Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Name Used to Be Muhammad

“I never thought I’d cry when my father died, but I wept like a baby.  I miss him terribly.
What I really miss is what we never had.  I would have spent another fifteen years
in prison in exchange for the opportunity to be close to my father as a boy.
I so badly wanted to please him.  I wanted to hear his praise.  I wanted to kick a soccer ball with him.
I wanted to paint him a picture and have him tell me he liked it.  I wanted to tell him
I met a girl and fell in love.  I wanted to ask him for advice.
I wanted to talk to him about something other than religion.  I wanted him to say something
to make me laugh.  I wanted him to put his hand on my shoulder and tell me about a time
when he made a mistake as a boy.  I wanted to see him miss my mother.
I wanted to be his boy.   Most of all, I wanted him to want me.”

Tito Momen

One of the most fascinating classes I took in college was a comparative religion class.  This was arguably my introduction to Islam.  I had run into some Muslims while on my mission in Russia, but my understanding of their religion was superficial at best.  It was in my world religions (I think that was its actual name) class that I learned more about the religion that claims more adherents than any other on our planet.  Since then, my travels as well as the events that have often taken center stage in the news have increased my knowledge of this fascinating religion.  As a staunch member of my own church, I find conversion stories to be miraculous, inspiring, and simply interesting.  Islam is known — rightly or wrongly is up for debate — for being extremely harsh in dealing with those who turn against it.  Conversions from the strong traditions of Islam to the all-encompassing doctrines of Mormonism are especially interesting from this standpoint.

Tito Momen, in My Name Used to Be Muhammad (ISBN: 978-1-60907-710-5), told just such a story.  His background was one of utmost Islamic piety in northern Nigeria to accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior and embracing the other doctrines and scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The journey was an interesting one, often wrought with peril.  Momen’s childhood and teenage years were fairly typical for boys in the area where his family lived.  His father was extremely strict, occasionally abusive, and based everything he did on his religion.  His plan for young Momen involved formal schooling with the ultimate goal of becoming part of the Islamic clergy.  Momen wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea, wishing to please his father and rather enjoying his schooling.  The only thing he didn’t really get was the lack of an outlet for his natural talents and the lack of room in his culture for questioning those in authority.  At a college in Damascus, Syria, he tired of abusive, extremist professors, eventually getting in a physical altercation with one that he despised the most.  While having the potential to be a real disaster, it ended up putting him on a path toward his eventual conversion.  He was able to go to Cairo, Egypt, to continue his schooling.  There, he met a very diverse group of people, including within the faithful Muslim community.  He learned that the northern Nigerian brand of Islam wasn’t the only one, and that many of those people were still good, faithful members of the faith.  He also ran into those who weren’t.  This diverse crowd led him to think a lot about his faith, and while he admits to making some choices that were not becoming of him, his upbringing, or really anyone, the process of change was something very foreign to someone coming from a background of total, blind obedience.  Eventually, he was kicked out of school in Egypt, too, having written an essay questioning Islam.  A French friend had converted to Mormonism in the meantime and introduced Momen to the Church.  After his conversion was complete, there were troubles with some of his former friends and acquaintances who were considering violence as an option for dealing with the apostasy from Islam.  An attempt to leave Egypt on a fake passport landed him in prison, where he languished for fifteen years before miraculously being let out.  Like the conversion story, the story of Tito Momen getting out of prison showed that God loves us, cares about us, and is involved in the details of our lives.

