It’s Really All About God – book review (sort of)
It’s Really All About God
By Samir Selmanovic
286 pages including study questions
When recommending an important book one of my favorite profs used to say, “Go, sell all that you have and buy this book.” There’s not many books that can truly earn such a strong endorsement but I think this is one of them. But I must recommend it with a warning: it will rock your world. Perhaps it’s only suitable only for those whose thirst for God has exceeded safety limits. For through his personal stories and engagement with the stories of Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Atheists and more, author Samir Selmanovic points the way to a life with God and each other that is bigger and better than most of us have ever dared to dream. It is the only non-fiction book that has brought me to deeply felt tears in recent years. And there’s laughter as well to be sure, flowing easily from his descriptions of our humble human condition. (Really, who writes about their hemorrhoids?) Yet in this warm sharing of very human realities he draws us into a brother and sisterhood of humanity in which we may encounter God in the midst of our ordinary experiences. I am writing this not so much as a book review than as an expression of gratitude.
Samir Selmanovic is the founder and co-leader of Faith House in New York City. He shares his own journey from his beginnings amidst a close atheist/Muslim family in eastern Europe to his conversion to Christianity through a Seventh Day Adventist Church and through the realization of having embraced a way of understanding religion that limited the scope of God’s love in this world. “Religions are meant to lose their luster to God’s larger presence,” he says. And, are we willing to make [our] religion “take a back seat to something larger than itself?” The eye-opening time for him was when he reflected on the fact that his early years had been encompassed by fullness, celebration, hard work, kindness, laughter, generosity and warmth within his secular Muslim home and he realized that “Life was complete, until I became a Christian and it all came apart.”
He came to realize that in his early days of conversion he had shut out his former life and relationships. Rather than growing into more life, he had merely switched sides. In my early years as a Christian, I also learned to compartmentalize my life, ignoring family celebrations for Christian retreats and pouring less of me into connection with dorm friends and others to go to Campus Crusade meetings. I ignored my heart for years, assuming that to want to drink in regular old life, side by side with family and neighbors of all persuasions was to step away from the Kingdom or compromise myself. (Yes, I was actually taught that.) Selmanovic demonstrates beautifully that the Kingdom was to be found in those places all along. God inhabits the lives of all people.
At first glance it might seem that this is just another attempt at asserting the idea that Christians dread- that there’s good in all religions so why can’t we all get along? However, I believe he rescues us from our shrunken vision of exclusivity and superiority. He gently and beautifully challenges Christian triumphalism and leads us to a healthier place by recalling our virtue of humility- we are not the only ones who serve and do for the world. He gives us back the wonder of the deep enjoyment of the presence and expression of God in all others. The gift of other religions, he says, is that “They pose difficult questions we don’t want to ask, make assumptions we don’t want to acknowledge or examine, create meaningful arguments against us we don’t want to consider, and expose harmful practices we don’t want to stop.” They make us better Christians and in that vein, they can help us to become better lovers as a more generous expression of God’s heart for this world. Perhaps trying to “own” God has distorted our self-understanding.
So how far can our hearts expand? Christians have considered atheists to be the enemy. Selmanovic draws us into an even more expansive heart that is able to embrace the gift that atheism brings. He says, “Atheism at its best grabs us by the collar and throws us to the ground, demanding to see lives well lived, forcing us to dig deeper and live up to the best of our own religions.” Atheism calls on us to live out the integrity that our “converted” hearts have claimed.
In my tribe I know that a knee-jerk reaction will be that the author is advocating relativism – that all faiths are the same so we should just blend together. We fear the loss of specialness, as God’s “peculiar people”. But he asserts that our uniqueness is a gift that we offer to one another and that the boundaries that maintain our distinctiveness are also essential in order to love well. However, the author reminds us, these boundaries do not need to be cement walls. Why can’t they be bridges? Or doors? If God is relational (and of course He is), so are we, and we need a path towards each other.
But here is the real gift – as we lay down our demand to be first and best and only and that all others must become like us, won’t we then look more like Jesus who laid down all of His privilege, even equality with God, to become one of us and live in our reality, even unto death? We will become lovers in the best sense as He was, serving up, making room for the other and dancing with God as He plays in 10,000 places. As we give up our stake in protecting Christianity, we are freer to follow Christ. Through this gentle, winsome call out of a religious expression which sets up rigid walls between human beings, we may paradoxically find and therefore express more of Him. In losing ourselves, we will find Life. Selmanovic says, “We can either stay with the Christianity that we have mastered with the Jesus we have domesticated, or we can leave Christianity as a destination, embrace Christianity as a way of life, and then journey to reality, where God is present and living in every person, every human community, and all creation.” Sounds like the Kingdom to me.
(I once again apologize for my lack of gender-inclusive language. There is no appropriate pronoun to describe God who transcends gender and creating hybrids makes me crazy. But the author of this book absolutely includes women fully and freely into this wonderful mix.)