Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 9 List: My Favorite Music and Books for 2010

Why 9 and not 10? Because I'm only mildly clever (and top ten lists are way overdone).


1-"Go" by Jonsi
2-"The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire
3-"High Violet" by The National
4-"Age of Adz" by Sufjan Stevens
5-"The Daylights" by The Daylights
6-"So Runs the World Away" by Josh Ritter
7-"My Room in the Trees" by The Innocence Mission
8-"My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" by Kanye West
9-"Invented" by Jimmy Eat World

1-"Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God's Future for Humanity and the Earth" by Jurgen Moltmann
2-"A New Kind of Christianity" by Brian McLaren
3-"Constructing Jesus" by Dale Allison Jr.
4-"Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?" by James DG Dunn
5-"The Nature of Love" by Thomas Jay Oord
6-"God Is Not One" by Stephen Prothero
7-"Christianity: The First 3000 Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch
8-"Making Sense of Evolution" by John F. Haught
9-"Jesus Wars" by Philip Jenkins

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Final - Pt. 5)

Although certain progressive hermeneutics of the Quran may be able to maintain a robust religious pluralism like Reza Aslan and Omid Safi do, the majority of traditional and moderate Muslims today remain concerned to preserve a stronger sense of particularity in the tradition. Still, Seyyed Hossein Nasr maintains that most Muslims in the contemporary context are quite interested in inter-religious dialogue to promote understanding between different religious faiths – though only under certain conditions. As Nasr writes, “They are interested as long as such a dialogue does not lead to that kind of ecumenism which reduces religions to the least common denominator and sacrifices Divine institutions and doctrines in the name of peace but ultimately for a banal humanism...’” Is this good enough to facilitate peace between faiths? Opinions of course vary on this, but I am convinced that it is. I do not accept the hard post-modernist assertion that to make actual metaphysical religious truth claims is to plant the seeds of religious violence. Religions as different as Islam and Christianity can coexist in a modern society and find common ground in areas of ethics and justice work. They need not surrender their central faith claims in the process.

The truth is, religions are not all the same, despite opposite affirmations of some religious leaders, mystics, and philosophers of religion. The vast majority of everyday religious persons around the world, including Muslims and Christians, care very much about the particularity of their faith. The world’s many religions offer different solutions to different problems, and the argument by some that the essentials of religion are all the same “is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue...[they] do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.” Even in our class trip to the mosque, we encountered a serious concern for the particularity of different religions from our Muslim hosts. When a member of our class asked if one could be simultaneously a Christian and a Muslim, the panel speaker politely replied that unless one were to give up the doctrine of the Trinity and the atoning death, resurrection, and divinity of Jesus, it was not possible. In no way did this seem judgmental or exclusive. It was an honest statement about differences in the beliefs of most Christians and Muslims. Despite religious differences with our Muslim hosts, this did not stop us from admiring them as sincere religious believers and respecting them as fellow human beings.

The future of Islam in Europe and America is uncertain for the time being. Islamophobia continues to be a rising problem in the West, while the sting of 9/11 has not yet ceased. Another issue worsening religious tolerance is radical atheism (the so-called “New Atheism”), which often calls for the abolishment of all religion, especially the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three traditions are indeed guilty of violence throughout their histories, and they all continue to have their share of radical extremists who pose a threat to society. Although the critiques of religion by these atheists are sometimes correct, I believe they go too far, and in the process exacerbate religious conflicts. There is much to admire about all three of these great religious traditions, as different as they are and as problematic as they can be at times. As evangelical Christianity continues to explode in the Global South and Islam grows rapidly around the world, religious leaders and intellectuals will have to work diligently to build bridges between these two Abrahamic traditions. As a Christian who experienced a radical paradigm shift in my view of Islam, having moved from fear and intolerance to genuine respect and friendship, I choose to remain optimistic about the possibility of real cooperation between the Abrahamic traditions.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (Pt. 4)

Beyond the large majority of more moderate Muslims is a growing progressive Muslim movement as well. Omid Safi, a famous progressive Muslim and author, describes progressive Islam as “striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” Thinkers outside the Islamic tradition, including Latin American liberation theologians, nonviolent resistance leaders, and secular humanists also influence these progressive Muslims. Some progressive Muslims, such as the famous scholar of religion Reza Aslan, even believe that Islam is currently in the midst of a reformation towards more broadly progressive ideals, analogous to the Protestant Reformation: “…the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are already living in it.”

Similar to the way in which progressive Christians have recently emphasized the anti-imperial, egalitarian social agenda of the historical Jesus, Aslan has made strong and convincing arguments in favor of looking at the origins of Islam and the earliest stages of Muhammad’s career in this way as well. Aslan argues that Muhammad was largely reacting against the economic corruption in Mecca, as wealth had become heavily concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful families and the social egalitarian ideals of the tribes were abandoned. Muhammad’s primary concerns were to restore the tribal ethic, care for the orphans, free the slaves, and to assist those in need. Before Muhammad established a new religion, “he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.” However, even after the birth of Islam as a religion, key practices such as zakat (paying of the alms for the care and protection of the poor) and the fast of Ramadan (which involves both remembrance of the poor and the feeding of the hungry) keep social justice at the center of this tradition, whether in progressive or traditional forms. As such, Aslan makes a very strong case that Islam is rooted in strong commitments to justice.

