The Bookshelf: The Last Christians

So much of American Christianity, especially of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist varieties, carries within it a striking ideological contradiction.

On one hand, Christians in America, even if they don’t embrace the theologies outright, carry the assumptions of the prosperity gospel, and of violent nationalism. That is to say, many American Christians would affirm that God does indeed heap blessings and riches on His (because in this view, it’s almost always a male God) believers, and one particular way He does this is through the power of American military and economic hegemony.

On the other hand, many American Christians seem to think they are part of a small, persecuted, and powerless minority, strangers in a strange land that they have no responsibility for. Rather, a powerful, secular, globalist elite runs things, and is doing everything it can to stamp out American Christianity, mostly through feminism, abortion, same-sex marriage, and public schools.

lastchristiansENThese two views stand in stark contrast to one another, and to reality. That reality shines forth in Father Andreas Knapp’s superb book, The Last ChristiansIn it, Andreas tells his own story, of meeting refugee Christians in his own hometown of Leipzig, Germany, and how that leads to a trip to Iraq, on the border of ISIS territory, and his own growing fascination with and passion for the Christian communities who live there.

These Christian communities, located now in refugee camps in Mosul and Erbil, but originally from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia, are the last remnants of the earliest Christians. Still speaking Aramaic, the language of Christ, they trace their lineage back to the early desert fathers, and even further, to the earliest churches planted by Paul and the Apostles.

Today, they are threatened by the rise of ISIS and other forms of militant Islam. Forced to flee their homes, their culture is in danger of disappearing, as families are split apart and their cultural and religious heritage is forgotten. Knapp recounts the stories of the refugees he meets in Leipzig, and on his trip to Iraq, painting beautiful and painful pictures of a people who are a global treasure, but who are forgotten by the so-called Christian West, despite politically-conveinant talking points otherwise.

At times, Father Knapp veers towards blanket condemnations of all Muslims, militant or not, in the plight of these Christians. At one point, he comes awfully close to declaring that the very nature of Islam is violence and intolerance. This kind of rhetoric can obscure the points he also makes about the millions of Muslims who have been victimized by ISIS as well.

More relevantly, he does point the finger for the rise of ISIS and hyper-militancy in the Middle East, and the destruction it has reaped for the Christians he cares about, at the truest cause: American and Western hegemony, colonialism and reckless petro-capitalism. He writes,

“I wonder what Arab countries would look like today had oil not been discovered: no interference from Western colonial powers; no billions upon billions of petrodollars for the Islamist arms build-up. What course would modern Islam have taken without the vast sums of money pumped into the construction of mosques and the recruitment of Salafist from around the world? Was the black gold really a blessing for the Gulf States and their inhabitants? How many battles have been fought in this region over access to the oil wells – in the two Worlds Wars, the Gulf Wars, and to this day?”

Father Knapp is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the problems facing not just the Eastern Christians, but the entire Middle East today. Yet, despite our complicity in their problems, the West largely ignores the plight of Eastern Christians, to say nothing of the millions of others who face persecution. Instead, so many American Christians are narrowly focused on the so-called persecution of “Happy Holidays” and Starbucks cups and religious freedom issues. At the same time, many American Christians gleefully participate in rhetoric and military hegemony that leads to the deaths of Christians and Eastern Christian culture. Father Knapp relays one particularly relevant example:

“The lack of understanding sometimes shown by our media on this issue may have other causes too. For one thing, it is hard for us to imagine how radically the political environment inhabited  by Eastern Christians differs from our own, to the extent that they can be made to suffer as hostages for the freedoms of the West. This was brought home to me by the uproar in the Middle East over European political cartoons depicting Mohammed. Such cartoons are a normal phenomenon in free democratic societies but, thanks to our globalized world, can trigger violent reactions in other, undemocratic systems. Thus, when caricatures of Mohammed were published in Denmark in 2006, the terrorist Mujahideen Council announced that Christians in Iraq would pay the price – which they duly did.

This is what persecution and minority status looks like. Not cakes for LGBT people or state capitols free of religious imagery. It’s death and displacement. When American Christians insist on burning Korans to make a political statement, they don’t suffer consequences. Instead, Eastern Christians in Mosul and Raqqa become their scapegoats, carrying their sins into the desert.

