Briefly Noted — Culture and Religion

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately, but mostly not stuff I’ve had strong feelings about, so I haven’t felt compelled to write entire posts about them. But they do deserve quick mentions, which is what this post is about.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe takes place in Nigeria as colonialism and missionaries are spreading through the continent. It focuses on Okonkwo, a respected warrior and hardworking yam farmer in a small village, along with his three wives and children. He’s deeply flawed, especially in how he routinely equates violence with manhood and mercy with effeminacy, but has the skills and determination needed to thrive and gain honor in tribal society. Until, of course, things start falling apart, both for him and the traditions of his community. It presents a good look into the daily life of a pre-colonial African tribe, as well how thoroughly intertwined that life was with the rituals and beliefs they held, so that giving up the beliefs ultimately meant giving up much of the culture and stability as well. I read it because in the post The Books I Didn’t Read I wrote about a few weeks ago, Samantha said “Things Fall Apart would have upended everything I thought I knew about missionaries and nationalism”, and I was curious what would have been upended. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure what she meant by that. I suppose it had something to do with the thought that pagan tribes had no internally reasonable (though deficient) Tao behind their laws and beliefs. Or that British missionaries and colonists didn’t do violent and harmful things? I’m not sure why she would have thought that. The book was worth reading — an interesting window into a very different culture.

If I Should Speak, by Umm Zakiyyah, is about an American college girl discovering Islam. It belongs to the genre of theological parlor novels wherein the characters spend a lot of time sitting around talking about theology. In their dorm rooms, the car, their parents’ houses, and so on, while their minds are opened to new possibilities — of The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and There & Back by George MacDonald. If you’re plagued by the Calvinism of your youth, I would tepidly recommend either — the latter more than the former.

It’s not a genre I love, and is very difficult to pull off well. The main difficulty is that most of the content is taken up in dialogues, usually between one or several jejune youths, and someone older and wiser, or at least better informed. In general, this person is not Socrates, with his flare for irony and trapping his opponents in their own logic. If I Should Speak centers around Tamika, Aminah, and Dee, roommates studying near Atlanta. Tamika plays the part of the callow youth — she was raised Christian and tried evangelizing her fellow students in high school, but is basically ignorant of Christian traditions. Aminah is the knowledgeable, devout guide, the daughter of Islamic converts of mixed heritage. Dee comes from a similar background as Aminah, but has strayed from the path, uncovering her head and shoulders, and competing in talent competitions. Aminah is so piously smug, and Tamika so ignorant and un-resourceful, their conversations are sort of painful to read. The writing is fairly good (but they need to stop “sucking their teeth” once was already too much, and they just keep doing it, whenever they’re in the least perturbed), but the characters fit far too tidily into their preordained roles. I can’t really recommend this book.

I can, however, recommend Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamim Ansary. It’s just what it claims to be — a popular history of the Islamic world, from it’s founding in the time of Mohammad to the early Twenty-first Century, told more as a narrative of how people have perceived their cultural history than a balanced and impartial historical text, but since he says so upfront, I think that’s alright.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus , by Nabeel Qureshi is the converse of If I Should Speak, being about a young Islamic man sitting around talking about theology in college, until he eventually becomes Christian. It’s easier to excuse creative non-fiction for the tedium of placing all its scenes in someone’s living room or lecture hall, because it has to work with what actually happened, and cannot simply invent drama. Interestingly, I also like the kind of Islam practiced by Nabeel’s family more sympathetic than Zakiyyah’s rather anemic presentation. Since Nabeel, unlike Tamika, spends most of the book as an “insider,” he brings much more depth, meaning, and, yes, affection to the faith he eventually leaves than Tamika can. His parents are moderate but deeply committed Pakistani Muslims living in the West — first in England, and then in the US.  Also, Nabeel is simply a better writer than Zakiyyah. Nevertheless, any creative work where the protagonist spends a lot of time reading Lee Strobel is unlikely to be altogether satisfying. Actually, I found Nabeel’s account of Christianity less emotionally compelling than his touching memories of Islam. He was an analytically minded medical student, and reminds me of all the apologetics treatises that I failed to appreciate as a teen. The advantage is that he, while a youth, does not come across as callow: he does research and investigate the claims of the theologians, historians, and so on on both sides of the question. Good for him — I just wish he had picked some more interesting theologians. And perhaps some poets and liturgists as well. Nevertheless, I would (tepidly) recommend this book.

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