"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Portrayal of Paul

"Paul did not invent the faith of the early Church in the continuing reality and presence of Jesus.  If Paul became in his own lifetime the most articulate spokesmen for this faith, he was never much more than an articulator who knew how to zero in on the most essential argument and could thread his discourse with the welcome colors of his own very personal experience.  If Paul had never left the Pharisaical school, the Jesus Movement that became Christianity would have survived and probably even prospered (if with a more limited scope), but it would have been a Christianity that lacked (at least for some time) Paul's intellectual edge as well as his emotional edginess.

"For beyond his education, by which he intertwined antiquity's most rigorous intellectual traditions, we cannot neglect to consider the man's natural temper: neither flatterer nor diplomat, neither charmer nor salesman, Paul was not the sort of man you would immediately associate with the effort to pitch a new idea, let alone a whole new worldview and way of life.  Devoid of small talk, anecdotes, and the sort of chatter that puts people at their ease, Paul was an either/or kind of guy, an absolutist for whom the matter under discussion would always be All or Nothing. An intellectual overachiever, pushed repeatedly to success by a keenly competitive father, Paul had no time for ordinary social niceties and neither gave nor expected to receive normal social comforts. One can imagine him sitting uncomfortably in some conventional parlor, staring penetratingly at his hostess while trying to find some Meaning in her inquiry as to whether he took one lump or two."

pg.120  Desire of The Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Past Post:  Why I Like the Apostle Paul

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September Books

But Lord, I Was Happy Shallow is a book composed of short, true stories by about fifty authors and speakers.  Marita Littauer is the general editor.  It had many great lessons of how God spoke to people in their circumstances. Many times throughout, I was reminded to trust God, be still and know that He is God and walk by faith and not sight.  I got this book from my friend Cindy. 

Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler -- I loved this book I found at the local library.  The author traveled through the land where the books of Moses take place. It's a good mixture of culture, history, current events and observation of and meeting a variety of people.  See previous posts for more information.

Safe From the Neighbors by Steve Yarbrough -- library book; History teacher Luke May meets an old childhood friend and tries to solve a puzzle surrounding her mother's death forty years prior.  A mixture of local Mississippi history and small neighborhood happenings.

Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop -- A mother, Laura, writes a candid letter to her daughter after a fight which resulted in Elizabeth leaving the house and disappearing.  Laura begins the letter hoping to convey "everything I've always meant to tell you but never have."  First dates, being sent to the Catholic boarding school and tales from Vietnam (her boyfriend was there) are worked into this story to make a rather interesting read.

Growing Up bin Laden by Najwa (Osama's 1st wife), Omar (his fourth son) and Jean Sasson -- very interesting book that I enjoyed; told a lot of interesting facts about Najwa's years of being married to Osama and Omar's life moving from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan. Gave an interesting peek of their lives from their perspectives. Najwa talked more early in the book as Osama went from a quiet cousin-turned-husband whereas Omar's thoughts as a young man more privy to his father's growing military action is shared more in the latter half.

Directed Verdict by Randy Singer -- I got this book from my friend Cindy's house. It's a legal thriller involving the case of religious freedom and the use of torture. Brad Carson and his legal team - Leslie, Bella and Nikki take on the distinguished Stroebel firm and Judge Cynthia Baker-Kline (aka Ichabod) in this international case.

No God but God by Reza Aslan -- great book exploring "the origins, evolution, and future of Islam." see previous posts

Leaving Carolina by Tamara Leigh -- a very cute book I borrowed from Cindy; Piper Wick travels back to Pickwick, North Carolina to deal with a crazy family and Uncle Obadiah's changes to his will. I liked this author's sense of humor.  Nice, light, easy reading to balance some of the other books I've read. 

The Healer's Heart by Diane M. Komp -- "a modern novel of the life of St. Luke" is the story of AIDS-specialist Dr. Luke Tayspill and a story that takes place partly in the US and partly in London and Sierra Leone.    I especially enjoyed Luke's time in Africa when he was treating diseases he'd only read about in medical school.  A couple thoughts I enjoyed from the book:  tell God to keep searching for the lost lambs and "if you have no cause worth dying for, do you really have a reason to live?"   Also Sierra Leone nurse Brima's question to Dr. Luke about why was he there hit home. Luke wanted to help. Brima wished he were there because he loved his people.  I borrowed this book from Cindy.

The Witness by Josh McDowell -- Marwan Accad gets framed for murder and flees from Europe into North Africa as the true killer chases him. Marwan's brother tries to put the pieces together to figure out who is after his brother!  This is another book I borrowed from Cindy. 

Healing Sands is the third book in the Sullivan Crisp series by Nancy Rue and Stephen Arterburn. Gotta admit that I really have enjoyed these books. In this one photojournalist Ryan deals with her anger problem, soccer moms and trying to reestablish a relationship with her sons who are living with her former husband.  This is another book I borrowed from Cindy.

Perfect by Harry Kraus -- Wendi seems to have it all - a lovely house, surgeon husband, good looks, but she feels it's all a fake trap and wants to be real ... which happens to involve the choir director at her church.  This book deals with grace and forgiveness as an alternative to being perfect before God and man.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Jesus Worthy of His Place in Western History?

The weather has finally (finally!!) turned a bit cooler here and it feels like autumn rather than late June!  I've spent a lot of time enjoying fresh air while reading some Christian fiction books I borrowed a few weeks ago when we ate at my church friend's house.  I love sitting out on my porch in my Cracker Barrel rocking chair looking up occasionally to see the lovely sky or the flitting butterflies or fast-moving hummingbird that visits.

Today I went by the library.  Yes, despite the fact I have five more books from Cindy sitting in the other room, I was in town, walking my errands while parked at the library and well, it just drew me in!  Amber's recent post made me remember Karen Armstrong so I searched the library catalog and saw what books they offered from her.  Ended up with the biography of Muhammad and since I was in the area, I thought I'd see if there was a biography about Jesus.  There were a couple actually, but I selected Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill.  This actually is third in a seven part series of "cultural impact" on Western civilization, but I didn't realize that until I started reading the introduction.  Anyway, he declares on page 8 that "this unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization," that is Jesus of course. He reminds us with our calendars "we even count our days by his appearance on earth."  It makes me wonder just a bit how a Jewish man became the central figure of the West since, errrr, Palestine is more East than West, isn't it?  People do sometimes claim Christianity is a Western religion and I've even heard it's "a white man's religion," but of course I disagree!

Thomas Cahill wants to answer some hard questions: did Jesus make a difference? does he have a right to be at this central place in our culture?  is he worthy of his place in history?

