The 2018 Nonfiction Challenge Part IX: Spirits, Spirituality, Gods, Demons, and Supernatural Beings
This is a continuation of the topic The 2018 Nonfiction Challenge Part VIII: Short and Sweet in August.
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From where I write this on the East Coast of the US, I have to hope that as the reading heats up, the weather actually cools down. We're all reeling from a series of temperatures in the high 90s (before the humidity factor is included!), Fahrenheit. It has left me so zonked, I'm not even going to bother with the conversion to Celsius for non-Americans... :-)
So, this is the month for things that we can't see and that require faith on our part. From the Book of Common Prayer to things that go bump in the night. A biography of the Dalai Lama? Go for it. The evolution of witches from people feared by the townsfolk in Salem (Stacy Schiff's very good book on that is one I'd recommend!) to people who proudly announce their Wiccan beliefs on public documents and proclaim them in tattoos. Take a look at conventional religions (like the late VS Naipaul's "Among the Believers" -- his journey among Muslim nations in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution) or less familiar ones, like Japan's Shinto, ancestor worship in parts of Asia, or animism. (The late Naipaul unveils an amazing array of these in "African Masque", a book written much later, in which he looks at the array of spiritual practices in Africa.) Biographies, books about the clash between society and religion, books of devotion -- whatever strikes your fancy. Books about the religious life? There are some oddly interesting books about Venetian convents: only one son in every generation was allowed to marry in the 17th/18th generations, creating large groups of surplus young men and women, and while the men could just be carousing and dueling bachelors, the women were shipped off to convents in droves, whether or not they wished it.) What was paganism all about, anyway? I just finished a fascinating book about religions that are teetering on the edge of extinction, like the Samaritans, the Yazidis, and so on. (Some of them I'd never even heard of...)
One thing to remember: ensure that the emphasis on this month's theme is front and center in the book, not just a background part of it (eg a biography of someone from a religious background.) Questions of the spirit should drive the narrative, not be an add-on. An example might be Karen Armstrong's two memoirs, one of her life in a convent ("Through the Narrow Gate") and a follow up book documenting her struggle to return to the 'real' world when she left the convent. They are memoirs and deal with more than her religious life, but even in the second, when she seems to be leaving religion behind with being a nun, she struggles to hold on to her faith -- that's the heart of the book.
As always, post or PM me with questions, and come back and keep us up to date with what you're reading, the winners and the losers...
Some suggested reading ideas for this challenge
Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea
The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis
The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson
In Search of Buddha's Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads by Susan Jacoby
The Witches by Stacey Schiff
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong
The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg
If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission by Jo Piazza
Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty by Steve Waldman
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew-- Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, etc.
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy
Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars by Stephen O'Shea
Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh (about relics)
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents by Ian Buruma
The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V.S. Naipaul
Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews by Howard Jacobson
The Father And The Son - My Father's Journey Into The Monastic Life by Matt Murray
Among the Believers by V.S. Naipaul
Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister's Wife Examines Faith by Carlene Cross
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson
Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral by Phillip Ball
The Case for God by Karen Armstrong (or any other of her books...)
In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch
Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife by Lisa Miller
Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Miller
Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture by Maria Rosa Menocal (about Andalusia)
The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill
The she-pope: A quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan by Peter Stanford
John Julius Norwich's tome on the papacy
Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America by Chris Hedges
God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization by A.N. Wilson
Standing Alone in Mecca : An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam by Asra Nomani
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell (about religions with tiny populations, eg Zoroastrians, Samaritans, etc.)
The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America by Joseph Berger
How to Be a Muslim: An American Story by Haroon Moghul
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
Much of what C.S. Lewis wrote...
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris
Bruce Feiler's books, about walking the Holy Land, etc.
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
Fiction "side-dishes" for this month's challenge
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
Hild by Nicola Griffith
The Fruit of Her Hands by Michelle Cameron
Illuminations by Mary Sharratt
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
The Wandering Jew by Eugene Sue
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Moving forward into the final months of 2018, here's what we have on the schedule:
October – First Person Singular -- This is the spot for anything first person. Anything that anyone has written about themselves and their lives in any way. Tina Fey? Paul Kalinithi? (sp?)
November – Politics, Economics & Business -- The stuff we all know we should know about but sometimes hate to think about, especially these days. Call it the hot button issues challenge. Immigration/Racism? Banking regulation? Minimum wage debates?
December – 2018 In Review -- Frustrated because you've got leftover books? You've got too many book bullets from other people? Or -- omigod -- that new biography was just published and you must must must read it? Or you've been reading the lists of best reading of 2018 in the NY Times and just realized, omigod, you MUST READ this one book before the end of the year? This is your holiday gift, from the challenge that keeps on giving...
The two NF books at the top of my list for September are Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope by Joel Marcus and My Brother's Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust by Rod Gragg. I may also squeeze in Searching for God in Godforsaken Times and Places: Reflections on the Holocaust, Racism, and Death by Hubert G. Locke.
Hmm, struggling a bit for this one. Could I count Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region or Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales Of Music, Magic, Art, And Arson In The Convents Of Italy or A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age or The darkening age : the Christian destruction of the Classical world? They're all quite historical / biographical takes on religion.
I had thought I would read Educated: A Memoir (Tara Westover is from an extreme prepper Mormon background which she escaped from when she decided after all to get herself educated) for this month. However, I'm not far enough into it to know for sure how front and centre that background is throughout the memoir (it's certainly a huge bit of the 10% of the book I've read so far). So I think what I'm going to do is start my original choice for this challenge, Threading my Prayer Rug: One Woman's Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim by Sabeeha Rehman, and reserve judgment on Educated till I've finished it. So add Threading my Prayer Rug to the covers post - it's a good excuse to read them both, anyway!
