Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between
by Jeff Sharlet
Reviewed by Steve Yarbrough
I used to live in Fresno, Calif., a red city in a blue state, and during my years there I belonged to a gym where I once overheard a conversation between two young people about whether or not "intervention" was in order when you learned that a Christian brother or sister had out-of-wedlock sex. I found myself thinking of that conversation while reading "The Best Minds of My Generation," a piece about youth minister Ron Luce in Jeff Sharlet's superb new essay collection Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between.
Luce's intention, Sharlet argues persuasively, is to "immunize" the young from the enticements of secularism. His most devoted followers cough up $7,800 per year to become students at his Honor Academy. "'Turn and burn,' goes a popular saying there. That is, look away from Jesus for even an instant -- at, say, a hot girl in Potter's Desire, the academy's evangelical dance team -- and you might find yourself in hell instead of Texas. Which is why every student must pledge to confront other students if their behavior is ungodly, or simply too arousing."
Luce puts his recruits though such ordeals as a 2 1/2-day endurance trial in which they are forced to remain awake at all times and carry enormous wooden crosses. They take "gender-divided purity classes" taught by such experts as Shannon Etheridge, who has written volumes for an "antimasturbation" series. Etheridge, Sharlet notes, developed a "passion for sexual purity ... in mortuary college." If all of this sounds comic, it is. But it's also profoundly disturbing. Luce, Sharlet says, has created for his followers "a cramped little country in which there is not enough room to be lost or found, only 'saved' as a static condition."
Many of these essays isolate figures who operate on the fringes of extreme belief or extreme skepticism. One of the most compelling pieces concerns philosopher Cornel West, who describes himself as "a bluesman in the life of the mind. ... A jazzman in the world of ideas." In order to live, West believes, one must constantly remain ready to die. "In the end," he tells the author, "we're beings headed toward death ... for the most part we don't have any control ... you have to acknowledge the magnitude of the mystery."
The musical motif resounds most memorably in the stunning concluding essay, which focuses on the life of the great banjo player Dock Boggs, who recorded eight sides in 1927, got rid of his banjo during the Great Depression and, as far as we know, didn't play the instrument again for 30 years. Thinking about Boggs and recent setbacks in his own life and that of a friend, Sharlet considers what it means to quit.
"Quitting," he writes, "is a place, free not just of ambition but of bitterness, too. A place where what could have been is simply not, neither forgotten nor clung to. At most just observed. Like the sparks that didn't sizzle when they hit the pond."
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, one with the wisdom to observe that "we are none of us human yet, only trying and quitting and trying and tiptoeing out the back door. We recorded our eight sides and went home, singing the 'Down South Blues.'"