Books April 2013
Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart
by John Backman. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2012. 176 pages. $16.99/paperback.
Reviewed by Lyn Back
John Backman is an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, a community of Episcopalian Benedictine monasteries, and a member of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. He calls for a new dynamic, a fresh approach to getting along with each other, even when we have differences that make our blood boil.
Why Can’t We Talk is worth serious consideration and careful study, although some readers might find the Christian theology and biblical references off-putting at first. Stories from the author’s experience highlight the difficulties and surprising outcomes that happen when we open our hearts to authentic dialogue. Appropriate for adult religious education or group discussions, the book has questions at the end of each chapter to expand the ideas presented.
We live in a culture of conflict, confrontation, and competition, where winning or being right is the goal. The fast pace of our lives, plus the flood of information we process, leaves us with short attention spans and almost no patience. As a result, we struggle to communicate in our personal lives, in the workplace, and in politics. We either try shouting louder, being more righteous, arguing more vehemently, or we silently retreat and shrink from controversy.
How do we address the increasing isolation that fractures community and leads to our spiritual impoverishment? John Backman says the answer is dialogue, which he defines as “communication with at least one other person with a focus on a particular topic, in a shared exploration of a larger truth.” The key word is shared. Fear of sharing, of letting go of our ideas, of possibly being wrong, prevents us from realizing the benefit that dialogue brings, which is inner peace and a larger vision.
Practical skills are necessary, according to the author, who provides suggestions: suspending one’s preconceptions, listening deeply, paying attention, reframing the issue, eliminating pat phrases, using precise language, and starting with an open heart. These ideas are familiar to readers who have practiced conflict resolution. However, the core of this book goes deeper. It is a call for “conversion,” a reorientation to dialogue as a way of life, “a habit of the heart.” Backman believes that as people of faith, we are fulfilling God’s call to be peacemakers, to love each other, to build community. We are called, he says, not to results, but to faithfulness.
How do we engage the work of the soul that opens us to dialogue? The conversion John Backman speaks of is a slow, persistent reorientation. Strength in this lifelong process comes from our personal connection to God, and by making a commitment to love, as the Bible teaches us. To keep us grounded, Backman recommends traditional Christian practices, such as centering prayer, reading the scriptures, lectio divina, and the reading of the Psalms. He acknowledges that there are other kinds of spiritual practice, and that each person should follow the path that speaks to him or her.
To practice dialogue, the author suggests having lunch with a trusted friend who might hold a differing opinion. Be patient, he cautions: dialogue takes time, sometimes years. Remember that the path is counter-cultural. Engage without expectations of success. Dialogue is not about changing the other person’s mind; it is about seeking a mutually satisfying truth, coming to a deeper understanding of the issues, and each other. Backman sees this new approach as a new way of life, a calling to people everywhere, a form of evangelism. “Our challenge is to keep talking, keep listening, and keep loving one another. . . Anything can happen when we start to talk.” But he warns, “Nothing will happen if we don’t.”
Lyn Back, a member of Old Haverford (Pa.) Meeting, is clerk of membership for the AFSC Nobel Peace Prize Committee. She has written “The Quaker Mission in Poland; Relief, Reconstruction, and Religion,” for Quaker History, and the pamphlet, Rebecca Janney Timbres Clark: Turned in the Hand of God. Lyn also served on the Balkan Peace Team in Serbia and Kosovo in 2000.
The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times
by Rob Hopkins. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011. 292 pages. $29.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
In 2006, a handful of people in England got together to help their small town increase its resilience in the face of energy descent, and the Transition movement was born. It has since spread virally across the world, and the original group has evolved to provide a minimalist and flexible structure to help other communities get started and learn from each other’s experiences.
The Transition Companion is the movement’s second book. It is an extremely attractive and well-designed workbook with lots of color, tons of photographs, a very detailed table of contents, and color-coded divisions. It has sections that address starting out, deepening, connecting, building, and daring to dream. In each little sub-section of two to four pages there is some basic text, a box with a specific example from a Transition initiative someplace in the world, links to other related parts of the book, and a few suggestions of where to go for additional resources. I read straight through, but it is set up to be used as a resource for folks engaged in a Transition initiative, dipping in to get a little insight, perspective or traction on a particular aspect of their work.