>8 charl08: Nuns Behaving Badly was also on my shortlist for this month, but I don't think I'm going to be able to get to it in time.
If people are looking for ideas, one book I read last year which would fit here and which I very much enjoyed was The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew-- Three Women Search for Understanding. All three women are from the more liberal ends of their respective religions, and in this book they basically thrash out their initial differences and come to a much more nuanced understanding of and respect for each other's faith.
I'm planning to read Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain which I recently grabbed for a great price at Amazon.
I am going to read Road to Santiago by Kathryn Harrison. This is a book about what she decided to make the pilgrimage and what she learned about herself along the way. The other book I want to read is Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. This one is about the conflict between the Hmong spiritual beliefs and modern medical care for seizures. This book was required reading for one of the Teacher Education courses and I never got around to reading it. Now seems like a good month in which to do that.
If I get time I will read Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. I am not sure if this is a book about pilgrimage or not, so will leave it for my last selection for this month.
>13 benitastrnad: The Anne Fadiman book is a great idea for this challenge -- one where religion is front and center, or at least religious beliefs, but in a different way. And Tom Bissell's book (which I got bogged down on) is partly travelogue and partly history -- would definitely fit, though, because it all revolves around these key figures in Christian history.
>10 Jackie_K: I'm not sure about Educated either. I may dip into it later on in the month, and if I do, will come back and let you know. But hey -- it would DEFINITELY fit for October, when it's "first person singular" month!!
>8 charl08: I would say that the book about the Italian convents and definitely Catherine Nixey's book (which is great, and which is squarely about religion but from a contrarian POV) would fit. POSSIBLY Masha Gessen's book about Birobidzhan, although it's a stretch -- it's mostly about the more secular side of Judaism, i.e. people who identify as Jews, rather than about religion. But it is about state anti-semitism on the part of the Soviet Union. It's just not revelatory about faith or spirituality in any way. The Spinoza book (which is good...) is similar -- it's been so long since I read it that I can't remember how much was about religion versus about Spinoza's theorizing (and how Jews in Amsterdam responded to it), but what sticks in my head is the discussion of Spinoza's philosophy, which is less about religion than, well, philosophy. But I will leave the calls on both those up to you.
I will be back later tonight or in the morning.
>15 Oberon: Yes, I think so. Although it's a travelogue, the catalyst for it is a pilgrimage, and it's about the Christian communities, their history and present existence (at the time of writing, 20 years ago) where Dalrymple goes in his travels.
The images are up, and I'll circle back to deal with the lists in the morning! Happy September reading, everyone!!
I'll start with On Pilgrimage by Jennifer Lash, which found itself at the top of a pile this week, despite being in the pile for 18 years!
I managed to finish my last book for the August challenge on the last night before I shut my eyes and went to sleep. Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West by Timothy Egan. I posted my review on the August page, and hope that some of you will go back and read it, as this was a great book on which to end the month. It was a sizable book of essays (268 pages - not including bibliography and index) that is a series of essays written by Egan when he was the New York Times bureau chief for the Western U. S. based in Seattle. It was published in 1998 and so many of the population figures that Egan cites are now out-of-date. I got this book from our library and I found so much food for thought in it that I purchased a used copy to keep in my home library.
Now it is on to Kansas and hope that I find the time to read all 5 of the books I am taking back with me. Things are quite there, so I hope to have plenty of time for reading.
I had planned to read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind last month, but I'll read if for this challenge instead.
>20 Chatterbox: Yes, that is the cover I have Suz. Lash is the mother of the acting family Feines (Ralph, Joseph and their siblings who work in other parts of the industry).
I don't see anything in my piles that fits this theme, except maybe Educated I think I will see how the month goes. I am sort of in a less-serious reading mood, so may skip the non-fiction this month.
The Spirit Catches Me is a great book! Hope you like it Benita.
Another to add to the Fiction Side: THE WANDERING JEW by Eugene Sue, haunting in its strangeness from the opening pages.
Not related, but a welcome change from recent reading, is the opening of THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE.
I haven't read this since the 1960s and so still have the wonder of whether The Mayor will turn out to be
the sailor who bought the wife
or the man who sold her.
I went through my shelves and came up with The Witch of Lime Street, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell and Whisperers: The Secret History of the Spirit World. Would these work for this month's theme?
>25 Familyhistorian: Why not? I did expand it to include all kinds of belief, include in "things that go bump in the night." I suppose that includes spiritualism, since that encompasses all kinds of spirituality, as well as a discussion about life after death -- a core belief of many religions. So go for it!
>23 banjo123: Well, the idea is to kind of pursue it if there's something there that interests you. If not -- go and read something from one of the other months, or get an early start on Educated, which, as I noted previously, will fit into the October challenge...
Just a teeny quibble from the resident member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (sometimes referred to as Mormon). Educated is the story of someone who grew up in an abusive home with a mentally ill, survivalist father, who also was identifying as Mormon, but Not following the tenets of the faith. Theirs was an extreme lifestyle from any rational point of view and does not reflect the teachings or beliefs of the church. So, if you're looking for a book that explains the religion, this would not be it. If you're looking for a story of resilience and courage and overcoming abuse and neglect, definitely. I wouldn't blame her, after being raised that way for having major issues with her parents professed religion or any organized religion.
With Senator McCain's Funeral and the ongoing horror from the white house, this was the saddest Labor Day I can remember.
