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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, mosques, neighborhoods?

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 of serendipity.

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’ religious experience?

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.


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