Wednesday, October 31, 2012

First World Problems

This morning, I woke to the chirping of my phone alarm at 5:40 am.

The house was cold and dark, illuminated only by a single 3 watt bulb slowly draining a large 12 volt battery.   I popped out of bed, put on shoes and a vest, and shuffled through the house, working my way around the extension cords.  I kicked on the compact florescent lamp connected to the battery, and the center of the house filled with warm light.

Then, into the kitchen.  Checking the interior temperature, I saw that it was 55 degrees in the house, and thirty nine degrees outside.  Not bad.

Then it was out the side door and around to the front of the house.  There, I fired up our little Honda generator.  Choke out.  Throttle control off.  Ignition on.  It started quickly and then settled into an easy thrumming idle.  Light poured out of the kitchen bay window beside me.

I went back into the house, and plugged an electric spaceheater into the high-capacity cord.  Warm air began filling my older son's room.  Time to get up, I said, turning on the battery-powered lamp by his bedside.

Then it was back to the kitchen.  I loaded wood into the fireplace, and got a nice little fire going.

The big guy slouched sleepily into the fire-warmed kitchen, and got himself some breakfast.  With him out of his room, I went and powered down the spaceheater.   This freed up enough wattage to run our insanely power-gluttonous coffeemaker for the few minutes it took to make the morning's go-juice.   Once done, I poured the steaming hot coffee into a thermos, turned off the coffeemaker, and got the heater going again so son number one could dress.

Then it was out back to grab more wood from the woodpile.   The big guy, dressed like Dr. Horrible and ready for school, loped out of the house at around six thirty.   I moved the spaceheater to the little guy's room, brought him the lantern, and coaxed him to wakefulness.  He stirred with his usual piteous moans.

"Still no power?" he queried.  "Nope," said I, and then I went back to the kitchen to tend the fire and nurse my coffee.

Then there was a fluttering, a clicking, and a humming, and the power grid for our neighborhood came back online after thirty-six hours.  The house filled with light.  The furnace kicked in.  The Wifi poured data invisibly into the ether.

Had it been rough?  Hardly.

For those thirty six hours, we'd lived as if we were rich in the third world.

We had power as we needed.  We had refrigeration, and lights, and heat.  We had television, transportation, and phones, and clean running water.  Relative to most of humanity, we were still living like kings.

It's best not to forget that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Theology of Drones

So a friend posed a question on FB recently.

The question had to do with the relationship between American drone strikes and Just War theory.   As a means of projecting national power, drone war-machines are going to increasingly become our weapon of choice.   From their genesis, the use of drones seems to track along the same tech-development tree as aircraft.  Initially, both technologies were used only for reconnaissance, as a way to put eyes-in-the-sky risk free.  There was little functional difference between those first slow-moving prop-driven drones and the slow moving recon planes of the first days of the first World War.

But just as aircraft quickly evolved, so too have our drones.  They can now take out folks--usually in the form of a Hellfire missile or other precision ordnance--without putting the controller in harms way.  Drone tech will likely go even further, moving towards both semi-autonomous craft and becoming much more lethal, with the potential for that lethality to be projected into combat with other military forces.  A drone airframe, for instance, could be built without the need to worry about the limitations of the human body.  The tech for impossibly maneuverable airframes is there, and has been there for decades.  A drone-variant X-29 could easily pull gees that would kill a human pilot.   We're going to head that way.  It is inevitable.

As we leap forward technologically, Christian ethics struggle to keep up.  Where do drones fit in the whole WWJD thing?   Clearly, it's an area in which both our current Christian POTUS and the Mormon GOP challenger find concurrence.   They're fine with the use of drones.  They permit targeted strikes, relatively little collateral damage, and no risk to personnel.   It is a technology that allows for radically asymmetric conflict, in which one side can project power and another cannot.   In that sense, it is like iron in the bronze age, or the chariot, or the longbow at Agincourt.  If your task as Head of State is to project power, well, drones are just power.   Plain and simple.

From a Just War perspective, drones in combat...well...they're just a particularly effective weapon.  Like, say, Joint Direct Attack Munitions or cruise missiles.   The asymmetric use of drones in conflict would not, in and of itself, represent a violation of Just War theory.

Problem is, Just War theory cannot apply to our current use of drone strikes, because we are not at war in any traditional sense.  There is no declared war, no struggle for territory, and no nation-state to serve as a direct adversary.

The pursuit of peace as a primary aim of Just War also does not apply.  The "enemy combatants" do not represent any state or jurisdiction with whom negotiations would be possible.  This means the goal of current drone strikes is not to force an opponent to parley for peace...because there is no authority that could speak on their behalf.

The focus of Just War on limiting warfare to combatants is also meaningless.  The blurring of the lines between civilians and combatants is so complete as to make the distinction irrelevant.

Does this mesh with the teachings of Jesus?  No, not really, not if we're honest with ourselves.  Christ has always stood in difficult tension with the power of the state.

But this also exists outside of Christian efforts historically to theologically justify combat and military operations.  What we are doing with our drones is not war.  It is simply the crudest form of law enforcement, the coercive suppression of a restive population.

Good thing that will never happen in America.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reading the Quran: Fundamentalism

I am no fan of fundamentalism, in any of its shapes, forms, or iterations.   Within Christian faith, fundamentalism represents a fundamental and irredeemable betrayal of the intent of the Reformation.  Bible-worship is the Protestant idol, just as ecclesiastical authority became the Catholic idol.

So as I encounter the Quran, I've been struck by how equally damaging Islamic fundamentalism has been to the spiritual lives of Muslims.   The Quran contains much to commend it both ethically and spiritually, but I can't read it without realizing how deeply it was shaped by a very specific context.   It is a fiercely and resolutely Arab expression of engagement with the divine, drawing on the forms and expectations of a single cultural context.   It has one voice, and one theological perspective.

In that way, the Quran is radically different than the Bible.  The many books that comprise the Bible speak from an array of different perspectives, spanning thousands of years and speaking from a range of different cultural contexts.  There is harmony, but there is also tension and dissonance.  Reading the Bible requires discernment, because taken in and of itself and without the guidance of the Spirit, it does not always cohere.  

Fundamentalism within Christianity has always involved awkward and extrabiblical interpretive gyrations to reconcile those perspectives.  It is a clumsy, inherently bankrupt theological exercise.

But the Quran speaks with one voice, in one language, from one culture, at one time.   Absolutizing that perspective...not the higher order values, but the cultural framework into which those values were expressed...would be easier, because of the cultural univocality of the Quran.  It requires very little effort. 

