Faces of Faith
By Scott KorbApril 21, 2014
Down in the Chapel by Joshua Dubler
Graterford’s religious practices are principally geared to help a man survive only in the conditions he currently finds himself.
— Joshua Dubler, Down in the Chapel
ALLOW ME to cut to the chase. Joshua Dubler has written an essential book for anyone interested in American religion and life in the nation’s prisons. Down in the Chapel chronicles a single week inside the various religious communities of Graterford Prison, a maximum-security institution some 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The book opens when Dubler had already been at Graterford for a year, researching a dissertation that would eventually become Down in the Chapel. It’s winter, early 2006. And in winter, Dubler has come to see, “when the wind pushes up from the valley, driving rain and snow sideways into the worn concrete of the wall’s outer shell, the prison feels suddenly like a refuge and the world outside apathetic and grim, a place for coyotes and bears, but not remotely suited for men.” There’s an accusation here, of course, because they are men who live here. And they’re taking refuge from the rest of us. We put them there.
The setting is the prison’s chapel. Chapters in the book are named for days of the week, Monday through Sunday. Dubler also includes a series of 10 theses about religion at the prison “culled” from his research, which he describes as “an exploration of doing time and doing religion in contemporary America.” The prisoners here (all of them given pseudonyms) tell their stories of religion behind bars, made possible by the fact that Dubler has decided to look. Looking itself becomes a religious thesis all its own. “As I was taught as a boy,” Dubler writes,
the Shema prayer — “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our Lord, the Lord is One” — is to be recited with one’s eyes covered by a tightly pressed right hand. […] In what I sometimes regard as my earliest steps away from the practice of religion in the direction of its study, I was often seized by the impulse to look, a transgression for which I lacked the courage.
And from inside, with Dubler, once we’re seized by the impulse to look, a prisoner’s invocation from the Hebrew Bible’s Habakkuk — “Why do you let me see these things?” — deepens the accusations at the heart of the book. Suddenly, looking alone seems a little less courageous.
Dubler’s first thesis — “Religion at Graterford Prison exudes the confidence and creativity that has dominated American religion and spirituality for the last 200 years” — appears Tuesday, and begins to develop Dubler’s argument that what goes on inside American prisons has a powerful relationship to what goes on outside. Monday is largely stage setting, an introduction to the chaotic comings and goings, blessings and curses, scholarly debates and dark revelations, which make up the “daily rhythms of integrated work and play” in Graterford’s chapel. Over the course of the book, Dubler makes the case for what he says at the outset: “the events that follow are, in their way, wholly ordinary, but not less astonishing for that.” After all, astonishment always accompanies revelation.
Early on the first day of his chronicle, Dubler announces, “This is the week,” to an inmate named Baraka, underscoring both the arbitrariness of the specific week he’s chosen — the weeks are all essentially the same at Graterford — and the aptness of the timespan: “On any given week,” Dubler writes,
the chapel plays host to thirteen recognized religious groups whose members convene more than forty weekly assemblies, including worship services, textual studies, devotional groups, and musical rehearsals, activities that draw between a quarter and a third of the prison’s residents.
The diversity represented at Graterford is, by the author’s own telling, “a wonder of American religious pluralism.” And what he records is wondrous: disparate gatherings, conversations, worship, and study groups. Muslims and Protestants predominate, but there are Catholics and Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Native Americans engaged in spiritual practices, and “adherents to the black nationalist religions such as the Nation of Islam, Muhammad’s Temple, and the Moorish Science Temple.”
And largely within — rather than among — any of these groups, what Dubler mainly reports is conversation, a good deal of which he takes an active part in. An agnostic Jew, though drawing on a broad education in religion, Dubler often steps in to provide an interfaith argument or play devil’s advocate. Indeed, in the months he’s been there among the inmates, Dubler judges that his presence “has for them simply become part of the way things are.” They talk to each other, he talks to them, they talk to him. The same goes for correction officers and chaplains.
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. The realization that comes with this, though, that actual life outside affords little time for deep introspection, is both obvious and, in its way, a shame. And the envy one has of prison life, knowing well what prison life actually is, can only last a moment.
