Maybe you don’t have to believe. This collection of 24 tales comes with an alternate subtitle, Short Fiction on the Varieties and Vagaries of Faith; and a fair number of its protagonists (in works by Marjorie Kemper, Joyce Carol Oates, William Saroyan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, et al.) could hardly be called believers. Not surprisingly, writers in a secular age tend to pay more attention to doubters, doctrinal eccentrics and backsliders than to unwavering religious stalwarts.
Which is fine. But C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, strains so hard for inclusivenessnot satisfied with Christian and Jewish themes, as in his recent God: Storiesthat he’s all over the place. His multicultural cast has Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Quakers, you name it, at every conceivable point on the spectrum of conviction, from radical intensity (Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic) and ecstatic martyrdom (James Michener’s Voyage Four: 1661) to banal, self-deceiving conventional piety (Elizabeth Cox’s Saved or Rémy Rougeau’s Cello) to utter spiritual vacuity (Tova Reich’s The Third Generation).
That in itself is not a fatal flaw, any more than the absence of creedal, theistic or even ethical motivation in John L’Heureux’s The Comedian (in which a woman impulsively decides not to abort a deformed fetus because she hears it singing) or Daly Walker’s I Am the Grass (in which a once-brutal G.I., having improbably become a surgeon, volunteers to repair the cleft palates of children in postwar Vietnam). The real problem is that too many of these storiesa high percentage of whose authors have appeared in The Atlantic Monthlyjust don’t satisfy.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is, of course, a classic; but its quasi-Calvinistic allegories are totally out of alignment with the rest of the book. Mary Gordon’s The Deacon is flat and boring (perhaps deliberately so). Yukio Mishima’s The Priest and His Love turns what might have been a pungent koan into a flowery, overwrought shaggy-dog story. William Saroyan’s Resurrection of a Life is full of faux-poetic portentousness (somehow glad that I can remember, somehow remember the boy climbing the fig tree, unpraying but religious with joy, somehow of the earth, of the time of earth, somehow everlastingly of life, etc.). And Tova Reich’s The Third Generation plumbs new depths of bad taste with caricatures like Norman Messer, the ludicrously uncouth president of Holocaust Connections Inc., whose daughter becomeswhat else?a Carmelite nun at Auschwitz. Jessamyn West’s Music on the Muscatatuck reduces Quakerism to folksy cuteness (Oh, there were a few women who’d hum a little while polishing their lamp chimneys, and a few men with an inclination to whistle while dropping corn, but as to real music, sung or played, Jess had no more chance to hear it than a woodchuck). And so on.
Not all the stories, to be sure, are weak. If nothing else, Salman Rushdie’s The Prophet’s Hair and Hushwant Singh’s The Mark of Vishnu have an exotic, mysterious (but not mystical) Arabian Nights flavor, which the Protestant and Catholic stories inevitably lack. Others, like Marjorie Kemper’s God’s Goodness, about a simple Chinese-American Christian shaken by the death of the teenage cancer patient she has lovingly cared for, are unpretentious but solid.
At the very end, however, in a burst of l’esprit de l’escalier, Curtis gets it right, with Kate Wheeler’s marvelous autobiographical fragment, Ringworm, about the months she spent as a Buddhist nun in Burma. Wheeler combines psychological acumen with rueful wit and sensory vividness, as in her account of the clash between her quest for Nibbana (Nirvana) and her need to help a blind, starving cat (despite warnings from her teachers that animals are incapable of refined mental states and a gift to an animal is of little merit).
Wheeler’s piece may just happen to be livelier and more convincing than the offerings by some of the more famous writers here. But on the other hand, it seems likely that religious experience, like sexual experience, cannot be understood from the outside. Wheeler never claims she achieved Cessation, but she made a body-and-soul effort; and that has yielded more intense results than even a shrewd and sympathetic outsider’s narrative, like Edna O’Brien’s Sister Imelda, can provide. Consider the contrasting voices as Wheeler describes what is going on both inside and outside her mind. She tells her abbot:
As I notice objects, I feel deep stillness, like a forest early in the morning. I am not looking for any particular object. Sensations are mixed with calmness. Then I find nothingness as an object, more subtle even than space. Afterwards I try to remember it. I think there was some kind of knowing, but very subtle. When walking I feel light, barely existing.
But then she tells us:
Every Saturday I shaved my head. At a stale hour in the afternoon I would retire from the meditation hall to the green-tiled bathing room with its dark, cool tank of water. My equipment was a mirror, a thermos of hot water, a bar of blue Chinese soap, and a Gillette Trac II cartridge razor I’d brought in from Bangkok. Shaving took an hour, and except for the bliss of leaving behind the hall and my companions, suddenly comical in their diligence, I hated it. The textures put my teeth on edgecheap lather like saliva, sandpapery stubble, sticky smoothness of my scalp. Next day, the back of my head always erupted in a thousand tiny pimples. Irritation, I suppose.
Now that is faithor one noble variety of it: enduring pain, ignoring common sense, trying despite the odds to move beyond the self, to find and embody truth. And even though it ends in unfrocked worldliness, Wheeler’s story is worth the price of the entire volume.