Monday, November 17, 2008

Power, Faith, and Fantasy

I just got finished reading a remarkable book called Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren. Oren takes the reader on a historical and spiritual odyssey from the Barbary Wars that shaped the fledgling American nation to the Iraq war that the U.S. is still fighting as I write this. The analysis is organized around the themes power (military power), faith (the influence of American Protestant Christianity on our involvement in the region) and fantasy (the Middle East in the American imagination). The book is written in a highly accessible narrative style and is full of colorful characters from both the East and the West. What I took away from this book is that our current challenges in the Middle East did not appear suddenly out of the skies over Manhattan one day, but represent the climax of some 200 years of American interactions with the peoples of that troubled and complex region. Another gift offered by this book was to place my understanding of the relationship between the history of the American Baha'i community and this broader history of America's involvement in the Middle East in context. I'm reminded of comments made by Shoghi Effendi about some of the early American Baha'is who journeyed to Palestine to visit with 'Abdu'l-Baha at the dawn of the 20th century:

"It would take me too long to attempt even a brief description of the first stirrings which the introduction of the Bahá'í Revelation into the New World, as conceived, initiated and directed by our beloved Master, immediately created. Nor does space permit me to narrate the circumstances attending the epoch-making visit of the first American pilgrims to Bahá'u'lláh's hallowed shrine, to relate the deeds which signalized the return of these bearers of a new-born Gospel to their native country, or to assess the immediate consequences of their achievements. No word of mine would suffice to express how instantly the revelation of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's hopes, expectations and purpose for an awakened continent, electrified the minds and hearts of those who were privileged to hear Him, who were made the recipients of His inestimable blessings and the chosen repositories of His confidence and trust. I can never hope to interpret adequately the feelings that surged within those heroic hearts as they sat at their Master's feet, beneath the shelter of His prison-house, eager to absorb and intent to preserve the effusions of His divine Wisdom. I can never pay sufficient tribute to that spirit of unyielding determination which the impact of a magnetic personality and the spell of a mighty utterance kindled in the entire company of these returning pilgrims, these consecrated heralds of the Covenant of God, at so decisive an epoch of their history. The memory of such names as Lua, Chase, MacNutt, Dealy, Goodall, Dodge, Farmer and Brittingham -- to mention only a few of that immortal galaxy now gathered to the glory of Bahá'u'lláh -- will for ever remain associated with the rise and establishment of His Faith in the American continent, and will continue to shed on its annals a lustre that time can never dim."
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 81)

Reading Power, Faith, and Fantasy has inspired me to return to my old habit of studying the history of the early believers in America as well as reread the document Century of Light which provides an overview of the 20th century in light of Baha'i teaching. I highly recommend Power, Faith, and Fantasy as a must read for Baha'is, especially American Baha'is and would love to hear from readers of Baha'i Thought who are inspired to read this book or have already read it.

This post represents the first of what I hope will become a new feature of Baha'i Thought, namely reviewing and recommending books I believe are important for Baha'is to read. Wish me luck with this new initiative.

Now on to the next book!