"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, October 29, 2018

Matthew Monday: Pep Rally and Soccer

I’m not sure if I mentioned it before, but Matthew decided not to play basketball this year.  He returned to soccer.  He played soccer two years ago, and they lost every game.  Last year his basketball team made the semi-finals in what a dream run in the playoffs.  Despite that, Matthew felt that soccer was his better sport, and so returned to it this year.  The team is no different than two years ago.  They’ve lost all five of the games they’ve played so far, and except for one game where they lost 2-1, they’ve lost the other games by quite a margin.  They are not even close to being competitive. 

This past Saturday was the school’s annual Pep Rally.  All the teams and the individual players are announced and they run into the gym like they’re going to win the Super Bowl.  It’s fun for the kids.  Here are some pictures from the Pep Rally.  Here is part of Matthew’s team with one of the coaches directing Matthew into position under the arc of balloons.

The kids are given this blow up baton which says “We’re #1” on it.  When the kids were left to themselves, the boys started whacking each other with them. 

The girls were more peaceful with them.

Finally here’s a couple of pictures from Sunday’s soccer game. 

They lost 6-0.  It’s going to be a long season.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos XXIX to XXXIII, Part 3

Some random and concluding thoughts on the last four cantos.

When the pageantry starts singing “Veni, sponsa, de Lebanoí” at the beginning of Canto XXX, is this supposed to be ironic?  I don’t think it’s supposed to, and I haven’t seen any commentary suggesting that, but it does seem odd that the drama develops along the sacrament of confession instead of the sacrament of marriage.  It’s also interesting that the quotes from Virgil’s work as Virgil departs here are examples of flawed male/female relationships.  Both Orpheus and Eurydice and Dido and Aeneas are tragic love affairs.  Indeed, Dido breaks a vow she made to the gods and fails at the duty of governing her country, and ultimately commits suicide.  I can’t imagine these allusions being an accident.  Dante the author could have picked a quote from The Aeneid concerning Aeneas’ dutiful wife, Olivia.  I don’t know what to make of it, and none of the commentary I’ve come across speaks to it.  Dante’s relationship to Beatrice is supposed to be platonic.  Both the Orpheus and Dido examples suggest relationships otherwise.

Dante the author takes the beauty of his poetry to a more sublime level when he starts describing the beauty of earthly paradise.  Here the poet is reaching his poetic skill and maturity, having learned that the only subject that rises to grand eloquence is the subject of God and His creation.  Before the fall, the earth was paradise, but sin entered and the earth became subject to decay and disorder.  God in His promise for a return to purity preserved a portion of that paradise on top of the purgatorial mountain, and Dante the character is awe-struck.

While I walked on among so many first fruits,
this foretaste of eternal beauty, enchanted
though desiring joys still greater,

beneath the green boughs the air before us
seemed to become a blazing fire
and that sweet sound could now be heard as song.

O sacred Virgins, if fasting, cold, or sleepless nights
I've ever suffered for your sake,
necessity drives me to call for my reward.

Now let the springs of Helicon pour forth
and let Urania help me with her choir
to put in verse things hard for thought.  (Purg. XXIX. 31-42)

Here Dante appeals to the muses once again to let him reach for language that can match the beauty about him, the beauty where the air itself is so charged it seems at the moment of bursting into flame and where every sound seems like the sweet sound of song.

That image of Dante on his knees sobbing as Beatrice reviews his sins is a special one for me.  When my time has come and I stand or maybe fall to my knees before Christ as he reviews my sinful life, I can’t help but think that is how I will react, sobbing and penitent and humble.  Will Christ be just as harsh?  Or will He be tender and understanding?  Measure for measure?  Have mercy on me Lord.

The pageantry in Canto XXIX is fascinating.  Narratively it creates a grand entrance for the person we have been waiting for since the beginning of Inferno.  Visually it is stunning and recreates some of the medieval life that must have been typical in Dante’s day.  Such feasts still occur in old world towns.  I’m familiar with some of them from my native Italy, but even here in the US in Italian neighborhoods we still have such feasts.  The feast of San Genaro in New York City’s Little Italy is perhaps the most famous.  My old neighborhood in Brooklyn put on the feast of Santa Rosalia every year.  My current parish has recently started a procession to honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  A procession is the central element of the feast and you carry statues and banners, and in the more elaborate ones, those participating dress in particular costume.  In Canto XXIX, the people in the procession are analogs of saints, virtues, and scripture itself.