Part I in the book deals with "Greeks, Jews, and Romans: The People Jesus Knew." I did not take extensive notes, but decided I did want to record a few notes just for the sake of learning and remembering something from this book.  By the way, the book's subtitle is "The World Before and After Jesus," and the first chapter deals briefly with the immediate history leading up the birth of Jesus just to give a little background of what the region was going through at that time, who the national heroes likely were and so forth.  Can you imagine Jesus giving his "love your enemies" speech to people not far from societies who revered Alexander the Great?  :-)

Just a few things of interest to me from chapter one.

Alexander conquered because he *ahem* wanted to spread Greek culture to the needy world (sounds like some people who go forth and conquer so people can 'enjoy' American democracy).

Romans put "security first, prosperity second, and pleasure far down on the list.  They had nothing in common with the sybaritic, effeminate East that had so attracted Alexander...The Greeks thought they were the most intellectually discerning...but the Romans prided themselves on having crucial talents that the Greeks, for all their complexity, lacked: realism and practicality."  (pg. 52)

In speaking of Roman expansion the author notes that the Parthians "(today they are Iranians)" and Scots were the only people ever to stop the Romans.  (pg. 54)

"Whereas Greeks and Romans and all other ancient peoples tended to see history as an ultimately empty succession of triumphs and tragedies -- and human beings as evanescent phenomena appearing briefly on the surface of historical events -- the Jews believed that history had a beginning (in God's act of Creation) and would have an end and that each human being, created by God, had an individual destiny to fulfill and was not merely a momentary glimmer on the ever-recurring waves of fate.  And as in so much material written by Jews in the disappointing centuries after the Babylonian Captivity, there is even in this peculiar collection of oracles the assertion of a promised Messiah, a king sent from God."  (pg. 61)  -- The author says verses like those he quoted from Isaiah - to a late first century B.C. reader often were thought to refer to Augustus since he brought in the Pax Romana, a time of long-lasting peace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Craving Fear, Preserving Identity, Walking with God, Using Water

Living in the desert and climbing mountains gave Bruce Feiler much time for reflection. In Walking the Bible, he begins speaking of fear he's encountered throughout his life: losing control, disappointing himself, failing. Then he notes, "when your god is self-reliance, and you let yourself down, there is nowhere else to turn."   He went on to say that the desert's first lesson is this:  "By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin -- slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life -- to consider turning somewhere else," to someone or something. He notes that you "eventually grow weary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant. You begin to crave the depth, the height, the extremes.  You begin even to crave the fear."  (pg. 224)

From a talk with Israel Hershkovitz, a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Tel Aviv University who now studies ancient skeletons:

"'We know now that genes have the ability to store ancestral memories.  And these can survive for hundreds of years. The Jewish people, for example, are very stubborn.  To keep up with their religion for all those years in exile, first in Babylon, then in the diaspora, reminds me of a very special people: the bedouin.  You give up a lot, you live in marginal areas, you don't enjoy all the benefits of life.  But you preserve your identity.'"  (pg. 410)

In remembering the struggle of Jacob with the messenger of God in the valley of Jabbok, Bruce reminds us of Jacob's scarring when the messenger touches Jacob's hip and dislocates it.  He writes, "The scar, significantly, does not end up on Jacob's hand, nor on his head, his heart, or his eyes. Humans experience God, the text seems to be saying, not by touching him, imagining him, feeling him, or seeing him.  Jacob is scarred on his leg, for the essential way humans experience God, the text suggests, is by walking with him."  (pg. 422)

The author tells some of the history of Jordan and includes this interesting statistic about water while talking about this country being desert-rich.

"The country's per capita consumption of water is 200 cubic meters a year, compared to 1,800 in Syria, 7,700 as the world's average, and 110,000 in the United States.  That means the average American uses 550 times more water a year than the average Jordanian."  (pg. 353)

And finally I think I posted all my notes from this book!  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Matthew 18 -- Forgiveness as a Key to Freedom

Yesterday I read an excellent article, Surviving in an Angry World: Letting Go of Anger by Charles Stanley.  The concluding paragraphs read:

Tolerating an angry lifestyle is not an option for believers. We cannot expect to live in our new nature and keep our resentment. To follow in Christ's footsteps, we need a change in priorities. Loving and understanding others must supersede our need to defend ourselves, and preserving relationships must replace safeguarding our rights.

If we've accepted Christ's forgiveness of our sins, we cannot demand that others pay for their transgressions against us.  To acquire His peace, we must lay all grudges, personal rights, and hurtful insults on the altar -- and leave them there.  Clinging to grievances keeps us imprisoned in emotional turmoil, but letting go unlocks the door and sets us free.  God offers the key of forgiveness. Take hold, and walk out of the dungeon into the light.*

Matthew 18 has a story that goes along with this.

 21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 
 22Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 

 23"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 

24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents  (millions of dollars) was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 

 26"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' 27The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 

 28"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (few dollars). He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. 

 29"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
 30"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. 

 32"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
 35"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

How many people do we see around us who are clinging to emotional turmoil and grievances done against them? Many seem to hold onto those things as if they give them purpose for living! How sad! When I read this article and the part mentioned above especially, I was reminded how Jesus came to set us free.  The verse at the top of my blog reads

"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Consider when you let go of wrongs done against you, when you let go of insults and hurts that you are holding close to your heart, when you trade what you are clinging to so tightly for what God offers, you can experience that freedom.  You can experience that light - lightness of heart, lightness of attitude. You can be free to love and serve others.

Imagine a world full of light hearts and joyful people singing and dancing because their hearts are full of happiness rather than cursing and shouting because their hearts are full of resentment, anger and hatred.

What a different world!  A whole new truly wonderful world!

God has forgiven us of so much! How can we, in turn, not forgive others and walk in His light?  Holding onto anger, unforgiveness and resentment is its own prison.  Don't you want out of there?

*pg. 10 -- In Touch, October 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Israel: Another Creation Story

In Walking the Bible Bruce Feiler writes:

The dramatic events surrounding the crossing of the sea hearken back unavoidably to the opening verses of Genesis: the dividing of the Red Sea recalls the splitting of the watery world into two; the destroying of the Egyptian army evokes the slaying of the forces of chaos.  In this passage, the Bible serves up yet another creation story.  And this time the product is not the world; it's the nation of Israel.  As Avner said, "Now the people are free. Now the real work begins." 

So I thought why a chosen people? What "real work"?  Was God a universal god or just for the Israelites? 

Why did God "create" Israel?

And here we are talking about Israel of long ago. Not this current Zionist state.  Just wanted to be clear.


(pg. 190)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Irritated Me About Aslan's Statement

So yesterday I wrote about the last chapter of No God but God and ended the post with this irritating piece from it.

"It must be understood that a respect for human rights, like pluralism, is a process that develops naturally within a democracy.  Bear in mind that for approximately two hundred of America's two hundred fifty years of existence, black American citizens were considered legally inferior to whites.  Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause."

