Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ashley Baxstrom Interviews Jeff Sharlet: "In Lieu of Hobbits"

After reading Ashley Baxstrom's recent interview with Jeff Sharlet about his new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, I'll definitely read the book.  Interesting themes: e.g., the tension between the narratives of Exodus and Revelation in the American experience, between the expectation that somebody is going to come along and get us out of the mess we're in, and the recognition that if we're going to get out of Egypt, our own feet will have to carry us out.  Sharlet relates the latter emphasis to the African-American church experience, but also to transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, who went out to Walden as an Exodus experience.

I'm also struck by Sharlet's understanding of narratives worth reading as narratives of re-enchantment, à la Ricouer, but painful re-enchantment, since the process of rediscovering the enchantment of things is one that requires taking sides, making choices, and not merely reporting.  

And then there's this fascinating exchange between Baxstrom and Sharlet (her words are boldfaced in the original): 

There’s one line in the book that says we’re bound to stories that don’t resolve so much as unravel. 

Yes, well that’s the only kind of stories there really are, actually. And you can pretend otherwise and hold firm for a while, but, our stories are always unraveling.

And I think, again, just to tie this back to writing about religion, there’s nothing in that that is definitive about religious experience, but there is something in that that I think is fairly common to when we end up not as academics, but as people who want to tell stories writing about religion. Those are the moments religion is very rich with, and you’re drawn to: the unraveling of the story, the recognition, and the resistance against the unraveling.

And so narratives worth reading unravel rather than tie up.  They dissolve the boundaries of tightly-configured "reality" and make us see the lacunae in the "realities" they describe.  And religion points us always beyond, when it's doing its job.  It never permits us to settle down and assume we have finally solved the problems of the world, have the final fix on truth.

Religion at its best always places us on the road of Exodus, towards a lasting city never to be found in this world that perpetually disenchants simply by being the world--by rubbing against our dreams with the rough edges of earthly reality.  These are rich themes, and they definitely make me determined to read Sharlet's new book, and his Killing the Buddha as well, which I'm ashamed to say I've never read.

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