Thursday, August 10, 2006

John Updike's New Novel-- "Terrorist"

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.


gmw said...

Thanks for the review and commentary, Ben. Updike's a genius; I'll look forward to reading this one.

As for the closing comments, I resonate with you about the quandry of America's un-Christian-ness in the eyes of others. America is not a Christian nation, but many want to think and speak of it that way. When you observe us, I think it's pretty clear what a bad idea it has been to intertwine Christianity and American nationalism the way it has been done.

Percival said...

It sounds like a fascinating novel. It is certainly rare for a novelist to be able to get inside the head of a Muslim character. I plan to read it if possible. I have one caution to potential readers though. Many times we assume that the hatred that Muslim extremists express stems from the corruption of the West. However, in my view, the motivations for the hatred are primarily found within their own societies. If you are interested on my thoughts on this phenomenon, you can read my blog as I responded to the book, Why do the Rest Hate the West?
To Guy, in my experience Muslims (from outside the West) think that all the corruption and degradation of the West is exactly because the West IS Christian. This includes Europe, which in their minds is composed of Christian nations, too. It's not that we don't live up to our ideals, it's rather that Christianity, by it's very nature, is impure and corrupt, so of course any "christian" society will reflect that impurity and corruption. Although I would certainly agree that American nationalism has been unhelpful, and American believers in particular need to rethink their relationship with Ceasar.

Rainsborough said...

Two ways to defend us come to mind.

First, to ask whether, despite its manifest shortcomings, our way of life isn’t considerably superior to theirs. One hears of high rates of drug usage in Iran among repressed and alienated youth. Of a terrible violence in Qutb and Atta rooted sexual repression. Of a recent report from Syria that wife-beating is common. Of hangings of homosexuals on the squares of Iranian cities. Of murders of those who fail to conceal the genitals of their goats.

Second, is there any society that rates a 1 on (say) Freedom House’s scale of civil liberties and freedom of expression that does not also rate high on the reprehensible forms of expression one is inclined to apologize for? We know of the sinful nature of man. If they are free, is it not to be expected that all too many will cross boundaries we’d prefer to see respected? How can anyone who’s read their Luther or Calvin or Paul expect that a good many of us won’t stray where we’d rather they wouldn’t (unless we criminalize their straying, and even then…..)?

Some of us have a certain nostalgia for the fifties, where there were indeed more restraints on expression. (Movies taken to approve adultery were banned.) But perhaps there’s some connection between for instance the confinement of gays to the closet—with all its attendant miseries, or the confinement of women to the home, or the confinement of blacks to their place—perhaps there’s some connection between these restrictions on freedom and those on free expression.

At any rate, America today affords more freedom than it did then. Perhaps that freedom entails a quotient of reprehensible productions.

I’m sure that if we want to lower the number of Islamic terrorists who come our way, we must not resort to violence so recklessly as did the United States in Iraq or so profligately as Israel (with the United States’ entire approval) is doing today in Lebanon. I’m sure that, whatever its manifest failings today, so rich and varied a tradition as the Islamic can come again to the forefront of creative expression as it has in the past. But when it comes to free expression, it’s for Islam to come our way. We’d have a hard time ourselves agreeing which Hollywood productions are most reprehensible (The Passion of Christ would head my list), and we must recognize that constant confrontations with the distasteful and reprehensible are characteristic of any free and pluralistic society.

Peter Kirk said...

There is no mystery why many Muslims hate America, and my own Britain for that matter. We and our allies have invaded their territory, bombed their cities, let their nations descend inot civil war etc etc. Not surprisingly they feel they have the right to retaliate. The cycle of violence cannot be ended by one superpower and a few friends trying to impose its will and culture on the whole world. The only hope is to work for peace and reconciliation, on the model which Jesus taught us.

Meanwhile I find it rather offensive that Americans are playing political games with our British security crisis.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks one and all for these comments, and yes Percival I think you are right that some assume corruption is the result of Christianity, and Rainsborough as usual you make some good sense on the freedom issues.



Neil said...

Good points, Ben.

To those blaming terrorism on the Iraq war: 9/11 and a bunch of other terrorist attacks happened first. You might want to study how Islam started, spread and is currently spreading before the "blame the U.S. first" comments. It is naive to think that if we play nice that Islam will also.

