Two Religions, One Question


A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God
By Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb
Forward by Stephen J. Dubner
256 pages. Bloomsbury USA. $24.95

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"So, do you believe in God?" a friend asked, somewhat sheepishly, over brunch a few weeks ago. My husband put down his bagel and prepared to answer, but my friend's wife interrupted him first.

"I'm so sorry," she said, embarrassed, apologizing for her husband's inquisitiveness.

Fortunately my friend was in good company. We were happy to indulge his question and engaged in a long and interesting discussion, after we all got over our initial hesitation. But in many relationships, faith is still a taboo subject. We talk about religion plenty, from history to ritual to politics, but the fundamentals of faith, and whether or not one believes in God, are often left unmentioned.

So it's refreshing to read a book like The Faith Between Us, an uncommonly candid and honest book about faith and friendship. Subtitled "A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of Faith," the book details the spiritual journeys of Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal, a Catholic and a Jew, respectively. These friends set out, as they explain in the introduction, to explore what it means to have "the idea of God" at the "center of [their] lives," and yet still be normal—they're not fundamentalists, not opposed to gay marriage, and not likely to try to convince anyone else they need to believe. They still struggle with love, sex, drugs, and family, and how faith relates to those aspects of their lives. The book began, as my initially awkward conversation did a few weeks ago, with the simple question, "Do you believe in God?" What follows that question is their beautifully written attempt to answer it, as honestly as possible.

Reading The Faith Between Us is like going out for a long, intimate coffee with the authors. They write in a way that makes you feel like they're not just in conversation with each other—but also in conversation with you, the reader. It's easy to forget while reading the book, as I did, that you don't actually know these writers. They're not afraid to divulge secrets, to say how they really feel, to admit—from two grown men!—that they love each other and treasure their friendship. When I first picked up the book, I feared the worst: I thought it would be a typical interfaith tome about the future of Catholic-Jewish relations. The truth is, the fact that Bebergal and Korb are a Jew and a Catholic don't matter much; while they both follow certain dictates of their respective religions and grew up enmeshed, more or less, in the culture of their faiths, what matters in this book is the faith itself, and not the differences between their faiths.

Another great thing about The Faith Between Us is that the two authors are primarily writers. They're not men of faith who decide to write a book; they're professional writers who also happen to be men of faith. This makes The Faith Between Us not only good theology, but a good read. The book is structured in a series of ten essays, written in alternating voices. Instead of simply taking turns, however, Korb and Bebergal respond to each other's faith inquiries. They share their own memories, doubts, and questions in the context of each other's experiences. This is what makes it seem like a real conversation; the reader gets both sides of the story.

Bebergal, the Jew of the duo, struggles with a search for meaning as a teenager, a journey that takes him through drug-addled mysticism and that eventually lands him with a deep faith in God and a daily prayer practice, even though he wouldn't consider himself a typically observant Jew. Korb similarly struggles with faith all his life, but more in terms of the restrictions of a religious life rather than the mystical possibilities. At one point in his late teens he tells his parents of his calling to become a priest, but by the end of his faith journey (or at least that detailed in the book), he has shunned strict observance. For both writers, their faith is as tied up in family as it is in their friendship. Bebergal and Korb have both experienced the death of a parent (in Korb's case, both his father and his stepfather, who he called Dad), and that experience informs their faith dramatically.

My only misgiving about the book was Korb's disclosure, very close to the end, that he now considers himself an atheist. In a book about faith, this seems like an important point to bring up earlier on. Looking back, it is easy to see in many parts of the book that Korb was likely headed toward a lack of belief. But this change easily could have been just as interesting a part of the conversation between Korb and Bebergal. How does a friendship built upon a mutual faith in God hold up when one of the pair decides God is no longer for him? Even so, it's clear that for Korb, God is still at the center of his life. His relationship with God may have changed over time, but it's still a relationship.

In the end, Bebergal and Korb's stories are familiar that they fit into a universal template: man experiences loss, man searches for meaning, man finds faith, man either grows in faith or loses the faith he had. This is a common thread in many, if not most, lives. But if their faith lives aren't so remarkable, the way Bebergal and Korb write about them is. It's clear that by being so honest with each other—and with us—about the role of faith in their lives, these two men know each other incredibly well, far beyond the range of most friendships. It made me wonder, if only that simple question, "Do you believe in God?," were asked more often, whether we could achieve closer relationships not only with the divine but with one another.