Survival Guide for the Soul | Book Review


Kurt Vonnegut included a philosophy joke in one of his novels. It looked like this:

“To be is to do.” — Socrates
“To do is to be.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
“Do be do be do.” — Frank Sinatra

I can’t vouch for Vonnegut’s take on Socrates or Sartre, but I will say this: Any person who can be as well as they do lives as well as Sinatra could sing.

Ken Shigematsu opens Survival Guide for the Soul by distinguishing between doing and being. Drawing on an insight about Genesis 1–2 by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Shigematsu speaks of “Striving Adam” and “Soulful Adam.” These are not two different Adams, but two different ways of describing tendencies within all people. “One part of us strives to impact the world around us through our work and effort,” he writes. That’s doing. “And another part of us seeks soulful connection through relationships with people and by experiencing ultimate reality.” That’s being.

Ideally, we should keep our striving and our soulfulness together. But in the modern world, which emphasizes achievement, fame and success, Striving Adam has the upper hand, and Soulful Adam gets shoved aside. In response, we need to reemphasize meaning, not so that we can ignore achievement, but so that we can bring our striving back into balance with our soulfulness.

As Christians, Shigematsu argues, soulfulness begins and ends with understanding that we are God’s beloved. “Knowing that we are deeply loved by our Creator frees us to pursue a life of significant, enduring achievement — a life that is not driven by fear and anxiety but one that springs from a deep well of joy and gratitude for the love and grace God has shown us.”

At a surface level, all Christians know that God loves them. It’s written in black and white on the pages of Scripture. It’s painted blood red on the cross of Christ. But that surface knowledge too often doesn’t make it into the deep parts of our souls, where our emotions and passions govern. To move knowledge of God’s love from our heads to our hearts, we need spiritual disciplines.

Shigematsu discusses seven spiritual disciplines — he calls them “survival habits of the soul” — throughout the book. They are meditation, Sabbath, gratitude, simple abundance, servanthood, friendship and vocation. Each of these is a way of tuning out and tuning in. Tuning out worldly voices that tell us we are only as good as what we achieve, and tuning in to God’s voice that tells us we are truly and deeply loved.

“May you live more and more fully into the knowledge that the Creator of the universe cherishes you as a son or daughter,” writes Shigematsu at the book’s end.

That’s a good prayer for every soulful striver.

Book Reviewed
Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a World That Pressures Us to Achieve (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an impression of the book, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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Think, Love, Succeed | Book Review


Having heard good things about Dr. Caroline Leaf, I was prepared to be impressed by her new book, Think, Learn, Succeed. I was not, unfortunately. The book was like a stew gone bad, filled with ingredients that are tasty by themselves but not in combination with others.

Here are the book’s ingredients I found tasty. First, the book is about “mental self-care,” about “a lifestyle of cognitive transformation that is both sustainable and organic.” As a middle-aged man, I certainly want my cognitive functions to remain sharp. Second, the book emphasizes changing one’s mindsets from negative to positive, developing an optimistic, “wired-for-love bias.” Such a mindset is eminently desirable. Third, the book teaches that each of is uniquely “gifted” in how we process information. The 70-question “Gift Profile” helped me identify the way I uniquely think about information; my profile made sense to me. Fourth, the book teaches a five-step learning method that builds memory meaningfully—again, an appealing topic.

And yet, for me personally, the combination of these tasty ingredients wasn’t tasty too. It started with the fact that the five-step learning method is too formulaic. I’ve completed one graduate degree and am working on another, and I’ve never used Dr. Leaf’s recommended “Metacom” technique—basically, mind-mapping—to learn my subjects. I can see its usefulness, of course, but I’ve done well in school without it. Plus, using Metacogs seems to sit uneasily with the notion that our Gift Profile demonstrates our unique way of thinking. How can our thinking unique if there’s only one way of learning?

A second problem: I’m an editor. This book needed better editing. There are 16 chapters devoted to 15 mindsets in Section One. Three chapters devoted to Seven Modules make up your unique Gift Profile in Section Two. And Section Three outlines a five-step process for learning. That’s 27 major points, not counting all the subpoints Dr. Leaf makes under these points. And it’s not clear to me how the sections on mindsets, customized thinking, and learning process hang together. At times, I felt like I was reading three books crammed uncomfortably between two covers.