I like some of what Bush has done (woo-hoo on the Supreme Court appointees) but his "Islam is a religion of peace" is pure politics. And his comments that Islam is just a different path to God are something no Christian should say.

Re. the comment about Israel's allegedly profligate violence in Lebanon: If you were outnumbered 100 to 1 by your neighbors who publicly and privately express their intentions to annihilate you, I think a little disproportionate response would be in order. Governments have a responsibility to protect their people.

Chandy said...

I would be interested to know why you think evangelical associations have been quite muted or slow to comment on the current Lebanon crisis.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Chandy:

The answer is pretty clear in some cases. Evangelicals have been sucked in by the pro-Zionist propaganda, especially in its Dispensationaist forms. Bad theology leads to worse politics, never mind bad ethics.



Peter Kirk said...

Neil, I have no illusions about Islam being a religion of peace. And I know that the USA didn't start this, and can therefore claim a right to respond on the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But read what Jesus said about that Old Testament law: "Do not resist one who is evil" (Matthew 5:39). And he didn't say this in the expectation that this would immediately make the evil one good; we have to expect that the cheek we turn will be hit. Yes, there are complex issues about how that principle can be applied to international relations. But a general point is clear: we cannot justify violence by saying "they started it".

Layman said...


"Zionist" can e a tricky word. Are you opposed to Israel's existence as an officially Jewish state? Or do you have some other meaning of the term "zionist"?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Layman:

I certainly don't oppose Jews living in the Holy Land. I think they have a right to be there. The issue is not anything to do with the Bible. It has to do with the modern Zionistic secular movement, which was socialist and not Biblical in its inception and outworkings. Read up on David Ben Gurion and his successors including Golda Meir.

Modern Zionism is what I am referring to. I think also that Arabs who have lived in the land for centuries have every right to be there, and should have the right to become citizens of Israel or of Palestine, whichever they choose. If the latter, then they may need to move eventually. Until the former happens then at a minimum they should be treated with the respect that the Bible requires for 'strangers in the land'.

I do not think the modern Zionistic state, which even the orthodox rabbis in Israel say is not Biblical Israel should be seen, or evaluated as if it were Biblical Israel and so sacrosanct and immunity to correction.



Layman said...


I agree with you in many respects. I had a disagreement with another Christian last night over dinner because he said that the US should not even prosecute Israelis caught spying on the U.S. I said we should and could.

I am a Christian first, American second, and both of those take precedence over my affinity for the modern Jewish state. I also am the quintessential "pan-tribber" by which I mean it will all pan out in the end. I lean towards amillenialism if anything.

That being said, I'm still not clear what you mean by "zionist." The zionist movement is the relatively contemporary movement that lead to the creation of the modern Jewish state. I take zionism to mean the belief that the political entity of the nation of Israel has a right to exist and define itself by its Jewish nature. I do not take this to mean that there should be no Palestinian state -- I and many who would call themselves zionists believe there should be.

Do you object to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state? Jewish in the sense that the Jews of today define themselves, rather than how we might construct a biblical or religious definition.

There are dozens of Islamic states with much more emphasis on their religious requirements than the one Jewish state has for its. I don't blanch from the term "zionist" personally because I believe that the Jewish state is entitled to existence as such.

Ben Witherington said...


I understand the collective guilt that led to the creation of this modern state of Israel. It does not appear to be a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. And that human side of the equation also had nothing to do with zionism--- it had to do with European guilt.

I do object to the idea that a non-Biblical entity has Biblical justification to define itself as it wants. One thing that I certainly object to is the ban on evangelizing various sorts of people in Israel. I also disagree with the ruling that a believer in Jesus cannot retain the status of being or being considered a Jew legally in Israel. Why pretend to be a secular democracy and have laws like that?

To the extent that the modern definition of what amounts to a Jew does not comport with the Biblical one, there are issues to be addressed on that front as well.

In short, there are numerous problems, and I do not want my tax dollars going to blindly or blithly support such a nation unconditionally. Let me be clear. I do not have a problem with America having Israel as an ally, or providing some aid. My complaint is with the fact that we do not call Israel to account for their atrocities.



Percival said...

