Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Alone with a Jihadist by Aaron D. Taylor

In 2002, Aaron Taylor, a young pastor and missionary, answers an ad to take part in a documentary concerning Christianity and Islam in the post-9/11 world. (That documentary, "Holy Wars," is available here -- though, fair warning, I haven't watched it yet, as I didn't want it affecting this review.) In the ensuing years, Aaron wrote a book about the experience: his conversation with Khalid, a Muslim fundamentalist, and the ensuing shift in his own doctrinal thinking. Published in 2009, Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War sets out to address questions of nationalism and nonviolence in regards to Muslim/Christian relations and beliefs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy.

The book opens with an introduction of how Taylor started in ministry, and how he got involved with the "Holy Wars" project. He gives a brief look into his conversation with Khalid, giving the reader a sense of its tone without, I trust, spoiling the work of the documentary. Entering the interview especially mindful of non-Christian viewers, Taylor is hopeful only to represent Christ well and, perhaps, bring Khalid to--as he facetiously puts it in retrospect--"a Dr. Phil moment." Khalid, however, ends up directing the conversation to places Taylor is not prepared to defend, and he leaves with more questions than he anticipated. Much of the next several chapters are devoted to Taylor's pursuit of answers, describing how he dug through the Bible to justify all that he had for so long taken as gospel: in short, the basic pillars of the Religious Right. He examines the nonviolent, service-based, counter-governmental words and actions of Jesus and His followers, pitting all this against the current American Christian political stance. Taylor then shifts his focus for a few chapters to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both as it's playing out in Israel and how it's seen by the typical American Christian. Wrapping up his argument with a nod toward peaceful anarchism (Thoreau, Chomsky), Taylor envisions a new Christianity, known for its self-sacrifice, service, and peaceful disassociation from positions of power and government.

For a little over half the book, I was thoroughly a fan. Sure, his argument isn't perfect, and the book is in desperate need of a copyedit (in addition to the usual minor offenses and a much-overused italic emphasis, my personal favorites were "the Iron/Contra scandal" and "the Lord Jesus Chris"). But he's admirably vulnerable and confessional with how deeply rooted his beliefs were, and how poorly they lined up with the Jesus he claimed to follow. He does an excellent job of gently bringing examples straight from Scripture of Jesus and his followers avoiding opportunities to wield power in earthly ways (politics, violence, oppression), and drawing the stark parallel to the modern American Christian's zeal for war and political advantage. Often pulling his points from familiar passages, Taylor strikes a balance of asking a leading question without falling into patronizing or condemning language:

Some say that the only reason Jesus stopped Peter [from using his sword when soldiers came to take Jesus to trial] is because He knew He had to go to the cross to die for the sins of the world, but notice that Jesus did not say, "I appreciate the thought, Peter, but I'm doing this for the sins of the world, so save your sword for another occasion." Instead He said, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." The question is simple. Is Jesus our moral example or not?      (115)

Taylor's strongest arguments come through in Chapter 4, "Is Democracy the New Crusade?", where he examines the interconnectedness of American and Christian ideals. He questions how much the Church has backed military action in the name of democracy and freedom--which is to say, conforming other nations to the sociopolitical structure of the U.S. Taylor is still careful with his words, but here he finds his confidence with a solid and succinct argument. "I believe that for too long the word 'evangelical' has been synonymous with hyper-nationalism. We've turned the Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, into a tribal deity who fights for the U.S. flag" (56). In addition to referencing general feeling and belief, Taylor also cites wartime speeches from President George W. Bush and does nice work drawing out the problems of unifying American nationalism with the Gospel.

Though he never references the book, this is in some ways a toned-down version of Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw'Jesus for President--and I say that not as a slight to either title. JfP, while very well done, would be off-putting for some in its unapologetic charges; Taylor is much more cautious and tempering with his arguments.

But about halfway through the book, those arguments begin to slip. He starts repeating them (the quote above regarding Peter is the third time he's referenced the same passage and point) and starts drawing on looser threads. He is, at times, so careful to not offend that he is nearly unintelligible, shifting into a passive tone that can't be read without picturing his arms upraised in dramatized innocence. As he shifts his view to Israel and later to anarchism, he seems to lose his footing more, like he couldn't remember where he had started this conversation. And wrapping up the book with a chapter entitled "Powerless Prophets" does seem somewhat fitting, as the strong arguments of the early chapters seem less convicting after his pitfalls. Taylor ends the book with an imagined conversation describing a hoped-for future American Church, but it's a bit too sugary-sweet and idealized to ring true. 

I'm looking forward to the documentary, and I think Taylor did some admirable soul- and Scripture-searching to find truth and relevance in his faith. If it were possible to recommend half a book, I would. In looking back through my notes and brackets, I really did appreciate much of what he had to say, but the last chapters' wandering and disconnectedness left a bad taste in the mouth, and I can't help but point interested readers toward those whose arguments stand a book’s duration.

Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War is published by Foghorn Publishers © 2008. For more information, check out it's product page on Amazon. And for more information on Taylor, his blog is here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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