Andreas Knapp’s book is eye-opening and heartbreaking, but should be required reading in churches across America, especially churches who feel they are being persecuted. There is a real cultural and historical tragedy occurring in the Middle East, as the remnants of the oldest Christian communities are being wiped out due to the decisions American and European leaders have made. It’s time for all of us – myself included – to wake up and realize what is happening. The Last Christians is a good place to start.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



The Bookshelf: At The Heart of The White Rose

There is a paradox constantly present in times of persistent crisis. The world around us is going to hell, seemingly. Yet, at home, life goes on almost unblemished. In our modern times, this paradox is especially present. For the last sixteen years, our nation has been at war in at least two different theaters. Scientists are unanimous in their assessment that the climate is almost at a point of no return, and in half a century vast swaths of the world will be uninhabitable. Anti-democratic forces are gaining hold more and more worldwide, and hundreds of millions of people live in a state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. And right here at home, the most extreme, right wing administration in American history is reshaping the norms of American politics in terrifying and unreal ways. 

Yet, for so many of us, life just continues to roll on. We may know about all these crises, but we are so well-cushioned – a nice home, a readily accessible food source, good schools, decent neighbors, a consistent paycheck – that its hard to feel like we are in a moment of crisis at all. You could close your eyes, and it would almost all just fade away.

However, we don’t think of moments of historical crisis in that way. Surely, in actual moments of crisis, it must be overwhelming, the constant feeling of dread and insecurity one would feel. World War II, for instance, would seem like a time when normal life would stand still, and a daily sense of extremes would dominate. This would seem especially true in war-era Europe, and probably even more acute in war-era Germany.

The reality, however, is almost certainly the opposite, more akin, actually, to our present reality. This feeling of detachment and normalness in the midst of earth-shattering crisis is present throughout At The Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl.

Hans and Sophie were brother and sister, alternately the oldest and youngest of a larger brood of children, growing up in the first half of the 20th century in Nazi Germany. In their early 20s at the outbreak of war on the continent, both are conscripted into national service for the Reich, Hans as a military doctor, and Sophie in the compulsory Nazi youth organizations.

Yet, neither are Nazi supporters. Hailing from a highly educated, well-to-do family, they are well-read and intellectual, and both write obliquely of their horror at the rampant nationalism and violence going on around them. Eventually, along with a substantial group of friends and acquaintances their age, they begin writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich. Their group is dubbed “The White Rose.” After six subversive pamphlets, Hans and Sophie are caught distributing leaflets at the university in Munich, and subsequently executed. Hans was 24; Sophie just 21.

At The Heart of the White Rose is a collection of excerpts from their letters and personal diaries, kept between 1937 and their deaths in February of 1943. And despite the wartime setting, the sense one gets of reading the letters is normalness. Without the editorial inserts between letters and chapters, one would hardly know the circumstances they were facing. Hans, being in the military, obviously speaks often of his deployment first in France, then in Russia. But these references all come admidst rumination on philosophy and religion, vivid descriptions of nature, and mundane topics such as the need for clean laundry and money from home.

Sophie, who we meet when she is just 15, is a normal teenager of time, fond of biking and boys and nature. As the war continues, you watch her become a bit harder, at times forlorn. In her diary, she struggles both with her burgeoning religious beliefs, and also with self doubt. Yet, she maintains deep friendships with far-flung friends via letter, and her inherent optimism is always there.

This is a heartbreaking book, precisely because of the mundanity of the letters and diaries. Obviously, Hans and Sophie could have never imagined all this would be compiled and read nearly a century later. But, because we know where this story is going -not just the deaths of Hans and Sophie, but also the concentration camps, the ghettos, the atrocities of war – you read these letters with the feeling you are watching the moments just before a devastating car crash in slow motion.

In the second half the book, Hans and Sophie both begin to grapple with Christianity, which seems to have become a topic of interest among the White Rose members. Hans is ever the philosopher, writing academically of theological notions, grappling with them intellectually. Sophie, on the other hand, in her diary, is much more visceral, wrestling mightily with the existence of God, and her relation to such a being. I was astounded at just how articulate and brilliant both of these amazing people were, and acutely aware of the grand tragedy of their deaths.

