- All That's Holy: A Young Guy, an Old Car, and the Search for God in America
Tom Levinson's engaging book is a journal of his road trip/pilgrimage across the United States, in search of an understanding of what drives the religious impulse of people from very different backgrounds. His decision to undertake this journey is a thoroughly postmodern commentary on the phenomenon of religion. For while the journey bears resemblance to the classic formula of the pilgrimage ad extra that becomes a pilgrimage ad intra, the journey itself is expressly pluralistic. Instead of visiting the more traditionally-understood holy places, talking with the authoritative holy people, reading the holy books, and performing the de rigueur holy rituals, Levinson chooses an often haphazard "fling" into the pedestrian, colorful mishmash that is the lived practice of religion in America. He does not confine his visits just to those Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, Muslims, mainline Protestants, and Buddhists whose religious views would fit neatly into the boxes offered by the Gallup polls. He also talks with a recovering Mormon seeker whose coffee shop/theater has become a kind of post-religious haven for those seeking salvation; a remnant of the Branch Davidian group, whose numbers were decimated by the FBI raid in 1993; a social activist Wiccan who petitioned for recognition by the U.S. Army chaplain corps; a young Hare Krishna devotee; and an older woman who left New York and traveled to Seattle to live as a homeless woman devoted to the practice of divination using the I Ching. Levinson's journey illustrates how elusive any attempt to define religion is.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of Levinson's book, which combines both narrative and personal reflection, is how this postmodern pilgrimage nevertheless bears striking resemblance to the traditional literary genre of spiritual autobiography. There are parallels in this book to more famous texts like Augustine's Confessions or Merton's Seven Storey Mountain: specifically, the theme of coming to understand oneself more deeply through the experience of coming to know others. Levinson makes occasional reference to one work which has deeply influenced his own perspective on the human condition and spirituality, Martin Buber's I and Thou. This book undoubtedly contributes to his appreciation for the art of dialogue. While Levinson's conversation partners are, in most cases, from backgrounds radically different from his own, he nevertheless is able to find something basic, something deeply human, through which to connect with the other. He is able to gain the confidence of a death row inmate just days away from execution; and later, he is able to speak meaningfully with the man's mother, an AME Zion Church minister, about her faith and her grief. For Levinson, the religious is fundamentally the human, and is thus matter for conversation and mutual enlightenment.
Levinson's presuppositions about religion are both provocative and disturbing, and raise questions about the nature of the spiritual search and about its relationship to religion. It has become common to speak of the uncoupling of personal spirituality and institutional religion in the postmodern world, and so it is no surprise that Levinson chooses to address the former of these more prominently in his conversations with people. In a way, this focus on personal spirituality was necessary for him, given that he was speaking to individuals about their faith, their [End Page 233] perspective on basic questions of finding meaning in the world. He was not, in other words, on a mission to find the "institutional voice" of religious traditions, but rather he sought to understand why people believed and practiced what they did. What emerges from his conversations and reflections is an important point: that both those who choose to affiliate themselves with an established religious tradition and those whose spiritual searches take them outside more recognizable religious boundary lines must struggle to find that balance where the desires of the heart and the yearnings for meaning connect with doctrine, theology, and...