We met over coffee in Dearborn, Michigan, to talk about “great spiritual reading” — just as we are encouraging our readers to do wherever they live.
After we ordered our beverages and settled ourselves around a table in the cafe, I started our conversation with the question: “So, what are YOU reading?” And I immediately followed that with two more questions to shape the discussion around our central theme: “What has inspired you? What are you reading that moves you spiritually?”
Then, here’s the first response to that flurry of questions:
“I‘m all about ‘The Kite Runner‘ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,‘” Hanan Khaznehkatbi of Troy (at right in the photo), told me.
Hanan, her two friends and I talked for a long time about the spiritual themes in these popular novels by Khaled Hosseini. (Click on any title or cover in our stories to jump to Amazon and buy a copy.)
Both novels focus on characters trying to rediscover the true meaning of love — and trying to find some enduring meaning in their lives, despite violence that traumatizes and threatens to destroy them. Along the way, Hosseini paints a vivid portrait of faith and culture in Afghanistan, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing to behold.
“The books left me exhausted but also hopeful and inspired,” Hanan said. “Both of the books are about our need, the need each of us has, to make the world a better place and not just for ourselves — for others.”
Our focus on fiction didn’t stop there.
Important spiritual themes run through many great novels, the women argued.
Hanan said, “I also loved reading ‘The Joy Luck Club.’ That’s also about family and loyalty and tradition and obligations we all feel in life.
“It’s about an immigrant situation, dealing with a Mom who’s from ‘back home’ — and now the family is living here in this country. And, in this complex situation of lives coming from two different places — the characters have to figure out how their family will navigate all of those issues.”
It’s a best-selling novel by Amy Tan about Chinese-American women coming to terms with the sometimes overwhelming demands from their mothers’ generation. The “Club” in the book’s title is a tightly knit social group formed by the mothers, when they first arrived in San Francisco in 1949. By the 1980s, an enormous generation gap is yawning in these women’s families.
“What really strikes me when I read ‘Joy Luck Club’ is how similar our stories are!” Hanan said. “We aren’t from Afghanistan. And we aren’t Chinese. But these are books about our experiences. I read ‘Joy Luck Club’ and I said: I know these women! I know these families!”
Rima Meroueh, a Wayne State University graduate student who had organized our meeting to talk about books that night, agreed wholeheartedly.
Rima saw the film version of “Joy Luck Club,” which Amy Tan also helped to craft. ” Oh, I connected with that movie right away! The moment I saw it, I said: ‘Oh, my! That’s exactly like us!”
And, the moment we started talking about movies, a half dozen new spiritual recommendations surfaced!
“I love movies,” Hanan said. “There are more movies I want to see than best-sellers I want to read. And one of them that is really good is, ‘The Lives of Others.’ It takes place in East Germany.”
The 2006 movie is so powerful that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in the early 1980s before the fall of Communism, as the movie opens, one of the East German government’s top spies is dispatched to try to build a case against a group of young intellectuals who are pushing for freedom. The spy sets himself up in an attic high in one young couple’s apartment house and devotes himself to around-the-clock surveillance of the activists.
“The movie explores the life of this one guy who is the spy for the government,” Hanan explained. “This spy lives a very tortured, quiet, oppressed life and he’s very by-the-book in all he does.
“I don’t want to say anything that would spoil the movie for other people,” Hanan said. “But he ends up doing something really great. He does this thing very humbly and quietly. No one ever knows that he did it.
“He continues to live this terrible life, but he did this one beautiful thing and no one knows he did it. It’s between him and God.
“To me, that’s a great spiritual message.”
It’s not just fiction that inspires them, the women said.
Memoirs are popular, too. Basma El Bathy (at left in the photo above), a Wayne State University student, was born in Egypt. Basma said she loved reading Leila Ahmed’s memoir of growing up in Egypt in the turbulent 1940s and 1950s.
“It’s called ‘A Border Passage,'” Basma said. “It’s a book about a woman trying to explore her identity while coming to peace with all of the fragments of her life.
“It’s true that Leila Ahmed is a lot older than I am, but I could relate to her experience. I moved from Egypt when I was 10, so now that I am in my 20s I need to hear from someone else who had that experience of moving from place to place herself. I want to understand more about this in my own life.
“As I read her book, I understood that experience she describes of feeling as though you are between places in your life. Reading her book was an emotional as well as a mental journey for me about the world — and our own places in the world — and about the meaning of moving and shifting with all of the changes throughout your life.”
I would call all of these tips on books and movies “deeply spiritual recommendations”.
What do I mean by that? Well, the term “religion” usually is used to describe the world’s great revelations that millions of followers have chosen to pursue down through the centuries. The celebrated scholar Huston Smith often refers to these world faiths as “wisdom traditions” or “revelations.” These are transcendent pathways that have been handed down to us.
They are revelations that people are asked to receive and follow.
But an essential element in nearly all of the world’s great religions is individual choice and a personal quest to make sense of the faith and of our own lives. That quest may take the form of prayer or pilgrimage — and involves a daily struggle to discern why we’re here, how we should live and, in the end, whether our good or evil deeds have enduring value.
That daily, personal quest is “spirituality” — and that’s the kind of experience all three women described in their enjoyment of these novels and movies.
This is fascinating, because book publishers, movie producers and retailers literally maintain walls between their Fiction and DVD sections — and those sections that they mark off with signs that say: Religion and Spirituality.
However, real people who want inspirational, uplifting stories wind up finding them far from that neatly labeled section.
Rima, who organized the coffee and conversation in Dearborn, was interested in holding such a wide-ranging discussion, because she works with non-profit groups that are trying to break down stereotypes about Muslims and Arab Americans.
Rima, who is both Muslim and an Arab American herself, said, “We’re people. We’re Americans with complex lives and we have many interests, many things to say about our communities and our culture. We’re not one-issue people.”
Similarly, here at ReadTheSpirit, we want to encourage the gatekeepers in spiritual media to realize that, as readers and movie goers, Americans are not one-issue people with compartmentalized lives.
At our best, we find our spiritual solace in a host of different venues.
It’s that ability to look at life broadly that allows us to discover the values that, ultimately, unite us in our humanity.
So, what are YOU reading?
Please, tell us what you think! Email me personally by clicking here. Or, click on the Comment link in our Web site and post your thoughts for other readers.
AND — THIS WEEK, DON’T MISS:
Tuesday’s Quiz! It’s a puzzle involving “The Bible and the Bard”
Wednesday, we’ve got a Conversation With Rob Bell as he heads out
to circle the U.S. with his latest tour, “The Gods Aren’t Angry.”