Jeff Sharlet delivers a fine dose of thoughtful skepticism in “Sweet Heaven When I Die,” his collection of 13 trenchant essays on how we gain, lose, maintain and blindly accept faith. The book belongs to the tradition of long-form, narrative journalism best exemplified by writers such as Joan Didion, John McPhee, Norman Mailer and Sharlet’s contemporary David Samuels. Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters, for he has emerged as a master investigative stylist and one of the shrewdest commentators on religion’s underexplored realms.
Best known for “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” the author offers a disquieting meditation on hope while discussing parental loss, artistic desire and the haunting music of Dock Boggs in a chapter called “Born, Again.” We cling to hope, Sharlet writes, “when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time. . . . We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of a story but its objects. Hope isn’t optimistic; it’s the face of despair.” In this lamentation, he underscores how life itself puts faith in question.
In another essay, Sharlet combines autobiography and reportage to bring to life a group of Westerners in self-imposed exile who worship Christ in mountain churches and then congregate in local dives. He visits an old, distant friend and finds comfortable ground because when they “talk about God . . . both knew that’s a conversation without many conclusions.”
Sharlet also visits the opposite side of the spectrum in his reporting on BattleCry, the “furious youth crusade” of fundamentalism. In his account, BattleCry is the type of fundamentalist organization that embarrasses temperate Christians and enrages nonbelievers. Yet with its “warrior” mentality and its loathing of “queers and communists, feminists and Muslims,” the organization offers a vision of faith unencumbered by ambiguity. Sharlet quotes BatleCry’s leader, Ron Luce, as saying, “The world is a forty-five-year-old pervert posing as another tween online.’ ” BattleCry offers a sanctuary for like-minded believers.Speaking with a young entertainer at a BattleCry event, he realizes that her calm stems from the fact that she has “found faith that promised not answers but an end to questions.”
This is the prevailing division of the world that “Sweet Heaven” presents: between those who use faith as a tool for answering life’s difficult riddles and those whose faith is less an instrument than a blindfold. Sharlet contends that this latter faith exists without belief because it operates without understanding.
“Sweet Heaven” goes beyond “fringe fundamentalisms” and believers’ personal struggles. Sharlet also delivers commanding portraits of philosopher Cornel West, Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb and radical environmental and labor activist Brad Will that dramatize faith made heroic through intellectual, artistic and political perseverance. But these more traditional pieces lack the intimacy of other essays in the collection.
In a chapter called “The Rapture,” exploring New Age extravagances, Sharlet reveals his pragmatic skepticism. He anchors the essay to New York-based healer Sondra Shaye, a self-described “fairie” who adopts the persona ofJesus as part of her therapy for her clients, all of whom pay good money to have her bless real estate deals and tackle their health problems and anxieties. Her payoff is handsome: She claims she earns more as a healer then she did in her previous job as a corporate litigator. Sharlet presents her story as a lesson in 21st-century faith. “Money is the means by which Sondra and other New Age healers show themselves to be a religious movement that’s within the economy of belief,” he writes.
As Sharlet chronicles the economies of belief — private, public or fraudulent — he remains more agnostic than atheist, more charitable than cynical. And though he obviously finds blind faith corrosive, he tempers his criticism by declining to impose his own beliefs. Sondra the healer seems to get something right when she tells Sharlet “doubt is your revelation.”
SWEET HEAVEN WHEN I DIE
Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between
By Jeff Sharlet
Norton. 264 pp. $24.95