Many people wanted to know more about the short clip I played during my sermon this morning. So i’m posting it here. I only came across it this week, through twitter (needless to say), but it fitted perfectly with the passage I was speaking on: Luke 2:67-80 and Zechariah’s song.
I really don’t think this book lives up to its hype, but I did work my way through roughly 3/4 of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem, The Biography. It is a very uneven and, at times, curiously flat read. It is also (perhaps inevitably) littered with sweeping statements and an over-reliance on just a few partisan scholarly perspectives. This was especially frustrating when it came to plumbing the huge depths and breadths of biblical and archaeological scholarship. But there were clearly some gems and insights. And so thought I’d share just one or two. Read more
- The dilemma for Iraqi Christians
- Charts showing the difference between NIV2011 and previous versions, and here. (HT Antony Billington)
- Full schedule of Lausanne III at Cape Town to see videos of main talks etc
- Bring Advent to life by following Natwivity on Twitter
- David Instone-Brewer at Tyndale House has very helpfully reviewed a variety of computer resources for the bible scholar – check them out at Tyndale Tech
- If you know anything about recent Balkan history, this news is an encouraging sign.
- Books vs eBooks – an interesting Newsweek chart
- Very interesting article about what Americans feel about their ex-Presidents.
- Scary infographic about internet porn. (HT Simple Pastor)
- The problem of contemporary parental discipline:
- Ever been on an overnight flight? Well this sums up the experience perfectly.
- I love tilt-shift photos – clever focus manipulation that makes real life scenes look like models. Check these out.
- Some rather fun and quirky photographs from everyday London.
- I rather like these Ukrainian designs for playing cards
- 50 office jargon phrases we just totally hate
- Some fascinating cartographic futurology from the ever reliable Strange Maps
- People are awesome (not dumb… mostly) …!
- Rather fun reflection by Kevin Connolly on James Bond, America and post-war austerity
Was leafing through the Royal Academy of Art magazine this week – and encountered this photograph filling a whole page. Was blown away.
It’s utterly mesmerising and bewildering all at the same time. Where are we? An airport? A fancy dress party? A film set? Who are all these people anyway? And what are they up to?
It is in fact a photograph taken in 2007 by Andreas Gursky called Kuwait Stock Exchange I. And it manages to convey the incongruities of the modern world, with a forum equipped with the latest communications technology populated by hundreds of men (not a woman in sight), dressed in the formality and uniformity of classic Arab desert dress. It is a picture of anonymity – even those who knew them wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from this angle – it all looks beautifully stage-managed and set up. But i suspect it isn’t.
There are all kinds of interesting contrasts with another of his images, this time from the Chicago Board of Trade:
This is equally mesmerising – but this time is a living fireworks display of colour. Half close your eyes, and it could almost be a Jackson Pollock. Wonderful.
Photography at its best should do this – show us the world in a new way. Here is beauty in the rawest of capitalist temples… Surprising really.
Lauren Booth is Cherie Blair’s half-sister, and therefore Tony Blair’s half-sister-in-law. She is a journalist – and in the last few years, she has become a Muslim.
So it was fascinating to read her account of her conversion to Islam in yesterday’s Guardian.
She describes how her experience of meeting people in the Middle East punctured the ‘swagger of condescension’ of ‘a western woman with all my freedoms’. Having expected only to engage professionally with men in positions of power, she found herself surprised by the wide diversity of women in a wide diversity of roles. She had succumbed to the prevailing prejudice and Islamophobia of which she claims now to be a victim.
But at one level there is nothing remarkable about this – my experience of working in various Muslim contexts has had a similar effect on me. These are real people, with real lives – and many are lovely people who have become good friends.
Yet it is interesting how Booth found that the removal of prejudices led to being further intrigued:
My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.
One of her big concerns is in what she sees as the disparity between the media’s portrayal that obsesses with Islamic terrorism, and the experience of ordinary Muslims going about their everyday lives. And she has a very reasonable point. There are a billion or so Muslims – very few are terrorists, relatively speaking. And let’s face it, out of the 2 billion or so Christians, there are going to be more than a few nutters. You can’t tar the whole with an individual brush. Booth’s article is certainly a helpful dispelling of myths (and I was struck by the last paragraph where she explains what is going on when people cry out “Allahu Akhbar!”).
