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Books To Note


By Christopher L. Walton
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. By Mark Juergensmeyer. University of California Press, 2000; $16.95.

This unsettling, illuminating book was released two years ago, but found a receptive audience in the aftermath of September 11, and has been reprinted with a new preface since then. The author, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains that “images of death have never been far from the heart of religion’s power to stir the imagination.” Indeed, violence is not an aberration in the world’s religions, he writes, but rises from deep strains in every religion. In the last ten years, religion “has provided the motiviation, the justification, the organization, and the world view” for a rapidly growing number of terrifying assaults. Why? Juergensmeyer says that religion leads to violence only given certain circumstances, “when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social aspirations, personal pride, and movements for political change.”

Chapter 4, “Islam’s ‘Neglected Duty,’“ will draw special attention for its interviews with Mahmud Abouhalima, accused of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. But the author’s interviews with Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim activists implicated in other violent acts reveal an alarming pattern. “What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed . . . religious images of divine struggle—cosmic war—in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason,” he writes, “acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.”

Juergensmeyer may have religious liberals and other modernists in mind when he poses this riddle: “One of the first rules of conflict resolution is willingness to accept the notion that there are flaws on one’s own side as well as on the opponent’s side. This is a sensible stand if one’s goal is to get along with others and avoid violence. But what if that is not one’s goal? . . . A warring attitude implies that its holder no longer thinks compromise is possible or—just as likely—did not want an accommodating solution to the conflict in the first place.” The awful implications of this truth deserve profound reflection.

Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times. Edited by Joan Murray. Beacon Press, 2001; $12.

Joan Murray found provocation as well as solace in poetry after the terrorist attacks. She turned her own “urgent and unembarrassed need for a poem” into a touching tribute to the heroes of that terrible day, which she read on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on September 19, eliciting thousands of grateful responses. Her poem won’t stand the test of time—but many of the other poems she gathered for this Beacon Press collection are exactly what she promises: “poems to live by.” The book is a who’s who of modern poetry, including C.P. Cavafy, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, Yehuda Amichai, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Anne Sexton. Adam Zagajewski writes: “Try to praise the mutilated world” in which “you’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere, / you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.” The psalms express jubilation and horror in alternating lines; this collection continues that tradition.

Restoring Faith: America’s Religious Leaders Answer Terror with Hope. Edited by Forrest Church. Walker & Company, 2001; $10.

Sermons delivered in the days immediately after September 11 cut to the heart of the matter, addressing the gravest of human concerns. This collection of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist sermons delivered in that first week is “a testament of hope.” The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, edited the collection, which includes a sermon by the Rev. William J. McLennan Jr., a UU minister who serves as chaplain at Stanford University.

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