Q&A: Road to religion
Before second-year law student Tom Levinson,
30, came to Chicago, he took the ultimate road trip: four years
traveling the country. Following the Kerouacian model—seeking
answers to life’s big questions, searching for spirituality—Levinson
also had a more specific agenda: asking Americans from all backgrounds
about their religious experiences. His resulting book, All That’s
Holy: A Young Guy, an Old Car, and the Search for God in America
(Jossey-Bass, 2003), has won praise from Publisher’s Weekly,
Booklist, Joyce Carol Oates, and James Carroll.
Levinson, who earned a bachelor’s
in religious studies at Princeton and a master’s at Harvard
Divinity School, grew up a nonpracticing Jew in Manhattan. A high-school
teacher sparked his interest in religion, and today he and his wife
are Reform Jews.
What inspired you to make this journey?
The decision to take the trip was born of a couple
different impulses: one was a deep hunger I felt to learn firsthand
about the American religious landscape. I had started to learn about
this diversity in the classroom, but I was inspired to go beyond
the textbook and to learn from people about how they practice, what
they believe, and why. The other impulse was, I realize now, a deep
uncertainty about what to do next. I didn’t have a job lined
up, was uncertain how things were going to pan out with my girlfriend,
and this uncertainty propelled me to hit the road.
I always had the idea of working the material
I gathered into a book, but I didn’t realize that I would
be the narrator or a character. I thought it would be a Studs Terkel
[PhB’32, JD’34], oral-history kind of take on religion
in America. But during the trip, and certainly while writing, I
realized that I couldn’t recount my conversations without
delving into my own religious story—or what I perceived as
my lack thereof. The more people I spoke with, the more I felt that
my faith was affected and altered by what they had to say.
How did you decide where to go—cities, churches,
I chose a number of destinations because I knew
someone there, or knew someone who knew someone there, and the budget-conscious
vagabond part of me recognized I could secure free lodging. On the
other hand, most of my encounters were products of accident—or
providence. The first conversation recorded in the book was with
a 20-something Iraqi refugee who, with his brothers, operated a
halal market in Dayton, Ohio.
I found him only because I pulled off the highway,
and the off-ramp led to an intersection where I saw his small market
with green Arabic writing on the facade. That was dumb luck, but
as I traveled and more of these meetings occurred, I felt a kind
Sometimes over the course of conversation people
mentioned their grandmother, their cousin, their son, and suddenly
finding these family members seemed like an important part of my
travels. The book ends up being a lot about family and religion—the
way religion morphs within families, over generations, into new
things and new incarnations of some very old things.
Do most Americans have faith? Do they fear Americans
of different faiths?
Polls say that 95 percent of Americans believe
in God. These polls don’t necessarily define God, but yes,
most people out there believe in some higher power. Increasingly,
whether in big cities or more rural areas, people live among people
of other faiths, so in significant ways, I think, people fear their
neighbors less than perhaps a generation ago, when immigration from
Asia, Africa, and Latin America started to explode, or a century
ago, during the immigration boom from Central and Eastern Europe.
After 9/11, for example, more people know about Muslims and Islam’s
demographic diversity than before. That doesn’t necessarily
mean that suspicion dissolves or fear goes away. But the fear of
the other becomes, one hopes, less automatic, less reflexive.
What was your overall impression of Americans’
One interesting phenomenon is that Americans
are blessed, and perhaps burdened, with such an array of religious
and spiritual options. We can stay in the tradition of our upbringing,
find a new enclave within that tradition, incorporate teachings
from other traditions into our own, or find another tradition that
we like better. At core we want a religious experience that works.
This wealth of choices has produced such interesting
responses. Some people use the American spiritual buffet to keep
snacking all their lives, to keep sampling. Yet what many people
seek is a faith perspective that constrains their choices, imposes
obligations, demands fidelity to a way of life and a community of
faith. Many see unlimited choice as a peril and faith as an antidote.
What is your goal for the book? Did you begin
with a hypothesis?
I’m very interested in furthering this
conversation about religion in America. It’s ironic: our faith
is of bedrock importance to most of us, yet often we feel skittish
publicly broaching the subject. Given our differences, our sensitivities,
as a culture we’re uncertain how to engage others in a discussion
about it. Yet when I asked people about their faith, for the most
part they welcomed my curiosity. In this sense, my own family background—clueless
about the Jewish tradition and our place in it—benefitted
me, because though I was underinformed, I was at the same time unencumbered.
What were your favorite moments on the trip?
I have many favorites. The time I spent
with a Branch Davidian outside Waco, Texas; the lunch I shared with
a black Pentecostal preacher and his white agnostic wife in Alameda,
California; my conversation with a Burmese Buddhist monk in Half
Moon Bay, California; a Mormon in a Las Vegas wedding chapel; a
Reform rabbi in Hyde Park and a Hasidic couple in Brooklyn; the
proprietor of Coffee Messiah, a Seattle cafe that’s becoming
an unconventional sacred space; a Catholic teenager and his grandmother,
a convert to Catholicism, in San Antonio. While the more unexpected
are the first that come to mind, it’s amazing how each of
the conversations I had on my trip—even those that don’t
appear in the book—sticks with me.