I don’t recall with any specificity the first time I met Jason DeRose way back in Chicago when we were both covering the religion beat in the city of Big Shoulders. It might have been on the steps of the cathedral or at a contentious community meeting in the south suburbs about a proposed mosque moving into a town where the idea of Muslim neighbors struck fear into many a small-minded imagination. Wherever it was, I do recall vividly immediately liking this man so much that I felt sure that he’d be a forever friend.
He is the Div Boi to my God Girl.
We have spent many hours camped out in the cold waiting for the reticent cardinal to show up and say a few words about whatever clergy sex abuse scandal was blowing up that day, in endlessly boring board meetings and tedious press conferences, chasing a story and sources, and occasionally, late nights in a far afield night club or pub. We have also spent many many hours talking and laughing and building a friendship that blessedly has withstood the test of time.
Jason is a brilliant and beautiful man. I am continually awed by the way his mind works and inspired by his work ethic, unbridled curiosity about the world, and graciousness toward those he might disagree with (from the soles of his fabulous shoes to the tip of his amazing shock of salt-and-pepper hair.)
Mr. DeRose has a way with words. His medium is the spoken word, but his written words are equally magnificent. I love the way he thinks, the way he turns a phrase, the way he sees the world with clarity, humility and joy.
Jason moved to California a year or so before I did. I remember the lunch where he told me, solemnly, that he was leaving Chicago. I was heartbroken. But God is full of grace and not too long after he shook the midwestern snow off of his boots, I followed him to the West Coast and now we’re neighbors (at least in theory. LA traffic works against us to make the distance between Santa Monica and Laguna Beach feel like as daunting as crossing the Sahara in a sandstorm.) Still, we get to see each other every once in a while and his is that easy kind of friendship that picks up exactly where it left off and we fall into familiar conversation, full of laughter and shared experience. For that, I am ever grateful.
Jason is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from member station reporters and freelancers in the 13 Western states — California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Alaska and Hawaii — where nearly one-third of NPR’s listeners live. DeRose works closely with the NPR’s California and Western editors to ensure comprehensive coverage the West on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and npr.org.
Prior to this position, DeRose was the supervising editor for NPR’s Economic Training Project. He worked with local member station reporters as an editor, trainer and mentor to improve business and economic coverage throughout the public radio system. Earlier, he worked as an editor on NPR’s mid-day news magazine Day to Day; as a reporter and producer at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.; and as an editor, host, reporter and producer at member stations in Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis and Tampa.
DeRose served as a mentor and trainer for NPR’s “Next Generation Radio Project” and Chicago Public Radio’s “Ear to the Ground Project” — programs that teach aspiring high school and college students public radio’s unique reporting style.
Outside of public radio, DeRose worked as an oral history interviewer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a journalism trainer at the International Center for Journalists. He taught journalism ethics, radio reporting, multimedia storytelling and religion reporting at DePaul University in Chicago and at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
DeRose graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, with majors in religion and English. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School and studied at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
I asked Jason to share with me and my readers his favorite radio piece from his storied career. Below is a story so beautifully and sensitively told, it never fails to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat (as, perhaps, the holy draws nigh.) Click on the picture of me smooching Mr. DeRose at a Religion Newswriters convention a few years back to listen.
One of Jason’s most memorable NPR pieces from his time in Chicago – one of my all-time favorites – was about the book Killing the Buddha. It was one of those subjects that was difficult to get your arms around, but Jason, with his unrivaled aplomb and eloquence, crafted a story that made it accessible, intriguing and, perhaps most importantly, fun. Here is the text of that report followed by a link to listen to the audio from NPR.
BOB EDWARDS, host:
‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ So said 9th-century Buddhist sage Lin Chi. He spoke the words to a monk who thought he’d found the answer. Lin Chi knew that if you think you’ve met the Buddha, you haven’t. The new book, “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible,” takes the sage’s advice to heart, and says if you think you’ve found all the answers in any religion, it’s time to start questioning. Chicago Public Radio’s Jason Derose reports the book examines some American roadside distractions on the path to enlightenment.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. JEFF SHARLET (Co-Author, “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”): We’d like to start the evening with a prayer of sorts. This is from “A Heretic’s Bible,” the Book of Ezekiel. ‘There is no God and the Jews are his chosen people.’ What a great word that is–chosen.
JASON DEROSE reporting:
Most book tours don’t open with an invocation, and most aren’t held at venues better known for hosting garage bands. But co-author Jeff Sharlet is performing at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen as part of the “Killing the Buddha” tent revival, a sort of worship service in praise of writing.
