Category Archives: Wrestling with Books
I review books. Read on.
What did I know about the opium wars between China and Britain in the 1800’s? Basically nothing. So what happened? India had opium. The East India trading company of Britain discovered a market for the stuff in neighbouring China. They flooded that country with opium, destroying the lives of millions of Chinese people.
Britain’s moral conscience was assuaged for decades by means of flimsy justifications:
- The Chinese are poor and miserable; at least opium helps them escape their misery for a time
- Opium is primarily medicinal, it actually helps its users
- They want the stuff! So give them what they want
- Many Chinese are benefiting from the trade as well
China supplied Britain with tea, the British paid a pretty penny for this import. The opium trade served as a financial recoupment strategy for all their expense in extracting the tea from China. On the books, this was a tidy, incredibly lucrative trade that benefited Britain greatly and made its traders incredibly rich. By the mid 1800’s 1/6th of Britain’s GDP was tied to this trade.
Finally, the emperor of China had enough. Trade would be fine he said, however, the opium trade would not. The traders lobbied the British parliament. They said that the Chinese were being unreasonable, that they were corrupt, that the traders’ lives were in danger. As they petitioned the halls of power, they were careful not to get into the horrific details of the opium trade. Britain had a conscience, and if it was pricked, it would be bad for business. So the traders emphasized how China was a threat to British sovereignty. Their protests worked. Britain sent an army, vastly superior to China’s. China was forced to capitulate or be completely destroyed. The surrender made it possible for the trade to continue according to British terms solely. Over time, the British came to see China’s point regarding opium. However, they embraced a don’t-see, don’t-tell perspective, so the vice continued its devastating rampage largely unhindered.
It is in this context that E.V. Thompson writes his fiction. Luke is the good British trader who doesn’t deal in opium – he is the British trader who breaks convention and marries a Chinese woman. He is the British trader who takes the time to actually learn the language and culture of the Chinese. What does his “non-colonizing” stance get him? Pain and suffering and death to all his loved ones. Despite the difficulties, Luke remains true to his principles but is increasingly disgusted with the whole mess. After a decade or so in China, Luke retires at age 30 as an incredibly wealthy man. He moves back to England and secures a seat in parliament spending the rest of his life advocating for a better trade system between England and China.
What are my key takeaways?
- Wealth makes a terrible god. It makes you blind to the sufferings of others. It should be no surprise that the Bible says “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.
- Pride doesn’t help anything. The Chinese were convinced that they were the superior race and so were the British. Whenever negotiations went on between the two nations, it was only because the greater wanted to teach the lesser a lesson. Peace is not possible when pride and self-importance lead the way.
- Humanity has been infected with a great sickness. If someone is different than us, whether that be skin colour, religion, race, or culture, our automatic default is to mistrust them and misuse them. By and large, this seems to be the story of humanity. It’s the scourge of our existence. Perhaps that is what is so appealing about the Bible’s great vision of heaven that has people from every tribe, language, and culture worshiping the Creator together. It’s what we long for but can’t seem to achieve without divine intervention. Maybe the humility of saying “I can’t do this on my own” gives us hope for a unified future. I’d like to think so.
You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.
What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed. One of the saddest lines in his book is:
“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”
If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.
Death causes you to rethink your beliefs
As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:
“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”
One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.
Christian people are jerks
But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.
Prayer: Not a fan
Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:
“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”
Believe the better story
Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables
“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”
That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.
Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.
Take my hand
I’ll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.
Eternity: A really bad idea
“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.
God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt
Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.
This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful. However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.
This book seeks to create in us the compelling need to stop our busyness by taking regular breaks. Buchanan contends that a persons very health depends upon adherence to this ancient practice known as Sabbath rest. It’s a simple read, with a simple point, but it comes with bucket loads of quote worthy material some of which is listed below. I loved this book, it is wholly appropriate for anyone who is distracted, busy and stuck in the rat race.
Sabbath rest knows that silence is golden
- Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still.
- Silence is the condition for true listening.
Sabbath rest is a habitual practice (liturgy)
- At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honour transcendent reality, it helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions. It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to breach heaven among the shades of earth.
Sabbath rest is about paying attention
- Indeed, this is the essence of a Sabbath heart: paying attention. It is being fully present, wholly awake, in each moment. Louis Aggasiz, Harvard’s renowned biologist, returned one September to his classroom and announced to his students that he had spent the summer traveling, he had managed, he said, to get halfway across his backyard. To those with eyes to see, that’s enough. Everywhere we turn, wonders never cease.
- Drivenness erodes purposefulness…The truly purposeful have an ironic secret: they manage time less and pay attention more.
