Jeff Sharlet is searching for God, not by way of epiphany but by way of research. Subtitled “Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between,” Sharlet assembles thirteen essays, each a case study on belief in America. “I’m a religious voyeur,” he tells one of his subjects, a born-again Christian twenty-something who found Christ in Oklahoma and brought him back with her to her native Berlin. It’s a statement that’s only partially true. While Sharlet is no believer—“not her kind, anyway”—neither is he a cold-eyed observer, an ethnographer of faith. His quest is personal, and “Sweet Heaven” is richer for it: infused with both his searching and his skepticism, the collection is documentary journalism with a hint of poetry.
Sharlet opens with the longest and most nakedly personal of the works collected here. “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado,” has Sharlet returning to the rural Rockies to visit a college girlfriend. Since the undergraduate summer they lived there together, she’s become a district attorney, her newfound Christianity “gentle and yet thick with the blood of the scripture.” And still the crux of their friendship remains. “We liked to talk about God,” Sharlet writes, “and we both knew that’s a conversation without many conclusions. We shared a belief that words are unstable, that learning to read is a process you can never be done with, because the words are always changing.” The essays in “Sweet Heaven” follow suit. Each sidles up to the question of faith from a different angle, forming less an argument than a mosaic—“a conversation,” you might say, “without many conclusions.”
While the more gently nuanced essays—in addition to “Sweet Fuck All,” there’s a meditation on parental death and one considering the meaning of hope—are the most difficult in the collection, they are also the most rewarding. Still, it’s a relief to have them broken up with straightforward dispatches from the American fringes. Sharlet reports from his trip to the hard-line evangelical Honor Academy, where the most devoted of teen crusaders are trained to “‘infiltrate’ the ‘strongholds’ of godless humanism.” In another piece, one of the collection’s shortest, Sharlet delivers a flash history lesson on the changing face of post-WWII fundamentalism.
For Sharlet, though, “faith” is not code for religion, or at least, not the kind of religion led by preachers and mediated by churches. He’s interested in belief more broadly defined: the search for transcendence, for meaning, for sense in suffering, for answers. One essay, on Clear Channel Communications, casts music in the Jesus role, with Sharlet parsing the unexpectedly complicated conflict between indie producers and the big guys. Another, “Quebrado,” retraces the evolving identity of Brian Wills, anarchist activist turned anarchist martyr. A portrait of Holocaust survivor and Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb locates transcendence not in God but in literature.
It being Sharlet’s book, there are, as promised, no conclusions here. The essays are intentionally disparate, not tied together by any overarching introduction or afterword. If there is an argument, it’s in the way the pieces don’t quite cohere. Faith, Sharlet seems to say, is not in the answers, but in the searching. (Rachel Sugar)
“Sweet Heaven When I Die”
By Jeff Sharlet
Norton, 264 pages, $24.95