Lead author Rob Hopkins cheerfully acknowledges the many and diverse shoulders on which the Transition movement stands: the wiki approach to collaborative information building, the study of resilience and self-organization in natural systems, Joanna Macy’s despair and empowerment work, learned optimism, and permaculture design principles, to name a few.
I find that I can’t review the book without reviewing the movement. On the one hand, this could be the perfect way for ordinary folks who care about the future to take action on peak oil and climate change. It’s more impactful than individual consumer choices, more hands-on than national lobbying, more accessible to many than direct action. Also, as people act together, they build community and begin creating the local networks and structures that will be needed as a fossil-fuel based economy declines. It’s hopeful. It’s practical. Anybody can be involved. Quakers have certainly found Transition, with New England Yearly Meeting in the lead (check out their website at quakersintransition.wordpress.com).
On the other hand, it seems so extraordinarily white. Can any initiative grounded so deeply in white middle class professional/alternative culture ever hope
to be more than a fringe movement? I think of the poor African American neighborhood that borders mine, where people whose struggle to get by in the present doesn’t leave much space for attention to our long-term future on earth.
Yet the Transition movement has exploded in the last several years, taking root in small towns and big cities, in countries with many different cultures, even in one favela, or shantytown, in São Paulo, Brazil. The minimalist structure, the variety of possible entry points, and the encouragement for each group to figure out what works for them, may be enough to jump those cultural boundaries. On the other hand, the things that people have been able to do seem pathetically small compared to the need. A lot of little community gardens, a handful of cooperative businesses, some local currencies, a few larger initiatives here and there—how can they hope to impact the powers that are driving us to the brink?
You have to start somewhere, though, and can there be a better place than where you live, talking about hopes and fears for the future with your neighbors? I couldn’t help but think how I might start, right where I am. Maybe I could visit the well-established community garden west of here and find folks interested in a skills sharing project. I’d like to do that.
Ultimately, this may be the genius of The Transition Companion. It draws you in, immerses you in real-life hopeful possibilities, offers a big friendly umbrella, provides very practical ideas and tools for getting active around climate change, and encourages you to get out there and do something.
The tone of humility, realism, and hope is powerful. As the author writes: “We truly don’t know if Transition will work. It is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this: if we wait for governments, it’ll be too little, too late; if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little; but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.
The Lemon Grove
by Ali Hosseini. Curbstone Books, 2012. 189 pages. $18.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Karie Firoozmand
In The Lemon Grove, Ali Hosseini gives us a realistic image of post-revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, and he does it with a storyteller’s skill and a novelist’s art. Finally, we have a novel about Iran written in English for what seems to be a Western audience.
Americans are little exposed to Iran for what it is, an ancient culture with a complicated past. Iranian people love family, food, poetry, gardens, and wine (the novel’s setting is the city of Shiraz). But Iran is also, according to the main character, “a people of copiers and counterfeiters, who
copy from the West and don’t even copy well. Even our religion was introduced to us. We are a people of the past, always blabbering that we had the first empire in the world. . . . But what about now? What about our place in modern history?”
Since the 1979 revolution, when it became the world’s only theocracy, Iran has become isolated and beset on all sides like the thirsting lemon grove of the title, surrounded by a threatening desert where things are not as they seem. The narrator, Behruz, observes, “Even the Mongols bowed low. . . . But what can save you from the wars of modern man and the enemies within and without. . . . Can they be fought with poems and roses?”
The Lemon Grove takes place in the 1980s, when Iran went through a series of traumas most Americans don’t know about. The eight-year war started by Iraq followed the revolution and brought death and destruction on cities from the Iran/Iraq border to Tehran, where bombs fell on apartment buildings. Until then, there was no word in Farsi for shell shock.
At the same time, the religious regime tightened its hold, gradually controlling more aspects of private life. Women covering up in public became law, as did the prohibition of men wearing shorts in public. Checkpoints sprang up to catch people in any type of un-Islamic behavior, from possessing alcohol to wearing makeup or playing music too loud; informing was encouraged, and roving bands of unsophisticated zealots were given free reign to arrest people at will. Universities were closed in retaliation for student protests. To this day, a woman cannot be in public in the company of a male non-relative.
