5Q+1 visits the ubiquitous Jeff Sharlet

Jeff ShelerMany years ago I wrote an angry letter to the editor of Rolling Stone, doubting whether that magazine ever would give serious attention to religion and believers. I am glad that, as a contributing editor for both Rolling Stone and Harper’s, Jeff Sharlet has proven me wrong.

Some Americans discourage talk of politics, religion and sex — the unholy trinity for people who are convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth an argument. One thing I admire about Jeff is how much he defies that skittishness:

My religion writing career began in 1998 when I quit my first serious job as editor in chief of Pakn Treger, a magazine of Jewish history and culture, when my boss told me to lay off stories about politics, religion, and sex. Of course, that’s all I wrote about as a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 1999 I co-founded a little webmagazine, Killing The Buddha (which has just recently ended its run), and spent much of 2002 traveling the country with my co-author, Peter Manseau, working on a “spiritual state of the nation” called Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, published by Free Press in 2004.

My second book, also started in 2002, will come out next spring from HarperCollins; it’s tentatively titled In the Shadow of the Cross: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of America’s Civil Religion. Since 2003, I’ve been editing and writing for a website I created called The Revealer, published with support from NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, Religious Studies Program and the Department of Journalism. The Revealer is on summer break now, and its future is up in the air — I’m leaving NYU in the coming year to finish my next book, The Hammer Song, and work on more stories about politics, religion, and sex for Rolling Stone and Harper’s.

Jeff occasionally offers comments on our work here at GetReligion, and we’ve sometimes been in touch with him via email. Our respective blogs approach the terrain rather differently, but it’s a difference that keeps me on my toes.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

All the usual suspects, of course – like GetReligion, I’m as interested in how the media covers religion as in the actual details of the story. That means I think a clumsy New York Times piece — like, say, the Michael Luo profile of Hillary’s faith that seemed to divide the U.S. up into clear camps of piety and absolutist secularism — is as useful to understanding what’s going on in religion as would be a better-reported story, such as the late Michael Kelley’s classic 1993 New York Times Magazine Hillary profile, “Saint Hillary” in which the particular, and rather unique, shape of her beliefs was more fully revealed.

I read Christianity Today for the same reason — there’s plenty of good reporting in that magazine, but there’s also plenty of reporting that can clue readers into presumptions as well as the actual details of a given story. Finally, I look for religion news in some more unconventional places, as well — I subscribe to the Christian Newswire emails, a rather undiscriminating source of press releases from groups, many of which can’t be described as anything but fringe (which makes them a useful reflection of the mainstream).

For Jewish news, I like cultural pages — Forward’s arts section, Jewcy, and Guilt & Pleasure. The real news in American Jewish life, I think, isn’t about the endless battles between organizations, but about the — well, guilt & pleasure of ordinary Jews.

I don’t know a really good source for news about Islam, generally, but I tend to find more useful stuff in the radical left press, for the simple reason that it more often publishes work by real live Muslims, crazy as that sounds, sometimes even talking to other real live Muslims. Check out this report from inside Pakistan’s Red Mosque, for instance, by Fawzia Afzal-Khan. Sloppy? Sure. Beats the pants off the more “responsible” media? Absolutely. Political websites, little magazines, small city alt weeklies, denominational newsletters — that’s where it’s at for raw data.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

The slow but sure formation of a new evangelical Protestantism that will shape American life and politics — and thus the life and politics of the world — for decades to come. I think it’s a cultural story, though, not one to be measured by voting blocs or witnessed at election time. Which means the press just won’t get it.