Here’s another thought on the pageant.  In Homer’s and Virgil’s epics there is usually a delineation of some central symbol of the work.  If I’m remembering correctly, in the Illiad one such long delineation is of Achilles’ shield.  Such delineations are part of the genre of an epic.  A more recent example is found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where the whale body parts are delineated.  Dante here finds a way to delineate the fundamental elements of Christianity with the personification of its elements.

Once Dante the character has been absolved of his sins by the dip in the river Lethe, he now is fully capable of seeing Beatrice’s face.  When he is returned to her presence, he sees her “second beauty” her smile.  Finally the tension built up with her scolding and inquisition is resolved.  The first beauty is that of the eyes, where one looks into another’s soul.  But the second beauty is of the welcoming look of the mouth, where one takes into one’s heart the beloved. 

As I said to Kerstin, I have always found the allegory in Canto XXXII to be anticlimactic.  After the intense drama of finally meeting Beatrice, her inquisition, and his confession, I’m usually too stunned to appreciate this section.  But in this reading I finally see the significance.  The history of the Church is crucial to salvation history and reflects the sins of mankind.  The heresies and attacks on the church are a result of the sinful people, and such people we have encountered as characters throughout Inferno and Purgatorio.  This drama is the culmination of Dante’s theory of sin and history. 

If the dunking into Lethe is more of an absolution than a baptism, is the dunking into the second river, Eunoe, the baptism?  Some look at the two rivers as a sort of dual baptizing process, but I tend to think of Lethe as the conclusion of the confessional and Eunoe as the true baptism.  Lethe flushes out the shame of his sins, but in Eunoe he is made new, or more accurately he is remade to be what he was intended by heaven to be.  Here’s how Beatrice describes it as she implores Matelda to take him.  In the first tercet she is referring to Lethe, the second to Eunoe.

…“Perhaps a greater care,
which often strips us of remembrance,
has veiled the eyes of his mind in darkness.

'But see Eunoe streaming forth there.
Bring him to it and, as you are accustomed,
revive the powers that are dead in him.'  (XXXIII. 124-129)

To “revive” is to bring back what was once there.  Interesting that Lethe is the name of a river in classical Greek myth, also a river of forgetfulness, but Eunoe is Dante’s invention.  It’s almost as if there are the Cardinal virtues which come from the classical world and the Christian virtues that come from the New Testament.  If you break the word “Eunoe” down into morphemes, one gets from Greek, “eu” meaning “good” and “noe” meaning mind.  So what Dante is saying here is that the river creates “good mind.”  So what happens when one enters heaven in Christianity, one is no longer cable of choosing to sin.  Being dipped in Eunoe is Dante’s process for it.  The concluding dip and rise out of the river are worth quoting.

As a gentle spirit that makes no excuses
but makes another's will its own
as soon as any signal makes that clear,

so, once she held me by the hand, the lady moved
and, as though she were mistress of that place,
said to Statius: 'Now come with him.'

If, reader, I had more ample space to write,
I should sing at least in part the sweetness
of the drink that never would have sated me,

but, since all the sheets
readied for this second canticle are full,
the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

From those most holy waters
I came away remade, as are new plants
renewed with new-sprung leaves,
pure and prepared to rise up to the stars. (XXXIII. 130-145)

Statius is still with him!  Dante is “renewed” like plants “with new sprung leaves.”  He is now “pure” and reinvigorated to “rise up” to heaven.  His purgation has concluded.  As I pointed out at the end of Inferno, all three canticles end with the word “stars.” 

With that I have concluded my exegesis of Purgatorio.  I do hope you got something out of it.  If I went over your head anywhere, please ask me questions.  I tried to simplify it as much as I could.  It is such a rich work I doubt I did it justice.  If you have read along, I hope someday you’ll reread it again, and perhaps often.  Not only is it great literature—the greatest in my opinion!—but I think it moves the Christian heart.  When I came back to my faith, Dante’s Divine Comedy had a great role in it.  It really can lead you to devotion.

