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

Monday, October 31, 2011

October Books

It's that time again!  I read more books this month than I thought I would. It helped that many of these were rather short and/or easy reads.  Some books just take way more thinking than others. Most of these were not that type so I read quite a bit.  Happy Halloween to those who enjoy this day!

The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart -- A book about a Scottish man's journey by foot through central Afghanistan and the people he meets along the way. I was impressed by some villages' hospitality, but mostly unimpressed by how many treated a stranger among them and how they treated dogs and donkeys!  Rather neat story and way to "see" some remote parts of Afghanistan just after the Taliban fell.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson  -- see previous posts

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas -- "A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America" is a cute story I happened to stumbled upon in the biography section of my local library.  Firoozeh was 7 years old when her family moved to California for two years. This was before the Iranian Revolution and the family was there because of her dad's work with a big oil company.  She told how nice the Americans were and her first impressions of their language, foods and services. I laughed out loud when she and her mom went to the store looking for "elbow grease" to help get out stubborn stains!  The family went back to Iran for a while, but came back to the US permanently after the revolution.  While Firoozeh mentions Islam, Muhammad and being Muslim, she is quick to point out her family's secular views and speaks of her father's love of ham (which he was able to purchase and eat in Iran since they lived in a section developed by the British) and her own marriage to a cultural Roman Catholic French guy whom she met in the US. (Oddly, his mom never accepted their marriage as of the writing.)  I loved her talk of our lack of using those guttural sounds, our lack of a billion names for relatives. Cousins, aunts, uncles covers a lot of people in English whereas in Iran they are each broken down specifically!  Really cute book. I loved seeing America through her family's eyes!

The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays -- the authors (a married couple) discuss movie stars taking new names as well as regular people names, place names and maiden names. Some chapters are of more interest to me than others, but overall a pretty good book even though it was published way back in 1997.  A few tidbits:

"If first names whisper, surnames shout,and they often give misleading messages. 'In daily life,' Mary Waters, a sociologist, reported, 'Americans routinely use surnames to guess one another's ethnic origins,' but the conclusions they reach, based on folk knowledge of what is a typical Irish, Italian, or Dutch name, deal only with the father's ethnicity, ignore the mother's, and disregard mixed marriages, mixed ancestries, and earlier name changes. Even so, beginning with the first tidal waves of immigration, a surname could cut you off from employment and social acceptance as effectively as a criminal record.  If it was O'Reilly or Epstein or Bertucci, your destiny was shaped in the cradle.  Some people with undesirable names went the pragmatic route and changed them.  Others, who couldn't tolerate the psychic wrench of a name change, did not and often paid for their refusal in reduced earning power and career advancement, although they may have slept better at night than the name changers."   (pg. 56)

"Smith is the ultimate catchall for linguistic naturalization: it takes in Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz, Smed, Szmyt, Schmieder, Smidnovic, Seppanen, Fevre, Kalvaitis, Kovars, Haddad, McGowan, and other variants that in their original language mean someone who works with metal." (pg. 52)

Granted this book is old, but when it was published in 1997 it said this about Germany's naming laws: "'the gender of the child must be recognizable from the first name.' Junior, Jr., and Jun. are verboten, as are Hemingway, Jesus, and Woodstock as first names..."  Under Hitler there "was a list of first names to be used exclusively for Jewish newborns" and those adults who were not readily identifiable by their last names as Jews had to take "Israel or Sarah as a middle name."  (pg. 113)

"When a woman gives up her name at marriage, she's saying: 'While I'm willing to relinquish a piece of my identity for the sake of this union, I do not ask the same of you.'"  (pg. 146)

Fried Eggs With Chopsticks by Polly Evans - An English woman tells of her travels by sleeper trains, buses, bicycles, taxis through parts of China. This book was written in a much more humorous way than some other travel books I've read. Almost like a comedy mixed with travel through China.

Thura's Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq
by Thura Al-Windawi (almost 20 years old) tells of the few days before the war, Thura's family during the initial days of war and such things.  Interestingly, things got worse for women as religious people started making the women cover their hair and not celebrate Muhammad's birthday at the mosque like she had all her years before. Also pornography became much more commonplace. It could have just been the American soldiers, but Thura "scolded" the Muslim-majority Iraqi people for this.

Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine by Scott Korb -- a library book that discussed war, homes, religion, money, foods, bathing, respect and death in year one.  Pretty interesting! You can read a short interview about these topics here if you want.

Faith Under Fire by Roger Benimoff is "an army chaplain's memoir" mostly about his second deployment to Iraq and the struggle he had with PTSD and adjusting to normal family life upon his return.  He questioned how he could serve a God who would not step in to stop all the terrible things and suffering in life. This book made me so sad about the awfulness of war...all those killed and living with shattered bodies and minds. 

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley -- I really enjoyed this book; see previous posts for more on it

Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo by Zlata Filipović -- life just before and during the war as told by 11 and 12 year old Zlata; it ends with the shelling continuing; I got to thinking that Zlata is now 30 years old and wonderedhow she is now. Oh, I found this about her on Wikipedia.

The Bookseller Of Kabul by Asne Seierstad -- a great book which tells about life in a fairly well-off family; each chapter follows various family members' roles in society and in their households. Makes me extremely appreciative for not being part of that life.

Muhammad by Deepak Chopra -- a fictionalized biography of sorts; each chapter is told by a contemporary of Muhammad - friends, families, enemies; I got the book recommendation from Wafa's reading blog - here is her review

Off The Map: Bicycling Through Siberia by Mark Jenkins -- granted this book is a bit old; the journey took place in 1989, but it was fun reading of that time in Russian history. I enjoyed Mark's telling of his trip with a couple other Americans and four Russians - complete strangers prior to this months-long journey - and their interactions with each other and people in Siberian villages. It was sobering to hear one lady admit that "they were pets" to the country's leaders.  Interesting book!

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah -- "The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" -- I found this at the local library. What a sad book in so many ways.  Adeline's mother died two weeks after her birth so she was considered unlucky. Her stepmother was cruel and her father had no backbone to stand up to her.  Adeline's siblings were troubling too. I admire Adeline for her hard work in getting good grades and determination to study abroad and finally settle in California as a doctor. This book was quite interesting as it told some history of Shanghai and Hong Kong as it pertained to the author's life.  Made me wonder how people could sorely mistreat family like this. 

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Human Condition

Journal entry excerpt from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.  Last ones, I promise!  I returned the book a few days ago.  :-)

I read this and it just struck a chord. Maybe it's because not many days before this, I had been thinking of the "human condition" while sitting on my porch reading about struggles in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world. (Those travel books can really get to you when you start seeing "the enemy" as human beings!)  It was so weird seeing those exact words written in this journal entry in this particular book. I can relate much to the author's sentiments here and in the final entry on this post. Only instead of Kosovo (Kosova to Albanians; the spelling is a political statement and both are used in the book), my heart was left in Syria. I always wanted to go back, but now it seems nearly impossible.


... I remember a letter my brother, David, wrote me not long ago - a long thoughtful letter about the futility of most human efforts to improve things. Humanity evolves at its own speed, he says, and we are a long way away from being anywhere close to goodness, kindness, peace. He worries, I think, that with all the renewed violence in the area, I am discouraged, unhappy with our decision to come here. Maybe, he thinks, I have become cynical. After all, things look less stable now than they did when we arrived eight months ago.

It is true that after seeing what I have seen, learning what I have learned, I am less hopeful than ever about our human condition.  I doubt we can ever straighten ourselves out. World peace is only a dream. The most we can do, I fear, is to prevent violence in some places, put a lid on it in others, help each other when we can.

But in the place of hope I now feel ... something else.  I look around me and see that most of us share a certain sweetness.  Most of us are trying to live decent lives, doing what we can for our families and children, trying to find some meaning, to piece together the puzzle. But we keep blundering, stumbling, falling into fits of rage and fear, hatred and self-destruction. Our stories are often sad, tragic, maddening.  And I am not hopeful that things will get much better. I don't see progress, but I don't feel cynicism. I feel only an immense tenderness for all of us.

Tonight, as I have often done during my stay in Kosovo, I turn to a copy of
The Sun, the magazine published by my friend, Sy. In an interview, James Hillman advises us to "pick one place where your heart can connect to the world's problems." 

