JEFF SHARLET, author of The Family and Killing the Buddha among other titles, has pondered the role of religion in American civilization long enough to know that he is walking through a minefield. “If you write about religious people, even your friends may start making certain assumptions about the state of your soul,” he says by way of self-introduction. “That is, they’ll imagine that you’re either a scholar or a seeker.” But Sharlet sets himself a more delicate and elusive task in the pages of Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, & Other Essays on American Belief. What he wants to understand is how religious ideas actually inform the way we think: “What do we set in motion,” he muses, “when we say religion, out loud?”
In Radiant Truths, Sharlet has collected and introduced 24 pieces that touch on some aspect of “American belief,” as he puts it, ranging from Whitman and Thoreau, to James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Garry Wills, to Amy Wilentz and Anne Fadiman, and much else of interest in between. Sharlet readily acknowledges the underrepresentation of certain denominations, including both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and the omission of others: “Sorry, Mormons!” he quips. “I could murmur about religious pluralism or preach religious literacy — both really terrific, I wholeheartedly endorse them — but this book is not your key to either.”
Sharlet, in fact, is not much interested in organized religion. Rather, he’s looking for the stirrings of imagination that serve as evidence of the influence of religion on the American mind.
But what to call the book that he has created out of these collected writings? Sharlet isn’t quite sure. Not “new journalism” (“‘New’ then is too old”), not “creative nonfiction” (“the name with which the National Endowment for the Arts […] and the academy […] paper over discomfort with journalism”), not “lyric essay” (“it lacks creative tension”), although he allows that “essay” alone might work: “An essay, we might say, is a piece of writing that doesn’t go down easy.” At last, he seems to embrace “this something-else genre, literary journalism” as the best label for what he has found and shares with his readers.
As we begin to read the assembled collection, we quickly grasp that many of the conventional forms of religious writing are wholly omitted. There is no sermonizing here, no miracle stories, no hagiographies. Indeed, the larger question that the book raises has less to do with form than with content. Radiant Truths is the work of what Sharlet calls a “cacophony choir,” whose voices are raised in contemplation rather than celebration of religion. More often than not, religion itself is mentioned obliquely if at all. The “cacophony” that emerges is wholly appropriate to the problematic role of faith in American history, politics, and culture.
“Americans worry over religion, argue about religion, tell stories about religion, not just because of our ambiguous First Amendment (which promises both freedom of and freedom from religion),” Sharlet explains, “but because American identity — and American democracy — depends on a constant renegotiation of terms.”
The first selection is a fragment from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, an account of a Civil War battle that took place at Chancellorsville in 1863. After describing the grim carnage of the battlefield, Whitman allows us to witness his encounter with a young soldier named Oscar, “low with chronic diarrhoea, and a bad wound also,” who asks Whitman to read aloud the account of the crucifixion and resurrection from the New Testament. The dying soldier “ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion,” to which Whitman answers: “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing.” Yet the visit ends in what may or may not be a moment of agape: “He behaved very manly and affectionate,” writes Whitman. “The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he return’d fourfold.”
The irony that pervades Whitman’s encounter with a dying soldier can be traced throughout the collection, which includes the work of such famous curmudgeons as Mark Twain, whose rollicking Innocents Abroad is briefly excerpted (but, curiously, omitting Twain’s most sharply sarcastic passages), and H. L. Mencken, who contributes a piece written from the scene of the Scopes trial: “An Episcopalian down here in the Coca-Cola belt is regarded as an atheist,” writes Mencken, although the final piece by Francine Prose is as close as we get to old-fashioned witnessing. Sharlet himself contributes “Heartland, Kansas” (co-written with Peter Manseau), an account of “the Heartland Pagan Festival,” which they describe as a “campout for witches and assorted other heathens in rural Kansas,” in which he now detects his own “nervous giggles” and “the gentle absurdity inherent to the documentation of things unseen.”
By contrast, “Dead After Purim,” an article by Abraham Cahan, the celebrated editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, shows us the joys and sorrows of a Jewish immigrant family on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, where we witness a night of holiday frolic in the home of Harris Freedman, only to find him dead in the courtyard of his building the next morning. If, as the neighbors agree, Freedman has thrown himself from the roof out of remorse over borrowing and squandering his daughter’s dowry, he would be denied the Jewish rites of burial. But a doctor is summoned and, on the grounds of science or compassion, determines that the deceased “must have dropped dead,” and so “we can bury him like a Jew.” Cahan allows us to conclude that the diagnosis is an act of human compassion, and he artfully decorates the scene with a description of a beggar who jingles a tin box and calls out: “Alms, deliver from death! Alms, deliver from death!”
