Monday, January 22, 2007


I recently read Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time by Karen Armstrong. This book was revealing for me because it gave a brief overview of his life and I came to this story with no prior knowledge about him. I have been around several conversations lately with people criticizing Muslims. I believe much of these conversations are based in a lack of knowledge and misunderstanding about the majority of practicing Muslims. My hope was to find a book that would start to educate me about this faith and have more to offer a discussion than simply an intuition and uncomfortable feeling that many Westerners have an opinion way off base and out of line with the teachings of Jesus on peace and forgiveness and how to treat people of different beliefs. What better place to start learning about this than with Muhammad?

Karen Armstrong originally wrote this book after the fatwah was issued against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, where he speaks of Muhammad in a blasphemous way. She wanted to shed truth on the religion of Islam in light of the misconceptions about this faith. After September 11th, she felt the need to re-write the book to guide others to a more honest, intelligent dialogue. (Interestingly enough, I was just about ready to start an on-line book discussion of The Satanic Verses when I came across Karen Armstrong's book and I have since found Rushdie's book much more rich and readable as a result of her biography.)

There was very little known about Muhammod until about the age of forty. He grew up an orphan, married an elite woman named Khadijah whom he loved very much and was a merchant. One day he was in a cave sleeping on a mountain outside of Mecca and heard the command to recite and although he protested, new scripture came to him. He brought scripture to the Arabs for twenty-three years thereafter and those revelations became the Qur'an. This does not sound like something he wanted to do or a role that he had prepared himself for or expected. Much like Moses, he did not feel qualified for the job of a prophet.

He once said: "Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me."

Muhammad preached for a few years to a few people, but then was instructed to give his message to his whole tribe, which caused him great trepidation. He believed in practicing works of justice, wanted man and woman to be treated equally and worked to cultivate in people a spirit of thankfulness and humbleness, rather than pride. The richer leaders of Mecca were not interested in his message and he ended up spending more time among the poor. He instructed people to develop hilm, a traditional Arab virtue, meaning to be patient and merciful. This was opposite of the culture of the time.

Eventually, he led the Muslim people of Mecca to migrate (hijrah) and leave their tribe and protection. He originally wanted to end violence but did go to war for a time trying to achieve a lasting peace. During the times of battle one can see Muhammad moving he and his people towards an attitude of mercy, forgiveness and peace. He was certainly a man and an imperfect one at that. He had weaknesses and made mistakes, but the sense of repentance and redemption resonate through the story of his life. An example is the story behind the satanic verses in the Qur'an, where it appears Muhammad tried to create peace between those who worshipped other gods in addition to Allah. In an attempt for peace he chanted scriptures about the three daughters of God and later attempted to fix his error. Shortly after, it became clear that Allah was the only deity and there were not multiple gods and that Islam was truly different from the other religious cultures of that time.

After Khadijah died he married multiple wives. One thing very interesting was his stance on polygamy. This practice was actually beneficial to helping woman in his day keep their inheritance, establish rights and have a legal status. He wanted men and woman to be treated equally. Karen Armstrong also speaks of the hijab verses that are now used to justify women wearing veils. It is fascinating to read them in context, where it appears that the scriptures were in reference to his wives and the orders were given to protect them from harassment.

After Muhammad's death, he wanted to make it clear that he was not to be worshipped, because only God is to be worshipped. The Islam faith is a monotheistic faith, just like Jewish and Christian faith. Their roots are with Abraham and they are the descendents of Hager and Abraham. I have much more to learn, but have enjoyed learning the narrative of this part of history a great deal and hope to learn more that will help to create understanding and peace between the East and the West.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I saw a dark, breathtaking movie tonight. It was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Pan's Labyrinth took me out of this world and into the world of Spain in 1944. This is a foreign film with Spanish sub-titles that I really hardly noticed due to being so lost in the beauty of the film. The main character is a young girl who has lost her father and is coming to live with her mother's new husband, a cruel captain of the Spanish army at the end of World War Two. The girl loves to read fairy tales and her mother comments that she is getting too old to be reading such things. Their carriage has to stop due to the Mother's difficult pregnancy with her new husband's child and the girl sees a unique dragonfly that she identifies as a fairy. Indeed, it transforms into one after following the girl home. The fairy entices the girl to go into a Labyrinth by her new surroundings in the Spanish countryside and her adventure begins. She is given a magical book and three tasks to complete in order to become a princess; forever immortal.

Throughout the movie one goes back and forth between the harsh world of war and life with her stepfather and sick mother, coupled with the magical world where she works on her difficult tasks and meets otherworldly creatures. The story also revolved around several members of the Spanish resistance and what they were experiencing throughout this time.

There were certain parallels to the world of Narnia; historically, the setting is similar, albeit with a different, gothic feel to it. There was even a faun, although a very different sort of faun then dear Mr. Tumnus. However, there was something quite dark about this girl being alone, compared to the Pevensie children having one another and there was much more time spent in the cold realistic world of Spain and the war; as compared to the story of Narnia taking place mostly in Narnia and not in England on the battlefield.

I loved this film. It was heartwrenching and bitter and violent and unsettling. The official site labels this film as a fairy tale for grown-ups and that is what it is. The characters had choices to make and things to sort out and they struggled with their hardships and carried their burdens in different ways. The theme of obedience echoed throughout the film and we see how that looks through the eyes and actions of others.

Fairy tales traditionally have happy endings and whether this one had one or not each viewer will have to decide for themselves...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

N.T. Wright

Last week I had the joy of going to Calvin College to see N.T. Wright speak as part of their January Series. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to meet him and listen to him live, as he discussed his book Simply Christian. I am about halfway through the book and glad to be currently reading it, since that was the focus of his talk. He wrote Simply Christian to guide people to a deeper orthodoxy. Here is a man from across the pond that I have wanted to meet and he arrives a mere two and a half hours from my front door!

N.T. Wright talked about how we seem as Paul said in scripture "haunted by the shadow of death". We hear echoes of a voice in the form of justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty. He talked about the three views of God in the world. The pantheist thinks that everything is divine; the dualist or deist thinks that the world is separate from God and the Jewish/Christian believes that heaven and earth overlap or interlock. He says the Gospels are the conclusion of the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit helps to continue the job of New Creation.

As Christians we should be like "angled mirrors"; a recreated image bearing the love of Jesus. When grasped by the story you will be drawn into the Kingdom project...and become an agent of New Creation. We can reflect this image through worship, prayer, reading the Bible, the church and implementing the works of Jesus.

I enjoyed his talk. He spoke of God with intelligence and yet seemed to also carry a deep love, respect and passion for God and Jesus. They go so elegantly hand in hand. He is passionate about God, and digging deep into the truth of theology and scriptures is at the core of that love. How refreshing and uplifting; like a breath of fresh air.

I now have a first edition book autographed by Tom Wright himself. As uncomfortable as I feel meeting people I deeply respect for one quick moment in time, it is still occasionally worth it for the experience of seeing that person face to face. I feel uneasy in that situation because they do not know me at all and I know many things about them if I have read their books, listened to them speak or heard their music. It is impossible to thank them sincerely enough in that one moment for all they have done to influence or touch my world. Saying "thank you" is all I can usually manage to mumble and they have no idea what is behind that simple phrase.