Sharlet (English/Dartmouth Coll.; Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between, 2011, etc.) assembles a highly literate potpourri of writings about religion, faith and other manifestations of “the production of social life.”
The phrase, notes the author in his introduction, is a commonplace of cultural anthropology, describing the narratives that enable us to live in the world: Jesus died for our sins, America is an exceptional nation blessed by God, and so forth. Interestingly, Sharlet’s chief criterion here is to gather pieces that speak to “what happens when we say ‘religion’ out loud.” The collection begins and ends with Walt Whitman: At the start, he is praying and singing with wounded Union soldiers in a Washington hospital, while at the end, writer Francine Prose is moved to tears on seeing his words, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” on a sign above the Occupy Wall Street encampment, inspired to resist “the awful isolation and powerlessness of knowing we’re being lied to and robbed on a daily basis.” Between those Whitmanesque braces are numerous pieces that are not widely enough known, such as pioneering journalist Abraham Cahan’s report from the streets of New York on the suicide of a Jewish man at Purim, a holiday meant to be cheerful; Meridel Le Sueur’s almost supernaturally charged account of the Minneapolis strike of 1934, a Woody Guthrie song come to life (“the walking, falling back, the open mouth crying, the nostrils stretched apart, the raised hand, the blow falling, and the outstretched hand drawing me in”); and H.L. Mencken’s dismissive analysis of the fundamentalism that propelled the Scopes Monkey Trial: “Divine inspiration is as common as the hookworm.”
The pieces are heterodox enough to have commonality only insofar as they address questions of the great beyond, but readers will find plenty here to sustain questions—and perhaps even a few answers—of their own.