Mark Oppenheimer, you're the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, a religion columnist for The New York Times, and a widely published freelancer.

Q. Tell us briefly about your recently published book. What's a "wisenheimer?"

Wisenheimer is a real word, if an old-fashioned one. (Readers over 50 tend to know the word, much as they know "whippersnapper" and "By Jove!" OK, maybe they don't actually use "By Jove!") But also "wisenheimer," which means "wise guy" or "smart aleck" is, according to at least one dictionary, simply a combination of "wise" + "enheimer," "from last names of German origin, such as 'Oppenheimer' and 'Guggenheimer.'" So once I realized my name was actually part of the word, the choice for a title was obvious!

The book is about growing up a talkative kid, and how my love of language and talking both delighted and enraged people around me. I had a big vocabulary -- but another way of saying that is that I had a big mouth. I could get into trouble with my words. In fact, when I was 10 years old I DID get into trouble with my words: home one night alone, my parents out with friends, being desperate for someone to talk with, I made some prank phone calls that ended with my nearly being arrested; I will leave the details for readers of "Wisenheimer" to find, but suffice it to say that where phone lines are involved, the FBI too can be involved. It was pretty hairy.

And then, shortly thereafter, when I made it to junior high school, I discovered the debate team, and that really turned me around. Having a healthy, constructive way to channel my verbosity (and my budding adolescent anger) made a big difference in my life. It made me happier, for one thing. And the rest of the book takes off from there, as I immersed myself in the weird, wacky subculture of competitive debate and oratory. I think the book will appeal to lots of people, but I had in mind the same people who loved Stefan Fatsis's "Word Freak," about the world of competitive Scrabble. I was pretty pleased he gave me an enthusiastic tribute for the book jacket; honored, in fact.

A couple sub-themes about the book: First, I have a deep skepticism of a lot of what passes for "progressive" education. For grades 2-4, I attended a progressive school that was pretty disastrous for me. They had lots of touchy-feely, student-centered ways to teach math and science, but they weren't very interested in just letting me sit in a corner and read books; and nobody was interested in argument. There was such a premium placed on interacting, and movement, and playing together, that a kid who just wanted to read and talk about ideas was seen as some sort of reactionary.

Second, I really think we need competitive debate to start before high school. I was lucky to be at a junior high school with a debate program. But why is it that we have activities for 9-year-olds who love music, or math, or nature, but not 9-year-olds who love talking? And now that I am a dad of a talkative daughter, I can foresee wanting to send her someplace where she can argue with somebody other than me and her mom, you know? 

Q. As a blogger, I've thought a lot about debate online, where so many of our political and cultural conversations are happening. It can be a rewarding medium that offers an impressive diversity of perspective and a wealth of knowledge that informs discussion of any subject. But a lot of online debate is ruined by trolls, a level of vitriol I've never observed in offline life, and perhaps by flaws in the architecture of threaded comments sections.

Do you think better, more productive debates are possible online? If so, how do we bring them about?


I am not sure how you save online debating. For starters, the commenters are a big problem. Even when a few of them are helpful, they seem to be outnumbered by the flamers and, well, big ol' jerks. I think Andrew Sullivan has it down right: if you have comments, email them to HIM, and he will post the best ones. Then again, he has an assistant (or two?) to help him sift through the mail.

But look, the lack of face-to-face interaction is a blow for civility. It is much harder to be mean to people whom you are looking at. Take a fairly mild bit of ridicule, like Sarah Palin's derision toward "community organizers" -- would she have said that if she knew a few community organizers were nearby? (Then again, what are Tea Partiers but community organizers? Think about it...)

I am pretty impressed by Bloggingheads.tv. Heck, I would even like to be on it sometime; it seems the only website that has made civil debate its sole mission, rather than a happy side benefit. Then again, it's a minority of people who are going to give over the time to watch an hour of streamed video. Truth be told? I wish we had more good debate on radio. For example, I am sure that when David Brooks and E.J. Dionne do their weekly forum on Friday afternoons on All Things Considered, there are times they want to slap each other around a bit, but being on NPR, they have to be, you know, civil. They refuse actually to debate. So they talk past each other, or something like that.

