Book reviews by John Bracht July/August 2013

We are currently studying World Religions, specificially, Islam and Hinduism in our fortnightly Insight Hour (2nd and 4th Sundays of the month following the morning service). Two books relating to Islam and its relationship with Christianity are particularly informative and helpful.

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and also Baylor University, is a prominent Church Historian who has authored acclaimed books like The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity (2008). His latest book is Laying Down the Sword: Why we Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (2011).

Laying Down the Sword - Jenkins One of the issues which concerns Christians studying Islam is that of violence and the doctrine of jihad. Jenkins deals with those concerns, but also provides a provocative and enlightening study of the Bible’s ‘dark passages’ with their stories of mayhem, murder, genocide and war, often commanded by God. Jenkins suggests that when Christians point to violent passages in the Qur’an and see these as definitive for the religion of Islam, they should also consider the violence in their own Christian scriptures. He concludes that such mainly Old Testament passages are no more definitive of Judaism or Christianity as the other passages are about Islam.

Nevertheless many Christians are unaware of the Bible’s disturbing passages which seem to reflect badly in the character of God. Either that or they choose to ignore them. What Jenkins demonstrates is how much the legacy of many of the dark passages has influenced subsequent Christian history right up to the 21st Century. He observes that both Jews and Christians exhibit a faith which has grown past scriptures that seem to teach a primitive brutality, and that religions, like people, grow by forgetting. In analysing some very confronting passages of scripture, Jenkins reminds us of what we have missed or forgotten. He demonstrates that divine commands to commit what we today would call ‘war crimes’ occur with far greater frequency in the Bible than in the Qur’an.

His writing is engaging and comprehensive in its survey of centuries of history. Yet despite the fact that much of this makes for harrowing reading, he provides a more balanced and positive way of assessing Islamic history and of ‘preaching the unpreachable’ within a Christian or biblical context. This is a valuable source of instruction in how to read and interpret Scripture, whether it be the Qur’an or the Bible.

A World Without Islam - Fuller My second recommendation is Graham E. Fuller’s book, A World Without Islam (2010). I think some Christians think that the world might be a better place if Islam had never come into existence. Read Fuller’s book and you will see how wrong that assumption is. As Reza Aslan has written this is “at once a brilliant history lesson and a fascinating thought experiment ... sure to challenge the simplistic view held by so many in the West that Islam is the source of the conflicts we are witnessing in the Middle East.” Fuller, one of the foremost authorities on global Muslim politics is a fascinating figure. He is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council of the CIA, a former senior political scientist at RAND and a current adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University. He has lived and worked in the Muslim world for more than 20 years. Just encountering that information about the author compelled me to read his work.

Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington D.C. observed that much of the discussion about Islam is “shrill and usually sterile”, but that Fuller’s writing is “measured, scholarly and eminently sensible, [a] voice that needs to be heard”. From the origins of Islam to the current crises in the Middle East, Fuller surveys the clash of civilizations and analyses Islam within that broader perspective of religion, power and the state which has enveloped Christianity as well as Islam. He reminds us that many of the present conflicts really have very little to do with religion and everything to do with regional nationalisms, political and cultural frictions, power, rivalries and clashes.

Fuller is also convinced that the three great monotheistic religions share more than they dispute and that the real issue is not the danger of religion but of dogmatic thinking. This is a fascinating study of how both Islam and Christianity have evolved from their beginnings. Fuller is well aware that “Islam has had great impact upon the world, as one of the greatest and most powerful continuous civilizations in history.” He has immense regard for its culture, arts, sciences, philosophy and for Muslims as people. But his specific interest is in how the relations between the West and the Middle East would be if there were no Islam. He informs us of the huge variety of alternative forces affecting the nature of East-West relations.

If you read only one book on Islam this year – or any year – this is not a bad place to start.

One website I would recommend for those who enjoy thinking outside the box and who want to be informed by some of the world’s leading thinkers, is journalist-philosopher Robert Wright’s Wright is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero and The Evolution of God. What is brilliant about this website is that he interviews thinkers and writers like Karen Armstrong, Daniel Dennett, Francis Fukuyama, John Haught, Arthur Peacocke, Steven Pinker, John Polkinghorne, Omid Safi, Huston Smith, Brian Swimme and Edward O. Wilson – to name a few! You can watch his video-clip interviews on the website or read the transcripts of the interviews.

The Evolution of God - Robert Wright Nonzero - Robert Wright Robert Wright

The people Wright converses with are some of the world’s leading scientists, theologians and philosophers – believers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists. Topics include consciousness, death, evolution, faith and reason, free will, mystical experiences, Quantum weirdness, religion in a global age, science and religion, the anthropic principle, the Godhead, the problem of evil, what is God? Etc., etc., - a virtual feast of food for thought. Check out the site for yourself. If you enjoy stimulating, challenging thinking, this is one particularly good place to visit.

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