I’m a Studs Terkel Wannabe — He Captured American Voices

Studs Terkel, photo by Nina Subin

Studs Terkel. Photo by Nina Subin

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I’m a big fan of Studs Terkel. I love his books Working, The Good War and Hard Times. I admire the way Terkel captured voices, the individual, distinctive voices of Americans at work, at war, and in the throes of the Great
Depression.

Studs let people talk and tell their stories. Every voice was different. The way Studs did it, it felt like you were sitting in a room with that World War II sailor or that guy who lost his business in the Great Depression.

Imitating Studs Terkel

It was with Studs in mind that, way back in 1996 when I was the religion reporter at the Contra Costa Times here in the Bay Area, I yearned to record the voices of Americans talking about their doubt, their faith, their religious practice — but most of all their encounters with the divine, with God.

As a religion reporter I talked to a lot of people about topics like the church budget, the vacation Bible school, and the new stained glass windows.

But these conversations were short and formal; there wasn’t time to ask questions about anyone’s deepest thoughts and feelings, let alone squeeze them into the twelve-to-twenty-inch stories I was writing. I wanted to know, for example:

  • What was it like to be a Jewish mortician tending to the bodies of the dead?
  • What was behind the faith of that political activist who so adamantly opposed legislation protecting the rights of gays?
  • How could a woman — a pastor — keep her faith in God going when she’s just lost a baby to stillbirth?

When repetitive stress injuries to my hands and arms made it impossible to continue as a newspaper reporter, I finally had my chance to follow in Studs Terkel’s lively footsteps. Try to anyway. I began conducting the interviews — around fifty in all — that led to Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.

Originally the book was titled Voices. I wanted to record those all those disparate voices. I wanted to create a chorus, and see if I could get them to harmonize. I’d listen for the music of the spheres. Maybe I’d hear voice of God.

Fortunately for me, Studs, my hero, was not much into religion. Politics, labor, war and the economy? Yes. But God? No. When Studs died in 2008 at the age of 96, he left behind a nice big hole in his coverage of American life and culture — spirituality, religion, the transcendent. I jumped right in.

A Word From Jana Riess

That’s why this  endorsement from my fellow religion writer, Jana Riess, means so much to me. I might not be Studs Terkel, but apparently I captured some of the beautiful, distinctive voices I heard on the religion beat.

Author jana riess at the 2012 Religion Newswriters confereence. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jana Riess. Photo by Barbara Newhall

In a score of in-depth interviews with people from all walks of life—right and left, atheist and Christian, young and old—journalist Barbara Falconer Newhall incisively shows where these individuals find ultimate meaning.

Some have had dramatic encounters with God while others discover the transcendent in personal relationships or the beauty of the earth. All, however, give thoughtful voice to the deepest questions of human life.

Jana Riess, author of Flunking Sainthood and The Twible

I hope you’ll check out Wrestling with God for yourself. You can buy it wherever books are sold. I encourage you to review it on Amazon or Goodreads, if you are so inclined — that will help the book’s standing, which will make the book more visible to other readers.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear how all the disparate voices of Wrestling with God strike you. Do you hear harmony? Or dissonance?

The cover of Studs Terkel's book about World War II, "The Good War."

The cover of Studs Terkel's book, "Working."

 

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