The LA Times Festival of Books was last weekend, and like most attendees, I imagine, I was left with two overriding impressions: first, extreme jubilation that so many people showed up this year, especially this year, in support of authors and the written word; and second, total overwhelm from having been in the presence of 400 authors and 130,000 attendees on the UCLA campus over just two days.
If you’re a participating author, your time at the festival always begins in the author’s green room, a huge room of tables and a buffet spread inside the UCLA faculty center which always feels like (no matter how old you get) the high school cafeterias of your past. The prom king and queen drift around the room, occasionally holding court, and you never feel like you’re sitting at the cool kids’ table. Unless you’re one of the cool kids and feeling secure in that knowledge, I suppose. The thing is, most of us who became authors were never the cool kids in high school, so probably nearly everyone in the room was feeling the way I was. (Except perhaps for T.C. Boyle, who walked between the tables wearing a black beret and dark sunglasses with everyone whispering, “That’s T.C.!” in his wake. I think if you actually know him you get to call him Tom. But I digress.)
On Saturday I had the great fortune to participate in an hourlong panel titled “Memoir: Keeping the Faith” with authors Dani Shapiro (Devotion); Eric Lax (Faith, Interrupted) and William Lobdell (Losing My Religion). We joked that our panel really should have been called “Keeping the Faith, Finding the Faith, Losing the Faith, and Questioning the Faith” since we were all coming at the topic from different, yet complementary, directions. Our moderater was Jack Miles, UC Professor of Religion and author of God: A Biography, who got stuck in traffic coming up from Orange County and strolled into the room at one minute to three, picked up the mike, and got us rolling, which was kind of a wonky beginning, but he was so charming and erudite that nobody seemed to mind. Each of the panelists spoke for a few minutes about their respective books, and then Jack asked a question of each of us. These panelists were terrific, all so thoughtful and considerate, and did such a good job of getting everyone thinking about faith and writing and storytelling and personal experience that I think it might have been one of the very best panels I’ve ever participated in.
During the audience Q&A section near the end, a man came up to the mike with a question for me. He said that when he hears about someone choosing to take a child to healers in Belize instead of to a psychiatrist he immediately scoffs at the idea, and he wanted to know what my suggestions I had for discussing faith with people whose beliefs are different from his own. (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.) It was a good question, and one worthy of consideration, I think. I spoke some about how we first have to establish there is no “right” answer, no one answer, and that because faith is so individual and personal it requires people on both sides of the discussion to maintain a healthy and genuine respect for ideas other than their own. Eric Lax spoke a bit about how that requires a certain degree of humility, to suspend one’s own disbelief (or belief) long enough to consider that perhaps the other person isn’t wrong, because only then can meaningful conversation begin.
It really comes down to a discussion of arrogance, I think. In my opinion, arrogance has very bad p.r., insofar that when we hear the word we tend to bristle, reacting to it as something negative. But if you can sidestep the undertones of haughtiness and disdain that surround the word, arrogance really means steadfastly and stubbornly adhering to one’s own point of view to the exclusion of others, which can—dare I say it?—sometimes be a useful survival tool. Engaging in a respectful conversation with someone who holds a different belief system about faith does require a loosening of one’s own arrogance, I believe. To me, it’s just as arrogant to say, “There is a God because I know it to be true” as “There is no God because I haven’t seen proof that one exists.” I left the panel having reaffirmed that I have my experiences, and the belief system that have grown out of those experiences. As far as faith goes, this makes me an expert only on what I myself believe to be true--yet deeply interested in what others have to say, as well. And judging by the number of audience members who lined up to ask questions of panelists, it seems that others are, too. This is an important dialogue, especially in these difficult times. I hope it continues.