Converts Among The Convicted

Casey Cep reviews Joshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapel, which explores the diverse religious lives of the inmates of Graterford Prison, Pennsylvania’s largest maximum security correctional facility. She comments on Dubler’s characterization of the prison chapel as “a wonder of American religious pluralism”:

The prison’s chapel is indeed a testament to the possibilities of pluralism, with so many belief systems meeting and sharing space, but Dubler exaggerates when he claims it is “the most religiously eclectic sliver of real estate in the history of the world.” Even the prisoners themselves complicate this rosy portrait, impugning the sincerity of one another’s beliefs, reminding Dubler that jail-house religion is a real thing, forged in boredom, faked for privileges like phone calls and privacy, performed for the benefit of the parole board.

Jail-house religion is real, but rare, and Dubler is right to take seriously the religious faith of these men. He spends hours talking with them about prayer, theodicy, music, ethics, ecumenism, revelation, and scripture. Take, for example, an exchange between Dubler and Vic, the chapel’s resident atheist. “‘You know,’ Vic says, ‘religion is the perfect example of how twisted we are as a species.’”

Dubler summarizes his own response: “I laugh with the pleasure of unanticipated recognition and deliver a short spiel on the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and his touchstone inversion of the principle that man is made in God’s image.” The “spiel” continues in summary form for our benefit, until Vic interrupts: “No, that part religion gets right. We are a bunch of dirty rotten sinners.”

Scott Korb finds that such conversations – which arose over the many months Dubler spent with the prisoners – are what makes the book work:

The men in the chapel are “realer” with Dubler, an inmate named Papa says, because he’s put in the time: “‘You know you see things that most people don’t see’ — most free people, [Papa] means.”

Indeed, for another of the inmates, Oscar, the intimacy of Dubler’s report from Graterford depends entirely on this open stance. “Oscar’s unnerving candor,” Dubler writes

is not limited to the struggles of faith and the humiliation of incarceration. He is also one of the very few men here who voiced reservations about projects like mine where researchers “come in to profit off of our misery.” By the time he told me that, six months into my research, he’d changed his mind about me. The difference with me, he said, was that I participate.

This participation results in an exquisite record of a thin slice of prison life — we’re only in the chapel, never on the blocks. Here, the men’s worship, their shouting and singing, and especially all their endless talk, reveal intellectual and spiritual lives of such vibrancy, seriousness, and intensity that a reader with similar proclivities may find himself envious of the time and space these men have to consider life’s big questions.

Reviewing the book last year, Joshua Dubois appreciated the book’s insights into a world most of us have never seen. He also explained why he’s skeptical of jailhouse conversions:

[R]eaders should be careful before drawing broad lessons about American religion from Down in the Chapel. Dubler explains that most of the men in Graterford Prison are convicted murders, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re left with a suspicion that at least some of the religiosity—the reading of holy books, the commitment to their coreligionists, the “mastering of self”—is a function of the fact that these guys are in a place where most decisions are made for them, so faith is one decision they can make, and manipulate, for themselves. With all of the religious exceptions and latitude afforded to the faithful, there’s a faint air of deceit that wafts through the book.  The religious life at Graterford exists within an iron-domed bubble, and its lessons on ecumenism must be taken with a grain of salt.

Dubler addressed such concerns in an interview last summer:

My take is that the knee-jerk suspicion that religious prisoners are merely “faking it” is the natural consequence of the ways that we, as a culture, tend to think about religion, and what we, as a culture, tend to think about prisoners. …

As is no secret within the study of religion, the American discourse of religion is essentially a secularized Protestant discourse, which means that we tend to look for religion in presumed fixed states of interiority. Religion, when it is thought of as real, is attached to what one purportedly believes, deeply and immovably. Since minds and psyches are full of secrets, and we must rely on what people say, religion is generally to be found in what a person enduringly professes as good and true, most especially those ideas of the good and the true that are directly attached to some notion of a Supreme Being, divine judgment, eternal life, and so on.

“Prisoners” are easier to characterize. Prisoners we tend to define by virtue of their crimes. And so, when a person we regard as fundamentally rotten — a “murderer” or a “rapist,” say — professes himself to be a faithful follower of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, or a religion of peace, Islam, it is a natural assumption that this person is probably lying.

For more, read an excerpt from Down in the Chapel here.