Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Horizontal, and vertical too?

I've just read rather a fascinating book. It's not just the subject matter - the lived tensions between varieties of Islam and Christianity (and some indigenous traditions) in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines - though this eye- opening stuff is enough to make the book worth reading. It's also the way in which Eliza Griswold, a fearless poet turned investigative journalist, navigates this complex and often tragic terrain. (She interviewed some of the scariest people you'll ever read of over 7 years of research along the 10th parallel.) I take particular pleasure, as you'd expect, at her casual overturning of commonplaces, one especially: the main conflicts aren't between traditions but within them, especially as the newer forms of recent revivals challenge older forms.

The tenth parallel, as Griswold explores it, is overdetermined. The torrid zone of Aristotle (sort of), it is also where desert north Africa and its Islam were stopped by tsetse flies and marshes, where the developed but resource-poor Christian north of the Philippines meets the south. Trade winds shape climate, and climate past has generated reserves of petroleum. We tend not to think much about these parts of the world and their conflicts, let alone all at once.

Well, we don't. But I suspect one of Griswold's motivations for writing this book came from others who are very aware of it: American Evangelicals. I'm embarrassed I didn't know that a Brazilian evangelist named Luis Bush in 1990 described what he called the "10/40 window" - the area where the most unevangelized people in the world live (especially Muslims) - and that missionary-loving Evangelicals have been organizing missions, exchanges, education and prayer-interventions ever since. (The map above is from here.) Griswold has an intimate awareness of Evangelical projects and their opposition to liberal Protestantism: she's the daughter of Frank Griswold, who was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire. She gives an account of a brief flash of recognition with another "PK" (preacher's kid), Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, in her splendid 13th chapter, "Choose."

Christian missionaries, who've been in the tenth parallel area for over a century, are one of the factors in Griswold's story - just like assorted international jihads. But Griswold suggests that their versions of Christianity and Islam gain traction because of non-religious factors. [Fundamentalist] theologies — driven by narratives of good pitted against evil — graft easily to competition over land and resources. (35) Griswold is at her brilliant best in showing how historical, cultural, economic and climatic factors coalesce and compete with religious identities - and how individuals, families and communities are affected. None of these conflicts turns out to be as simple as it might at first appear. Don't suppose any intervention will have the intended consequences!

There's also a part of Griswold's project which fascinates me as a religious studies person - and in a more personal way too. On the personal level first, Griswold encounters and acknowledges forms of life in which religion plays a very different role than it does up here in the wealthy secular pluralistic West. Of Rebekka Zakaria, an Evangelical woman, imprisoned for setting up a school on Sundays for poor children in Indonesia, Griswold writes: Unlike Western Christians, she believed, who could afford to think about God only on Sundays, believers along the tenth parallel did not have the luxury of doubt, or of interpreting scriptures as anything but the infallible word of God. (188) While I wonder if Zakaria would have put it quite this way, I totally get what Griswold's describing.

This shades into my reaction as a religious studies person. To what extent can I, who live in the comfort of the pluralistic, doubt-luxurious West, even understand what the history of religion - and its present! - is really about? Can I even imagine what religion as a necessity, not a luxury, is? Or religion as "hierophany" - a term from Mircea Eliade which Griswold introduces to explain the power she felt as a child in her father's church, with its "book of spells," the Bible (117)? In Eliade's terms, hierophanies are sources of power, and quench our "thirst for being." They provide "orientation": a time and place to be, and ways to move in it.

My other religious studies response involves Griswold's expert integration of sociological, historical, etc. factors and explanations. Is hers then a secular account of religion? It doesn't mean to be, as her intriguing epilogue, which dares speak of "true religion," makes clear. With inspiring candor, Griswold reveals and reflects on her own way of understanding and explaining what she's encountered - and acknowledges something beyond it. This something eludes the sociological as well as the systematically theological. She tells of Reverend Abdu, a nomadic herder from Nigeria who converted to Christianity and has been preaching to his Fulani kin (recently converted to Islam from traditional African practices), all without special training, support - or results. Here are the book’s last four paragraphs:

Here I was on the tenth parallel with a man who had once been a Muslim and now was a Christian, who had spent his life preaching to his former kinsmen driven south by the need for water. Set against these simple facts, explanation failed. So much history and theology had been grafted onto the people of the tenth parallel over the centuries: the dramatic images of clashing civilizations and competing fundamentalisms; the demographics and big-picture analyses of the roles played by oil, weather, war, colonial interest, and clan conviction. All of these sought to explain Reverend Abdu and his like, and yet here he was before me, sheltering the gas flame and defying explanation — a man who believed what he believed for reasons that were mysterious even to him. He was not a foot soldier in a fundamentalist army or a statistic in some relief agency’s annual report; he was not in revolt against his government, nor was he waging a one-man protest against Western hegemony. He was a walking, talking hierophany, and he embodied the space where the horizontal, secular axis of the everyday intersected with the vertical, sacred world of God.

I had met many believers like him — those whose religious convictions were emphatic and elusive — and every time I thought I had them classified, they slipped out of my easy distinctions. That such people could accommodate conflicting worldly labels (evangelist, nomad, Muslim, and Christian in Reverend Abdu’s case) was a talent of postcolonial life, evidence of adaptation by people who have had many different categories foisted on them by outsiders. But it ws also born out of nearly fifteen hundred years of religious coexistence, of Christians and Muslims living together, and it had moved far beyond the binary divisions between Saved and Damned, Good and Evil, Us and Them.

Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter, of believers of different kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions — and of the complicated bids for power inside them — more than to the conflicts between them.

Reverend Abdu bore his several identities, and all their contradictions, in a single skin. It wasn’t relativism; his convictions went deeper than that. His was the experience of true religion, which is dynamic because it is alive. Such labels seemed ultimately unimportant to him because he did not belong to himself, or to this world, at all; he belonged to God. The identities that mattered to him told him not simply where he came from, but where, with God’s help, he was going. (281-82)

I'm not able to say what "true religion" is, at least not yet. But I suspect it's somewhere in the vicinity of this unchosen sense of belonging, a necessity beyond constraint and convention and closer to freedom and power, even in the most inauspicious everyday.

Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line
Between Christianity and Islam
(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)


[On rereading this and seeing my caveats at Griswold's quotations, I guess I'm more ambivalent about the book than I wanted to be. It seems clear to me that Rebekka Zakaria could not have said what Griswold attributes to her - nobody is a literalist only because of necessity, and the imagination of doubt is already doubt. I wonder, too, if Reverend Abdu still thinks of himself as Muslim in any way. Griswold's grafting onto them descriptions which makes sense to us, indeed gratify us. I'm not saying that I could do better - where did the business about "freedom and power" come from, in my little swatch of nice religion at the end? But I'm suspicious... even as I understand and clearly share the thirst for a non-fundamentalist religious being which would lead a Griswold to find in an Reverend Abdu a hierophany. - Jan 5th]

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