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An Interview With J.C. Hallman: Part II

by Catherine Petruccione

#90, 12 March 2007

In his second book, The Devil is A Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, J.C. Hallman has a different traveling companion. This time it is the spirit of philosopher and psychologist William James. As Hallman conducts an up close and personal exploration of some of the most unusual religious groups in America, he evokes the words and spirit of James, encouraging the author (and us, his readers) to open our hearts and minds as we visit a broad spectrum of human beliefs.

BOOKTHINK: I found your second book, The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, a particularly fascinating read. For our readers, it is an up-close exploration of fringe religious groups in America, groups as diverse as the Druids, Scientologists, and the Monks of New Skete. The life and thought of philosopher William James is called upon throughout as a wise companion to the exploration.

This must have taken a lot of guts - traveling to different places and attempting to acclimate yourself to living with such diverse groups of people.

HALLMAN: I really kind of adopted William James for the course of that book. And he has a quote that goes something like: "The first thing to bear in mind, especially if we ourselves belong to the clerical-academic-scientific type, is that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves." And certainly, from a religious point of view, that would have been me.

I'm a pretty scientific-minded person, but he made me think - and so I went into each of these groups thinking, "Okay, I will be critical about them, but I will also be willing to participate on some level." I sort of took George Plimpton's participatory journalism and applied it to what James was saying there. Again, if you are going to write about something - if you're going to portray something like the Christian Wrestling Federation - it's not hard to write about it in such a way that we all get a good chuckle out of it. But what was interesting to me was showing how it worked for some people; it drew them in and they were interested in it and they believed in it.

BOOKTHINK: And you didn't make fun of it.

HALLMAN: Well, I think I did, but I also entertained it. I also was anxious and demanded of myself that I portray it in such a way that you got a sense as a reader of what it was that was attractive about it to someone else. I wanted to do both of those things.

Even with the wackiest of groups, I wanted to show you why it is that they have adherents - because they do. And that's what is at the heart of the American predicament: If America is truly promising a pluralistic world, then we have to figure out how to think in such a way that we can, if not participate in all these various groups, then at least celebrate the variety of the whole. And that's what I was trying to do in the book.

I didn't care so much about any one of these groups as an individual group - to me it was the collage of the whole that was important. Taking what I wrote about the Christian Wrestlers and putting that immediately adjacent to what I wrote about the Church of Satan, juxtaposing them and seeing what comes of that juxtaposition. That was the goal; and to take up James' anthem of celebrating variety and figuring out how that fulfilled America's promise of religious pluralism.

BOOKTHINK: Frankly, I really didn't know much about William James until reading this book, but I truly enjoyed learning more.

HALLMAN: Thanks. He's a really fascinating figure. Amongst Americans, it's really hard to think about anyone who has been as influential in as many different fields. He's truly a renaissance figure in that sense. In philosophy, psychology, education, religious thinking - in fact, he's almost a victim of that variety. You can't pin him down and say, "Here's what he did." It's much more ephemeral than that. The psychologists - they think about the psychology but they can't really relate to the religious stuff that he wrote. The pragmatists relate to that, but they can't relate to what he said about education or the contributions he made to literature via his brother. To really be able to tap into him, you have to become a Jamesian pragmatist and embrace that variety, and then you can begin to really appreciate what he did.

BOOKTHINK: You inspired me to read more about him. I love books that lead you to other books.

HALLMAN: Well, I would start with Pragmatism. It's about 90 pages long. It's really interesting because, when he started it, he thought he was embarking on this huge project, and it came out very easily and very quickly, and I think even he was surprised at how concise it was - and I think it's a great book.

BOOKTHINK: What was your most unforgettable adventure in your travels on the religious fringe?

HALLMAN: I think when I went to a house in Canada for a visit with the House of Satan so I could participate in a Satanic ritual. That night, going down to this kind of themed room with all this crazy furniture and wallpaper. Essentially, I was in a basement and there was a satanic ritual chamber not far away, but I didn't know where I was, and I was expected to sleep there. That freaked me out. And that was sort of the point. I won't go into the larger pragmatic thinking about the Church of Satan and what they are doing, but that was sort of the point - and that feeling has stayed with me.