The book was, as I expected, incredibly interesting.  I know relatively little about the part of the world in which these events were set, so learning about them was neat.  Momen’s conversion story was, of course, incredible and displayed an incredible about of faith and humility.  His is one of those stories that makes a person think something like, “If this guy could go through all that he did, of course I can get through my middling problems.”  It’s an inspiring story that held my attention throughout the book.  The only thing I think could’ve been improved on was that his life story was told in decent detail, but maybe there could’ve been a little more detail given to his conversion to Mormonism.  I realize that it’s a deeply personal thing and that the impressions, thoughts, and feelings we have as we seek answers to our earnest prayers are personal and hard to describe.  Still, they are real, and there are events and thoughts associated with them that would be of interest.  It would firmly be rated PG-13 were it a movie, but it all accurately depicts life in North Africa and the Middle East.  I’d recommend the book as one of general human interest and religious interest that I really enjoyed.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bosnia: A Short History

Eastern Europe is, in general, a fascinating part of our world.  There are many reasons for this, ranging from greasy, tasty street food to dilapidated concrete housing blocks, as well as the contrasts and conflicts such as earthy traditionalism coupled with rich and vibrant cultures that have produced many world-class authors, artists, and musicians that are embedded in the cultures of the peoples of Eastern Europe.  It seems that conflict, in one form or another, has also been a fairly stable part of a history otherwise riddled with instability thanks to imperial conquest, religious disputations, and the natural result of a mixing of conflicting cultural values because of the region’s geographical location between the East and West.  The countries of the former Yugoslavia all, to one level or another, suffer from these divisions and contradictions.  Bosnia and Herzegovina may be at the forefront when it comes to so many opposing ideas, views, and cultures shoved into one country’s borders.  The Balkans’ similarities to the Caucasus have intrigued me for a while, so learning more about the history of the Bosnian people seemed like a natural fit for my curiosities.

Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm (ISBN: 0-8147-5561-5) explains just who the Bosnians are and who they have been throughout history.  Their history, like those of all the peoples of the Balkan region, is muddled thanks to it being at the crossroads of the East and the West.  Although rarely sought after militarily, both the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs brought it under control at different times.  Before that, though, Bosnia had carved out its own identity seperate from its neighbors, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia.  Bosnian history goes back to the ancient Illyrians and continues through Rome, Byzantium, and various Slavic tribes and rulers.  It continued, to a certain extent, in the short time period between World War I and the introduction of Communism.  It made it through the fall of Yugoslavia and continues its unique fractured and rather dysfunctional way today.  Religion, both Christianity and Islam, as well as earlier, pagan forms of worship, have played a major role in the forming of the Bosnian people.  The history, like much of Eastern Europe, is fragmented and often overly complicated, but it is rich and features a people who present something unique to the world.

Books about obscure topics have a tendency to by dry.  That only applied to this book in the section about the Bosnian Church.  Malcolm decided to dedicate an entire chapter to the church, which, in my opinion, was a debatable choice.  The subject matter was definitely relevant to the book’s overall argument, but there just wasn’t enough material to keep things moving in that section.  One would really have to be a specialist in the field to care enough to get into that chapter, which dragged because of arcane details about an enigmatic at best religious organization.  Other than that one flaw, I thought the book was interesting and presented on a relatively small number of pages a lot of essential information about the region and its people.  Given that the Balkans are such a complex collection of peoples, histories, religions, and modern states, it was quite a feat to get it sorted into coherent chapters and present any kind of argument.  Malcolm tried to make two major arguments.  First, Bosnians were and are a distinct ethnic group in the Balkans.  They are not some kind of off-shoot from the Serbs, Croats, or any other people.  They have a clear and distinct history.  This argument I think he succeeded at making.  Second, he contended that Bosnians have lived in relative peace with their neighbors, the Croats and Serbs, and the modern-day state of affairs, which led to the wars and attendant war crimes after the break-up of Yugoslavia were actually anomalies.  I did not quite agree with his assertion because whatever peace did exist, it seemed to live under a surface taught with tension.  Maybe the Bosnians did not enter into out-and-out warfare with their neighbors on a regular basis, but they certainly did not go out of their way to cooperate or increase connections.  In fact, his drawn-out bit about the Bosnian Church seems to support my idea in that they went for their own church not because of any great theological differences as compared to Orthodoxy or Catholocism, but simply because they preferred isolation from their neighbors, who presented a real and present threat.  The book was informative and makes one think, no matter the conlusions the reader reaches.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Morning Breaks