Mr. SHARLET: At the best of these events, we get the audience involved, and the whole thing sort of reaches a sort of critical mass where it turns, where there’s this feeling in the room where everyone is saying, ‘OK, we’re being a part of the religion of books, of literature.’
DEROSE: The first incarnation of “Killing the Buddha” came online in 2001 as the literary magazine killingthebuddha.com. The site’s manifesto said it was for people made anxious by religion but still fascinated by it. That fall, Sharlet and co-author Peter Manseau set out on a road trip.
Mr. PETER MANSEAU (Co-author, “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”): We traveled for a year, gathering stories of the different ways people believe or don’t believe, they way they’ve found God or given up on God. This book really grew out of frustration with the way religion is written about. On the one hand, it is this pious holy thing; on the other hand it’s this fanaticism and never really approaching it on its own terms.
DEROSE: Manseau and Sharlet write about communing with cowboy Christians in Texas and dancing with military pagans in Kansas.
(Soundbite of “Calendar Girl,” by Neil Sedaka)
DEROSE: The word became flesh at Club Exotica near Geneva, Illinois.
Mr. MANSEAU: (Reading) She called herself Dino(ph), but that was not her real name. She was a stripper, but there was only so much she could reveal. She would have liked to have shown us more, but she was not allowed. There are rules about revelation in a bikini bar. Thou shalt not show more than 6/10ths of thy breast, that portion which is revealed to exclude thy nipple. Thou shalt not show more than 4/10ths of thy ass. Thy legs must be hidden, but thou mayest use sheer nylons to giveth the appearance of flesh. This deception shall pass, sayeth the Lord and the state of Illinois.
DEROSE: Readers encounter this Calvinist stripper in the book’s “Homage to Psalm 29.” “Killing the Buddha” is a collection of hymn and history, poem and prophecy, story and sermon. Well-known authors give selected Scripture more contemporary incarnations. Haven Kimmel rethinks Revelation, Francine Prose remembers her own Exodus, and Peter Trachtenberg, who’s touring with the tent revival, meditates on the Book of Job.
(Soundbite of “Killing the Buddha” Tent Revival)
Mr. PETER TRACHTENBERG (Author): (Reading) There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was perfect and upright and one that feared God and eschewed evil. And note that word ‘fear.’ This is a story from the time before human beings learned to love God.
DEROSE: Trachtenberg says he wanted to use the story of Job and the conceit of a stand-up comedy routine coupled with a sermon to contemplate the nature of God and the problem of suffering.
Mr. TRACHTENBERG: What it addresses or attacks is the notion that God is moral or conforms to our human standards of what morality is. Obviously he doesn’t. God contains both a moral element and an element of power, and human beings are powerless. Perhaps our function is to be God’s conscience outsourced. We’re his outsourced conscience.
DEROSE: This blending of tragedy and comedy reflects “Killing the Buddha’s” overall middle way, sometimes funny but other times devastating. But a tone that complex can be hard to pull off.
Ms. SAMONA PHUMA(ph) (Revival Attendee): There was a point in the presentation on Job where Peter Trachtenberg started out as if he were telling a joke.
DEROSE: Samona Phuma attended the Chicago revival.
Ms. PHUMA: He said, ‘Well, let’s take a Jew, a Tutsi and a person from Sierra Leone,’ and then he basically told about each person’s suffering, and I think what he was trying to do is show that the suffering of the Holocaust was comparable to other people’s suffering. Even if you were to make that point, you could make it in a better way than to do so so glibly and as if it were a joke.
DEROSE: Co-authors Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau are used to complaints about the book’s tone. Enlightenment can be painful. After all, says Manseau, this is a heretic’s bible.
Mr. MANSEAU: America’s a nation of heretics in the sense mainly that heresy, this word that means awful things to many orthodox believers–really what it means is choice. It actually comes from a Greek word which means simply to choose, and so believers and unbelievers of all stripes in America today are choosing the ways in which they believe.
DEROSE: Manseau and Sharlet are continuing their missionary literary tent revivals across the US into April. Along the way, they’re collecting more stories of belief and disbelief from Brahmans and ascetics alike for the next incarnation of “Killing the Buddha,” a radio show. And then, says Sharlet…
Mr. SHARLET: It’s going to be a holy-rolling religious movement that’s going to gather steam until it becomes a minor sect in American life, becomes calcified and boring and someone has to come along and kill its Buddha and come up with something much better.
DEROSE: At least he’s reconciled to the impermanence of it all.
For NPR News, I’m Jason Derose in Chicago.
Listen to Jason’s story on Killing the Buddha here: killing the buddha jason