AND a question.

Any guesses why this bothers me so much?

Amber was the only one interested or brave enough or read far enough to see the question to try to figure out my thinking (thanks much, Amber) and her comment was most excellent!  I truly enjoy the way she thinks!  Amber did nail the phrase that is especially troubling to me though it's not for the reason she gave.

A Muslim friend has asked before if I wanted a Christian nation for only (mostly) Christians to which I likely surprised him by saying no.  I think I've shared my reasons for this before.  Whose interpretation of Christianity will we follow?  Terry Jones' Christianity is quite different from Mother Teresa's.  While one was in the spotlight for his selfish stupidity, the other was known for serving and loving "the least of these" as Jesus did while he walked the earth.

Jesus never promoted Christendom. He never urged his followers to oppose the oppressors even though he lived during the Roman occupation of Palestine.  As far as we know, he never preached a rise-up-and-drive-these-oppressors-into-the-sea message. Jesus knew society changed from within.  And he came with a message bent on changing hearts and lives and thus changing society for the better! 

Besides how can we shine the light of Jesus to a dark world if we are all holed up in our Christian Caliphate with our borders sealed to all the unbelievers? 

You see the ridiculousness of this notion, I hope.

This is what Amber correctly chose as the offending phrase:

"Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause."

First let me point out that Reza Aslan makes a point of explaining the difference in a secular country and a secularizing country.  Turkey, he said, was a secular country.  The United States, on the other hand, despite what is taught in children's history books these days (his words, not mine though I agree) has its moral foundation in Judeo-Christian principles.  However, we have become increasingly more secularizing from those principles as time passes.  I took that to mean we've been leaving the Judeo-Christian framework behind for a more pluralistic one.  Maybe I totally didn't explain that well, but hopefully you get the gist of what Aslan meant.

So the problem I had with this statement is that it is so incredibly sad to me that leaving biblical values in the dust is seen as improving society. Why is it only through secularizing our nation that black people became full citizens with equal rights to their white counterparts instead of property of their masters? Why is it only through secularizing that women won the right to vote and were freed from that antiquated notion that they were only good for staying home to keep house and have lots of babies?  What is wrong with the Bible that it kept us mistreating people for so long?

Now, I hardly will admit that secularizing the nation has made things truly better. (Unless one would argue that the US will improve more as we continue secularizing...I think not.) Yes, black people and women have more rights than they did a hundred years ago, but I will never admit that my country is better now than it was before.  Rampant promiscuity (and no shame in it!), over 70% of black children are born without married parents, drug and alcohol abuse, rape, murder, gangs, split households due to divorce and affairs and pornography and killing our unborn children even when they are partially born.  Do you know people used to not even lock their doors in some areas of the country because crime was so low? I hardly think society today is a wonderful improvement that our walking away from God has bequeathed us.

You know what I think? 

I think we do have some rights now that we didn't have before.  And on behalf of all the women in the world who have struggled and are continuing to struggle so they can stop being treated like the property of the men in their lives, I AM VERY GRATEFUL!  And I am thankful that no longer do we own people in the wicked way some Southern Americans did years ago.  Thank God we have progressed past that! 

However I'm not convinced entirely that it was the Bible's or our Judeo-Christian values' fault for this.  I think it is the fault of men and women who - in their own selfish, fallible ways - read what they wanted into the Bible. Instead of seeing loving your neighbor as yourself, the greatest among you is the servant of all and love your wife as Christ loved the church (hellllooooo, He DIED for the Church!), they read "Servants, obey your masters" and "women, submit to your husbands."  Same old stuff Aslan complained that the Ulama of Islam was doing to his religion!

People will justify their selfishness and make it more palatable by appealing to their interpretations, their cherrypicking of verses instead of reading the Bible as a whole and trying to understand what God desires.

Really, how hard it is to understand "the greatest among you serves others" and "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me" from Jesus?  But how HARD is it to deny ourselves and take up crosses and truly follow Christ?   Much easier to apply those verses which justify your sinfulness against others, isn't it?

So what all this teaches me:  whether we are supposedly living under the moral framework of Judeo-Christian values or the secularizing process of a nation quickly saying "no thanks" to God in favor of the rationalization of man, society has major problems.  It might be the racism, oppression and sexism of the former or the immorality, broken families and addictions of the latter.  Both show me one thing:

All have sinned and fallen short of God's glorious standard.  (Rom. 3:23)

There is none that does good. Not even one.  (Rom. 3:10)

So past, present and future, the story of America demonstrates a great need which can only be solved when we realize our need for God!  Not a return to men using God's word to oppress others. But truly letting God change our hearts and lives so that, in turn, society will be changed for the better.   I believe our country -- full of division, anger, scandals (and that's just talking politics) is proof to the world that we cannot save ourselves.

Our military can't save us. Our politicians can't save us. Our churches can't save us. Our rational minds and secularizing process can't save us.

 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. (Isaiah 43)

I think God summed it up pretty well.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Democracy & The Islamic Reformation

So yesterday I finished No God but God and in the last chapter Reza Aslan speaks of the role of democracy in the Islamic Reformation.  Some people have insisted that Islam is incompatible with democracy, whereas Aslan argues that Islam and democracy are fine together -- it's just that we can't expect any ol' ideas of democracy to be warmly embraced by Muslims.

For starters, Aslan notes, democracy cannot be imported. That is, we Americans for instance, can't just decide we want to take democracy to the Middle East and start bombing the old structure to set up our Americanized version of democracy.  (Ours is actually a representative form.)  First of all many Muslims do not want a complete separation of religious values from governance which is what our increasingly secularizing nation champions.  Therefore the American ideal is likely not the ideal democracy for Pakistan or Egypt or any other Muslim-majority country.   We are wasting our time and money trying to export it, and need to realize our traditions and values are not the same as everywhere else in the world.

Democracy in the Muslim world needs to come from within! It needs to be from the people living in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria ... not a "gift" from Westerners who think these people need our help in becoming civilized.  I'm pretty sure they see through this sham and realize we aren't there for altruistic reasons. 

One thing I found especially true of this chapter is that Aslan notes "dictatorial regimes in the Middle East never seem to tire of preaching to the world that their brutally antidemocratic policies are justified because 'fundamentalists' allow them but two options: despotism or theocracy.  The problem with democracy from their point of view is that if people are allowed a choice, they may choose against their governments."

Though no friend of the US administration, Syria does this with their heavy-handed police state where the small Alawaite population keeps the larger Muslim population under control in a society of fear and restrictions (even Facebook and Blogger are banned there). Even US allied countries have this approach and because they have successfully gotten us to think of certain groups as too extreme, we support this brutal oppression of the masses. 