Russia and the other Slavic countries to which it is closely tied are fascinating places and they are captivating across a wide variety of fields.  Russian history is interesting with its ties to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; Russian politics, whether that be Putin or Stalin or Gorbachev, are intriguing; endless spellbinding tomes have been written about Russian spies, foreign policy, and military affairs; Russian food like pelmeni, bliny, and pirozhki is excellent; and the Russian people are equally engrossing and mind boggling with their mix of hospitality, Oriental-style ways, European sensibilities, and rude coarseness.  If one wants to study a particular angle, it can be done in Russia.  Russia also has a fairly rich religious heritage, the Soviet attempts at state-sponsored or state-enforced atheism notwithstanding.

In The Morning Breaks: Stories of Conversion and Faith in the Former Soviet Union by Howard L. Biddulph (ISBN: 978-1-57345-152-9), one can read about a relatively new chapter in that deep religious history.  President Biddulph was the leader of the first mission in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union (his responsibilities actually started just before the USSR fell).  He describes the miraculous nature of the early missionary work in Ukraine, often incorporating the thoughts and experiences of the first, pioneering Ukrainian Saints.  Some of testimonies of these people, always simple, are very strong.  All the experiences show the loving guidance of a Father in Heaven who wants His children to succeed in all that they undertake.  He talked of the people who made the Church successful in those wild times because of their extreme faith and true willingness to be instruments in the hands of the Almighty.  There were some of the typical-for-Eastern-Europe struggles with infinite layers of bureaucracy that were resolved; there were smaller miracles such as the sun shining through as Ukraine was dedicated for missionary work; and there were the many individualized miracles that took place each and every time a missionary decided to open his mouth one more time or an investigator decided to follow through on a commitment.  After a long period of stagnation and darkness, the Iron Curtain had fallen and the light of the gospel shone through to take its place.

The book was written in a very informal style with many excerpts from President Biddulph’s journals, his wife’s journals, and letters from or interviews with the early Ukrainian Saints.  It was, of course, intriguing for me, a former missionary in the territory of the former Soviet Union, to read about how another one of those countries came to meet the gospel.  Ukraine is fascinating from the standpoint of Church growth because it was opened to missionaries right on the heels of Russia, and is much smaller, but seems to have done much better as they had a stake there first and a temple, too.  I liked the stories, a couple of them similar to things I experienced first hand.  Missions are something it’s easy to wax nostalgic about, but they’re also something that has the power to rekindle the desires for righteousness and obedience to God’s law that were so strong while serving, and that is probably the best part of the book.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Control: Exposing the Truth about Guns

The U.S. Constitution is an amazing document.  Worked out, written, and ratified by inspired men, it created a form of government that had never been tried before.  More importantly, it enshrined rights that men have not because some government deigns confer them, but because they are provided by God.  The Founding Fathers had very intimate experiences with governments that were tyrannical in nature and oppressed their subjects.  When they designed the Constitution and subsequently wrote the Bill of Rights, they did so knowing what could go wrong with governments.  They had also just recently experienced the Revolutionary War and knew what it took to cast off the shackles of persecution from a government that no longer serves the express purpose of government, to help its citizens “exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (D&C 134:2).  They very clearly understood that the overthrow of a government was a very serious act, but that in extreme circumstances, it was necessary.  In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, they wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  An unarmed populace was extremely unlikely to be able to carry out its right to a government that ensured liberty: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”  They therefore wrote the second amendment to the Constitution, ensuring our right to the arms necessary to protect our rights.

