Category Archives: Christianity

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia

The Fifth ServantEven though I’ve read only two of his novels, I’ve recently taken a liking to the historical fiction of David Liss. His 2004 novel The Coffee Trader easily made my 2014 Favorite Fiction list while his 2014 offering The Day of Atonement not only made last year’s list but received my nod for best piece of fiction. Duly impressed with the novels of Liss, I hope to read more of his stuff in the near future.

Last week while searching my public library’s online catalog for books I could read for the European Reading Challenge I came across a listing for Kenneth J. Wishnia’s 2010 novel The Fifth Servant. After looking it up on Amazon, I saw The Fifth Servant had received a “starred review” from Publishers Weekly. As good an accolade as that might be, what really made me borrow a library copy was the praise it received from David Liss. “Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling, or entertaining as The Fifth Servant….Wishnia makes history come alive.” With a recommendation like that, how could I go wrong? After finishing The Fifth Servant earlier this morning down at my neighborhood coffee shop I’m happy to report Liss did not lead me astray.

Set during the 16th century in Prague, the novel begins when the body of a murdered young girl is found outside a Jewish-owned business. Given just three days to solve the murder, newly arrived shammes (a kind of custodian/gofer/low-level assistant for the local synagogue) Benyamin Ben-Akiva must navigate an array of hostile and reluctant personalities, both Jew and Gentile, if he’s to find the true killer before the city’s Jewish population is brutally punished. Fortunately Ben-Akiva is no mere flunky but instead a highly intelligent and educated individual who quickly blossoms into a brave man of action.

The Fifth Servant is an entertaining adventure with something for everyone: mystery, action, suspense, romance and even a little humor. Both mystery fans and fans of historical fiction will enjoy the novel. With much of it set in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and our heroic protagonist a brilliant Talmudist, I highly recommend The Fifth Servant to Jewish readers. Wishnia did a fine job painting a rich and vibrant picture of what the Jewish section of Prague looked like so many centuries ago. David Liss was right. This is a wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Fiction, History, Judaica

Heretics and How God Changes Your Brain

Sadly, once again I find myself falling behind in my blogging and needing to play a little catch-up. In the future if this happens, (and probably will) my guess is you’ll see me doing more of  these little catch-up posts in which I discuss multiple books. Even though it feels like I’m “cheating, it’s a great way to recover lost ground. Plus, it allows me to utilize the gallery feature, which it always fun to use and ideal when spotlighting a series of books.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Back in December when I did my year-end catch-up post, one of the many books I briefly featured was Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. While I didn’t say a lot about her book, I did mention in my post my wish to read more of her stuff in the coming year. Not long after I wrote those words, I discovered Hirsi Ali had written another book. Much to my joy, I was soon able to secure a copy from my public library.

Seen by many as a controversial figure because of her highly critical views of the Islamic world, her latest book in my opinion doesn’t come off as being anti-Muslim per se, even though she is quite critical when it comes to many of the religion’s core beliefs and practices . Her call to reform is similar to that of Anouar Majid as outlined in his 2007 book A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill. Cahill has been a personal favorite of mine for years, ever since I read his  How the Irish Saved Civilization way back in 1995 . Since then, I’ve tried to read everything of his I can get my hands on, including his short biography of Pope John XXIII.

Honestly, I did not feel confident about Heretics and Heroes, since his last book in his Hinges of History series Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me a bit disappointed. So, with no small bit of trepidation, I grabbed a copy of Heretics and Heroes from my public library and gave it a shot. This time, much to my relief there was no disappointment.

Heretics and Heroes covers the Renaissance and Reformation eras from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century. Just as expected, Cahill hits all the pivotal events and major personalities. Much to my joy, he also takes time to discuss more than a few vital but overlooked historical contributions. I like Cahill because he makes history entertaining and accessible to readers who are not historians. It’s like having a lengthy but entertaining discussion about history over coffee with friendly and knowledgeable college professor. In so many ways reminded me of Tamin Ansary in his book  Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman – This was my book group’s selection for the month of February and honestly, when the decision was announced I wasn’t excited to read it. But with a week to go until our meeting I said what the heck and a bought a copy from Amazon. Fortunately for me, it was a quick read. Even more fortunate for me, it was not the super new age/woo/misuse of neuroscience book I feared. How God Changes Your Brain could be seen as a kind of self-improvement book and touts the benefits of meditation and meditation-like practices to lower stress to improve physical and mental health. Instead of being turned off by the book it left me wanting to adopt some of its recommended practices. It also left me wanting to read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