It’s worth acknowledging that, in contrast to Dubler’s week, my reading of the book took place over months, which is to Dubler’s credit. You may race through; I couldn’t. And here’s why: Dubler’s dispatch is at once deeply absorbing and profoundly insightful; the book rewards both submission to the charms of its characters and careful consideration of their lives and situation. Scenes work double duty. With Dubler playing along, reporting on his findings as he goes, the conversations themselves often work through the analysis Dubler has promised in taking on this research in the first place. Here’s a representative moment with three Jewish inmates, David, Brian, and Lenny, going toe-to-toe, at first, with Dubler on the subjects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US military interventions in the Middle East. “Look,” Lenny says,
“we ought to give Hamas a shot. Either we’ll get peace or, more likely, they’ll continue with the terror, and then we’ll have the right to go in and kick the shit out of them.” […] Lenny segues into a rant on the criminal morality of our current regime — the wanton destruction that has been wrought in democracy’s name. “It’s shanda,” he shrieks — it’s shameful.
With utmost moral seriousness, I muse on my feelings of complicity in our country’s military excesses. David looks at me like I’m crazy.
In David’s bemusement, I’m made suddenly cognizant of the radical distance between his citizenship and mine. “Huh,” I say. “I guess you don’t necessarily feel part of all this. Or maybe you’re not part of this, you being this weird third class also subject to the repressive apparatus of American imperial power, and without a voice in the process.” Realizing that I needn’t speculate, I say, “I mean, how exactly do you feel?”
The men go on for a moment, and the conversation escalates even further: “‘Fine,’ [David] says, ‘We’re all implicated’ — he over-enunciates mockingly. ‘And what are you doing about it?’” Dubler defends himself in a way that concedes David’s point: all they’re doing is talking. But what David, and perhaps even Dubler (in the moment), can’t see is the end of all this — a book, Down in the Chapel. And here, finally — after spending six years at Graterford — Dubler is able to report the wholly ordinary and astonishing conclusion he came to when asked to report, prematurely, on the findings of his research. He makes fun of himself, but reminds us why he’s there, why we’re reading.
“Well,” I say, hoping to move on to something else, “based on my careful study, it appears as if religion at Graterford provides a super-interesting set of phenomena and that the guys who live here are, in fact, human beings.”
Dubler brings nuance to a place of belief where nuance is anathema. Which means that he’s created a book worth poring over, returning to, about men whose lives are organized in a way that’s conducive to the very sort of reading Down in the Chapel seems to invite: “the chapel simultaneously breeds a subculture of men characterized by stunning breadth and catholic curiosity, men with the time and discipline to follow rabbit after rabbit down the hole of intellectual and spiritual inquiry.”
But in the end, Dubler finds, there’s no rabbit hole that will lead out of Graterford. The foundations have simply sunk too deep. Finding a way out is no longer even what the digging is for. Eventually, what Dubler discovers — despite the intelligence, confident creativity, and diversity of the chapel — is that,
As rehabilitation has given way to corrections, and now warehousing, the aspiration to systemic change has largely been abandoned. […] Changing oneself, it is said, is the way to change the world. […] [T]he renunciation of transformative politics in favor of personal transformation means, in practice, the de facto acceptance of our present system. Mass incarceration is here to stay; best that one should learn to live in but not of it.
And so, despite the marvelous attention Dubler pays to individual characters and conversation, the greatest wonder of Graterford’s religious pluralism is how alike it all becomes. Taken together, the theses Dubler has culled all point to one disturbing fact about prison religion. (And if we see ourselves in the conversations going on behind bars, his theses point to a disturbing fact about religious trends more generally.) He concludes: “Graterford no longer produces Malcolm Xs. It produces prisoners. Not system shatterers, today’s religious prisoners are, in their own quiet and righteous way — much like the overwhelming majority of us — system sustainers.” And this revelation, like the accusations that precede it, works to transform the religious invocation from Habakkuk — “Why do you let me see these things?” — into a practical, real-world question. We may ask God why we’re allowed to see these things. But the additional questions we ask once we’ve seen it all — the inside of Graterford Prison, part of a system we built — are ours to answer, not a silent God’s. And transformative politics will require a renewal of political courage worthy of all that silence.
Scott Korb is the author and editor of several books, including, most recently, Light without Fire: The Making of America's First Muslim College, published last year by Beacon, and the collection Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy, out in June 2014 from Bloomsbury.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!