On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.


Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.


Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.

Mr. Fish, in memoriam

Mr. Fish, the piscine member of our household, died this morning at the age of 19. We are guessing his age. He joined us sometime between 1994 and 1997, the years Bill was in nursing school. That’s as close as we can come.

He was a really old goldfish, and sizeable as well, four inches or so from tip to wavy tail.His orange-


Junior, subbing for the late Mr. Fish

gold color had almost entirely worn off, and he had been blind for quite some time. A fishy cataract covered one of his eyes. The other eye was diseased; it was tumorous-looking and swollen, probably a xenoma, a lumpy growth caused by a parasite.

Mr. Fish didn’t seem bothered by his tumor or lack of vision; he knew where he was. He hung out in one corner of his aquarium and ate his meals every day. For the past few years we were expecting every morning to find him floating on the water’s surface. This expectation was gradually overtaken by amazement at his longevity. I took to calling him Methusaleh. He reminded me of Granddad, the Australian lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium, whom I was introduced to years ago when writing a story. Granddad came to the Shedd in 1933; it is unclear how old he was when he arrived.

Mr. Fish was the last surviving member of a gang of feeder fish we acquired sometime after we moved to Aurora in 1994. Feeder fish are destined to be consumed by larger fish-eating animals. We liberated a dozen of them to spend their time with us in our vegetarian household instead. Over time, they died, one by one, except Mr. Fish, who swam along, slowly and persistently enlarging himself and his territory.

Old fish don’t do a whole lot less than young fish. Yet Mr. Fish got a new lease on life in November when we brought the new goldfish Junior from the pond on the deck indoors for the winter. We were slightly apprehensive that Junior might be the death of the aged resident fish, but something wonderful happened instead.

They made friends. Mr. Fish swam more. They hung out together in the same corner of the aquarium. Mr. Fish appeared to be teaching Junior the secret of indoor survive-and-thrive. The two could frequently be found side-by-side.

Until this morning. Right now I can see Junior, checking and re-checking their common corner, his tail wriggling. Where’s the old man?

Though James Herriot popularized it, the phrase “all creatures great and small” comes from a poem by the Irish hymn-writer and poet Cecil Frances Alexander. Every being deserves a little notice. Here is your obit, Mr. Fish. Peace be to you.

Catching Up on Reading

Did anybody but me wonder about the literary references in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity? I am resisting googling the reviews (except for PW). The Dickens reference to Great Expectations is explicit, but I found myself thinking about the way the murder is written and the kind of fever dream that Andreas Wolf’s mind eventually becomes, and thought of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  given how much force the murder assumes over time, given how deeply it is buried (pun intended). The querying of ideological purity also called to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands, which perhaps really dates me or at least says something abut the literature and philosophy I was taught.

I hated the characters so much I almost didn’t finish the book. But it did keep hooking me, even though I would have shortened it. Tom’s and Andreas’s back stories are too long and tediously male-centric; Franzen’s editor ought to stand up to him a little more. Still, I am glad I read it to continue reckoning with the reaches of contemporary tastes and forms. Such a sea of difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.

God’s Hands

I haven’t had a chance to reflect on seed collecting as being God’s hands. Christ has no body, no hands but yours, wrote Teresa of Avila. Last Tuesday I dove into tallgrass prairie, leaving the path and heading into the grasses, seeking leadplant. Our steward Cindy has told us that the presence of leadplant is a sign of eco-health, and the Schulenberg Prairie is a vigorous being this year, bursting with leadplant. If the earth is God’s body, what organ are the prairies? The kidneys, maybe, filtering waste products?Image

Leadplant was pretty in bloom, with purple lupine-like flowers (the two are cousins, both members of the bean family) and fuzzy leaves. The dried flowerheads are easy to spot, of middling height next to tallgrass. It’s also easy to collect seeds, stripping them easily and then feeling like I could pat the plant as I might a just-sheared sheep, saying thanks and go on now. We only take half the seeds and leave the other half to reseed the prairie on its own. The week before I did coneflowers, and those were just as easy but differently textured, pointed seeds bordering on prickly and so needing clipping of the seedheads. Leadplant by comparison is gentle on the hands.

At the end of long summer days on the prairie, dried forbs mix with early autumn plants in bloom: purply-blue asters, cream gentian (I haven’t seen the blue variety). Many of the varied yellow composites are still hanging around, but the blooms of summer are aging into seedy maturity, losing eye-candy appeal and settling into the rhythm and imperative of reproduction. The yellow coneflower ages well, drying into drooping grey florets but gaining olfactory appeal with its anise-smelling seedhead, so many individual seeds tightly packed, poised to parachute to earth, take hold, and flower next year.

“There are no women on my theology bookshelf…”

Now you all have no excuse, thanks to Maggi Dawn.

maggi dawn

Last year on Twitter, someone wrote to me “there are no women on my theology bookshelf. Who should I read?”.

I followed up with a blog list, and was pleased to discover that without even looking up from my screen I could easily think of well over a hundred female theologians, ecclesiastical historians, biblical scholars, sociologists of religion, and others who figure on the theological landscape. More names appeared when I actually looked at my own bookshelf.

Replies flooded in through the comments, adding many more names of women authors – both academic and devotional, theoretical and practical, in every area of the theological landscape. Now the academic year is about to begin again, one or two people have mentioned the post again as a resource – so, incomplete though it is, here is the updated blog post with names added from the comments section.

10897776_469733266514841_7639664988515007378_nWhen people ask about “women…

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