judaism · memoir · nonfiction · religion

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg

Have you ever read a book solely because you follow its author on Twitter? (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason; I follow authors I haven’t read yet simply because I like their personalities. I definitely need to be interested in the subject or story of a book to read it!)

That’s how I found Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press, 2008). I caught a few of her tweets since they were liked or shared by others that I follow and ended up following her because I enjoyed her voice and her message so much. And then she mentioned the book she wrote in one thread, and I was like, “A BOOK, YOU SAY????” Not only did I immediately add it to my TBR, I requested it via interlibrary loan as well.

Danya Ruttenberg decided she was an atheist as a young teenager. The Judaism of her childhood didn’t make sense to her, and so she continued on with her life, not believing but still trying to connect with something bigger than herself, a sense of connectedness with something spiritual or divine. She tried by partying with her friends, convening with nature, and delving deep into yoga practice, but while she occasionally got close and found certain glimpses of holiness and states of ecstasy, nothing was quite enough for her. Being a religious studies major gave her insights into other belief systems and the demands of each; connecting with other friends seeking the same helped her not only to see the beauty of the religion she was born into, but to recognize that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be. Hers is a gradual journey to faith and practice, replete of any sudden “A-ha!” moments, but it’s that slow, steady exploration before the eventual arrival at rabbinical school that lends her story such significance.

I really loved this book. Before ending up in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ruttenberg majored in religious studies (can you feel my jealousy??? I find religion so fascinating that, were I able to go back to school, this would be a heavy contender for my choice of major) and quotes some of the great historical and modern religious thinkers of every religion throughout the book. She mentioned something about Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou/I-it’ theory that led me to a better understanding of it, which I’ve been pondering all week (I even shared that article on Facebook, where I rarely talk about religious matters, because I found it so infused with meaning for me). While she does get a little into the more mystical aspects of yoga practice, something that, while I’ve done plenty of yoga to help with my back, has never appealed to me, I still appreciated her description of what it meant to her in order to further my understanding of what it meant to her and means to many others.

I identified with so much of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s feelings throughout her journey, her search for meaning and a sense of connection with the Divine. Her slow, measured journey to a deeper spiritual awareness resonated deeply with me, along with making me a little jealous. I’m not sure mine will have such a well-defined end goal or landing place, but I’m thankful that she shared her story with the world. Her view of life, of the sacred, of justice and of what connects us all is beautiful and inspiring, and I’m deeply grateful to have read her thoughtful insight, which has given me a lot to ponder, and a lot of what she’s written has given me a sense of peace I’ve been needing lately.

I’m very much interested in reading her latest book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. It sounds like a book I could definitely use in my life!

Visit Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy- edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

While I’m not much of a series reader, after having read Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, as soon as I found out there was a companion version from the men’s perspective, I knew I had to read it, too. Fortunately for me, my library also had a copy of Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Beacon Press, 2014), so I happily grabbed it on my next library trip. (Which is pretty much every day, hence the name of this blog. Odds are, if I’m not at the library, I was there earlier in the day or will be there later on. Today, I was there twice. Why yes, I have no life!)

Just like Love, InshAllah, Salaam, Love is a collection of essays, this time written by American Muslim men on their perspectives on the search for love, dating, Muslim courtship, sex, the difficulties and joys of marriage, and all the happiness and heartbreak that come about in the search to find and live with a partner. Once again, this book highlights a unique perspective in romance; Muslim men aren’t necessarily the go-to voice when it comes to affairs of the heart, so each essay feels fresh, a novel (though it shouldn’t be) but welcome change from the usual, everyday take on love.

The essays, just as in Love, InshAllah, run the gamut on experiences: there are straight men who date, gay men who hide their relationships from their families (and one who grows in his faith after an encounter with a particularly devout man, which I found both charming and heartwarming), converts, Muslims from birth, men who submit to their parents’ wishes for a traditional Muslim courtship, men whose search for love continues, men whose loves died (both metaphorically and literally), love that works out, and love that doesn’t. Interspersed with it all are struggles with faith, culture (often the straddling of two or more cultures), and how to incorporate both fully into a relationship that may have ties to neither.

It’s possible I may have enjoyed Salaam, Love even more than Love, InshAllah (and I really enjoyed that!). I don’t read men’s writing as often as I read women- not on purpose, I tend to enjoy female writers more, especially when it comes to fiction- but reading about men’s thoughts on love and emotion and the struggle that goes with each, THAT was absolutely a breath of fresh air. How often do we hear about men’s feelings on anything? Men in our society- in most societies, sadly- are taught to not feel things, hide whatever they do feel, and never, ever discuss it, especially not in public. Hearing these men talk about having their hearts broken, about crying after being dumped by a girlfriend or the fear they felt over a loved one’s frightening medical diagnosis was a balm to my soul. (Are you listening, men? MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.)

The authors vary by background: many have ancestral roots in Africa, the Middle East, or south Asia (and many of these authors are first generation Americans); others are white converts who grew up Christian or Jewish and found a home in Islam, but often struggled to find a spouse. Several are bi- or multi-racial. It’s a beautiful mixture of people and places, and their stories had me wishing for more when I turned the final page.