BOOKTHINK: The variety! What does that say to you about human beings and where they look for answers and hope in their spiritual quest?

HALLMAN: I think that's fantastic. It's great that a similar need can express itself in so many different ways. It's evidence that people come in lots of different varieties. Ironically, both with philosophies and religions, our impulse is to try to find ONE that is going to apply to everyone - one philosophy or one religion that everyone can adhere to. And, in this country, particularly right now, we've forgotten that America was founded on exactly the opposite principle - that there was strength in diversity. We know that in the abstract, and we try to encourage diversity in a variety of ways. But thinking in a way that actually celebrates variety is not something that we are particularly inclined to do.

And that was what James was trying to achieve in coming to the conclusions he had in helping to build up psychology and then moving into philosophy and religious thinking. He ultimately decided - there's a great quote from him, and I won't quote it 100% correctly, but basically it is this: "The idea of the one breeds foreignness, where the idea of the many breeds intimacy." The idea being that by looking at and embracing variety, you come to a kind of intimate connection with the idea of humanity. I think that is what I was trying to get at.

BOOKTHINK: And closer to the truth-because we are all so different. It seems to me that, if what you believe is true for you, it becomes true.

HALLMAN: Yeah - I mean, that's the idea of pragmatism. That gets attacked as being relativistic. But James said that that kind of thinking about truth really ought to be used only for those questions that cannot be resolved via reason or logic-questions like, "Is there a God?" or, "What is consciousness?" and actually a lot of things we confront every day that science can't get at in a measurable, observable way. James is saying that we should apply a different definition of truth to those things. If you do that, then you become more forgiving as a person. If I say, "Okay, I don't believe in this other guy's God, but I respect that he needs to believe in that, or that he can believe in that, and I embrace that enough, then I can ultimately celebrate variety in a larger sense."

BOOKTHINK: I was reading an article today about a plan Harvard had to make a class called Reason and Faith a curriculum requirement, but there was such a big outcry about it that now they've backed off. Isn't it almost like the Victorian era in some way - how we treated sexuality then is similar to how we're treating religion now?

HALLMAN: At Harvard, that's particularly ironic because the psychology building is called William James Hall. They are not particularly inclined to celebrate the specifics of William James' thinking; there may be individual professors that I'm not aware of who do, but that part of James' thinking, which I think is the most useful part, is something that academics have a hard time with because again, like going back to the chess players where everything is rooted in science, they definitely have that attitude, and James is a tough pill to swallow if you are stuck in that way of thinking.

BOOKTHINK: Are you working on any new writing projects? You mentioned a book proposal on Utopian communities.

HALLMAN: Yes. I actually grew up in Southern California and, specifically, in these little technoburbs north of San Diego. For awhile I actually lived on a street called Utopia Road - from when I was about 5 until I was about 10. So when I first started writing some of my early published fiction I kind of relied on Utopian communities, vague understandings of what that was and how it expressed itself in suburbia. So for me this is sort of coming around full circle. Hopefully I'll be doing a number of journeys to modern utopias and stitching that all together.

BOOKTHINK: I know at one time there was a Utopian community not far from me here in upstate New York - in Oneida.

HALLMAN: Yes, I've been reading a lot about Oneida. Actually, when it starts to fall apart, it becomes one of the models for modern master-planned communities because they very gradually moved away from the Utopian model. They were essentially an early, well-put together suburb, but not one that emerged organically as the city sprawled, one that was more intentional. They are an important intellectual link between cities and where what modern suburbs are now.

BOOKTHINK: It's going to take a chunk of time to travel and do the research on that.

HALLMAN: That's the fun part. For both of these books, the traveling was wonderful.

BOOKTHINK: An interesting life you live. It's been a great pleasure reading your books, and I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.

HALLMAN: I really appreciate your taking the time out to do it.

The books:

The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game, Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), New York, 2003. ISBN 0-312-27293-6

The Devil Is A Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, Random House, New York, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-6172-5

The author:

In addition to books, J.C. Hallman has published fiction and non-fiction in GQ, Harper's, Chess Life, and other national magazines, and made Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Currently, he is serving as the Banister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College. He can be reached at

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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