- “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted” Henri Nouwen said near the end of his life, “Until I discovered the interruptions were my work”…Purposefulness requires paying attention, and paying attention means — almost by definition — that we make room for surprise…we become hospitable to interruption.
Sabbath rest rejects the task master of time and embraces wonder and delight
- Unless we receive time as abundance and gift, not as ration and burden, we’ll never develop a capacity to savour Sabbath.
- Those calm, unhurried people who live in each moment fully, savouring simple things, celebrating small epiphanies, unafraid of life’s inevitable surprises and reverses, adaptive to change yet not chasing after it.
- Those who treat time as gift and not possession — have time in abundance. Contra wise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough.
- The oughts go into the salt mine and you go out dancing.
- Its the one day when the only thing you must do is to not do the things you must!
- You get to willfully ignore the many niggling things your existence genuinely depends on!
- toss away the “have to’s” and lay hold of the “get to’s”
- If it smells like an ought, don’t.
- So I submit this as Sabbath’s golden rule: Cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life. And then do whatever you want.
- They dance in a woods unwatched by Chronos. The Sabbath is a kingdom where Chronos and utility are not welcome.
- When we really believe that we have no time to waste — no time simply to enjoy without excuse or guilt, without having to show anything for it — then the cult of utility is utterly ascendant. It has vanquished all rivals.
- Philipp Melanchthon turned to Martin Luther and announced, “Today you and I shall discuss the governance of the universe.” Luther looked at Melanchthon and said “No. Today, you and I shall go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.”
- The Chinese join two characters to form a single pictograph for busyness: heart and killing — the busy life murders our hearts.
- This is one of Sabbath’s gifts, to relax without guilt.
Sabbath rest’s central quality is thankfulness
- Thankfulness is a secret passageway into a room you can’t find any other way. It is the wardrobe into Narnia. It allows us to discover the rest of God.
Sabbath rest looks both backward and forward
- Take anything you delight in here on earth: Your children, Your craftwork, Your hot tub. The dewed green of a fairway on a July morning. The set corn from your garden, butter drenches. Enjoy them all. Find rest in them. But imagine how much more awaits you.
- Busyness destroys the time we need to remember well.
The “Jihad” thing is not a new phenomenon.
The possibility of Jihad was the great terror of the Entente powers and the great hope of the Central powers. Massive efforts were made on one side to fan the flame of religious fanaticism and huge efforts were made on the other side to snuff it out. In the end, it appears to have been much ado about nothing. Islam was never that unified. There was enough resentment against the Ottoman rulers within Muslim domains that the flood of jihadists, supposed to fill the ranks of central armies, never materialized. The grand plan to create mayhem, terror, and disruption all across British and French colonies in the name of Allah amounted to wishful thinking.
I will kill for my nation, not my religion.
Fanning the flames of nationalism proved to be a greater motivator to violence than religion. The Arab revolt fuelled by grand dreams and false promises of a distinctly Arabic nation spanning most of the Middle East was just the ticket to turn Muslims in on themselves. In almost miraculous fashion, the Ottoman Empire had managed to push back Entente invasion forces in Gallipoli, Gaza, Baghdad and other places for over two years, but when the Arab nationalists joined the Entente to rise in revolt against Ottoman rule, it proved to be too much.
Whose side are we on anyway?
Muslims from Africa joined the Entente to fight on the Western front against Germans. As war goes, some of those Muslim soldiers were captured by the Germans. Instead of being sent to a regular POW camp, they were treated nicely, and sent to more of a resort to be indoctrinated about jihad. Ultimately, many of these Muslim POW’s would be repurposed and sent off to fight with the Ottomans as “holy warriors” against the British. Interestingly, many of those same soldiers wound up getting captured again, this time by British forces in the Middle East. A British POW camp in Egypt would be where they would sit out the war. However, I wonder if some of those same men were able to be repurposed again through the call to Arab nationalism? If so, it is quite possible that those soldiers went back into war to fight with the Entente once again – this time against the Ottomans. It would not surprise me if that actually happened, although the book offers no evidence of this final reversal. In the end, these two-sided warriors were let off surprisingly easy – any other traitor would have been shot for treason in this era. These guys just had to endure post-war expulsion from their country/colony of birth.
The Beduins are for the Beduins
C.S. Lewis makes the above statement about the Dwarfs in his Chronicles of Narnia series. What he means is the Dwarfs look out for their own interests above all, there is no higher purpose or unifying cause that supersedes this fundamentally tribal presupposition about life. This describes perfectly the Beduins. They constantly flipped sides whenever it suited their purposes. They looted whenever they won and drifted off into the highlands when things became dangerous or it didn’t serve their purpose. All throughout the war, the Beduins were a constant help and then headache to both British and Ottoman forces.
