Politics Magazine

Sweet Something

Posted on the 12 December 2013 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

SweetHeavenWhenIDieAs an observer of religion who always struggles to get published, I found a companion soul in Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between. Although the book is a collection of very disparate essays, it shows the subtle faces that religion frequently takes. We’re used to hearing religion described in bombastic terms, but Sharlet is more attuned to its soft rhythms than that. Yes, an essay or two may have a strident believer, but most of the faith found here is so deeply woven into the lives he examines that you might not even notice it was there had Sharlet not already warned you. Here is a man of no particular religious conviction showing us how it is—not judging, not ridiculing, not pandering. Religion, despite the gleeful proclamations of its detractors, is not likely to die out. It is more likely just to go unnoticed.

A number of the essays here gave me pause. In the first Sharlet notes of a friend, “She was fascinated by the thought that God was entitled to kill you at any time.” This friend is, of course, of Christian persuasion. I had never thought of the biblical paradox in that way before—divine entitlement. It is so like Job; the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Christianity, historically, comes with a whole cartload of guilt: not only is God entitled, but we deserve to be killed. The Christianity in which I grew up was explicit about this—we live on borrowed time. As a child I heard more than one evangelist thunder this good news. We really deserve to die. Once we are good and vulnerable, the preacher offers us a way out. Pass around the collection plate. God is entitled; I shall not soon forget that.

Toward the end of the book another of Sharlet’s interviewees declares that doubt is a calling. Again, the professional religionist is stunned. Many religions eschew doubt as somehow evil—wickedly questioning the divine. Doubters, however, seldom cause religious trouble. Those whose convictions lie deep and untested will burst open like a spring-loaded trap at various provocations. Those who survive are left to weep and wonder. The doubter, the friend of Thomas, does not seek to harm, but can’t live without discovering the truth. This is true religion.

There are any number of stories here of persons of various levels of faith conviction. You’ll find few clergy or specialists among them, but you’ll find a book whose honesty cannot be doubted. At points I struggled to find an implicit religious, or faith-based theme. It is there. You just have to listen. And trust that Jeff Sharlet will not lead you astray.

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