If Jeff Sharlet, in this compilation of 13 essays, is trying to capture the humanity of the people he encounters, he's failed. Most of them are flat; they resemble each other so much from essay to essay that it's sometimes hard to differentiate them. But if he's using these encounters to document his indecision about whether he himself is a man of faith, then many of the essays become much more engaging and resonant. Some of them are too weighed down by his self-reflection and self-critique, but the more traditional reported pieces succeed in interesting the reader in the author's struggle to understand his faith by observing the effects of faith on others. Over the past ten years, Sharlet has written a lot about religion and about fundamentalism. In 2001, he and novelist Peter Manseau launched KillingtheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion. In 2008, Sharlet published The Family, about a network of Christian fundamentalist groups enmeshed in American and international politics. In the acknowledgements of Sweet Heaven, Sharlet explains he wrote many of its essays at the same time he was researching his other books.
The earnestness of zealotry—the willingness of zealots to proclaim that they care deeply aboutsomething—touches him, but the ignorance that comes as a result of their single-mindedness repels him. He explores these contradictory feelings in essays about teenagers who have completely devoted themselves to fundamentalist Christianity. In “She Said Yes," after briefly dissecting Ron Luce, a Christian preacher who's founded BattleCry, “the most furious youth crusade since young sinners in the hands of angry God flogged themselves with shame in 18th century New England," Sharlet turns to his most devoted followers. These teenagers have literally bought into BattleCry, spending $7,800 a year to attend Luce's Honor Academy in East Texas. Within a few pages, he teeter-totters between empathizing with them and patronizing them. He can't condone fundamentalism, but he can understand it.
In “Quebrado," Sharlet admires the sincerity of Brad Will, another kind of fundamentalist, an activist and journalist killed while reporting in Mexico. In writing about these characters, Sharlet reveals that he, in contrast to them, is curious about the world around him, but is wary of the kind of full-throttle commitment he sees in the faithful.