Friday, February 5, 2010

Jeff Sharlet's The Family: Not a Review

I thought I was going to love Jeff Sharlet's The Family. I collect anti-fundamentalist books and read them all the time. Evangelical fundamentalism is a horrible threat to democracy, and everybody needs to be aware of its perils. Sharlet's book, however, disappointed me. The main reason why I don't like it is that the author never manages to acquire enough critical distance from the subject of his research.

The Family offers an incredibly detailed analysis of the lives of the most important evangelicals, going back centuries. Sadly, it never occurs to the author to take the self-serving accounts of these fanatics about their so-called conversions with a grain of salt. For Sharlet, if the fundamentalist in question tells that he had a vision and was converted, it must be the truth. Instead of giving so many boring details of these so-called conversions, Sharlet would have been better off analyzing the actual - often extremely self-serving - reasons for the fundamentalist "conversions."

I had a scary experience with an evangelical student a couple of days ago. One of the most disturbing things about fundamentalists (which Sharlet does touch upon, albeit too briefly) is that they have a language of their own. Often, these fanatics do not realize that the rest of the world does not know what certain words and expressions mean in fundamentalist-speak. Imagine my horror when late at night I received an e-mail from a student informing me that he has "decided to lay down his life for the Lord." I honestly thought he was threatening to commit suicide or engage in a massacre on campus. When I finally got over my fright and continued reading, I discovered that the student was trying to say that he was dropping out from college to join some Bible camp, or whatever. Apparently, he had a religious experience while he was studying in the library that told him it was the right thing to do.

In my place, Sharlet would go into a painstaking description of this alleged religious experience. I, however, keep thinking that the student's conversion just happened to take place right before the first essay was due and the first midterm exam was scheduled for next week.

Another problem with Sharlet's writing is that he takes these religious kooks way to seriously. He believes that they are all-powerful and omnipresent. While there can be no doubt in anybody's mind that evangelical fundamentalists have an unduly big influence on our society, one cannot analyze their movement without realizing how outdated and pathetic they are. It is precisely their growing irrelevance that makes them so desperate and angry. The best way to counteract their influence is by bringing to light how ridiculous they are. Instead, Sharlet reinforces the myth of their power and invincibility.

I cannot, in all honesty, recommend The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power to anybody. It is plodding, uninspired, and very counterproductive for the purposes of limiting the influence of religious fanatics on life in this country.

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