"Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between"
Jeff Sharlet joins us again to discuss his new book of linked narrative non-fiction, "Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between" . From Dr. Cornel West to legendary banjo player Dock Boggs, from the youth evangelist Ron Luce to America's largest "Mind, Body, Spirit Expo," Sharlet profiles religious radicals, realists, and escapists. Sweet Heaven When I Die offers a portrait of our spiritual landscape that calls to mind Joan Didion's classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Sharlet is the best-selling author of The Family and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and Harper's. He teaches creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College.
Best known for “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Pow... which revealed the “C” Street a cult of Washington’s power brokers and influential conservative electorates, Sharlet now offers offers a disquieting meditation on hope while discussing parental loss, artistic desire and the haunting music of Dock Boggs in a chapter called “Born, Again.” We cling to hope, Sharlet writes, “when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time. . . . We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of a story but its objects. Hope isn’t optimistic; it’s the face of despair.” In this lamentation, he underscores how life itself puts faith in question.
For Jeff Sharlet “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. And for this very reason I am mesmerized by the stories he tells of faith through the lives of dissimilar people. The book is a collection of essays which 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.” I like that he left that to me.
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.
Scholars & Rogues wrote, “The real problem is that in the first third or so of the book, I met a lot of people I just didn’t like very much – Molly, the narrow-minded Colorado spoiled-rich-girl; Brad, the self-absorbed Kenilworth anarchist; and Cornel West, who comes across in Sharlet’s portrait as a pretentious, affected twit who, to use a favorite phrase of my South Carolinian father, “simply needs the living shit slapped out of him.”
Sharlet gives us people we could not only admire, but actually like. There’s Chava, Holocaust survivor and great Yiddish novelist, now almost forgotten in Montreal; Caleb, the heavy metal evangelist who leads a religious ambush to save Sharlet’s soul, but falls down on the job when he doesn’t know the difference between the Old and New Testament; and my personal favorite, Dilworth, a small time music promoter inside whose soul God and Satan battle for the purity of rock and roll.”
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