That poses a challenge on several fronts for resisting Quranic fundamentalism.  If the Quran is understood to require a "good" culture to share the same expectations about gender and jurisprudence as existed in sixth century Arabia, it cannot be reconciled with modernity.   To do this requires some portions of Quran to be understood as either metaphoric or leavened by context.

If, for example, we read the Quranic requirement to cut off the hands of thieves as no longer literal, but as representing the need to prevent the thief from stealing again, we're good.   If it's literal?  Then the resultant culture is not compatible with the ethos of the Western world...or of most democratic republics.

This requires a faith to say not just that a practice is no longer acceptable, but that it was not acceptable at the time, and to be able to find grounds for resisting an explicit statement in an ancient text.  Christians and Jews, for instance, would not consider taking a captive woman from a defeated nation as a concubine.  There may be rules to that effect in Torah, but our understanding of God has evolved past that point.  We no longer feel obliged to even defend that practice.  Similarly, though there are rules and regs for slavery in the Bible, it is not compatible with the essence of our faith.

Then there's the "inerrancy" issue.  Where there are inaccuracies in, for instance, the misrepresentation of the Christian Trinity, or the repeated assertion that Jews consider Ezra (a scribe influential in the rebuilding of the temple after the return from diaspora) the son of God in the same way Christians consider Jesus the son of God...the challenge for Islam is how to approach those Quranic variances from reality.

Context helps, of course.  Pointing out that the Prophet may have been responding to the worship of Mary and not actual Christian orthodoxy might help.  The Ezra thing, though, seems so out of connection with the reality of every historically recorded form of Jewish practice that it requires some pretty intense parsing.  Jews are monotheists, radically and completely, and at no point ever in recorded history outside of the Quran has Ezra been considered the progeny of the divine.   The only valid interpretation is to say, well, no, this isn't an accurate portrayal of Judaism.  Or perhaps to say, well, honestly, we have no idea what this means.  Which is fine, because it would be true.  Like the close-but-not-quite timelines in the Gospel of Luke's historical background information, there's some ancient-world-fudge-factor in the Quran.

Fundamentalism deals poorly with this sort of thing.   But for progressive, open-minded Muslims, saying: "Yeah, we're not sure quite what was being gotten at here" or "You know, that's just from context" is entirely feasible.    The higher order virtues in Quran govern their lives, and they are happy to live within the bounds of the surrounding culture and a more progressive interpretation of Islam.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading the Quran: Nonviolence

Given the popular view of Islam among many Americans, the idea of nonviolence as a Muslim virtue might seem something of a stretch.  Shaped by media inputs, our collective consciousness is filled with images of enraged mobs, Kalashnikovs, and smouldering ruins.

Read in snippets here and there, the underlying ethical paradigm of the Quran can also seem..err...a little on the truculent side.  There is much talk of war, and the repetition of metings-out of both physical and theological punishment for infractions can get a little overbearing.

A fair reading of the Quran, however, will discover that those bloodier/more vengeful bits are leavened by calls for hospitality, justice, and charity.  For those who embrace the principles of nonviolence, however, there's more to it than simply finding a balance between interests.

Nonviolence is not equitable.  It does not focus on finding the perfect balance between competing interests.  It is also not passive.  Passivity in the face of hatred, injustice, and oppression is not nonviolence.

It is vigorously, firmly, and directly restorative.  It is the pressing out of grace into the world.   Morally, it is rooted in the Golden Rule, but it goes further.   It does not fold up in the face of abuse, but positively affirms our radical connectedness to one another, and defies brokenness with active steps towards healing.

And in reading the Quran itself, the Golden Rule is never directly articulated.   It can be inferred from certain commands to be forgiving, and to be equitable, but an explicit statement of compassion as the highest governing principle of sentient beings is just not there.

That is not true for Islam as a whole.  The Hadiths...the semi-canonical stories of the Prophet Muhammed's life...have direct and explicit reference to that highest ethic.  But again, up until my reading of the Quran, I have not been able to find anything  in the most authoritative text of Islam.

This has been a source of some spiritual challenge for me as I've explored Islam.  The ethos of radical, transforming love of both neighbor and enemy is absolutely central to Christian understandings of what is Good with a capital Gee, and that in my prior explorations I've found only tangential reference has been...well...difficult.

Because if it is not there, the Ruh is not there.  That Love is the evidence of God's presence.

But in this reading, I encountered a little story about violence that seemed...for a bright moment or capture the essence of nonviolence.   The Prophet Muhammed was fond of retelling the ancient stories of Torah.   It's a regular staple of the suras.

And in Al Mai'dah 27-32, there is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, that most primal act of human violence.  It's not exactly the version of the story that we hear in Torah...but the Quranic retellings almost never are.

What was most interesting about this retelling was that it included the response of Abel to Cain's raging, murderous intent.  Abel knows his life is in jeopardy, but affirmatively refuses to respond violently to Cain.  He tells Cain that he will not meet violence with violence, instead affirming that real justice lies with God, whose law and power makes them as one.   In harming me, you harm yourself and your connection to your Creator, says the Quranic Abel.  He stands firm in this, even to the point of death.

Honestly, I wish it had left off there, because in that story lies the essence of nonviolence.

But the Quran goes on, and as it does so, it subverts the story with an explication of how to deal with those who war against the faith (Al Mai'dah 33).  This involves killing, crucifying, and maiming...or if you're lucky, being driven from the land.   It's not the best transition.

This illuminates the primal and essential challenge for approaching and interpreting Quran:  the issue of fundamentalism.   And it is to this that I will turn in my next post.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ads, Jihads, and Savages

So over the last week or two, controversial ads have gone up in DC area metro stations.   They are relatively simple, and with a simple message.   Produced by a small collection of right-wing organizations, they it yourself.

It's one of those peculiar but necessary things in our culture, this ability to speak things that might offend.  In this case, what is being said... clumsily... is that in the tension between Israel and the Muslim world, Israel is civilized and Islam is savage.

My own preference, quite frankly, lies with Israel.  I disagree with many of Israel's policies, and think that Likud's tendency towards nationalistic belligerence coupled with the repressive influence of the growing ultraorthodox population are problematic.   On the other hand, I could live there and say that.  I could write this without fearing that I might be imprisoned.  Israel is still free, for the time being, and that's worth something.

I could not say the same if I lived in Egypt now, or in Iran, or in Saudi Arabia.  In those places, practicing my faith would be problematic, and the safety of my children and my family would be in question.

