A few months ago when the request came on the State of Formation email group for reviewers for a book called ‘Project Conversion’, my literary greed took the better of me as I rushed to get hold of yet another book to add to my collection. I have to say that right from the word go, I was intrigued by the concept of one man, 12 faiths, one year. This sounded like a joke or someone who had plenty of time (and money) to waste. Yet, I was encouraged to read because I was curious to see why (and more importantly how) this project and ‘adventure’ was undertaken. This project was about undertaking a journey to correct misconceptions about faith and the people who follow that faith.
Andrew Bowen’s background seemed interesting, from his childhood ultra-Christian identity to his military training. If someone had told me of his background before reading the book, my sensors would have been on alert, because this was someone who would in turn look at me, a practicing Muslim, through a lens that after 9/11 has become more of the norm. Talk about preconceived notions before starting a book that is about countering preconceived notions!!
And I think that is the basis of the book and the journey that I have also experienced. It is about challenging, countering and ultimately correcting misconceptions and preconceived notions about the ‘other’. Let us face it! We all have it at some point in our lives where we have a negative stereotypical view of the ‘other’ that is fed by our parents or conditioned by society. Most of us through our life experiences and encounters manage to somehow overcome these notions. Some of us will never get the opportunity to do so and, left unchecked, these preconceived notions fester and decay until they form the basis of racist and xenophobic behavior. Very few actually proactively do something about challenging these misconceptions. Andrew falls into this last category choosing to act out one of my favorite sayings “If you wish to change the world, be that change’. He also follows the Chinese saying that “if you wish to walk in someone else’s footsteps, take off your shoes”. So Andrew has done just that, 12 times exploring the well known Abrahamic faiths as well as some unknown ones like Wicca. Hence by choosing to experience these different faiths, Andrew displays an empathy and sympathy that is very unique. It allows him to speak as a constructive expert and not as a destructive critic.
What is fascinating about Andrew’s journey and his documentation is his candidness and open minded approach. He chooses to share with us skeletons in the closet within the faiths not so much to demonize them, but more to show that like in any family, the challenges and battles that are faced on a daily basis are very real. He shows us that no faith, despite how pure its adherents claim, is without its faults. However, by showing this in an empirical way, he makes faith something real and human, and not something that is elastic and in a vacuum as it is assumed. Any faith has its pitfalls and challenges with its sectarian differences, however it is often the case that adherents of faith try to gloss over these differences, often choosing to paint a rosy picture. Andrew’s account of each faith shows each of them in a true light that makes it easy for people to dismantle stereotypes held about different faiths. By going through the chapters, the readers themselves become awake to a new understanding and insight via the lens of each faith.
Of course, Andrew’s journey is a personal one and in this book we experience his personal challenges with trying to take family along his journey. This is also part of the challenge of faith. Faith is about trying to strike a balance between all facets of life, personal, family and work. The process of balancing this is ultimately one of the lessons of faith.
Reading this book, I was reminded about the analogy of the shattered mirror that Sir Richard Burton wrote in the The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi when he wrote: “Truth is the shattered mirror strewn In myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own.” Thus, parts of the truth are everywhere and the whole truth nowhere! Andrew’s book shows us that each different faith has this individual piece of the whole truth. We need to realise that each of us (with our own faith, culture and community spirit) have a shard of broken glass from the shattered mirror. Only by piecing them together can we ever hope to move out of our silos and attain a much more cohesive community that better understands, respects and accepts each other.
By understanding this shattered mirror concept, we encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity and cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings. Andrew Bowen’s book helps us to understand this slightly better.