The Faith Between Us

By Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb

Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $24.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Faith Between Them

In a joint memoir, Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb chronicle how their friendship has inspired their faith.

By Astrid Storm

Most women suffer from an abiding curiosity about just what guys talk about in private. According to “The Faith Between Us,” a dual memoir by Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb, it's definitely not what we assume. Peter and Scott's friendship developed around their shared belief in God, and the 10 essays in this book, which explore how they live that faith out in the world, touch on topics ranging from monogamy, marriage, prayer, food, children, playing musical instruments, and bird watching.

A Jew from the Boston suburbs, Peter is the prodigal figure. After looking for (as he puts it) God in drugs, rock music, sex, and just about anything dangerous, his adult religious interests lead him toward a more rigorous practice of Judaism. His born-again zeal can sound a little evangelistic at times, as in lines like "[I] try to remember that God is my rock, who freed me from the bondage of drugs, from the bondage of seeking God in only one way, who taught me that a desire for the biggest mystical experience was really the most limited of all," not to mention his repeated homage to monogamy, family life, and religious observance. But overall, this attraction to freedom found in limitation resonates. As I read his essays, I kept thinking of a great line from the poet Franz Wright—also a religious prodigal and former addict—"The more you stray, the more you're saved." It's always an appealing story, and Peter's very much so.

Scott, by contrast, grew up in a strict Midwestern Catholic home, where religion was more of a cover for his fear of where such straying might lead him. He uses the model of Jesus in John's gospel—lofty, ephemeral, untouchable—as his example, and growing up and finding God eventually means letting go of everything that has kept him apart
from the world: his veganism, his virginity, his dreams becoming a priest, and maybe even his attachment to the Catholic Church. As he says of his calling to the priesthood, which applies just as well to his other unworldly pursuits, "The priesthood, as I saw it, offered me a lifelong hiding place. I could have forever stood apart from any pain, imperfection, and vulnerability—the worldliness of death, war, or even sex—doing nothing more than hating it and making a paradise out of my loneliness."

This contrast between the two men’s stories gives the book a nice momentum. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure whether it held it together. More than a few times I wondered, Are these guys really talking to each other? The essays are connected by a short epilogue—"the equivalent of finishing each other's sentences"—but otherwise there's very little evidence of influence or interaction between the essays themselves.

And yet, the “dialogue” between essay and epilogue can have an interesting connectivity. In “The Tic,” Scott reflects upon the trigeminal neuralgia, or facial tic, that has plagued him since childhood, relating it to St. Paul’s affliction of epilepsy and the irony that a physical weakness can often produce the flower of spiritual strength—as well as spiritual conceit.

My yearning for sainthood, which began as a child and intensified from there, has always made me assume that suffering is better than pleasure, and that personal discipline is the only way of God.

When a friend of his bluntly asks, “Are you secretly excited for the pain,” Scott admits,

I had to think about it. Typical though it may be, the Worst Pain Known To Man would set me apart… But I’m learning better. We suffer together. We rejoice together. We believe together. There may be no faith but the faith between us. And like any of us, it’s not perfect.

So:

“No,” I answered, a little unsure of myself. “I’m not secretly excited for the pain.”

Peter responds in his epilogue with the equivalent of a tic in his life: his teetotaling.

While I’ve never had a tic to serve as an external sign of my religious struggles, I have something like it. I don’t drink, and in the social circles that I inhabit, people wonder about it in much the same way…There has long been controversy over the biblical idea that Jews are God’s chosen people. Some have used this to charge Jews with the sins of pride and greed…But there is another way to understand the idea of a holy, or perhaps priestly, people, where being chosen for this role is not one of degree but one of responsibility. As Jews, we are charged with living as an example, and more than that, charged with being of service. My sobriety functions in much the same way, to serve as an example to others who struggle, to be of service to those who might need help. And in this way, Scott is chosen also. His belief, one of deep regard for human beings for the world we call home, is special. His is a unique Christianity, and so he has a responsibility to be an example to others of how to love, and to serve those who need help.

I did question an important claim Scott and Peter make in their introduction: that it's very hard to find people of the intelligent and hip variety with whom you can talk openly about belief in God. Personally, I haven't found that to be the case; in fact, there are many young religious writers (among others) out there trying to articulate their belief in God with subtlety and intelligence.

Interaction with them might have been useful for Scott and Peter, because their limited frame of reference leads to one obvious problem that is a major distraction in the book: Scott becomes an atheist–and a "Catholic atheist" at that. (Surely that's a contradiction if ever there was one.) Unfortunately, he seems to think we readers saw this coming all along. This reader didn't, though, because the Christian spectrum can accommodate people (priests even) who are as uncertain of their religious beliefs as he is—people who don't at all identify with those who call themselves "believers," and who are less concerned with the transcendent and otherworldly than with looking for divine manifestations in this world and striving to live a moral life. Had he talked to some of us rather than just to Peter, he might have realized he didn't need to take such an extreme, and ultimately distracting, stance.

But I risk seeming too critical of what, overall, is a book very much worth reading, and one that forces us to take a closer look at the larger issues that are too often trivialized by the black-and-white evangelicalism that is the current scourge, it seems, of all religious denominations. In a particularly moving reflection, Peter shows how complex, and how shatteringly profound, the religious struggle can be.

I wish God were the binding force in my friendship with Scott, but he’s not. The thing that binds us, even stronger than the things we daily connect on—music, politics, his romantic dramas—is death. It’s not merely that we have both lost a parent to cancer, a disease that changes all those who witness it, watching as resolve gives way to a slowly building hope and then to a sudden decline when all hope is drained away. It’s not even that we both wrestled with the quality of our religious traditions in response to these deaths. We will both experience other losses, other terrible deaths and regrets, and occasionally tradition will simply have no bearing at all. No. What death has brought us each closer to understanding, by rubbing our noses in the mud of it, is that if God is not found in the world, he may as well be lost to heaven.

“The Faith Between Us” is not a book about answers. It’s a book about questions—questions that many of us are afraid to ask, precisely because they may have no answers. And so, I’ll leave you with a question: Isn’t it only through inquiry—the more passionate, the better—that we stand a chance of arriving at our own truths?

 

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Astrid Storm, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New York, is the vicar of the Church of St. Nicholas-on-the-Hudson. She lives in New York City. Her last piece for SoMA was Not Your Father's Chastity. Or Is It?

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