I can’t recommend these books enough, and if you read one, you definitely need to read the other. I’m so glad to have a better understanding on some of the many Muslim American perspectives on relationships.

Reading these two companion books reminded me how much I enjoy essay collections, whether by a single author or multiple authors like these. If you have a favorite collection of essays, I’d love to hear about it!

(In writing this out, I discovered a few typos on my post of Love, InshAllah, namely, my failure to capitalize the A, and a misspelling of Nura Maznavi’s last name. I apologize greatly for these errors and have corrected them.)

Follow Love InshAllah on Twitter.

Nura Maznavi’s tweets are protected (and given the climate on Twitter some/most days, I can’t blame her).

Follow Ayesha Mattu.

nonfiction · religion

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others- Barbara Brown Taylor

I’m so busy hunting for books from my TBR most of the time that I’ve been neglecting the New Books shelf at my library, but just before we went on vacation to Branson, Missouri with my mother this year, I stopped by that shelf to see what I could find to take with me on our trip. A good, relaxing vacation read should probably have a beach on the cover, maybe a fancy drink with a little umbrella in it or a pair of sunglasses, but I can’t do anything normally, so I leaped at the copy of Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2019). I often say I’m not hugely religious, but this book sums up where I sit religiously: I may not have all the answers, or any of them, but I relish the opportunity to observe and appreciate what is sacred in the beliefs of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor was, for many years, an ordained Episcopalian minister. After leaving her position as minister, she taught World Religions at Piedmont College in Georgia. As Piedmont is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (and also located in a very religious part of the south!), the vast majority of her students were Christian, and most of them were encountering religions other than their own for the first time in their lives. Some of them couldn’t handle this and dropped the class early on or after a single field trip to another house of worship (one left a Hindu temple in tears, so upset that the worshipers could be so very wrong in their beliefs); others opened their minds and hearts and learned to experience what Ms. Brown Taylor termed ‘holy envy’: appreciating parts of these other faiths and using what they learned to make them a better practitioner of their own faith.

The leaps and bounds some of her students make are incredible, but it’s the insights that Ms. Brown Taylor experiences while teaching and the glimpses into houses of worship of non-Christian faiths that make this book explode with life and color and light. If you’re at all interested in religion or faith or the practice thereof, or the beauty that comes from education and growth and deep respect and appreciation for the many facets of humanity, this is a book you can’t afford to miss.

Holy Envy called to me from the very first page. I love reading about religion, the facts and the hows and whys, and I especially love reading how people experience and live out their own faiths. The concept of holy envy wasn’t one that I’ve ever realized had a name before this, but it’s definitely one I’ve felt over and over again as I’ve studied Judaism and its weekly Shabbat celebration and its relentless pursuit of social justice, both the Muslim and LDS sense of community, the Mennonite commitment to creating a sustainable lifestyle, the Catholic commitment to maintaining tradition, the list could go on and on. It was in reading through my Goodreads TBR list when it was up to 332 books that I came across the books of Rachel Held Evans, may her beautiful soul rest in peace, and I understood that another person’s faith doesn’t need to be my own for me to appreciate it and learn from it. And since then, I’ve never looked back, and that is why Holy Envy felt like home right from the start.

Ms. Brown Taylor speaks of many things in these pages that hit home for me; I constantly found myself reading a paragraph, staring at the wall or out the window as I considered what I’d just read, then reading the paragraph again, and nodding. Her reminder of the best way to learn about another faith being to talk to a practitioner of that faith felt pointed a bit in my direction; while I do enjoy a good memoir about a person’s experience of leaving a faith, I do need to keep in mind that that’s not always the best way to learn about the tenets of that particular religion, or what its best practice looks like. I’m always glad for such a gentle prod in the right direction. 🙂

Her notion on suffering gave me pause, and I wrote it down in my reading binder because I found it so very poignant:

The sooner they learned to accept the human condition with equanimity, the sooner their suffering would end- not their pain, but their suffering- since suffering is so often a measure of how much we want things to be different from the way they are.

That rang so true to me. Far too often, I fight against how things are in my own life, when instead I could accept it, incorporate it- still work to change it, yes, but with grace and peace in my heart. I need to spend more time considering this…maybe I should cross-stitch it on a pillow or sampler, or paint it on my living room wall.

The other quote that stuck with me was the following:

Eventually all people of faith must decide how they will think about and respond to people of other (and no) faiths. Otherwise they will be left at the mercy of their worst impulses when push comes to shove and their fear deadens them to the best teachings of their religions.

The above goes for people of no faith as well, I think. Some nonbelievers are nonbelievers solely because they don’t believe; others have had poor experiences with religion in the past and no longer believe. No matter one’s belief status, it’s crucial that we learn to understand and appreciate what makes us unique; it’s not necessary to incorporate each other’s beliefs, but to acknowledge it, find what speaks to us, and use it to become better people, better human beings, so that we can better take care of each other. Because loving each other is everyone’s sacred duty, and we’ll never accomplish that goal without first understanding each other.

Holy Envy is a beautiful book full of love and wonder and awe, not only at the divine, but at the people who practice so many forms of faith, and it’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Barbara Brown Taylor has made me a fan for life with this one book and I’m very much looking forward to reading everything else she’s written.

Visit Barbara Brown Taylor’s website here.