>27 nittnut: Point taken. And the same would apply to some of the "breakaway" groups that still identify as LDS even if they aren't accepted as such by the main church. (I'm thinking of those polygamist branches, like FLDS, etc.) But the question, from the POV of our challenge here, is whether the question of FAITH (per se) rather than a specific religious group, is central enough to the narrative. So in that case, it might or might not be, whether or not the author's family reflects the LDS faith is a question to raise in a review or commentary -- and an important one, given the continued existence of some of these small groups on the fringe that seem able to get a disproportionate amount of attention relative to their size. In the same way, a story from inside by a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church (you know, those folks who enjoy picketing funerals and being offensive) might still address questions of coming to grips with faith, even as their hijacking of the moniker of "Baptist" gave all Baptists conniption fits.
I just finished reading The Wind in My Hair by Masih Alinejad. It's one of those borderline books that doesn't quite fit into this challenge, because although Iran's insistence on mandatory hijab is founded in their religious theology, Alinejad's book really doesn't deal with her questions of faith or practicing Islam or the question of cultural traditions versus what religion actually mandates. So, while I'm not counting it, I'm flagging it for people interested in the debate -- it's a memoir about how Iran's rules governing women's lives and conduct affected Alinejad and how she ended up leaving Iran and founding the "My Stealthy Freedom" campaign. Importantly -- at least in my opinion -- is her point that she is opposed to anything compulsory. In the final pages of the book, she talks about France's "burkini" ban (the ban on cover-up swimsuits in many French seaside resorts) and the hypocrisy of France criticizing Iran while not allowing its own citizens the right to make their own decisions about what to wear. The broader point being is that this should always be a matter of choice for individual women, based on their view of religion, rather than something mandated or banned by a government in the name of Islam or secularism. Because at this point, secularism itself becomes a kind of religion, with its own dogma... Primarily a memoir, although with a theological government as the backdrop.
Haven't seen or found anything that interests me for this month's topic so I'll probably end up passing on it.
>29 Chatterbox: Absolutely.
>30 Chatterbox: I've added that one to my pile. It's an interesting discussion. Particularly the question of when secularism becomes religion, and the issue of how to maintain western culture in the face of a huge number of Muslim immigrants who have strong cultural differences. Because if you're allowing them entry to your country, knowing full well what the differences are, then how is that managed? I don't know the answer, but I'm interested.
>32 nittnut: In the case of France, at least, the rationale for "allowing" Muslims entry to the country was that they were French citizens. Specifically, they were citizens of French colonies, and the way that the French perceived this, that made them French -- part of la Francophonie. (I'm oversimplifying...) At least, that was the case in the 40s, 50s and into the 60s. The additional benefit to France was an economic rationale: these darker-skinned, often less educated (at that time) migrants (can't really call them immigrants, if they were already beneficiaries of citizenship) was that they filled a need for postwar blue-collar labor. Germany, which didn't have overseas colonies, brought in "guest workers" from Turkey for the same reason. The UK had Commonwealth countries -- India, Pakistan, parts of Africa and the Caribbean. So, in France, a lot of the people we're talking about are actually second, third generation French citizens -- by which I mean the second or third generation to be born in France. So not being "allowed entry" at all, but citizens. And citizens routinely discriminated against in ways we haven't seen here since Jim Crow -- sometimes not allowed to open bank accounts. Not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, regardless of their education or job. So you can get a 3rd generation Tunisian, like my friend's husband, with a PhD, a university professor, who can't find a place to live in central Paris. The lease is in his wife's name and when they found she was married to an "Arab", they went crazy.
I kind of paused when I read "how to maintain western culture." Erm, it maintains itself. As it has when Catholics moved to the US (and prompted riots and discrimination. We all survived the "yellow peril". We survived the influx of Jews from Russia and eastern Europe that was supposed to alter the national character of the US. Now, of course, it's Hispanics from south of the border that are a threat to the US national identity. How does that relate to Europe? Europeans don't have a tradition of immigration, of course, or of absorbing immigrants well, and xenophobia tends to be much stronger. I remember, as a very young child, having my headmistress at my English school, sneer at me for being a "colonial" and telling me that not much could be expected of me for that reason. (The irony there is her school was making lots of money from teaching colonials, but whatever...) There are strong cultural differences already in Europe, even if you exclude Muslims. For instance, between those who are devout Christians and those who are adamantly secular; between Greens and conservatives. Between Catholics and Protestants -- still. Between Christians and Jews (France is particularly bad in terms of anti-Semitism.)
So, what does "western culture" actually mean? When we talk about maintaining it, what does that suggest? Tolerance, acceptance, democracy, free speech, etc... If we maintain it by denying some of those rights to a certain group because we decide that their "strong cultural differences" must mean that they endanger it (which is putting the cart before the horse, logically speaking), it is we who are undermining our own values, and doing the most damage to them, not these putative "migrants".