Finally, the scientific research that underlies Dr. Leaf’s conclusions was alternately fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because of the intrinsic appeal to me of subjects like the mind-brain problem, neuroplasticity, the biological substratum of memory, and the like. Frustrating because as a nonspecialist reader, the scientific details got a bit overwhelming. Plus, it wasn’t always clear that I needed a scientific basis for a particular conclusion, which to be honest, seemed like common sense.

So, just two stars on this one for me. I wanted to like it, but I had to force myself to finish it. Kind of like what you have to do when eating a bad stew…

Book Reviewed
Dr. Caroline Leaf, Think, Learn, Succeed: Understanding and Using Your Mind to Thrive at School, the Workplace, and Life(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an impression of this book,please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Leadership in Turbulent Times | Book Review


The best way to study leadership is to study leaders. How they exercised influence in their contexts provides examples of how we can do so in ours. For this reason, it is paramount for leaders to be well-versed in biography and history, the knowledge of people and their times.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times provides case studies of the leadership of four U.S. presidents at critical junctures in their administrations:

  • Abraham Lincoln exemplifies transformational leadership as he expanded the North’s war aims from union to emancipation through the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Theodore Roosevelt provides a model of crisis management by how he brought labor and management to the table during the Great Coal Strike of 1902.
  • Exuding optimism and executing a plan to respond to the Great Depression in his first 100 days, Franklin Delano Roosevelt offers a master class in turnaround leadership.
  • And Lyndon Johnson demonstrates visionary leadership by using all the forces at his disposal — including persuasion and hardball politics — to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), fundamentally altering the legal terms under which whites and blacks related to one another.

Goodwin presents these case studies in Part III of her book, “The Leader and the Times: How They Led.” Of each president’s White House years, she writes: “There, at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”

But those ambitions and talents didn’t emerge de novo or ex nihilo. The four presidents were influenced by circumstances just as much as they in turn influenced them. Part I, “Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership,” narrates the burgeoning sense of possibility each president experienced in his 20s especially, along with the recognition by their peers that they were destined for greater things. Part II, “Adversity and Growth,” shows how each one faced a test or series of tests that forced them to ask deeper questions of their life’s meaning — questions that, once answered, steeled their commitment to lead. Finally, an Epilogue examines how each man reflected on his enduring reputation, a fame that would last beyond both his administration and his death. How would they be remembered by posterity?

As with Goodwin’s previous works on these four presidents, Leadership in Turbulent Times is a gripping read, combining biographical detail and historical context. It is the addition of shrewd insights about leadership throughout the book that marks a departure from her earlier biographies. Those insights are well-grounded and explicit.

One of the great dangers of drawing lessons from biography or history is that such lessons smooth over differences, whether among the subjects of  biographical inquiry, or between their times and our own. Doris Kearns Goodwin is well aware of this danger and largely avoids it. The leadership principles she draws organically arise from the events she narrates. Here’s how she explains the matter in the book’s Foreword:

“These four extended examples show how their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock. No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges and notches along its blade. While there is neither a master key to leadership nor a common lock of historical circumstance, we can detect a certain family resemblance of leadership traits as we trace the alignment of leadership capacity within its historical context.”

That “family resemblance of leadership traits,” the book’s explicit lesson, is what leaders will most appreciate about Leadership in Turbulent Times. Its implicit lesson is that leaders must know themselves and their own times if they want to change them. Leadership never occurs in a vacuum where principles can be applied automatically. Rather, it requires wisdom. Like the biblical men of Issachar, leaders understand the times and know just what to do (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Book Reviewed
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

P.S. If this review helped you form an opinion of the book, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Didn’t See It Coming | Book Review


Next year, I turn 50. I am neither the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed twentysomething I used to be, nor the worn-out old man yelling, “Get off my lawn!” that I sometimes fear becoming. Instead, I am in between.

In between is a weird place to be. You’re neither where you started nor where you’re going. You’ve come a long way, but you’ve still got a long way to go. The journey has given you road-tested experience, but that experience has dulled your wariness of what’s just around the corner.

So, when trouble strikes, you don’t see it coming. Carey Nieuwhof didn’t write this book for middle-agers like me, even though he’s middle-aged like me. Nor did he write it solely for pastors or other Christians, even though he’s a Christian pastor. Instead, he wrote Didn’t See It Comingfor anyone who wants to live free of cynicism, moral compromise, disconnection from others, irrelevance to others, pride, burnout, or a general feeling of emptiness. Those are the “7 greatest challenges that no one expects and everyone experiences,” as the book’s subtitle puts it.