But that this is true does not mean that I embrace either the intent or the spirit of this campaign.  It's not just unnecessarily truculent and unconstructive.  It''s kind of stupid.   And I mean that in the "not very intelligent" sense of the word.

The basic underlying assumption about civilizations and savages is off, for one thing.   Savages exist in a primal state, disordered and tribal and local.   Even at its worst, that does not describe jihad.  When jihad is presented as theological casus belli, it isn't just random acts of terror conducted by free-ranging feral madmen.  The Taliban's benighted and degraded form of Islam isn't the primary threat to Israel.

Relative to the state of Israel, jihad at worst describes a worldview forwarded by nation states who are using ultraconservative Islam as justification for their own power.  These are civilizations.  Iran, for instance, cannot be described as "savage," not in any meaningful sense.  Oppressive?  Sure.  Unpleasant?  Without question.   But that is not because it lacks for civil order and structure.  Savages generally don't have centrifuges.  I listen to Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, and I do not hear a savage.  I hear an intelligent, thoughtful, and remarkably dangerous man.

The ad is also stupid because it oversimplifies jihad, ceding the term to those who have turned it to the purposes of oppression and violence.  This foolishly broadens the terms of the conflict, which is not between Israel and Islam.   As a faith, Islam can coexist with Judaism.  Having spent much of the last month immersed in the Quran, I find myself convinced of this.

But is most stupid because the quote is an Ayn Rand quote, and she was not someone who had anything good to say about civilization.

The ad itself includes a link to Atlas Shrugged Dot Com, which leads me to think that perhaps it's part of a viral metacampaign to get people to see the honkingly horrible sequel to that wretchedly awful first movie.   When you're running a perfect zero on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, you have to pull out all the stops, I guess.

The Ayn Rand connection here is perhaps the most astoundingly ironic thing about this ad.  Why?  Civilization is a social phenomenon.  "Civilized men" are human beings who exist in society with one another, who share a set of values that bind them together as a people.  They freely cede some of their power to one another, so that all might live together.  That is the essence of civilization.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is radically antisocial, a cheap and easy nihilism in which the connections between human beings are functionally nonexistent.   The "heroes" in her novels are bright and feral creatures, apex predators that live by the ferocity of their will to power.  Randian Objectivism is relentlessly Darwinist, red in tooth and claw, with the strong ruling by their strength, and the weak...well... they don't matter.

Savage, in other words.

Reading the Quran: War, Violence, and Jihad

Talking about an encounter with the Quran without talking about violence and jihad would be an act of intellectual and spiritual cowardice.  Tempting, mind you, as the easy way out is always tempting.  Just don't talk about it, whispers the voice of weakness.

But that wouldn't describe the encounter, and mincing words does no-one any favors.

Reading through the Quran, it is impossible to miss the explicit martial language used to describe both the defense of the faith and the spread of the faith.   It was created in the context of conflict, and by conflict I do not mean the dynamic tension between ideas and concepts.   War is a part of its ethic and worldview, and the call to warfare...again, not spiritual or metaphorical, but as clear as the moon in the sky on a bright cold morning.

Like the Judges in pre-Davidic Judaism, the Prophet actually took forces into battle.  The Quran describes several clashes, including the Battle of Badr (Al-i-Imran 123-125) and the Battle of Uhud (Al-i-Imran 152).  These were not large scale conflicts by the standards of the ancient world, but involved Muslim forces that the case of Badr...fewer in number than the average Presbyterian congregation.   We're not talking a megachurch battle here.

But it is war nonetheless, albeit on a tribal scale.

An entire sura is dedicated to providing instruction for the spoils of war (Al-Anfal).  Again, this was not  initially intended as metaphor.  It assumes conflict with actual physical opponents who no longer need their stuff, because you've killed them.

From this foundation of expansion and conflict, the Quran is considerably more expressive of non-spiritual, non-symbolic violence than the Gospels.   Conflict with unbelievers is repeatedly and consistently articulated in terms that seem to encourage some pretty unpleasant stuff.

It goes beyond Al-Baraqah 191 and 217, which suggest...depending on the translation...that it is better to kill someone who opposes Islam than to permit discord.   Violence in defense of the faith seems presented consistently as a virtue, particularly in opposing unbelievers/backsliders (An Nisa 89).  Although killing other believers intentionally is forbidden, that's an easy one to get around.  (An Nisa 92) It's not a huge conceptual leap from disagreeing with someone to deciding that the source of that disagreement lies in their obvious departure from the One True Faith, in which case, well, there you go.   As a theme, it's consistent and sustained.

And yet this is hardly missing from the narratives of the Bible, either.  The stories of the Exodus and the tales of conflict in the Deuteronomic History are pretty legendarily splattery, filled with plenty of the old ultraviolence.  Much of that is given divine sanction or support by the authors of the narratives.  The Gospels have references to violence as well, although it tends to be clearly metaphoric.   The embrace of war or force of arms is explicitly and consistently rejected, and replaced with a clear and radical ethic of nonviolence.  The Epistles are that way as well, with even the legendarily unpleasant martial imagery of John of Patmos clearly extant in the heavenly/eschatological realms.

From that foundation, early Christianity was almost entirely pacifistic even in the face of violence, to the immense frustration of Roman critics like Marcus Aurelius, who viewed it as weak and devoid of manly warrior virtue.   When St. Augustine wrote the City of God, which lays out the distinction between the Kingdom of God and human governments, it was at least in part intended as a response to those Roman traditionalists who blamed Christian faith for weakening the martial spirit of the Roman people.

Christianity did catch up in the violence department, of course, pretty much the moment Constantine misinterpreted his vision and drove Maximus and his army into the bloody Tiber.   Now THAT was a battle.  Whenever faith mingles with coercive social or economic power, bad things happen.  Empires are not so good at turning the other cheek.

So the question is: Is Islam inherently a violent faith?

If Islam is not just a faith but also a philosophy for governing a nation-state, then the answer must be yes.  Coercion is an inherent part of maintaining collective order.  Wherever there are laws that establish the parameters of what is and is not acceptable in a culture, the threat of coercion exists to insure compliance.  I say this not about Islam alone, because that is true for every faith, in every place and time.  

Christianity is the farthest thing from a violent faith, and it is also not a system of governance.  Understood correctly, there can never be a Christian nation.  But we're great at misunderstanding, so whenever the sword has stood behind my faith to enforce conversion and compliance, plenty of blood has been spilled in the name of Jesus.  When jihad is understood as the war to insure not internal spiritual integrity but external material control over land, property, and the behavior of others, then bad [stuff] will happen.