Hosseini brings the fear and chaos to life in the characters of a family damaged by war, sexist practices like stoning, and the uncertainty and danger of a country in rapid transition from a pro-Western monarchy (with its own violently repressive apparatus) to a far worse theocracy. He compares it to “that time of day when evening is approaching. . . whatever you see may not be what it appears to be.”
Hosseini’s skillful and luminous prose shows Iran as it was and is, but what makes The Lemon Grove a page-turner is the believability of the characters. The plot pivots around a love triangle involving twin brothers, one of whom suffers from battle wounds inflicted on the psyche, the other from guilt and self-doubt at fleeing Iran. Both choices prove painful, as Hosseini reveals the struggles of people living today in Iran and its diaspora.
All of the characters suffer the terrible loss of home, yet must live on in struggle, as the dry lemon grove suggests. As night falls and Behruz witnesses again “the full moon slowly rise and roll out her silver sheets over the desert. . .the whispers that move past as if the earth were breathing,” we feel the tug of the universality of belonging and loss. The Lemon Grove tells the particular story of Iran’s recent losses as well as a family’s struggle for unity in a place that is falling apart—“and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Consider yourself invited to take in history and fact along the way as you take respite in The Lemon Grove. To use the Iranian way of invitation, befarmayeed.
Karie Firoozmand is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., and has been married to an Iranian for 25 years. She and her husband have two sons.
Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
by Leymah Gbowee with Carol Mithers. Beast Books, Perseus Books Group, 2011. 246 pages. $25.99/hardcover.
Reviewed by Rosalie Dance
This is Leymah Gbowee’s memoir recounting the war in Liberia from 1989 to 2003 when the president resigned and Liberia’s civil war ended. She also includes the post-war years through 2009, because as she writes, “We had survived the war, but now we had to remember how to live. Peace isn’t a moment—it’s a very long process.” In 2011, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace prize along with Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia.
Gbowee remarks that news clips of Liberia’s war show it as a human interest story: women fleeing or weeping at children’s graves. But that is not Liberia’s story. In Liberia, a great mass of women rose up and found the moral clarity, persistence, and courage to raise their voices against war and restore order to their country.
Gbowee was a model teenager, strong and independent of mind, but during the war she depended on alcohol for emotional support and men for safety and sustenance. Her life was in shambles, but after suffering domestic abuse, hunger, deprivation of necessities like water supply, and fleeing from war with her children, she used her experiences to understand how to help women in similar circumstances. Through the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), a coalition of Christian and Muslim women organized through churches and mosques and the Saturday fish markets, Gbowee learned to “ask women questions that would work” so they could find their voices and demand change. In a meeting with warlord president Charles Taylor, a thousand white-clad women demanded “No to violence. Yes to peace” and decided to sit in the field along the main boulevard of Monrovia until they received a reply from the president. Gbowee writes that “the women of Liberia had been taken to their physical, psychic, and spiritual limits
. . . and discovered a new source of power and strength: each other.”
After the war, their work continued to rebuild a country at peace. Friends will find significant comparisons between the work in Liberia and Friends work in the African Great Lakes region and elsewhere.
In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia and re-elected in 2011. Liberia continues in its “very long process” of peace. Mighty Be Our Powers is an inspiring illustration of what people can accomplish in the face of extreme adversity. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s autobiography, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President and the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell (directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney) are two more valuable resources for those interested in Liberia and the powerful women’s movement that saved it.
Rosalie Dance is a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting and a sojourner at Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future
by Linda Stout. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011. 198 pages. $17.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Diana Roose
Have you ever been involved in a community organization that became mired in personality conflicts and frustration, or petered out when it didn’t quickly achieve its goals, or was going in circles for lack of clear direction or leadership? If so, Collective Visioning is for you. Linda Stout offers a model of social change from a place of joyfulness and hope, to create inclusive and sustainable social movements.
Born into a Southern family of tenant farmers, Stout became a community organizer from an early age. Too poor to go to college, she worked in a mill where she was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan because she hired people of color, which led her “to connect back into [her] Quaker roots of meetings and advocacy.” She founded the Piedmont Peace Project, a grassroots organization in North Carolina that has attracted national attention for its success in organizing and empowering poor and working-class communities.
How does she succeed where others fail? The difference with her organization, says Stout, is that “we were working from a place of heart—what I sometimes call spirit—and from a place of relationship, telling our stories, and building trust in order to work strongly and quickly.”