For me, that place has been Kosovo. I am so very lucky to have found it.
  (pg. 210)

Do you think Ms. Huntley's outlook on humanity or the world is too pessimistic, too optimistic or about right?  Do you think the world is getting better, worse or staying the same?  In what areas do you see progress? In what areas do you find cause for concern?

What do you think of the "immense tenderness" she feels for people? Do you also feel this way or do you tend towards cynicism or something else entirely?

What do you think about her observations of people sharing a "certain sweetness" and just trying to provide for their families and figure out this puzzle of life?


...So, we will return this spring. ... When I e-mailed them of the possibility of returning for a visit, Leutrim and Leonard wrote back immediately volunteering to try to round everyone up for a class reunion at the Cambridge School.  And Genti wrote: "We wonder why anyone would come back to Kosova. We think you must love us very much
."  (pg. 225)

Thoughts? Where has your heart connected to the world's problems? Or maybe it's not necessarily a particular place, but a cause or a group of people scattered throughout the world or in your own country.

Anything you want to share?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Darkness of My Heart

Journal entry excerpt from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.

"Teacher" was talking to her Kosovar students about the war and about how not all Serbs are bad and it's not good to generalize the whole population as being one way...right?


...Is their bitterness, their fear so great that they could do to Serbs what Serbs did to them?  Could soft-spoken Veton burn a Serb village because his own was burned by Serbs? Would sweet, wide-eyed Enver, who loves basketball and never misses a class, stand by and watch while atrocities were committed?  Could any of these bright, kindhearted young people kill Serbs because they are Serbs?

And if I were in their shoes, what would I be capable of? Have I come to grips with the darkness in my own heart?

Tonight I read the words of Francois Bizot, who was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge for three months in 1971 and who writes in Le Portail: "Every war needs killers and they can always be found. We always put ourselves in the skin of the victims and not of their killers - we never put ourselves in the skin of a Nazi or Khmer Rouge.  Yet between them and us there is very little difference, no more than between the victim and us."

And the same from Matthew Spender: "In extreme situations only chance divides the role of the torturer from that of his victims."

Are they right? Given the right circumstances, we are all, even the best of us, capable of anything?  There are no easy answers, in Kosovo or anywhere else.
(pg. 188)

I was talking to a friend in Damascus the other day and he was saying how things have changed the last two months. The uprisings that began in Syria back in March have continued yet Friend has noticed a shift. He said people are openly talking of revenge, of siding with the devil if it means toppling the regime. His exact words to me were:

ordinary people are now talking of revenge and very very dark thoughts
  i fear that we will be torn apart there is so much hate now   i never imagined that we would reach this level 
 He said he'd even lost friends because of differing of opinions, there was much sectarian division and he did not like the way things were headed.

Listening to Friend talk and reading this excerpt from Ms. Huntley's journal makes me think the man she quoted is right when he says we often identify with the victims without perhaps realizing we are capable of evil things if circumstances go another way. Maybe the Nazis didn't realize they were doing anything wrong. They were cleansing the world of filth in order to ensure the strongest of the species survived, right?  And for the Syrian regime: why not stop those traitors who are bent on destroying the country?  Even religions OK killing treasonous people, don't they?

It's actually pretty easy to rationalize our favorite evil things. Thankfully most of us won't go the route of rounding up people for gas chambers, or mutilating young boys for the sake of power and control of a country. But...

What do you think of the quotes in this journal entry?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Journal Entries

Journal entry excerpts from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley. I am really enjoying this book!


I am in love with my students. They are bright, fun, curious, receptive. Today they practice speaking, repeating each sentence after me in perfect imitation, and I realize with chagrin that these Kosovo Albanian students are being taught to speak English not only with an American accent, but with a southern accent!  It seems that, even after twenty-one years in California, my southern drawl is still with me - and now, with my students!
  (pg. 51)

Haha!  I can totally see this happening if I were teaching ESL!  Samer would consider it great, I think. He actually wishes sometimes that I had a heavier southern accent if you can imagine! 


