NOVEMBER 29, 2017
THE CHILEAN NONFICTION WRITER Juan Pablo Meneses recently did something that some might find bizarre: he bought a god. His own god. And now, he is building a church for it. Soon, perhaps, the god will have its own congregation of believers, too.
In the meantime, Meneses is writing about it. The book, which he is finishing now, will be the third in a trilogy of what he calls “cash journalism,” narratives that seek to diminish the distance between author and reader, because, as he says, everyone in consumer societies understands the experience of buying.
It all started a decade ago when Meneses decided to try buying a cow in Argentina and, through this animal story, survey the landscape of the meat industry. The result was the book La Vida de una Vaca (A Cow’s Life, 2008). Some readers were enraged at Meneses for purchasing a life and ending it at slaughterhouse, even though many of them had no problem on an ordinary Friday night sitting down at a restaurant for a juicy steak. Next, the journalist published Niños Futbolistas (Golden Boys, 2013), where he explores the world of soccer clubs: this odd machinery that selects young talents and ships them to Europe to play for the big teams. In the book, the writer purchases a boy with the potential to grow into a promising soccer player and then sells him to a club. Again, many found the experiment alarming, but, at the same time, few complain about the system that enacts this every day, and most were willing to turn a blind eye if there was a chance that these children might help their favorite team win the Champion League.
In his third book, Meneses seeks to penetrate the industry of religion. Because today, more and more people are looking for something to believe, but only, Meneses finds, if it accommodates their needs in the same way a purchasable product does — a new iPhone, a pair of hiking shoes, a city car.
The book starts with Meneses, trying to buy his own god.
I was touring Varanasi’s center, one of the most mystical cities in India, a sacred place, full of tourists and street vendors. There was a man that kept following me among the crowd, offering me drugs, massages, sex, everything. At some point, I turned to him and told him, “No, what I want is a god, I need to buy a god.” The man left and came back minutes later, carrying a small statue. So, I said, “No, I want a real god. I want to buy a divinity.” The next day, my hotel’s front desk called to say someone was looking for me. I went downstairs and found the vendor with a cow next to him, because, you know, cows are sacred in India. I smiled: “No, I already bought a cow.” And that’s how it all began.
For his research, Meneses traveled to Mexico to investigate the “Santa Muerte,” the narco’s cult; to India, where he almost bought his own temple; to Silicon Valley, where he worked for a year at Stanford University, and tried to create a virtual god, a futuristic religion. This month he is in New York, where he moved to work on his project in collaboration with NYU, leading the inaugural ceremonies of his “Church of the Portable Religion,” the religion of his god. “Many religions were built from a book, like Catholicism and the Bible. I’m walking the path in the opposite direction: I want to build the religion to finish the book.”
BERNARDITA GARCÍA: What is this cash journalism that you talk about? What does it come from?
JUAN PABLO MENESES: Cash journalism transforms the act of buying into a new narrative tool. The author buys what he wants to write about. I’m interested in using consumerism as a literary strategy to tell a story. For this trilogy, first I bought a cow, then I bought a soccer player boy to sell him to the clubs in Europe, and now I’m in the process of buying a god and building a church for him here, in the United States. The Bible says that we were created in a trilogy: body, spirit, and soul. To recreate this, I first bought an animal, then a human being, and now a divinity. I’ve decided to go shopping to understand better this market world that I have to live in.
It’s an interesting approach, mainly because in the world of the arts, the ideology of consumerism is stigmatized. Everything that can be purchased is seen as mundane. As writers, artists, we prefer to write about existential struggles, to reflect our altruisms on paper or film.
I agree, and this is precisely why I like to work with the act of purchasing — because today’s readers live and understand the world as clients. We have been rebooted that way. All day long we receive offers or sales announcements, or we spend our time buying, or calling customer service to complain about something we bought. This connection between author-consumer and reader-consumer is what interests me, because it operates in a framework where rules are more current and also more radical than in the traditional understanding of the relationship between author and reader. My goal with this cash journalism is to produce a nonfiction literature that pushes us to think, and to understand, what are we doing when we buy things.
It is one thing is to buy something tangible, like an animal, or even a person — already brutal, right? But, how do you buy a god? How do you buy something people believe in?
Well, it certainly wasn’t easy. I had to interview over 50 people from the spiritual world of India, Nepal, Latin America, and the United States, and ask them for help. The god is an idea, but it is also an object. When people today ask me about it, I tell them that my god is in a warehouse on the 94th street. It’s an object, in the same way that, for example, the Christian god, as it appears in the Bible, is an object. Every god is projected from something concrete, tangible. After all, we are talking about an idea.
If the initial idea was just to buy a god. At what point did the project grow into building a church too?
A god doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have a church. That’s how the “Church of the Portable Religion” was born. The first time I told someone about my project, I stood in front of a room full of students of the famous Stanford School of Business. These were all future millionaires of Silicon Valley, and I introduced my book and my plan to them. None of them was surprised with the idea that I was buying a god for my book, or planning to build a church for it. On the contrary, they gave me good advice, which was what I was looking for. In a place like Silicon Valley, nothing is rare; everything is future.
