on Do You Believe?: Conversations on God and Religion, by Antonio Monda (Vintage)

Literary people have long provided the most moving, entertaining, and unconventional views of institutionalized religion. Voltaire, famously: “Religion is the source of all imaginable follies and disturbances; it is the parent of fanaticism and civil discord; it is the enemy of mankind.”

The Second Commandment may have freed religion from the arts of graven images, and vice versa, but as Cynthia Ozick points out, “For poetry -- for Word -- there can be no Second Commandment. Creation and the Creator cannot be separated from Word. We will look in vain for a scriptural admonition that omits or prohibits or silences poetry. Va-y'hi or, says the God of Genesis: Let there be light: and light, and then life, are spoken into existence.” Trading in the Word, poets and writers have never relinquished a scriptural responsibility. They claim to create the world anew through the Word.

In 1776, when Voltaire was 82 years old, about 17% of the U.S. population belonged to a church, compared to 65% in 1995. A 2005 poll published in Newsweek found that 80% of the sample believed the universe was created by God. But according to Demographia.com, Christian church membership has actually decreased in many institutions since 1960, sometimes quite significantly. Examples: American Baptist Association -58%, Churches of Christ -31%, Episcopal Church -33%, Presbyterian -21%, United Church of Christ -33%, United Methodist Church -24%. Other churches have enjoyed growing ranks, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention +67%, Roman Catholic Church +58%, Church of God in Christ +1300%, Assemblies of God +428%, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) +277%.

monda.jpgAgainst a background of rising religious fundamentalism in America and abroad, Antonio Monda set out to interview 18 cultural icons about their religious beliefs. Who is Antonio Monda? Rachel Donadio described him this way in an essay in the New York Times Book Review:

“Charming and slightly goofy, with dark-framed retro eyeglasses that make him look like an extra in ‘La Dolce Vita,’ Monda, 46, is a one-man Italian cultural institute. In America, he’s a consummate party-giver, but in Italy he’s an important champion of Anglophone writers and filmmakers, largely through his interviews for the Italian daily La Repubblica. …As an interviewer, Monda has a light touch and a penchant for asking direct existential questions in the European manner … Monda’s effusive style caught the attention of Wes Anderson, who cast Monda as himself in ‘The Life Aquatic,’ which opens with a press conference where Monda interviews the Bill Murray character.” Today, he teaches film and television studies at the Tisch School of NYU and circulates among the great cultural eminences of the city.

A believer in the traditional sense of the word, Monda writes in his introduction, “I have come across people who recognize the existence of God, yet confine his presence to a mystery that in fact leaves one free to behave however one sees fit, or, at most, according to the canons of a vague idea of goodness. I also met people who declare that they believe in a particular codified religion but who oppose or challenge some of the norms of that religion. I have problems with this attitude …” Lest his attitude suggest those doorbell-ringers who arrive from out of state in shapeless suits to save one’s soul, know that Monda is an intellectual devoted to open exchange. The dialogues are quite interesting, even in their repetitiveness of question and response. It’s simply novel to hear the questions being raised at all among this set of celebrities, whose tersely dismissive or emphatic answers have the virtues of authenticity and candor. The interviews are brisk, compressed (skillfully edited), and steered by Monda with “yes, but” pivots that keep the interviewees on their toes and respect their perspectives.

Often, the terseness seems to defend the speaker’s sense of the importance of the subject of God. “There are subjects it is impossible to talk about,” says Saul Bellow, who follows here after Paul Auster, “but that doesn’t mean discussion is pointless. Some themes require modesty, respect, I would say even fear, and the value of conversation in which e can’t undertake extended reflection or impose absolute sincerity is in danger of being undermined.” One must give Monda credit for tempering his own nervy inquiries with his subjects’ hesitations.

Here is a typically intriguing exchange, in this case with the architect Liebeskind:

“M: Do you believe in God?

L: I believe it’s a question that always comes too late.

M: What do you mean?

L: That it’s a retrospective question. Belief is an inescapable part of our existence. We believe the moment we see.

M: What is your idea of God?

L: I don’t have a precise idea, nor do I believe that it’s permissible to have one.”

Here below, Monda questions Toni Morrison:

“Monda: Tell me about your attitude toward God? Do you believe in him?

Toni: I believe in an intelligence interested in what exists and respectful of what is created.

Monda: How does this definition differ from the God of religions?

Toni: In the fact that every religion ends by defining and hence reducing him. My idea of God is that of an infinite growing that discourages definitions but not knowledge. I believe in an intellectual experience that intensifies our perceptions and distances us from an egocentric and predatory life, from ignorance and from the limits of personal satisfactions. The greater our knowledge, the greater God becomes. Even the Bible, this marvelous book written by extraordinary visionaries, is small and reductive with respect to the greatness of God.”

In addition to the names mentioned above, Spike Lee, Richard Ford, Martin Scorsese, Derek Walcott, Elie Wiesel, Paula Fox, David Lynch, Jonathan Franzen and others all have interesting and moving things to say. Most poignant and direct is the exchange with Grace Paley who died shortly after the interview. Jane Fonda could have been omitted or replaced with a more insightful character. Two of Monda’s friends, Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, died before he could interview them.

Asked “Do you believe in God?”, six bluntly said no. But all of the subjects expressed a sense of the mystery in the unseen, and even the five answering “yes” can’t be said to adhere strictly to conventional concepts of God.

For most of these people, the spiritual is in the work, which is really all they care about: making novels, films, poems. As a final note, here is an excerpt from an essay in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam that displays a literary person’s concern with the disappearance of moral teaching via traditional religious groups. In this statement, the concerns of Monda (the demise of orthodoxy) and his subjects (the danger of fundamentalism) intersect.

“French Catholics and Russian Jews and Dutch Protestants could teach morals and values wholly unembarrassed by the fact that the general public might not agree with every emphasis and particular, and therefore they were able to form coherent moral personalities in a way that an open and diverse civil culture cannot and should not even attempt. The openness of the civic culture has depended on the fact that these groups and traditions have functioned as teachers of virtue and morality … When the state attempts to instill morality, the attempt seems intrusive and even threatening precisely because that work has traditionally been reserved to family, community, and religion, to the institutions of our diversity, a thing we have cherished historically much better than we do now, for all our talk … Observance is an aspect of privilege, though the privileged among us tend to be the least religious.”

[A Vintage paperback original published 11/13/07. 192 pages, $12.95.]

Click below for other recent commentary by Ron Slate.

Click below for Rachel Donadio’s essay “Monda’s World” (NYT, 7/29/07)