My predecessor, founding editor of The Revealer, Jeff Sharlet, has a new book out that you should all run to buy, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithless, and the Country In Between (W.W. Norton & Company, 264 pages). The thirteen essays that make up the book examine varieties of faith, however vastly defined by the people Jeff profiles in each. From philosopher Cornell West to anarchist Brad Will, from metaphysician Sondra to, well, me (“You Must Draw A Long Bead to Shoot a Fish”), Sharlet leads us through the “borderlands of belief and doubt.”
Here are some rave reviews of Sweet Heaven:
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 contemporaryDavid 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. –Michael Washburn, Washington Post
“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.’’ –Brook Wilensky-Lanford, Boston Globe
The musical motif resounds most memorably in the stunning concluding essay, which focuses on the life of the great banjo player Dock Boggs, who recorded eight sides in 1927, got rid of his banjo during the Great Depression and, as far as we know, didn’t play the instrument again for 30 years. Thinking about Boggs and recent setbacks in his own life and that of a friend, Sharlet considers what it means to quit.
“Quitting,” he writes, “is a place, free not just of ambition but of bitterness, too. A place where what could have been is simply not, neither forgotten nor clung to. At most just observed. Like the sparks that didn’t sizzle when they hit the pond.”
From what people in the publishing business tell me, collections of essays are not easy to sell these days. I hope Sharlet proves conventional wisdom wrong. This is a fine book, by a deeply thoughtful writer, one with the wisdom to observe that “we are none of us human yet, only trying and quitting and trying and tiptoeing out the back door. We recorded our eight sides and went home, singing the ‘Down South Blues.’” –Steve Yarbrough, The Oregonian