 Q. Among some religious people, there is a belief that the mainstream media is hostile territory. You've managed to find willing interview subjects at evangelical colleges, among Mormons, even within the famously media shy Church of Scientology. Has distrust of media ever impeded your reporting? How often do you approach people who worry that a New York Times columnist or a freelancer from Slate isn't going to treat them fairly? How have you convinced them otherwise?

I think that people who are worried I might be unfair go and read stuff I have written, and then usually decide I am pretty fair. I don't write with an anti-religion animus; I write with curiosity. The web is thus a real gift to my reporting: I can say to people, "Go look at my stuff, then decide if you want to talk with me." That usually works out.

Most often, it is the anti-religious folk who send me the hate mail. When I write without obvious antipathy toward Scientology, I am accused of being a sucker or a shill; when I wrote about Catholic conservative lesbian blogger Eve Tushnet, I got a lot of mail saying I had set back the cause of gay rights by "giving her a platform." There are a lot of people who figure journalists must be taking "a side," and they can come from the left or the right, loosely speaking.

I did have one fellow say he figured I was Jewish "since The Times is a Jewish paper." I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but the funny thing is he didn't mean it as an insult, and he was happy to talk. He was a Southern Baptist missionary, by the way.

Interestingly, I sometimes get skepticism from professors who fear that a mere journalist won't be smart enough to do their views justice. Hilary Putnam, the Harvard philosopher, once sent me a very dismissive e-mail when I asked him for a comment, although when I wrote back, he subsequently apologized. He's a great philosopher, so it meant a lot to me that he backpedaled. I don't have that e-mail any more, but I could never forget it.

Q. Once upon a time, you taught a graduate class I took at NYU on religion writing. What's the most challenging skill an aspiring religion journalist needs to acquire? What are the most common flaws you see in newspaper and magazine stories on religion?

I don't think any of us ever solve the conundrum of writing about people who take certain things on faith. I am always dogged by the worry that I am not being tough enough; why do I NOT always affix a clause to mentions of "God," saying "(should He or She or It exist)"? After all, we usually don't write about invisible entities. That is not to say that God is not real; but even the most religious people will admit that a real God would nonetheless be fairly difficult to describe in 900 words of newspaper text.

So we just ignore the problem and skip on to the meat of the story. And that might be for the best; articles about religion would be pretty tedious if they always got bogged down in first-order theological questions. A lot of times, the theology isn't even the story: the story is stuff so factual and real that you can smell and taste it: pedophilia in the Catholic church, schism in the Episcopal Church, the Gaza flotilla, etc.

The most common flaws in religion reporting are the same as common flaws in all reporting: lack of skepticism, taking the speakers' words for it. We always have to be skeptical, even of monks and priests and imams and rabbis. And we have to remember that power corrupts, so the people we are likely to revere may be the most likely to fail us.
 
Q. What is your own relationship to religion? Has it informed your reporting?

I always like quoting my old teacher, the great historian Jon Butler. He hated discussions of whether professors should reveal their beliefs to students. "Such a question assumes that I KNOW what I believe!" he said.

I think that's right; most of us have beliefs that change daily. I once got into a fruitful web discussion with the Christian blogger Rod Dreher. He seemed unwilling to concede my larger point, that even the most faithful have lapses of faith, and some days even have no faith. So even if I told you I was a devout, orthodox Muslim, how would you know that on a particular day, as I was writing a particular article, I was feeling devout? Maybe that was the day I had a crisis of faith and went gambling and womanizing!

As it happens, though, I am Jewish, belong to a pretty cool Conservative Jewish congregation beki.org, and take my daughters to Sabbath services pretty much every week. I love ritual, but I don't think too much about God. To the extent that I believe in him, it is affirmed through the act of ritual (Wittgenstein is very smart on this topic, much smarter than I am). I do think a lot about the afterlife, in part because my elder daughter is at the age when she asks a lot of questions about where we go after we die. She believes we all go to Dog Heaven (per the children's book by Cynthia Rylant). I can buy that.

But I don't mean to be glib about the question. I wouldn't have gotten a doctorate in American religious history if I didn't think religion was meaningful and very worthy of study. And not just Judaism -- I studied much more Christianity than Judaism in graduate school. I was going to be a church historian before journalism got me.

