The Quran and critical thinking

Irshad Manji: “I’m not a moderate Muslim. I’m a reformer.”

God, I admire this woman. Or, should I say, “Allah, I admire this woman”! So brave, so right-on.

The Quran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to engage in critical thinking rather than blind submission. And, in that sense, reformist Muslims are at least as authentic as the so-called moderates, and, quite frankly, usually more conservative.


faith is like a fire

from Islamic terror is real, as is Jewish and Christian terror.

We need to admit that faith is like a fire – it can warm a home or burn it down. It’s not the fire; it’s how it is used. We need to simultaneously call out those who use their faiths as destructive fires and also remind people that just because terror is an expression of some people’s faith, it is not the only expression of that faith, or even an essential part of it.

Reading this got me thinking about my English 101 religion theme (that I’ve taught twice — last Winter and Spring). In the last essay, students are to write a persuasive essay on the question, “What is the value of religion to society?”  The majority end up picking an aspect of religion and using that to argue that religion helps or hinders society. I want to find a way to get them thinking more of the complexity of the topic. I haven’t emphasized that enough in class before. I’ve focused on the rhetorical “moves” academic writes make (using They Say, I Say by Graff and Birkenstein).

I’ll probably use Elbow’s “Believing and Doubting Game(s)” as a way to help them deepen their understanding by doubting what they believe and believing what they doubt.

But, overall, need to do some more thinking.

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913

winter-starsHere’s a gift. This song. Based on a poem by Robert Bridges, lyrics adapted and music by Lee Holdridge, recorded by John Denver in 1979.  This is probably my favorite Christmas song ever, along with O Come O Come Immanuel. It almost always brings tears to my eyes.

So here ’tis — my way to wish everyone a joyous Christmas, Hannukhah, or Yule. The light is coming for us all, so let’s celebrate.

(It can be listened to here and here.)

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913

A frosty Christmas Eve, when the stars where shining,
I traveled forth alone, where westward falls the hill.
And for many, many a village, in the darkness of the valley,
distant music reached me, peals of bells were ringing.

Then sped my thoughts to olden times, to that first of Christmases
when shepherds who were watching heard music in the fields.
And they sat there and they marveled, and they knew they could not tell
whether it were angels or the bright stars a-singing.

But to me heard afar, it was starry music,
the singing of the angels, the comfort of our Lord.
Words of old that come a-traveling, by the riches of the times,
and I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill.

swimming toward the unknown

I’m working on my paper on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Crux (1911), and just wondered if the climactic swimming scene at the end could be fruitfully compared to the climactic swimming (and probably drowning?) scene at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).  In The Crux, Vivian Lane’s swim I think is a sign of social, psychological, and even spiritual resurrection (though Deborah Evans sees it as Gilman re-writing a similar scene in Owen Wister’s The Virginian). In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier’s swim is a sign of awakening, obviously. But it’s much more interpretively* slippery than Vivian’s.  On the surface level, though, in both cases, the swim is the climax of the novel, both women are naked, and both laugh (well, Vivian actually laughs; Edna figuratively laughs (see quote below)).  So for my paper there’s at least a footnote’s worth of connection between these two scenes.  [*new adverb!]

Meanwhile, I wanted to post this quote from this article. I’m really drawn to this interpretation, or to this realization that when we try to interpret what happens at death (or to decide whether it is death), we are grasping at the ungraspable (and, I think, we had better not think ourselves that powerful).

Does Edna commit suicide? […] The whole novel was written for this moment and writing at this point staggers toward nakedness too. Edna is now ready to confront death, to face death. Such is the nature of her awakening: it is an awakening-unto-death. We do not know if she dies, we only know she is ready to die. Or that she is ready to live as if dead. This is the limit of knowing. From now on, there are “no plot alternatives,” because there can be no “plot” at this point. Death is the absolute unknowable. Edna enters an other space—the sea. And, as opposed to the striated space of known, sedentary trajectories (and plots) that she is leaving behind, the sea is a smooth space characterized by a “polyvocality of directions.” At this point Edna cannot be narrativized anymore, she has gone vagabonding on an unknown and unknowable terrain. The novel ends. But this ending/no ending is a way of saying no to the possibility of there being at this point a story of Edna.  She has become slippery, ungraspable. (486)

