Book reviews, Uncategorized

Book Review: Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel

For seven years award-winning poet and journalist, Eliza Griswold, traversed the regions along the equatorial latitude line of the tenth parallel to countries in Asia and Africa where Muslims and Christians have live and clashed for 200 years. The resulting book—The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, is no theoretical or ideological study of two long-embattled religions. Instead, it is a journey into the very people “whose religious beliefs pattern their daily perseverance.” (12) You see the sweat on their cheeks, the scars on their limbs, and feel the earth on which they kneel in prayer. This is not mere education; this is encounter.

Griswold is quick to set out the “secular” factors (such as geography, economy, political elections) entangled in Muslim-Christian relationships in Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Some factors are well known, such as oil’s relationship to Sudan’s unrest. Others, however, may be new to the reader, such the correlation between the price of chocolate and violent uprisings in Indonesia. Even climate change can be a kind of trigger, forcing believers to migrate from a dry region to another region where they are a minority. Griswold’s considerations of these factors prove she is not out to draft an oversimplified and generalized solution to Muslim-Christian conflicts. Her writing is more exploratory (perhaps even diagnostic) surgery rather than a search for a singular cause (or cure.)

Although followers of both faiths refer to these earthly factors, the most stimulating and dramatic conversations recorded in the book explore the eternal thrust of these religions. Griswold’s ability to instigate and guide such discussions is a true mark of her investigative tenacity. With respect and candor, she probes the intersection between everyday faith and the afterlife with believers from all walks of faith and life—from young Muslims, to Christian militia members, to imprisoned Sunday school teachers and the President of Sudan. Predictably, some of the most alarming conversations are those in which fundamentalist Muslims talk of forcible conversion or aggression against unbelievers as a kind of “escalator to heaven” (245). She does meet with moderate Muslims who speak out against killing Christians, but they still talk of domination over Christians and give off the sense that, “the fight against Christians was eternal, and every where” (207).

Yet Griswold’s impressions of Christians are also upsetting. She in no way equates mission strategies of “winning souls” with the hostile tactics employed by jihadist Muslims to dominate or persecute unbelievers. Even the most fundamentalist Christians she meets present conversion to Christianity as a choice, and her certainty of that is clear, as is her relief for it. But there is truth to her observation that for both Christians and Muslims, religion can seem merely “a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.” (11)

Parallel works best as a journey into the hearts and minds of various people because it allows us to encounter Griswold herself without undermining the balance and objectivity of her acute observational eye. Her impression of religious submission, for example, is obviously framed by her own background as the daughter of an Anglican priest. When she recalls father having to lie on the floor in the shape of a cross, as part of his consecration ceremony, she describes this as “an act of utter surrender that terrified and angered [her].” (117) The memory resurfaces in a warm but wary observation of Franklin Graham, with whom she traveled Sudan. “Offering us a chance at salvation was the most loving thing he could do for us,” she says. “Yet his work was not really about us, not us as people; it was about fulfilling his own duty to God. In this he resembled my father spread-eagled on the cathedral floor, a man who sought to give himself over to a greater power.” (120)

Griswold’s experiences along the tenth parallel perhaps leave her unable to provide conclusive solutions to the “clash of civilizations” issues that so often cloud the discussions of Christian/Muslim relations. There is bravery, though, in her openly baffled admission that believers of both faiths “[slipped] out of [her] easy distinctions.” (282) Her flair for sensory detail and mind for historical context give her notes-from-the-field approach depth and freshness of insight. These insights can be jumping off points for further discussion of one of the most important issues of our age, and access points into the actual fields, villages, and street corners embroiled by wars in the name of religion.

(Originally published in The Christian Courier. Reprinted with permission.)

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