In Jeff Sharlet’s latest book about religion in America, Sweet Heaven When I Die, “religion” is something protean and heterodox.
Sweet Heaven When I Die, a book of journalistic essays by reporter Jeff Sharlet, is a Cubist portrait of American faith, an ecumenical David Hockney photocollage. Sharlet writes about pubescent “soldiers of god” quivering with devotion and abstinence, anarchist martyrs, sword-wielding New Age healers, spitting radio demagogues and Cornel West. Descended from the literary journalism of Mailer and Didion, his reporting challenges the simple, culture war binary of paranoid, atavistic evangelicals vs. effete, egg-headed liberals. In its place he presents something more complicated, patchwork. He encounters familiar fundamentalism, but Sharlet is interested in this only in so much as it is one example of the way people in this country pursue religion. In Sharlet’s essays, “religion” is something protean and heterodox, part of the continuing project of becoming that we are all constantly engaged in.
In the first, and one of the best, essays in the book, “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado”, Sharlet travels to Colorado to visit an ex-girlfriend who has since become a Republican district attorney. The woman with whom he once drank whiskey and attended war protests has, over the years, embraced a kind of ‘ol time relijun, sanguinary and vengeful, complete with guns and horses and a black-and-white concept of justice. The essay is Sharlet’s attempt to grapple with the change, from someone who used to think that “learning to read is a process you can never be done with, because words are always changing” to someone who participates in mock shoot-outs in fake old-West towns as part of a political campaign. At the same time, Sharlet ponders the myth of the Western frontier and the way people still array themselves in its props and pose themselves, as if in a cheesy Old West period photograph. As Sharlet says, “The frontier, as a state of mind, is forever being born again in America.” The essay is an inquiry into the powerful human need for narrative and the way open country and stories are spaces we colonize in order to become more substantial to ourselves.
In “She Said Yes”, Sharlet profiles BattleCry, a (spiritually) militant evangelical youth ministry. Sharlet calls it “the most furious youth crusade since young sinners in the hands of an angry God flogged themselves with shame in eighteenth-century New England.” That makes Ron Luce, the founder and head of BattleCry, the Jonathan Edwards of the movement, raging against the slavering demimonde of secularism with its MTV and tube-tops that increasingly encroaches on American Christendom. Luce travels the country with a modern-day revival tour called Acquire the Fire, at which he strides the stage like Patton, hectoring thousands of teenagers and rousing their righteous anger with his jeremiads as Christian heavy metal plays in the background. Luce “tells the kids to make lists of secular pleasures they’ll sacrifice for the cause…They cast into perdition Starbucks (multiple votes), Victoria’s Secret…breakfast cereal—Special K and Cap’n Crunch—hip huggers, ‘smelling amazing’, 99.3 FM, ‘Eric’, vengeance, ‘medication’, and A&W root beer. ‘I would say it’s ridiculous what they are doing to root beer,’ wrote a boy who will drink A&W no more.”
Sharlet goes to the Honor Academy in East Texas, Luce’s own madrassa, which produces spiritual soldiers in his own image. Sharlet says Luce “has selected nearly six thousand for his Honor Academy, the best of whom become political operatives and media activists,” and describes it as “a vertically integrated operation, a political machine that produces ‘leaders for the army,’ a command cadre that can count on the masses conditioned by Luce’s rallies as their infantry.” There, students take classes on leadership and character and prepare themselves to combat the cultural illuminati that run America and conspire against young Christian souls. They also are required to spend time setting up and selling tickets for Luce’s public events. Sharlet notes that the students are required to be called interns in order to skirt labor laws. Meet the new fundamentalism, same as the old fundamentalism, built on the misplaced rage of the emotionally disenfranchised and ignorant teenagers.
Sharlet isn’t strictly concerned with Christianity or America. Throughout the essays in the book, he is pursuing a certain yearning, earnest and angry and theatrical, and the ways that yearning manifests itself in, or in reaction to, ritualistic practice. He writes about the psychic contortions he underwent while growing up half Jewish and half gentile and about a Yiddish writer and Holocaust survivor living in Montreal whose writing forces her to live a double life, one in Montreal and one in the ghetto in Lodz. In another essay, he meets an entrepreneurial spiritualist named Bhakti Sondra Shaye who performs a “spiritual cord cutting” on him for the price of $95 and muses on spirituality as marketplace. He says, “It’s simple, really: Home Depot sells the idea of home, Best Buy sells a wired world, the new New Age sells ‘spiritual health’—while the right of the sovereign consumer to acquire it, purchase by purchase is praised as the law of nature: an orthodoxy of a thousand choices, an infinitely marketable economy of belief.”
Sharlet is a strong writer and a sharp observer. At one point he writes of trees as “grunts of tortured bark” and describes folk-singer Dock Boggs as “a scoop-faced, dainty-fingered man”. He does not condescend to anyone’s faith or politics. His writing is filled with a generous curiosity about people as infinitely complex individuals, and the results frequently feel novelistic. Sharlet’s profile of Brad Will, a radical and an activist who was shot and killed in 2006 while filming an uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, is compelling and complicated. Will’s activism comes off as simultaneously self-serving and touristic and scarily brave and compassionate. Sharlet writes, “He wanted to write poems, but even more, he wanted to become one.” Will’s pursuits of social justice in various realms seem as dramatic and quixotic as someone impersonating a comic book superhero, but by the end he is a heartbreakingly real figure, not a leftist caricature.
In a vignette entitled “What They Wanted”, after an anarchist spectacle erupts like a boil out of a larger, more ordered protest in the streets of New York, Sharlet writes about a celebration he witnesses at a church where the crust-punks and techno-vagrants are staying: “For as long as it lasted, the grave dust and the three-days’-sleeping-in-a-church stink, the big boom-boom of the bass drum, the flamenco steps, and the gift of ululating tongues…–all seemed to believers like signs and wonders, the entirety of protest, or revolution…They scorned sound bites, and for the moment they desperately did not want mediation of any kind. What they wanted was revelation. ‘Religion’—as broadly defined as the mouth of the Hudson…” That’s as good a summation of this collection of essays as any. A glimpse at a nation of people free to seek their own revelation, with all the messy pluralism of democracy.