In the places where elections are held, America - which often preaches that we are for the native populations to choose their own leaders - meddles when the elections don't go our way, that is, in favor of those who like us.   We say one thing and live another.  We want the people to be free to choose, yet we prop up dictators and give them our financial support!   And when the people are free to choose, but we don't like their democratic choice, we involved ourselves!    Enough already!

Aslan makes the case for "pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy," and as he notes, "Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism" despite how militants have interpreted Islam.   Aslan quotes Quran 2:256 concerning there being "no compulsion in religion" to state "that the antiquated partitioning of the world into spheres of belief (dar al-Islam) and unbelief (dar al-Harb)...is utterly unjustifiable."  Islam, he believes, is and has always been a "religion of diversity" and "grounding an Islamic democracy in the ideals of pluralism is vital because religious pluralism is the first step toward building an effective human rights policy in the Middle East."

Aslan believes the political realm of a democratic society should be secular because religion is interpretation. The "learned men of God" could contribute morally, but not politically. They should not rule, but "preserve...and reflect the morality of the state"  (whatever that means).

You know what irritated me a lot about this chapter?    This:

"It must be understood that a respect for human rights, like pluralism, is a process that develops naturally within a democracy.  Bear in mind that for approximately two hundred of America's two hundred fifty years of existence, black American citizens were considered legally inferior to whites.  Finally, neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization, they are its root cause."

Any guesses why this bothers me so much?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just for fun ...

My sweet friend Wafa' had these questions on her blog a couple weeks ago. I saved them to Gmail drafts to do when I was in the mood for something lighter than religious postings and such.  :)  By the way, I just finished No God but God and took a few notes on the final chapter which I'll try to type within the next day or so.  I really enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I learned so much and the author presented the information in a way that was interesting and kept my attention.  I greatly appreciate all who have left feedback on my chapter notes. You enrich my study and understanding so - many thanks!

Share a pick-up line you've heard that you really liked. Or share one you tried that was successful.
I can't think of any pick-up lines that I really liked or used myself.

Would you describe yourself as spiritual, religious or something else? 
in relationship with God by following Jesus though I stray a lot

How long is too long to go without a shower?
one day

List your favorite alternatives to saying 'no.'
narrowing my eyes
saying yes
just smiling
shrugging my shoulders

Whose side are you on, anyway?
it depends on the issue

What's the happiest life change you've had so far?
Michael in my life makes me happy

What are you proud of?
the fact that I traveled to Syria instead of succumbing to my fear

List the events you'd like to see added to the next Olympic Games.
I'm fine with what is offered.

List the advice you give to a friend getting over a bad breakup.
I don't know that I give too much advice for this. I just usually listen.

If you had to wear one color for the entire next year, which would you pick?

What's your favorite season?
spring -- it's such a hopeful season!

You just found a kitten – what do you name it?
depends on what it looks like and its personality
my brother has Jerry and George and growing up we had a cat named
Daniel Mittens Smokey the First whom we called Mitt

What's a bigger enemy to a clean home: a puppy or a baby?

Have you ever seen a ghost?

What helps you wake up in the morning?

You just got a magic tree! What does it grow?
Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate and it doesn't make you fat (hey, it's a magic tree!)

You get to start a charity. What is it?
teaching skills to people so they can be self-supportive

Who can you trust with your secrets?

Describe a time you were scared.
usually it's my anticipating bad phone calls

What's the best part about a wedding?
it being private so I have no reason to go

Which piece of technology would you rather go without for a month?

What's the best way to get someone's attention?
nearly hitting them with a car might work

They say the clothes make the man (or woman). What do your clothes say about you right now?
She's surely not into fussy name brands!

You've just won a dream vacation for four! Who are your three companions?
Andrew, Michael and whoever else wants to come along

What specialized rooms does your new multi-million dollar yacht have?
I'm so not into expensive toys. If I were given a million dollar yacht, I'd sell it to do something worthwhile. If I had to keep it, I'd sail to some needy place and have a specialized room for all the people to come in and have a hearty meal and relaxing day.

You've just won a lifetime supply of candy! Which type do you pick?
Chocolate like the kind on my magic tree

Do you think alien life will be discovered within your lifetime?

What non-exercise activity do you wish would keep you fit?
eating, reading, writing, talking, surfing online

If you could get any tattoo for just a week, what would it be?
maybe a Celtic cross like this on my ankle

What continent would you most like to visit?
they all seem so interesting and beautiful,
but since I've got European ancestry and have never been, I guess Europe

Where do you fall in your family's birth order?
oldest of four children

What do you usually want to know about someone when meeting them for the first time?
their name

Name three songs by the same artist that you'd recommend to someone who's never heard them.
Revelation Song
Let the Worshippers Arise
Your Grace Still Amazes Me
by Phillips, Craig and Dean

Which day of the week do you look forward to most?

You just sold your company for $100 million. What's the first thing you do?

If you had to lose one of your senses for a year, which one would it be?

Go ahead, get a secret off your chest.
I don't like chocolate pudding. Too gloppy, squishy.

The jig is up – you just got one year in jail. You get to bring three things with you to jail. What are they?
my computer
my food

What is your first memory?
not sure what is actual memory and what is just in my memory due to retelling by my dad

When is it hard to apologize?
when someone is demanding it

Money is the root of all evil – true or false?
no, the love of money maybe, but money is not evil

Which could you spend a whole week in: a treehouse, a tent or an underground bunker?
a treehouse would be fun, but it would be hard to stay there 24/7 for a week; I guess a bunker

What makes someone funny to you?
a good sense of humor

If you could invite any three people in history to a dinner party, who would you pick?
Jesus -- how much of that which is written about you is true?
Abraham -- how did you know it was God telling you to leave your family?  why did you agree to sacrifice your son?
Paul -- did you make Jesus into God or declare only what Jesus said about himself?  have you spent the last centuries in heaven or hell?

What's something you can’t understand no matter how hard you try?
God not having a beginning

Oh boy, you have invisible powers! Where's the first place you go?

What are you saving up to buy?
there is nothing I have in mind to buy presently
I'm not much of a shopper.

If your life were made into a movie, what genre would it be?
documentary - total flop 
Feel free to do this, too, if you want.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How Colonialism Influenced Islam

In the next to the last chapter of No God but God, Reza Aslan briefly discusses the Muslim response to colonialism by sharing stories from India, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  I found this chapter highly interesting and informative and immediately thought how I want others that I know to read this chapter especially! 

