Friday, July 22, 2011

When Religion Becomes Lethal

 by Charles Kimball
San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2011
192 pages     Religious

When Religion Becomes Lethal by Dr. Charles Kimball takes a very confusing issue and in 190 pages makes it clear and understandable. It is a remarkable achievement. He is a professor of religion, an expert in Islam and the Middle East, and an ordained Baptist minister.
Kimball asserts in the first chapter that “few of us have come to terms with the world of the 21st century, a world where ‘other’ religions are not simply ‘out there’; all religions are everywhere.” My husband and I are experiencing this in our own home. Currently in our small basement apartment, we have a graduate student from Saudi Arabia; our previous tenant was from Egypt. Both are Muslim; both are moderate in their religious views. In fact, our newest renter is very secular. Is he going to participate in Ramadan next month? He’s not sure at this point. The book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for us. The only problem is that our Saudi renter has only had two weeks of English thus far; substantive discussion will have to wait.

The genius of When Religion Becomes Lethal is that Kimball explains thousands of years of religious history and politics of each of the Abrahamic religions in terms that lay people can understand. By the midpoint of the book, the reader has a foundational knowledge that helps when Kimball moves into a discussion of fundamentalism in each religion and why that particular religious style can become lethal when it interacts with politics.

He quotes a researcher who has documented “how little most Americans know about the most rudimentary teachings and practices in the world’s major religions.” The researcher goes on to divulge how little “most self-identified Christians know about basic components of their own religion. “ As a matter of fact, self-described atheists know more about the Bible than did “Bible-believing” Christians.  

If you don’t understand the most basic aspects of your own religion, how can you possibly understand the nuances? This lack of knowledge makes adherents vulnerable to the ravings of the fringe preachers, mullahs, and rabbis. Kimball discusses the fallacy of fundamentalism in the book’s most important chapter. He clarifies the problems with Jewish Fundamentalists, “Cocksure” Christians and Militant Muslims. The final chapter suggests while religion and politics are always going to be interconnected, knowledgeable and caring people can help governments bridge the gap between belief and reason.

One of the things that has confused me has been the insistence of fundamentalist Christians on the sovereignty of Israel. It had not made sense to me until I realized that John Hagee and other TV preachers are preaching that the Rapture will happen on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Therefore, we (meaning the United States) will need to be in control of Jerusalem so that when the Rapture happens, the faithful will be able to ascend to heaven. My guess is that the Rapture will not be including any of the Jews or Muslims who actually live in Jerusalem.

The copious number of notes and references at the end of the book might indicate a difficult-to-read scholarly work. While When Religion Becomes Lethal is scholarly, it is very readable and understandable to the lay person. The book speaks volumes about Kimball’s years of study and relationship-building in the Middle East. And its message it too important to ignore. In an interview, Kimball says: “It’s been made painfully clear that even small numbers of religious zealots or extremists claiming inspiration from their religion can wreak havoc on a regional or even global scale. In the second decade of the 21st century, the stakes are far too high for us to avoid or underestimate the volatile mix of religion and politics.”

A reviewer on Amazon sums it up nicely:  “What separates Kimball from the often-heard sensationalists and fear-mongers who dominate the radio and television airwaves is his insistence throughout the book that the world's three great monotheistic religions contain within them and share in common convictions, perspectives, and centuries of practice living together that are fertile ground for hope and for action instead of despair, immobilization, and counterproductive responses to the challenges of the next decade and beyond. Explosive? Yes. Lethal? Yes. Hopeless? No.”

Here is an interesting interview with Dr. Kimball on WGN, Chicago.,0,333549.mp3fil
 An excellent review in the faculty newsletter of The University of Oklahoma:
Dr. Charles Kimball is the author of a companion book When Religion becomes Evil. Both are available from Jossey-Bass. I received my copy of When Religion becomes Lethal from the publisher, and I will be donating it to my church library. 

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