In an earlier post in which I discussed three different books, I briefly touched on some of the similarities I saw between the three books. When looking at these particular three, both Hirsi Ali and Cahill in their respective books discuss religious reformations and how they’ve been initiated by “heretical” individuals. Newberg and Waldman in their book, extol spiritual exercises as form of healthy meditation, and gave the example of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as one example among many such exercises one could use to achieve greater health and well-being. Once again, I love finding commonalities in my reading material.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Science

About Time I Read It: A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

A Sultan in PalermoUneasy lies the head that wears a crown.- Henry IV Part II

My goodness how time flies. I can’t believe it’s been over three years when I featured a little paperback entitled Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali. In that post, I called Ali a bit of a renaissance man, thanks to his decades of political activism, but also his works of fiction and nonfiction. While I’ve explored a couple of his nonfiction offerings, his fiction has escaped me. Until now.

Recently, thanks to my public library, I was able to secure a copy of his 2005 novel A Sultan in Palermo. I’d been wanting to read it for years, not just based on Ali’s literary reputation but the historical reputation of King Roger of Sicily. One of history’s rare “enlightened despots” during most of his reign he treated his subjects be they Christian or Muslim with equal respect. Enamored with the island’s culture, he quickly “went native” referring to himself as Sultan Rujari of Siqilliya (Sicily) and keeping a harem of lovelies. But I qualify everything by saying “most” because towards the end of his reign things went a bit downhill – and quickly. Like predators surrounding an aged, infirm or wounded animal Sicily’s Christian nobles and knights sensed the elderly Roger was not only physically weak but politically as well. Realizing he was in the twilight of his life and his son’s reign just around the corner, Roger needed longterm Christian support from the power brokers on Sicily as well as abroad. Tragically, the only way to do that was to sellout the island’s Muslim inhabitants who for years benefitted from Roger’s friendly rule. In doing so he would also betray his most trusted confidant and lifelong friend, his royal cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi.

I found A Sultan in Palermo to be an enjoyable read. Ali writes well and the pace of his novel never slackened. Even though he’s an atheist, who was raised by atheist parents, in A Sultan in Palermo the Muslims are the “good guys” and the Christians, for the most part, are the villains. But for me to say that is an oversimplification. It’s really a novel about power and the abuses of power. And how decent people, when caught in the middle, always seem to suffer.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, Fiction, History, Islam

The Ebony Exodus Project by Candace R. M. Gorham

The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should TooWith a massive personal library of overflowing with books I’ve yet to read and a huge stack of library books begging for my attention, one would think the last thing I should be doing is buying more books. Well, that’s how a normal human being would act. But if you’re me, every so often I can’t resist the urge to buy a book or two. So, with an Amazon gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket and two weeks vacation time looming ahead of me, I threw caution to the wind and bought a pair of books. Both books, Candace R. M. Gorham’s The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too and Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East have been on my list to read for a year or two.

Back in 2013 I read Betty Brogaard The Homemade Atheist: A Former Evangelical Woman’s Freethought Journey to HappinessAccording to all the fancy algorithms employed by Goodreads, based on my interest in The Homemade Atheist, one of the next books I needed to read was The Ebony Exodus Project. I was intrigued by the book’s description. With the atheist/skeptic/secular humanist/free thought communities dominated by white male voices, I wanted to get the perspective of an African-American woman. After finishing The Ebony Exodus Project last week, I’m happy to report thanks to Gorham (along with Ayaan Hirsi Ali), those communities have vocal proponents who are also women of color.

Published in 2013, Gorham’s book is part memoir, analysis and oral history. After spending time as a minister in the Black Church, she left to pursue an advanced degree in counseling. As a result of her studies, life experience and personal reflection, she drifted away from first the Church and then religion overall. As both a mental health professional and avowed atheist, Gorham feels the Black Church has been far from beneficial to blacks, especially women. According to Gorham, the only reasonable course of action is for blacks to leave the church. In The Ebony Exodus Project she also includes oral histories from a number of women who have left Christianity, including the various roads they took to get there.