How do you dominate someone and then get them to fight for you?
It is utterly remarkable to me how the British and French were able to recruit willing soldiers for their armies from their African and Indian colonies. They had invaded these countries and reduced the indigenous people to second-class citizens in their own country! How is it that thousands upon thousands of Indian and African people would willingly sign up to fight in a war that was being waged by their oppressors? Was it the pay? The prospect of adventure? Maybe the British and French influence in these colonies was not as bad for everyone as we have historically thought? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question.
Dumb move to open another front in a terrible war?
In hindsight, the campaign against the Ottoman Empire has been criticized as an unnecessary and foolhardy endeavour. Was it? At the time, I think it actually made good sense. The strategy was for the Entente to try to force a quick end to the war by stabbing at the soft underbelly of the Central powers. Even the Germans were worried about the Ottomans as the weak link. The decision to attack was made because the Ottoman Empire had been in steady decline for over 100 years. They were politically unstable. Civil unrest abounded in the country. The empire had lost three successive wars at the turn of the century, and in the first year of the Great War, they had been crushed by the Russians in the Caucasus Mountains, the British in Mesopotamia, and by the British at the Suez.
On paper, it looked like a good plan – the Ottomans were weak and failing, and since the west was in stalemate, why not? Unfortunately, instead of shortening the war, it probably prolonged it. The Turks fought fearlessly and from better positions and received huge help from their German counterparts.
Why did the Armenian genocide happen?
Some Armenians wanted their own country – nationalism was the flavour of the day. But most were content with life as it was and were patriotic Ottomans – yet periodic persecutions at the hands of Turks and Kurds made life far from ideal for this Christian subset of Ottoman culture.
As the war loomed, the Empire needed to make a decision as to which side they were going to join in on. It was a tough decision, but ultimately they went with the Central powers. Russia had forever been looking lustily to capture Istanbul and many of the other prime lands possessed by the Ottomans. The Russians viewed themselves as the last of the Byzantines, so their claim on Ottoman land pre-dated the Ottomans. The Turks had no desire to fight the Russians, and attempted a peace deal with them. The Russians were not interested.
- Switching Sides: For some time, Armenians had wondered if maybe the Russian capture of the Ottoman lands in which they lived would actually benefit them. Russians were at least Christian. That commonality, it was thought, could lead to more freedom and less persecution, and perhaps even the possibility of an Armenian state. Russia openly courted that idea, making lots of promises to Armenians if they would cross over to their side. Some Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army crossed over to fight with the Russians. That didn’t sit well with the Turks.
- Shrinking Empire: The Turks had lost so much territory to nationalist-minded, non-Muslim entities within the borders of their empire over the previous several decades. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria all had achieved independence from the Empire, shrinking and weakening it in the process. A similar independence movement with the Armenians would fragment the very heartland of the Turkish people. That was not an option.
- Civil War — Some Armenian nationalists in Eastern Anatolia started a revolt in which they took over an entire city, killed a bunch of Turks in the battle, and held out for Russian liberation.
- Cheering a bit pre-mature — When the British invaded the Dardanelles and were close to conquering Istanbul, Armenians openly cheered the would-be-conquerors on. This exuberance could only be interpreted as treasonous.
The regime known as The Young Turks concluded that all Armenians were a direct threat to national security and must therefore be exterminated. Only a small percentage of Armenians were actually dangerous to Ottoman rule but, in times of war, the controlling powers often don’t take the time to try to discern.
March of Death
Before the war, The Young Turks had ejected the Greek Orthodox from Ottoman lands. Greece had found its independence, and was not a friend to the Ottomans, so the Greeks had to go! The plan was to march them all to Greece and be done with them. It was a difficult situation, to be torn from one’s homeland and sent marching off towards Greece with only what you could carry on your back. But most survived because they had a reachable destination filled with people willing to receive them. This was not the Armenian story. They had no homeland to march to once they were evicted, and the Turks were thinking extermination not expulsion.
To accomplish extermination, the Turks made it seem like they were going to do the same to the Armenians as they had done to the Greeks. However, the expulsion point would be across the Syrian Desert. The brutal elements of the desert ensured that most would never survive the trip. In addition, if any of the marchers slowed down, they were bayoneted. To complete the genocide, the Turks also arranged for Arab tribesmen and Kurdish tribesmen to regularly sweep down violently into the long lines of defenseless captives. Some Armenian children survived because they were taken as slaves to these groups, other young women survived through capture and forced marriage. Most however simply were caught up in this net of death along the way. It is estimated that only about 2% of those forced to go on the death marches actually survived them. In all, approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished.