So one thing that this story does illustrate is how dangerous ‘straw men’ are – for reality is seldom even remotely connected with such caricatures. Encounters with genuine articles lead people up all kinds of paths. Any effective case against something must have worked doubly hard to present an acceptable and fair description of an opponent’s position.
The Path to Conversion
But what led to her conversion? She seems to have become used to praying to Allah as opposed to God without really finding that strange (as she suggests other converts do). But the key seemed to have been her growing relationships with Muslims:
Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.
Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.
There have been significant life changes too:
In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can’t even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I’m overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I’ve heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.
Western Culture Exposed
But what interested me most of all was her realisation of what is really going on in western culture:
How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?
And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.
I want to say Amen to pretty much all of that. But still, I’m not propelled towards Allah.
Perhaps, one of the prevailing myths in the Islamic world is that the west is as it is because of, and not despite, the influence of Christianity. I can’t remember where I discovered this, but it’s said that TS Eliot’s extraordinary modernist masterpiece The Wasteland was a major influence on Osama bin Laden, because of its brutal dissection of the lostness of the west. However, as a Christian, I would want to argue that it is by no means as simple as that. There are certainly unfortunate residues of Christian culture misapplied or twisted. But the cultural factors that leave people living the hollow lives Lauren Booth escapes from are as much the result of the Enlightenment and a de-Christianisation as anything else. This was something Eliot himself was on about.
Believing or Belonging?
All in all, there was one issue revealingly absent from this testimony: truth. Islam’s beauty, compassion, community, new perspectives, cleansing etc. But not truth. Or an apologetic. Of course many other Muslims work hard to build an apologetic. But that’s not what happened here. Lauren Booth found that reality confronted and dismantled her prejudices – which then led, in turn, to exploring being part of this faith community. Which resulted in deep spiritual experiences. She belonged and experienced, then gradually believed.
It’s not hard to see this being paralleled by countless people coming to Christ in the west too. Of course, this path is not exclusively western or modern – but Booth’s story is intriguing to me as a symptomatically western experience of religious conversion (whether Christian, Muslim or other). A need for community, a despair at the inability to change lifestyle, a sense of the hollowness of modern life, a longing to be spiritually connected.
The Christian community offers all of that. Or rather it should. Or rather it MUST. It is a scandal when it doesn’t.
But it does have one asset that is lacking anywhere else. And that is a message of grace. And grace needs to be lived out; and grace needs to be spoken. For the combination of the two is the greatest apologetic: a community of grace and truth following a Lord who is the Truth and the embodiment of grace.
Which is where, for all my profound respect and love for my Muslim friends, I must differ from them.
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
The Islamic Republic of Iran in the previous year acted more harshly and severely than ever before to limit, through arrests and detentions, the existence and growth of Evangelical Christians.
Farsi Christian News Network ( FCNN) and the Committee of Human Rights Advocates Report
Last year, with the start of the year 2009, we reported that Mr. Carl Muller of the Open Door Ministries had stated that, “based on existing reports we predict that in 2009 the Christians around the world will be persecuted more than ever before”. He added that, “we are not seers and can not see into the future, but we feel that brutality and persecution of Christians, especially in parts of the world like the Middle East, is on the rise.” Moreover, in this report by the Open Door Ministries, the list of countries with the worst human rights records towards Christians is published annually. In 2009 passing the previously second ranked Saudi Arabia and only outpaced by North Korea, was the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The following summary analysis is based on the visible and official incidents of suppression against Christians in Iran that have been reported. The reality is much worse than what has appeared in the International media and based on these facts the international human rights advocacies have declared the Islamic Republic of Iran as one of the worst offenders and persecutors of Christians in 2009. The following summary only reflects those incidents that were committed by the judiciary and the public security organizations in Iran and were thus reported in the international media. A great part of the unreported persecutions continue to be the systematic oppression and discrimination against Christians at the work places, threats and humiliation by people in the community, which are cleverly manipulated and orchestrated against Christian believers. Many of these incidents have not been reported and verified due to the arrests and threats of retaliation against the persons and their families and have prevented them from speaking against their persecutors.
In reviewing the following survey one can see that fortunately in 2009 there were no incidents of mass killings, executions, or long term prison sentences handed to Christians. There were only 2 cases in which the judicial authorities passed verdicts or ordered punishments. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side consists of systematic arrests and detention of Evangelical Christians in order to, more than even before, reduce and limit the scope of their activities in Iran.
