Sharlet: Several times now reviewers of my recent book, The Family, have incorrectly charged that I claim in the book to have exposed a fundamentalist right-wing conspiracy. In fact, I do nothing of the sort. As I wrote to Russ Pulliam of the Indianapolis Star, the latest journalist to make this error, “I’m not sure how I could have made my view of conspiracy theories clearer than this, on page 7 of my introduction, referring to Chuck Colson’s description of the Family as a ‘veritable underground’: ‘This so-called underground,’ I write, ‘is not a conspiracy.’” That’s a point I make throughout the book. “Conspiracy” is a legal term, and one that does not apply to the religious activists of the Family.
Well, score one for journalistic integrity. Pulliam, the former editorial page editor of the paper (long presided over by his family), wrote back promptly offering to make a correction. And when I told him that his correction still seemed to misstate the facts, he corrected his correction, despite his strong disagreement with the arguments in my book. That’s honest punditry.
I await eagerly. Marvin Olasky, publisher of the evangelical World magazine, promised as much and didn’t deliver. (Marvin reported incorrectly that I’m an adjunct professor, an atheist, and a non-celebrator of Hannukah. Three strikes!) Here’s hoping that Pulliam is the real deal.
Meanwhile, another pastor has endorsed the book. Such endorsements mean a lot to me, since the book has also been wrongly labeled “anti-Christian.” It’s not at all, which is why I’m thrilled when evangelicals, especially, find some value in the book.
Mike Stavlund organizes a very interesting coffee house church in Washington, D.C., linked to the emerging church movement, called Common Table. If you’re a Christian in Washington, it sounds like it’s worth checking out, even if you already belong to a church.
On his blog, Awakenings, Mike writes:
I have enough personal and local knowledge (from friends and friends of friends) to know that this group– and this book– are for real. The Family (aka The Fellowship, aka The Fellowship Foundation) hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, where the President traditionally gives an address. But more than these occasional public events, it serves as a connection point between US and world leaders– political leaders, business leaders, dictators, and other power brokers. The problem, as Sharlet sees it, is the lack of discretion shown to just which leaders it connects, and the way in which even the term ‘family’ has automatized “cozy little kingdoms ruled by one Father” but has done little to foster any sense of care for the other.
Sharlet’s writing is so good that a quick read is almost impossible. Skim this book, and you’ll miss gems like this one on page 180: “…manifest destiny, the original westward thrust that erased a continent of Native souls, burns history like coal and knows no sin but that of its enemies.” He obviously finds a lot to critique about The Family, but does so indirectly, offering instead a narrative which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. In so doing, he captures this subtle subculture perfectly: offering a thin veneer of overly-individuated Christianity that asks nothing of its adherents other than to keep up appearances. In this brand of Jesus-followership, Jesus is depicted as the King of Kings: the most powerful of the world’s most powerful leaders. And rather than lay down their power, followers are encouraged to simply be humble about their wealth and power– to confess that they themselves are nothing, and that their wealth and power come from God. So, if you are powerful, tweak your power toward that which is Godly. And, the reasoning goes, what is more Godly than Godly power? Such circularity would be humorous if it wasn’t so self-justifying, unnerving, and dangerous.
Mike’s stake in this is personal — spiritual, that is, and so he picked up on an aspect of the book often ignored even by those who liked it. “He concludes the book by leaving a pregnant question unspoken, yet hanging in the air: so what is the better way?” Indeed. I don’t have the answers, but then, I’m not really trying to find them. I don’t think I can — answers aren’t my business. They are, however, Mike’s. Or, at least, looking for them is. Check out his blog, or visit his church community, Common Table.