Ironically, the genocide was of no assistance in helping the Ottoman cause. The Russians still conquered even without Armenian help. Many great and loyal Armenian soldiers were lost to the Ottoman army because of the purge. The Armenian issue was irrelevant to the Arab revolt which actually accelerated the demise of the Ottomans. There is one particularly poignant story to illustrate the senselessness of this genocide: several thousand Armenians managed to escape the death marches by volunteering to work with the Germans on the Berlin to Baghdad railway, an essential link that could have made all the difference in the war. The Turks discovered the Armenians, and, in spite of German protests, preferred to send the willing labourers to their deaths rather than use their help on this vital railway. The railway was never finished. The Ottomans lost the war.
Untenable was the most common word in this book. It was probably used several hundred times! As the various armies attacked each other, inevitably their positions would become “untenable”. There would be a retreat, and then the violence would start all over again, until the other side would achieve an equally untenable position. As the bodies of both sides piled up, I felt myself asking the question “Why are we doing this again? There has got to be a better way!” In my mind, the whole idea of war is “untenable”!
At the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire was completely disassembled. The French and English carved up what was left of the empire for themselves. Even Anatolia, the heartland of the Turks, was chopped up to make space for Greek, Armenian, and Kurdish national interests. At the wars end, hope for even a Turkish state was lost, that is, until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged from the dust of war and refused to accept the terms for peace. Somehow, with a broken army, he managed to push back Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and even French military forces in order to preserve a Turkish homeland.
Well, that was interesting. A comedian writes a book on the reality of hell, and he is not joking, but yet the book itself is full of jokes. Wait, what? Exactly.
So, what is going on here? People, and especially Christian people of late, don’t like the idea of hell – it’s too harsh, too off putting, too out of touch with reality, too unbelievable. Thor Ramsey quotes social critic and comedian Bill Hicks to capture the incredulity of an actual place called hell:
“Christianity is such an odd religion. The whole image is eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. Believe or die. Thank you for all those options.”
This skepticism of hell has not just dripped into the church, it has poured in like a flood. Notable Christian celebrity Rob Bell basically says the same thing in his book:
“God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?”
Thor Ramsey is not about to go along with this drifting tide of “envangellyfish” as he calls them. If hell becomes only a metaphor, or a temporary holding tank that eventually dissolves into heavenly bliss for all, or morphs into annihilationism, then all is lost. According to our funny-boned author, the entire Christian story becomes meaningless. It’s kind of a big deal, so Thor cracks jokes and quotes Bible verses and makes his case that a punishing eternal hell is very real, very terrible, and to be avoided at all costs – through faith in Jesus.
“If Hell freezes over… the loss of eternal punishment as it is taught in the Bible will result in the shrinkage of God’s attributes and in the end, a smaller God. We will suffer the loss of the fear of God, the loss of a holy God, the loss of a just God, the loss of an extravagantly loving God, and the loss of God’s wisdom in the cross. We can’t afford to lose the attributes of God. Otherwise we have a meaningless gospel. But the greatest loss whenever Scripture is minimized is the loss of knowing the self-revealed God of this universe.”
Does Thor have a point? I think so. Below are my observations:
- Jesus’ death is evacuated of meaning if hell doesn’t exist: “It’s the difference between Jesus dying for you or just giving up His seat on the bus for you.” If there is no real danger, if our souls are not in peril of damnation, then what was Jesus thinking? If we are all going to end up in heaven anyway, or if some of us will just be snuffed out into non-existence, then the story doesn’t really make sense anymore. Jesus’ sacrifice is not something to put our ultimate hope in, instead we just kind of feel sorry for the guy. Thor wants us to be convinced that if it wasn’t for Jesus, we’d be toast!
- God hates sinners in addition to their sin — He has his Bible verses to back it up, and clearly it’s not a stretch to see that God does not send sinners to hell because He loves them, so I get it. Even still, it’s difficult for me to imagine a conversation with one of my not-yet-believing friends starting off with the line “Currently, God hates you.” But that’s not what Thor is suggesting – or is it? He does manage to say “This means that God can simultaneously seek a sinner’s best interests (Love) while opposing the sinner’s primary motivations in life (Hate) And I understand that, at least to a certain degree, earthly relationships have this dynamic as well.
- The unpleasant thought of God’s wrath — God is justified in being upset with us, not in a freak out, fly off the handle way, but in a consistent, unmoving, non-reactionary opposition to all that stands against His holiness. After pointing out bunches of sins which reveal just how much we don’t measure up, he makes a very accurate statement “The problem is that we don’t really believe we deserve God’s wrath” And that is true – our culture teaches us that we are superheroes and victims at the same time. We get all the credit for the good, and readily have someone to blame for the bad. And so it seems to be going with our Theology.