For Islamic fundamentalism, the answer is also yes.  Reading the Quran through the lenses of a rigid, ultraconservative literalism would provide plenty of grounds for violence, oppression, and coercion, just as it has in Christianity.  If there are no texts in the Quran whose authority is mediated by/interpreted through higher order values, then violence will be the result.

But for Islam inherently?  The answer is no, from both my readings of the Quran and my experience of Muslims more broadly.   If a Muslim is guided in their reading of Quran by the Spirit, and not by the desire for material power or control over others, I am convinced that they will be guided to interpret it in a way that is conducive to both peaceful coexistence and nonviolence.  Understood in historical context and interpreted through the lenses of every human being's inner struggle,  jihad can be a positive thing.

That is not, of course, what we see in much of the Arab world, which is why that word is now almost indelibly and perhaps irredeemably connected with violence in the minds of the West.  But that violence is a result of the use of the standards of the world as the framework from which a violent jihadi understands Quran.

From all of this, the question arises:  Is there any ground for nonviolence in the Quran?  And for that, another post.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reading the Quran: People of the Spirit

That the Quran doesn't present a critique of the actual Christian Trinity is not surprising.   The odds of the Prophet Muhammad actually encountering the orthodox Trinity in the popular Christianity around him were slender.

How slender?  I put it at roughly the same odds as encountering a discourse on the social location of the Cappadocian Fathers in Joel Osteen's sermon this Sunday.  So like all good prophetic literature, the Quran is a critique of what it encounters.

But that the Quran explicitly challenges Mary as the de facto third person of the Trinity means that the third person of the Trinity isn't really part of that particular conversation in Quran.   What is that?  Within Christianity, the third person is understood as the Holy Spirit.

What is that?  Well, honestly, many Christians would struggle to tell you.  Oh, sure, maybe they'd quote you snippets of that Yoda speech about the Force.  But Christian popular theology doesn't really deal effectively with the Spirit.

This is unfortunate, because the Holy Spirit is absolutely vital to Christian faith.   The Holy Spirit features prominently in two of the four Gospel accounts.  Its arrival in the Luke/Acts cycle provides the cohesion between the story of Christ and the story of the church.  It is a central theme in the Gospel of John.   It is also a vital and central theme in the seven authentic Pauline letters.

In both its essence and its effect, the Holy Spirit is God's generous, creative, transforming love.  That love is the essence of what binds us together as an authentic community of the Way.  It is what allows us to truly encounter the Holy in the reading of our sacred texts.  It is present with us as a source of strength, and a source of comfort.  It provides us with the single governing purpose of our existence, because it understood within the dynamics of the Trinity...both present with us and fully and completely God.   Without the Spirit, you just can't follow the Way that Jesus taught.  You also can't be in covenant relationship with God, because what is the first of the Ten Commandments but the command to let nothing come between us and our Creator?

Although the Quran describes Christians as People of the Book, we aren't, not really.  We are, first and foremost, People of the Spirit.

While not directly addressing the role of the Spirit in the Christian understanding of God, the Quran does talk about the Spirit.   Where it's discussed, it is described as Ruh, which I will take to be etymologically related to the Hebrew term Ruach.   In the Hebrew, that word means "breath" and "spirit" and "wind. "  In the Greek of the Gospels and Epistles, the term is pneuma, which bears almost identical polyvalent meaning.  It forms and shapes the structures of created time and space.  It provides the animating ground of all life.  The essential lifegiving and shaping power of God, it is.

Dang, now I'm sounding like Yoda.

In the Quran, ruh surfaces with less frequency that in the texts of Torah and the Gospels/Epistles, but it is there.    How is it presented?  It is the source of the Quran, and the foundation of Quranic authority.  As such, it can be neither human nor djinn.  If it is to be authoritative, it must be inseparable from the authority of God.  (An-Nahl 2)   It is what permits the Prophet Muhammad to receive Quran (Ash-Shu'ara 192-194) as an unmediated revelation directly from God.

As noted in prior posts, the ruh also appears in the context of Jesus, in both his life and his conception.  In his conception, the Quran preserves the chastity of Mary by having her conceive through the Spirit, which continues to be fascinatingly orthodox to this liberal Christian.   In his life, it is the Ruh-ul-Qudus that gives Jesus the ability to teach with authority.

The role of the ruh in the life of Muslims isn't deeply explored in the Quran.  The Quran seems to waffle a bit on whether or not the ruh can even be described, (Al Isra 85) a verse that seems to place connection with the Spirit of God outside of the boundaries of day to day obedience to God's commands.  Don't ask, it's beyond you, says the Quran.  In that, this sura appears to present a view of the ruh that bears little resemblance to the accounts in the Johannine literature, Paul, and the Lukan story of the early church, none of which seem to struggle at all with describing the role, place, and nature of the Spirit.  If that was the only answer of Islam to the place of the Spirit, my view of the faith would be significantly diminished.

But elsewhere, Quran articulates a concept of Spirit that is remarkably similar in both concept and language to that of the Gospels and the Prophets.  In Al Mujadila 22,  we hear of a faith not externally obeyed out of fear of coercion, but "written on the hearts" of believers.  That faith is supported by the strengthening presence of the ruh.  Such a faith creates what Quran describes as the Party of Allah.  This, quite frankly, much more like it.  I'm down with that.

Theologizing aside, why does this matter?  Within my own faith, it matters because whenever over the two millennia of Christian history Christians have subordinated the Spirit to ecclesiastical or textual authority, bad things have happened.  When we've given final authority to church doctrines and power and hierarchies, Christianity has looked very little like what Jesus taught.  When we've given final authority to our texts, we've been torn by disputes and debates and hatreds.

Subordinating or dismissing the Spirit has and will always turn human beings away from the love that is God's nature, and towards the hatred and violence that is antithetical to our created purpose.

And from that, it is to violence and war in the Quran that I will turn next.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading the Quran: The Unexpected Trinity

Of all of the teachings of the Christian faith, the concept of Trinity is perhaps the most challenging.  It was certainly challenging for me as I began finding my faith-legs in my early twenties.

My own movement from conceptual struggles with faith to faith itself was stirred by several potent experiences of God's presence, all of which  radically deepened my sense of both the actuality of God and God's Oneness.   This left me with something of a conundrum.  How to reconcile that with the idea that there are three "persons" in God?  It just didn't work with my sense of the Creator.