The Revolutionary War and an oppressive monarchist government are ancient history in the average American’s mind.  That’s kind of too bad, though, because it has warped people’s minds as to why the Founding Fathers thought it so important to bear arms.  In Control: Exposing the Truth about Guns by Glenn Beck (ISBN: 978-1-4767-3987-8), the arguments typically trotted out by those who oppose guns (they would say they just support so-called gun control, but that’s just putting a fancy name on one thing so people think one is going on about something else) are dealt with one by one with logic and facts.  In fairness, the anti-gun crowd claims to be using logic and facts, too, but the book’s careful look at various studies puts most of the anti-gun arguments to shame.  The gun massacres that make headlines are shown to be the anomalies that they truly are, for example, especially since Beck gives page after page of example debunking the idea that gun massacres are an American phenomenon and that they’ve never been stopped by a level-headed gun owner.  Beck also talks a lot about our culture of violence and debunks a lot of the patently false and simply misinformed ideas regarding violence in video games.  In the end, though, he focuses on the real point of it all.  The examples, studies, facts, statistics, and even a few opinions all point to the idea that the Founders were men who loved liberty.  They regarded liberty with such high respect that they were willing to die for it.  They knew that only liberty provided the basis for the pursuit of happiness.  When we allow the state to control the choices we make, including choices about firearms, we are surrendering our liberty, making it harder for us to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

I am usually somewhat leery of these types of books because they’re written by big-name conservatives writing for a conservative audience.  They are sometimes peppered with references to the mental shortcomings of liberals or other knocks that make little sense (as a self-described conservative, I think the leaders of the liberal movement are anything but dumb).  This book had blessedly few of those, although there were a couple times I was exasperated by an inappropriate jab at the Left.  I was very impressed with the research and sound analysis presented in the book based on study after peer-reviewed study on everything having to do with the gun debate.  I especially liked how Beck examined the very studies often cited by gun-control advocates because Beck didn’t take them out of context or go for the soundbite quote.  That is probably considered boring by some and is why it doesn’t make the talking head shows or YouTube, but it’s informative and allows the reader to make a more well-informed decision.  There was only one section in the book out of at least a score that had me scratching my head at the end.  All in all, the argumentation was strong, and that’s good because the writing suffered from an attempt to keep it from being too dry.  I say be dry and make a stronger point based purely on logic and not at all on wit, which really isn’t an argument at all, although it, sadly, works all to well.  If you want to be well informed regarding what gun control really does and does not do and why it is so unhealthy for our nation (and, really, for people anywhere in this world), this book is probably worth your time.

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Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Long Walk

In eighth grade at Kaysville Junior High, a rather unpopular teacher named Mr. Rice showed us Escape from Sobibor, a movie that tells the story of an uprising in a German concentration camp.  I remember sleeping through some of it, but I also remember being intrigued by it, having learned much earlier about Anne Frank and the underground activity she and her family were involved in.  Later, I learned about the Soviet prison camps, the Gulag.  As with the story behind the movie I saw in junior high, the idea of escape from a vast system, stereotypically cruel and secure in most people's minds, has always been intriguing.  (To be completely honest, escapes from modern-day prisons are pretty intriguing.)  There is something redeeming and inspiring in hearing of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the chance — not necessarily freedom itself — just the chance of freedom.

Book cover.In The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (ISBN: 978-1-59921-975-2) by Sławomir Rawicz, one can read about just such an escape and one that combines World War II history, the Gulag, and adventure travel into one.  Billed as a true story, the reader follows Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer, from Moscow's notorious Lubyanka to the a small outpost of a prison camp in northern Siberia, and then about 4,000 miles south, to India, after his escape.  The escape itself is one of the few truly exciting scenes in the book, as the rest reads much like a travelogue, but it is all adventure after adventure as the small party of fugitives walks through Russia and then the wastelands of Mongolia and China.  They pick up a fellow escapee near Lake Baikal and experience Oriental hospitality over and over again in their travels through the deserts and mountains of western East Asia.  These usually touching, sometimes comical, visits are a major reason the travelers made it to India alive.  As is to be expected, they lose a few of the party along the way to starvation and exhaustion.  In the end, though, their desire to be free is triumphant, as they walk out of the hills and into the arms of a British Indian patrol.