- The blame game for all eternity — “In our refusal to love God and instead embrace sin, we never quite see sin as an infinite evil. We usually think of our sins as minor hijinks. Hitler deserves hell, but not us. It’s always the other guy. Those “evildoers” – they deserve hell. Not us ‘sinners’”. And this is the genius of C.S. Lewis’ master work The Great Divorce: through one unsettling story after another, he reveals how hell is inhabited by increasingly self-absorbed, utterly miserable people who are experts in blaming others for all eternity.
This book is blunt and rough, even with all the jokes. What’s Thor’s message in a nutshell? God is perfectly righteous – we are not. Hell is real. We need Jesus desperately. We must repent and follow Him. There are eternal consequences if we don’t.
Thor makes a blood-earnest call for Christian leaders to forsake the notions of a “Santa Claus” God who is always happy, always gushing with love and good gifts, regardless of what we believe or do. Santa Claus is not the God of the Bible. Thor wants to reawaken us to the God who is a consuming fire, who will not be a party to any wickedness, but who loves us so deeply that He was willing to sacrifice all for our salvation.
This is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.
So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.
High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!
She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?
- Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
- That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
- Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
- You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
- Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.
This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.
What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.
Debra comes out with the vision of her book right away:
This book is about the posture one takes not the position one holds.
She isn’t interested in writing a policy manual for the Christian position regarding issues of sex, gender, and the gay lifestyle. Her book is really her own personal story and the stories of the many that she loves. Deb was abused early and often, developed same sex attraction, almost as a defence mechanism against predatory men, ended up being part of a communal lifestyle with both men and women, then found Jesus, after a while she stumbled into an ultra conservative seminary to learn about the Bible. It came as a shock for Deb to find out that people at the Seminary might frown on her more “free” perspective on life and sex. Eventually, Deb would graduate from the seminary marry a guy named Allen and they would become the dynamic and influential writer/speaker duo that they are today. If I had to to tell you about her book using twitter my description would be as follows:
- Sex points you to God
- Christians have really screwed things up
- Covenant love is where it’s at
- Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all
- What’s the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray
Sex points you to God
Deb is convinced that sex is more than a biological function. Her contention is that sex is a deeply spiritual event. It reveals the deeper human longing for eternal connection, for transcendent belonging. As Christopher West says “The sexual confusion so prevalent in our world and in our own hearts is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk.” We want to belong so badly, but we don’t know how to get there, or how sex plays a role in that. She quotes psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on this saying “Sex is the closest that most people ever come to a genuine spiritual experience.” She goes further saying that “orgasm is a fleeting experience of transcendence — a way of loosing ourselves.”
“Whatever it is that one is seeking in sex, one thing seems clear — it’s more than just about momentary pleasure, as intoxicating as that can be. It seems that almost all the existential and religious aspects of human life are somehow mysteriously involved.”
“Every aspect of our sexuality: our capacity for relationships, our longing for love, our identity as male and female, all point to something beyond oneself, to the “Eternal Other” I have come to believe that our sexuality is so interlaced with longing for and experience of spirituality that we cannot access one without somehow tapping into the other.”
I’m inclined to agree, but so what? What can this deeper meaning about sex actually accomplish? She jokes, but with seriousness, that spiritual people ought to be some of the sexiest people on the planet. This observation, serves to tee up her next major point which is:
Christians have really screwed things up
And have been for quite some time. The early church fathers were certainly not rejoicing in the mystical union of sex as a pointer to God. Origen thought his sexuality would interfere with his spirituality so he castrated himself. Ambrose encouraged married priests “stop having sex with your wives” so they could focus on loving God. Jerome was utterly convinced that Mary the mother of Jesus could not have had a sex life, it would be dirt on her perfect reputation. Augustine, built an entire theology against the use of private parts by suggesting that original sin was passed on by having sex. The more sex, the more sin. Therefore sex should suppressed and avoided as much as possible.
Deb laments how fear has strangled a healthy sexuality out of so many Christians. Fear makes people create artificial boundaries, all the rules to make sure “it” doesn’t happen, actually back fires creating a forbidden fruit syndrome. Fear creates an over focus on sex. She quotes a popular Christian leader who recently wrote a tract entitled “12 questions to ask before watching Game of Thrones” All twelve of the questions had to do with the sexual content on the show, and none of the warnings were directed toward the greed, jealousy, deception, gratuitous violence, arrogance, or pride so prevalent. Deb makes the incredibly poignant observation
“We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with… Boundaries are certainly important for life and sexuality, and the Bible does give us guidelines, but read through the lens of fear they can become the very prison form which we ourselves need liberating.”