The chapter begins with the Indian Revolt.  Can I just say how disgusted I am when a "Christianizing mission" under the guise of "civilizing" a nation takes place so the so-called civilized society can, in reality, steal natural resources from a land and control people?  Yes, there are some practices that are barbaric - that God can change.  And if your heartfelt intention is to share the love of Jesus with people so they can experience the joy and peace of relationship with God, that's one thing.  But do not, do NOT, DO NOT go in with your nation's military, steal the other country's resources, punish the natives harshly for revolting because they don't want you there or force conversions! This is NOT following Christ!  Do not take God's name in vain by calling yourself a Christian and cheapen Jesus' teachings like this! This is why I sometimes separate myself from the Christian label because stealing from others, revenge for revolts and forced conversions are not Christ-like!  At.  All.

Aslan notes, "the violence with which colonial control was reasserted in India forever shattered any illusions of British moral superiority."  This reminded me of talks I've had with my Syrian friend. He admitted how hurt he was when he saw Americans coming into Iraq supposedly to help liberate the people from evil Saddam Hussein only to see them bring in the big bombs which destroyed much in the nation and killed and maimed many thousands of innocent women and children. He said he always thought the Americans were nice people. He'd see our TV shows and he found us likable, funny and friendly so he could not understand why we'd have such a harsh hand amongst his people.  His image of any American evenhandedness and nicety was shattered. He would expect this of their enemy Israel which never makes any pretenses for liking Arabs, but Americans were supposed to be fair and balanced.. and nice, weren't they? 

The author spoke of men such as Sayyid Ahmed Khan who founded the Aligarh School, "the primary goal of which was the revitalization of Islamic glory through modern European education."  Khan wanted to use European rationalism and scientific thought to modernize the Sharia.  He taught his students "to throw off the shackles of the Ulama and their blind imitation (taqlid) of Islamic doctrine, for none of the problems facing Muslims in the modern world could be solved through their antiquated theology."

Chiragh Ali hated how Europeans thought Islamic law was "'essentially rigid and inaccessible to change'" because of how the Ulama had influenced Islam. Chiragh argued the only law was the Quran which "'does not interfere in political questions, nor does it lay down specific rules of conduct.'"

You can image how this kind of thinking went over with the Ulama who were charged with being incompetent and irrelevant!  Essentially these "learned men of God" were being blamed for keeping Muslims from advancing.

The author introduced me to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani born and raised in Iran.  Al-Afghani had a lifelong hatred of the British and wanted to free Muslim lands from "the yoke of European colonialism, which he considered to be the gravest threat to Islam." For al-Afghani, Islam with it's egalitarian message was the superior civilization and he wanted to unite the Muslim world under its banner.  He also considered the Ulama as having become "the true enemies of Islam." 

Afghani's ideas met with success when he got to know some Turkish reformers.  The Young Ottomans "developed an intriguing reformist agenda based on fusing Western democratic ideals with traditional Islamic principles.  The result was a supernationalist project, commonly referred to as Pan-Islamism."  Its goal was to unite the Ummah under a single caliphate.  The problem with this, however, was Islam was divided along sectarian lines so unity wasn't as easy to come by.  Instead a more "secular countermovement that would replace the ... aspirations of religious unity with the more pragmatic goal of racial unity" was developed - Pan-Arabism.  Pan-Arabism wasn't entirely secular as noted the best pages of Arab history included the rise of Islam from the Arab world with an Arab prophet.  The problem with this Arab unity was... that there is "no such thing as a single Arab ethnicity."  Arabs sometimes cannot even understand other Arabs based on how different their dialects are so this unification was going nowhere fast.

Next on the scene was a young socialist Hasan al-Banna who came to Cairo for higher education.  He noticed the vast difference in the mostly poor common folks as opposed to the country's elite members.  He decided to work for what he referred to as "'the Islamization of society,'" basically bringing equality and social justice.  His Muslim Brothers group dealt with such matters "as the increase of Christian missionary activity in the Muslim world, the rise of Zionism in Palestine, the poverty and political inferiority of Muslim peoples, and the opulence and autocracy of Arab monarchies."  This was not a political movement as much as it was seeking to "reconcile hearts and minds to God so as to alleviate human suffering."  Al-Banna "was convinced that the state could be reformed only by reforming the self."

However when al-Banna's followers were later imprisoned by Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasser whose "authoritarian rule began to clash with the egalitarian values preached by the Muslim Brothers," al-Banna's movement changed. Instead of changing society by changing self, it became society must be changed by force.

Aslan then talks about Sayyid Qutb who would "come to be known as the father of Islamic radicalism."  Qutb, an Egyptian, came to the United States for a brief time and was "disgusted by what he saw as the country's 'materialistic attitude' and its 'evil and fanatical racial discrimination,' both of which he blamed on the West's compulsion to pull 'religion apart from common life.'"  He came back to Cairo, joined the Muslim Brothers and quickly became a leader who was tortured and imprisoned by his country. There he wrote a book which argued, "'setting up the kingdom of God on earth, and eliminating the kingdom of man, means taking power from the hands of its human usurpers and restoring it to God alone.'"  His views gave rise to a new ideology, Islamism, which "called for the creation of an Islamic state in which the sociopolitical order would be defined solely according to Muslim values."  All secular governments in Muslim lands had to be replaced. If necessary, by force.  Qutb was rearrested and hanged for treason a year after Milestones was published. His followers fled the country for the only place offering refuge to them:  Saudi Arabia.

The brief history shared about Saudi Arabia was intriguing!  Aslan noted how the religious zealot al-Wahhab came to know ibn Saud of the Najd region of  Arabia.  I was amazed to read that the Wahhabis went throughout the land destroying graves - even of their beloved prophet and his family -, looting from the treasury, burning books, outlawing coffee, banning music and flowers from the sacred cities and forcing men to grow beards and women to veil under the penalty of death!  The Ottomans were able to stop these guys, however, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, these nuts regained power thanks to ... the British!!!!!!!! 

Hold your ears while I scream!

So now we have Wahhabi - a horrid strain of Islam - controlling newly formed Saudi Arabia which soon becomes super-wealthy thanks to a gift from God, oil. They export not only oil, but their brand of Islam which has influenced many of those the West is now fighting.

You reap what you sow.

At the end, Aslan declares this current conflict is not between Muslims and the West, rather it's internal. It's Muslims fighting for control of Islam. Just as Christianity took fifteen centuries to decide what it would become, Islam is now entering its fifteenth century.

And since the world now is smaller and more connected, I think we are all along for the ride.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trying to Understand Sufism

After reading this chapter in No God but God, I understand why mostly when you hear of Islam, Sunnis and Shias are mentioned.  It's too hard to define what Sufism is. Actually Reza Aslan says in this chapter that Sufism can only be described, not defined.  They are the mystics of Islam - the ones seeking oneness with God - yet unlike most monastic orders they did not separate from society nor were they celibate. Islam is a communal religion which encourages marriage and having more children in order to increase the ummah.