On the other hand, Aslan’s vigorous attempt to argue that Islam is rooted in firm principles of religious pluralism is certainly up for debate. While this perspective may convince some, it is a hard sell for other scholars who point out that the Quran is not clear on this issue. As Jane Dammen McAuliffe writes, “there is no single quranic attitude towards members of other religions.” Although a number of passages in the Quran do seem to provide grounds for religious pluralism, others seem to state that one is not obedient to God without explicit recognition of his messenger Muhammad (among other requirements). Although Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” and should usually be protected as minorities, they are still not of the same high status as Muslims, according to the Quran. When living in Muslim lands, they are generally considered to be second-class citizens. The attitude of the Quran towards Jews and Christians seems to fluctuate, depending on the political and social situations at the time of a passage’s composition. While the overall attitude of the Quran towards other religions seems to be essentially negative, it does not in general permit religious violence or aggression towards those of other faiths. Most exegetes throughout Muslim history have not read the text in a way that justifies forcible conversion to Islam, as they seem to have accepted the fact that many would not convert and so needed to be tolerated as religious minorities.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.3)

A massive six-year study on the views of contemporary Muslims that was conducted by the Gallup Organization after 9/11 revealed some important facts about Islam around the world today. I have found this data useful in my personal bridge-building efforts between Christians and Muslims. The information was summarized in an important book by John L. Esposito, called Who Speaks For Islam. Some of the more interesting findings included the following: first, Muslims are just as likely as Americans to morally condemn attacks on civilians. Second, Muslims who support acts of terrorism are a small minority. Third, both Americans and Muslims give the same answer to the question of what they least admire about the West: the erosion of traditional moral values. Fourth, most Muslims say that they desire a future with better jobs and security, not conflict and violent jihad, as many Americans continue to believe about Muslims. Fifth, the majority of Muslims around the world do not desire the law of the land to be exclusively directed according to Sharia law. Sixth, most Muslim women desire both equal rights and religious freedom in their societies. Finally, Muslims generally admire many of the political freedoms of Westerners, including freedom of speech.

This frequently surprising study, accounting for 90% of the global Muslim population, reveals that there is clearly a silenced majority of moderate Muslims around the world who do not fit the stereotypes of many Americans and Europeans. It is a tragedy that the voices of the moderate Muslim majority are rarely given sufficient airtime in the media to make themselves more widely known. Instead, the most popular media outlets continue to reinforce stereotypes of Muslims by showing their most terrifying side (no doubt, often with the selfish motive of driving up their ratings). Despite the fact that within hours of the attacks on 9/11, around a dozen national Muslim organizations unanimously condemned the terrorists, too many Americans continue to ask why moderate Muslims do not speak up. As Muscati argues, this is in large part because “the Muslim community is still a fairly new and comparatively small and weak voice in the American mainstream.” As such, they are frequently unable to counter the unjustified accusations made against them, which usually paints Islam with a very broad brush.

In an effort to counter the popular claims that moderate Muslims have been silent in response to 9/11 (implying their quiet support of the attacks), a Muslim website at has assembled an impressive and growing database of condemnations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks from Muslim groups, scholars, leaders, and ordinary persons of faith. These kinds of efforts are extremely important for at least two reasons. First, as already mentioned, because the media outlets rarely give airtime to moderate Muslim voices. Second, because whenever moderate Muslims are given a public voice, people tend to dismiss them as exceptions to the rule. The strongly held stereotype of Muslims as evil frequently “withstands all evidence to the contrary, including the simple truth that the vast majority of Muslims living in societies of their accusers are decent, law-abiding citizens.”

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.2)

Due in large part to my identity as a mainstream conservative evangelical at the time, I essentially agreed with the absolute moral dualism of then president George W. Bush: “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Unfortunately, the simplistic partitioning off of “us” against “them”, “good” versus “evil” could be easily transformed in the minds of conservative Christians like me into “Christians” against “Muslims.” My church at the time was aligned with the Religious Right and projected much of the same kind of hostile rhetoric as Franklin Graham, who once said, “Islam is a very evil religion.” As a Pentecostal, convinced that America was a Christian nation, even the kind of apocalyptic words of charismatic leader Benny Hinn would have resonated with my instinctive response to 9/11: “We are on God’s side…[this war is] between God and the devil.” Fortunately, I did not explicitly voice these kinds of radical views in my class and instead decided to take seriously the positions of my more religiously tolerant classmates. In the process, my view of religion and politics underwent dramatic shifts.