I enjoyed the book, which reads like a novel.  The story was exciting, intriguing, and exhilarating.  It was interesting to read the story of torture at the hands of the Russians, the hardships experienced by the prisoners during the prisoner transfer operation across the vast expanses of Russia, and the way the labor camp was organized.  The escape and the adventures that laid therein were also fun to read about and did give off the sense of the indomitable human spirit.  The only thing that may be a bit of a negative about the book (aside from some mild strong language typical of Englishmen (Rawicz settled in England after the war)) is that it likely doesn't live up to its billing as being a true story.  The epic adventure has gone under the microscope of investigators and researchers a few different times.  Since the author lived in England, the BBC did a bit of research, as well as an American woman who wrote a book about her efforts and her inconclusive results.  The one thing that has been established is that Rawicz likely did not make the trek.  After that, one is left to make one's own conclusions including a number of possibilities ranging from him doing part of it to others completing the year-long hike and from the story being a compilation of others' adventures to it simply being a prisoners' tale that became, thanks to the horrors of war and the Gulag, impressed so strongly in people's minds that they genuinely believed the story was theirs or their acquaintances'.  I am personally partial to the latter two ideas, but think that the book was a great story regardless of veracity and even though I went into my reading of the book knowing about the controversy, and therefore approaching it as fiction, it does cause one to think about freedom, liberty, and the indomitable human spirit.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

От первого лица: Разговоры с Владимиром Путиным

People like to say that Russia is a big country and by so saying, infer that its physical size somehow influences the large amount of interesting things emanating from that country.  I am not convinced that is really how it works, but I do know that Russia is a fascinating country.  Before I went on my mission to Russia, I followed Russian politics the way most Americans did: I heard about it through the filter of American news organizations.  I knew Russia was the enemy, ideologically and militarily.  I also knew their athletes wore CCCP on their jerseys, and I just couldn’t figure out how in the world those letters stood for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  On my mission I solved the mystery of CCCP thanks to learning the Russian alphabet; I didn’t increase my knowledge of politics much, though, largely since that wasn’t something missionaries were supposed to be doing (and for good reason as there’s only so much time you have to be a missionary; politics can wait).  I did, though, begin my acquaintance with Vladimir Putin, easily Russia’s most powerful man.  On December 31st, 1999, I was with three other missionaries at a Church member family’s house to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  I mostly remember two things.  First, the Russian take on head cheese, kholodets, was pretty nasty.  Second, we watched on TV as Boris Yeltsin resigned and turned the country’s reigns over to Putin.

Book cover.От первого лица: Разговоры с Владимиром Путиным (ISBN: 5-264-00257-6), or First Person: Discussions with Vladimir Putin (my translation), by Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova, and Andrei Kolesnikov is a book that consists of not much more than a series of interviews with Vladimir Putin.  There were sections in which old friends, his ex-wife, an old teacher, and even his daughters made some comments, but it was mostly just transcripts of Putin talking to the three reporters.  Putin talked about his childhood, his schooling, his career ambitions, his family, his time in Germany, his athletic endeavors, and his meteoric rise from unknown in St. Petersburg to the heights of power in Moscow.  Putin went into quite a bit of detail about his childhood, schooling, judo exploits, and even talked quite a bit about his courtship of his ex-wife (they were still married when the book was written).  He also talked a lot about the early days of real, democratic politics in St. Petersburg, which was the springboard for his political career.  Finally, the reporters asked a lot of questions about the Russian issues of day, most of which had to do with Chechnya.  Putin explained why he chose the positions he did on Chechnya and how he figured it made Russia a more secure country.

