Religion & Beliefs

Q&A with the Authors of “The Faith Between Us”

The Faith Between Us is like no other book about religion. Born when Jewish Peter Bebergal asked his Catholic friend Scott Korb if he believed in God, it's less a treatise on spirituality than an ongoing conversation between two friends … Read More

By / January 23, 2008

The Faith Between Us is like no other book about religion. Born when Jewish Peter Bebergal asked his Catholic friend Scott Korb if he believed in God, it's less a treatise on spirituality than an ongoing conversation between two friends about their surprisingly similar relationships with the divine. I spoke to them about their book (which is excerpted on Jewcy), their friendship, and their attempt to reframe the way Americans talk about religion. –Amy Guth

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Korb: What started us thinking about the book was when Peter asked me whether or not I believed in God. The book as a whole answers that question. In short: No. In long: Yes, a lot. The process goes this way: We write an essay. We send that essay to the other person. We edit each other’s essays.

From this point we diverge. I send my comments to Peter. Peter graciously incorporates my suggestions (to a point) and in a week or so has a finished essay. It’s smooth.

Peter doesn’t even bother sending me my essays back any more. First, he calls. He tells me the essay needs work, often with the structure or my focus. I tell him to read it again because clearly he hasn’t read it carefully enough. He tells me he’s read it twice. I tell him to read it again. He does. He calls me the next day with the same comments. I disagree and yell at him. We get off the phone. I sit for two days thinking I am right and Peter is wrong. I reread the essay the following day and realize that Peter is right and I am wrong. I rewrite the essay incorporating Peter’s suggestions (to a point). In a week or so I have a finished essay. Bebergal: Scott has laid it out pretty well here. We both had our moments of being very protective of our writing, as if certain sentences and ideas were precious little kittens the other was trying to smother with a pillow. But even when we both agreed on certain things, our editor would see them and be appalled. That was the most humbling part of the process. At one point, after delivering some material, our editor said “I don’t really know what to say.” She said this not with excitement and enthusiasm, but as if someone had just smothered a kitten. It wasn’t for Scott I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today. He has taught me so much, especially about slowing down and really reading over my work carefully. Scott loves words and sentences, and the way they work together. I get caught up in the intoxication of an idea and an image, and I often forget to make sure my expression of it is as clear and concise as it can be. It will be a shock to begin our next larger projects mostly independent of each other.
As the two of you have been promoting the book, do you find that you've each fallen into different roles? Or do you split responsibilities down the middle? Bebergal: I kind of like to think of us as good cop/bad cop, with me being the good cop. Since I am theist, and Scott really defines himself as an atheist, when we are talking to a room full of believers, I feel like I have to soften the blow a little bit when Scott tries to explain how he considers himself both religious and a non-believer. Also, Scott is more willing to carry a box of books, whereas I prefer to use one those grocery push carts. Korb: Duty-wise, we've gotten pretty good at seamless tag-teaming. I talk, he reads, I read, we both discuss with an assembled group. Or vice-versa. Although I'm finding that people are just slightly more interested in hearing from Peter of actual encounters with the source of holiness – the God we hear so much about – than from me about how holiness has no source, necessarily, but that we create it (say, through an act of love), or recognize it in something someone else has created (say, in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead) at each new moment of creation. People like good cops. Peter, what, if anything, has Scott's religion shown you about Judaism? Scott, what has Peter's religion taught you about Catholicism? Bebergal: Scott has made me want to be a more observant Jew. I find that I take more care on the holidays and on Shabbat, and I can feel Scott's own devoutness in spirit when I practice. Scott has helped me to see the beauty in the metaphor and the symbol when I can't get to the actual meaning. But this has less to do with Catholicism than with who Scott is as a Catholic.

Also, to be honest, working this closely with a Christian and with Christian ideas has only emphasized for me how much I love Judaism, and how much I don't identify with a Christian conception of the world. Korb: While over the years I've become fairly familiar with Judaism through its myths and rituals and ethics, and while much of this familiarity has come through reading and practicing and studying with Peter and his family, the fact is that Judaism remains a foreign land to me. Today I travel there regularly, but I'm by nature nostalgic, and it always feels good back home. The mystery of Judaism, though, the foreign rituals and the foreign languages, is a constant reminder that God is more than I could possibly say. In other words, the fact of Judaism means that my Catholicism cannot possibly say all there is to say about God.
How have your perceptions of one other's religions evolved through the process of writing The Faith Between Us?