No argument from me. Her longings for a fear free version of sexuality really resinated.
“What would our marriages, our friendships, our churches, and our communities look like if men and women were not afraid of connecting with each other in deep ways? What if men and women could really know each other without sex getting in the way? What if we did not have to be afraid of our own and others’ bodies that we cannot trust ourselves with them. I guess we would look a whole lot more like Jesus! In Jesus, the fully integrated human, the embodiment of spirituality and sexuality, we find our model. A man whose life was characterized by right loving, who navigated well both genital and social aspects of his sexuality.”
Even still I’m afraid, I know my own heart, but I share her longing.
Covenant love is where it’s at
She doesn’t want to push anything on the reader directly, no dogmatic statements coming from this book, but covenant love certainly gets at least a gentle nudge in the readers direction. She describes it as “Abiding commitment to each other’s best interests, to the ongoing search for truth, vulnerability, the risk of getting hurt and the accountability of our community.” and contrasts it to its more intoxicating cousin, romantic love. She really isn’t a fan of our cultures efforts to send us forever hunting for the perfect romance, it’s an illusion, it’s a drug that wear’s off after a while. Our culture is intensionally misleading with it as well, because it assumes that once you’ve had “intense emotional connections” you’ve “fallen in love” and sex is the cultural expectation for those who experience these connections. This is neither right nor healthy. “Romantic love might get you down the aisle, but only the higher, more sacrificial love will carry you on till “death do us part” — Whatever human sexuality should look like, covenant love should be at its centre.
Human Sexuality is complex, stop acting like a know it all
In a way, she is calling her readers to chill out a bit, to stop talking and start listening. To realize that the world of black and white doesn’t mesh well with the complexities of human sexuality.
Regarding gender: She distinguishes the word from sex. Sex meaning the anatomical parts of the body, and gender being the non-physical aspects of being male or female that exist in a cultural context. Gender is also more internal, she says, it’s how we feel about ourselves. Gender “Is how we emotionally navigate the body we were born into.” It’s unhelpful for Christians to hang on to culturally solidified stereotypes of what it means to be a boy or a girl. She urges us to consider gender as more of a dynamic and fluid concept. The truth is expressions of masculinity and femininity change over time, and from culture to culture and that’s ok. She also doesn’t like the concept of “opposite sex” preferring rather that we understand ourselves as “neighbouring sex” since there is so much we share in common. To the Christian’s in her readership she says “The fruit of the Spirit doesn’t come in pink and blue”
She is the first to say male and female are different, those terms aren’t meaningless, or unnecessary, She even quips “It seems men have a penchant for looking at people’s private parts, women for looking into people’s private lives.” but on the whole she hates generalizations and calls on us to be more broad when considering gender.
Regarding categorizing people: Is this person gay, is this person not? Is this person trans is this person not? Her message on our never ending desire to categorize and label people is clear “Stop it!”
Deb says, “It’s ok to have intense same sex attraction and not have to view one-self as gay.” She notes, “the gap between gay and straight is not often as clear for women as it is for men. Perhaps this accounts for the rise in women who identify as bi-sexual.” Feelings and attractions ebb and flow, people are different, people change, we all make choices, life happens.
“Simple binary categories of homosexual and heterosexual are not really good enough. They don’t do the job, everyone has a story and not everyone fits neatly into those categories. Given that everyone’e experience of sexuality is not only multifaceted but unique to their story, it’s almost impossible to place a generic label on a whole group of people and think you’ve defined them… Anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris says ‘try to define gay or straight and the words begin to slip through our fingers’.”
Hirsh says, “No one is simply born gay. No surprises here. Lady Gaga is wrong.” She goes on to confirm the complexity of human sexuality by quoting the American Psychological Association:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.
Her point is clear, whatever you think, there is an excellent chance you don’t know it all, what is true is that all human beings want to belong and to be accepted. Christians must be more than accommodating when it comes to that. Sadly we haven’t been.
Whats the Christian position? — Love, Serve, Pray. This book is a worthy read, it’s provocative and poignant. If you want a book that won’t give you all the answers your looking for, but will at least make you think, this is it. Also Deb is a delight to read, she uses humour well, and her stories are fantastic. I think I will finish this review by sharing some good quotes from her book.
- The only thing wrong with being an atheist is that there’s nobody to talk to during an orgasm. 🙂
- Beneath the search for genital sexuality is a longing to be loved. One seeks it where one can.
- I accepted Jesus into my heart but how do I get him into my penis?
- None of us are “healed from our sexuality” none of us are flawless. Most heterosexuals are actually polygamous in their orientation. We are all sexually broken
- Avoid stereotypes, think well of others. Love the sinner, hate your own sin
- Our business is to love, pray and serve and let God sort out the rest.
