The Best Writing on American Religion You’ll Read this Year

A new collection of literary journalism on faith shows why telling the truth about religion means telling a good story.

The other morning I awoke from within a crystal-clear dream, the kind that lingers so long you catch a whiff of it throughout your day. In it, I was teaching Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side to a group of college students. I was teaching it as if my life depended on it, and the students were learning as if their lives depended on it. (This was, after all, a dream.) We were deep into some of my favorite subjects — the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, story and fact, how different genres deliver different kinds of truths, and how all this relates to a work of reporting like The Blind Side. We were having the most intense and enjoyable conversation ever, like a stoner parody of a white man’s Stand and Deliver.

I’ve never actually taught Michael Lewis’ best-selling account of Michael Oher’s adoption into a rich, white evangelical family outside of Memphis, an adoption which would inaugurate a successful football career. (Oher is currently an offensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans.) I’m not sure I would, but no matter — in my dream, The Blind Side was the best-possible representation of the fascinating interplay between storytelling and reported fact, and its slight attention to religious detail was proof positive of something I’ve long observed: narrative journalism (a.k.a. documentary prose, literary journalism, and a host of related labels) can be especially good at capturing the weird subject of religion.

radiantLater that day, hours after the dream evaporated, I came home to a book that had arrived in the mail: Radiant Truths, an anthology of literary journalism on religion edited by Jeff Sharlet. (Did my dream know this book was arriving that day? I want to say “yes,” and I almost believe it.) Sharlet is a professor of English at Dartmouth and a noted practitioner of this form — for over a decade, his long reports on American religion, often focused on Christian fundamentalism in the halls of power, have appeared in publications like Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. His stories are captivating and serious, but here Sharlet seems to be having a lot of fun, geeking out at the opportunity to create a list of some of his favorite writing in his favorite genre.

You can know a lot about literary journalism on religion and still be (happily, even giddily) surprised by what’s in this volume. Radiant Truths begins with Walt Whitman reading the gospels to a dying soldier during the Civil War and ends with Francine Prose crying in Zuccotti Park at Occupy Wall Street. While it includes some familiar entries along the way — including John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2004 GQ story “Upon This Rock,” which Sharlet rightly calls “one of the best pieces of religion journalism in years” — unless you’re already an expert on this sub-genre, you’re sure to find plenty of surprises. Funner still are the mini-introductions to each entry, which offer sly suggestions of what warrants our close attention; Sharlet has been teaching his students these essays, and he offers pointed, practiced instruction on what to look out for as we read.

So reading Radiant Truths is fun — if you have a broad taste for stories about American religion, it’ll make for more exciting summertime page-turning than whatever recommendations you’re seeing in your Facebook News Feed. (I just wasted some hours on Gone Girl that I wish I could get back.)

As you experience the stories, it’s also fun to let them prompt you to think about why, as Sharlet puts it in his introduction, literary journalism is “uniquely well suited to the documentation and representation of the strange category of American religion.” Part of the answer is that religion is a subject so layered that it rewards language that takes those layers seriously. Literary journalism cares about social and personal context as much as story beats, and of course, religion is readymade with layers and layers of context. The writers who worked on these pieces paid close attention to the language they wanted to employ, which is not to say each entry is especially elevated or prosodic — Dennis Covington’s National Book Award-winning Salvation on Sand Mountain is an account of Pentecostal snake handlers, for heaven’s sake — but as Sharlet notes, Covington keeps his prose plain. Still, all writers who work this way are invested in telling a story, with the emphasis on telling — really setting a stage, and then giving characters some breathing room, letting them strut and fret in the drama that they most definitely are in. That’s the kind of writing religion needs if it wants to be understood, appreciated, comprehended with any sort of deep knowing.

I like reading stories about real-world religious people because so many of them are urgently committed to something they can see mostly in their own heads. That commitment often yields disturbing results — see Hurston’s “Hoodoo” or Anne Fadiman’s “The Sacrifice” in this anthology, or last year’s book Pilgrim’s Wilderness, Tom Kizzla’s report on Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale, who moved his impoverished family to the woods and started a bastardized Christianity of his own making. Like many of the subjects in Radiant Truths, Papa Pilgrim was a man of whom it was exceedingly hard to discern the truth, to sort facts from myths. Kizzla got there by reporting the heck out of the story, finding a million details about this mysterious man and turning those details into a saga that reveals still-larger truths about American individualism and its vexed relationship with contemporary Christianity. It’s a well-told story with characters who develop, change, rise, fall; you’re lost in a story, and it rails at you harder because you know it’s true.

As was his way, Norman Mailer took this truth-telling a step further; actually, he took it all the way, and turned some of his journalism about religion into a kind of scripture. You want to tell a fuller truth about something you see in the world? Taking on the properties of the Bible is not a bad way to go. In The Armies of the Night (which is excerpted in Radiant Truths) and The Executioner’s Song, Mailer employed scriptural forms of writing in the service of journalism. Armies, an account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, contains a sermon in the middle and ends with a brief bout of apocalyptic writing, a prophecy of where all things in the country are going. The Executioner’s Song, the story of the killer Gary Gilmore and the reinstatement of capital punishment in America in the late 1970s, doubles-down even more: It’s separated into two huge testaments, and it opens with idyllic scenes of some kind of Eden and closes with the martyring of a misunderstood mystic and his lingering, indelible presence thereafter. As they say in math class, Mailer goes to great pains in Executioner’s Song to show his work; he wants to deliver some facts, but he further wants to deliver some Truths. So he elevates his account — he scriptures it, which gives it a shot at really lasting, mattering beyond its original telling. I read The Executioner’s Song one long summer twelve years ago. I still think about it all the time.

Such artifice can be derided as a joke, an intellectual way of poking fun at religious rubes. Literary journalists, Sharlet included, have been accused of such, and sometimes it feels that way to me when I’m reading them. But usually, as I sit with the stories, I come around. These writers are taking religion more seriously by letting its freak flag fly.

Image by Sara Cimino.

Patton Dodd
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  • nwcolorist

    An intriguing article.

    By the comments on Amazon, this book is aimed at a narrow audience; journalists and those aspiring to the profession. The anthology includes some well known writers. My only concern here is that, because journalism and academia are well known liberal bastions, the reader will be subjected to the time-worn anti-Christian undertone that we regularly encounter from members of those professions. But I will definitely check the public library to see if it’s there.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Journalism and academia are well-known for facts and objectivity too. Please consider that it’s a non-apologist undertone that you’re encountering, not anything non-Christian — just not pro-Christian.

  • Sagie Sokolov

    The font is still too small – there still might be a few morons out there for whom even this would be too taxing a read.

  • Jeff Burritt

    Freak Flag Fly. Say that Five X Fast. Nice article Patton. And so it deserved my profound response.