Having lived in European countries during times when there was an influx of immigrants from "non-Western" cultures, I would actually argue that the less welcoming, the more hostile and wary, the more suspicious we are, the more likely those newcomers are to view those much-touted Western values as so much hypocrisy. Yes, free speech and freedom of conscience is fine -- as long as it falls within defined parameters. Read Milton's Aeropagitica on free speech, and you'll see what I mean (I hope...) When you try and ring-fence or limit freedoms, they become oxymorons. I would argue that some of the people who are most hostile to European values today are those who grew up being excluded from European society, who were rejected as "lesser" and told that they and their beliefs didn't count for free speech. Here's an example of that. A friend of mine who lives in France has a daughter of 16 (and two other daughters), who is now at a lycée which is among those that has a dress code based on "secularism." She and her closest friend, a non-observant Muslim teenager, went shopping sometime last summer for the new school year and bought the same longish navy skirt. Same exact item. The friend was sent home from school to change into "non-religious" clothing -- they had assumed that she was wearing a long skirt to make a religious statement, purely because of her ethnicity. This wasn't about hijab, but about skirt length (Muslims needing to wear modest clothing, etc.) Meanwhile, my friend's daughter -- on whom she says this skirt is actually longer, since Claire is shorter -- has been able to wear the identical skirt to school with no problems. And their classmates have been able to wear baptismal crosses. Now, if you were a nominally Muslim, North African teenager, already aware of the problems your family has confronted, sent home to change the same clothing your classmates are allowed to wear -- wouldn't you grow up skeptical and scornful of "Western culture" and values, and see them as a cover for bias and racism? Or at least the country's commitment to observing those honestly and without bias? And wouldn't you also seek out what in your own history and culture is worthwhile (and it's not as if western history is free of blots and stains -- the Inquisition, anyone, or wars of religion? -- or that of Muslim nations without things to celebrate -- the Mughal empire, the wonders of Damascus' golden age, the fact that it was Islam that rescued a lot of Greek and Roman science and philosophy)?
Sorry, here endeth the rant... If western values and culture are worthwhile, and have something that is universally beneficial (and that is the only reason for them to endure in my opinion -- if they only benefit a portion of the world, then shame on us) then they should be strong enough to appeal to people from many backgrounds, to varying degrees, and especially those who choose to make their lives in "the west." Equally, we can learn from challenges to those values. What do we lose by insisting on independence and self-reliance as absolute goods? Hasn't that led some of us to abandon community and family?
The values of Western culture = Jazz and Blues? Opera and Classical symphonies?
Refusing to help Jews in WWII? Refusing to help Biafra? and now, the Rohingya?
Electing a home grown monstrous hate-filled racist? (start of rant)
Most immigrants simply want their own country to be great again.
And, why would they want to move to a country where men are burning their Nike shoes to protest a man who kneeled down on a football field to stop
the murders of young Americans by other Americans...?
>10 Jackie_K: >26 Chatterbox: I would say read Educated and make your own decision about how or if it fits into the challenge. 'Mormonism' is one of the primary tags. I think Jackie's post in >10 Jackie_K: sums it up perfectly.
I read it along with the PBS/NYT Now Read This Bookclub - (discussions on FB if you want to look) and it led to interesting questions about religions and splinter religions.
I will always be on the side of more freedom and less restriction in these challenges.
ETA: I'm a big believer in 'toe-in-the-water'. If, for example, one doesn't read religion books, a book where religion is important, even if not the primary focus, can be the breakthrough book for wanting to read more about a subject.
>33 Chatterbox: Point taken regarding wording - I don't have any issues at all with immigration, or with citizens who happen to be descendants of immigrants. I am sorry if it came across that way.
I suppose what I meant instead of preserving "western culture" was that there is a struggle in many places, here and in Europe, to try and understand how to cope with a group of people of whatever race/nationality/religion who refuse to recognize the laws or customs of the country they are living in. This is something that is an issue. And it doesn't compare in the way of saying that if I went to Iran and refused to comply with their dress code because it's not my culture - because the law there wouldn't permit me to do that. We allow much more freedom in the west, as we should, but it also means some of the issues we have are as a result of those who do not embrace those values, even while benefiting from them. I also realize this is not every member of whatever group we would speak of, and many of our problems result from treating people as a "group" rather than as individuals. I also have friends who are Muslim, and my personal experience has been of lovely and generous people who have come here for a variety of reasons. Many of our refugees here in NC are escaping religious persecution and are traumatized, yet so giving and generous with the little they have.
If we can't talk about what we value and want to keep - religious freedom, freedom of speech - and we don't allow it to everyone, whether we agree with them or not, we are in serious trouble. Part of what is so ugly about the current climate is the inability to have a conversation about anything at all for fear of offending someone.
>34 m.belljackson: I was thinking more of the core values, not the way those have and continue to be distorted in practice (as I suspect you realize!) So -- freedom of speech. Political freedom -- including a secret ballot, to a degree that remains relatively rare outside of North America, Europe, Japan and a handful of other nation states. Freedom to practice the religion you wish, even in a country such as the UK where there remains a state religion (Church of England) or in France where secularism is a de facto state religion.
We routinely fall well short of those ideals, but they exist as ideals, which means that at least we can say, hey, as long as x and y are happening in our country, we cannot lay claim to moral high ground, and we need to work to rectify that. And there usually is a group of people who push us forward in the right direction. Eg the civil rights campaigners and MLK as the culmination of decades of efforts to end Jim Crow laws. It should never have existed at all -- but it ended in part because we could point to those ideals and say, hey, either those are bogus or we are hypocrites.
I am not sure what extent the US can truly help others -- yes, by opening its borders to immigrants, but by intervening in Biafra, in Myanmar? At what point do we have to say, we want other countries to follow our leadership, not force them to do what we do? I am very ambivalent about this, because it leads us in the direction of forcible intervention, which sows the seeds of resentment, even by people we insist we are trying to help. A case in point being Afghanistan. Yes, the country is better off without the Taliban running it, struggling to build a civil society -- or is it? There's still a civil war raging, women end up in prison to protect them from honor killings by their families, the Taliban is still there, etc. etc.
And YES -- I completely agree with you that immigrants basically just want their own nations to be safe for them to live in again. The bottom line is that 90% of those who flee their homes would never leave at all if it were possible for them to stay, even living at a subsistence level. They leave when it's no longer safe to stay -- when starvation or death are the alternatives. It boggles my mind that people don't understand this. That's why the people crossing the Mexican border now aren't coming from but via Mexico, after a long journey from the Northern Triangle, an exceptionally dangerous region of Central America. The Syrians were quite happy and relatively prosperous until Assad and regional powers, Russia, etc. turned their country into a free-fire zone.
