Books & Culture' s Book of the Week: Vanity Fair

A chronicler of religion plays the straight man

A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City
By John D. Spalding
Harmony Books
256 pp.; $23

Boy, when Harold Bloom called America a "religiously mad culture," he wasn't joking. Or at least that was the lesson I took away from John Spalding's new collection of essays, A Pilgrim's Digress.

Spalding, a very funny lapsed Methodist who writes for publications as various as Commonweal, Maxim, and Beliefnet.com, may have struck gold with this book. Blurbs and early reviews compare him to Hunter S. Thompson, David Sedaris, Woody Allen, and P.J. O'Rourke, winning praise from people as far apart theologically as John Shelby Spong and, well, yours truly.

My plaudits: A Pilgrim's Digress is a genuinely funny book due not to Spalding's brilliance—though he's a wickedly clever writer—but to his humility. Most of the stories consist of encounters with genuinely odd religious types. A less secure writer would struggle to find the perfect witticism or knife-twist ending to cap off his stories, but Spalding usually lets the believers have the last word.

The book is loosely structured after John Bunyan's classic work, Pilgrim's Progress, with section titles from "The Valley of Humiliation" to "The Slough of Despond." The difference, says Spalding, is that "unlike Bunyan, I've yet to find the one true path." So: "Whereas Bunyan wrote with an all-consuming fire of conviction, I write out of curiosity—the sheer delight of learning what makes other people tick."

And what wonderful internal mechanisms he finds. Spalding uncovers a cornucopia of oddball believers: Whatsyourname, a penniless itinerant preacher who looks like Warner Sallman's popular portraits of Christ and won't divulge his own handle; Pete Halvorson, a modern ...

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Books & Culture' s Book of the Week: Vanity Fair
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