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It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian Hardcover – September 22, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
New York City pastor Selmanovic synthesizes his upbringing in a Muslim-atheist household and his own conversion to Christianity as a young adult to create this concise and entertaining interfaith memoir. The author vividly describes his childhood in Yugoslavia, where his Muslim father and Christian mother reveled in multicultural cooking and entertaining. Essentially raised to be an atheist, Selmanovic shattered his parents' world when he converted to Christianity at age 18 during his required army service. Searching for his own Christian identity, he eventually came to the United States in 1990, only to become frustrated that American organized religion confirmed some of his father's criticisms. Selmanovic's story goes much deeper while still being respectful of, and fair to, all faiths and beliefs. An active member of the interfaith movement, Selmanovic actually moves beyond just creating harmony between faiths toward achieving a détente between people of faith and atheists. He challenges clergy to reclaim a space outside institutional walls and Christians to tone down conversion rhetoric. Sprinkled throughout are Selmanovic's entertaining and illustrative anecdotes, including the quite memorable Theology of Hemorrhoids. (Sept.)
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“Samir Selmanovic is asking the right questions at the right time, and refusing the consolations of certainty at a time when strident orthodoxies--atheist as well as religious--are perilously dividing us.”
—Karen Armstrong, author, A History of God and The Great Transformation
“I'm speechless in trying to describe this book. I laughed out loud in places and cried big tears at the end. It's a work of faith, a work of art, and to some, no doubt, it will be a work of damnable heresy. I think this book will change people's lives, and more: it can save lives, in the many senses of that word. All the religious pundits and broadcasters on radio and cable TV had better take notice, because this book threatens our conventional, comfortable categories and familiar black-and-white polarities. Selmanovic has the nerve to imagine our religions becoming, not walls behind which we hide and over which we lob bombs of damnation, but bridges over which we travel to find God in the other.”
—Brian McLaren, Author/Activist
“This is a solidly researched book that reads like a love song. My inner mystic jumped and leaped and shouted for joy. I found myself less lonely in this big old world. I felt like I was at a really good party, each paragraph a song, each page another glass of wine, each chapter the prospect of another dance with a beautiful woman. At this party, nobody got mad at me for letting my hair down. In fact, everyone, including God, encouraged me to go a little crazy.”
—Rev. Vince Anderson, bandleader, songwriter, honky-tonkist, co-pastor of Revolution Church NYC
Top customer reviews
Selmanovic considers complete religious certainty the real blasphemy. We need to give up being right about God, about life and ourselves. Christian faith has become overloaded with abstractions. It's time to forgo posing as a "broker of the sacred." Life--not religion or theology -is the medium of love. The author over time reached the realization that it was time to give up the fantasy of Christian supremacy. Instead, he reminded himself "God like the wind, blows wherever it pleases." Why would God favor any particular human group? At their worse, Christians have turned God into a praise hungry, love-hoarding, celestial self-centered being. It's time to convert from such religious idolism to a far different understanding of God, but who or what is that God?
Selmanovic does not describe a personal God "out there," although the language he uses is nevertheless extremely intimate. God, he believes, dwells in the lives of all people. Everything lives under the rhythm of God. Existence itself is a sacred place. Ordinary life is a receptacle of the divine where the life of God flows. This means God is the substance behind the wonder of life that sweeps over us all. The author concludes that our revelation of God comes not only from the Scriptures but through the gift of life that holds us. Then, the question becomes: what should we do with that gift?
For one thing, give up the idea of insiders versus outsiders. Instead, begin to take seriously and honor the sacred in others, even if they do not always agree with you. To achieve that, Selmanovic places great stock in storytelling. Each of our life stories reveal God and all of our stories ultimately weave a tapestry of love and meaning. Every time people act in a truly human way, grace is there. So be on the watch for grace and enjoy life to its fullest as you go. And, remember to love the stranger because God blesses every life. Without knowing or being known by strangers, the author points out, we cannot grow in knowing either God or ourselves. Finally, think about what you can do to help. Religion was meant to serve all the world and what connects us to one another connects us to God.
There were many things I liked about this book. One was that Selmanovic decided to let uncertainty enter his life and share with us where that journey led him. The book is a fascinating autobiography of love affairs with religions including multiple divorces and reconciliations based on renewed gratitude and understanding. Interesting to me, the journey after years of travel seemed to lead him back to a deeper appreciation of his family's great love of life and the Muslim lifestyle he was forced to leave behind when he converted to Christianity. It could be argued he traveled full circle. Meanwhile, readers will recognize many of the conclusions they too have reached on their own faith journeys.