So that is the name of your church, The Church of the Portable Religion. What does the “portable” refer too?
During my whole career as a nonfiction writer, I’ve been a nomad. I’m always traveling, in motion. My first book was named Equipaje de mano (Hand Luggage, 2003), and I wrote it while sitting in different coffee shops all over the world. Later, I founded the “School of Portable Journalism,” an online project with no permanent address. I found it interesting to deepen that idea, and find something that connects to my own itinerant search for a god — my god. I decided to build a church for those who don’t have a steady place to live or who have chosen to live a wandering life. Those who want to believe but, at the same time, want to carry their own churches with them instead of having to go to a specific place every weekend.
In this odyssey of buying a god and building a church, is your intention to challenge the contemporary paradigm of how we relate to our own beliefs?
I believe that every nonfiction book should challenge and open debates on daily life, especially on topics we can’t really identify. The debate that this third book addresses is not if god exists. The conversation is about how you buy yourself a god, and how much it is worth. The United States has a whole industry of religion that generates more money than Silicon Valley. I went to a convention on how to build churches as if it was one of these mattresses conventions that Foster Wallace wrote about. I talked to someone from the industry, and he told me that for US$7,000, I could have the keys to my own church. There are so many out there, not only the famous ones such as the Presbyterian Church, which is the church of Elvis Presley. There are many new churches today, and not only here but everywhere, because the traditional religions are falling apart. People still need to believe. We want to be guided. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone from the past or someone talking from a technological hereafter.
When I went to India, I experienced this technological hereafter, at the Osho International Meditation Resort in the city of Pune. Every afternoon we were convoked at this temple inside of a pyramid, all of us dressed in white tunics. We held hands and danced, relaxed. Suddenly, we heard the sound of a gong, and we all looked up to a giant screen coming down from the ceiling. Everything was very futuristic. Then, unexpectedly, Osho appeared on the screen, a man who is dead, and he began preaching, and we all cried and laughed. It’s really impressive, because most of the people in this place are businessmen or managers of a European company, an elite that pays to be there. You leave the temple, and you find yourself in the middle of India, surrounded by poverty. This sophisticated spirituality is, in the end, some type of personalized, boutique consumer product, too.
How does the reader react to this cash journalism logic? It is how the world operates today, but it’s still unsettling, controversial.
There is a very interesting double standard, a contradiction that works as the driving force of this system. When I bought the cow, for example, I was invited to a TV show in Argentina where the host asked me, “But why did you tell us that the meat comes from the cow?” It’s like they don’t see obvious reality; they’re completely unaware of it on a daily basis. Later, the same happened with the boy and the soccer world, a strong part of culture in Latin America. In the end, you see all these contradictions in everything because we are immersed in a consumer society. We think it’s terrible to kill animals, but we love to eat them. We think it’s terrible to fly children to play soccer abroad, but we love when those children become champions at the Champion League. And with the god issue, it is the same. People tell you how strange it is that you’re buying a god, but, at the same time, they all need, and want, to believe in something, and they are willing to pay for their belief.
You developed part of this project at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Now you’re finishing it at New York University, in New York. You’ve been moving from coast to coast, between places that Americans themselves often define as opposite. How has this influenced the project?
Of all the books I’ve written, this is the first that takes place primarily in the United States. I love California; I love that that’s where I started working on this. And now I’m learning from New York too. They are very different cities. I would say that California is the perfect place to create your own god, to imagine him limitless, let your imagination fly. On the other hand, New York is a very good place to create your own church, to develop this crazy idea. I was in Stanford when I decided to use the idea of a new religion in the United States as the basis for my book. And with that crazy idea in mind, I was invited to work at the NYU Center for Religion and Media where I’m finishing my project. Without knowing it, I landed at the perfect spot to wrap and close this process. The axis of my literary project is the media, and New York is where media meets spirituality. California is the future. Here is the present, the daily life of the millennials’ society.
And what about millennials: what do they believe in?
Well, they are looking for something to believe, but they already believe in technology. Millennials are clients — that is a tremendous part of who they are. They know these logics. They trust, for example, in the idea of customer service. If they have a problem, they know who to call and say, “Hey, you have to fix this for me.” They were born and grew immersed in the logic of consumerism. They are the reader-consumer par excellence.
And what do you believe in?
As an average Latin American, I received a Catholic education: I was baptized, I received my first Holy Communion. I spent all of my school years, during Pinochet’s military dictatorship, at a Catholic school in Chile. So I’ll never be able to escape that triangle, even if I want to. I can call myself an atheist most of the time, but a religious formation has already molded my brain.
On the other hand, I’m also a journalist. I have a journalistic mind, and in the journalism world what is valued the most is to not believe in anything, to distrust it all. Many journalist friends have told me that they want to read my book to laugh. To see how I mock religions. But that is not what I want to do here. I want to believe. I like the idea of believing in something. Ultimately, this book is a compelling narrative quest, but also a spiritual one. I want to land somewhere that has not been influenced by the traditional religious formation that I was raised in, nor by the cynical beliefs of journalism. I have these two serious injuries, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be cured.