If you’re young, this book will help you proactively keep a fresh, hopeful perspective on life, work and ministry. If you didn’t see it coming — itbeing one of those seven horribles — this book will help you recognize where you went wrong and how to get back on the right path. And if you’re in between, like me, it will help you make mid-course corrections so that your experience and hopefulness can be mutually enriching. Throughout the book, Nieuwhof’s advice is biblically grounded, eminently practical and winsomely delivered.

I’ve leave you with this quote, which expresses the key insight of Didn’t See It Coming: “Simply put, self-awareness coupled with a close walk with God will [help you see it coming every time]. When you are intimately in touch with your own emotions and inclinations and deeply knowledgeable about the ways of God, you’ll have a much greater chance of seeing it — whatever itis. Self-aware people have a conscious knowledge of their motives, desires, feelings, and character. They are also in tune with how their actions affect others. The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to see it coming.”

Book Reviewed
Carey Nieuwhof, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences(Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2018).

P.S. If you find this review helpful, please click the “Helpful” button on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast about the book with Carey Nieuwhof.

Categories of Distorted Automatic Thoughts | The Coddling of the American Mind


In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt show that there is an analogy between the way many students on campus reason about current events and the distorted automatic thoughts identified by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). They go on to provide a list of those distorted thoughts, which I’m posting here:

  1. MIND READING: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  2. FORTUNE-TELLING: You predict the future negatively: Things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  3. CATASTROPHIZING: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  4. LABELING: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  5. DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do–so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  6. NEGATIVE FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
  7. OVERGENERALIZING: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  8. DICHOTOMOUS THINKING: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  9. SHOULDS: You interpret events in terms of how things should be rather than simply focusing on what is. “I should do well. If I don’t, then I’m a failure.”
  10. PERSONALIZING: You attribute a disproportionate amount of blame to yourself for negative events, and you fail to see that certain events are also caused by others. “The marriage ended because I failed.”
  11. BLAMING: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  12. UNFAIR COMPARISONS: You interpret events in terms of standards that are unrealistic–for example, you focus primarily on others who do better than you and find yourself inferior in the comparison. “She’s more successful than I am,” or “Others did better than I did on the test.”
  13. REGRET ORIENTATION: You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past, rather than on what you can do for better now. “I could have had a better job if I had tried,” or “I shouldn’t have said that.”
  14. WHAT IF?: You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?” or “What if I can can’t catch my breath?”
  15. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  16. INABILITY TO DISCONFIRM: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m unlovable,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
  17. JUDGMENT FOCUS: You view yourself, others, and events in terms of evaluations as good-bad or superior-inferior, rather than simply describing, accepting, or understanding. You are continually measuring yourself and others according to arbitrary standards, and finding that you and others fall short. You are focused on the judgments of others as well as your own judgments of yourself. “I didn’t perform well in college,” or “If I take up tennis, I won’t do well,” or “Look how successful she is. I’m not successful.”

Pp. 277–278, citing Robert L. Leahy, Stephen F. J. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn, Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2011), n.p.

The Coddling of the American Mind | Book Review


“This is a book about wisdom and its opposite,” write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. “It is a book about three psychological principles and about what happens to young people when parents and educators—acting with the best of intentions—implement policies that are inconsistent with those principles.” In my opinion, it is also a book every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read.

And yes, I am serious about that.

The Coddling of the American Mind grew out of the increased support among college students for censorship of controversial opinions, a trend that Lukianoff began to notice in the fall of 2013. Lukianoff is president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a leading advocate for free speech on college and university campuses. In his experience, until that time, the leading advocates for censorship had been college administrators. What was driving the rapid rise of support for censorship among students?

For much of his life, Lukianoff had suffered clinical depression, even contemplating suicide in late 2007. In 2008, he underwent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that identifies distorted patterns of thinking that often underlie depression and anxiety, and this helped him tremendously. As Lukianoff interacted with students, he noticed that the way they reasoned about controversial issues often mirrored the same cognitive distortions CBT teaches people to control.

This insight led to a conversation with Haidt, a social psychologist, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. That conversation led to a feature story in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The book builds out the article’s core thesis.

Lukianoff and Haidt unfold their argument in three parts: Part I, “Three Bad Ideas,” looks at “three Great Untruths”:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battled Between Good People and Evil People

Taken together, these untruths result in “a culture of safetyism” on campus, whereby students must be protected from opposing opinions that might “harm” their “safety,” no longer defined as physical safety but now as emotional safety too.

