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Jeff Sharlet's 'Sweet Heaven When I Die'

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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. (Norton, 256 pp.) “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 and even broken people, Sharlet toes the fault lines of religious or quasi-religious experience. Sharlet toes the fault lines of religious—or quasi-religious—experience.

Sharlet 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 description of his radical Christian beliefs bears reading and rereading: “The painful laughter of blues notes and the terrifying way of the cross,” West says.

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