>35 streamsong: I will be reading Educated but probably not until later this month. My only caveat with this challenge was that I felt religion or spirituality should be a major theme in in a book. I noted in reading The Wind in My Hair that while interesting (written about a woman's quest for independence in a theocracy), there was too little about religion to make it work for the challenge. In fact, it worked against the book, in some ways, since if you didn't understand the roots of such laws as Iran's hijab rules, you'd have trouble understanding both the law and the view that it's not an absolute religious mandate, since in a book that revolves around the issue of compulsory hijab so much, she actually never deals with the theological case for or against. So, I'm not counting it. I haven't read Educated, so I can't offer an informed view. If you or anyone else wants to read it and count it towards this month's challenge, all I'd ask is that you evaluate it on roughly the same basis. If the only religious context there is that the reason for her family's behavior is religion, but there's not detail or info given about those beliefs, and that's not a significant part of the narrative, well, it's not really a book that could be said to be about religion or spirituality, etc., I think. Again, I'm hampered by not having read this, but will leave it up to your honest judgment.
I really don't think I'm terribly restrictive in these challenges, for what it's worth. I try to set the parameters as widely as possible -- you can read books about ghosts, about table-rapping, about communicating with the dead in the aftermath of World War I, as Rudyard Kipling did. You could read arguments in favor of rejecting religions, or about afterlives, or about whether religion and politics mix. If something really doesn't work, or is borderline, like Where the Jews Aren't, which I HAVE read, and is more about Soviet anti-Semitism and political manouevering to remove potential regime opponents from Moscow and Leningrad than it is about "religion", religious beliefs, etc., since most of the people involved in the story were Jewish only by heritage/background, then I'll explain the logic. Of course, if you feel I'm being too restrictive, then let me know, and I'll step back and let someone else take over.
>36 nittnut: Yes, I take your point. I wonder how many people truly reject the laws/customs of their new country, however, versus the amount of attention that a small minority get. And then there's the case that in Greece -- which also has been getting a lot of headlines -- what tends to be overlooked is that the Muslim minority that still want to be governed under shariah law have been governed that way predating the creation of Greece as a country -- it's a recognition of the fact that Greece formerly was part of the Ottoman empire and that these Muslim Greek citizens have lived there as long as the Orthodox Christians, and certainly aren't immigrants. But that's being overlooked and sometimes reported incorrectly in some of the coverage. (In this case, shariah law covers marriage, divorce, alimony and child custody.) I'm not sure that much of this is very different from the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in the US. Indeed, I might argue that there's little difference between insisting living under shariah and rabbinical law. A thought prompted in part by having a friend in rehab in the Hasidic corner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and schlepping out there to visit him, with some "interesting" experiences, and more than a decade living around the corner from a fundamentalist mosque in the Muslim corner of Brooklyn.
And YES, on your point about refugees. I struggle with why people don't have the empathy required to see these people as simply individuals in need of what their "label" suggests: a refuge. That is something we are supposed to be able to offer. And when we open our doors and our arms, we should be able to defuse tensions, right? That has been my experience.
And yes, freedom is indivisible. Once we start chipping away at it... That doesn't mean the freedom to insult someone, or the freedom to take advantage of others, but the freedom to do, to be, to create, to exist without fear, etc.
On a related note, I've been dipping into Journey Into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity, which is a compelling read. Not sure I'll read it for this month's challenge, but it does deal with some of these topics. The author also has written a companion volume about Muslims in the US, but I haven't seen that yet.
Enough of my blathering, however. Back to the reading...
Biafra asked for help just as the Colonists did from France.
The mystery continues to be how to get help past corrupt governments to help the people to grow and harvest decent and healthy crops,
to get fresh water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, to always have great medical care,
to have their own homes, and to live without fear of crime, tyranny, or each other.
I thought France was mostly Catholic, with still strong anti-semitism despite worshiping a Jewish Rabbi.
>40 m.belljackson: Biafra was a bona fide nightmare, with even the basic humanitarian aid programs hopelessly politicized -- the Biafrans wouldn't accept aid that had been inspected in Lagos, fearing sabotage or even food poisoning, but the Nigerian government insisted that any food aid and other supplies for the civilian population, to get around the blockade, had to go through Lagos or otherwise be inspected. And becoming involved in the separatist affairs of another country -- only a few African nations had acknowledged Biafran independence at that point -- is tricky. (The only exception I can think of is Bangladesh, when India put its weight in favor of East Pakistani independence, actively -- because it was literally a neighboring country in Bengal.) But Timor in Indonesia is another one that has dragged on for a long, long time. And conflicts in the Western Sahara. Not to mention the Uighurs in China. The view seems to be "you do it, we'll recognize you." Like South Sudan.
And yes, so many countries plagued by poor governance. One billionaire set up a prize ($1 million) to go to an African leader who left peacefully following democratic elections, passing on power to an elected successor. I think it's only been awarded twice or so.
