"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
The ninth-century sage Lin Chi gave this advice to one of his monks, admonishing him that this Buddha would only be a reflection of his unexamined beliefs and desires. Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet took Lin Chi's advice to heart and set out on a car trip around America, looking for Buddhas along the road and the people who meet them: prophets in G-strings dancing to pay the rent, storm chasers hunting for meaning in devastating tornados, gangbangers inking God on their bodies as protection from bullets, cross-dressing terrorist angels looking for a place to sing.
Along the way Manseau and Sharlet began to wonder what the traditional scripture they encountered everywhere -- in motels, on billboards, up and down the radio dial -- would look like remade for today's world. To find out, they called upon some of today's most intriguing writers to recast books of the Bible by taking them apart, blowing them up with ink and paper.
Rick Moody recasts Jonah as a modern-day gay Jewish man living in Queens. A.L. Kennedy meditates on the absurdity of Genesis. In Samuel, April Reynolds visits a man of tremendous vision in Harlem. Peter Trachtenberg unravels the Gordian logic of Job by way of the Borscht Belt. Haven Kimmel dives into Revelation and comes out in a swoon. Woven through these divine books are Manseau and Sharlet's dispatches from the road, their Psalms of the people.
What emerges from this work of calling is not an attack on any religion, but a many-colored, positively riveting look at the facets of true belief. Together these curious minds tell the strange, funny, sad, and true story of religion in America for the spiritual seeker in all of us: A Heretic's Bible.
The set-up goes like this: take two religiously flippant intellectuals (in this case, Manseau and Sharlet, the founding editors of the spiritually hip online magazine Killing the Buddha) and send them on a yearlong road trip to discover the underbelly of America's religious culture. Make sure they mingle with the most wild and weird of holy rollers a philosophical stripper working out of a converted Baptist church in Nashville, a one-eyed rodeo preacher from the "Cowboy Church" of Texas, a clan of bloodthirsty Jesus freaks in Florida and a cross-dressing terrorist from North Carolina badly in need of an exorcism. Take all these "true" stories, turn them into the "Bible's Book of Psalms," and alternate them with 13 freshly imagined "books" of the Bible, written by iconic American writers such as Rick Moody, Peter Trachtenberg and Haven Kimmel and, voila, a heretic's Bible is born. Each of the 13 contributors was offered "a solo, a single book from the Bible to be remade, revealed, replaced, inverted, perverted, or born again, however the spirit so led them." The writers came up with seven nonfiction books (e.g., in "Exodus" Francine Prose draws upon her childhood to explain why she can no longer stomach seders) and six books of pure fiction. "Like the original, this Bible crosses freely between genres, between history and prophecy, confession and myth," according to Manseau and Sharlet. As disjointed and freakish as this biblical sequel sounds, the editors manage to pull off a most impressive work. This is some of the most original and insightful spiritual writing to come out of America since Jack Kerouac first hit the road.