The results of this culture of safetyism, ironically enough, are intimidation and violence on the one hand and witch hunts on the other, as the Lukianoff and Haidt argue in Part II, “Bad Ideas in Action.”

They cite the February 1, 2017, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos riot at the University of California at Berkeley as an example of the former, though there are many such examples scattered throughout the book. But the threats of violence are not merely coming from leftwing Antifa activists on campus. The authors point to alt-right off-campus provocation as well, specifically the neo-Nazi march through the University of Virginia’s campus on August 11, 2017. The confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters the next day resulted in the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer by an alt-right driver.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite several examples of academic witch hunts conducted against professors who utter heterodox ideas, even if they are liberal or leftwing. Prof. Bret Weinstein’s protest of the “Day of Absence” at Evergreen State College in Washington is a leading example of this. The school is quite liberal, as is Weinstein. On its annual Day of Absence, minority faculty students had since the 1970s gone off campus to make their absence, and hence contributions, palpable. But in 2017, organizers of the event asked white faculty and students not to show up. Weinstein thought this went too far and was subjected to vicious protests for saying so.

As these events illustrate, college and university campuses, which are supposed to be beacons of free speech, have instead in many cases become their opposite. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for why this has happened, but in Part III, “How Did We Get Here?,” Lukianoff and Haidt identify “six interacting explanatory threads”:

“rising political polarization and cross-part animosity; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression; changes in parenting practices; the decline of free play; the growth of campus bureaucracy; and a rising passion for justice in response to major national events, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.”

This may be the most interesting part of the book, rich in social scientific detail and fair-minded in its analysis. As the parent of three elementary-age children, the chapters on “Paranoid Parenting” and “The Decline of Free Play” were thought-provoking and helpful.

Part IV, “Wising Up,” builds on the analysis of the previous chapters and suggests a way forward for making “Wiser Kids,” “Wiser Universities,” and “Wiser Societies,” as the titles of the three chapters indicate. A table on page 263 summarizes the argument of the entire book, so I’ll reproduce it here:

PSYCHOLOGICAL PRINCIPLE WISDOM GREAT UNTRUTH
Young people are antifragile. Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
We are all prone to emotional reasoning and the confirmation bias. Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother. Always trust your feelings.
We are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Life is battle between good people and evil people.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I am serious when I say that every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read The Coddling of the American Mind. It stimulated my thinking as a parent and helped form a better opinion of contemporary events as a concerned citizen. As a person, it provided an accessible introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy, identifying the cognitive distortions that misshape our opinions and hence misguide our actions. And it reminded me that people across the aisle from me—politically and religiously—are also intelligent and public-minded and can have things to say I need to hear.

So, buy this book. Read it. Then share it.

Book Reviewed
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure(New York: Penguin Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Sword and Scimitar | Book Review


In his 1996 bestseller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argued “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” He went on to describe several civilizational cohorts, but a comment on Islam is germane here: “In the early 1990s, Muslims were engaged in more intergroup violence than were non-Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Then came his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) conclusion: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Raymond Ibrahim neither quotes nor cites Huntington in Sword and Scimitar—and of course, Huntington can’t be held responsible for Ibrahim’s scholarship since he’s dead—but I get the impression that Ibrahim would assent to Huntington’s characterization of Islam, then kick it up a notch. Here’s how he describes the book’s thesis in the Preface:

Sword and Scimitar documents how the West and Islam have been mortal enemies since the latter’s birth some fourteen centuries ago. It does this in the context of narrating their military history, with a focus on their most landmark encounters, some of which have had a profound impact on the shaping of the world. However, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this one offers timely correctives: it sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.”

Islam’s borders have been bloody since its inception, in other words.

Ibrahim argues in favor of this thesis by tracing the causes, fighting, and outcomes of eight key battles between “Islam and the West,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Four were won by Muslim forces, four by Christian forces. The key battles are, in order, Yarmuk (636), Constantinople (717), Tours (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople again (1453), and Vienna (1683). His narration of those events is riveting, often drawing on contemporary Christian and Muslim sources. Moreover, he shows the relationship of these battles to other practices, especially Islamic slavery and the Christian Crusades.