Less often does Sharlet offer us examples of spiritual ecstasy, but we find one in an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, in which Thoreau describes an excursion through a patch of wilderness. After pondering the beauty of “primeval, untamed and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it,” his wonder turns suddenly to fear and trembling: “There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man,” he recalls. “What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! […] Who are we? where are we?” In these words we find the seeds of what has become a kind of religious conviction in the sanctity of a world without human beings, as well as acknowledgment of its despoliation by the distant descents of Adam and Eve.
The dark side of the religious imagination also boils up in an account by Jane Addams titled “The Devil Baby at Hull-House,” which recounts the rumor that turned her famous settlement into a sideshow attraction in 1916. “No amount of denial convinced them that he was not there, for they knew exactly what he was like, with his cloven hoofs, his pointed ears and diminutive tail,” writes Addams. “Moreover, the Devil Baby had been able to speak as soon as he was born and was most shockingly profane.” In one of several different accounts, according to Addams, the baby’s mother was a pious Italian woman who had married an atheist. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Addams sees a primal impulse in the stories that these poor women told each other: “The tale might have been fashioned a thousand years ago.” Even more to Sharlet’s point is her observation that the story of the Devil Baby served “as a valuable instrument in the business of living,” if only because of its “taming effects upon recalcitrant husbands and fathers.”
Zora Neale Hurston goes in search of a “queen of conjure” in a piece titled “Hoodoo,” which Sharlet describes as “half-report, half-story; half-ethnography, half-magic.” She seeks to become a “hoodoo doctor” in New Orleans, and she undergoes a ritual of initiation that is just as weird, bloody, and spooky as we imagine it would be. Her mentor, a man called Luke Turner, embraces her as a disciple: “He said that soon I would be in possession of the entire business, for the spirit had spoken to him and told him that I was the last doctor that he would make; that one year and seventy-nine days from then he would die,” writes Hurston, who has ventured to the far side of religion but declines to stay there. “He wanted me to stay with him to the end. It has been a great sorrow to me that I could not say yes.”
Sharlet’s definition of religion is expansive enough to include a true believer in the Great Depression whose faith was focused on Communism. “It’s a cliché to say that communism was just a religion by another name,” he concedes. “It wasn’t; it isn’t.” But he insists that Meridel Le Sueur’s 1934 account of a strike in Minneapolis is an example of the “carnal mysticism” that she shared with D. H. Lawrence and the “utopian dreams of anarchists such as Emma Goldman.” Indeed, Le Sueur describes her experience on the barricades in language that would not be out of place at a camp meeting: “I have the brightest, most physical feeling with every sense sharpened peculiarly,” she writes. “I only partly know that I am seeing, feeling, but I feel it is the real body and gesture of a future vitality.”
Sharlet closes his collection with a short meditation by Francine Prose on her visit to the encampment of Occupy Wall Street. She is inspired by the sight her eyes behold — “grannies talking with goths, a biker with piercings and tattoos talking to a woman in a Hermes scarf” — and she describes her encounter with “the 99%” as a kind of revelation. “I kept feeling these intense surges of emotion — until I saw a placard with a quote from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ — ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept.” In this way the editor has brought us full circle: “Francine Prose [is] driven to tears by the sight of Whitman’s words,” he explains.
Sharlet demonstrates his customary vision and courage when he encourages us to see the workings of religion in purely human terms. In many places where religion is talked about, the conversation consists of the witnessing of personal salvation, or scholarly contemplation of ancient texts, or the panicky omen-spotting that has been a cottage industry since the first century. By contrast, Sharlet is “most interested in the subset of religion known as belief,” and that’s where he directs our attention in Radiant Truths.
When it comes to anthologies, I confess that I am an agnostic. Rare is the collection of other people’s writing that coheres into something new and original; and rarer still is the one that takes on meaning because we read it through the eyes of the collector. Radiant Truths is exactly that rarity: “American religion, a history in pieces,” as described by Sharlet himself, but also an advanced reader in the varieties of American religious experience, and, above all else, a well-chosen selection of well-told stories.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Norton/Liveright).