For a while, I considered myself monarchian/modalist, two terms that mean diddly to most folk, but that were early Christian attempts to reconcile the whole Father/Son/Holy Ghost Threefer thing.   But when I actually began to study the early church, and dug into the philosophical underpinnings of the Trinity, I realized there wasn't much space between what I believed and orthodoxy.  Sure, I might not feel totally wedded to the same Aristotelean substantive framework they used.   But I appreciated the intent.  As a way of reconciling the unity of God with three distinct ways of understanding God's self-expression, it worked.

The Quran legendarily makes the Trinity a significant point of theological difference between Christians and Muslims.  Repeatedly and with ferocity, the Quran defends the radical singularity of God against any who would set up "partners" with the Creator.   The condemnation of those who say there are either multiple gods (polytheists) or two gods besides God (Trinitarians) are consistent and ongoing throughout the suras. (Al-Mai'da 73)

But as I explored the critique, it seemed peculiar.

Unlike challenges to that doctrine from within the early Christian church, there seemed no reference to anything specific.  There can't be three, it says.  God is not one of three, it says.  There can be only one, it says, sounding a bit like that movie, you know the one.

There was no reference to the complexities of the philosophical construct, which is one regular avenue of critique.  That's a common line of challenge, for a variety of reasons.  First, because of the use of Aristotelean terms that have little ground in scripture, second because of the use of a Greek cosmological framework that no longer has common acceptance, and third, it just plain ol' confuses most people.   But there was nothing.

It just affirmed that God could not be one of three gods.

In fact, going deeper, there was a particularly significant detail missing.  There was much talk about Jesus, even if that talk was oddly orthodox and in alignment with much of what Christianity says.   There was plenty of talk about God and God's nature.  But outside of saying God can't have a son, and God can't have a partner, (Al Furquan 2) there was no description of the Third Person of the Christian Trinity.  The Holy Spirit just wasn't to be found in the context of that discussion.

So I continued searching, until I found something completely unanticipated.

In one of the sections where Jesus is referenced in Quran, the Quran quotes God as having a conversation on the matter with Jesus.  What it says, specifically, is:
And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'"  He will say, "Exalted are You!  It was not for me to say that to which I have no right.  If I had said it, You would have known it.  You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself.  Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen."  (Al-Mai'da, 116, Moksin Khan trans.)
This is the only specific reference I could find to a "partner-god" with Jesus in Quran.  And it doesn't challenge the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It challenges the divinity of Mary.

Clearly, what is being described here is not the Trinity as Christian orthodoxy understands it.   This is the Trinity as it would have been understood from an observation of popular Christian practice in a backwater of sixth and seventh century Catholicism.

Not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but instead Father, Son and Holy Mother.

Suddenly, a confusing earlier sura made sense.  In Al Mai'da 75, the Quran talks about Jesus being a prophet, and Mary being righteous, which it then follows with "And they ate food."  Well, duh, one might say, but what that meant was: "They are not spiritual beings like God."   Historical-critical Bible scholars generally argue that this is why we hear so many stories of Jesus eating and drinking after the resurrection.  He's not a ghost or a Star Trek energy being.  He can eat and drink.  He's real, and alive.  This was a counterargument to the spiritualizing tendencies of Gnosticism.

But including Mary in on the chowing?  It makes little sense if you're only trying to prove Jesus was not God, but a great deal of sense if you're trying to refute a semi-pagan Holy Family tritheism.  By the time of the Quran, Mary had already taken on waaay more emphasis than the narratives of the Bible would seem to justify.  In part, this arose out of highfalutin' theologizing about the necessity of her sinlessness, which yielded her the title Theotokos, or "God-Bearer."   But mostly, she became an expression of the Divine Feminine/Mother Goddess yearning among the you're-Christian-or-else masses.

Other suras chimed in, reinforcing a Mary-issue.

The Quran dedicates the entire 16th sura to Mary.  Elsewhere, she's considered the ideal model for the chaste, humble woman.  (At-Tahrim 12) When referring to Jesus, he is occasionally called Messiah, but generally, he's referred to as the "son of Mary."  When talking about why Jesus existed, the Quran says God gave the world Jesus and Mary as a sign. (Al-Mu'minun 50)

I was a bit baffled.  This blew a big Trinity-shaped hole in what I'd expected to see.  The Quran is a critique of seventh century lumpen-Mariology?  Why didn't I ever heard this?  Was I misreading this?

Some quick searching showed the usual mess of net-opinions, many just the usual cranks lobbing insults and invective.  But there were serious scholars in there too, enough to suggest that I wasn't imagining it.

In later Islamic writings, and throughout Islamic culture, there is no question that the Trinity as correctly understood is not considered a viable view of God.   And there is also no question, despite the Quran's bizarrely orthodox description of Jesus, that Islam does not view Jesus as divine.

But read straight up, across a half-dozen scholarly translations, the Quranic Trinity as Father/Jesus/Mary is just too clear to ignore.  This perspective is consistently rejected in Islam, because there is the fear it might make it seem as if the Quran completely misunderstands an essential feature of Christianity.   I think this is unfortunate.

Because if the Prophet Muhammad was in fact challenging what he self-evidently appears to have been challenging, I'd be first in line to agree with him.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reading the Quran: Jesus and God


It's one of those words that has very little meaning outside of seminary and the earnest bloggery of overeducated pastors.   For most folks, exploring the identity of Jesus is little more than an opportunity to project your own ideas onto the tapestry of the few select scriptures that exactly match your social and political predilections.

Jesus backs us as we go into every war.  Jesus smiles serenely as we tell our depressed, struggling adult child that he is a worthless sinner.   Jesus stands by our side as we scramble for more and more material prosperity, sure that His will is best expressed in that heavily-mortgaged ticky-tacky townhouse filled with cheap leather furniture and consumer electronics.

But getting through that and getting at who Jesus was matters.   And in the Quran, the relationship that matters most is the relationship Jesus had with God.  The Quran talks about that relationship throughout the suras.  This isn't done systematically.   It isn't, to my eyes, structured in the manner of classical Western argumentation.  It moves instead in a whirling, circuitous series of cycles that bears more resemblance to the recurring themes and motifs in a symphony.

So Jesus appears, and then disappears, and then appears, and then disappears, as themes rise and fall and rise again.  But where the Jesus themes occur, they are consistently not the same as those in the Gospels/Epistles.   The...different...Jesus presented by the Quran isn't just different because the Quran draws from texts that have no authority in Christian faith.

Perhaps the most significant difference comes in how the Quran articulates the relationship Jesus has with God.   Repeatedly and relentlessly, the Quran asserts that Jesus cannot be God's Son.   It is not possible for God to have a son, it says, because God is God.  Unlike the endlessly canoodling deities of polytheistic pantheons, God doesn't have kids.