Bebergal: I used to believe that being Christian meant that you accepted the infallibility of the Church and the teachings, and that the emphasis was on the afterlife. Scott's relationship to Christianity has shown me that the Jesus of the Gospels is much more interested in this world. Of course, all religions have their eschatologies, but I understand now that a true Christian life can be concerned with the here and now, with the environment, human rights, social justice. Korb: There was a time when I might have said that Jews were not going to get into Heaven. The process of becoming a Catholic atheist – a process largely influenced by my encounters with Judaism – has led me to extend this to Christians, too. (That is, there is no Heaven to get into.) But that probably says more about how my perception of my own religion has changed through this process. How about: I've seen no evidence of the blood libel? Jews aren't money-grubbers? Scott, you've said before, "We learn in the book that I was basically wrong about my whole life of religious disciplines" How have you each changed spiritually through the process of this book, if at all? Bebergal: My early days of seeking some kind of mystical experience were characterized by drug induced paranoia and superstition, the latter staying with me throughout my life. When I got sober, to combat this, I had mostly put my ideas and desires about mysticism away, because they were too bound up in what had become unhealthy, and ultimately life-threatening, for me. But through the writing and my friendship with Scott I have become much less superstitious. And the lovely irony is that now I feel more capable of exploring mysticism again (this time without the LSD, mind you). Korb: My life of religious discipline – from an early vocation-gone-bad, to severe food and sex proscriptions, to my understanding of a facial tic as a God-given marker of my distinctness – was never a difficult one, spiritually. It sounds counterintuitive, but when discipline shapes your life, when you know what you have to eat everyday and that God doesn't want you sleeping with anyone until you're married, you take great comfort in that. When your face keeps your moral temperature by flashing under the pressure of any contact with sin, there's never any struggle. Eat vegan, no sex (or, no "intercourse" but lots of sex), be good.

As I abandon that life under God's safe protection and my own obsessive control, my spiritual life becomes more of a struggle. I'd always kept myself above the fray of living in the world, afraid of the mess and pain. I'm in it now, and it's good for me. Sex is more meaningful when you risk real relationships and struggle against monogamy (I've recently been engaged). Food tastes better when you pay attention to where the meat comes from (I've recently been hunting).
What is the best single bit of feedback you've gotten about the book? Bebergal: For me, it was when our editor told us that she had full confidence that we were going to write a great book, but when she read the completed manuscript it was better than the book she thought she was going to get from us. But I do also have to say equal to that was when my father-in-law, who is a devout atheist and fierce literary critic, finished the book and said that he could really identify with the idea that faith begins in wonder, and that he understood the power and importance of religious language. Korb: My mother and an editor friend, both Catholics, said the same thing to me after reading the book and learning of my atheism: "I hope you're wrong." At first I laughed this off, saying, "Yeah, me too." But one night while Peter and I were discussing the book at Harvard Hillel I realized something about their remark that I'd missed in so quickly dismissing it. Neither my mom nor this friend was insisting anything. They have a hope for me and for themselves. A Christian hope. And they're no more, and no less, sure about God than I am.

The Christian hope I have doesn't require – and, in fact, does better without – any actual God or afterlife or judgment. I hope for salvation here. And for my sake, I hope that hope is, as I insisted with my friend, "as Christian as anything." What do you most hope Jewish readers will take away from The Faith Between Us? Bebergal: I hope that Jewish readers will identify a bit with the internal struggle of simply being religious. I grew up extremely secular (the old joke, I think Billy Crystal once used it, is "My parents believe in the Ten Commandments but we only had to pick five.") I have been observant, and even that in my limited way, for only about 15 years. I worried that I had nothing to say about Judaism that would be important. But then I realized that my whole life is about being Jewish, with all the struggles, questions, doubts, food, jokes.

I also think that I want to start a conversation, which is not often one discussed in Jewish circles, about the question God. The emphasis is often on observance, law, and Israel. But I want to start talking about what is God to us as as individuals, and how we take those beliefs into our communities and synagogues. Even though I was born Jewish, and culturally this was very important in my home, I came to Jewish practice by way of belief, by way of God. Korb: Starting with Peter, Jewish readers were a huge help to me in the writing of this book. They helped me to clarify my own thoughts, as I wrote, about what it means to be faithful. And as I considered a potential Jewish audience, I knew I had to be clear in how I told stories and described ideas that, while perfectly familiar to me, might seem crazy to them. And for that, one thing I'd like a Jewish reader to take away from Faith is a "Thank you."

That said, I hope a Jewish reader could find real meaning in the Christian stories I rely on while telling my own story. I hope I'm clear enough. And I hope they're open-minded enough. What do you each wish was different about both Judaism and Christianity? Bebergal: Well it depends on if you mean historically or today. My biggest frustration though is with Hasidism. I deeply respect their knowledge and spiritual aptitude, but can't abide by much of their views on the world we live in. I wish there weren't such deep divisions over things like gays, evolution, and Israel. But this is the history of Judaism, these deep divisions. It's amazing to think about Jews having a civil war in the 60s C.E. We still have this same conflict between secularism and religion. But thank God that the Judaism I practice and understand is both worldly and spiritual, rational and mystical. Korb: God help us. Religions in general would be better if they emphasized belief less and faithfulness more.

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ALSO IN JEWCY: Read an excerpt from The Faith Between Us