Both Hans and Sophie’s last letters were written the day before they were arrested, and just five days before they are sent to the guillotine. Hans writes to his girlfriend, Rose; they appear to be going through a difficult moment in their relationship, exacerbated by their distance. Hans last words on paper are a wish for another letter from her quickly. 

Sophie writes to her best friend, Lisa, that she had been playing a piece by Schubert on her sonograph, and beautifully describes the piece. “You can positively feel and smell the breezes and scents and hear the birds and the whole of creation cry out for joy. And when the piano repeats the theme like cool, clear, sparkling water – oh, it’s sheer enchantment,” she ends the letter. Less than 24 hours later, she would be in the custody of the Gestapo. The enchantment in this amazing collection of personal writings is found in the privilege of being privy to the everyday lives of these normal, ordinary heroes, and seeing that they aren’t all that different from us, that the world they were living in was not so different from ours.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Bookshelf: Escape Routes

Christianity provides an extensive theological framework for a variety of important topics. Perhaps the most important subject it gives a lens to is that of human suffering. The Christian faith centers itself around the suffering act of God, experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The Suffering Servant is a widely popular image of Christ, and the stories of the martyrs feature prominently in church tradition.

In this light, Johann Christoph Arnold’s little book, Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapper in Life’s Little Hells, is a vitally important read on how to apply real-life theological understandings to the suffering nature of human existence.

Any regular reader here knows I am not a fan of the “self help” model of religion that 21st century American Christianity so often falls into. Yet, over the past month, I have begun to become intensely interested in a “theology of suffering,” chiefly as a result of reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God. While I certainly don’t want to narrow the life and message of Jesus down to a simple how-to guide of dealing with the hard parts of life, I do think the faith, at it’s core, should be oriented towards better lives for all human being. And a crucial part of that work is addressing and putting into perspective the suffering every person experiences in their lives.

Arnold, through the use of stories about people’s life’s, addresses the various aspects of suffering. Running through lonlieness, despair, difficult pasts, the struggle of success, and (interestingly) sex, he shows the universality of suffering in the human experience, and thus is able to effectively address the loneliness someone struggling though any of these areas surely feels. This arc culminates in the highlight of the book, Chapter 7, entitled, simply, “Suffering.” Arnold tells several stories again, culminating in the life of Bishop Oscar Romero.

The book ends on more positive notes. One of the most noteworthy, and surprising, moments of the book, is in the chapter entitled “Travel Guides.” Arnold illustrates the lives of three people who endured much suffering, and yet persisted, carrying through to significant and lasting impacts on the world. Surprisingly, one of the people he highlights at this point is Che Guevara, the Communist revolutionary who fought in Cuba and Angola. 

To encounter words of praise towards the leftist icon from someone within traditional Christianity is, well, rare, to say the least. And Arnold certainly doesn’t gloss over the most unsavory aspects of Guevara’s life and legacy. But crucially, he is able to draw out Guevara’s love for the regular people of Latin America, a love that drove him to fight against oppression and imperialism around the globe.  As a young left-leaning person, I obviously grew up around images of Che. I have always been intrigued by the man and the passion he exemplified, but was troubled, as a pacifist, by the violent methods he employed at times. Arnold, in this section of the book, is able to put my mind at ease.

He does all this in service to his broader goal, of normalizing the act of suffering and reassuring those who suffer that they aren’t alone, that even great men and women in history suffered greatly on their way to the things they did in the world. I found this little book an easy and enlightening read. Indeed, as Arnold shows, suffering is a key component to the Christian experience. For every Prosperity Gospel success story of big houses and helicopters, there are a thousand suffering campesinos, toiling everyday for pennies. Their experience is the dominant experience of the Christian movement. Their lives provide the primary paradigm for understanding Christian theology. And it is their suffering that Jesus took on and identified with, and called us all to recognize. The Suffering Servant isn’t an unobtainable ideal; the Suffering Servant is each of us.

As always with the books I receive from Plough, I of course was bothered by the allusions to traditional views on sexuality and reproductive issues, but they are few and far between here. Escape Routes is a lovely little book, and can be a highly useful resource for those enduring suffering (that is to say, all of us), and those who are called to be shepherds to those who suffer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”