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BOOK REVIEW

Essays look at religion, those who believe and those who don’t

By Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Globe Correspondent / August 20, 2011

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Jeff Sharlet is best known for his hard-hitting “C Street and the Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,’’ in which he exposes influential conservative Christians who flaunt the line between religion and government. But for Sharlet, the story of American religion is not a polarized one of fundamentalists vs. secularists.

It’s a vast landscape, and each essay in his remarkable new collection of literary journalism, “Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between’’, explores a different crag or cranny of it - the evangelical BattleCry group, New Age healers, a New Yorker returning to her Amish family.

“Sweet Heaven’’ is intimate in tone, and expansive in scope. Some of the people Sharlet writes about don’t appear to be related to faith at all: indie musicians who both are and are not shills for Clear Channel, the intellectual impresario Cornel West, and anarchists protesting at the Republican convention - they, Sharlet writes, are about “ ‘[r]eligion’ as broadly defined as the mouth of the Hudson.’’

No one parses the history of Christian fundamentalism as succinctly and elegantly as Sharlet, as he does here in a brief piece about two Ohio radio hosts: “. . . World War II changed the steady plod of Christian futurism, quickened it . . . old-time religion resurrecting as cyborg doctrine.’’ Or, for that matter, its present: the BattleCry youth crusade, which fills stadiums with angry teens fighting holy war against the secular world, is “a cramped little country in which there is not enough room to be lost or found, just ‘saved’ as a static condition.’’ But Sweet Heaven takes Sharlet far beyond his comfort zone.

His observations are never simple, and his eye is focused less on ideology and more on character, including his own. Sharlet describes himself, somewhat self-effacingly, as a “religious voyeur,’’ but he is never far from the action here. In one essay, he carries a package containing new analysis of the activist’s Brad Wills shooting death in Mexico to Wills’s solid Midwestern parents: . . . bearing what passes for good news to the Wills these days.’’ When an evangelical teen trying to save him struggles for the right Biblical reference, Sharlet helps him out: “I flipped his Bible open to Genesis 25 - through luck or divine intervention, the middle of the Abraham story.’’ Investigating the economics of New Age spirituality, Sharlet finds himself undergoing an “emotional cord-cutting’’ ceremony with Sondra, a spiritual healer, after which he gets the flu, and is “down like a sedated hippo for a week.’’

There are moments when Sharlet’s effusiveness gets the better of the narrative - as when he describes West’s “giant poem eyes.’’ But when writing about what he calls “other people’s mysteries,’’ how much better to err on the side of enthusiasm and curiosity?

“Sweet Heaven When I Die’’ is a celebration of the varieties of religious experience, and Sharlet refuses to sit in judgment of any of them. “Not because truth is relative, but because faith, by definition, always is. If it had an empirical basis, it wouldn’t be faith; it’d be the humdrum material world from which people turn to faith for meaning.’’ Exploring the dark Southern blues tunes of Dock Boggs, Sharlet tries unsuccessfully to divide them “into lists of tragic, comic, and religious.’’ To do so with “Sweet Heaven’’ would be similarly futile. But taken together, these essays begin to give shape to a multifaceted America that is so much more than east and west, left and right, religious and secular. And there’s no better guide to this “country in between.’’

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden,’’ just released by Grove Press. She can be reached at brook@brookwilensky-lanford.com.

SWEET HEAVEN WHEN I DIE: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between Jeff Sharlet

Norton

264 pp. $24.95