France is nominally Catholic -- about 65% of the population is Christian, and 85% of them are Catholic. But only 10% are observant. When Macron stood up in front of a gathering of Catholic churchmen in the spring and said “the link between church and state has been damaged, that the time has come for us, both you and me, to mend it", he caused a big kerfuffle, because of the phenomenon of "laïcitié" or laicization. That dates back to 1905, following the Dreyfus Affair. But when people talk now of what France means, they talk about Charlemagne, about Roland's defeat of the Muslims, and so on. And so the history of the Catholic church, if not religious practice itself, emerges as part of what it means to identify as "French". And yes, France is in the ironic position of having the largest Jewish community in Europe and at the same time, having one of the most significant and mainstream anti-Semitic trends. That's not just the kind of folks who run around in hoods, or the alt-right, but the kind we used to see here in the 1920s and 1930s, who make anti-Semitic jokes at polite dinner parties and would discourage their kids from having Jewish friends, or at least from inviting them over. The ideal of being "non-religious" sounds great in theory, but as one analyst has written, "any manifestation of discontent — either on the streets or in the spaces of institutional politics — by the republic’s darker and non-Christian (or thought to be so) citizens quickly evokes concerns about the values and principles of the republic." Translated: anyone who feels that in the private spaces they do not have the freedom to practice their religion, or who feels discriminated against in the public sphere, ends up transforming the debate into one about whether that individual is challenging "laïcité".
I’ve got A Magical World: Superstition and Science from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment on my iPad, will be starting it tonight. Purports to be about the interplay of science and religious belief (ranging from the Catholic Church to European folk religions) over the time period referenced in the title.
>42 drneutron: That sounds exceptionally cool -- I like the idea of the fusion of those two, and it's a fertile topic! Shall be looking forward eagerly to your review. Does it deal with the cures, aka magic, produced by "wise women" aka witches? If so, I may have to add it to my very long lists of requests for the Athenaeum folks...
>43 Chatterbox: Don't know yet - I only made it through chapter 1 last night before hitting the pillow. 😀 First chapter is a preamble up to the 13th century, kind of setting the stage. He's talked about three streams of knowledge in the scholarly world (mostly monasteries, though he does mention the rise of secular universities as we're entering the early 13th century): received knowledge from the Classic Greeks and Romans, revealed knowledge as represented by the Church doctrine and teaching, and experimental/experiential knowledge. We'll see what else gets pulled in.
>39 Chatterbox: Journey Into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity is in my pile. I need to get to it. I am glad you're finding it compelling. I'd probably plow through it anyway because it seems useful, but it's nice when it pulls you in.
It's one of my soapboxes - this idea of freedom. It's a regular conversation in my house right now because teenagers. "I can do whatever I want!" And it's true. They can. And then they will live with the results, which are clearly defined.
>42 drneutron: Your book, which is too long to type, looks very interesting. Adding it to the pile.
>46 streamsong: Not trying to beat this question to death at my end. It's up to readers to decide for themselves if they feel a book fits the idea of the challenge -- not just as a background, as I ended up concluding with Masih Alinejad's memoir about fighting for a broad array of freedoms in a theocracy, but as a central theme. If anyone reads Educated and feels that questions of religion and faith are at the heart of the book, let me know and I'll post the image there.
>45 nittnut: Yes, what we mean when we say freedom is interesting -- and perhaps a subject for debate in November, when we move on to politics? (Timothy Snyder's new book, The Road to Unfreedom, may be an interesting one to read that month, or at least to plan to wrap up that month, memo to self...) I'm always a bit amazed when people interpret the First Amendment as giving them the right to say whatever they want without consequences (the right to free speech...) In the US there are remarkably few limitations (not even for hate speech), and that's what we collectively are prepared to live by, it seems to me, in part because there can be other consequences than just being banned from saying something. After all, if you tell your bf he's an asshole, or your girlfriend that she's ugly, be prepared to be suddenly single, freedom of speech notwithstanding!
I can't lay hands on the copy of the Ian Buruma book that I wanted to read this month -- ARGH. Taming the Gods. I may have to replace it with a Kindle copy. At least I can misplace THOSE on my shelf. I'm a big fan of Buruma's -- he also has written a book about Theo van Gogh's murder by a fundamentalist Muslim, Murder in Amsterdam. Now that he's editing the NY Review of Books, I may have to find the money to subscribe -- he's an interesting thinker in the broad Enlightenment tradition (versus the narrow exclusionary version -- Buruma emphasizes values vs nativist thinking, IMHO.)
But meanwhile, I think I'll read the Luther bio...
Well, freedom of speech -- if you are going to have an absolute freedom of speech -- necessarily includes the freedom to lie. And the freedom to utter hateful words, etc. There are provisions in civil law to punish those who lie, eg libel and slander laws. But depending on the jurisdiction, you may need to prove damage. Although in some cases, courts have found for plaintiffs but awarded them only token damages -- a penny -- as a way of saying "the defendant may have literally defamed you, but saying you were a corrupt racist, if not completely provable, is something we still believe to be a conclusion that most fair observers would reach when assessing your character." But having people able to lie or mislead (without being held responsible for defamation) is one of the prices we pay for the freedom to speak our minds. I'm not sure I'd be tremendously comfortable with someone appointed to second guess what I mean, its truth (especially since people employ irony, satire, exaggeration to make rhetorical points.) Who will judge that? Who will appoint those judges? We have enough trouble right now with the supreme court... I tend to think that many people who lie about important stuff get caught. Look at Donald Trump. He lies. We all know he lies. Sadly, there is a group of citizens who seem not to care that he lies -- it's not that he is lying, they refuse to be critically-minded or logical and examine the evidence for his lies and even if they did, would refuse to see a problem with those lies. So the problem here is perhaps an even bigger one. Bringing it back to religion, "thou shalt not lie" really might be part of the Golden Rule (which seems to show up in virtually every faith i'm familiar with, in some form) -- do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or -- don't lie, if you don't want others to mislead you and lie to you. Sorry, thinking out loud...
