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Book Review - The Devil Is a Gentleman Exploring America’s Religious Fringe

The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe

J. C. Hallman

NY: Random House, 2006. ISBN 10: 1-4000-6172-5; ISBN-13: 978-1400061723 (hardcover), $25.95. 332 pages.

Reviewed by J. Anna Looney, Ph.D.

On first glance, this book with its intriguing title appears to offer an overview of nontraditional religious groups in the United States. Hallman takes the writings of William James as his touchstone and weaves passages from James, along with his own insights and commentary, throughout the book. In the prologue, he declares that James’ voice served him “like a conscience as I wandered from monks to Druids to Satanists to Christian wrestlers and Scientologists and witches” (p. xvii). After reading that, I expected that the book would treat evenhandedly these various religious groups; however, I discovered that ‘wandering’ rather than objective analysis was, indeed, a better description of Hallman’s exploratory account.

The Devil Is a Gentleman is partly a tour of various religious groups, partly a spiritual journey, with the author reflecting casually on his own religious identity and beliefs as he makes his way from coast to coast. I don’t recall Hallman explaining his rationale for choosing these particular groups. The persona he presents is that of an investigative journalist qua seeker. He gains access from a key informant/devotee. He then gives his sense of each group, along with quirky descriptions of the group’s appearance and surroundings. A number of times his impressions come across as mockery rather than respect for the different belief systems and their practitioners. For instance, he compares a Unarian open house to “a forgiving karaoke parlor” filled with untalented people trying to create “a functional community with neither help nor instruction” (p. 18). In another section, he likens his Druidic host’s house to “a remote frontier shack, when the work has been done for the day and the cold and the Indians are both far away...” (p. 51). I found Hallman’s derogatory physical descriptions of some followers unsettling; I felt as if he was laughing at them while probing for information.

Hallman tries out his developing impressions of the Satanist belief system on the devotees. Admitting later that he had spoken before he had enough information Hallman says to his hosts, “Satanism wasn’t about figuring out what evil meant—it was a way of figuring out what good really was” (p. 124). From this conversation starter, Hallman and the Satanists exchange views, leading to the truism that religion can be one’s identity:

Religion is the most important thing in your life—by its very definition, it is your life. It’s not going into a building or saying something when you wake up in the morning. It’s who you are every minute of the day. (p. 126)

Insights like this, and another one about cults (“A culture washes brains as surely as a cult does, and the fact that culture is mainstream means only that it’s done a better job of it,” p. 169), while not news to people who study new religious movements, are indications that Hallman was sincere in his efforts to understand the attraction of each ideology and the personal motivation of its followers. My irritation at his sophomoric descriptions was lessened when I came across statements like the preceding one; perhaps he actually was learning something from his exploration of fringe groups.

Not surprisingly, Hallman writes with most feeling about those groups that seem to resonate spiritually with him. It seemed to me that his chapters on Satanism, the Covenant of the Goddess (Wicca), and the Monks of New Skete fell into this category. These passages in the book come alive in ways that the others do not.

I found Hallman’s description of the Satanists intriguing because in it he moves from skepticism to fearful respect for their belief system. He mentions a personal ‘scare he experienced while he was investigating Satanism:

My Satanic scare was that I had misjudged the Satanists, that in trying to trick them into letting me meet Xerxes (LaVey) I had been tricked into thinking they weren’t really evil, that there was no such thing. I had adopted James too deeply, too uncritically, and like him I was too willing to be duped. My scare was that Baudelaire had been right, after all: I had been fooled into thinking the Devil didn’t exist. (p.133)

In the Wicca section, Hallman seems more engaged with the group and writes briefly about its history, Wicca’s absorption into the women’s spiritual movement, and feminism, which brought Wicca to its current state. Hallman uses Merry-Meet, the national meeting of the Covenant of the Goddess, as the place to observe interactions. He comments that James’ view on the pluralism of religious experience fits well here, where differences in practice and attitude are tolerated. This section of the book ends with a telling exchange between Hallman and his Wiccan informant, Uncle Draggi. Perturbed by one of the presentations, Uncle Draggi tries without success to raise his questions, then breaks down in tears of frustration. Hallman describes himself as frozen in the face of this display of emotion.

Hallman ends the book with the best of his experiences. Of all the groups, the Monks of New Skete stands out as the one to which Hallman shows respect and from which he gains spiritual insight. With their famous dog-breeding business as the framework, the monks live a spiritual life that penetrates Hallman as none of the other groups have. He writes, “I felt an acute need for God, perhaps the first time I could earnestly say I’d felt such a thing” (p. 301). This is the moment in which James’ words finally articulate what Hallman is experiencing. He continues quoting James,

And here religion comes to our rescue and takes our fate into her hands. There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. (p. 301)

His admiration for the humility, tolerance, closeness to the natural world, and quiet spirituality of the Monks of New Skete is quite clear. He states:

The world felt far away at New Skete, and I kind of liked it that way. Wicca and Uncle Draggi had hinted at energies, but the monks had seduced me in ways the other groups I’d visited hadn’t at all, and I was pleased to be at a remove from that American trajectory with its casino faiths and theaters-cum-sanctuaries. My journey and study had accidentally re-created Prince Vladimir’s search for a faith…. I felt close to the monks simply because I had watched them perform rituals, because I had caught myself humming their songs as I showered in the guesthouse. The God at New Skete was a backward glance to a time when communion was natural and possible, more than sharing a swig of wine and a slice of cooked bread. (p. 297-98)

In summary, The Devil Is a Gentleman is an uneven book with passages that struck me as shallow. It is not a difficult book to read, and it does provide some information about the various religious groups; but it lacks a systematic, objective approach. Hallman can be clever and evocative at points, but also dismissive, quick to judge. He seems to know James well, but he uses other scholars and researchers in an off-handed manner. (I stopped counting the references to writing by ‘a sociologist.’ Why not give the reference?)