Tag Archives: religion

“The Laughing Sutra” by Mark Salzman

I’m creating a new category for this book, which I read about 15 years ago, long before I had this blog. The category is

ADULT BOOKS THAT TURN OUT WILDLY POPULAR WITH KIDS!

Certainly Mark Salzman’s first book, the nonfiction Iron and Silk, an account of his time in China, was intended for adults. So when I came across his novel The Laughing Sutra, I expected the same. And initially, it was adult fiction. In fact, kind of scary. We witness a murder. But that was just a prologue… As I read on, and got to know the characters, I was amused and entertained, and wondered what my eleven year old son would think.

Hsun-ching and Colonel Sun are an unlikely pair of adventurers. Hsun-ching is a orphan, raised by an quiet, old monk. Colonel Sun is confused, wild, strong and lives for excitement. They join forces to seek a sutra (religious poem) wanted by the old monk.

When these two make it to the USA, the intercultural confusion blossoms into hilarity.

I started reading this book to my 11 year old, but the six year old was also captivated! We cackled our way through to the amazing climax, when Hsun-ching and the Colonel try to re-enter mainland China. (At that time, no one re-entered China. The border guards weren’t ready…) Colonel Sun became part of our family repertoire, like the characters in “Ghostbusters” and other favorites. He was at least as real to us as Superman or Johnny Appleseed. Who wouldn’t want Colonel Sun for a companion? I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you the source of the Colonel’s amazing powers.

So read “The Laughing Sutra”. I also liked Salzman’s next (and entirely entirely different) novel, “The Soloist”. I hope he keeps writing.

So far, I haven’t been able to think of another adult book that worked so well with kids. Any nominations for my new genre? I’m curious.

“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way” by Turiya S.A. Raheem

Here I go again, writing about books I didn’t read, on the excuse that I met the author. Turiya Raheem gave a talk on her recently published book “Why We Chose This Way” at the Northfield (New Jersey) Public Library the first weekend in December.

The original announcement of Raheem’s book talk attracted some negative attention in Northfield. A few people objected to a public lecture by an African American Muslim woman writing ABOUT African American Muslim women. The Library declined to change its plan, and the lecture was very well attended – standing room only.

Raheem, who teaches English at Atlantic Cape Community College, first attracted media attention after HBO aired the made-for-TV period crime drama “Boardwalk Empire”, starting in 2009 and running for five seasons. The book “Boardwalk Empire” by Nelson Johnson had been followed by “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City”. Reporters wanted to talk to people who remembered the Northside in its best days, when it was a hub of African American culture, a miniature Harlem, perhaps. After Raheem was interviewed extensively, she realized she had a potential book in her sights, and “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” emerged.

In her lecture, Raheem said that she found out that she loves the genre of creative non-fiction. (Readers of this blog may remember that I’ve expressed uncertainty how it is defined.) She decided to exercise her skills on her own demographic niche – she is an African American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.

The first requirement for this writing project was that she guarantee complete anonymity to the women she interviewed. She did this by changing names, locations, numbers of children, and other details, and by sometimes combining the stories of more than one woman. Her goal was to “normalize” these women, who may be thought of as different or exotic by those who don’t know them. She interviewed 30 women, all over age 50. Only one had been born into a Muslim family. Clearly these women find their lives richly satisfying.

The conversation at the lecture covered many topics. Muslim women make various decisions about their distinguishing dress, which makes them so much more conspicuous than Muslim men. This is a matter of choice and custom, not religious requirement. Raheem pointed out that only a limited number of practices are universal in Islam – the “pillars” like prayer and pilgrimage, and abstaining from alcohol or pork. All the rest (much of what we see) is cultural and depends on culture of origin.

Certain themes ran through the discussion – social justice, social class and the nature of community. Community and sisterhood seem chief among the reasons these American converts to Islam are content in their chosen identities.

I’m very glad I got to meet Turiya Raheem, and I’m looking forward to reading her books, which are available on Amazon.

“Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” by Chris Stedman

I didn’t like the title of this book. “Faitheist” sounds contrived, and the subtitle describes the book perfectly well. I relented a little on learning that “Faitheist” was first used to Stedman as an insult from an angry atheist who thought Stedman was “soft” on Christianity. Shows how little I know about contemporary atheism. It’s a movement, not a description.

But that’s not the point of the book, which is fundamentally an autobiography, a very lively and interesting first person text.

Stedman is young, born in 1987 in Minnesota, the kind of intense child who took EVERYTHING seriously. He joined a “born again” Christian congregation shortly before he recognized his homosexuality. His pain and distress at the prospect of eternal damnation drove him to consider suicide. His mother and a sympathetic Lutheran pastor dragged him back from the brink. Spiritually, he developed into an independent atheist.

The real purpose Stedman found in life was social activism at the intersection between different religious groups and, later, between the “religious” and non-believers. He reached the important conclusion that “tolerance” between those of different spiritual paths is not enough – genuine respect is needed. It can only develop from deep friendship and careful listening. Stedman now works as Director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale University.

