- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

Non-Muslims often wonder what it’s like to perform the hajj, the visit to Mecca that all Muslims are urged to do at least once in their lifetime. Being that only Muslims are allowed inside Mecca and its sister city, Medina, it’s a journey most Westerners won’t make.

In A Season in Mecca (Hill and Wang, $26, 293 pages), Abdellah Hammoudi reveals the nasty, brutish face of the hajj. The journey, which involves two-and-a-half million Muslims descending on a corner of Saudi Arabia for a few weeks, is not exactly the happy brotherhood that Malcolm X raved about in his 1965 autobiography. Rather, it’s a clash of Sunni and Shiite and of the myriad of nationalities represented there.

The first order of business for pilgrims is to arrive in Medina and go on a buying spree among the merchants there — a custom excoriated by the author. He finds Medina spiritually bankrupt, as the Saudis don’t even allow pilgrims a glimpse of Mohammed’s tomb. The country’s religious totalitarianism is horribly repressive, to the point that if male visitors (not to mention women) as much as reveal a bare knee, even by accident, they are roughed up by religious police.

Islam is a religion based on good deeds and works, and the very essence of the hajj is an effort to earn or at least add to one’s salvation. Mr. Hammoudi, an anthropologist teaching at Princeton and a native of Morocco, is both drawn and repelled by his own religion. “Islam was my home,” he writes, “but I inhabited it as a homeless man.”

Soon into the book, the reader realizes much has been lost in translation from the original French manuscript. The English prose is clunky, awkward and badly in need of editing. Pages and pages are devoted to Mr. Hammoudi’s obsession with Islam’s insistence on separating men and women in public life and the spiritual meaning of Medina’s crass commercialism. There are typos, repeated sentences and the narrative drags.

Through all this, one wonders: Why would anyone follow this religion? What brings millions of people to an oppressively hot country to worship a meteorite embedded in a black cube?

Because of the book’s murky prose, it is easy to start skimming. And the ending is wildly confusing, leaving the reader thankful that at least this hajj is over.

The idea behind Furious Pursuit (Waterbrook, $14.99, 224 pages), written by Tim King and Frank Martin, is quite fetching: Too many people feel their relationship with God is based all on their own efforts. One slip and they’re in the dog house. But, these authors say, the Gospel is not about our faithfulness; it’s about God’s faithfulness, hence the burden is off us.

The book starts off well enough with the idea that God is pursuing us; thus we don’t have to agonize over our half-hearted pursuit of Him. God is willing to go far, willing to bend incredibly far, just to win our hearts. He wants to draw us into His love instead of forcing us through threats or by buying us off.

Who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? These two Colorado Springs authors (one writes commentary for Focus on the Family and the other is a former pastor) have put together a long essay on why our relationship with God should be a lot easier than it often is. Basically, our job is to allow God to work and to trust Him.

You cannot catch God by chasing Him; you catch Him only by accepting His pursuit of you, they say.

If this premise sounds familiar to evangelical readers, it is; much of what is written here is very close to what another Colorado Springs author, John Eldredge, says in his books. Mr. King and Mr. Martin, however, are far gushier.

There’s a lot of capitalized words, as if to reassure us of the Meaning behind it All. God is the eternal Hero out to rescue us. We are all part of a Larger Story and the objects of God’s Courtship. God is the great Romancer. His engagement ring is the Ring of Thorns atop Jesus’ head. And so on.

There are a lot of creative ideas in this book, but a lot of the concepts herein are borrowed. And, despite these romantic concepts of God’s love pales, what happens when this heavenly groom is silent? This book does not tackle what happens then. If we’re worth so much to God, then why does He let us down so often?

“What God wants is relationship,” the authors say. “He doesn’t want us to analyze the poem; he wants us to get inside the heart of the Poet. God knows that you will never fully overcome; he only expects you to engage in the struggle.”

Nothing on why relationship with God is often frustrating and fruitless.

Maybe when you are, like the authors, presumably happily married with kids and living in a paradise like Colorado Springs, such questions don’t occur so often. But to the rest of the human race, they’re everything.

Typically, what’s out there about singleness in the Christian market rates a D+ at best, but Debbie Maken’s first book, Getting Serious about Getting Married (Crossway, $12.99, 207 pages), is far above the usual fare.

Aimed at Christian singles who have been fruitlessly waiting on God for years for that chance to marry, her book punctures all the shibboleths dished out (by their sexually active married friends) to these celibates telling them to be content with their difficult lot.

“It’s one thing to insist that an 18-year-old have some patience in getting married,” she writes, “it’s quite another to say that to the same woman at 35.”

Mrs. Maken, a litigation attorney in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., before she married in her mid-30s and bore two daughters, tells singles they will wait in vain for any meaningful help from their churches. Having been on the receiving end of years of bad theology on why one should remain single, she goes after the arguments used in many churches that trap singles into thinking their protracted state in life is a “gift.”

“Until the church returns to preaching the superiority of marriage over singleness and the duty to marry,” she writes, “and until some of these singles (especially the men) start squirming in their seats and feel the shame that is rightfully theirs to bear if they are refusing to follow God’s leading into marriage, there will be no substantive improvement in the number of Christian marriages.”

Unlike most writers in this genre, Mrs. Maken tackles singleness from a Reformed theological point of view, arguing from the Bible that this state in life is rarely mandated by God. It’s the duty of singles — unless God has personally told them to remain alone — to marry and bear children so as to build up the kingdom of God. She hammers home the necessity of marrying in one’s youth to better bear children, deal with sexual tension and create a full life together with one’s mate.

Full disclosure: I wrote an endorsement for this book, because of the huge need for intelligent solutions for the millions of unhappy Christian singles who get reams of bad advice.

I differed with her on a few things; I don’t think it’s wise to live with one’s parents past college, and she advises single women to do so. She feels that marrying much past 40 produces “a piecemeal marriage,” because of so much water already gone under the bridge. This dashes the hopes of any baby boomer reading this. A good, albeit late, marriage is still better than no marriage at all.

Mrs. Maken suggests not wasting years in dating but getting people (parents, siblings, good friends) to “agent” for you; that is, be actively on the lookout for a good mate in the same way the patriarch Abraham sent his servant back to his homeland to look for a bride for his son, Isaac.

Unlike writers of most singles books, Ms. Maken encourages women especially to enlist their parents to help in finding a mate and to help them on setting up a dating/courtship life that encourages suitors to either get serious or get lost.

Julia Duin is The Washington Times’ religion writer.

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