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.

Rosh Hashanah, Interfaith Style

Rosh Hashanah apple--photo by Susan Katz MillerYesterday, our interfaith community celebrated the Jewish New Year. Yes, we are early by a week. We want our members to be able to go to synagogues next weekend with their extended Jewish families, with parents and grandparents.

As it happens, my own parents were visiting yesterday and came to our early Rosh Hashanah. They stood up as I introduced them to our community as interfaith pioneers. At ages 85 and 79, they are celebrating 50 years of interfaith marriage this year, proof that it can be done, and done with incredible depth and style.

The presence of my own personal wise elders was fortuitous. Our Rabbi, Harold White, reflected on Jewish respect for old age as a thread that runs through the Jewish New Year. We read about Abraham and Sarah, delighted in old age by the birth of their son Isaac. The rabbi pointed out that we celebrate the New Year, not in spring as one might expect, but at the end of the agricultural cycle, in fall. The autumn of our years, he explained, is just as important to Jews, just as much an integral part of life, as birth.

Yesterday, my Jewish father got to sit next to his grandchildren while singing “Oseh Shalom” and “Adon Olam” hearing the call of the shofar, reciting the Shehecheyanu, and the Reader’s Kaddish.

And my Christian mother got to sit next to her grandchildren as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Why the Lord’s Prayer at a Rosh Hashanah celebration? The Rabbi pointed out that this Christian prayer appears to be based on the Kaddish. And that the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in the streets of Jerusalem.

My Jewish father recited the Lord’s Prayer along with us—it happens to be lodged deep in his memory. In small town Pennsylvania in the 1930s, children recited the prayer each day in his public schools. There is no mention of Jesus in the prayer. Dad says, “I didn’t know it was a Christian prayer until about ten years ago.”

Celebrating the New Year a week early may seem like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. But an interfaith celebration, while it may be devoted to a particular Jewish or Christian holiday, has unique flavor because it inevitably touches on the historical reality of the interplay between the two religions. And it creates a way to celebrate these connections—whether we are interfaith children, interfaith parents, or interfaith grandparents.

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.

%d bloggers like this: