Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Reflections for staying open this week: Watching salmon return to spawn
I had the opportunity to hear Ben Pink Dandelion speak last weekend at North Seattle Friends Church. His topic was early Friends in the context of Christian theology. One of the points I particularly came away with was not exactly new, but somehow it hit me differently.

While most Christian theology is based on creating a church to wait for end times, Quakers built their church on the premise end times were upon us. With unmitigated, universal access to God through internal revelation, the only thing standing in our way from salvation was our will. Other Churches built a complex series of rituals, expectations and doctrine required for believers to “hold out” on evil, but Quakers really seemed to think if we overcame our will anyone could be saved. Right away and forever. In the question and answer period, someone asked Ben about his own personal spiritual journey, “had he ‘come up through the flaming sword’?” In his answer, he shared that he had had mystical experiences but (and I paraphrase) he said he had not had the kind of unequivocal experience that kept him completely dedicated to his spiritual path. Compared to early Friend’s absolute certainty, he felt doubts at times.

The Screwtape Letters reinforced for me that obvious blunders or questioning one’s faith may not really be what evil is all about. If we are offered salvation in the here and now, is it making the occasional mistake that condemns us or does slow, grinding indifference consume our hope of ever finding inward salvation? The fear of making any mistake could be amplified if Jesus is waiting right around the corner, for sure. But Lewis mentions in my edition’s introduction that he imagines a tedious, bureaucratic and ultimately hollow hell rather than a spectacularly gruesome inferno. Wouldn’t the path to a place like that look tedious, detached? Throughout the book, his protagonist dwells on the subtle deviations overlooked by his underling on a quest for total corruption. Is it a waiting Christ we should worry about, or a demon on our back? How common is total corruption really? Like Ben described, isn’t it more typical to trip up here and there? How do we really find the unshakable certainty early Friends said they had and, if we cannot, how do we pick ourselves up rather than succumb to the status quo?

It’s my opinion neither early Friends nor any really faithful person can have unshakable faith. When Friends got around to writing their journals late in life, they had the benefit of hindsight to cast their missteps in the context of deeper spiritual wrestling. They kept coming back for more. If we are to take evil seriously, as Lewis suggests, we cannot think of it as an obvious corrupter but instead as a series of subtle justifications that divert us from our common purpose. It is a slowly built cynicism. If we can keep ourselves open, committed, eyes on the prize, I sense we have a good chance of escaping some demonic dinner plate.

Another reflection: Mt. Rainier’s shadow on the morning sky

Book Review: “Goatwalking” by Jim Corbett

I will admit that the title and cover of “Goatwalking” drew me in.  I had only a vague memory of the term “sanctuary” that kept me reading the jacket.  I was truly fascinated when I picked up the book and read in earnest. 

Jim Corbett’s narrative style appeals to me: he waxes philosophical with just the right mixture of fantastic imagery (he loves Quixote) and cowboy anecdotes.  He doesn’t jump right into his work with the Sanctuary movement, for which he is (in)famous, till late in the book.   “Goatwalking” is really a series of essays and excerpts from his journals, woven into a rationale for returning to nomadic lifestyles as a gateway to gospel order. Jim talks about his evolution as a goatherder learning to reconnect with his faith and surroundings, complete with fascinating information about goatherding and how following flocks is communing with our Biblical ancestors.  Many intellectuals could have left it there, but he jumps then into talking about how his herding through the Southwestern deserts eventually helped him build an underground railroad for central American refugees as they sought asylum in the US. As I look back on my reading, it’s almost a intellectual leap to link these ideas but the logic flowed naturally as I read. 

I can tell from his work that Jim was a Friend and a truly dedicated man. He saw way open to build an interfaith movement to exploit loopholes in US immigration law as US sponsored death squads were displacing thousands of people in El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Goats fade in prominence as he describes the huge amount of organizing he did in border communities in the 1980’s, building networks of supportive churches, handing out literature, and eventually standing trial for his work.  “Goatwalking” was published in the early 90’s, as his trial had wrapped up and he clear was reflecting on the fruits of his work.  He died in 2001, I was disappointed to learn.