She offers several reasons why many community organizations flounder:
1. They fail to mobilize often overlooked segments of society.
2. They suffer from a lack of attention to cultural differences and educational levels.
3. They start from a place of anger or fear.
4. They lack a vision of a peaceful and cooperative world.
Stout offers guidelines and exercises to build stronger, more diverse movements, empowered by inspiration or joy. At first these exercises seem a bit “touchy-feely,” but tested in the fire of community activism, Stout maintains, they are both practical and essential. Movements grounded in white middle-class culture or built on anger cannot sustain themselves.
“I have found that if we do the up-front work of getting people to come from the heart, building trust and commitment to each other,” she says, “the work of building a community of action not only goes much faster but grows from a solid foundation that stays together when trouble erupts.” Successful groups create a collective positive vision, grounded in listening. Visioning is creating a story about the future we want to build. She quotes Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Action that springs from collective visioning is different from reactive or defensive actions; it empowers hope. Groups create road maps, positive pictures of what they want, problems that may arise, agreement on priorities, and realistic plans of action, returning to the collective vision when difficulties arise. Collective Visioning can be used with many different groups, old and young, urban or rural, churches and schools. It should be required reading for community organizers.
Diana Roose, a member of Oberlin (Ohio) Meeting, is a community activist, former peace education director of the AFSC, and author of Teach Us to Live: Stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor
by Miroslave Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad and Melissa Yarrington. Erdmann, 2010. 266 pages. $10/paperback, free PDF at www.acommonword.com.
Reviewed by Anthony Manousos
During this time of escalating Islamophobia fueled by self-serving politicians, my heart leaped for joy to see the publication of A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor. This book, consisting of essays by leading Muslim and Christian scholars, offers hope that the two largest monotheistic religions (comprising over half the world’s population) can overcome their historic antagonisms and build a culture of peace based on the two commandments shared by all three Abrahamic faiths: love God and love your neighbor.
This volume began with an unprecedented Muslim outreach to the Christian community in October 2007, when 138 Muslim scholars sent out a letter (entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You”) to leaders of the Christian faith, calling for peace and understanding. Its author, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, says this letter represents a “normative Ijma [consensus] by the Ummah’s [Muslim community’s] scholars,” that must be taken seriously by Muslims everywhere. Since 2007, there have been more Muslim signatories, bringing the total to over 300 names representing a broad range of nationalities and theological perspectives.
A Common Word was written a year after Pope Benedict XVI gave a controversial talk at the University of Regensberg in which he criticized Islam and quoted derogatory remarks about Mohammad made by a Byzantine emperor. Although the Pope later disavowed these incendiary sentiments, they nonetheless provoked a strong backlash from the Muslim community.
Prince Ghazi, an extraordinary scholar who received a bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) from Princeton University and a doctorate from Cambridge University, wrote a conciliatory response that was endorsed by major Muslim scholars around the world. As a result of this letter, Pope Benedict went to Jordan, where he visited a mosque (a historic moment) and was warmly welcomed by the Prince and other Muslim dignitaries.
Christian theologians responded to A Common Word with thoughtful and encouraging rejoinders. A series of dialogues and colloquia among Muslim and Christian religious scholars began and continues. (Jewish scholars were also invited to take part as observers so they wouldn’t feel excluded. Muslim-Jewish dialogue is also taking place in the same conciliatory spirit.) Some of the best papers from these “Common Word” conferences are included in this book.
It is fascinating to read how finely trained theological minds explore the intricacies and complexities of such a seemingly simple statement as: “Love God and love your neighbor.” What is meant by love? What is meant by God or neighbor? Do Muslims and Christians mean the same thing by these words? Scholars engage the text and commentaries in a myriad of provocative ways to provide intriguing answers to deep theological questions.
These scholars do not address many sensitive political issues, such as the occupation of Muslim lands by Western armies, and the lack of religious freedom in many Muslim countries. One hopes that as trust builds and understanding grows, it may become possible for scholars to deal with these thorny issues in constructive ways.
To find out more, I recommend that you not only read this book but also go to the website acommonword.com.
Anthony Manousos, a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting, is a peace activist, teacher, author, and editor whose most recent book is Quakers and the Interfaith Movement.