Oddly, he never mentions Ethical Humanism.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that when President Barrack Obama discusses religious diversity, he generally includes non-believers as well as practitioners of all the world’s religions. Did Obama pick this up from the Unitarian Universalist congregation his family associated with? Stedman, whose family was decidedly secular, passed briefly through a UU group before his conversion to Christianity.

I mentioned a prominent atheist in a blog post dated January 31, 2014. This was Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, whom I found to be unpleasantly condescending towards religion and religious people.

I looked a little into the controversy around Stedman. He has been accused of “shielding” or apologizing for Christianity and failing to acknowledge its problematic behavior.

The best thing about Stedman’s book is his willingness to tell his own story. I think he recognizes the equal importance of listening to others’ voices. The US is in serious need of this type of respectful dialog.

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!

The Stockton Oratorio Society visits St. Matthew’s Baptist Church

Last week, I ventured far from my usual Sunday morning territory. I’m a Quaker, and regularly attend worship at the very small meeting where I’ve been a member for 20+ years. When I say small, I mean that attendance averages fewer than 12 people. Our worship is based on silence. We are listening for that still, small voice. If someone feels moved, they speak. Sometimes we spend our hour together in calm silence. This is my chosen spiritual path.

But I love to sing! I sang in church choirs from the ages 6 through 17, before I found Quakerism (at age 30+). This year I joined the Stockton (University) Oratorio Society in order the sing “Messiah” in December. The Oratorio Society was invited to sing at the Sunday service of a local congregation, and November 15 was the day.

St. Matthew’s Baptist Church is a megachurch. We were asked to sing at their celebration of 28 years of service by their pastor. We were invited as a choir, but the real agenda was hospitality, with a grain of missionary zeal. I never figured out if our St. Matthew’s hosts knew there were non-Christians among the choir, in addition to Christians who were not (by their definition) “saved”. The choir’s status as part of a public university should make it obvious, but…

St. Matthew’s sent their bus to pick us up. What did we find?

The congregation and the building are huge! The sanctuary seats 2000. It was almost full. You could get lost looking for the ladies room. Because of the size of the sanctuary, a high tech, high quality sound system was in use.

A service at St. Matthew’s is carefully choreographed. Nonetheless, participants stand and call out spontaneously. The mood was energetic and very, very happy.

General observations:

  • Gender roles at St. Matthew’s are traditional. Men fill the visible leadership roles. Training for ministry may be restricted to men.
  • The idea of noise induced hearing loss hasn’t been introduced. If I attended regularly, I’d use earplugs, the kind from the drugstore that make loud sounds seem further away.
  • Theology is important at St. Matthew’s. Religion is both emotional and intellectual.

Singing at St. Matthew’s was a real high! There was the usual rush that comes with performance, without the anxiety and formality of a concert. We plunged into an unfamiliar venue, gave it our best and were rewarded with noisy, delighted enthusiasm. Yes, I’ll do this again!

One of my reasons for visiting St. Matthew’s was to increase my understanding of African American life. (It’s ridiculous how little I know of these neighbors I’ve lived alongside of for so many years.) I’m distressed by the accumulating evidence that America is (still) a very racist place. I was happy to see the strength of community and vitality of leadership at St. Matthews.

We were invited to stay for lunch. I thought the whole church was having lunch, but it was a special spread for our choir, to fortify us before the trip home. Thank you, new friends, for a great Sunday morning!

“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

I read this for a discussion group. Not the whole book, just chapter five, entitled “The Roots of Religion”. The framework here is evolution, both biological and cultural. I’m comfortable discussing biological evolution, since my life is full of biologists and the natural world is a major source of entertainment and enjoyment for all of us. I think evolutionary theory is sound. Cultural “evolution” is another story.

First of all, Dawkins tells us that all human cultures have religion. I’ve been under the impression that Confucianism and Taoism are better described as philosophies, since they don’t rely on the supernatural and don’t “guarantee” life after death. I’m sure Dawkins deals with this someplace.

Dawkins attitude towards religion is negative and condescending to an extreme. He thinks “believers” are totally irrational. Most of my friends in the discussion found this annoying and felt Dawkins damaged his case by being so unpleasant. One person found him “bracing”. Maybe we need some relief from having to treat ALL religious viewpoints with careful respect. Some ARE “better” than others.

Dawkins takes a big leap when he treats cultural “memes” as self replicating and therefore just like genes. I’ve barely grasped the concept of memes. There’s no way I can grant the idea of “cultural evolution” the same status as the contemporary, very well developed and useful theory of biological evolution.

A few days ago, I watched and participated in a “religious” event, a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. Can something so complex, enduring and moving be categorized as a “meme”? Not by me. No, I don’t believe every word of it. I don’t expect to be “raised incorruptible”. But there’s room in my life for mystery and for aesthetic appreciation, and in ways I can’t explain, for belief.