I project to start reading Paradisio, the last of the three canticles, sometime in January.  So if you haven’t read any of these first two canticles, you can start now and be ready for the January discussion.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos XXIX to XXXIII, Part 2

Canto XXX can be seen as Dante’s moment of reckoning, and in Christian theological terms a day of judgement.  And while Beatrice is not Christ, Dante is not dead and will return to the land of the living.  But the situation is constructed to run analogous.  Just as Christ would lay out the case for the nature of our soul from our earthly journey at judgement, Beatrice lays out the case for Dante’s soul from his journey toward her. 

How Dante reacts is critical.  If he reacts with denials, he will be lying.  If he reacts with pride, say as a poet who needed to seek greater experiences like Ulysses in Inferno, he will not be worthy.  But he reacts with humility, and that is what a contrite sinner does.  Dante the author structures Cato XXXI to be analogous to a Catholic sacrament of confession.  This consists of three parts, confessing, contrition, and absolution.  He starts off the canto picking up from where he left off in XXX, with Beatrice sharply concluding her case:

'O you on the far side of the sacred stream,'
turning the point of her words on me
had seemed sharp enough with their edge,

she then went on without a pause: 'Say it,
say if this is true. To such an accusation
your confession must be joined.'  (XXXI. 1-6)

This time she does not even call him by his name, but calls to him with an indirect locution, and she forces the moment.  He cannot be allowed to evade because the fate of his soul is at stake.  While her words may seem sharp, there is purpose to their edge.  Here Dante’s emotions overwhelm him. 

My faculties were so confounded
that my voice struggled up but spent itself
before it made its way out of my mouth.

For a moment she held back, then asked:
'What are you thinking? Speak, for your memories
of sin have not been washed away by water yet.'

Confusion and fear, mixed together,
drove from my mouth a yes--
but one had need of eyes to hear it.  (7-15)

She is drawing him to reach a confession.  And he does.  All he can muster is a mouthed, inaudible “yes.”  Now recall Canto V of Purgatorio when Manfred with an arrow in his throat, knowing that he will die, inaudibly appeals to the Blessed Mother for salvation.  All it took was the smallest of efforts for God’s grace to pull Manfred into salvation.  Dante the character here gives the same sort of simple but sincere effort, overwhelmed by the complications of the situation.  The parallel is noticeable and certainly intended.  Then comes one of Dante’s incredible similes.

As a crossbow breaks with too much tension
from the pulling taut of cord and bow
so that the arrow strikes the target with less force,

thus I collapsed beneath that heavy load
and, with a flood of tears and sighs,
my voice came strangled from my throat.  (16-21)

He breaks like a crumpled crossbow and his body falls over like the loaded arrow that impotently flops.  But he hasn’t fully confessed.  The mouthed “yes” was just an acknowledgment.  She needs him to plainly state his sin.  She continues the inquisition.  She asks him what was it that drew him away from her (22-30).  Dante struggles to speak.

After heaving a bitter sigh
I hardly had the voice to give the answer
my lips were laboring to shape.

In tears, I said: 'Things set in front of me,
with their false delights, turned back my steps
the moment that Your countenance was hidden.' (31-36)

That is directly stating his sin.  Next in the confessional process is true contrition.  She continues, satisfied with what he has said, drawing out what is truly in his heart.

'And if the highest beauty failed you
in my death, what mortal thing
should then have drawn you to desire it?

'Indeed, at the very first arrow
of deceitful things, you should have risen up
and followed me who was no longer of them.

'You should not have allowed your wings to droop,
            leaving you to other darts from some young girl
or other novelty of such brief use.

'The fledgling may allow even a third attempt,
but all in vain is the net flung or arrow shot
in sight of a full-fledged bird.' (52-63)

The key words in her speech there are “you should have” and “you should not have.”  She uses “should” three times in three tercets and concludes with a metaphor of an immature bird.  Three times he could have followed her, and even a fledgling learns before three attempts.  At this shame burns in Dante’s heart.

