Twelve years ago, my Aunt Debra committed suicide in bed. She had been raised Methodist, but at the time of her death, at age 54, she was a devotee of the occult. Yet when the police arrived at her house, they not only removed from her hand a 9 mm gun, but also from her lap a Bible. She had opened it to the 23rd Psalm, which she had circled.
Was this her last-ditch expression of faith? An act of hope? A dispatch from the depths of despair?
I found, if not answers, at least meditations, in Jeff Sharlet's new nonfiction book, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness and the Country In Between. "Most of us live in the country in between," Sharlet told the Indy. "Faith is complicated. Faith and doubt are linked."
This elegantly written collection of stories features characters such as philosopher Cornel West, fundamentalist Christians, anarchists, a New Age healer and a Jewish author and Holocaust survivor. In his portrayals of imperfect, even broken people, Sharlet toes the fault lines of religious or quasi-religious experience.
He wrote the stories while working on two books that dissect the intersection of American fundamentalism and politics, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The Family. Disillusioned by the "deep, deep dishonesty" that he uncovered in reporting those books, Sharlet found refuge in Sweet Heaven. "It cheered me up," he said.
The tone of Sweet Heaven, while elegiac, is nonetheless uplifting. It captures what West, whose chapter, "Begin With the Dead," calls "subversive joy." West's summation of his radical Christian beliefs—steeped in darkness—bears reading and rereading: "The painful laughter of blues notes and the terrifying way of the cross."
Most of us place faith in a deity or a larger force. But we err when we use faith to inoculate ourselves against suffering. If we follow the rules—live in the right neighborhood, attend the right church or temple, send our kids to the right schools—then nothing traumatic shall befall us. That viewpoint drills to the heart of theodicy—the belief of an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God. In practice, this boils down to, God allows bad things happen to good people because it's part of a grand plan. This is a worldview Sharlet can't abide. "What part of the Holocaust was God's plan?" he asked.
Jewish-Canadian writer Chava Rosenfarb survived the Holocaust in part by helping a Czech rabbi who had been enlisted by the Germans to create a museum of Jewish life. Rosenfarb wrote in Yiddish, and her book Tree of Life, Sharlet notes, "explores the ethics of art in the presence of atrocity." "She was her own exodus," he said. "She had a responsibility to bear witness in an uncomfortable way."
Sharlet profiles BattleCry, a youth crusade whose leader, Ron Luce, casts its members as "'stalkers,' obsessive for God" against cultural terrorists, such as Sharlet himself. Pop culture must be overcome through extreme self-denial, which, for some warriors, such as Valerie, who reveals that she loves sex, proves difficult to achieve.
"The first third of a BattleCry rally is a critique of capitalism," Sharlet said. "Luce is speaking to kids who feel alienated and are trying to conform. The diagnosis is correct. I don't share the prescription."
The prescription includes high doses of brainwashing at Luce's selective Honor Academy: a "50-to-90-hour sleep-deprived endurance test," and lessons in obedience and purity. Women should not attract attention by their dress, Sharlet reports, and "be of few words."
While Luce battles corrosive consumerism with religion, the marketplace of spirituality thrives. Sharlet visits Sondra Shaye, a New Age healer, to examine "the hidden economy of New Age mysticism." For a sum—$95 for an Emotional Cord Cutting, for example—she allegedly heals people of spiritual maladies. Real estate brokers have such faith in Sondra that they hire her to spiritually cleanse unsold properties, and apparently she gets results.
Faith or belief can be fueled by our desire to be part of a larger, meaningful force. In this respect, faith is embodied in American activist and anarchist Brad Will, who, in 2006, was shot to death by a Mexican police officer in the streets of Oaxaca while he was filming a government crackdown on teachers who had gone on strike.
What Brad did—film the violence as it unfolded and eventually enveloped him—is arguably the ultimate leap of faith. It requires, West says, "stepping into nothingness and acknowledging the magnitude of the mystery."
Despair gives birth to hope, and the two are tethered by an emotional cord that cannot be cut: "I can't go on. I will go on. I can't go on. I will go on," West says, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot.
Don't let despair have the last word.