A reading that looks for narrative closure is always performed in a mode of “recuperation”: it resuscitates Edna, it “saves” her from the unknown toward which she is moving. It is the symptom of the Oedipal desire to know and to know to the end, to unveil the truth and through the unveiling of the truth to cover Edna’s indecent nakedness. But Edna’s invitation at the end of the novel is to resist the temptation of resuscitation and to welcome the unknown of death, of the smooth sea. In this sense, the text has predicted its own destiny, its early feminist recuperation, through the episode of the first swim; but it has also offered, through its ending, the strategy of resisting such recuperation. Through a reading in the recuperation mode, the illusion of knowing is recuperated at the level of reading. Edna is tamed, her desire is understood, “the world” goes on without having heard the message. But Edna is laughing, indeed, has the last laugh, and we can push our ears to hear this laughter. (487)

— from Anca Parvulescu’s “To Die Laughing and to Laugh at Dying: Revisiting The Awakening.” New Literary History 36 (2005): 477-495.

Hmm, reminds me of Pierce Pettis’ song “Swimming” (1989)

There’s a man saying words over a body
And the words that he says are not his own
And his candle is so small
And the darkness is a liquid that surrounds us all
The man, who is old, has never married
And the man has no children of his own
But strangers call him father
And they speak to him of darkness in their souls

Swimming toward the light
High above I see it from the corner of my eye
Pulling toward the light
Trapped inside this cavern, swimming hard with all my might
Holding my breath just as long as I can
Till I get there, till I get there
Holding my breath just as long as I can
Till I get there and the light is everywhere

Downtown there is a loud commotion
And a crowd is waving flags along the street
The bubble car glides by
And the man who sits inside is so alone
His faith is real, his name is borrowed
And it is borrowed time he’s living on
And he’s feeling pretty tired
And a little uninspired if the truth be known
Swimming toward the light
In the distance he can see it from the corner of his eye
Pulling toward the light

Trapped here underwater, swimming hard with all his might
Holding his breath just as long as he can
Till he gets there, till he gets there
Holding his breath just as long as he can
Till he gets there and the light is everywhere

There’s a house in the city no one stays in
Though visitors always come and go
And they say that God lives there
But God lives everywhere
This I know
And candlelight is spreading like a wildfire
Suddenly we’re caught up in its glow
There’s one they say who came
All the way from outer space to lead us home

Swimming toward the light
Leading us to safety like a beacon in the night
Pulling toward the light
Deep down in this darkness we are fighting for our lives
Hold on just as long as you can
Till you get there, till you get there
Holding on just as long as you can
Till you get there and the light is everywhere

Eugene Peterson: “Prophets sniff out injustice, especially injustice that is dressed up in religious garb.’

My last post (about Morris Dees talking about the prophet Amos) made me think to look at Eugene Peterson’s introduction to and translation of Amos (in his The Message translation of the Bible). And wow — well said. All his introductions and prefaces — they alone are worth the price of the Bible.

Introduction to Amos

More people are exploited and abused in the cause of religion than in any other way. Sex, money, and power all take a back seat to religion as a source of evil. Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing, and oppression is staggering. The biblical prophets are in the front line of those doing something about it.

The biblical prophets continue to be the most powerful and effective voices ever heard on this earth for keeping religion honest, humble, and compassionate. Prophets sniff out injustice, especially injustice that is dressed up in religious garb. They sniff it out a mile away. Prophets see through hypocrisy, especially hypocrisy that assumes a religious pose. Prophets are not impressed by position or power or authority. They aren’t taken in by numbers, size, or appearances of success.

They pay little attention to what men and women say about God or do for God. They listen to God and rigorously test all human language and action against what they hear. Among these prophets, Amos towers as defender of the downtrodden poor and accuser of the powerful rich who use God’s name to legitimize their sin.

None of us can be trusted in this business. If we pray and worship God and associate with others who likewise pray and worship God, we absolutely must keep company with these biblical prophets. We are required to submit all our words and acts to their passionate scrutiny to prevent the perversion of our religion into something self-serving. A spiritual life that doesn’t give a large place to the prophet-articulated justice will end up making us worse instead of better, separating us from God’s ways instead of drawing us into them.

from Peterson’s Amos (chapter 5)…

15 Hate evil and love good,
then work it out in the public square.
21-24 “I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

Morris Dees, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the biblical prophet Amos

I caught a Morris Dees speech on “The Research Channel” this morning, and I loved the way he lead into and the way he told the story of the prophet Amos. The speech I saw was from Feb 2007 at the University of Michigan. This transcript comes from a 2001 speech at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but it looks like pretty much the same speech. Anyway, here was my favorite part:

[…] The Rev. Martin Luther King […] didn’t lose faith in his spiritual beliefs. He didn’t lose faith in us. All of us. Those that revered him, and those to come. You have to understand that in 1963, there were no guarantees. There had been no 1964 Civil Rights Act. There had been no 1965 Voting Rights Act. Powerful people in Congress from his state, my state and other states blocked those reforms. But Dr. King did not despair. Dr. King had faith. And he went to Washington to express that faith. He stood on the mall with 250,000 people at his feet and millions watching on television, to whom he expressed that faith in all of us. He said that I have a dream that one day in the state of Georgia that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down around a table of brotherhood.

