The New Yorker's special package on religion at the turn of the millennium raises some perplexing theological questions, such as: What should a major American novelist do when he's utterly flummoxed by the essay he's promised to write? And why does the "naked Naga holy man" pictured in Richard Avedon's photo essay have a load of stones tied to his most tender organ?

Religion is a dauntingly difficult and complex topic, and the New Yorker has summoned its major mojos to tackle it--novelist John Updike and photographer Richard Avedon. The resulting collaboration is, it's safe to say, not likely to be added to the curriculum of any Sunday schools, not even in Unitarian churches.

Updike's essay is called "The Future of Faith," which is an impossibly broad subject, but he gives it his best shot. He did his homework, gathering myriad statistics about the current state of belief and churchgoing in America. He also did his reading, quoting William James, author of the classic "Varieties of Religious Experience"; G.K. Chesterton, the British Catholic writer; and Sigmund Freud, who viewed religion as a "mass-delusion" that keeps the faithful in a "state of psychical infantilism."

Grandson of a Lutheran minister, Updike reveals himself to be a believer but a rather lukewarm one. He is happy to list good reasons to doubt God's existence--"His invisibility, His apparent indifference to the torrents of pain and cruelty that history books and the news media report, and the persuasive explanations that science offers for almost all phenomena once thought mysterious." But he seems unable or unwilling to explain why he does believe, except to note that his occasional churchgoing leaves him feeling "cleansed and lightened."

For much of the essay, Updike describes a recent trip through Italy, where he and his wife wandered through countless cathedrals and museums, viewing many of the world's greatest Christian artworks. After a while, it began to seem repetitious, he says, like "certain maddening television commercials." For a change of pace, he visited the Venice Biennale, a collection of avant-garde art, and saw it as a puerile and depressing symbol of "this age of post-faith."

Updike rambles on, telling stories of his childhood days in church, quoting scientific theories of cosmology, and recounting the rise of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that plotted to poison the Tokyo subway system with nerve gas. After a while the piece begins to read like notes for an essay on religion instead of the essay itself, and the reader wonders what Updike is getting at.

Suddenly, Updike is back in Italy, waking up in the middle of the night, feeling "fearful and adrift, failed, near my life's end." And then comes the sentence that explains what's really going on in this essay: "Part of my desolation, let me additionally confess, was my having consented, against my better judgment, to write this piece on the future of faith."

Ah, now it all makes sense! The poor guy agreed to write this essay and now he can't figure out what to say. I feel his pain. I've been there, Big John, and so has every magazine writer in the world. The amazing thing is that an author of Updike's stature didn't just call his editor and beg off. But the old guy's a pro: He promised to write this and, by God, he's keeping his promise.

So he rambles on to a rather unsurprising conclusion--that religion will probably endure in the new millennium: "Our concepts of art and virtue, purpose and justification are so tied up with the supernatural that it is hard to foresee doing altogether without it."

After Updike's piece comes Avedon's photo essay, "Revelations"--15 black-and-white photographs of religious believers. Some of these shots are predictable--the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Constantinople, a Catholic cardinal, a pair of veiled Muslim women. But Avedon also indulges his famous fondness for the grotesque: There's a burning body on a funeral pyre in India, a bleeding flagellant in Spain, as well as the unforgettable image of the aforementioned naked Indian holy man.

Obviously, neither Updike nor Avedon is likely to awarded the title of Defender of the Faith.

One for the Road

Those of you who are about to board trains or planes for the long trip home for Thanksgiving will want to take along some reading matter to entertain and enlighten you along the way. Fortunately, there's a lot of good stuff on the newsstands.

The Atlantic Monthly contains a long, lively and unsentimental piece about South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian reservation by Ian Frazier, the witty and quirky author of "Great Plains."

In Harper's, Guy Lawson details his sojourn at a grungy flophouse on the Bowery, a place populated by some wonderfully colorful characters, including Raul, a former philosophy student who discourses on spiritual issues when he's not shoplifting steaks. There's also a piece called "This Is Your Bill of Rights, on Drugs," which reveals, quite convincingly, how the war on drugs has shot holes in the Constitution.

Vanity Fair is stuffed full of lively pieces. There is a profile of Sen. John McCain and a hilarious excerpt from Paul Rudnick's screenplay "Isn't She Great"--the forthcoming movie in which Bette Midler plays flamboyant sex novelist Jacqueline Susann, author of the trash classic "Valley of the Dolls." Best of all is the delightful story of one "Miranda Grosvenor," a Louisiana college student who, using just her voice and a telephone, managed to beguile some of the world's biggest stars--Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Buck Henry and Vitas Gerulaitis, among many others. Smitten, many of these men begged to meet her, but the mysterious Miranda never appeared. Writer Bryan Burrough managed to track her down and she turned out to be--well, I don't want to spoil the story.