Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fall Book Tour

Following are some of the events I’ll be doing this fall in support of my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, and around other topics. Bookstores interested in hosting an event should contact my publicist, Whitney Peeling, at Universities, colleges, and other organizations should contact my speaking agent, Annette Luba-Lucas at You can also write me directly at

September 13 / Middlebury, VT Town Hall Theater, sponsored by the Vermont Book Shop

September 15 / University of North Alabama

September 21 / Norwich, VT Norwich Bookstore

September 23 / New York, NY New York University Bookstore. This is an event for Heather Hendershot and her new book, What’s Fair on the Air?: Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest. I’m the respondent. She’ll speak a bit, then we’ll have a conversation.

September 26 / Asheville, NC Malaprops Bookstore

September 27 / Chapel Hill, NC Flyleaf Books

September 28 / Durham, NC Duke University Center for Documentary Studies

October 9 / New York, NY Union Theological Seminary. The American Christian Right and the global equality struggle.

October 12 / New York, NY Details TBA

October 18 / Concord, NH Gibson’s Bookstore

October 21 / Shepherdstown, West Virginia Shepherd University

October 22 / Washington, D.C. “Religious Politics & Secular Values: A CFI Institute”

October 23 / Washington, D.C. Busboys & Poets

October 27 / Burlington, VT University of Vermont

October 30 / Pasadena, CA All Saints Church Rector’s Forum

November 3 / Hanover, NH I’ll be hosting the Dartmouth English Department’s second creative writing event of the fall with guest writer Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck. Sanborn Library, 4 pm, free and open to the public.

November 7 / Lewiston, ME Bates College

November 8 / Amherst, MA Hampshire College

November 9 / Cleveland, OH Case Western University

November 10 / Iowa City, IA Prairie Lights Books, 6:30

November 16 / Cambridge, MA Porter Square Books

February 28 / Knoxville, TN University of Tennessee

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sweet Heaven When I Die, First Reviews

My new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between is out. It's getting good reviews.

The Boston Globe calls it a "remarkable new collection of literary journalism... intimate in tone and expansive in scope," and adds that "taken together, these essays begin to give shape to a multifaceted America that is so much more than east and west, left and right, religious and secular. And there’s no better guide to this '"country in between.'"

The Oregonian says: "Superb... compelling... stunning... From what people in the publishing business tell me, collections of essays are not easy to sell these days. I hope Sharlet proves conventional wisdom wrong. This is a fine book, by a deeply thoughtful writer."

The Daily declares, "In a crowded field, 'Sweet Heaven' stands with the few books that aren't afraid to look at the realities of American religion."

And then there's Michael Washburn, writing in The Washington Post.

Jeff Sharlet delivers a fine dose of thoughtful skepticism in “Sweet Heaven When I Die,” his collection of 13 trenchant essays on how we gain, lose, maintain and blindly accept faith. The book belongs to the tradition of long-form, narrative journalism best exemplified by writers such as Joan Didion, John McPhee, Norman Mailer and Sharlet’s contemporary David Samuels. Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters, for he has emerged as a master investigative stylist and one of the shrewdest commentators on religion’s underexplored realms.

Best known for "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," the author offers a disquieting meditation on hope while discussing parental loss, artistic desire and the haunting music of Dock Boggs in a chapter called “Born, Again.” We cling to hope, Sharlet writes, “when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time. . . . We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of a story but its objects. Hope isn’t optimistic; it’s the face of despair.” In this lamentation, he underscores how life itself puts faith in question.

In another essay, Sharlet combines autobiography and reportage to bring to life a group of Westerners in self-imposed exile who worship Christ in mountain churches and then congregate in local dives. He visits an old, distant friend and finds comfortable ground because when they “talk about God . . . both knew that’s a conversation without many conclusions.”

Sharlet also visits the opposite side of the spectrum in his reporting on BattleCry, the “furious youth crusade” of fundamentalism. In his account, BattleCry is the type of fundamentalist organization that embarrasses temperate Christians and enrages nonbelievers. Yet with its “warrior” mentality and its loathing of “queers and communists, feminists and Muslims,” the organization offers a vision of faith unencumbered by ambiguity. Sharlet quotes BatleCry’s leader, Ron Luce, as saying, “The world is a forty-five-year-old pervert posing as another tween online.’ ” BattleCry offers a sanctuary for like-minded believers.Speaking with a young entertainer at a BattleCry event, he realizes that her calm stems from the fact that she has “found faith that promised not answers but an end to questions.”
This is the prevailing division of the world that “Sweet Heaven” presents: between those who use faith as a tool for answering life’s difficult riddles and those whose faith is less an instrument than a blindfold. Sharlet contends that this latter faith exists without belief because it operates without understanding.

“Sweet Heaven” goes beyond “fringe fundamentalisms” and believers’ personal struggles. Sharlet also delivers commanding portraits of philosopher Cornel West, Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb and radical environmental and labor activist Brad Will that dramatize faith made heroic through intellectual, artistic and political perseverance. But these more traditional pieces lack the intimacy of other essays in the collection.

In a chapter called “The Rapture,” exploring New Age extravagances, Sharlet reveals his pragmatic skepticism. He anchors the essay to New York-based healer Sondra Shaye, a self-described “fairie” who adopts the persona ofJesus as part of her therapy for her clients, all of whom pay good money to have her bless real estate deals and tackle their health problems and anxieties. Her payoff is handsome: She claims she earns more as a healer then she did in her previous job as a corporate litigator. Sharlet presents her story as a lesson in 21st-century faith. “Money is the means by which Sondra and other New Age healers show themselves to be a religious movement that’s within the economy of belief,” he writes.

As Sharlet chronicles the economies of belief — private, public or fraudulent — he remains more agnostic than atheist, more charitable than cynical. And though he obviously finds blind faith corrosive, he tempers his criticism by declining to impose his own beliefs. Sondra the healer seems to get something right when she tells Sharlet “doubt is your revelation.”