Throughout Quran, that case is made, over and over again.

And yet there are some odd things about how that case is made.   Is Jesus born of a virgin?   The Quran appears to up and say, yes, in fact he was.   Who was the father of Jesus?  The Quran says Joseph wasn't the baby-daddy, and that the father was the Ruh-an-Qudus. (Al-Anbiya, 91)

The what?

The Ruh is...roughly...the Spirit/Breath of God.  Meaning Mary gets pregnant with Jesus because of the arrival of an angelic messenger bearing God's spirit.   This is the same Ruh that, according to Quran, brings the Quran to the Prophet. (An-Nahl, 102)

Hmmm.  This is an astoundingly orthodox Christian position, more classically orthodox than my own lib'ral take on it.

The Quran asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, using that term repeatedly as a title for Christ.  That means "the anointed one," and it's an expression of royal authority. (Al Maeda 75, At-Tauba 31)  Christians would argue that this anointing wasn't about smearing extra-virgin olive oil on the firstborn scion of the king, but had more to do with the anointing of the Spirit.

Which Quran doesn't seem to have a problem with, because we hear that Jesus teaches with the authority of God, as conveyed by the Ruh.   (Al Maeda 110)

We hear that Jesus ascended into heaven to be with God, from whence he shall return on the Last Day. (Aal-e-Imran 55)

Given the less-than-orthodox source material that fleshes out the specific Quranic actions and teachings of Jesus, this is some pretty impressively traditional stuff.   It is also, quite frankly, the baseline for what most Christians would say constitutes the "Sonship" of Jesus.

Born of the Spirit?  Check.

Sustained by and in perfect conformity to God's will through the consistent indwelling of the Spirit?  Check.

The Anointed One?  Check.

The Message of God turned into flesh?  Yup.

Sure, it doesn't get into the whole homoiousios/homoousios argument, but then, most Christians don't have a clue what that even means.   And no, it has nothing to do with same sex marriage.  Google it.  You might learn something.

It also doesn't try to parse out the difference between "begotten" and "made."  While saying God can't beget a child, given what the Quran says in An-Nahl 102, it's clearly on the "begotten" side of the equation.

Having studied classical theology and the complex philosophical constructs underlying orthodox Christology, the Quran...for all it's protestations to the contrary...seems to be in agreement about the relationship of Jesus to God right up to the very point where it says it ain't.

Something else is at play here.

That something, I think, may have to do with how Quran approaches the Trinity.   And for that, well, there's tomorrow's post.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reading the Quran: Encountering Jesus

In the checkout line at the supermarket yesterday, the bagger was a kid, likely a north African immigrant.   On his nametag was the name "Issa."  It was a familiar name, because I've been encountering it frequently in the Quran.

It's the name the Quran uses for Jesus of Nazareth.   Jesus is a regularly occurring feature of the Quran, popping up on and off throughout the suras.    As a Christian, I find the representation of him to be fascinating.  It blends the understanding of Jesus a Christian learns from the Gospels with some...well...different ways of looking at him.

Obviously, even though the Quran is not a short book, the point is not to talk about and present the life of Jesus.  It has other fish to fry.  Still, we get references to Jesus here and there.  There are 72 references (both direct and indirect) to be found in 59 verses of the Quran, and they tend to fall into several categories.

There are consistent statements of respect for Jesus as a man who genuinely articulates the will of God. The Quran offers only high praise for Jesus, pitching out all manner of superlatives.  He is given clear signs and filled with the Spirit of God (Al Baraqa, 87).   He is noble and among the righteous (Aal-e-Imran, 39).   He is the Messiah (Aal-e-Imran 45, An Nisa 157), which would a pretty impressive statement, were that term to mean the same thing Meschiach means.

So there's a baseline of honor and respect there, impressively so for a tradition that is in direct competition for pledge units.

But there are also some major differences.   Although Jesus appears throughout Quran, what does not appear is any reference to his teachings.  We hear that he taught rightly, and that he was a servant of Allah.   But there's not a peep about what he actually said when defining our relationship with God, or when describing the nature of the Kingdom.

What we get instead are several stories of miracles.  There's passing reference to a few generic healings.   Jesus takes a clay bird and makes it live.  After the disciples ask, Jesus orders angelic takeout, with a brimming table of food arriving from heaven.

We also get, in a fascinating verse, the intimation that Jesus did not die on the cross, but someone else who looked like Jesus died there instead, while Jesus remained alive and teaching.  (An Nisa 157)

These Jesus datapoints are particularly intriguing.  Why?  Because while they are not in any way representative of orthodox Christian faith and the narratives in the Gospels, they are familiar.  They are familiar because they occur in the non-canonical Gospels.  

The story of the clay bird, for example, is found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a pop-Gnostic bit of fanciful storytelling about Jesus as a young demigod.  This is Kid SuperJesus, who goes around his neighborhood randomly healing kids, bringing inanimate objects to life, and smiting those who disrespect him.  He raises them again, of course, just to show he can.

The "Jesus Didn't Die on the Cross" bit also draws from the Pseudo-Thomistic Gnostic tradition, as Jesus was understood among the Gnostics to have been a being of Spirit who could not suffer.   The Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus exactly that way.

What is clear so far in my reading is that both the Jesus and the Christianity described in the Quran bears little resemblance to orthodox Christianity.   What it resembles, quite frankly, is the Christianity that probably existed in and around Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries.   Far from the intellectual centers of the faith, Christianity there would have been a mess of different teachings, popular sayings, and wild stories about Jesus, passed along by a mostly illiterate laity and a semi-literate priestly/monastic class.  The complex, nuanced teachings by and about Jesus that define the heart of Christian faith would have been nowhere to be found.

So in the Quran we have a Jesus, but one without both 1) the Cross and 2) the ethical/moral/spiritual teaching.

That' different.

But what about that most central and challenging assertion of Christian faith?  How is Jesus connected to God?   Here, the Quran has something to say, but for that, I'll need another post.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Worlds

The worship focus today was on Mark, and that painful, challenging teaching about divorce, so my pastoral energies were poured into that interpretation.  

When you just know a passage will bring tears...Oy.   It's so hard to preach those.

Which meant that I missed out on a detail in my Epistle reading.  In Hebrews 1:2, which we discussed in the Bible study afterwards, a term used to describe the universe in the intricate, erudite Greek of that complex book was  αἰῶνας.     That's aeonas, in the non-Cyrrilic.    Here's the funny thing, or at least it's funny for me given all my thinking and writing over the last year or so.