Shortly after I returned to Olympia about 5 years ago, ICE had been raiding local communities to arrest immigrants and anti-war veterans were being harassed for their military resistance in protests.  In that context, a coalition of local groups joined up to draft a proposal for the Olympia City Council, designating Olympia a “Sanctuary City” for immigrants and war resisters regardless of their legal status with the US government.  A lot of work went into planning the proposal, which we knew would largely be symbolic but that we hoped would pave the way for some cross-movement building.  The day that we hoped to hand in the proposal, organizers held a rally and march downtown that was meant to raise up the issue.  During the march, some folks took it upon themselves to throw bricks through bank windows which is what made the paper.  Before long, the sanctuary proposal was completely discredited and in short order so was the City council (for other reasons)

This experience came back to me as I read Jim’s book, thinking about how much work it takes to organize communities and movements.  And not all work is speaking truth to the authorities, because sometimes they’re caught up in their own red tape.  Sometime the work is within, nourishing oneself on goat’s milk (which apparently is enough to keep you alive in the desert) and spiritual discipline.  I’m sorry that I never got to meet Jim Corbett in person, but I’m curious to learn more about the movement he helped build


Book Review: Testament of Devotion

Testament of Devotion, a collection of essays and writings by Thomas Kelly, was one of those books I was supposed to be closely reading in college in my Quaker spirituality course. The class took up readings in chronological order from the beginning of Quakerism. I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric of George Fox, underwhelmed by John Woolman’s play-by-play self flagellation and generally lost in Friend’s writings over the last 300 years by the time we got to Thomas Kelly somewhere near the end. Where was the relevance to Quakerism now? Sure, George Fox ran around organizing Quakerism and building the meeting structure still practiced today, but his writing was strident and vindictive. John Woolman seemed like the ultimate self-righteous wet blanket, worrying about every step he took and dwelling for pages and pages on painfully mundane decisions. Haven’t we seen enough of this? Was this really what Quakerism has always been about?

I was hungry for action and heroes at that point in my life. I wanted cure-all solutions, charismatic leadership. Quakerism was fading into obscurity and we needed answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be a leader, but I was sure it involved some amount of fast, sensuous Light trippin’: “critical, acid, sharper than a two edged sword” as Thomas Kelly says (I notice now, almost 10 years later). Now that I read Thomas Kelly again I’m struck that despite his earnestness which lost me the first time around, he’s clearly the kind of guy whose bliss was infectious. He may use the word “lo”, but “the sense of Presence!” is woven into every part of what he’s saying. He’s sharing his mystical amazement and salvation. He LOVED the Light, man. Like my brother.

My brother is also a good Quaker, and he occasionally tries to impress on me the dire state of Quakerism in way that pushes my John Woolman button (hand-dyed, locally sourced). But then I step away and I remember that he also loves the hell out of obscure Brazilian music, lobsters and making Quakerism more cool for young people (among other things). How can I forget that? Because I’m still caught up on some of my old notions of leadership. I’m slowly learning that people who make genuinely horizontal Way in community are first really genuinely themselves. Sometimes that means you appreciate them occasionally from a distance and don’t want to hang out with them, like Fox or Woolman. But my brother and Thomas Kelly, they are certainly not “sobersides Quakers who seem to live on a diet of spiritual persimmons”. They are those rare kind of people who are truly dedicated and unobtrusively, appealingly, fired up.While I may not always hear what they have to say the first time, when I get it I’ll follow their bliss.

Book Review: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

I’ve shared everyone’s joy as revolutions roll across North Africa into the Middle East, catching breathless reports and live feeds all hours of the night and day.  I have certainly been excited for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, shaking off brutal governments buttressed by US and other Western support.  I find myself quietly rooting for the protesters in Bahrain when circling a roundabout or grit my teeth as I pull into a gas station with reports of more dead in Yemen on the radio. One thing that seems lacking in Al Jazeera’s play-by-play approach is analysis of what might be next. Now what?

I’ve had “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” by Genevieve Abdo on my shelf for a few years and my burning questions urged me to pick it up.  Published over 10 years ago from many years of research Abdo conducted in the mid-late 90’s, it explores the grassroots Islamist movement building in Egypt for decades.  As a Westerner, I know the average perception of political Islam is, as Abdo describes, ” a bearded man with a Kalashnikov.”  In extensive interviews and field research with common people, religious leaders, political officials and intellectuals across Egypt, Abdo meets the faces of political Islam in Egypt and sets them apart from terrorist movements or proponents of what she  calls “ideological societies” such as Iran.  Though the work is a few years old, when I think of what comes after Tahrir Square I am struck by her descriptions of how Islamists have built populist support in professional syndicates, offered social services for the underemployed middle class, and tapped dissatisfaction with a corrupt Western-backed government among all walks of life in Egyptian society.