...And here is the key distinction, I've found, between Kosovar students and American students: American students study in order to secure lucrative jobs and a sense of individual achievement. Kosovo Albanians study so they can provide for their families - their parents, siblings, and grandparents, as well as any future family they will have. Education is a family goal, not an individual goal.
  (pg. 115)

A few entries later the author talks about how shocked her students are when told that American teens often study far from their families and get jobs hundreds of miles away. Families are very important to Albanians and they cannot imagine this.  When "Teacher" reminds them that many of their relatives are in Western Europe working, they counter that they do this to send money back home, but their main goal is to return to be near their parents and siblings.


At the bottom of Dragodan at an intersection close to the railway tracks, there's a sign that proudly proclaims: "This Corner Cleaned Up by UNMIK."  The signpost itself is invisible because of the mountains of rubbish piled around it. The trash of kitchens, offices, and shops surrounds the sign and spills over into the street.

There's a basic cultural misunderstanding on this corner.  UNMIK, wishing to set an example for the community, cleaned up the site and erected the sign to show what could be done. The community took the sign to mean that UNMIK would clean up whatever garbage they dumped there.  Thus, the messiest corner in the city.
(pg. 171)

This just struck me funny. Cultural misunderstandings often are (and sometimes not, of course!)  Oh, the people just pile trash outside. Apparently there are mounds of it to wade through to go anywhere.


As Leonard and I walk from the Monaco Café to the school today, I ask him: "Leonard, how is it that people here can always tell I am an American? Even before I open my mouth, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people on the street can see that I am from the U.S."  I've been puzzled about this for a long while.

"That is easy, Teacher," he says. "You are not afraid."

I don't understand.

"Teacher" - he eyes me carefully, not wanting to insult me - "you think that because you like everyone, everyone will like you. You show everyone a friendly face, a face that trusts. You don't think anyone would hurt you. Everyone knows that is how Americans are." 

"Here in Kosova," he continues, "we have learned to be afraid.  Americans have not learned this lesson."
  (pg. 182)

I remember when Samer and I were early in our friendship and I made a short video on my camera. Initially he told me if I came to Syria, I would blend right in with the locals because not all Syrians have dark hair and eyes and olive skin. (Since that area has had so many conquerors that have left their marks, the people can vary in skin, eye and hair color.)  So he told me until I open my mouth and reveal my English-speaking talk, they would probably think I was local. 

But then he saw a video where I was introducing myself to a few of his college friends and he changed his mind completely.  He said there was something about me - my body language (although the video was mostly a head-and-shoulders shot), my facial expression, my voice, something - that said "you are not Syrian!"  He said later that my eyes sparkled. And Syrian eyes did not so much.


His friend "Jake" also thought I could pass for Syrian. He'd always seen the still-shot of me that I had on Skype or Facebook or somewhere!  But when he came with Samer to pick me up from the airport, he was amazed that I did not look Syrian at all and was very American-looking (whatever that means!)

What are your thoughts or impressions of any of this?  This book is great, by the way. Makes me want to learn more about that area of the world and the people and conflicts. I have been sorely ignorant. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paul's misogyny, libertarianism and the Book of Romans

A few last notes from Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson

Keep in mind the author believes some of the books attributed to Paul are actually products of a later era when "the Church" with its bishops and other offices was becoming a more organized entity.


"The misogyny of the Christian tradition could claim its origins in the writings of the New Testament. ... [insert woman-hating quotes by Tertullian].  But is any of the blame for this to be laid at the feet of Paul?  True, in his letters Paul introduces the idea ... of the Fall of Man; 'as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.' The conclusion drawn by the later fathers of the church is that the blame for Adam's death must be attributed to Eve, but this is not something which Paul ever seems to have thought for himself.

[Having read all the Pauline letters many times, I tend to agree.  I've often noticed how Paul uses Adam, Adam, Adam and maybe once or twice mentions Eve (or woman) so I've never felt my gender is particularly blamed from just reading Paul. If anything humankind as a whole is blamed and I'm OK with that having realized quite a while ago that I'm a sinner and so is most of the rest of the world!]

