace and inspiration” in Gothic art. Jeanette Winterson escaped her Evangelist family (and a mother who told her that “the trouble with a book is you never know what’s in it until it’s too late”) by reading D. H. Lawrence and falling in love with a girl, but she still insists on miracles and mystery. Richard Rodriguez not only remains a Roman Catholic despite the fact that his church deplores his homosexuality but also feels affinities to Jews and Muslims: “We all come out of the desert—we believe in the same desert gods.” Although Margaret Atwood is “a strict agnostic,” she thinks that “the story is more human with God in it”; we need poetry as well as knowledge.
Other writers who will sit down with Bill Moyers, a believing Baptist, during the next seven weeks include David Grossman, Colin McGinn, and Will Power. They will talk for at least half an hour, in compound sentences instead of sound bites, simpers, and snarls, without trying to sell us anything. Already, the Book of Job has come up thrice (“I’m God and you’re not!”). So has William Blake (“To Nobodaddy” and The Doors of Perception). Prayer is spoken of as though it’s more purposeful than dreams and more respectable than paranoid delusions. Gandhi, Prometheus, Joan of Arc, the Grand Inquisitor, George Herbert, Joseph Conrad, Mel Brooks, Gnosticism, and the Patriot Act are all mentioned in swift passing. Skepticism, doubt, critical thinking, and freedom of expression, without which there can be no freedom of religion, are not for an instant relinquished even by the faithful. And not even the faithful want to kill anybody.
Moyers seems to have interviewed most of these writers at the recent PEN “Festival of International Literature” in New York, where there was a standing-room-only panel on the subject, so we also see bits of Rushdie reading from The Satanic Verses and of Winterson doing a stand-up act. But mostly we are sitting still, and so are they, for an actual conversation between intelligent adults, about serious subjects, in which viewers are assumed to be interested parties to the proceedings instead of morons needing to be pandered to.