If you follow the subject of American religion, you have likely heard of author Jeff Sharlet.
Sharlet has published five books on the subject, including C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The New York Times best seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He has profiled influential religious figures like Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs and spent time in Uganda reporting on the country’s anti-homosexuality bill — a bill that would have imposed lifelong prison sentences and the death penalty.
Jeff Sharlet is one of the hardest-working journalists I know. He is always hopping on a plane to follow some lead. He is a writer who believes in getting a story directly from the source. He will spend days, weeks, or months with a subject if he has to. He is never afraid to ask the hard questions, and never daunted by power, fame, or stacks of archival materials.
This combination of hard-hitting, investigative journalism, literary style, and historical knowledge is what makes Sharlet’s work unique. He has written about the intersection of religion and politics for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones and appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Daily Show, CNN, the BBC, and the Bill Maher Show. He has received grants and fellowships from the Pew Charitable Trust, The MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, The Nation Institute, and the Kopkind Foundation.
In 2000, Sharlet teamed up with novelist Peter Manseau to create Killing The Buddha, which has since become an award-winning online literary magazine. That led to a year on the road for Sharlet and Manseau, investigating the varieties of religious experience in America, including a cowboy church in Texas, witches in Kansas, a Pentecostal exorcism for a terrorist in North Carolina, an electric chair gospel choir in Florida.
Sharlet is also the co-founder of two influential websites that cover the subject of spirituality and religion: Killing the Buddha (now edited by Nathan Schneider) and The Revealer (edited by Ann Neumann). In my biased opinion, both of these journals publish some of the finest writing on religion I’ve seen online or in print. Sharlet and the team of writers who keep these projects going deserve credit for filling a void. It’s rare to see the top of religion covered with such intelligence, humor, and open mindedness.
Although Sharlet has a reputation for his journalism and work at The Revealer and Killing the Buddha, he is best known for his investigative reporting on the Family, a powerful, secretive fundamentalist network in Washington, D.C., that has been influencing American government, the military, and foreign policy since the 1930s.
Working as an intern, Sharlet obtained unprecedented access to the group’s headquarters on C Street and is the only reporter to have written about the group from the inside. As reported in Newsweek and on NPR, the evangelical group’s views on religion and politics are so exceptional and inclusive that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical.
A year after the book’s publication, the Family was suddenly thrust in the media spotlight when several sex scandals involving Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, both prominent members of the Family, made headlines. The group was also accused of illegally subsidizing the rent of certain members of Congress and enabling the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was Sharlet’s work that finally brought the group to the public’s attention.
The author’s most recent book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is a collection of 13 essays about belief, skepticism, and spirituality. Sharlet writes about Brad Will, an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder by police while covering an uprising in Mexico; BattleCry, an evangelical youth movement devoted to spreading its particular brand of the Christian message; a new-age healer named Sondra Shaye; and renowned intellectual Cornel West.
Entertaining, humorous, incisive, and original, Sweet Heaven is a unique melding of literary genres. In reviewing the collection for The Washington Post Michael Washburn wrote: The “book belongs in the tradition of long-form, narrative nonfiction best exemplified by Joan Didion, John McPhee [and] Norman Mailer…Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters.”
My favorite essay in Sweet Heaven is “Born, Again,” a thought-provoking piece on hope that draws chilling parallels between artistic desire, parental loss, and the murderous, “coal-filtered” blues of Dock Boggs. Few writers can be as informative and entertaining as Sharlet, particularly when it comes to the subject of music:
Dock Boggs — a man with fists for hands and a voice like strychnine — belongs as much on a bill with filth-punk G.G. Allin…, grunge fatality Kurt Cobain…, and assassinated hip-hop genious Biggie Smalls — dead, respectively, of overdose, despair, and the murderous ebb and flow of insult and capital — as he does with old-timey all-stars Dick Justice, Aunty Molly Jackson, and Clarence Ashley. Maybe more so, for like Allin, Cobain, and Smalls, Boggs was a theatrical man, both a balladeer and a blues singer. He knew how to snarl and wink at the same time. That’s what makes such artists frightening — you can never be certain which is surface and which is true meaning. Is it the threat or the invitation?
What marks Boggs as different from other musicians murdered by their own songs is that he survived. That’s simply a fact, not a clue; it’s a result of chance, not the saving grace of art, much less the religion Boggs would find and then lose again.
The opening essay of the book — a piece that combines reportage with the story of an old college girlfriend who has found love and religion in the mountains of Colorado — is both funny and moving. It is Sharlet’s vivid descriptions of place that I often find most enjoyable:
On your way to Cañon City you pass Cotopaxi, one of Colorado’s many abandoned utopias, a trick played in 1882 by a Portuguese Jew on Eastern European Jews lured into a dark canyon with promises of farmland evidently false to anyone who bothered to consult a map of the region. Jews mined, Jews died, Jews moved. Cotopaxi is now a Christian town, inasmuch as one can worship a loving God in the deep armpit of dry, brown mountains.
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?…
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…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.
At a recent reading at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, Sharlet told his audience that he is “not a seeker” or on a spiritual quest for answers. He explained that he is more interested in the “poles of religious certainty — what people do because they believe in God or don’t believe in God.” Sharlet mentioned atheist Richard Dawkins as an example of a non-believer who possesses as much certainty as a hard-core, Bible-believing fundamentalist.
“I think it’s bad for writers about religion to be seekers,” Sharlet explained to Baxtrom.
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 fact, it is one of Sharlet’s subjects in Sweet Heaven that may have defined his writing and life philosophy best. In one scene, a new age practitioner named Sondra Shaye, who “made more money as a healer than she did in the early nineties as a young litigator for Davis Polk & Wardwell,” tells Sharlet that doubt is his calling. Not unbelief, but a place in between.”Doubt” she says, “is your revelation.”
This fall Sharlet has been touring the country discussing his latest book and Occupy Writers, an online petition he co-created with Kiera Feldman in response to the global Occupy movement.
The list has burgeoned to over 1300 signatures, and as I reported here a few weeks ago, the list includes writers as diverse as Jonathan Lethem, Lemony Snicket, Mary Karr, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, Jane Brox, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jennifer Egan, Sasha Frere-Jones, Jane Hirshfield, Honor Moore, Luc Sante, Meghan O’Rourke, Ann Patchett, Sam Lipsyte, Young Jean Lee, Lewis Hyde, Jennifer Egan, Bill McKibben, Sarah Jones, Ayelet Waldman, Alice Walker, William Gibson, Billy Collins, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robert Pinksy. Occupy Writers has also spawned Occupy Filmmakers.
For his next project, Sharlet is taking a break from the subject of religion. He is currently working on The Hammer Song, a short book about pop, folk, punk, sex, riots, and the Cold War.
On Friday, November 4th, Sharlet will sign books and share his work at MacDowell Downtown, a free series of presentations that connects MacDowell artists with the local community. The last MacDowell Downtown of the season will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Peterborough Historical Society. November 4th is also First Friday. Before the presentation, you can stop by the local shops, check out the latest show at Launch Art, and have dinner in Peterborough.
If you’d like to learn more about Sharlet and his work, visit his website, or you can purchase his books here:
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