A lot has happened since Dr. King left us. We have taken three steps forward and two steps back. If Dr. King was here today, he wouldn’t recognize the United States, much less the issues that we face. I think if he was here today, he would still have faith in us to solve the problems that divide us. And if he had given that same speech today, he might say, “I had a dream that one day in the state of Georgia,” but he might add … “on the reservations and in the seats of economic and political and judicial power in this nation, that the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners,” and today he might add, “the poor, the powerless, the homeless and those that hold the keys to economic and political and judicial power of this nation might sit down around the table of brotherhood and truly learn to love one another.”

[…] And to look around this nation reminds us that it is this basic idea of justice that sets us apart from other nations of the world. [Dr. King] told about another nation and another time. The year was 900 B.C. The children of Israel, the Jews, had wandered from place to place after being held slaves in Egypt. They finally settled into a town and built a prosperous city near the town of Jerusalem. They built big walls around this city, and inside these walls they built a marketplace. People brought goods from surrounding areas to sell. And people prospered in that town. Those that prospered got nice building lots and built beautiful homes overlooking fertile valleys. They got a school system, a court system, a law enforcement system.

But there was one man who came through those big gates early in the morning from a neighboring village with his crops to sell and was haunted by what he saw. As he pulled his wagon laden with goods, he saw able-bodied men and women at the gates begging for food. … People came by his stall, and he heard grumbling. Grumbling about failures in the court system, and the police, if you didn’t happen to be part of the right group. Today we might call that racial profiling.

He was a man of some reputation and means. So he called for an audience with the leaders. And it was granted. He was concerned that they might not be able to keep their town together. You might know this farmer. He was the prophet Amos. And he went before the leaders of that town, and he said you have to be fair to all people. No matter who they are, you have to be fair. Because if you want to pass the things that you have down here, all the way from China, things that you have in this country, pass that onto your children and your grandchildren and so on, you’ve got to be fair. He left them with the words that Dr. King used so often. He said, “You should not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” […]

Amy Grant’s Lead Me On: “we drown in the wake of our power — somebody tell me why”

I just found this video. Amy Grant’s “Lead Me On” (1988) is one my favorite songs — has been, I just realized, for twenty years (yikes!). Anyway, I’ve long thought it would make a powerful music video. And here it is.

Shoulder to the wheel, for someone else’s selfish gain
Here there is no choosing, working the clay
Wearing their anger like a ball and chain

Fire in the field, underneath a blazing sun
But soon the sun was faded, and freedom was a song
I heard them singing when the day was done
Singing to the Holy One

Lead me on, lead me on, to a place where the river runs, into your keeping

Lead me on, lead me on
The awaited deliverance
Comforts the seeking… lead on!

Waiting for the train, labeled with a golden star
Heavy-hearted boarding, whispers in the dark
Where are we going–is it very far?

Bitter cold terrain, echoes of a slamming door
In chambers made for sleeping, forever
Voices like thunder in a mighty roar
Crying to the Lord

Lead me on, lead me on, to a place where the river runs, into your keeping

Lead me on, lead me on
The awaited deliverance
Comforts the seeking… lead on!

Man hurts man, time and time, time again
And we drown in the wake of our power
Somebody tell me why!

P.S. The depiction of the Nazi genocide of Jews in this video reminds me of the Nazi genocide of gays. I know that people who are anti-gay rights mainly (completely?) do so based on their sense of some immorality or wrongness to same-sex relationships. But I guess they don’t think then much about the fact that that thinking puts them in agreement with Nazis. Jews? “No! They are equal to everyone else!” Gypsies? “No! They are also equal to everyone else!” Gays? “Well… yes, it’s true — they should not be treated equal to everyone else. The Nazis had something there, even if they clearly went way too far in their behavior.”

Yikes. It should at least give one pause, to think of whom one is agreeing with. Wouldn’t one think?

Anyway, this is still a great song.