Tuesday, July 06, 2004

At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land by Yossi Klein Halevi

To begin with, let me say that this is no way to write a review.

Two Sundays past I went to church, of my own volition, for perhaps the first time in my life. Mass, to be specific, and it turned out to be a mistake. The priest used a reading about Elijah and Elisha as a launching point for an anti-abortion, anti-pre-marital sex homily, and halfway through the mass I walked out in disgust. Perhaps I should know better, but I was raised Catholic, and I thought I'd be most comfortable starting with something I knew.

I don't know what I believe, but I read a lot about faith, about myth, about different conceptions of the divine and the sacred. Most of the time I think that organized religion is something that divides us. This book didn't do much to alter that impression, but it did give me a lot to think about.

Halevi is a devout Jew and an Israeli journalist distressed by the divisions causing so much death and destruction in his country. In this book he recounts his attempts to build bridges with Christian and Islamic practitioners, and the frightening political, cultural and security barriers he encountered along the way. He tries to operate from the assumption that all faiths are pathways to the same divinity, but what is perhaps most engaging about his account is that he is honest about his own prejudices and preconceptions. He doesn't pretend that there is nothing the Muslims and Christians he encounters can say nothing to offend him. And I have to say, even taking into account the problems I have personally with Christian evangelicals, seeing them through Halevi's eyes brought me a new depth of understanding of their arrogance.

If this were a fictional account, a sort of picaresque of faith, it might be more satisfying. The loose ends might come together more neatly, the saints and the charlatans might be more distinct, and the answers might be more neatly packaged, if equally as difficult to draw conclusions from. But since it's a true story, it asks more questions than it answers. Maybe that's the nature of faith--I, for one, can't claim to know. I did find it a rewarding, if frustrating, read, one that offers up hope for the Middle East while at the same time casting a harsh light on the real difficulties of understanding there.


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