Some Love for My Loveless Universe

A while back, one of the deans of Christian conservatism, Marvin Olasky, invited me to the Empire State Building office from which he edits World magazine to quiz me on my spiritual condition and its relation to my recent book, The Family, in which Marvin appears a few times. I thought we had as lovely a conversation as a couple of bad Jews are capable of (Marvin’s a convert from Judaism; I prefer Yiddish to yeshivas). Maybe Marvin did, too, but you wouldn’t know it from the article he wrote, in which he called me an “assailer of Christianity” and declared, “Sharlet’s world is a loveless universe where the real mission of individuals and groups is expanding their own power and controlling the behavior of others.”

Eye of the beholder, Marvin. I think the universe is full of love, but maybe it looks a little arid from your perch up on high.

Meanwhile, a Christian closer to the ground sees my book differently. Mike Stavlund organizes an interesting coffeehouse church in Washington, D.C., linked to the emerging church movement, called Common Table. On his blog, Awakenings, Mike writes:

I have enough personal and local knowledge (from friends and friends of friends) to know that this group– and this book– are for real. The Family (aka The Fellowship, aka The Fellowship Foundation) hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, where the President traditionally gives an address. But more than these occasional public events, it serves as a connection point between US and world leaders– political leaders, business leaders, dictators, and other power brokers. The problem, as Sharlet sees it, is the lack of discretion shown to just which leaders it connects, and the way in which even the term ‘family’ has automatized “cozy little kingdoms ruled by one Father” but has done little to foster any sense of care for the other.

Sharlet’s writing is so good that a quick read is almost impossible. Skim this book, and you’ll miss gems like this one on page 180: “…manifest destiny, the original westward thrust that erased a continent of Native souls, burns history like coal and knows no sin but that of its enemies.” He obviously finds a lot to critique about The Family, but does so indirectly, offering instead a narrative which allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. In so doing, he captures this subtle subculture perfectly: offering a thin veneer of overly-individuated Christianity that asks nothing of its adherents other than to keep up appearances. In this brand of Jesus-followership, Jesus is depicted as the King of Kings: the most powerful of the world’s most powerful leaders. And rather than lay down their power, followers are encouraged to simply be humble about their wealth and power– to confess that they themselves are nothing, and that their wealth and power come from God. So, if you are powerful, tweak your power toward that which is Godly. And, the reasoning goes, what is more Godly than Godly power? Such circularity would be humorous if it wasn’t so self-justifying, unnerving, and dangerous.

Mike’s stake in this is personal — spiritual, that is — so he picked up on an aspect of the book often ignored even by those who liked it. “He concludes the book by leaving a pregnant question unspoken, yet hanging in the air: so what is the better way?” Indeed. I don’t have the answers, but then, I’m not really trying to find them. I don’t think I can — answers aren’t my business. They are, however, Mike’s. Or, at least, looking for them is. Check out his blog, or, if you’re in Washington, visit his church community, Common Table.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).