I'd like to say something about what Layman said about a Zionist state being able to "define itself by its Jewish nature." The problem with that is that what if the population that is non-Jewish begins to outnumber the Jewish population? Israel rightly points out that they are a democracy and Arab Israelis vote and are represented in the Keneset. However, in my view Israel will never be a true democracy until the Palestinians have the right of return. Until then, they will remain an apartheid state with the Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank inhabiting non-viable "Bantustans" for the same reasons that Black Africans were not allowed citizenship in the land of their birth.
I don't have the solution, but we have to define the problem before a solution can be found.

Layman said...


Thank you for your response. It seems since you appear to affirm the "right of return" that you do not in fact believe that Israel should exist as a self-described Jewish state. I don't want to put words in your mouth and know its a sensitive issue, but that plus your condemnation of zionism seems to suggest that is the case.

And by collective guilt, are you referring to the holocaust? The mandate and intent to create a Jewish state was a matter of international law due to the Mandate for Palestine passed by the League of Nations in 1922.

Thanks for your responses,


Percival said...

Personally, I'm not keen on any state that defines itself according to religion or ethnicity. No system is perfect, and Israel's seems better than many other systems, but these are the roots of the problem. This is not my blog though, so I will stop there.

Ben Witherington said...


There would have been no State of Israel had there been no Holocaust during WWII. The intent of the League of Nations, a nearly totally ineffectual body was ancient history and would never have been enacted in any form without the Holocaust. This is why it happened in the late 40s, not much earlier.


Ben W.

Rainsborough said...

It may be true that Israel wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the destruction of European Jewry. But it’s also true that its roots can be traced as far back as the Balfour Declaration.

Still, when Israel was created, the United Nations was dominated by the western powers, and the Middle East had not yet emerged from European dominance. The decisions that brought it about certainly weren’t made by Arab governments in the region.

But many states today trace their boundaries and constitution to decisions made in London, Paris, Brussels and the Hague. If those origins call their legitimacy into question, then many states lack legitimacy. The criteria of international legitimacy are minimalist—unless one wants to open the door wide to wars of rectification.

I wanted to return to the moral condition of America (and perhaps the western world and Japan generally).

When it comes to government coercion, and to private excursions into violence, there are compelling reasons for a live and let live policy, very broadly tolerant.

But, as the dialogue between Robert Wright and Ann Althouse up at bloggingheads reminds us, freedom of speech and “live and let live” isn’t to be confused with “anything goes.” The remedy for wrongful speech, it’s rightly said, is more speech. Just so.

It’s a condition of a free society, if it’s not to descend into an abyss of non-criminal cruelty and malfeasance, that well before knives are unsheathed, expressions of strong disapproval and outright condemnation be heard. And these expressions should be backed by a readiness to refuse to shake hands or do business with those who cross the lines of civil discourse and tribal prejudice. There’s every reason to point to the rich irony of a society that puts the state into the business of gambling, and before it opens its lottery, begins to run ads about the counseling to be provided to whose who become addicted and ruin their own lives and those of their family members. Or to raise to the question whether there’s in tequila veritas, and the motives behind The Passion of Jesus should be reexamined in the light of later evidence. Freedom among God’s sinful creatures does make its abuse inevitable. But that’s not to say that its abuses must not be monitored and denounced.

A free society needs preachers in the prophetic tradition.

Omar said...

I have a question for all of those who speak with so much authority in saying that there is no way Islam is a religion of peace.

Seeing as my entire family on my father's side is Muslim, I am not aware of any of them starting wars, abdicating to violence, and in any other way wanting to be or feeling the call on their lives to be violent people.

Christianity is supposed to be a religion of peace, but I don't see our history as being so peaceful. And I would dare say that some of the biggest violent war hawks today are Christians.

Stop with the blanket, ignorant comments, especially when the Church is not that much different (even though we should at least know better).

gmw said...

Percival, I have no reason to doubt your comment that non-Western Muslims see the corruption and degradation of the West being b/c the West is "Christian." But I guess I'd want to ask if they are correct. I don't think our hypersexualized, consumeristic, materialistic, and militaristic ways arise from our Christian-ness. Quite the contrary. But I have heard from non-Western Christians that non-Western Muslims look at America and, since we are assumed to be Christian and since many of our leaders claim to be Christian, attach our vices to Christianity itself. But this is a false attachment, though they are right to look at our vices and say there's something amiss here.