Aeon is the word for all of time and space.   So aeonas is the plural of all of time and space.

Which, on the one hand, is impossible.  Absurd.  A plural everything?  The "everythings?"

On the other, that's the multiverse in a nutshell.

Which is kind of cool.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reading the Quran: Women

Another thing that strikes me, hard, as I move through my reading, is the consistent perspective of the first few suras.  The Quran was written to be read and received by men.

This is not something that the Bible lacks.   There is a great deal of gendered language in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.  There is a significant amount of gendered language in the Gospels and Epistles, as well as some strong tensions between the perspectives of different authors.

But my encounter with the suras, and particularly the sura entitled An Nisa, or "Women," is of a deeply different character.   The foundational assumption, comprehensible from context, is that both the speaker and the hearer are male.

It's a man, speaking to men, about women.

And unlike storytelling, which may come from one perspective but remain accessible, and ethical teaching, which may be from a gendered perspective but be easily universalized, the form of direct address/lawgiving/exhortation that I've encountered so far in my reading lends itself rather less well to reinterpretation.   Even the gendered stories told by Jesus are intentionally metaphorical speech, which speak not directly about kings and stewards and Samaritans, but about deeper things to which the stories are only a signpost.

Women in the Quran, as I have so far encountered them, are at best like children.  They are to be cared for, yes.  Protected?   Sure.  What is commended is treating women with kindness and fairness. (An-Nisa 19)  These are unquestionably good things, and they resonate with other Quranic teachings that I have encountered.   But the assumption, both explicit and implicit, is that women are not equal, and the teachings are not directed at them.

At worst?  Well, An-Nisa 34 commends beating women to insure compliance.  This particularly awkward one varies depending on the translation, with only the liberal/heretical Ahmadiyya text interpreting it so that that 1) this clearly only has to do with infidelity and 2) it is only metaphorical and that no believer should physically strike another believer.   That a female Muslim scholar did the final edit that version may have had some influence over that approach.

The other translations make it more clear this is about obedience, and vary about the non-metaphorical whuppin', with some saying "strike them," others "scourge them," and others just plain ol' give 'em a beating.  A significant minority suggest that one should be sure not to hit them too hard, which, you know, makes it better.   This'll hurt me more than it hurts you, I suppose.

There is no question that there is a fair amount of hitty-punchy-punishy language in the Bible, even as it pertains to marital and familial relationships.   And both Torah and the later Epistles written not by Paul but by his disciples in his name establish this same sort of gender dynamic.

 It is also fair to say that this approach to male-female relationships is entirely comprehensible given the historical and cultural context.  This is true in the same way that the degradation of the radically egalitarian gender ethic of Jesus and Paul can be understood as a result of the incursion of Greco-Roman cultural norms into the later Pastoral and deutero-Pauline letters.

But in Christianity, there is a clear tension in the text, with some texts defending subordination, and others explicitly calling for that cultural norm to be replaced as the Reign of God presses into our reality.

Where the Quran has so far dealt with women explicitly, I have not seen that tension.  It does not defy or challenge that context in any way that I can discern so far.  Men are stronger.  Men should be in control.   That may change as I read, but as of yet, it has not.

It is also irresolvably alien to the ethic of both primal and moderate Christianity, not to mention that of the secular West.   It is, however, not alien at all to the Christian right, or to Christianity as it manifests itself in areas of the world that have still-extant biases against women.

Even with all of this, from the broader principles of hospitality, justice, and mercy that have so far been articulated in the suras I've read, I think it would be entirely possible to construct an egalitarian Muslim ethic towards women.   That would require certain portions of Quran to be less authoritative in our current context than others, in the same way that certain portions of the Bible no longer govern the lives of progressive/moderate Jews and Christians.  It would require interpretation and redefinition from the self-evidently highest principles articulated in Quran, rather than simply taking each verse individually.

For fundamentalism, this is not possible.  I simply can't see how that would work.  But that does not mean it is impossible.  Just harder, like constructing a Christian egalitarian ethic using only First and Second Timothy and Titus.

It is clearly the case in Muslim households I have encountered, and among many Muslim scholars.  It is also clearly in evidence in the actual day-to-day lives of more moderate Muslim communities.

So.  Onward I read.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reading the Quran: Finding a Place to Hold On

My initial reading requires some pushing.

The structures and patterns of thought of the first two suras reflect an approach to articulating faith that is very different from my own.   There is no unifying narrative to sustain interest.   What poetry might lie there is masked behind the veil of culture.

Following a short invocation sura, the second sura of the Quran moves immediately into an assertion of it's own authority.   This is the truth, it says.  If you do not believe it, you will be punished.   I am not fond of this bluntly coercive approach to sharing faith in my own tradition.

It's not the best start.

While I understand it theologically...any encounter with God tends to be a bit on the ferocious persuasive speech it comes across awkwardly.   If you are not Muslim, and are encountering this text for the first time, there are two possible responses.   The first is to take the bold claim of authority at its face.  For many, absolute confidence is the only prerequisite.   And it is, without question, a confident beginning.

I'm a tougher mark.  Just saying that you are something means very little.  Having encountered plenty of bold, self-assured fools and charlatans in my life, I require a bit more than just your assertion that you know what you're talking about.   The more radical your claim, the higher my standards.

For the first verses of Al-Baqarah, and then for page after page, I struggle to find purchase.   There is no articulation of interpersonal ethics, no expression of kindness, nothing but authority asserted and reasserted, mingled with threats and promises.   There is no sustaining narrative.   It is relentless.  At one point, I look to the study glossary of the most liberal translation, hoping to find a passage that talks about love to leaven the ferocity.   

The word "love" does not occur as a term in the glossary.


I take a break, and catch my breath.   There are, after all, large portions of Torah that are really difficult reading, particularly the historical/legal sections.   Revelation is both intentionally opaque and filled with violent imagery.  And I recognize, in this reading, that I would not commend a cold reading of the Bible as the best approach for someone interested in engaging with the faith.

So I press on.   And here and there, handholds start to surface.    

An interesting willingness to consider the good works of non-Muslims as evidence of their being right with God is described (Al-Baraqah 62).  It's so strong that the conservative translations feel obliged to subvert it by inserting their own English editorializing. 