His writings do not suggest misogyny. True, he thought that the woman is the glory (doxa) of the man. But it is hard to know what that means. He believed in the Jewish myth that women were created from Adam's spare rib and that women were created for the sake of men. This is not what most people think in the late twentieth century, but it does not mean you were misogynistic if you thought it during the reign of Claudius or Nero.  In those days you would have been hard put to find anyone who believed in 'sexual equality' in the modern sense, and the person who comes the closest to it is, strangely enough, Paul."



"Many modern people, even Christians, regard Paul as a restrictive or puritanical presence in the Christian tradition. They blame him for taking what they suppose to have been the simple religion of Jesus and institutionalising it, or theologising it, or somehow making it more 'restrictive.' A reading of the few surviving authentic writings of Paul - Romans, Galatians, the two Corinthian letters, Philippians - absolutely contradicts such a view.  Paul is the great libertarian of religious history. Though a Jew of Jews - by his own account - he had the most cavalier view even of the written word of God. ... Paul believed that human beings were the temples of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit flows through us, and Christ lives in us.  In order to find out the mind of Christ you need to look in your own heart."   (pg. 172)

He gives this passage as example: 

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  (2 Cor. 3:1-3)

I also think of Romans 14 one of my personal favorite passages when dealing with 'gray areas.' You think it's wrong to eat pork, then don't do it! But don't dare judge another person whom God has accepted.  It's not your call to say their eating pork is right or wrong. You think it's wrong to celebrate Christmas or Independence Day because they aren't mentioned in the Bible, then don't. But don't look down on the ones who choose to celebrate those days.  Seriously, check out Romans 14 and feel scolded for judging others while at the same time feel encouraged to do all things in love...even forbidding yourself a ham sandwich if eating it makes a weaker brother or sister stumble.


"For it is the most interesting, as well as the most impenetrably difficult, book about 'religion' ever written.  In fact, of course, it is not about 'religion' at all, if by 'religion' we mean Judaism or Islam or Taoism or Seventh Day Adventism or Roman Catholicism.  Romans is one of the most devastating pamphlet attacks on 'religion' ever penned. No one who read it and absorbed its profound messages could feel happy with membership of a 'religion' ever again. Jesus might or might not have gone into the temple in Jerusalem and said that he would pull it down and build it up again in three days. The letter to the Romans pulls down the temple at Jerusalem and the temple at Ephesus and the temple at Piraeus and the altars of Athens and every other altar and temple ever build by human hand. 'St Paul understood what most Christians never realise, namely, that the Gospel of Christ is not a religion, but religion itself, in its most universal and deepest significance.'"   (pg. 195)

That last bit the author quoted is from "W.R. Inge, Outspoken Essays, p. 229" according to the footnote.

I've never thought of Romans like this before, but now I'm going to have to read it with this thought in mind to see if I agree!

Your thoughts on any of this?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What was it about Jesus?

[W]e are compelled to wonder and awe at the fact that out of  this strict and monotheistic religion, there was born such an all-but-idolotrous worship of a prophet. The scholars can speculate about the origins of theological ideas, imagining, for example, where this or that 'christology' first evolved. Simple common sense, and decent reverence in the presence of such faith, is bound to ask, 'What can it have been about this man that inspired such thoughts? ... What was it about Jesus at the time of his earthly life which so impressed his followers that they could group together in his name and be convinced that even after his death he was the focus of Israel's hopes? ...

Any Jews, however poor and humble...could in the teaching of Jesus embody in their own person the divine nature of pity and purity and love.  When the Judgment comes, Jesus taught that we shall not be asked to rail at God for having created a world in which there are hungry, poor, unhappy people. He, by contrast, will have expected us to have incarnated his virtues; he will expect us to have been 'God' towards our unfortunate neighbours; for he will have been hidden within them.

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  (Matthew 25:35-36)

There is something immediate and accessible about this, the 'religion of Jesus,' and which formed the basis of the enormous authority of Jesus as a moral teacher. Combined with his gifts as a healer, we must believe that he was one of those rare and charismatic 'saints', rather like Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages or Mother Teresa in our own day, who captured people's imaginations, filled them with the love of God.  The historian comes to this conclusion not for reasons of sentimentality but because it is inconceivable that a movement could have grown up in Jesus's name had Jesus himself not been a person of remarkable virtue, eloquence and personal magnetism.

excerpts quoted from pages 114-116 of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson