An interview with Jeff Sharlet about his new book of essays, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithless, and the Country In Between. Sharlet is the bestselling author of The Family and C Street and a contributing editor to Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, he taught literary nonfiction through New York University’s Center for Religion and Media from 2006-8 and created The Revealer for the Center in 2003.
by Ashley Baxstrom
The only reason I write this stuff is because I’m a nerd whose heart was broken when he discovered there are no hobbits. ~ Jeff Sharlet, author of Sweet Heaven When I Die
Jeff Sharlet is best known for The Family and C Street, a pair of books about what he calls “the avant-garde of American fundamentalism,” a religious and political movement that fuses conservative evangelicalism with a laissez-faire, expansionist vision of American power. But really, Sharlet he has been writing about the people in whom belief lives, and the meaning that comes during – and out of – their experience of faith. Over several years, while writing those two books, Sharlet wrote the stories of those he met and their experiences with belief, with causes, with struggle and survival. In his latest book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, Sharlet gathers these stories together to explore an American landscape that is at once a whole country and yet a world apart. He writes about friends and about strangers who become less strange, including Brad Will, an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder by police while covering an uprising in Oaxaca; author and Holocaust survivor Chava Rosenfarb, who might be the last great Yiddish novelist; Ron Luce, the charismatic leader of BattleCry, an evangelical youth movement devoted to spreading its particular brand of the Christian message by prayer hall or Hell House; and renowned intellectual Cornel West, a writer, academic, civil rights activist and, it turns out, something of a blues man too. Last month West wrote an editorial for The New York Times about “the absence of a [Martin Luther] King-worthy narrative” in our time; in his essay, Sharlet writes about the absence of a narrative worthy of West. But what Sharlet really conveys, in the book and in my discussion with him, is the inherent value and dignity that comes when we each work to construct our own narratives. We may try, we may fail, but the worth is in the working.
Where did the book come from?
From procrastination, like most things. I had worked for years and years on this book The Family, and had the very unusual experience of having it flop completely, so much so that a publishing reporter wanted to do a profile of what the true flop of a book is like. And then, through circumstance and fate, it became this big bestseller. But while it was still a flop I felt just terrible. It was just this moment of looking back at years and years of exhausting work and then, you know, asking myself what did I do? What was I doing with my time?
I realized I had done at least a book’s worth of material, really more, while working on The Family. Putting Sweet Heaven together became a really pleasurable process at a moment when I was sort of figuring out what I had been doing for the last 10 years and what kind of writer I would be, to look at these pieces and see if there was any logic to it. And it turns out to me there is. To see my morbid fixations, over a period of time, to see how they came together, and around that Cornel piece. I was living out in the country and working the Cornel West story [“Begin With The Dead”], which is really about – well it’s about despair, and despair as kind of a logical response to things, and how do you keep going on? Which is I think the moment where I was at in my life. It was good to know I’d been trying to answer that question for a long time.
In my other work I had been dealing with the intellectual and rhetorical brutality, not just of fundamentalism but of a certain kind of crushing, anti-imaginative strain of American life. This book seemed like the antidote to the toxic poison in which I’d been immersing myself for 10 years.
Do you think this was something you were specifically looking for throughout all these essays, or did you rather realize, looking back, that it had been on your mind?
You are drawn to the things you’re drawn to because of big looming questions. The work I had done had really revolved around a sort of division between the Book of Exodus and the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is received, and the Book of Exodus says, nobody’s going to rescue us, we’ve got to walk out of here, we’ve got to walk out of Egypt. I had all along been writing about how people answer this question, this debate between Exodus and Revelation. It’s a very American question. Certainly in the history of the African-American church, Exodus looms large, but also in the self-reliance idea of the Transcendentalists, Emerson, that instinct that by God, you’re gonna walk out yourself, or Thoreau, I’m going out to Walden.
In one essay, “The Rapture,” you write about Bhakti Sondra Shaye, whom you describe as a listener, therapist, and even a “re-enchanter.” Is re-enchantment part of what you saw yourself doing in this book?
That idea of listening and re-enchanting the world, to a certain extent that always happens. But you know, it’s a painful process. I’m fairly persuaded by a writer named Janet Malcolm, author of The Journalist and the Murderer. I can’t quote it verbatim, but it basically starts: Every writer who is not bullshitting themselves knows what they’re doing is morally indefensible, and some talk about art or go on about the public’s right to know, and the seemliest murmur about making a living. I’m fairly convinced of that. There’s a certain destructive urge in this kind of writing and in the collaboration that inadvertently happens between the subject and the writer. There’s no such thing as me just sitting there and me taking a picture of you and I own the picture. You chose your earrings and you’re sitting on that side rather than this side and everything else.
I read on your blog Call Me Ishmael your response to the book’s first review, which said Sweet Heaven When I Die is “disconnected.” But you say this kind of writing should be about finding common threads and themes. In your response you talk about looking at “the foundations” – what specifically do you see some of those being?
Almost everyone in the book is a kind of Emersonian character, engaged in self-reliance, or, in this very American vein, self-creation. That’s a never-ending source of good stories. There’s all this self-reliance and self-creation, and in almost every case it fails. But I don’t think in any of the stories does it fail and it’s just, “Well, that’s that.” It fails more in the sense of: Of course it fails, because we’re broken things. We’re bound to fail. And you try again and try again, and you won’t get there.
Martin Luther King, paraphrasing Moses, says I may not get there with you. Well, none of us is going to get there. You don’t have to be a heroic figure like King to be engaged in a struggle like that, as so many of the people in these stories are, and as I felt I am as a human being. Part of the self-reliant and self-made American character is this recognition of failure – that the idea of failure can somehow be at the heart of our experience, and that’s not be a bad thing. In fact that’s the only thing that enables hope. Hope is not about when you have control over the situation, and it’s not about when you say, “Let go, let God!” It’s about when you say My God, I have tried. You have tried, you have tried, you have tried, and things have failed.
One theme that appeared repeatedly is the thread of time, and the idea of a flux between the “plod toward the future” of the fundamentalists and futurists, versus living in and holding onto the past so tightly, and how interwoven it all is.
There are these Christian theological terms that I’ve taken and completely bastardized and so they don’t actually mean what I say they mean, but they came from my first book Killing the Buddha, with Peter Manseau. It was right after 9/11 at St. Luke in the Fields Episcopal Church, sort of in the West Village, and an influential priest did this great sermon about kronos and kairos, kronos being straight time, chronological time, plodding toward the future, and kairos became this kind of ritual time, time outside of time. Christmas is kairos, in that it is December 25, 2011, and it’s also all the Christmases past. That made a lot of sense to me, and so it became a model. Those are the things that I look for, those interesting moments, when a thing is in its moment and not. Or even in subtler ways, like when Cornel is reading that Leopardi poem, in “Begin With the Dead,” and he is just transported.
But the kronos is important too, kronos is the suffering. And that goes back for me to realizing it can be an interesting thing as a writer, as a journalist, to look for those moments that are frozen, a moment to which your subject will always return, they linger around it, they come back around it. It’s not always there, it’s not always well-defined, but it’s often there. People have these series of frozen moments. Sometimes they’re epiphanies and sometimes they’re the very opposite of epiphanies, things people can’t resolve. But that leads us into a lot of the meaning-making that people do and takes us out of trying to relate a person’s life as a stack of facts – “and when you get here, you die” – it doesn’t go in that straight line.
How does the way you found that in the stories fit into this context in the subtitle, “Faith, Faithlessness and the Country In Between”?
It’s really just more about these poles of certainty, certainty of faith and the despair that can be – not always, but can be – implicit in faithlessness, and all these people just sort of wandering around, lost in the desert and between.
Another theme is the idea of authority: people trying to find or claim it, or resist it – you talk about “sites of resistance.” How would you define that idea as you see it in this book?
About half the stories deal with authority and people who are walking away from authority. It’s not even so much resisting. It’s more like, If I open this door what’s going to happen? So I hadn’t been thinking of it in terms of authority as a theme, but that’s probably a good theme for people who want to write about religion. There’s any number of tests that one can apply, these frameworks when you go to write about someone’s beliefs. And obviously their relationship to the concept of authority – do they feel they have it, are they under it, do they want it, do they feel it’s irrelevant – that’s a pretty good system for thinking about their beliefs. I think that’s kind of implicit any time you’re writing about religion and belief.
And what about your place in the book? The publisher’s release calls you a “skeptic in search of truth.” Is that a phrase you would use to describe yourself?
I’m really not a seeker. I think all the reviews are going to frame me as a seeker. This is this weird thing about writing about religion. “You’re interested in beliefs that are not your own? You must be a seeker, you’re looking for answers.” I’ve never been interested in the answers. I wouldn’t be doing this if I was looking for answers. It’s not a teleological process; it’s not toward an end. If it was toward an end then I’d reach a certain point and be like, “Ok, no more books.” And not only do I not want that to happen to me as a writer, I would hate to think of that.
I think it’s bad for writers about religion to be seekers. It doesn’t mean you can’t have questions. Obviously, as you said, I’m interested in authority and things like that. But people calling you seeker, they assume that you’re looking, that you’re asking whether God’s real. I don’t care if God is real, I don’t have an opinion. I’m completely satisfied – I’m content – with what people who think it is do. That’s much more interesting. You may have a religious belief or not, but when you’re going out there you’re writing about religion, you shouldn’t be trying to answer questions about the reality of God. Your questions should be about human beings.
In “The Rapture,” the new age priestess Sondra, who presents herself as channeling Jesus, tells you, “doubt is your revelation.” What do you think about that? Because even doubt seems very involved.
