Some stories are best told in fragments, built like mosaics from pieces brought together. The story of American religion, what belief can look like since the early years of this nation, is one of those complex histories that benefits from a multiplicity of disparate voices. In Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Jeff Sharlet compiles works of literary journalism with thoughtful introductions that take us through, if not the full of scope of American religion, a vast swath of it. From Mark Twain to James Baldwin, from wounded soldiers to Christian music festivals, these stories lend insight how belief can function in diverse lives.
Literary journalism is a slippery genre, as Sharlet explains, and as such it is able to cross boundaries fitting for an examination of religion, blending narrative and poetry. “Literary journalism’s only essential truth – the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise – makes it uniquely suited for the subject of American religion,” he writes, “so often struggling to be one or the other, pious or democratic, communal or individual, rooted or transcendent.”
Below are excerpts from the diverse accounts Sharlet brings together, arranged chronologically.
Walt Whitman from Specimen Days, 1863/1882
I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing. He said, “It is my chief reliance.” He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.”
Zora Neale Hurston from Hoodoo, 1935
The terrified chickens flopped and fluttered frantically in the dim firelight. I had been told to keep up the chant of the victim’s name in rhythm and to beat the ground with a stick. This I did with fervor and Turner danced on. One by one the chickens were seized and killed by having their heads pulled off. But Turner was in such a condition with his whirling and dancing that he seemed in a hypnotic state. When the last fowl was dead, Turner drank a great draught of wine and sank before the altar. When he arose, we gathered some ashes from the fire and sprinkled the bodies of the dead chickens and I was told to get out the car. We drove out one of the main highways for a mile and threw one of the chickens away. Then another mile and another chicken until the nine dead chickens had been disposed of. The spirits of the dead chickens had been instructed never to let the trouble-maker pass inward to New Orleans again after he had passed them going out.
Mary McCarthy from Artists in Uniform, 1953
This period in his life, in which he had thrown off the claims of the spiritual and adopted a practical approach, was evidently one of those “turning points” to which a man looks back with pride. He lingered over his story of his break with the church and his parents with a curious sort of heat, as though the flames of his old sexual conquests stirred within his body at the memory of those old quarrels.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, from Arguing with the Pope, 1994
The Church has always been at war with the world, which it simultaneously loves; it is in this coincidence of opposites that the spiritual wealth of the Church lies. I went to Denver to see – I needed to see, in the flesh – the demanding old Pope, a man wedded to the past, a man who calls the earth a “vast planet of tombs,” and the buoyant young people in whom the future lives so vividly. Stasis and energy, the old and the young: perhaps another coincidence of opposites, two halves of the equation meeting and (like the lion and the lamb) providentially joining. One is something immensely grateful to the Church for espousing eternal values and sometimes inclined to regard it as fossilized. One’s equilibrium, such as it is, rests shakily on the apparent dichotomy between spirit and flesh… the instructive flesh.