Granted, it is never pleasant to have readers complain about one’s book, especially when the book is approximately three days old and one is still caught up in the heady pride of publication. In addition, if one is a veteran writer (which I am), one knows what to expect: generosity from some, slingshots from others. But my book just received an irritable review that stuck in my craw.
The reviewer, Amazon pen-name “Jubilee” wrote that:
[In Gordon’s book] sometimes more credence is given to the Koran and non-canonical religious books [than] the Bible itself. That may be laudable from a secular standpoint, but not mine. I prefer a Christian world view. And I filter everything through that. My point is that I cannot give a positive review in terms of a Christian book. Because it is not.
Why did this bother me? Sour grapes, you might say, and maybe so, but I think the real problem is the clash between interfaith and what I call single faith politics. My position is that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity represent different pathways to the divine and that all three faiths embody important traditions and beliefs about God, worship, and how we should lead our lives. Those who espouse single faith politics hold that only one religious tradition is valid, and that the others are incorrect, and sometimes, even, evil. Sound familiar? Think James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Ann Coulter vs. Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s interfaith movement, The Tent of Abraham or the Unitarian commitment to valuing all religious traditions. It is clear that Woman has become a lightning rod for the single faith/interfaith conflict embedded in current American politics and religious life.
My book explores the origins of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam through an examination of the biblical story of Abraham, Sarah (his first wife), and Hagar (his second wife). Abraham’s complicated relationship with these two women is a foundational myth not only in the Middle East, but also in the west. Whether or not we are believers, we are still awash in its wake as it helps explain many of the battles between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
I set the first scene in Nasireya, the Iraqi city that was the location of early battles in the recent war, but which is also known as Ur, the traditional birth place of Abraham and Sarah, the founding patriarch and matriarch in Judaism and Christianity. Later in the book, I explore Hagar’s discovery of the Zam Zam, the holiest well in Islamic tradition, and the founding of Mecca.
I spent years researching this story, including careful study of the Koran, as well as Jewish and Christian commentary. I admit I felt a small flush of virtuous achievement once I had finished. But, as we know, pride goeth before a fall and so I suppose I should not have been surprised to hear that someone does not like precisely what I worked on the hardest: my contribution to interfaith understanding. However, that is not really what concerns me. What strikes me as far more worrisome is the idea that a serious conversation about the Koran could hurt the biblical tradition. How can a deeper understanding of Islam hurt Christians? In addition, shouldn’t Jews and Christians take the time to understand each other’s traditions and beliefs?
What bothers me the most, though, is that one of the principle points in the book, the role of women in the traditional stories of all three religions, runs the risk of being overshadowed by this battle between interfaith and single faith partisans. This is unfortunate as “The Woman Question” has been problematic for centuries: what roles should women play in the religious life of their communities? Should women get ordained? Should they be allowed to read the Torah on the bimah?
The story of Hagar and Sarah has much to teach us about the strong presence of women in our traditions. Hagar is the one character in the Bible who has the courage and creativity to give God a name. In Islam, she is regarded as a founding matriarch, the great-great-great . . . grandmother of Mohammed. In all three traditions, Sarah is the supreme strategist, assertive and in charge of the campsite. In Judaism and Christianity, she is the matriarch, the mother of the chosen son. But if one studies God’s words, it becomes clear that God has marked both women as matriarchs. Indeed, Genesis pushes the idea of a double blessing. Isaac, the son of Sarah is blessed, God says, but so also is Ishmael, the son of Hagar.
To dismiss this double blessing is to dismiss a central principle of the Bible, the law of love, not hate; of peace, not war. To slam the door against other religious traditions is to shut the door in the face of the stranger. Isn’t it our duty to reach out to those we do not know and treat these individuals as we would like to be treated ourselves?
I suppose I should be grateful to my critical reviewer. In the past I have avoided the soapbox and have depended on writing scholarly reviews and well researched books to make my points. But indignation has spurred me to declare the ethical basis of my book, a declaration I might never have thought to make if it had not been attacked as being not “Christian” enough. If The Woman Who Named God is not a “Christian” book then what is Christianity? Aren’t love and understanding of those who are different from us Christian values?
And, what about me and “Jubilee”? Maybe we need to meet and try to come to an understanding: red meets blue, Jew meets Christian, reader meets writer. Author meets critic. And critic meets author.