Oh, your question! How does it inform my reporting? Honestly, I don't think it does, except in this one way: as someone who knows a lot of religious people, Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and otherwise, I hope I am unlikely to stereotype them or make easy assumptions. I know religious people are complex -- sometimes in ways they wish they weren't. For example, see my comments above, about how even the most devout are atheists on certain days of the month; that's not the kind of thing they talk about much in some churches and mosques, but it's a testament to the complexity of all human beings, and to their intellectual power, to say they are always testing their ideas. 

Q. The political journalist Peter Beinart wrote a widely discussed New York Review of Books piece recently arguing that Israel is at risk of losing the support of liberal Jews in America. You've done a lot of writing and reporting in that world. Do you think that his assessment is accurate?

I haven't done so much writing about Israel or Zionism, partly because I have been to Israel but once. From what I can tell, though, Peter (whom I know from college, and whom I like) is right. Jack Shafer wrote a take-down in Slate of Peter's piece, but I wasn't persuaded that Peter is wrong. Even if Frank Luntz's polling was worthy of more scrutiny, Peter is certainly right that Zionism has become the province of more conservative and affiliated Jews, and that a liberal, skeptical Zionism was much more alive in, say, 1967 than it is now. And look, the equating of Judaism with the modern Jewish state is necessarily a recent and historically contingent phenomenon.

As a journalist, I have to remain interested in and alive to expressions of Judaism that are not just Zionist, but anti-Zionist and non-Zionist, or simply indifferent to Zionism. That is one area where journalists are often blind: they, not the Jews or Zionists, are often the ones to equate the two rather unthinkingly. I try to honor Jews, Zionists, and people who are neither by remaining aware of differences within and between all these camps. AIPAC certainly talks as if they speak for American Jewry, but a journalist has to let people speak for themselves, and not outsource the reporting to lobbyists or pressure groups. It is easy to get a quotation from AIPAC, or from anti-Zionist activists (I got the Gaza flotilla spokeswoman on the phone in about 30 seconds of trying; we had a lengthy talk) -- but I try to be just as interested in people who are lone wolves and totally unidentified with any group.

Q. I notice that you've written about the 1960s and the effect of that decade on religion, and that a topic you sometimes speak about is the spiritual lives of young people. How have the religious lives of youth evolved over the last five decades?


The main difference is the decline of denominationalism. It used to be -- I will use your time frame of five decades ago -- that in, say, 1960 being Methodist meant something different, FELT different, from being Presbyterian or Lutheran or whatever. I don't think many Americans feels that way today.

There are still pretty pronounced differences between, say, Catholicism and Judaism, or Catholicism and Protestantism, but even so people are jumping ship more and more. What is interesting is that Jews fret over the 50 percent (or thereabouts) intermarriage rate, but what do you think the intermarriage rate is for Lutherans or Congregationalists? How many Lutheran college students are saying, "Well, I would love to marry you, but you aren't Lutheran -- would you consider being baptized in my church?"? Pretty few. It is almost laughable. The last redoubt of denominationalism is the radio show "Prairie Home Companion," which still makes jokes about Lutherans, as if that still meant something as an ethnic group.

I hope people hold their mail -- yes, I know that for some people these distinctions still matter, a lot. I am speaking generally.

Incidentally, the answer most people will give you is that kids today are spiritual, not religious. OK, fair enough. But as they get older most of them will find religious homes, if they find them at all, in traditional churches, churches that belong to one denomination or another (or specifically identify as non-denominational, in opposition to denominationalism; that is true of a lot of evangelical "Bible churches"). So what is interesting is how little thought people will put into the history or character of their church's larger body. Mostly, young people today just find a local church they like. Or they sleep in on Sundays. Or get up and listen to "Car Talk." Or one of those ubiquitous "Acoustic Café" radio shows.

Q. Where can readers interested in your work find more of it?

Everywhere! I am omnipresent! But mostly they can find my work every other Saturday in the National section of The New York Times. Or they can buy "Wisenheimer" to learn how debate saved me from juvenile delinquency (literally). Or they can buy "Thirteen and a Day," about my bar mitzvah road trip. Or "Knocking on Heaven's Door," about religion in the 1960s counterculture. Or check out markoppenheimer.com. (The "www" is very passé, or didn't you know?)

Hey, thanks for the interview. It has been a pleasure.