Six Questions — June 30, 2014, 11:00 am

Jeff Sharlet on Radiant Truths

Jeff Sharlet on his collection of essential dispatches, reports, confessions, and other essays on American belief

Jeff SharletJeff Sharlet is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, a founding editor of the online journals Killing the Buddha and The Revealer, and the author of such nonfiction books as C Street, The Family, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. This year, he has assembled twenty-four of his favorite “dispatches, reports, confessions, and other essays” about American religion in a collection called Radiant Truths (Yale University Press). The book traces the history of faith in the United States, starting at the deathbed of a Civil War soldier and ending at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests. These are on-the-ground reports by journalists grappling with faith and doubt in their own days, and they include works by James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and many others. The resulting collection isn’t simply a book about religion — it’s also about our attempts to write about the unknown, to capture the transcendent on paper. I put six questions to Sharlet about the book: 

1. You’ve helped found two online journals, authored four books, and edited another two, all dedicated to faith and religion. What draws you to the subject?

I’m drawn to religion as a subject for much the same reason I’m drawn to documentary art. What excites me most in writing — what seems to me most vital, closest to life — is the tension between the evidence and our arrangement of the evidence. Facts and interpretation. “Real toads” and “imaginary gardens.” Perception and belief. Writing about religion means always, to some extent, reaching beyond the stack of facts. The who-what-where-when-why is not enough if you’re trying to describe the intangible and its relationship to the material. So you have to find ways to document “the evidence of things not seen,” as the apostle Paul put it in a different context. You have to engage with art as well as fact. You have to acknowledge your own subjectivity. You have to tell a story. 

Radiant Truths features several stories from the archives of Harper’s Magazine. Please read Jeff Sharlet’s introductions to Sara Jeannette Duncan’s “The Ordination of Asoka” (1903) and Mary McCarthy’s “Artists in Uniform” (1953), then read Duncan’s and McCarthy’s stories.

2. Every piece collected here touches on transcendence, but not all are explicitly religious. Reading, I was reminded of friends who say “I’m spiritual, not religious.” You’ve written elsewhere that you’re averse to the word “spiritual,” in the sense that you don’t like seeing your books filed in the Spirituality section of libraries and bookstores. Why is that?

Because I’m a curmudgeon. Here’s this word that millions of people find lovely and liberating — an alternative to all that seems calcified about religion, and what do I do? I complain. I think that in nine out of ten cases “spirituality” is a con — not a con by the person invoking it, but a con on that person. It offers the illusion of individual choice, as if our beliefs, or our rejection of belief, could be formed in some pure Ayn Randian void. For better and worse we make our beliefs and live our beliefs together. That’s what you get with the word “religion,” which means to tie, to bind. You may not want to be bound! I don’t. But we are. We’re caught up in a great, complicated web of belief and ritual and custom. That’s what I’m interested in, not the delusion that I’m some kind of island. 

3. You call these pieces “dispatches, reports, confessions, and essays” and spend time in your introduction further breaking down the categories, assessing terms like “creative nonfiction,” “narrative nonfiction,” and “new journalism.” You consider “essay” in the originary sense of the French verb for “to attempt,” and “documentary” as the “creative treatment of reality.” Ultimately, you settle on “literary journalism.” What makes this the best fit?

Notice that almost all the names are mash-ups. (My first Harper’s editor, Bill Wasik, preferred the term “reported essay.” Then again, he also coined “submersion journalism.”) It’s as if the genre’s ambitions, its project, can’t be summed up in just one word. Which I think is true — every one of these labels contains a contradiction. I use literary journalism because it puts that contradiction in the starkest terms. You might read it as “literary vs. journalism.” Or art vs. fact. The genre’s on the tightrope in between.

Of course, you need to remember that “literary” is not an endorsement, not a declaration of quality. There’s a lot more bad literature in the world than good. What it invokes is a tradition, a history of the forms we use to tell stories or write poems. Journalism, on the other hand, is at its root unconcerned with tradition. Journalism is impertinent; it supposes that we have the right to ask any questions we please about the world around us. If literature is aristocratic, journalism is democratic. Now tie their legs together and watch ’em run. That lurching movement toward the real is the awkward revelation of a hybrid, mutant genre. 

4. In “The Devil Baby at Hull House,” Jane Addams’s 1916 essay about the tenements of working-class Chicago, she writes that the role of literature is to “translate the particular act into something of the universal.” For authors in this collection, the act of reporting, of recording true events, is itself transcendent. Is journalism — that struggle to translate the particular into the universal, or make the universal particular — a spiritual act?

In a sense, I think I might prefer the word “religious” here. It’s a broader term, one that doesn’t require belief. Religion often includes belief, but not always. It’s embedded in ritual, in language, in custom, in practice. When people ask me if I’m a religious person — and when you write about religion, people always do — I dodge the question by saying that the act of writing about religion is my practice. “Practice” can refer to religious behavior, but I like its more colloquial meaning. I’m practicing journalism, practicing perception. I think we need to practice perception all the time, or we’ll fall prey to some very bad religion — the unconsidered, received wisdom of things-as-they-are. I like your particular/universal, universal/particular set-up, because it reminds me of a metaphor I borrow from Wendy Doniger, a great historian of religion: that of the telescope and the microscope. The telescope gives us that “universal” vision; the microscope gives us the particular. The most powerful stories — the journalism I believe in — attempt to do both. 

5. In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1935 piece about Voodoo, she writes of the importance of “seeing in more ways than one.” When it comes to faith in America, why do we need to hear a range of voices, and is this what you mean when you use the phrase “a democracy of stories” in your introduction?

For me, this goes back to my first book, Killing the Buddha, which was in part a travelogue I wrote with my friend Peter Manseau — a tour of some of the varieties of religious experience in America. When we published the book, the most common question we received — weirdly, from other journalists, hosts of radio shows, and so on — was along the lines of, “What’s the great common denominator of American belief?” To which we could only say, “Oy.” Because America, at its most interesting, is not a real “great common denominator” kind of place. We’re not singing in harmony. Rather, the sound of belief in America — “the noise of democracy,” as President James Buchanan put it in in his only memorable phrase — is cacophony, countless voices singing different songs together. Which is kind of wonderful. 

Radiant Truths6. The final piece in this collection is a brief dispatch from Occupy Wall Street. What is the place of protest in the American story?

American democracy, inasmuch as it’s real and not just a story, has a grand old tradition of protest. You might call it our literature and our journalism, both at once. The book begins and ends with a writer who thought so: Walt Whitman, a writer for whom joyous affirmation could be as much of a protest as negation. I start with some passages from Specimen Days, Whitman trying to document the particulars of dying soldiers during the Civil War and, at the same time, the particulars of his love for the dream of democracy — “full of reality, full of illusion,” as he puts it. I end with this dispatch from 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement, in which Francine Prose goes down to Zuccotti Park to see what it’s all about, carrying with her these deep anxieties about democracy and its opposite, the stories that bind us, and then she sees a placard with a line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” “I am large, I contain multitudes.” And since Radiant Truths is an anthology — which means that despite all my attempts to direct the reader, first this story, then that one, you’ll probably find your own crooked path through it — I think it’s fair to reveal the last line: “And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept.” But a good kind of crying, you know? The best kind.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Article
Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today