Another effort I appreciated was the strong case the author made for atheism, including a quote from Karen Armstrong who once asked whether modern atheism is simply a denial of a God which is no longer adequate to the problems of our time. Atheism is at its best, Selmanovic believes, when it questions religion while acknowledging the good it brings. He concluded by strongly pointing out that religionists who defend religion at all costs and anti-religionists who fight against it all costs are not helping the world.
I also appreciated Selmanovic's reference to "thin places," a notion from Celtic Christianity recognizing those glimpses of the Divine that come at unexpected times, for example through encounters with others, experiences in nature, our dreams, or dance.
One negative criticism I have of the book is that Selmanovic failed to acknowledge the influence Buddhism appears to have had on his thinking. Take, for example, these quotes: "Worship of God is about awareness, about mindfulness, about reverence for life, a venture into reality, a disciplined exit from delusional fields created around our idols" or "Emptiness is not something to fear and run away from, rather something that has to happen in order for the Gift to enter." The author's statements about the interconnectedness of all life, his attempts to define a God that is not personal in the traditional sense, and his emphasis on personal experience and learning also all seem reflective of Buddhist thinking and writing.
To conclude, Selmanovic is a masterful writer and thinker who makes a persuasive case for a broader inclusive faith outside the rigid boundaries of traditional religious dogmas and doctrines. As a result, he places greater emphasis on Christianity as a way of life and seeking a way of being together in this world by working toward common goals. Is all this really realistic and possible? Regardless, more specific examples of successful endeavors across our nation to make this happen, as Selmanovic hopes, would be a welcome and excellent sequel.
Like the author, my Christian roots lie in the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church. And like him, while the Bible narrative and Christian tradition remain essential to my God experience, I've also come to question many of the underlying assumptions and attitudes of the religion in which I was raised. One such assumption is the centrality many Christians place on their being "saved". An encounter with one of God's more zealous believers leads the author to exclaim in one section, with appropriate theological incorrectness, that he is willing for God to save him or not, as God Himself sees fit, if either would further the Kingdom of God. As one who has gone through such a change in perspective, I can say it can be a liberating one. It also reveals a paradox (one of many) that lie at the heart of Christian theology--that of exhorting one another (usually the other) to "die to self" while simultaneously wanting to experience the reward of faith, to affirm one's own place in God's eternal Kingdom (a desire it must be noted that the most saintly of our ancestors also wished). Unfortunately, this emphasis, aside from potentially being legalistic and performance oriented, has much to do with our reactions to the "other" who we think may have to be excluded from Heavenly bliss if room for ourselves is to be assured.
The author also challenges the idea that Christianity is only about Grace and not about being Good. In one of the book's best sections, Samir walks us through the Biblical story of Jesus washing the disciples feet (a tradition carried on by SDA's four times a year), contrasting the Jesus as Servant model to the too often times militaristic church of today that seeks only to appropriate God's Grace to itself while making the world's citizens its subjects. But in order to make true disciples and bring about God's Kingdom on earth, the church needs greater self-awareness and a change in perspective.
However, to the extent that the Christian church today is "blind" to its true condition and ignorant, purposely or otherwise, of its own past, it is not the "other", either. Interestingly, I don't recall seeing the terms "fundamentalist" or "conservative" in this book. Whether intentional or not, the author's non-use of those "other" marking terms I found unusual and refreshing. In a short but moving section at the end of the book, Samir reflects that were it not for our spiritual ancestors who passed down the faith to us we would not be Christians. To the extent they were and are sinners, we are sinners, too. Being a Christian means, in part, that we share in the work and lives of Christians past and present. The faith tradition I was brought up in emphasized its specialness and separateness from the church of old, not wanting to contaminate itself with the sins of this "other" Christian body. But this type of thinking won't do. We are all connected, across faiths today, and with our spiritual ancestors in the faith. As we receive the benefits of the church's work through the ages, so should we accept our share of the responsibility for what was done that casts Christianity's reputation into disrepute. Similarly, coming to terms with our church's past, should encourage us to exhibit more graciousness to those of other faiths.
Beyond the theological ideas presented in the book, I was also struck by many of the personal anecdotes of Samir's life, particularly the love he clearly has for the people of New York. Christianity has not often behaved as if it truly loved people. It should.
I think the book would have benefited from separate chapters discussing Judaism and Islam. One of the book's most unique contributions is a separate chapter discussing Atheism, showing how believers and non-believers may not be all that different and may actually be a lot a like. The contributions of Judaism and Islam to this book come mostly through the reference to a few of those faith's writers and through Samir's experience worshipping with them. It would also be informative and no doubt uplifting to learn more about Samir's church.
Overall, I recommend this book, especially for those who may be wondering if there is a place in the Christian church and in the Kingdom of God for them. There is.