When specific moral and ethical practice between human beings is finally described, it is familiar and gracious.   Be hospitable to strangers and those who are on the margins of society.  Give to those in need, as it is a fundamental duty.  Be patient.  Be just.  (Al-Baraqah 177)

Once, and then again, we hear that real faith cannot be enforced through physical coercion, and must be embraced willingly to be authentic.  (Al-Baraqah 256, 272)

The reading becomes easier.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reading the Quran: Finding a Translation

The first question, of course, is what translation of the Quran to read.

This is a nontrivial challenge, because there is a strong theological thread in Islam that says such a thing is not even possible.   The Quran was given to the Prophet Muhammed in Arabic, and it was written in Arabic, and it cannot be understood correctly unless it is read in Arabic.

On the one hand, this makes sense to me as a pastor in a denomination that still cares about original languages.  There are nuances to the as-close-to-the-original-as-we-can-get Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible that often do not surface in the English.    The original language helps us get to both context and intent, in ways that translations and transliterations do not.

It goes deeper than that.  The act of translation is frequently an act of interpretation, and as such, the theological and cultural predilections of the translator can impact how a passage is presented in a new language.

So I get it.  On the one hand.

On the other, larger hand, that just doesn't work.

I'm a Reformed Christian, and a Protestant.  One of the most potent and significant contributions of my tradition was the assertion that sacred texts must be colloquially accessible.   Meaning, they must be spoken in the native language of a culture.

The reason for this was twofold.  One, it prevented a hierarchy of spiritual awareness, in which one group of individuals controls access to a sacred message by being the only people who "truly" know what that message means.   God speaks in ways we can all understand, and can speak through any medium.   Language ceases to be a means of control, but a means of liberation.

Second, it facilitates the spread of that message, as it can be delivered across cultures in their idiom and according to their structures of meaning.   A translation of the Gospel into Twi or Urdu or !kung remains sacred.  Paradoxically, that sacred resonance sticks around deep into some...unusual...translations, like the KLV or the LCB.   Both of them might be a little wackadoodle, but nonetheless are perfectly capable of getting the essence of the God thing across in their own bizarre way.

Finally, and more significantly, I have irresolvable difficulty with the idea that God's relationship with us can be delimited by one particular culture or one way of articulating the sacred.   Despite what the King James Onlies might say, a god whose revelation can only be truly spoken in one human tongue just...well...doesn't feel like God.   God's language is Being.   Period.  Pesky, pesky mystic that I am.

That leaves me fuddled.  Where to find a translation of a book that isn't supposed to be translated, but that needs to be?

I own two English Qurans.   I've got an old scholarly hardback version, one I picked up at a used bookstore in Salt Lake City whilst there clinging to the last bright embers of a relationship with a Mormon ex-girlfriend.   But while still well regarded, the English is a bit clumsy.  And I've got a "pocket Quran" that I found in my Jewish son's room, one given to him by a Muslim friend.  Or, to be precise, one given to him by an Ahmadi Muslim friend.  Meaning, it's produced by a peace-loving, kind-spirited, pacifist and heretical sect of Islam.  The same peace-loving, pacifist, and heretical sect that an old friend happens to belong to, the Muslim friend who gifted me a photo of a man deep in prayer as a wedding gift.

I pored through the text, and researched the interpreter.  Seemed good enough from a linguistic perspective, although angry Wahabis bellowed their one-star displeasure at this worse-than-infidel in their Amazon reviews.  

I compared, briefly, the translation of the first sura in the Ahmadi version with the version officially approved by the House of Saud.   Honestly?   Pretty much the same, only my serendipitous translator seemed to make choices that consistently resonated more graciously in my ears.

From this, my choice will be not to read one translation, but to read several.   This is how I was trained to respectfully approach the Bible passages I am responsible for preachin' on, after all.   Where there is concurrence, I will assume the idea conveys smoothly from Arabic into English.   Where there are significant distinctions, I will assume there are challenges in translation, and look to other resources to surface the reason for the issue.

Seems like a plan.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reading the Quran

Over the last several years, I've made efforts to engage with ideas and thinkers that form and shape the world around me.  If there's someone out there who seems to influence or have influenced culture, dagflabbit, I need to have experienced their inputs for myself.

That's taken me into the writing of Ayn Rand, and back into the writing of Nietzsche.  It's gotten me reading Saul Alinsky, and helped me make my way through the thought processes of Joel Osteen and Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris.

"Tolle, lege," sings the little voice, and so I take up and read, and it deepens my grasp of the creation in which I find myself.

But what I have not yet read, not successfully, anyway, is the Quran.  In my religious studies program in undergrad, the Islamic scholar in residence was on sabbatical, and so that gap remained unfilled.  Coursework on it was not offered in seminary, which had other fish to fry.

I've tried, on a few occasions, to read it as I'd read books of the Bible, and it has been disheartening.  I've flipped through the hardback translation I picked up at a used book store in Salt Lake City oh so many years ago, and I've sought a sura or a verse that sings to me as 1 Corinthians 13 sings, or as Matthew 5-7 sings.  In that seeking, I've come up empty.  I've tangled in a net of punishment language, repetitive exhortations to obey, and seemingly tautological assertions of authority, and I've abandoned the exercise.

Having encountered considerable grace in Muslims and in the mystic tradition of Islam, I've found this frustrating and disappointing.

And so, rather than seek a single section or passage, what I've decided to do is read the entire thing, reflecting on what I encounter.  This is not the approach I tell people to take with the Bible, but the Quran is a very different creature than the Bible.   As ta Biblia is a "book of books," it speaks in dozens of different voices across several millennia.   Charging right into a collection of stories and histories of an ancient people and expecting to make sense of it is both absurd and counterproductive.   You're better off beginning with first and highest order principles, and then using those to interpret your encounter with other elements of the narrative.  It's why I direct people beginning their reading to the Sermon on the Mount, and to the texts that are most likely to speak into their need.

But the Quran is the work of one time, and the articulation of one person.  It bears consistency of style and focus.  So I'll read it as I'll read a Gospel, or an Epistle, or a cohesive unit of tradition.  Start at the beginning, and take it as it flows.

I've done some of the historical/contextual stuff already, but that's not my deepest interest.   I am more interested in where spiritual commonality and/or dissonance lies.   My guide to interpretation...meaning assessing the spiritual validity of what I encounter...will be the same framework I use as I read my own sacred texts.  To what extent does this manifest the most fundamental truth about God's nature and our connection with God?   Where is the Great Commandment present?   Where is it absent?

It's not the kind of exercise one would be permitted in modern Egypt, or in Iran, or...were this the Bible I was certain benighted eras of historic Christendom.  But I don't live there or then, thank the Maker.