As a sect which formed as "a reactionary movement against both the Imperial Islam of the Muslim Dynasties and the rigid formalism of Islam's 'orthodox' learned class, the Ulama," Sufism rejected the "rigidity of the Shariah and its traditional interpretations...eagerly [absorbing] all manner of local beliefs and customs."  While most Muslims are strong on using reason and intellectual answers (how often have I heard that the Trinity makes no logical sense as a reason to reject it?), Sufis shun this stress of reason in favor of "esotericism and devotionalism."  Also Sufis were not interested in political power as their goal was union with God.

The author spoke of the Sufi Way - basically stages one goes through as he gradually discards the outer shell of religion to enter that coveted union with God.  This is done through self-annihilation and denying self (nafs), encountering the Universal Spirit (ruh) and the two - nafs and ruh - battling it out for possession of the soul (qalb, literally "heart" which is "'the seat of an essence that transcends individual form'" according to Titus Burckhardt).

The Sufi's spiritual guide is a Pir, who enjoys much greater authority than any Shaykh or Caliph because he is "the friend of God" and "the eyes through which God regards the world."

"Love is the foundation of Sufism... It is love - not theology and certainly not the law - that engenders knowledge of God.... God's very essence - God's substance - is love."  And when Sufis speak of their love for God, Aslan points out, they aren't talking of the Christian concept of agape rather "the unconditional surrender to the Beloved's will, with no regard for one's own well-being.  This is love to the point of utter self-annihilation; indeed, that is its very purpose."

Aslan was talking about this Sufi love and then I was a bit shocked when he informed me that Iblis - or Satan - was the "perfect lover and the paradigm of love." Why?  Because he refused to bow to Adam not out of disobedience, but because he was fully devoted to God!  Obviously, in my opinion, this only works if you believe the Islamic version of the fall of Satan.  Basically God told his angels to bow to Adam, but Satan refused. (I remember expressing my own puzzlement about bowing to man when I read Sura 7 earlier this year.) The Quran actually states that it was Satan's arrogance that causes him to refuse, but it seems Sufis have their own version or else they just choose to not believe the Quran on this.  The Biblical version - or the one that I've always been taught - was that Satan or Lucifer's heart was filled with pride and he wanted to be God and this was his downfall.  There was no bowing to Adam involved. He actually refused to bow to God in a sense.  So, anyway, this Sufi admiration of Iblis just threw me for a loop.  It reminded me of the time I read about Saul Alinsky who dedicated one of his books to Lucifer for daring to rebel against the establishment and winning his own kingdom!   I'm not that much of a rebel!

Sufis believe in no dualities.  There is no good, evil, light, darkness - only God.  They take the oneness of God to this extreme.   While I admire the Sufis in some ways and could relate to them a little, I found myself a bit wary of them towards the end of the chapter.  Aslan discusses contemplative and physical ways Sufis try to gain union with God.  There is meditation, dancing, singing, self-mutilation, rhythmic breathing and chanting.

Jesus taught about denying self and taking up our crosses and following him.  I can see the self-denial of the Sufis and I admire them in this aspect. I love that they don't focus on political agendas or adhering to tradition and laws. I love their love for love.  (Ha, ha). Jesus focused on loving others and said this was the proof that you were his disciple: the love you had for one another. But Jesus also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  This was actually "like unto" the greatest commandment which was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds.  I guess I am confused how one self-mutilates and loves himself enough to love his neighbor in the same way.  Perhaps these few pages just were not enough to explain Sufis to me.  Do they serve others? Do they have the abundant, full lives that Jesus promised those who followed him? 

Or should I learn from the Sufis and realize all this stuff around me is not important and I should focus on union with God?  How does one achieve union with God? It seems they focus more on themselves than serving others which is a crucial teaching of Jesus. Indeed Jesus said it was when we feed the hungry, clothe the needy, take care of the sick, do for the least among us, that we do these very things to him!

Admitting the Sufis leave me a bit puzzled would be safe to say.  Can you shed more light on them?  What do you admire about them? What do you have problems with? What have I totally not understood concerning them? And is Jesus more "sufi" than I'd like to think?  Perhaps my Western outlook on mysticism colors my view and thus leaves me skeptical.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Matthew 18:1-14 -- Lessons from Children & The Seriousness of Sin

 1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 
 2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 

 5"And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 

 7"Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

 10"See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

 12"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

In reading this section of Matthew 18, I took a few notes on what stood out to me the other day.  

Jesus wanted us to change and become like little children. He clarifies this by saying we have to humble ourselves.  Adults rarely like humility.  We are creatures of pride, are we not?   My Quest Study Bible says we are not to become childish in the sense that we whine and complain and throw temper tantrums when we don't get our way, but we should have childlike faith.  "The qualities of humility, trust, receptivity and a lack of self-sufficiency all characterize the person of faith.  The kingdom of God is not earned by human effort, but received in childlike trust as a gift of the mercy and grace of God." (pg. 1412)

Children rarely feel they must earn a good parents' love and care.  Coming into this world as very dependent creatures, they are simply lavished with care and attention from birth. Even as they grow capable of putting forks to mouths and dressing themselves, they still depend on caregivers supplying them with food and clothing until they are on the brink of adulthood and have jobs for themselves. (Even then most seem to want mom and dad to provide the basics so they can spend their cash on entertainment...or so I've often noticed.)   Children accept gifts.  They never try to give them back to you saying "no you shouldn't have" or try to earn them. They appreciate gifts! Even if they forget to say "thank you" if you give them new toys, their eyes often express their delight in having new things to enjoy!  How it must please God the Father when we accept His gifts! I wonder if He delights in the expressions of pleasure when He sees our faces light up at the beauty of a sunset or the vastness of the ocean or the wonder of the eagle soaring high above the earth.

Some believe "little child" in this passage can also apply to new believers who would be infants in their new faith.

I took note of verse 7 which says these awful things MUST come, yet Jesus pronounces "woe" to the one who brings sinful things to the world.

Verse 8 shows us the seriousness of sin and how we should want to be apart from it rather than hold onto it as if it were a small pet we nurture and feed.  Jesus is talking painful separations here with this cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes!  He didn't take sin as something playful and cute as my society often does. Jesus didn't glorify sin.  And while we often think of sin as those big things such as murder and adultery and abusing drugs, God includes such things as envy, gossip, hatred, fits of rage, bitterness, lying, selfish ambition and pride!  How many of us are free of all those things?

About verse 10 my Bible notes "no one is too insignificant to be noticed in heaven." 

I love that the Father doesn't want any of these little ones to be lost, and like the good shepherd, He seeks them.

