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Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between

by Jeff Sharlet

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07963-0
Publisher: Norton

A disjointed collection of essays profiling a diverse set of faith-based leaders across the American landscape.

In his latest book, Sharlet (C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, 2010, etc.) returns to religion but casts a wider net, peering into the nooks and crannies of modern American faiths largely by examining their leaders. Writing with a casual, conversational hand—almost as if transcribing an episode of This American Life—the author chronicles his travels around the country. On his journeys, he visited the East Texas Honor Academy led by charismatic minister Ron Luce, who has spearheaded a virulent, nationwide fundamentalist Christian youth crusade. He mourned with the parents of anarchist Brad Will, who was gunned down for videotaping riots in Oaxaca, attended a New Age healing convention with a Kabbalist and Reiki master and waxed philosophical on Kierkegaard and W.E.B. Du Bois with Cornel West (seen by many as a prophet in his own right). In the first, perhaps most personal essay, Sharlet discusses his visit to his college girlfriend, Molly, in the small Colorado town where she lives with her preacher husband and serves as a gun-toting, horse-riding, morally bound district attorney. The author had spent a summer in Colorado with Molly in college, and his return there makes stark the contrast between the liberal path that he took and the Christian, conservative one that she did. Sharlet has plenty of reason for confusion—his parents divorced early, and he was raised largely by his Christian mother, until she died when he was 16 and his Jewish father took over. But while he interjects some personal questions into his essays, they seem largely incidental and don’t effectively bind the shorter pieces.

Sharlet admits that many of these essays were born from research for other books, and that’s how they read: well-written but disconnected parts of several larger wholes.