Today the news came across the wires that a major terrorist threat had been foiled by Scotland Yard, a threat to blow up one or more flights from the U.K. to the U.S. The alert status for the first time ever for flights from the U.K. to the U.S. was changed to red. With news like this cropping up on an almost daily basis, it is not a surprise that some writer would try to explain to Americans why some people hate us so much, why some people are prepared to blow themselves up in order to destroy some of us and our ever more fragile sense of freedom and security and well-being.
Of course there are the heart-rending stories that also give us hope. Tonight on the news was the story of a Jewish man in the northern Israeli town of Naharia whose two brothers were killed in a Hezbollah rocket strike, who asked that their organs be donated to others. One of the first recipients of one of these body parts, a cornea, was recently given to an Arab man who was blind in one eye and going blind in the other. A tearful meeting was held yesterday between the Jewish man and the Arab man. There were tears and hugs, and the Jewish man said ‘now we are brothers. We need each other.’ We need more of these sorts of acts of compassion and reconciliation in that part of the world.
Thank goodness that the person to tell the story of a Islamic terrorist is someone who actually has the capacity not only to write seamless prose (he has won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Howells Medal and other awards too numerous to count), but one who has an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his characters, in this case getting inside the very skin of a terrorist, an Islamic fundamentalist, a very bright and spiritual 18 year old boy from New Prospect New Jersey named Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy. But perhaps Updike’s greatest gift, taxed to the maximum here, is his ability to try and understand and view with sympathy a person like Ahmad.
Updike’s greatest writing gift is his ability to describe things accurately, tellingly, and movingly in detail. He has an uncanny ability to give us the exact feel for example, of what a decaying inner city neighborhood is like, what the struggle to survive in such an environment is like, what the hopes and fears are of ordinary people in such settings. There is some irony in this particular novel because Updike, as a Christian, has risen to the challenge of making his two major protagonists in this novel a devout Moslem and an atheistic Jewish high school counselor named Jack Levy. There is in addition the lapsed Irish Catholic mother of Ahmad, Teresa Mulloy, and Joryleen Grant an African American at the fringes of the African American Baptist community, but meanwhile turning tricks for her boyfriend nicknamed Tylenol. None of these characters would we naturally expect to become our ‘new best friends’. Yet through Updike’s magic we begin to see the world through the eyes of these people, and perhaps more tellingly see these people, even Ahmad through the eyes of Christ who loves them. And finally there is also Updike’s ability to absolutely take the pulse of our culture and accurately describe who and where we are at this point in time.
On this last point consider for a moment this passage where Jack the guidance counselor is having a conversation with Teresa about her son Ahmad. Jack says “Kids today have more to worry about that we did. At least than I did…. It’s not just AIDS and the rest; there is a certain hunger for, I don’t know, the absolute, when everything is so relative, and all the economic forces are pushing instant gratification and credit card debt at them. It’s not just the Christian right—Ashcroft and his morning revival meeting down in D.C. You see it in Ahmad. And the Black Muslims. People want to go back to simple—black and white, right and wrong, when things aren’t simple…. All I am saying is that kids like Ahmad need to have something they don’t get from society any more. Society doesn’t let them be innocent any more. The crazy Arabs are right—hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen the lyrics of these rock and rap stars…” (p. 205).
How right this observation is. The great desire for certainty and simplicity and purity in uncertain and unclean times pushes people, perhaps especially devoutly religious people to extremes of belief and behavior. It pushes them out of a trust posture and into a bunker mentality, an us vs. them mentality. It pushes them out of civic virtue and into private schools, private gated communities, private lives. It tears up the very fabric of community life which requires actually knowing and respecting your neighbor, never mind obeying the commandment to love them. Updike knows exactly what he is talking about, and this quest for the certain and the pure and the simple absolute answers in a dirty , fuzzy, pluralistic and relativistic world is precisely what is driving Ahmad, and indeed driving him mad.
I do not wish to destroy the story, with its tensions and suspense, and I would remind Christian readers in advance that Updike is famous or infamous for having a passage or two in his novels involving illicit sex, and this novel is no different. But there is much of redeeming value in this novel, including the fact that Updike helps us to understand the tensions in the Qur’an itself and the reasons Moslem’s disagree about what there religious duty is in relationship to perceived evil in the world.
On the one hand jihad can be interpreted to refer to a holy war on all perceived unrighteousness and wickedness. On the other hand the relevant passages in the Qur’an can be interpreted to refer to the inner ‘struggle’ (‘struggle’ is what the Arabic word itself means) of an individual believer to be pure, his struggle to live in a way that pleases God. On the one hand the Moslem holy book portrays God as a great Creator God who is merciful and all compassionate towards his creatures. On the other hand there are suras in the Qur’an that lead Ahmad to suggest at one point “Who says unbelief is innocent? Unbelievers say that. God says, in the Qur’an ‘Be ruthless to unbelievers’ Burn them, crush them, because they have forgotten God. They think themselves to be sufficient. They love this present life more than the next.” (p. 294). Of course at this juncture Ahmad is speaking out of a devout young man’s sense of moral outrage at the world’s wickedness and sin and temptations. There is another and very different side to Ahmad as well, one less bewitched and bewildered by devils and anger, whether righteous or not.
Ahmad has been tutored at length and for years in the Qur’an by a Moslem holy man from Yemen. When one sees the devotion and detailed study involved it makes what most of us do to train our children in the Bible both insufficient and pathetically half-hearted. And no doubt the devout Moslem would point out to the Christian that he sees such tensions in the Bible itself, between the call to Holy war in Joshua, for example, and the Sermon on the Mount on the other. The same reason equally devout Moslems differ on the approach to dealing with evil (namely they can’t agree on exactly what their Holy Book requires of them in a given situation) is the very reason equally devout Christians disagree for example on the war in Iraq. Updike has the ability to raise the right questions, even the deeply religious ones, and one could say that this novel represents the man at his most probing and telling.
I would hope that many of you would read this novel, if for no other reason than we need to see ourselves from time to time as others see us, even as our enemies see us. And how they see us is of course distorted in many ways, but in other ways it is often accurate and telling. I have Moslem friends in various countries in the world. One of the things they regularly ask me is—“Isn’t American supposed to be a Christian nation which follows the teaching of Jesus? If so why then is it the number one purveyor of pornography, raunchy movies, arms and yes drugs to all sorts of immoral people throughout the world?” I have no good answers to such probing questions. I usually just apologize. But it helps me understand why some in a moment of anger might call this nation ‘the Great Satan’. We have so much more power than most other nations, and we seem to often use it in ways that certainly do not match up with the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. God save America from its own worst instincts and worst self. God save us all.