What stands out to you from this passage or my notes? Thoughts?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Shi'ite Story....and who is that Mahdi guy anyway?

Beginning with Husayn - the prophet Muhammad's grandson - facing his death at the hands of the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I and ending with the rise of the Khomeini in Iran, this chapter of No God but God highlighted the rise of Shi'ism as a sect of Islam.  Husayn was abandoned by the people of Kufa and left to be massacred, however, later some of these Kufans were sorry for their abandonment and openly mourned their unfaithfulness and the loss of Husayn's life.  Aslan points out that even those who didn't want the tribe of Muhammad to have political power were stunned at how the Umayyads treated the family of the prophet.  A rebellion formed that ended with both the holy cities of Mecca and Medina ruined and the sanctuary of the Ka'ba burned to the ground!  (Can you imagine Muslims hating each other so much that they would allow this to happen today? It's quite stunning if you think about it!)

Karbala, where Husayn was killed, became the "Garden of Eden" for Shi'ism with "humanity's original sin being not disobedience to God, but unfaithfulness to God's moral principles."  The Shi'ah claimed that just as Jesus was said by his early followers to know that he was supposed to die, Husayn also knew he was to be a martyr for the cause and he willingly fulfilled it.  

Besides Jesus, another parallel was made to Ismail (though the Bible's account says Isaac) and how Abraham was provided a ram to sacrifice in the place of his son. This, according to the Shi'ites wasn't a mere replacement, but a postponement because Husayn was destined to fulfill this role.  Christians believe God did offer a ram in the place of Isaac, but this was a picture of what was to come. Jesus, as John the Baptist stated, was the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world. So the Lamb who took our place was Jesus according to the Christian faith. It's interesting to me that the Shi'ites have made this parallel connection - only with Husayn instead of Jesus!

Indeed I found the whole atonement by blood and sacrifice doctrine familiar in some ways though some of the funereal practices (matam) that the Shi'ites carry out seems a bit much. Especially when Aslan noted they whipped their backs with chains until the streets were stained with their blood! See, I believe Jesus died in our place and there is no more need for blood sacrifice. If we accept the work he did on the cross, there is no reason for us to try to earn God's favor by shedding our own blood. Only the perfect Lamb was able to fulfill this role.

Aslan points out that Sunnis dislike this bid'a (religious innovation) of the Shi'ah mostly because Shi'ites believe paradise is only for those who weep for Husayn. And since the Sunnis aren't weeping, I guess they wouldn't like it to be implied that they are not paradise-bound.  Understandable.  I do find it curious that Sunnis don't like the hitting rituals of mourning for this is very historical in Middle Eastern religions.  In the Bible, people in grief would often tear their clothes and put ashes on their heads.  Although this is not how we display grief in my culture, I respect that others mourn in various ways.

The Imam in Shi'ism reminds me of the Pope in the Roman Catholic faith.  Basically the common folk are too ignorant to understand God's ways so we have to have some wise man tell us what God really means.  The Imam was "endowed with the living spirit of the Prophet and, as such, is thought to possess a spiritual authority that sets him above any earthly ruler."

Aslan notes that an Imam is proof of God on earth and as such, Adam was the first imam!  He distinguishes between a prophet - one who transmits the message of God - and an imam - one who translates it for human beings.  He gave examples of Abraham receiving God's message and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael - as his Imams - fulfilling it.  He also gives the example of Moses having the divine law revealed to him, but then made me take note of what he said next:  "but it was Aaron who carried it into the Promised Land."  Huh?  Aaron died before Moses (see Numbers 20) and not even Moses was allowed to enter the Promised Land. Remember Joshua and Caleb were the only Israelites of that original group to make it to the Promised Land because they were the only two spies who came back from Canaan believing God! The ten others were too frightened by what they saw and didn't believe God. Thus the whole group was made to wander forty years in the wilderness.  It's not really an important fact to this chapter, but a conflict with the Biblical account that took my attention.

Imams -- like the Prophet -- are "infallible and sinless" according to Aslan, and made not from dust, but eternal light.  Imams also know the hidden messages of the Quran.  Ja'far - the sixth imam - was the most influential and after the son he chose to succeed him died prior to his opportunity to lead, some people splintered from mainstream Shi'ism.  Since Ja'far was "infallible" how could he choose a son who would die prior to his taking the leadership role? To make sense of this fact, this group declared that Ismail didn't die, but was 'hidden' somehow and would come back to rule later.  This group was called the Ismailis or "Seveners" because they believed in only seven Imams. (Mainstream Shi'ites believe in twelve, thus they are "Twelvers.")

The role of the Mahdi or "one who guides divinely" became more accepted around this time. Although he is not mentioned in the Quran, several hadiths abound though the details vary according to what area the tradition arose.  Shi'ites were in a state of taqiyyah "cautionary dissimulation" and considering all governments illegitimate pending the Mahdi's return when in 1501, "a sixteen-year-old amir named Ismail conquered Iran and installed himself as the first Shah, or King, of the Safavid Empire." Twelver Shi'ism was declared the state religion.  This is from what modern Iran evolved. The final shah was removed in the 1979 revolution which ushered in the religious ruler taking control of the country.  Religion mixed with politics in a rather questionable way, but Iran became an Islamic state under the rule of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.   His "radical religious innovation" - the Valayat-e Faqih (or "the guardianship of the jurist") established the role of the Khomeini as forming a state and governing it for the Mahdi until he returns.  Thus, as the Mahdi's top guy on earth, he required absolute obedience from the people.  What power!

I get the impression the author of this book, Reza Alsan, wasn't fond of this political and religious mixture.

Interesting facts: 

Some Shi'ites believe the Mahdi will return with Jesus to defeat the antiChrist. 

Shi'ites often add "and Ali is God's Executor (wali)" to the Muslim profession of faith.

Hopefully I wrote all that accurately!  Thoughts?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"The Learned Men of God" and Interpreting Islam For Today's World

"This religion is a science, so pay close attention to those from whom you learn it."

I think Malik ibn Anas' quote about Islam summed up this chapter pretty well.  I read with great interest about the Abbasid leader, al-Ma'mum, who wanted so much religious authority Aslan declared he almost ushered in the Muslim Papacy.  This chapter dealt mostly with "the learned men of God" or ulama. I learned many things about Islam's development first and foremost that like Judaism, it's an orthopraxic religion - one of rituals rather than belief (orthodox) such as Christianity.  This helps me understand something I've often pondered: why go back under rules like the Jews were?  Why is Islam so much a religion of extensive rules such as I read in the Old Testament?  I grew up to believe Jesus fulfilled the Law and set us free. Not to do our own thing, but to love God in a way that pleases Him. Annnnnd with God's help!  More of a relationship by following God daily and being attentive to His Spirit than by going through the motions of rituals.  Granted much of Christianity is doing. We shouldn't merely talk pretty, but "do pretty" as well!  As the book of James tells us "faith without works is dead."  So we have belief that moves us to do that which pleases God rather than - what I think of orthopraxy - doing good deeds in order to earn God's favor.  So that section of this chapter was noteworthy to me as I reflected on my own beliefs on, well, beliefs and/or practices.

