Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else’s religion practiced on us. –John Irving, novelist (b. 1942)
Taking time to read books in our media saturated world of fast images, social networking, and quick computer searches is also an important pastime. To slow down with your thoughts and explore at a more in depth pace is becoming something that is less frequent. Sometimes it is good to read a handful of books that touch a certain topic or genre to provide not just bits of learning but a full meal of perspectives to broaden our thinking on a subject.
Without realizing it I stumbled into just such a reading vein. I heard Sanjiv Bhattacharya, the author of Secrets and Wives, being interviewed on the Utah NPR station KUER
and became fascinated by his book about fringe plural marriage, people who live primarily in Utah. Bhattcharya, an East Indian from the UK, sought a journalist’s opportunity to understand the lives of Fundamentalist Mormons who were living illegally in plural marriages. His quest to interview people involved with his lifestyle was not an easy one made more difficult by the appearance of a brown skinned man with a foreign accent showing up in small town diners asking questions about this fringe religion that is unique even to our country with so many different flavors of religiosity. His book is well done and worth a read for anyone interested in sociology and religion.
Fathermothergod by Lucia Greenhouse explores her childhood growing up in an upper middle class family whose parents were wholly devoted to the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Science teachings. This memoir explores her childhood that left Lucia feeling like “the other” when she was excused from school immunizations due to her family’s religious beliefs that saw illness as a weakness of the spirit. Her mother later becomes gravely ill and seeks treatment within their religious structure and the most powerful part of the book is her coming to terms with what this meant to her whole extended family and how they had to live with the results. It is a powerful book about what happens when one’s religious zeal sets him or her apart from the more traditional and mainstream approaches to every day life.
Lastly is Sarah Vowell‘s book Unfamiliar Fishes a quirky and somewhat uneven read about the history of the Hawaiian Islands but is more about the way that missionaries came and shaped the fate of so many Hawaiians. The history of the islands, in many ways, became the history of all these religious people who came to “save” the natives and is the history of the Americanization of this paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Although her book is in places very uneven and breezy, she was the first one to explain that it was these Puritans many of whom came from New England likely saved the Hawaiian language and for a short while made Hawaii one of the most literate nations in the world, by writing down their words, and teaching so much of the population to read and write. Like her work on “This American Life”
this book is quirky and can at turns read as if she needed a few more drafts to even out the pace and her drifting focus of the book. I enjoyed it although it was sent to me by a reluctant friends in Nevada who had hoped it would talk much more about the Hawaiian natives particularly the royalty that was only touched upon amid the talk of missionaries and folks who came to “civilize” the place. It certainly would not be the first book to read about the history of the Hawaiian islands but it is an interesting read for someone who has already familiar with the story and who wants to add new perspectives.
These three books look at religion from very different perspectives but read together will make you realize how much religion shapes the lives of our fellow citizens and what is at stake when you forget how ingrained these lessons are for so many around us.