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Down in the Chapel

Spirituality & Health Magazine
reviewed by Don Lattin

Religious Life in an American Prison

By Joshua Dubler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James muses that religion starts with “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.” So, what better place to study religion than in the chapel of a maximum security prison?

Joshua Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, does just that in his new book, Down in the Chapel, a detailed account of the encounters and conversations Dubler has over a single week with the inmates, guards, and chaplains at Graterford Prison, a maximum-security facility about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Passing through the chapel are Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Christian Scientists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Native American religionists, and members of a variety of Muslim groups, including black nationalist movements like the Nation of Islam, Muhammad’s Temple, and the Moorish Science Temple.

Dubler avoids offering any grand theories to explain the religious experience of the American convict. For the most part, he simply records what he sees and hears. Nothing too extraordinary happens. The least readable parts of the book are those in which the professor lapses into the obsessively nuanced jargon of an astute religion scholar. One sentence, for example, begins, “In its materialist metaphysics, its normative liberalism, and in its haughty universalism.”

Life in an American prison can be scary, funny, challenging, and boring, and so is the experience of reading Down in the Chapel.

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