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Lesley Hazleton learned a valuable lesson about faith about 20 years ago while test-driving a Formula 1 race car for a newspaper article. She couldn't get the car anywhere near its top speed—some F1 racers can go more than 300 miles per hour—because of a sharp corner on the track that intimidated her. Those cars are basically jet engines with four giant tires strapped onto them; you only have to tap the steering wheel to get a huge response, and she couldn't quite trust the machine to do its job. Finally, possibly out of exasperation, the driving coach quoted the Bible to her—specifically, Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
"I hate to sound like a religious nut," she says, but that was exactly what she needed to hear. "I thought okay, got into the cockpit, went full throttle, waited like five seconds—or what felt like five seconds—and turned the wheel a fraction of a degree." That did it. The car whipped around the corner, exactly the way she was told it would.
This was a rare intersection of Hazleton's two major journalistic interests: cars and religion. She spent most of the 1990s as an automotive affairs reporter, which she calls "my 10 years of riding the froth of the wave instead of struggling in the undertow." She sounds faintly embarrassed about it now. Hazleton says, "How much frothier can you get than these absurd consumer items" that inspire you to "behave like a teenage boy, even if you're a middle-aged woman?" She lights another American Spirit—over the course of an afternoon, she'll smoke the better part of a pack—and gestures with the cigarette at an herb garden on her deck and the luminous expanse of Lake Union just beyond. "Long story short," she says, "cars paid for this houseboat. Or rather, they paid for the remortgage of the remortgage of this houseboat."
It's from the cozy, bookshelf-lined womb of that houseboat that Hazleton has produced about half of her life's work so far. When she's researching, she ventures out to the Suzzallo Library on the University of Washington campus to pick up books (sometimes, she says, when she's deep into the winter of research, her houseboat visibly sinks lower under the weight of all the books). Once she can't read anymore, she knows that she's finally ready to start writing, which is when the true hermitage begins. When asked about the arc of her career, she frowns. "I'm not sure where it's going," she says. "I'm not even sure where it's come from."
Over the last decade, Hazleton has produced a trilogy of books—Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, and After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam—that are difficult to categorize. The books land at the intersection of history, religion, and literary criticism; they are informed by hundreds of texts and intensive traveling to the Middle East (Hazleton spent the 1970s living in Jerusalem); and they sing in the voice of a writer who has finally figured out exactly what she wants to say. Her characters are figures who have been trapped, untouchable, in amber for decades by organized religion.
Any given chapter of these books may include a fictionalized narrative of life in biblical times, a puckish interpretation of three wildly differing accounts of an event that occurred over 2,000 years ago, and a personal account of Hazleton's own travels. In Jezebel, Hazleton undertakes an ambitious rehabilitation of the queen of Israel whose name has become synonymous with whorish behavior. In a fraught passage, Hazleton visits the birthplace of Elijah, the prophet who destroyed Jezebel's reputation and demanded that she be torn to pieces by dogs in what is the most brutal, explicit murder to take place in the Bible. Of course, Hazleton is beset by ravenous wild dogs: "The car shuddered under the assault. In front of me, open jaws spattered drool on the windshield. To one side, fangs loomed inches from my eyes."
When I compliment Hazleton for including that passage—you risk breaking the spell for readers when you pepper a historical narrative with personal anecdotes, but the dog attack is perfectly placed to make Jezebel's story more compelling for the reader—she beams with pride, recalling that as she raced away from Elijah's birthplace, she thought, "Oh, fuck. No one's going to believe that happened. It was just too fucking perfect!"
At first, Hazleton tries to suggest that she doesn't write about religion. She says she's a historian. "My sense of time is very un-American," she says. Her time in Jerusalem widened her view: "You're living in a city where something that happened 3,000 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, or 1,000 years ago is all as fresh as today. It's almost as though there is no history. It's all present." At the same time, the intervening millennia add ambiguity and distance, which religions exploit for their own purposes.
Mary, Hazleton says, is about the "interplay of faith, fiction, and fact. Well, faith and fact. 'Faith, fiction, and fact' is redundant." She's bored with the battles between believers and nonbelievers. She disputes "the insistence that there should be something like Truth with a capital T" and "the sheer naiveté of everything coming down to the existence or the nonexistence of this thing we've nicknamed God." She can't keep from laughing at the idea of tacking something so "ineffable" ("sunsets or the perfect orgasm or whatever your idea of it is") with a cute little three-letter name. "It's not knowable. It's by definition not knowable, but it always comes down to Truth—my prophet is better than your prophet, that kind of thing."
Upon finishing After the Prophet, her timely account of the origin of the Shia-Sunni split, Hazleton found herself in an aimless period. Her friend Jonathan Raban (who won a Stranger Genius Award in 2006) told her what her next book should be: "You should write a biography of Muhammad. You're uniquely qualified," she recalls him saying.
Hazleton read the few biographies of Muhammad that are available—"excellent cures for insomnia," she mutters—and she's now thick into the writing of the book. Video of a recent TED talk she gave on reading the Koran went viral and attracted the attention of tens of thousands of people—not all of it good. "I'm perfectly aware right now that I'm engaged in a fool's errand to be writing a biography of Muhammad," Hazleton says. "Everyone's going to find something wrong with it, but basically I'd rather be a fool for trying than a fool for not trying. He's a fascinating figure." She's been butting heads with fundamentalists for decades now, dismissing "deadening" religious "literalism" as "murderous, a sign of a total absence of faith."
She describes herself as a "firm agnostic Jew." Once the Muhammad book is done (its projected publication date is next year), Hazleton says she's going to work on "a kind of agnostic manifesto." She's an advocate of "muscular agnosticism," but she adds, "I hate the word 'spiritualism.' It's used in such a sappy, pappy way." After living all over the world—born in England, lived in the Middle East and New York for 13 years apiece—Hazleton's finally found home: "Now I'm in Seattle for 19 years, not even in the same city, but in the same house. And I have to wonder: Christ, is this what my mother meant by contentment?" She's been happily blogging about religion and current events for a year and a half at Accidentaltheologist.com. "A multitude of sins falls under that title, the Accidental Theologist. I can write about anything under that title," she says, and then pauses and adds, "except tennis."