- Be a listener not a teller
- I have never been one for developing specific church policies on homosexuality. If we have a policy on homosexuality, why wouldn’t we also develop policies about every other ethical issue? For instance, what is our policy about greed? Jesus seems pretty concerned about this, yet I don’t know a single church who has a formal policy on it. The problem with writing policies on a particular issue is that you make that issue more important than the others
- Acceptance precedes repentance
- In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.
Victor Frankl was no stranger to pain suffering and death, even before the war as a successful neuroscientist and psychologist in Vienna, his practice led him to spend the majority of his time with suicide patients. In his research among these troubled souls, he found that 100% of them could not answer the question “Why am I here?” The absence of any ultimate meaning in his patients lives was the common thread in their suicidal perspective. Further, he discovered that alcoholism, drug abuse and most forms of neurotic behaviour were connected to the absence of meaning in a persons life.
As his research broadened he was startled to find that as much as 78% of German/Austrian young people in the mid 1930’s would rather have a clear transcendent meaning to their life than just making lots of money, or living for themselves. Sadly, Hitler capitalized on this “existential vacuum” as Frankl liked to called it. According to Hitler there was a transcendent reason to live and die. He was the Saviour to follow and the Third Reich was the heaven to build, and brutality was the necessary equipment needed for the project. This was better than the boredom and despair that a meaningless existence was bringing to the youth of the nation of Germany.
The Nazi’s took over Vienna. Victor was Jewish, so that was a problem. First he faced the indignity of being terminated from his post at the university and hospital. Second, he and his wife suffered through the forced abortion of their pre-born child. Third, his grief was multiplied when he witnessed the arrest and deportation of all of his extended family members, including his elderly parents, his bereaved wife, and his brother. Finally, his own arrest and internment at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the extermination camps came. By the time it was all over he was the lone survivor among all his family and friends who went to the camps.
His discoveries at the extermination camps agreed with his earlier findings on the importance of transcendent meaning being critical to the health of a persons life. The prisoners that survived clung to some meaning, some reason to carry on — those who were not able to grasp any kind of meaning to the madness of their existence simply gave up and died off.
Of course even those who had a greater purpose to their life died with ridiculous efficiency as well. Greater purpose did not mean you would survive, in many cases living by transcendent scruples just got you killed quicker, but somehow even the deaths of these meaning filled creatures were different. Frankl observed:
“They marched upright into the gas chamber with the Lords prayer or kaddish on their lips, offering whatever help they could to others.”
Their grasp of a “super meaning” as Frankl liked to call it gave them a confidence that there was meaning in suffering and meaning even in death itself. This confidence, allowed them to cope, to be at peace even as their lives were taken from them in the most despicable of ways.
The whole point of the camp was to dehumanize, to turn people into animals, it worked for many, but those who could hang onto meaning retained their humanity.
When Frankl was liberated it took him just 9 days to write the book for which he is most famous. “Mans Search for Meaning” has sold 10’s of millions of copies world wide, and has been translated into some 40 different languages. Is Frankl on to something when he says we need a “super meaning” beyond ourselves to truly flourish a human beings?
He gives several suggestions for how we as humans might be able to find greater meaning to our lives:
Finding meaning through a life’s work — Frankl stayed purposed during his time in camp, by secretly re-writing on tiny scraps of paper the manuscript for his book that the Nazi’s destroyed with his entry into camp.
Finding meaning through deeds — Frankl turned down an opportunity (albeit a risky one) to escape in order stay with some of the sick in the camp that he had been charged to care for, it was the right deed to do.
Meaning through love — For Frankl the ultimate purpose for existence is love. In his own case, as he suffered, there were moments in the midst of it all, where his mind was transported to Tilly his wife. She spoke to him in his distress, and he dreamed of better days with her. He carried on, for her.
This is why things were even more difficult for him when he finally got out and discovered that she and everyone else he loved were dead.
“The best have not returned (also, my best friend [Hubert Gsur] was beheaded) and they have left me alone. In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point—and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that that which had kept us standing has been destroyed, that at the same time as we were becoming human again it was possible to fall deeper, into an even more boundless suffering. There remains perhaps nothing more to do than cry a little and browse a little through the Psalms.”
Frankl says ultimate meaning makes you human (animals don’t probe the depths of their own suffering) we do. Somehow that meaning becomes fullest when it’s connected to true love. The best reason for living, for suffering, for overcoming, and even for dying is love.