Many Evangelical Christians in Iran are mainly new converts who have left their previous religion of Islam and become Christians. In reviewing the following list one can easily notice that this particular group, namely the new Christian converts, is the primary target of the security forces and the judiciary authorities. One can attribute this to the rapid growth of this group in all the segments of the Iranian society that has puzzled the leadership of the Islamic Republic. At the start of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 there were an estimated 500 Farsi speaking Christians, out of a 35 million population, in Iran. Now, after the passage of almost 30 years and a population that has exceeds 70 million, there are estimates that the Farsi speaking Christians are in the tens of thousands who have abandoned their Islamic beliefs and have embraced Christianity as their faith. This shows, even in the worst case scenario, a growth of many thousand percents.
They have won a number of prizes, it seems, and it is easy to see why. They graphically convey the terrifying consequences of meddling with other countries’ politics and conflicts. For ‘what goes around really does come around’. A case in point recently is of course the CIA’s involvement in training and arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during their conflict against the Soviet Union – only to find that this group transmogrifying into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
I’m afraid I couldn’t help but be reminded of some U2 lyrics:
First this lyric from the latest album (No Line On The Horizon), on a song called (appropriately enough) Cedars of Lebanon
Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you
Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.
Then there’s this from All that you can’t leave behind (2000), from the song Peace on Earth:
Where I grew up there weren’t many trees
Where there was we’d tear them down
And use them on our enemies
They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you
And it’s already gone too far
You say that if you go in hard
You won’t get hurt
Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
Pacifism is regarded by many as an easy copout. And there are of course impossible dilemmas and complexities. But it is hard to fault the logic evoked by these adverts and lyrics. And this second excerpt evokes the minefields inherent – e.g. how do you beat terrorists? By water-boarding? You become a ‘monster’ in order to defend yourself against the ‘monster’. It’s an impossible battle. Which is why the appeal of the chorus is so crucial: only He can break the cycle of cause and effect by His infusion and invasion of grace.
This poem is jumped out at me, ingeniously weaving together an OT love poem (the Song of Songs), the life of Christ and contemporary agonies of the Middle East. Be transported, challenged and beguiled. I’d not come across Ruth Padel before, but now am definitely intrigued and want to read more…
Learning to make an oud* in Nazareth
by Ruth Padel (New Yorker, Oct 27 2008)
The first day he cut rosewood for the back,
bent sycamore into ribs and made a belly
of mahogany. Let us go early to the vineyards
and see if the vines have budded.
The sky was blue over the Jezreel Valley
and the gilt dove shone
above the Church of the Annunciation.
The second day, he carved a camel-bone base
for the fingerboard.
I sat down under his shadow with delight.
The third day, he made a nut of sandalwood,
and a pick guard of black cherry.
He damascened a rose of horn
as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea.
I have found him whom my soul loves.
He inlaid the sound hole with ivory swans,
each pair a valentine of entangled necks,
and fitted tuning pegs of apricot
to give a good smell when rubbed.
The fourth was a day for cutting
high strings of camel gut. His left hand
shall be under my head.
For the lower course, he twisted copper strings
pale as tarmac under frost.
He shall lie all night between my breasts.
The fifth day he laid down varnish.
Our couch is green and the beams of our house
are cedar and pine. Behind the neck
he put a sign to keep off the Evil Eye.
My beloved is a cluster of camphire
in the vineyards of En-gedi.
I watched him whittle an eagle feather, a plectrum
to celebrate the angel of improvisation
who dwells in clefts on the Nazareth ridge
where love waits—and grows, if you give it time.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.
On the sixth day the soldiers came
for his genetic code.
We have no record of what happened.
I was queuing at the checkpoint to Galilee.
I sought him and found him not.
He’d have been in his open-air workshop—
I called but he gave me no answer—
the selfsame spot
where Jesus stood when he came from Capernaum
to teach in synagogue, and townsfolk tried
to throw him from the rocks. Until the day break
and shadows flee away
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh.
The seventh day we set his wounded hands
around the splinters. Come with me from Lebanon,
my spouse, look from the top
of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens.
On the eighth there were no more days.
I took a class in carpentry and put away the bridal rug.
We started over
with a child’s oud bought on eBay.
He was a virtuoso of the oud
and his banner over me was love.
* an oud = a Middle Eastern form of mandolin or lute