I soon found myself fascinated enough with the topic of religion after 9/11 that I changed my major from computer science to religious studies and immediately enrolled in a course on Islam. Not long after this decision, I found myself unable to remain affiliated with the form of conservative Christianity that I had long been a part of, largely due to their (often literal) demonization of religions like Islam. As I came to see, Islam is not so easily categorized as an “evil religion”, while America, though good in many ways, was not the perfect beacon of goodness, hope and truth that I had long believed it was. Through my studies, I became convicted that, as Sina Ali Muscati argues, “…the self-deception practiced since September 11th – that this is good versus evil and that our enemy is none other than the devil incarnate is little different from the propaganda espoused by Bin Laden.” As I repented of my religiously intolerant views, made friends with American Muslims, and continued to learn about religion and politics in America, I have tried to be an ally to Muslims by learning about their history and beliefs in order to build bridges between my own Christian tradition and Islam. I have discovered that although there is plenty of ambiguity in the Islamic tradition about violence and religious tolerance (just as there is in Judaism and Christianity), the majority of Muslims today interpret their faith in a more moderate fashion.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Islam in a Post-9/11 Society: Moving From Fear and Intolerance to Respect and Friendship (pt.1)

Religious scholar Stephen Prothero rightly observes that “Most Europeans and North Americans…see Islam through a veil hung over their eyes centuries ago by Christian Crusaders intent on denouncing Islam as a religion of violence, its founder, Muhammad, as a man of the sword, and its holy book, the Quran, as a text of wrath.” Confirming this statement, a major survey conducted by The Pew Forum in 2007 reveals that when Americans think of Muslims, they frequently connect them with words like “fanatic”, “violent”, “terrorism”, and “strict.” My own personal experience also confirms this unfortunate fact in our society, which has seemed to grow increasingly Islamophobic since 9/11. Recent controversies in the United States over Islam have continued to reveal an intensifying fear: the national debate over plans for a mosque in New York, the fearful public comments about Muslims made by Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and Oklahoma’s recent attempt to ban Sharia law. Similar fears are also rampant in Europe, as a growing Muslim population seems to many Europeans to point towards an Islamic takeover of European society. Because I continually find myself in conversation with people who are literally terrified of Muslims in the same way I once was as a young conservative Christian, I am committed to promoting religious intelligence and tolerance under the conviction that Islamophobia is largely rooted in ignorance and confusion.

It was not until I studied Islam in college that I began to see beyond the popular portrayals of Muslims in the media. Although I do not think Islam can be simply described as a “religion of peace”, I do believe that most Muslims in the world today are genuinely peaceful with strong commitments to justice. As such, my main goal for this essay is to highlight some of the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam as they relate to most Muslim’s commitments to justice and religious tolerance today. I will initially approach this through reflections on my own personal experiences as they relate to these issues. It is mainly because I can relate to those who are fearful of Islam that I feel a responsibility to help them see the larger truth of this religion as it exists in the present context.

In some ways, this final essay on Islam in a post-9/11 world is my most important of the semester. In part, this is because my entire undergraduate education was fueled by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 – which also led me to study religion as a graduate student at CST. It was during my first semester in college that Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing the conversation about religion in America – and around the world – forever. Recalling the disturbing and immediate impact of these events, Diana Eck writes, “Within hours, an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began – from low-level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls to arson, beatings and murders.” Because I was in a philosophy course at the time, I was able to wrestle with the events of 9/11 in an academic environment and have my false assumptions about Muslims sufficiently challenged.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Mythical Conquests of Canaan and Israelite Identity (pt.2 of 2)

As for the conquest narratives of Canaan by the early Israelites, these too are called into question by modern historians and archaeologists. First of all, it seems clear to most scholars that Israelites were always Canaanites. There is basic continuity between their cultures for centuries in the archaeological record. The traditional notion that they came from outside of Canaan and conquered it is heavily challenged by at least two other theories. First, Israel may have been ex-urbanite Canaanite revolutionaries who got fed up with their overlords who were serving the Egyptian empire and oppressing the lower class. Second, Israel may have originated as semi-nomadic desert nomads who settled in the highlands of Canaan, became agriculturalists, grew in population, developed a distinct culture, and spread out to the low -lying areas of Canaan. Once they entered the rest of Canaan, they would have possibly both peacefully and forcefully infused Canaanite identity and culture with Israelite identity and culture. Either way, it seems clear that Israel did not come forcefully (for the most part) from outside of Canaan in conquest of the land.

The second blow to the conquests come mainly from the results of Kathleen Kenyon, a British archaeologist in the 1950s. She re-excavated at Jericho and concluded that at the time of the supposed conquests, the city was insignificant and did not even have a wall. Thus, the stories of conquest at Jericho seem like later inventions of the "D" source. Furthermore, very few sites in Canaan show any signs of massive conquest for the time period. The final blow to the conquests comes from within the bible itself. Even after Israel supposedly wiped out the occupants of the land, the biblical narrative says that "the Canaanites were still in the land."