Five Quirky Picks: Interfaith Religion Books of 2009
My touchstone topics on this blog: interfaith identity, spirituality, ritual, music, nature, culture, family, community. Two topics I don’t mention very often: God, and the Bible.
I am not very comfortable with either one. I am open to the idea that some sort of energy infuses the world, and that human brains subconsciously tap into this energy or spirit, but I don’t refer to it as a “higher power” or believe that this spirit listens or responds to us. My problem with calling this energy “God” is that the word has been so abused by fanatical, narrow-minded, exclusivist clergy and followers that it still makes me squirm a little. And the Bible? I find it often delightfully inscrutable, resonant with the rich imagery of my Jewish and Christian cultures. But also: filled with nonsense and anachronisms which have inspired hatred and violence. So mention of the Bible often makes me squirm as well.
But I’m pushing myself outside my own box a little bit here in picking five books from the past year, all of which mention God or the Bible in their titles. None of these books is fanatical, narrow-minded or exclusivist. In fact, they are iconoclastic, open-minded and daring, and each has some connection to the interfaith world.
It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim, Atheist, Jewish Christian (Samir Selmanovic). When my husband met the author at an interfaith conference this year and came home with this book, I was tremendously excited by the title. I was a little bit disappointed to discover that Selmanovic is now, in fact, a passionately Christian minister—the other religions are indeed adjectival, describing phases of his life and influences as much as they represent a true multifaith identity. But as I read on, I was seduced by this book—the story of his journey from an atheist Muslim Croatian family (with some Christian roots) to becoming the founder of Faith House, a unique New York City meeting place where Jews, Christians and Muslims talk and mingle. This funny and revealing book has helped me towards appreciating that not all Christian clergy are out to convert or condemn me. Selmanovic is a mensch of the first order, with an extraordinary desire to “embrace the other.”
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (R. Crumb). The text here is straight Bible, the words of Genesis without commentary or midrash, and so I guess this is the most traditional book on this list. Except that it is, if we concede that the Bible is fiction, a graphic novel, created by the provocative hippie-era comics artist Robert Crumb. For me, his devotion to this huge project is even more interesting because of his long, creatively fertile interfaith marriage to Aline Kominsky. Crumb grew up Catholic, Kominsky has a very strong Jewish cultural identity but has called herself a pagan. This book confirms my theory that interfaith marriages sometimes produce great artistic and intellectual engagement with religion, even among people who straddle religious categories.
The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths (Charlotte Gordon). I stumbled on Gordon and her book because she has written a blog post on her marvelously personal and readable blog about being a “half-Jew.” We share paternal Jewish status, and of course I like to believe that her interfaithness (though she is now a practicing Jew) led her to the marvelous idea of bringing to life the story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the story of Abraham and his two partners: Sarah (the mother of Isaac, and thus Judaism) and Hagar (the mother of Ishmael, and thus Islam). Drawing on sources from all three religions, this is non-fiction that reads at times with the pace and poetry of fiction.
Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible (David Plotz) Written by a secular Jew (and Slate editor), this book is, to borrow a phrase, “bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous and inspiring.” I’ve been slogging through some heavy prose by theologians this year in my quest to understand what the heck I’m talking about on this blog. Plotz’s book is an antidote to all that: a refreshingly and frankly disbelieving reader gives his cynical spin on the jumble of tall-tales, non-sequiturs and poetry he encounters.
The Case for God (Karen Armstrong). Armstrong is the interfaith goddess: a prolific, compelling and deep writer who has chronicled each phase of her own journey from Catholic nun to atheist to ardent intellectual engagement with religion, as well as illuminating the history of all of the world’s religions, and the way they have evolved from and influenced each other. In this book, she explains why the term “God” makes me and a lot of other people squirm, and she makes the case for both God and religion, at a time when atheism appears to be gaining momentum. Even if you really don’t want to hear the case for God, you will find Armstrong’s nimble arguments and vast knowledge of Eastern and Western spirituality worth the read.