It’s not doubt as in the skeptic’s society which is very intent on disproving Bigfoot. I want Bigfoot to be real. I want all this to be real. Or, you’re Jesus? Really? That’s exciting! Or, like Sondra says, I’m a dragon? That’s exciting, I want to be a dragon! Or the anarchists singing the teargas anthem [in “Quebrado,” the story of murdered anarchist and journalist Brad Will: “I will stand beside your shoulder, when the tear gas fills the sky. / If a National Guardsman shoots me down I’ll be looking him in the eye.”] It’s a very earnest song. I went to a memorial for Brad Will, where there was a guy named Evil, he was a shy, angry kind of guy, and he just got up and sang it a capella. Not a dry eye in the house. He was able to get it across.
Now, is that kind of revolutionary heroism real? I don’t know, I don’t care, but Evil sure thought so, and it was wonderful to be in his presence. The same way with BattleCry [a fundamentalist youth movement portrayed in “She Said Yes”]. It was wonderful to be in their presence. I like Christians who believe in demonic possessions. There’s a lot more of them than people realize. That’s just kind of wonderful, that’s exciting. And not to giggle at. It all grows from this sense of failure, this recognition that your perception of the world is inadequate. You cannot see things as they really are, so you’re going to come up with metaphors and stories. Now the metaphors may become concrete, as they so often do. But you keep going. I cannot perceive reality, and yet I will try and make up a story that does so.
[Laughs] The right wing is going to like that: “Sharlet admits that he cannot perceive reality, that he makes up stories.”
There’s one line in the book that says we’re bound to stories that don’t resolve so much as unravel.
Yes, well that’s the only kind of stories there really are, actually. And you can pretend otherwise and hold firm for a while, but, our stories are always unraveling.
And I think, again, just to tie this back to writing about religion, there’s nothing in that that is definitive about religious experience, but there is something in that that I think is fairly common to when we end up not as academics, but as people who want to tell stories writing about religion. Those are the moments religion is very rich with, and you’re drawn to: the unraveling of the story, the recognition, and the resistance against the unraveling.
You’ve talked before about how it’s important to “engage the story on its own terms,” and I think that comes across in Sweet Heaven. I also find that people’s questions and their faith are well expressed. But you’re also analyzing them and you’re historicizing their stories, and there are some moments when it seemed like you’re definitely calling someone’s bluff. How do you maintain the balance?
Taking it seriously means taking it seriously enough to understand what you think is bullshit, when you think it’s funny. I tell people when I’m teaching, if you go and you’re writing about someone and their experience and you feel like laughing, you should do that. That’s part of the experience you’re there to document. I’m not there to tell the final truth about this thing. I’m there to document my perception of this place. And that requires an analytic component. And this is where I think I break from a lot of literary journalists who love to say they don’t have opinions. That’s bullshit; you do. Oftentimes people who say that have very lockstep centrist political convictions.
Though this doesn’t mean that when you’re writing about religion, say you’re interviewing a Catholic priest, you say “Look, I just want you to know, I don’t believe that’s the body of Christ.” You don’t have to do that. But if you’re really going to write about a Catholic priest and spend a lot of time with him, it may not be in the story, but you should probably, when they ask – and they will ask – you should tell them what you think. And I just disagree with those writers who write about religion and don’t tell. I think that’s beyond dishonest. It’s dishonest with yourself and distorting the story.
Though it’s obviously more intimate and personal than The Family and C Street, how would you say Sweet Heaven When I Die speaks to current, worldly, and political concerns? How does it follow up to your previous books?
For a book that I experienced as a more personal book, it’s pretty political. When I originally put this together, well these are all pieces where someone is walking that taut line between despair and desire. Both despair and desire are typically framed and understood as bad things. Desire certainly for many religious beliefs is a bad thing. And I think desire’s a great thing. The whole first part of the last book, C Street, was dedicated to these political sex scandals. And I hated the way liberals responded to these right wing political sex scandals, so delighted at these guys caught with their pants down. As far as I’m concerned the best thing Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina, ever did was to go to Argentina. It wasn’t mature; he was married and so on. It was as mature as a 14-year-old. Good for you, Mark. Keep going and you’ll make it to 16 and all the way to adulthood, but for the first time in your life you acknowledged desire instead of controlling, constraining it. And you put it on the spectrum with despair. And that’s the way he felt. He’s a very sympathetic character.
Despair is also seen as this negative thing. I quote my grandmother, “despair is my favorite word.” Like Tennessee Williams. Despair and desire are both to me these recognitions of a reality that allows you to keep going. The political spectrum, and politics in America – and there is a politics to this – it’s very much based on, everyone’s supposed to ignore despair. There’s this really almost peculiar way in which liberals cede desire to the right. “Greed is good.” Greed is not good, but desire is. And you’re going to end up with greed as long as you don’t actually engage with desire. So there is, I hope, a kind of humane politics to it. And also this sort of political thing that I’ve been working on all my writing life. I think a lot of writers aim themselves for the center of things: “I have found a representative character.” And it turns out to be dull and representative of nothing. The way you understand the center is by going to the margins.
Ashley Baxstrom is a graduate student in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.