In his new book of essays, Sweet Heaven When I Die, Jeff Sharlet recounts a tête-à-tête between writers William Hogeland and Greil Marcus over the subject of Dock Boggs, a folk singer-turned-coal miner who was rediscovered and canonized during the 1960s folk revival. Marcus described Boggs as "a seer" and "the prophet of his own life." Hogeland responded that "prophecy and darkness are the products of the critic's own romantic inclinations," and not due to any inherently noble splendor in Boggs's journey through the violence and deprivation of southwestern Virginia's coal country.
Hogeland's remark reminds us that critics sometimes submit to reflexive notions of what they want artists to be, rather than what they actually are. This tendency to cast subjects in extremis, when the truth might be more nuanced, less obviously dramatic, is a pitfall of narrative nonfiction as well. In Sharlet's case, he generally portrays his subjects with insight and sensitivity, but sometimes his own emotions overtake the scene.
This problem is most acute in the book's opening essay, "Sweet Fuck All, Colorado," a rambling journey across the Centennial State's small towns, where Sharlet visits his college girlfriend, considers the role of real estate development in the erasure of the Old West, and charts how religion and gun rights have become touchstones of local politics.
Driving near a mountain range, Sharlet writes that "to confront this jagged fourteen-thousand-foot wall is to understand that the earth is neither peaceful nor made for our purposes." Later, he remarks that his ex-girlfriend's husband is "a tall and stoic man honest as snow," who "loves guns earnestly and completely and without anger, just as he loves watches, complicated things that can be understood and harnessed, but never truly controlled."
That sentence is almost redeemable until the last phrase—"but never truly controlled"—where it founders at the level of low-grade transcendentalism. Fortunately, Sharlet soon escapes from his self-proclaimed "mountain mysticism," and in much of the book, he reveals himself to be a shrewd interpreter of America's outcasts, particularly its religious zealots and would-be revolutionaries. As in his previous work (Sharlet is well-regarded for his books chronicling the intersection of politics and Christian fundamentalism), he is adept at drawing out the political and social stakes of any phenomenon he studies. In the same Colorado story, one old-fashioned conservative laments, "the [local Republican] party is run by realtors." The freedom of open land is evaporating under the pressures of development; "the myth of the Old West is becoming a sea of houses."
Sweet Heaven When I Die is, by and large, a fascinating tour through some of the darker, or simply more baffling, corners of American faith and spirituality. Sharlet proves himself a worthy guide both because he's a keen observer and because he approaches his subjects with a sense of openness—the same sense that sometimes leads him to slip into elegiac prose.
Sharlet is at his finest in chapters like "It Costs Nothing to Say," an alternately poignant and troubling portrait of Vera, a German exchange student who found Jesus in Oklahoma and returned to her home country to join a rock-music-inflected worship group that rails against secularism, foreigners, Islam, and even yoga. Vera's story is a lead-in to the book's most disturbing essay, "She Said Yes," an exploration of BattleCry, a group led by a man named Ron Luce, who styles himself a commander in chief of a youth crusade. Luce tells his charges that they are enlisting in a spiritual army requiring "a wartime mentality" in order to battle "real enemies." His group's foes are multiculturalists, gays, Marxists, Muslims, feminists. Their enablers include anyone from advertisers to teachers; Luce treats MTV with such fury that one might briefly wonder why the State Department hasn't named it a terrorist organization.
The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Sharlet has some spiritual leanings. But he's also a "doubter"; and "a religious voyeur." He has an ecumenical approach that treats all forms of faith—from New Age wellness seminars to end-times Christian evangelism—as equally based on leaps of illogic.
Yet Sharlet's lasting respect for faith leads him to some of its most radical adherents. After he attends one of Luce's brimstone-laced public lectures, Sharlet travels to Luce's Honor Academy, where students receive a crash course in fundamentalist indoctrination: No music, faith-based schooling, and a grueling event called the "Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime," which, in its use of sleep deprivation and physically demanding labor, deserves no less a label than torture.
At Luce's academy, Sharlet manages to get close to some students, who tell him about their difficulty abstaining from sex or the chaotic homes they left behind. With them, Sharlet attends a "hell house," a perverse interpretation of a haunted house where forbidden behavior (domestic violence, abortion, drug use) are acted out; the gruesome tour culminates with Jesus flagellating himself, spraying blood on the audience. Some of the students seem moved, but one can't be sure: Before Sharlet has a chance to debrief them, they're separated by gender and pulled aside by minders who counsel them about their experience. It's a hushed moment made more frightening for how readily the young radicals submit. Sharlet, however, doesn't submit to his worst writerly impulses: he portrays the darkness here without prophecy or romance.
Jacob Silverman's work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and other publications.