Megachurches and Murder 

Religions battle it out in Wag the Dog author Larry Beinhart's new thriller.

A young Muslim in an orange jumpsuit falls to his knees and weeps. Manacled, he hugs the thigh of the private investigator who visits him in prison. Gesturing toward Homeland Security officers, he wails, "Save me, please save me from these people." In Larry Beinhart's new thriller Salvation Boulevard, a devout Christian PI working for a Jewish lawyer helps a Muslim student accused of murdering an atheist professor. Beinhart, whose 1993 novel Wag the Dog became one of the savviest political movies of modern times, will be at Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on September 23. From the outset, Salvation Boulevard was meant to be much more than a garden-variety murder mystery. "I woke up one morning in the 21st century and thought I was having a bad acid flashback of the 12th," Beinhart muses now. As he saw it, "the Crusades were on. Innocents were slaughtered. There were theological states. The president of the United States heard God calling him George and telling him which countries to invade — demonstrating that either God was a dreadful tactician or our leader was loony." Suddenly, religion and politics had become inseparable on a global scale, with potentially apocalyptic results. Beinhart asked himself some age-old questions: "Does God exist? Faith is one thing if God exists, another if he doesn't. Why will people kill — and die — over this stuff? These have always been mysteries. Now they were vital ones again." So those mysteries fueled his fictional mystery of who slew professor Nathaniel MacLeod, the author of a thesis alleging that God does not exist. Was it indeed the Iranian-born student, Ahmad Nazami? Beinhart offers us action scenes in which cops stage a nighttime raid on a mosque, smashing its door with a battering ram and shooting its occupants, and in which right-wing protesters attack an Al-Jazeera cameraman at a rally, shoving "the broken parts of the camera into his mouth, screaming, 'Eat this, you rag-head animal. Eat this!'" His narrator belongs to a megachurch, the Cathedral of the Third Millennium, whose 6,400-member congregation shouts Hallelujah when their charismatic pastor calls Mohammed a pedophile. As for how he researched the book, Beinhart replies: "It's not hard to know what religion is like 'in action.' It's all around us — on TV, the radio, the net, in politics. Yes, I did go to a couple of megachurches. I found them somewhat disappointing. Contemporary 'praise' music is pretty dreadful." Most of his research entailed "reading shelf loads of books. For me, it was a great intellectual adventure. A lot of brilliant people have put a lot of effort in writing things about religion and morality and human nature that are wrong," Beinhart says. "So it took a lot of effort to wrestle through great logic that led to ideas that don't work." 7:30 p.m.


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