Obviously, Ibrahim’s is not a politically correct thesis. Essentially, it blames Islam for centuries of violence against what its author variously describes as “the West” or “Christendom.” Specifically, it identifies the source of that violence as the command of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as expressed in both the Koran and the most authoritative Hadith. “I have been commanded to wage war against mankind,” Ibrahim quotes the prophet as saying, “until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

It is tempting to dismiss this interpretation of Islam out of hand, but it is an old one. Ibrahim cites both Muslim explanations for and Christian denunciations of the warfare that erupted out of Arabia from the get-go. The Battle of Yarmuk, for example, took place in 636, just four years after the death of Muhammad. In the late fourteenth century, Manuel II Palailogos, heir to the throne of Constantinople, but then a hostage in the court of Turkish Sultan Bayezid, said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword the faith he preached.” Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words in his 2006 speech at Regensburg, and several anti-Christian riots erupted in a few places in the Muslim world, which seemed to some to prove his point.

We often think of the relationship between the West and the Muslim umma as one of colonizer and colonized, respectively. That’s a somewhat accurate way to describe their relationship since the eighteenth century, but until then, it’s just as plausible to reverse the relationships. Until largely Catholic forces under Jan Sobieski defeated Kara Mustafa Pasha before the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683, the relationship was often the reverse. Successive waves of Muslim colonizers controlled formerly Christian lands, first in the Middle East and Africa, then in parts of southern and eastern Europe. (Ibrahim doesn’t mention the expansion of Islam in other lands). We’re accustomed in this postmodern age to read history from its underside. Ibrahim isn’t a postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, but much of his narration depends on reminding readers what the defeated Christian populations of the once Christianized Roman empire thought of their new Islamic overlords. It’s definitely an underside perspective.

Still, I have significant reservations about the book. First, Ibrahim positions that book as a history of warfare between “Islam” and the “West.” But by “West,” he really means “Christendom,” which included both western and eastern halves. With the exception of Moorish Spain, it’s the eastern half of Christendom that has been subject to Muslim control the longest. But more problematically, both “Islam” and “Christendom” are complex realities, whose essence is difficult to define. As a Pentecostal, for example, I’m not sure I want to be on the hook for the Crusades, as important as they may have been to medieval Christendom, let alone the cozy Constantinian relationship between Church and State that preceded it. Obviously, I can’t speak for Muslims, but if I were them, I’m not sure I’d buy Ibrahim’s essentialist understanding of Islam as jihadist.

Second, methodologically, by focusing on battles, Ibrahim paints a picture of Christian-Islamic relations that emphasizes warfighting but deemphasizes day-to-day realities. Ibrahim’s subtitle speaks of “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West,” but in reality, the battles were not nonstop. They occurred, then things settled down into an equilibrium. We shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of dhimmi status, of course. Non-Muslim residents of the umma were not treated as the equals of believers, after all. But their lot wasn’t one of constant oppression, either. As Ibrahim himself notes, the brutality often happened in the wake of Muslim losses to Christian forces.

Third, we shouldn’t discount nonreligious, realpolitik, and geopolitical motivations for the warfare that occurred over the centuries. Take the Battle of Vienna, for example, which historians conventionally use to demarcate the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The September 12th battle pitted Catholic forces against Muslim forces, at least those were the dominant religious identities of the two sides. But the forces led by Sobieski included Crimean Tatars (Muslims), and the forces led by Mustafa included French and Transylvanian Catholics, as well as Hungarian Protestants. Each of the minority groups within these coalitions had grievances against their coreligionists that impelled them to join forces with the “other side.” In other words, more was at work than simple religious identity.

Fourth, contemporary Christians who read the justifications for violence blanche at the religious motives at work. When Pope Urban II called for the Crusades, he said, “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories.” No Christian today would argue that the State should plant the Church in heathen lands for the perfectly good reason that that’s not the way of Jesus Christ. Christians in earlier ages had no problems with this kind of Church-sanctioned, State-enforced violence, but we do, and with good cause. Given that contemporary Christians scratch their heads at our ancestors religious justifications for war, perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Muslims as they read their own foundational texts.

Fifth and finally, even acknowledging that some Muslims—say, the fanatics of the Islamic State—read their foundational texts to license violence against others, the vast majority of Muslims don’t. This is the great failing of Ibrahim’s book, it seems to me. Are Islam’s borders and innards bloody? Perhaps, but the first victims are often Muslims themselves, who suffer at the hands of fanatical coreligionists they do not support but cannot overcome. This calls into question the notion that Islam, at its civilizational essence, is little more than ceaseless jihad against unbelievers.

In conclusion, Sword and Scimitar is an interesting book, especially in its quotation of primary sources, which provide a lens through which to view those battles in their historical contexts. The problem is that if you look at Muslim-Christian interactions only through that lens, you miss out on important aspects of the scene before you.

Book Reviewed
Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West(New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.