As a follower of Jesus this book, though entirely secular in nature, made me appreciate with renewed clarity the grand story of Jesus that I have come to love. The Christian story fits perfectly with Frankl’s findings. Love forms in us our greatest meaning which makes us truly human. To love, however, has it’s risks, for when that love dies or is somehow extinguished, we become susceptible to great despair. However, if our love is attached to a person who even death cannot vanquish, how then can despair conquer us? in a word, it cannot!
My friend Steve is not happy. There is a problem:
The secrets of science appear unable to address the most personal and complicated questions in life, which is sad news for the rest of us. We, the people, are trapped in a philosophical limbo, victims of our success. This truth is reflected in the reality that even while the world has made significant improvements in the psychological and other sciences, nevertheless, war, crime, classism, and corruption remain embedded phenomena, and we are resigned to ignore the mostly invisible social disruptions of common deception, passive aggression, abusiveness, petty partisanship, hatred, lack of civility, cheating, patent suppression, malicious gossip, loneliness, neuroticism, cliquishness, greed, raw ambition, economic manipulation, abuse of authority, destruction of habitat, and just bad faith generally, among our other problems. The world lacks accountability, which is mostly due to a general lack of awareness and at times integrity. While the innocent are nothing more than prey to such forces, the sophisticated are slow to help, constituting many of the perpetrators, making progress fleeting in the darkest regions of our collectives. Our demons appear to evolve even alongside our angels, and the appearance of civility is not always the reality. It is this new self-awareness that challenges our modern sensibilities.There is always an unfolding reality that surprises us, and although we may evolve, we do not necessarily become purer. Is evolution about becoming better at surviving, or becoming better?
How did we get to this place? How did we come to be so lost in the midst of so much advancement? According to Steve the fault is with our education. The shift which put us on this dismal trajectory happened in our not too distant past. Steve fingers out James L. Hughes The Toronto Superintendent of Public Schools in 1886 as one of the champions of wrong headed education:
You cannot kindle all children by literature . . . A very large proportion of the race were not meant to be deep lovers of book learning. You may kindle more by manual training. Why? Because God meant men and women to be productive.
Education took on a new design, one of utility. The goal was to help people become practical, efficient, and productive. Society became convinced that a liberal arts education was a worthless thing of past, to be replaced with sciences, math, and and a purely functional level of literacy all geared toward a productive end. Practical rather than cerebral was the new mantra.
“How to” and “How things work” should not be the goal of education according to Steve. Rather his vision has us learning about the consistent themes in history, alongside the different schools of thought and their takes on the causes of the big problems of life. It is exactly this that is at the heart of a significant education, as opposed to a utilitarian education that is meant to be accessible by the largest number of people while being effective at disseminating specific knowledge deemed valuable to the economy.
Steve assumes that his readers might label him as one who is “anti-science” He is not. However when teaching science, Steve warns us not to squander an opportunity to teach history. All scientific advancement’s have come to us in a historical context. Without the greater historical understanding of the sciences, The bigger picture, the deeper thought, the greater value is lost to pragmatics.
Among other things Steve laments the damaging effects of media to the problem of education. Neil Postman decades ago suggested that television makes us dependent on quickly changing images and shortens our attention spans, making us less capable learners; That concern finds the same arguments today about smartphones. We are a soundbite and highlight real culture now, which makes it increasingly difficult to even focus enough to learn holistically. We only seem to learn in bits and pieces now. This information is funnelled all towards the narrow end of our own selfish advancement. This path does not lead to human flourishing.
Steve summarizes his better way which will lead to a better world in the following way:
It is important to have a society of literacy and intellectualism above and beyond the technical, clinical, and utilitarian world of academia, reaching into the world of art, works, community, passion, emotional awareness, and spiritualism. A private society must exist that cares for the preservation of past and future, nurturing both hindsight and foresight (Epimetheus and Prometheus). Such a society aims to reduce mental illness, greed, misery, and aggression by promoting philosophical health and passion for the humanities.
Steve is very convincing, but his book does meander a fair bit, and at times I felt myself wondering where he was going. In some ways it felt a bit like a shot gun blast against all that is wrong in our world especially the later chapters. But the thread of hope remains as he takes us on his historical journey through all the schools of thought. He longs for a better world and is convinced that this world is possible if we would just take the time to learn about it, from all the various views and perspectives. I don’t believe that reading more broadly, avoiding the distractions of our media devices, and becoming less utilitarian about or educational systems will turn the world into a wonderful garden of love void of greed, misery, and aggression. However, I certainly believe these are good places to start! Steve is right that a correct belief or mindset is at the heart of lasting change, humans must do the hard work of the mind, and increasing numbers in the western world are simply not. We are to distracted, to amused, to disjointed and to self-focused to care. In a way this book attempts to call us back to caring about how we understand the world and organize our thoughts.