If, after reading Gorham’s book you find yourself looking for great follow-up reads from a woman’s perspective, there’s several books I can recommend. In addition to Brogaard’s The Homemade Atheist and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, you might explore Christine Rosen’s 2005 memoir My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood. In addition, Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness UpbringingVeronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are all great. Lastly, even though it’s not a memoir about leaving a religious community, Debra J. Dickerson’s 2004 book The End of Blackness should not be ignored either since it also addresses vital issues of importance to the African-American community.

This is a an excellent, thought-provoking book that should cause many people to ask some tough but necessary questions. With that in mind, even though I have a ton of stuff I need to read first, I feel my money was well spent on Gorham’s book.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, Memoir

Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy

Last week I mentioned it’s been challenge keeping my blog up to date with all the books I’ve been reading. The good news is I’ve been reading some good stuff. The bad news is it’s been hard to blog about it. Therefore, I’ve resorted to doing mini-posts and wrap-up lists as ways of keeping you updated on what I’ve been reading. So, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down on three books I recently finished.

After hearing good things about Dan Barker’s 2009 book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists I decided to grab a copy from my public library. For those of you who don’t know, Barker is a former Pentacostal-ish minister and Christian musician/songwriter who, after a period of extensive reading, personal introspection and questioning his faith became an atheist. He’s now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a frequent speaker on atheism and related topics. Since I have fondness for memoirs by individuals who left insular religious communities, it was hard for me not to like Godless. Being a former evangelical Christian myself, so much of what Barker said in his book struck a familiar, and in the end, reassuring chord with me.

Godless is both a memoir, and much like Peter Boghossian’s A Manuel for Creating Atheists, it’s also readable and informative guide to atheist thought. Personally, I liked the memoir sections of Godless a bit more than the other parts, but who cares ’cause it’s a very good book. I recommend Godless to any readers who are questioning their faith, curious about atheism or have already embraced a belief system similar to Barker’s.

In August of 2015 we lost the great Oliver Sacks. Through his books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat he showed readers the fascinating world of neurology. His use of accessible language made complex subjects not only comprehensible, but also enjoyable reading. Sacks’ inclusion of the human element in his case stories merged soul with science. With that in mind, when my book club opted to read Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations I was not disappointed.

Traditionally, people have always associated hallucinations with madness. According to Sacks, their origins can be legion, ranging from migraines, sensory deprivation, vision loss, epilepsy and severe stress. Far from always being a symptom of severe mental illness, hallucinations are far more common than people acknowledge. And yes, in case you were wondering, some recreational drugs do cause hallucinations. In his book Sacks details his experiences dabbling in these illicit substances. A bit to my surprise those passages ended up being my favorite parts of the book! This is classic Sacks and a worthy contribution to his sadly now closed cannon of work.

Five years ago I heard amazing things about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Jo praised it on her blog as did Kim on hers, but it took some recent encouragement from one of my book club members to make me finally read it. My goodness I wished I’d read it sooner. Nothing to Envy is outstanding.  Luckily for me, the copy I was able to get from the public library included a new afterward from the author that covered recent developments in North Korea like Kim Jong-un’s accession to power and his subsequent purge of rivals. Demick’s detailed look inside the horrible train wreck that is North Korea is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the rogue nation. Even though it’s early in the year I can easily see Nothing to Envy making my year-end Best of List. Consider this book highly recommended.

In conclusion, it’s easy to assume these three very good books have nothing in common (other than being library books) but alas that’s not the case. According to Dan Barker, Oliver Sacks was both an enthusiastic atheist as well as a personal friend. In Godless, Barker recalls Sacks had been a speaker at at least one atheist convention. In turn, Sacks loved Baker’s book Godless, calling it “fabulous” and proclaiming “Godless may well become a classic in its genre.” Lastly, one of the ordinary North Koreans who Demick wrote about in Nothing to Envy likened his disillusionment with the oppressive regime to becoming an atheist. Once he stopped believing in the mythology of the overarching, all-powerful North Korean system his entire universe changed. Kinda cool when you see how many things in life are in some way connected?

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Memoir, Science