Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sex, Mom, and God

I've recently read Sex, Mom, and God by Frank Schaeffer. Although I highly recommend the book, I would suggest that if you haven't read Crazy for God you read that first. Crazy is autobiographical, tracing Frank's life as the son of evangelical Christian leaders, and Sex fleshes out a few developments that were left uncovered in the first book.

One of the things I like about Frank's writings is that he and I have followed similar spiritual and intellectual  paths. As a gifted and professional author, however, he has more time and skill to articulate his thoughts than I do. Things that I fleetingly think about find full expression in his paragraphs, and I find myself in agreement with much of what he has to say.

One particular example of this is his view of the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular. As a critic of Islam as expressed and practiced by Muhammad, I've found myself looking more judgmentally at objectionable parts of early Islamic history than I have at objectionable parts of early Hebrew history. I criticize Muhammad for slaughtering 800 Jewish boys and men at Medina for not accepting him as a Prophet but gloss over Joshua and Saul slaughtering the populations of entire towns including newborn infants for not worshipping the God of the Jews. I condemn Muhammad for stoning to death an adulterous couple in Medina, but ignore the fact that the God of Moses ordered the stoning of married brides who were found to not be virgins. I scorn Muhammad for initiating a sexual relationship with a nine-year-old child (Aisha) that could only be described in today's terms as rape, as well as marrying his own daughter-in-law (Zaynab) and raping another wife (Sofiya) after torturing, robbing, and beheading her husband (Kinana of Khaybar), but skip right over Soloman's Biblical sexual conquest of not dozens but hundreds of women.

What I've done is simply use the excuses Christians have always used and continue to use. It's true that Joshua slaughtered children, they argue, but we don't do that anymore. Besides, maybe those people were so evil their babies needed to be sliced through with those swords. That was for a special time, they argue, only temporary whereas the injunctions of the Koran are for all time and all people everywhere. Jesus has taken us beyond the law of Moses, they argue, and now Muhammad wants to take us back to the law.

All of the above might be true, but they miss the main point which is that the Jehovah of Moses and the Allah of Muhammad both commanded the slaughter of innocents, allowed the sexual conquest of women as the property of men, and ordered the stoning of women who did not abide by the rules.

Maybe it's time for Christians to think a little more clearly, and be a lot more honest. If we are going to argue that their book is flawed and human, is it time for us to admit the same about ours? That's not saying both books are the same, or communicate the same basic message (which I don't think they do). It's just looking at our book with the same critical stance that we use when we look at theirs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Wedding Conversation

Last weekend I attended the wedding of two Muslim family friends. The groom’s family is from Pakistan and that of the bride from Bangladesh. As the Imam emphasized in his sermon before the marriage contract was signed, the marriage was bringing those two families and their respective communities closer together.

At the reception dinner I sat next to a university professor who had taught the bride in a few of her graduate classes. The professor and I were talking about retirement, and when she asked me if I had post-retirement plans she might have been surprised by my answer. “I’d like to convince one and a half billion Muslims,” I replied, “That Muhammad was just an ordinary man and the Koran is just a human book.”

“I was recently in Tunisia,” I continued, “And had a conversation with a taxi driver. ‘We just want to be free,’ he said. ‘Let those who want to pray go to the mosque, and let those who want to drink go to the bar.’”

“That’s fine,” I told him. “But there’s only one problem. Muhammad said you can’t go to the bar. As soon as you try to exercise that freedom, someone will grab you from behind and remind you that Muhammad or the Koran said you are not allowed to do that.”

“Educated people might agree with you,” the professor countered. “But the key to change is education. The average Muslim would never accept what you are trying to say.”
"Ordinary people can change,” I replied. “I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family where we were taught every word of the Bible was literally true. But now as I read the first chapter of Genesis, it sounds much less God’s description of how the universe came into existence than a man living in the Bronze Age four thousand years ago imagining how he thought it came to be.”

“A few minutes ago,” I continued, “The Imam read words from the Koran describing God as being the Great One, the Compassionate One, the All Powerful Creator, and the Righteous Judge. As I listened to those words, it sounded much more to me like someone 1400 years ago describing what he imagined God to be like, rather than God’s description of himself.”

“But how would you persuade Muslims that Muhammad was not a Prophet of God, or the Koran was just a human book?” the professor inquired.

“Most Muslims know very little about the life of their Prophet,” I replied. “From before they can walk or talk they are taught to believe in this compassionate, wise person they imagine existed. The average Muslim knows next to nothing of his true history. I would begin by just pointing out events in his life they perhaps haven’t thought about that portray him in a less-than-prophetic light. For example, the fact that he persuaded his own son to divorce his wife so that he could marry his daughter-in-law, and then justified the whole sordid affair by stating that God had commanded him to do it.”

Had we more time to continue the conversation, I might have pointed out to her that many, many Muslims, including the couple whose wedding we had just celebrated, are wonderful loving people. Well, not all of them of course. Not the pick-pocket who had stolen my wallet a few weeks before at the entrance of the old souk in downtown Tunis. But the shopkeeper who recovered my wallet with documents intact and went to quite a bit of trouble to get it back to me certainly was. I just believe that what their Prophet and his book teaches them about God and people holds them back from being all they can be.

One thing the professor said stuck with me. We both have two daughters, and I commented to her that three of the greatest blessings we can give our daughters are to be whoever they choose to me, to marry whomever they choose to marry, and to believe whatever they want to believe. “Islam grants daughters none of those rights,” I said. “Muslim women are not allowed to publicly acknowledge they are lesbian even if they are, Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, and they are not free to let it be known publicly that they are atheists or do not believe Muhammad was a prophet.”

“But that is not true only of Islam,” the professor replied, “Many orthodox Jewish women or evangelical Christian girls are not free to say similar things."
I agreed with her. We might disagree on the penalty - Muslims can be killed for criticizing Muhammad, and although ex-Amish Christians and ex-Orthodox Jews can be shunned by their respective communities for leaving the faith I haven't yet heard of it costing them their heads. But I would agree with her that devotion to any inspired text, and in particular allowing religious leaders to interpret that text to you as a mandate to how you are expected to believe and behave, can be a dangerous thing.