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.

Ten Things I Love About Islam

I spent three formative years living in Senegal, a stable democratic country that is more than 90% Muslim. I emerged with a deep appreciation of Islam, and I believe my experiences as an interfaith child helped me to be open to forming these positive impressions. My friend Surabhi commented on my blog post “Ten Things I Love About Christianity” that there are probably ten things we love about each religion we come to know. So I was inspired to write a personal and somewhat random list for the third of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  1. Ethnic Inclusivity. Muslims don’t think of themselves as a tribe. Indonesia, Mali, Jordan—three Muslim countries, three different races. I am inspired by Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter from Mecca,” in which he begins to overcome his own antipathy to white people when he sees Muslims of all colors praying together
  2. Humility in Worship. When we lived in Dakar, our apartment balcony looked out on a street that was filled each Friday with the faithful bowed down in prayer. Businessmen in European suits and embroidered African robes, and the lowliest street sweepers in rags, all would roll out their mats side by side in the street and kneel down together.
  3. The Sound of the Muezzin. President Obama remarked on the evocative sound of the call to prayer. We used to spend weekends on the Senegalese island of Goree, where our friend Harriet had a house with a rooftop terrace covered with Mauritanian leather pillows. We would lounge up there, drinking tea right under the megaphone on the mosque next door. Each time the call went out across the island, it moved and thrilled me.
  4. Islamic Design. In Islam, the prohibition against making figurative art evolved into gorgeous calligraphy, and murals and tiles in intricate patterns tied to the rich history of Arab geometry, algebra and astronomy.
  5. Islamic Architecture. I remember the silhouette of a splendid minaret against a huge orange moon rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Dakar. And the ancient mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, are worth the endless bus ride from Bamako. Magnificent, like dip-drop castles by way of Gaudi, each spire topped by an ostrich egg.
  6. Sufi Dancing. I’m a sucker for a circle dance. For all my half-Jewish ambivalence about Israel, I adore Israeli dancing, and Greek dancing too. The Sufi zikr, ecstatic chanting and dancing, has developed a tremendous following in the United States and Europe. Some Westerners seek to divorce Sufism from Islam, and to avoid the Muslim label. I like to credit Islam with giving birth to a practice that has such universal appeal.
  7. Senegalese Music. The Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal have inspired music appreciated around the world. I groove to the Muslim references in songs by Toure Kunda, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and anything by the deeply spiritual Cheikh Lo.
  8. Rumi. The ever-popular thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, widely appreciated for his ecumenical philosophy, was nonetheless a devout Muslim.
  9. Hagar. Mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and thus the matriarch of Islam, Hagar was exiled in the desert, but survived and prevailed. Israeli peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East now cite her as inspiration. Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating new book revolves around Hagar’s central role in the founding of the three Abrahamic faiths.
  10. Jesus the Prophet. I’m not the first to realize that the Muslim view of Jesus–that he was one in a line of prophets descended from Abraham–could actually fit into my Jewish (or at least Jewish/Christian) world view. As an interfaith child, I look for these opportunities for a personal “meeting of the three faiths.”

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Children of Abraham

Sue in Senegal, 1980s

In 1987, I got married, quit my job as a Newsweek reporter, and moved to the West African country of Senegal. I had to forge a new identity as a nice half-Jewish girl, married to a Protestant boy, working for a Catholic organization, in a Muslim country. The word “interfaith” had always implied Jewish and Christian to me. Now I found myself immersed in a moderate, thriving democratic culture with a Muslim president, Abdou Diouf, who was married to a Catholic. My world view expanded radically, and I began to see the world through three religious filters instead of two.

The full realization that Islam and Judaism are siblings came to me in dramatic fashion soon after arriving in Senegal. In the celebration known in West Africa as Tabaski (the Eid al-Adha to Muslims around the world), families sacrifice a ram to commemorate the story in which God asked Abraham to bind his son, but then provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Sound familiar? To Jews, the son was Isaac, Sarah’s son. Muslims believe it was Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Jews read this story from the Torah each autumn on the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah.

On both holidays, we seek forgiveness. In synagogues, we say that God will forgive us for sins against God, but only our fellow human beings can forgive us for sins against them. We say this, and every year we intend to go out and actually ask forgiveness, but how many of us follow through?

On my first Tabaski, in the home of a Senegalese schoolteacher,  friends and neighbors dropped by throughout the day. Our host explained, “God forgives sins against God, but these visitors come to ask us for forgiveness for sins against them.”  I was humbled by and envious of the sincerity, the personal action, the deep communal bonding going on before my eyes. Somehow, this essential part of the forgiveness ritual had disappeared from the American suburban Reform Judaism of my youth.

Since 9/11, many Americans are attempting to include the growing American Muslim population in a “trialogue” to replace the old interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews. We acknowledge that these three faiths share a history, that we are all “children of Abraham.” As the Jewish Days of Awe approach this year, I think again of the possibilities for reconciliation between the children of Abraham. American Jews and Christians now live side by side with Muslims–we go to school together, even marry each other. The day of reconciliation, an awesome day indeed, will be hastened as we all overcome our ignorance through personal experience.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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