In almost every prison movie you see, there is a group of fanatically religious inmates. They are almost always led by a charismatic leader,...

In almost every prison movie you see, there is a group of fanatically religious inmates. They are almost always led by a charismatic leader, an outsized father-figure who is loved by his acolytes and feared by nearly everyone else. They’re usually black Muslims, but you also see the occasional born-again Christian gang. They promise salvation and, of course, protection. And they are scary.

But what’s religious life in prison really like? In order to find out, the intrepid and brave religious scholar Joshua Dubler actually moved into a prison. He lived among the inmates and those clerics who had devoted their lives to bringing them spiritual comfort. The picture he paints in his wonderful new book Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) is nothing like the one you see on TV or in the movies. In fact, it’s so irreducibly complex that it almost defies description. The spirituality he finds behind bars is adapted to the harsh realities of prison life and the personalities of the religious (and quasi-religious) inmates themselves. Dubler reminds us that churches–of whatever type and wherever found–are made of people in all their idiosyncratic variety. Listen in to our fascinating and lively discussion.

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