Abdo explores the roots of Islamist identity as she meets key figures in the complex relationship between the state and religion.  She visits institutions like universities, the judicial system, and the prominent Al-Azhar religious school in Cairo.  She devotes chapters to how Islamist students shrewdly built support in student unions, winning hearts with buses separated by sex to deal with overcrowding on public transportation, or in professional syndicates historically organized as fronts for the state.  I was struck to be reminded Egypt has only had three presidents since it’s independence in 1952:  a socialist pan-Arab nationalist, an ambivilant “believer President”, and a iron-fisted Western puppet.  In her telling, none of these governments have truly “reached the people” and now each in turn have lost power in disgrace or assassination.  While extremism has been a common current since the 70’s, she believes that it will never be the guiding force in Egyptian society.

Despite being banned for decades as “radicals,” the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, are Egypt’s most established opposition group.  They represent a moderate Islamism familiar to a Turk perhaps but not the average American.  Abdo’s meetings with the Brotherhood strike me as very reminiscent of Turkey’s Ak Party: pro-“Modernity”(read: capitalism), socially conservative, and with just enough Islamic ideology thrown in to raise the hackles of any secularist.  Abdo’s tone fluctuates between triumphant and/or aloof as she describes a unique political movement that preaches moderation and piety but also advocates for female genital “circumcision” and censorship.

I know that the protests in Tahrir were largely organized by young, hep activists fed up with the Mubarak regime.  Now that those activist have met their goal, however, it seems likely the Islamist movement that has been building in Egypt will offer a welcome return to order and unity as the country looks to the future.  My experience in the Middle East is that it there is a pervasive value of order and social cohesion that we here in the West cannot fully understand.  Today that order and unity is provided by a transitional military government, but I am with Abdo in predicting a more religiously driven Egyptian society.  This book has expanded my understanding of what that would look like.







Book Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness


In my last few days in Jerusalem I had one of those dangerous freetime windows on Ben Yehuda street. It’s the busiest pedestrian street in downtown West Jerusalem and idle hands quickly found diversion. Down a little side street marked with the graffiti of a Hasid changing into a punk rocker, I ducked into the used English bookstore. Feeling broke but dangerously committed now that I was inside, I asked the nice lady behind the counter if she could recommend a book by an Israeli author. She informed me that her boss threatened fire any staff who didn’t read A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz.

She said she liked it, and I loved it. Oz is one of Israel’s most respected authors and part of what made this memoir so amazing was how much of modern Israeli history Oz has experienced firsthand. Besides being born shortly before the end of the British Mandate and witnessing the creation of the State of Israel, Oz’s family were connected with many of the important historical figures that shaped the new country. (Yet the nation building he describes seems almost like a village meeting) His descriptions of his family and the strange people in his childhood are both touching and very sad. He places his present perspective in the narrative and often looks back on his idealistic and difficult childhood with profound insight into the worldwide importance of that time. The valiant Jewish victories he imagines with matchsticks and cutlery as a child are mournfully reflected in glimpses of Israel in 2000.

One of the most amazing passages is when he describes the walk he, his mother and his father took every Sabbath to the home of his famous Uncle Klausner in Talpiot. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem in Talpiot, now a quiet residential neighborhood on the way to Bethlehem that before 1948 was home to intellectuals and authors. He talks about walking to the edge of Jerusalem and looking out across the “wild frontier” beyond, where between British barracks and “Arab villas” lay Talpiot.  Just past that, the romanticized Kibbutzniks were “carving out a new nation.” He gives such amazing details of the sights and sounds of a journey that now breezes past in a 20 minute bus ride from Ben Yahuda.   When they finally reach Talpiot, it is remarkable how much is still recognizable. He even mentions that after his uncle’s death a street was named after him, the street I passed while walking to the bus. When the buses started again on Saturday evening after the Sabbath in the 1940’s, the family would take the number 7 bus back to the city center. The number 7 bus still follows that route.

While this living history may seem inconsequential compared to the ancient stories that make up Israel and Palestine, I am so moved by a person who can so eloquently share their place on that continuum.