SBC News

Writers Series Opens with Hallman's 'Devil'
September 25, 2006

The Sweet Briar College Writers Series kicks off Thursday, Oct. 5 with a devil of a reading from J.C. Hallman, SBC's Margaret Banister writer-in-residence. Hallman will read from his latest book, "The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe" at 8 p.m. in the Pannell Gallery.

The event is open to the public and admission is free.

Published in May by Random House, "The Devil is a Gentleman" follows Hallman on a coast-to-coast odyssey as he spends time with - and sometimes joins the ranks of - American fringe religious groups. At the first reading of the series, Hallman will read from the chapter of his book dealing with Satanists.

J.C. Hallman will read from his book "The Devil is a Gentleman" on Thursday, Oct. 5 at Sweet Briar.During 10 months of research, Hallman met fundamentalist Christian wrestlers and dog-breeding monks; he joined the Church of Scientology, trekked Druid circles and talked with members of UFO cults. When asked to describe his hairiest experience, however, the conversation goes straight to hell.

"The scariest moment was probably the first night I spent with the people from the Church of Satan," Hallman said, adding that his basement guest room was painted white and black and decorated with all sorts of satanic paraphernalia. "That was pretty creepy."

Hallman's quest was inspired by the 19th-century American philosopher William James' work "The Varieties of Religious Experience." In his book, James explores the religious fringe groups of his day and draws some conclusions through an idea called "pragmatic truth."

"Basically, [it's] the idea that truth is made," Hallman explained. "An idea's veracity should be judged by its effect on the world, so that if I say, 'I believe in space gods or space brothers' and that belief musters energy in me, makes me a more potent person in the world, makes life seem worth living to me, then maybe we ought to find a way to say: 'Fine, for you that's truth; that's a fact for you.' "

The Church of Satan - which ironically doesn't believe in the devil, according to Hallman - is a good example of this. "When the Satanists are using ritual to empower themselves, even when they don't believe in the object that they're claiming to worship, they're demonstrating something about [James'] idea of pragmatic truth," he said.

In "The Devil is a Gentleman," Hallman weaves the stories of his religious exploration with the biography and ideas of James. Along the way, he not only helps the reader understand these sometimes "crazy" and "whacked out" groups, he also learns some things about himself.

"I started out as kind of a typical academic, secular, intellectual skeptic," Hallman, a former Catholic, said. "But then you realize in the process of doing a book like this that even that is its own form of faith. Even secularism, even atheism is an unfalsifiable hypothesis so that you have a religion whether you want to or not."

That realization led Hallman back to "theological square one," although he confesses to having become a disciple of James. The experience also has made him a more forgiving person, an idea usually associated with religion. "That doesn't have to do with believing in God or the afterlife," Hallman said. "It just has to do with becoming a person who's able to accept others, whoever they are."

This past summer, Hallman was busy promoting his book. He traveled to Iowa City, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York for readings, and did numerous radio and online interviews, including one for the national radio show "Interfaith Voices."

Reviews of his book have been published on numerous Web sites and in the New York Times, Financial Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the North County Times of Escondido, Calif.

Poet Marie Howe will read at Sweet Briar on Thursday, Oct. 26. Photo by Marion Roth.Other events in the fall series include readings by poet Marie Howe on Thursday, Oct. 26 in the Wailes Lounge of the Florence Elston Inn and Conference Center and author Peter Manseau on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at the Pannell Gallery. Both readings will be held at 8 p.m., and admission is free.

Howe is the author of "The Good Thief," which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic" and "New England Review," among others. She has received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

Formerly of Charlottesville, Manseau is the author of "Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son" and co-author of "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible." Praised as "seductively well written" by Publishers Weekly, the memoir "Vows" tells the story of Manseau's family - his father is a censured Catholic priest who refuses to resign his ordination and his mother, a former nun.

Author Peter Manseau will read at Sweet Briar on Wednesday, Nov. 15. Photo by J. Varsoke.For more information on the fall writers series, contact Hallman at or (434) 381-6181.

- By Suzanne Ramsey, SBC staff writer