Aslan shares that the ulama's chief objective was establishing who was and who was not a Muslim!  Apparently they thought their powers extended to making this call! Quite an endeavor!  A result of their labors were the Five Pillars of Islam all of which are communal practices except the shahadah which is an individual's statement of belief in God as the only God and Muhammad as God's messenger.  Prayers, fasting, obligatory charity giving and the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) were all primarily done in community with others, and, as you can tell, are actions or rituals rather than statements of belief.  Intention, however, is stressed before each of these actions so they are not - hopefully - merely rote with no heart behind the actions.  In other words, ideally they aren't merely going through the motions.

Aslan said the fasting ritual was adopted from Arabia's Jews by Muhammad who initially had his followers fast Yom Kippur with the Jews.  Later it was changed to fasting the month of Ramadan.

I found the discussion of not using metaphors for God and tawhid - the Oneness of God - very interesting.  As the author points out tawhid is not mere monotheism, it's proclaiming that God is utterly indefinable, "resembles nothing in either essence or attributes." For this reason the Quran's use of anthropomorphic traits were "grudgingly acknowledged" by both the Rationalist and Traditionalist theologians.  Quite frankly I think it's a mercy of God to describe Himself in human terms because I can understand human terms and metaphors whereas Godspeak is out of my realm. So, if God wants to communicate with us, He is wise to use ways we can comprehend.  I don't see any problem with God speaking of His face, arms, throne or even emotional traits (wrath, love, mercy, compassion.)  To me this doesn't make God human, it makes God wonderful to want me to get to know Him. He could remain aloof and outside of my realm and to some extent I guess He does since I cannot see Him sitting in the chair beside me.  But He communicates with me - in English, in a language I know and in terms I can understand!  I love this about Him!

I learned that shirk, mostly used in the context of associating partners with God, can also include any grave sin that keeps one apart from God.  So it's not just we Trinitarians who are in danger of the unpardonable sin!

Aslan told of the Ash'arite school who came up with the "don't ask why" or bila kayfa response to the Rationalists. It's the age-old reply of parents to their children who want to know why they must do such and such.  Because I said so.  Like that, this response conveys "because the Quran says so...and it's not our place to ask how or why."

The author notes that during Moses' time, his miracles were primarily conveyed through magic. Jesus' miracles involved healing and exorcisms.  And Muhammad's was through words. In fact Aslan notes that many Muslims believe Muhammad's only miracle was the Quran which basically created the Arabic language. Or helped standardize it anyway.

The Traditionalists argued the Quran was not only the Speech of God, it is God, therefore, it was uncreated and eternal. This raised questions of whether God spoke Arabic and is every copy of the Quran a copy of God.  The Rationalists, on the other hand, said the Quran merely reflected God.

The author introduced me to baraka, the concept of the words themselves possessing a spiritual power. (If the word IS God, you'd hope so, eh?) This is most famously and artistically expressed through the beauty of calligraphy since Muslims frown on icons and pictures of spiritual things. I didn't realize there were strict rules for reciting the Quran. Tajwid regulates "when one is permitted to stop during a recitation and when it is forbidden to stop, when to prostrate oneself and when to rise, when to breathe and when not to take a breath, which consonants to stress and how long to hold each vowel." 

As for interpreting the Quran, there are tafsir, concerned with the literal interpretation in light of historical context and chronology, and ta'wil which is more mystical and able to be interpreted by only a select few.  Most Traditionalists have held that what was appropriate to Muhammad and the Muslim community of 7th century Arabia must be appropriate for the ummah at all times, "regardless of the circumstances."   Shariah was "developed by the Ulama as the basis for the judgment of all actions in Islam as good or bad, to be rewarded or punished."  The ulama used the Quran, hadiths ("the bulk of what are considered to be sound traditions are deemed so not because of their isnads [a chain of transmission in order to validate hadith] were particularly strong, but because they reflected the majority beliefs and practices of the community"), drawing parallels from the present community to Muhammad's and ijma which addresses situations not covered in the Quran or hadiths.  One problem with ijma is that it created Islamic precedence which many will not allow to change and grow as society changes and grows. 

Aslan makes the case for the Quran being living and breathing and changing as times changed. He points to verses that contradict others - abrogated by God or Muhammad - as times changed. He suggests this may be why Muhammad never had the Quran written down because it was subject to change based on how the community grew.  He argues that "while God may not change, the Revelation most certainly did, and without apology." The idea that the Quran cannot be interpreted in ways that make sense to modern times and Muslims must live as the Prophet and other early Muslims did is "simply an untenable position in every sense."


Life After Death

"...Whoever lives and believes in me will never die." - Jesus
Nabatean tomb

After seeing Egyptian pyramids and enormous tombs that the Nabateans created in Petra, Bruce asked Avner why the Pentateuch doesn't pay more attention to the afterlife.  The Bible mentions the patriarchs being buried, but not much about how or why.  Avner replied:

"Because the Bible deals with life -- how to live a holy life, an ethical life, a spiritual life. One of the reasons the Israelites ignored Egyptian influence on death is that the purpose of life in the Pentateuch is largely to serve God, or to have a family that will serve God. There's no mention of an afterlife. Life ceases when you die.  And when you die, you stop serving God."

"But God continues."

"That's right. This is a break from other Near Eastern religions. In Egypt, in Petra, the kings become deities themselves.  The pyramids, these tombs, are representations of the power of those people after they die."


"But if you're an Israelite ---"

"There's only one God. He exists forever. So if you're going to build a temple, you build it to God. You don't build it to yourself." 

Jewish Temple

I liked this brief exchange because it stresses the deity and importance of God and not pharaohs or any other human leader.  Have you ever thought about the Torah's silence on the afterlife?  Were the people so busy trying to survive, that they didn't have time to contemplate after death, what happens to us?  Did they not care? Were they content in knowing this life is all there is to existence?  Or was it merely that the Jews' main thought was pleasing God and living set apart and holy in the here and now so there was no need to include much of anything about life after death?  Did they know if they kept the Law, they would have good things after death so why ponder the unknowable and unfathomable future - "what is eternal life like?" - when they could focus on the practical and doable part - what got them there?  Why do the New Testament writers include much more about eternal life and how to obtain it?  Even Jesus is recorded in discussions with someone in how to be 'born again' spiritually so he might have everlasting life.


Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler; pg. 386