The book was an interesting read because of the biographical feel to it.  I enjoyed reading about Putin’s early years.  The section about St. Petersburg politics was a little dry, but I did understand that it was key to Putin’s rise to power.  I found that Putin approached the interviews the same way he does all of his other public appearances: kind of dry and with a self-effacing element to it.  Other than a few of the answers to the Chechnya-related questions, he was pretty open and ready to share details.  With Chechnya and a couple internal Russian political affairs questions, the answers seemed a little more short and pointed.  The biggest drawback of the book is one that is not really anyone’s fault: it was written during Putin’s first term as Russia’s president.  Now that he’s in his third term, the book is quite out of date.  To be fair, I don’t think an updated book would be much different.  Any insight to one of post-Soviet Russia’s most intriguing figures is interesting, and this was no exception.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Swiss Family Robinson

As a young boy, I enjoyed watching Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson.  What is maybe kind of weird is that I remember the family singing “O, Christmas Tree” more than any other part of the movie.  Like any true boy, the idea of fighting pirates on a deserted, tropical island easily captured my imagination, as did the concept of actually living in a tree house.  Could it get any better?  With my own children now getting to the point where they appreciate movies above and beyond Disney princesses, I have turned to the great movies of my childhood.  These clean, fun movies beat just about anything the movie studios have to offer us today.  For the economically-minded like myself, buying a DVD for $10.00 online also beats going to the movie theater, where you pay at least that for one ticket alone.  Anyway, I recently got to relive some childhood excitement when we watched the classic Disney movie.  It got me wondering, though, where they got their story from.

Book cover.The answer is The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (ISBN: 978-0-14-310499-5), but with all movies, the book was only a starting point, and then the screenwriters went from there.  (It’s worth noting that the original story hasn’t been in print much since its 1812 printing and that most people have read a French translator’s version that abridged the original and then added a new storyline halfway through.)    Then again, it’s only fair to note that it seems Wyss was highly influenced by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  The story follows a Swiss pastor and his family (his wife and four boys) as they venture off to the colonies to start a new life.  Their well-equipped ship is wrecked, but somehow all the articles and the ship itself is rather well preserved while all the passengers and crew die except the family.  They make a raft and alight on the island that is to become their home.  The family, through resourcefulness and through an expansive knowledge of the natural sciences, is able to get along rather impressively in their new jungle home.  They’re constantly making trips along the beaches and into the interior of the island in an effort to find out all they can about their new home and to discover new natural resources such as plants and animals they can use to make their life a bit more comfortable and pleasant.  Most trips result in a success of one form or another, and soon the family has a couple places to live, orchards, fields, and an abundant number of livestock and beasts of burden of all various types.  There are some adventures along the way with wild animals, explosives, and the rigors of life under the open skies.  The family’s chance for rescue and a return to society is foiled by rough weather, and they must await another such rare opportunity to come, but such opportunities and the adventures in the meantime are left to the reader to invent for himself.

The story was an interesting one and while overall an enjoyable one, not quite the page turner one would expect having seen the Disney movie.  There are no pirates and no romances to be found in Wyss’s novel.  In fact, he intended it mostly as a tale, cautionary in part, for his own sons.  Therefore, there is a somewhat formal feel to it, and not just because of the old-fashioned language or old-fashioned customs.  Those are, often, to be lamented since modern society does not embrace them, including reverence and gratitude before God, respect for one’s fellow man shown through respectful social interaction, respect for women, and respect for parents.  Like all fiction involving juveniles, the young men and boys of the family seem to be able to do much more and know infinitely more than people of their age really would, but maybe young men of the early 1800s really were just that much more ready to enter the adult world than boys of our times.  I also found it a little less interesting than it could’ve been because success was so forthcoming and because the characters, especially the father, seemed to have unlimited knowledge concerning wildlife, animal husbandry, agriculture, seamanship, and a myriad of other subjects.  Again, I realize the everyday man of the 1800s was more knowledgeable about these than most are today, but it seemed just a little too far fetched in the story.  Still, some dry passages notwithstanding, the book was enjoyable in most parts, is certainly not “children’s literature” as it was originally billed (mature teenagers at the earliest), and probably succeeded in its mission of inspiring the reader to be better since I came away wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to incorporate just a little more knowledge about the natural and mechanical worlds around me into my life.

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