Wait, we are supposed to be critically minded and examine evidence and decide for ourselves what is true? EEK! So much responsibility. *grin*
>50 nittnut: Isn't it horrible??? It's enough to make one run around in circles shrieking and then head straight for the TV and a binge-watch of "The Bachelor" or something equally inane, isn't it? Especially when the weather is still so hot and muggy that my brain feels like a soggy blob of tissue and my cats are doing great imitations of 3-D fur rugs. Though woe betide me if I step on one.
>51 Chatterbox: The humidity is horrible. I look outside, and it is deceptively beautiful. Blue skies, light breeze. I step out onto the covered porch and am immediately wrapped in a wet wool blanket. Ugh. I'm having a very unproductive day. I keep falling asleep over my book. I would like to blame it on the weather...
>52 nittnut: We finally had an apocalyptic thunderstorm late this afternoon, but so far, not much improvement to either the weather or my migraine. Piffle. Like you, I'm having a hard time focusing...
If you have time, I just finished a post on Whisper's thread related to relief from chronic unrelenting migraine via occipital nerve block shots.
>53 Chatterbox: Weird. We had apocalyptic thunder on Friday afternoon too. It was extremely loud and wet, and then steam rose from everywhere and it got muggier. Blech.
I hope you are getting relief from the migraine.
I have just started A world Ablaze and it's very intriguing. I had no idea that it was routine to nail theses to church doors as a notification that these would be subjects for an upcoming debate by a doctor of theology (which was what Martin Luther was at the time.) I had always assumed that the famous nailing of the theses on the church door in Wittenberg was an act of defiance -- take this, you idiots. The contents may have been a challenge to established theology, but not the act itself -- that was apparently quite routine!
RABBI JESUS immerses readers in the religious, political, and cultural milieu and upheavals of Palestine as Jesus would have witnessed them. The experiences of his life at at once documented and augmented by the author's investigations and his new translations from Aramaic.
Many traditionally held beliefs are questioned as Bruce Chilton explores the multitude of conflicting challenges that Jesus faced from his own family and Jewish community, from the hatred of the high priests of the Second Temple at Jerusalem, from the pursuing Roman soldiers, and from Pilate.
That the Temple had evolved into a vast and terrifying slaughterhouse was new to me, as was the fact that his community had twice attempted to stone Jesus early in his life. The role that James took on after his brother's
gruesome death also takes on new meaning as he refrained from eating flesh or drinking wine.
Jesus broke away from his leader, John the Baptist, to embrace purity in place of immersion.
This, as well as his direct communications with God are handled as gently and respectfully as the still controversial
Transfiguration, Virgin Birth, Miracles, and Resurrection. The author presents many opinions.
The most important and compelling facts that stand out are that Jesus could actually heal people by channeling the Chariot Spirit of his God,
that he continued to successfully "cast out demons,"
and that HE fully believed that He was The Son of God.
I'm probably not going to get to a nonfiction title this month, but I did finish up The Sparrow a couple of days ago, and it would be a good title to add to the list of fiction "side dishes."
"A visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry, The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings brings it to a catastrophic end."
So obviously informed by actual historical accounts of earlier such missions to "New" worlds by religiously-inspired explorers.
Duly added to the fiction "side dish" list.
Meanwhile, I'm being very intrigued by the pure history of Martin Luther. Clearly, the author knows his theology, but also has no partisan axes to grind, which is refreshing.
I finally downloaded The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures - still optimistic that I will finish it this month.
>61 Chatterbox: Wasn't there a book about Mrs Luther, the ex-nun, published recently? Might be misremembering.
>62 charl08: Dunno about the book, but now you have made me very curious! I wonder whether they were the first ex-monk, ex-nun couple??? I noted Catherine Nixey's book as one to read -- how early Christians, when they finally achieved power, ran amok and eradicated a lot of classical civilization that was connected to "paganism". She is the daughter of a former nun and a former monk... !
One more for Spirituality and Gods:
"Thy light is in all forms. Thy love in all beings: in a loving mother,
in a kind father, in an innocent child, in a helpful friend,
in an inspiring teacher.
Allow us to recognize Thee in all Thy holy names and forms
as Rama, as Krishna, as Shiva, as Buddha.
Let us know thee as Abraham, as Solomon, as Zarathustra,
as Moses, as Jesus, as Muhammed, and in many other names and forms,
known and unknown to the world."
-- from PRAYERS by Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan
With this and RABBI JESUS and THE BUDDHIST CATECHISM,
I'm feeling drawn to The Turtle whose shell is the earth...
In the same vein -- I've always liked this poem by Leigh Hunt: (very, very Victorian in language/tone, but still...)
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
I'm not sure if anyone who looks at this thread is in the path of Hurricane Florence, but if you are - stay safe! They said on the news it's been downgraded, but it still looks pretty horrific to me, I wouldn't want to be waiting in anticipation knowing it's headed my way.
Thank you for that perfect poem!
With today's "shekels" (will they NEVER stop?!)
and Bob Woodward,
there comes another "one that loves his fellow men."
Finished A Magical World. Not at all what was promised. Apparently “magic” includes any and all “non-rational” thinking. So what this really covers is the interplay of scientific and (mainstream Christian) religious thought during the time period called out with a bit of alchemy and radical apocalyptic prophecy thrown in. Not a bad book - it reminded me that the people (white males) who were leading the scientific and rational philosophical changes were embedded in a wider culture, and our attempts to understand them have to take this into account.
>70 drneutron: It has always interested me that alchemy was viewed as so scientific in the early modern era, right up into the 18th century. Downright respectable stuff... Read about what the Elizabethans and their heirs got up to, and it was an incredible mishmash of stuff -- real scientific observation, ranging all the way to absurd speculative nonsense.