There’s no one story here, either — the schisms of mainline denominations are part of it, the decline of the old Christian Right is part of it, lifestyle evangelicalism is part of it, the return of poverty to the forefront of evangelical consciousness is part of it, etc., etc. Piece by piece, none of these stories compares to, say, the question of what’s up with the bellicose branches of Islam, but taken as a whole, American Protestantism will still do more to shape the world, for better and worse, than any other faith.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Not the above, actually. This is a strictly personal answer: Having spent the last five years thinking about the transformation of American Protestantism, I’m eager to get back to the much smaller, more peculiar stories of lived religion. I’m spending the summer thinking about the next book, which I hope will be geographically-bound — that is, an exploration of various beliefs, traditions, rituals, etc., within a locality, rather than any kind of trend story. So I’ll be looking for the quiet signals that hide in the back pages of newspapers rather than following, say, the evangelical soul-struggle over global warming.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Here’s a cynical answer: It’s not. Understanding religion is not a way to get ahead in mainstream media. I say that as a guy for whom religion has proved, among other things, a path to a decent career in journalism. But I got lucky — for most people, religion is a dead end. Not because of an anti-religion bias in newsrooms — lots of journalists and editors are privately religious — but because of a narrative loop in which media “consumers” hunger for “breaking news.” Religion doesn’t usually break, it unfolds; understanding is achieved not through investigation, but immersion; the story is best told not in news prose, but in narrative. Mainstream media is a machine that simply doesn’t perform those functions well; it was never meant to.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It’s from the Red Mosque story I mentioned above: when Fawzia Afzal-Khan, an English professor from Montclair State in New Jersey, finally manages to win access to the home of the so-called “Burqa Brigades” — the squads of ultra-conservative Pakistani Muslim women who police morality with staves — she finds a flirty male leader and young girls eager to debate Adam Smith with her. One needn’t have any sympathy for the violent, bullying tactics of these Muslim fundamentalists to find it ironic that what American media long assumed (incorrectly) about American fundamentalists — that they were driven by economic rage as much as by religious belief — seems to be true in spades within the ranks of Muslim fundamentalists, who here want to discuss not the proper covering for women, but the wages of cab drivers and the price of butter.

Bonus: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Tune in — more good religion reporting is broadcast on radio than is printed in most major papers.

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  • Jerry

    Did you omit a pointer to Jeff’s blog?

    I think he has a great point with #2. I agree with him that religion in America is underoing a transformation that is mostly under the media radar. That directly ties in with #4 – the daily news cycle is not suited to tell that transformational story.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Jerry,

    Nope, I link to both Killing the Buddha and The Revealer.

  • Jerry

    I found it. I had expected to find a link here:

    Our respective blogs approach the terrain rather differently, but it’s a difference that keeps me on my toes.

  • http://42northwest.blogspot.com Sven

    Apparently Jeff Sheler is indeed ubiquitous, today making an appearance on GR disguised as fellow religion journalist Jeff Sharlet.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    D’oh! Thanks for the good catch, Sven. I have corrected the headline. I ask the forgiveness of both Jeffs, and I hope both got some chuckles out of my error.

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    Thanks for posting this interview. I actually agree with most of what Sharlet says here.

  • Brian

    “One needn’t have any sympathy for the violent, bullying tactics of these Muslim fundamentalists to find it ironic that what American media long assumed (incorrectly) about American fundamentalists — that they were driven by economic rage as much as by religious belief — seems to be true in spades within the ranks of Muslim fundamentalists, who here want to discuss not the proper covering for women, but the wages of cab drivers and the price of butter.”

    I’m not 100% sure, but is he basically saying “Poverty causes terrorism” here? Because that’s demonstrably untrue, at least for Islamic terrorists who have operated in the West. It may very well be that for those immersed in a Muslim society, economic matters trump religious belief as drivers for radicalization (although doubtful, given the goals of the radicals in Pakistan to whom he’s referring), but it’s completely & dangerously wrong for Muslims in the West.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I’m no fan of the so-called “chicks with sticks’ of the Red Mosque or their violent tactics, but they, at least, are not terrorists. They’re vigilantes, which is another kind of bad. And if it seems that I suggest that poverty “causes” vigilantism (or terrorism), as I’m afraid my own sloppines makes it seem, I apologize. The important point here is that given an opening to talk about the issues that drive them, these women chose to speak about wages and butter, knowledgably and with passion. So if you want to understand their motives, you need to ask them about — wages and butter. AND religion, of course — that goes without saying for a group operating out of a house of worship.

    As for broad generalizations about what causes terrorism, I’m distrustful of them — terrorism is by definition a crime of the few against the many, and individuals have their own motives. Is terrorism in the Middle East related to crushing poverty? Absolutely. In the “West,” too — from what we’ve seen, most Muslim terrorists in the West have been either A) poor and angry; or B) affluent and angry about poverty, among other things.

    No good reporter would ignore that. Nor would he or she make the mistake of assuming that saying as much implies ANY kind of endorsement or defense of terrorism.


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