I am more than half done with with Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. This book is proving to be a hard book to read. Very scholarly in tone and has lots and lots in it about the various gospels and the writings of the “apostles” and other founding fathers of the early church. I am learning much, but I do think that the title might be a little misleading. I thought it was going to be more about a sort of pilgrimage than it is. I sort of wanted to read books about pilgrimage because it is a topic about which I have some interest. This book is much better (not at all snarky) than the one I read last year about Saints and their relics and tombs, but it turns out pilgrimage isn’t the main focus.
>67 Chatterbox: I love that poem. My dad used to recite it to us at night sometimes, if he was in the mood.
>72 benitastrnad: Yup, Dame with astrology. Part and parcel with astronomy. That’s what comes from working from an incorrect physical model. 😀
>72 benitastrnad: I struggled with that book, too, and for many of the same reasons. I still haven't made it past disciple #2...
I have finished A World Ablaze by Craig Harline, a book that combines being a bio of Martin Luther during the critical early years of his theological revolution, and the entire context of the religious world in Europe at the time he hammered his theses to the door of that Wittenberg church. There was sooo much that I learned here that I had no idea of prior to this -- from the fact that nailing theses (which would then be the basis for a kind of debate called a disputation) on church doors was rather routine, and that not intended to be revolutionary or assertive or provocative behavior, to the fact that Luther himself hated the idea of people calling themselves "Lutheran" and insisted they should just call themselves "Christians", pointing out that he wasn't God's son, hadn't died on a cross, etc. etc. And who knew about the impact of Luther on the printing business in Germany and more broadly in Europe (as many as 20% of all books in print by 1521 were by Luther in Germany...)? Not I... So, an excellent read, and definitely written for the general, interested reader. My only qualm is that with all the attention devoted to the evolution of his theological thinking to the Diet of Worms, and his excommunication, it's as if Luther himself isn't interesting enough to chronicle his later life in greater detail. I have to say I found him a more interesting and appealing individual than I expected, and the book is well worth it. 4.5 stars.
I can't address any of Luther's antisemitism, but there is plenty of it evident in the book I am reading Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. The early church fathers were not loving of their Jewish roots and tried seven ways to next Sunday to separate Christianity from Judaism. It seems funny to me but they were trying to create a very separate identity for Christians and so philosophically had to make a break between the two faiths. There was a big difference between the way Peter and Paul wanted to have the new Christian faith move forward, and circumcision was the tip of that iceberg.
>76 m.belljackson: The author portrayed Luther's anti-Semitism as a late-brewing (if virulent) aspect of his theology, and while not discounting it, pointed out that earlier on in his "career", Luther had actually reminded anti-Semitic parishoners that Jesus had been a Jew. That's one aspect that gets lost because it falls in the post 1522 period, along with the whole Peasant's War (in which Luther sided with the landlords...) That's one reason I didn't give the book five stars. The narrow focus is appropriate for what the author wants to do -- shed light on a turning point. But it leaves the reader with some questions, and the more informed the reader, the more questions they are likely to have (and perhaps the less favorably they may view this book?) I think it's a good first step as it does blend the history, theology, the political environment of the time, etc. into a readable book with a strong central narrative line. And I only found one howler in the ARC -- the author describes the future Charles V as Emperor Maximilian's son. Sigh. (Actually, his grandson; his son was dead so perhaps it was an easy to make error, but I haven't been able to check it against a finished copy.)
>77 benitastrnad: >78 Chatterbox:
Staring at the iceberg,
one might wonder why early Christians wanting to separate from a Jewish heritage would adopt the one thing that would identify their males as Jewish...?
It would be illuminating to know why Martin Luther changed from reminding anti-Semites about Jesus to hatred of Jews.
None of this was taught in my 1950s Lutheran Sunday Schools or confirmation classes.
And how did we get from little Lucy marching out of the savannah to this insanity.
I did finish Tara Westover's Educated. I thought it was good, though not as good as the hype. Really an interesting story. As to whether or not it should count for this challenge, maybe not. It is really more about her individual family story than about Mormonism, or about religion in general. I can see how it would provoke a good conversation on the topic, however.
>79 m.belljackson: Your final point echoes my thinking precisely.
>80 banjo123: Do you think the memoir might have more to say about fundamentalist thinking/schismatic religions that break away from the mainstream (in this case the LDS community) and in the process create a far more repressive environment out of fear of what they have rejected? I do plan to read this book for the "memoir/first person singular" challenge next month.
>81 Chatterbox: Well, it is really very specific to Westover's family. Her father had/has his own idiosyncratic beliefs. It certainly was in context of fundamentalist breakaway groups, but her family didn't actually belong to any group. He was very influenced in his thoughts by Randy Weaver; not so much in a religious way as in a distrust of government way.
>82 banjo123: Ah, yes -- that can be tough to untangle when breakaway groups or segments of religions align themselves closely with certain ways of life or political perspectives...
I just finished reading my big book for this challenge. uApostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelvei by Tom Bissell was somewhat of a disappointment. As I said earlier - I thought it was going to be a book about pilgrimage to the various tombs of the twelve apostles. That is not what it turned out to be. It was more of an academic tome than I was looking for. Parts of it were interesting, those were the parts were the author talked about the trips that he took to the tombs of each of the twelve apostles and his observations about the relics that were there as well as the people. These were the most interesting parts of the book and they were the reason why I finished reading it. Most of the 350 page book was about early church history and the various schisms and sects that derived from the original Judean church. It was readable but it wasn’t a book that I would recommend for anybody but the most dedicated reader who is totally into early church history.
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