As children in their shame stand mute, their eyes
upon the ground, listening,
acknowledging their fault, repentant,
just so I stood… (64-67)

Indeed, she continues to harp on the childishness of actions, telling him “to lift up his beard” as to show the disconnection between his mature state and his immature actions.  Isn’t that what sin is, an immature action?  It reminds me of St. Paul’s great observation from First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.  At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known (1 Cor 11-12).  When Beatrice died and was removed from his sight, Dante failed to fully see as a man.  That is at the heart of his sin.  With Beatrice having now completed her indictment, Dante the character’s emotions overtake him and his sight blurs.  As he collapses, he does see her turn to the Griffin, which stands for Christ, and then he feels complete contrition.

The nettle of remorse so stung me then
that whatever else had lured me most to loving
had now become for me most hateful.

Such knowledge of my fault was gnawing at my heart
that I was overcome, and what I then became
she knows who was the reason for my state.  (85-90)

The contrition is unstated; it is purely in his heart.  We don’t even know exactly what he is contrite about.  Whatever the fault that gnaws at his heart, it is left unsaid.  Some have speculated there was another woman or women; some have speculated a loss of faith; some have speculated the turn toward philosophy without incorporation the three Christian virtues.  But the contrition is sincere, and that is what counts.

Finally there is the absolution.  In a typical Catholic confession, absolution is the prayer the priest prays over you at the end.  Sometimes it is said in Latin, but here is what is typically said in English:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is no priest to say the words of absolution, but when Dante comes to from passing out, he being held by Matelda, and is promptly submersed into the river Lethe.  Those all around him sing from the great penitential Psalm 51, “Asperges me,” “purge me.”  The NAB translates the line as such, “Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow (Ps. 51:9).  Some might consider this submersion a baptism instead of the sacrament of reconciliation, and it is of sorts.  But if you think about it, a confession is a sort of baptizing, but instead of the cleansing of original sin, it cleans temporal sins.

It is interesting and fitting that the fifty-first psalm is sung at this moment.  I have had a priest require me to read Psalm 51 as part of my satisfaction, the small prayer penance we are given after confession.  Here Dante doesn’t pray a penance, but he is sort of incapacitated, and so we can consider those in the pageant pray the penance for him.

With the submersion, absolution is complete, and not only are sins forgiven, but they are forgotten.  At least that’s how most commentators read it.  Anthony Esolen, though, reads it as the sins are not forgotten but as if they were now committed by another person.  This makes sense to me since Dante the character has to return home and write of this experience.  Plus, isn’t that how it feels when one comes out of a confession?  You feel like a new person, and that it was another you who committed those sins.  Of course, within a half hour we’re probably sinning again, but that’s a different matter.

I think this completes the close reading of the meet up between Dante the character and Beatrice.  I’ll have one more set of random comments on these last cantos to make before I complete my thoughts on Purgatorio. 


Kerstin at Catholic Thought book club asked:
What I am not clear about, and this puzzled me already when I read it, why is Beatrice's reaction to Dante so strong regarding the fact that he didn't stay true to her? He had a youthful infatuation, they were never betrothed or married. And, once you enter heavenly paradise, aren't earthly attachments no longer of import? Why is she bringing this up?

My response:
It's even less than never betrothed. They saw each other a grand total of two times in their lives, once when Dante was nine years old and the other when he was eighteen. Dante the real life person has made her into something of a conglomeration of a love, a muse, and a spiritual guide. When I gave an introduction for Inferno I said Dante's devotion to Beatrice was hard to understand. The best analogy I could come up with was how some people have a devotion to a saint or the Blessed Mother. But it's actually more than that too.

As to the situation in the Divine Comedy, if Beatrice is that spiritual soul mate, then Dante the character has betrayed that spiritual bond by looking toward philosophy or other women or whatever the sin was. Beatrice is quite right to scold him, not so much to express her anger but to draw out the contrition for the sake of Dante's soul.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Comments to Dante's Purgatorio, Cantos XXIX to XXXIII, Part 1

Because it’s one of the greatest moments in all of literature and the climax of Purgatorio, I wanted to do a close reading of Dante’s meeting with Beatrice.  So I’m going to step through Cantos XXX and XXXI.  

The procession that starts in Canto XXIX culminates with Beatrice’s entrance, so Dante the author would be quite a skilled movie director to lay out such a grand entrance.  No one in the entire Divine Comedy gets an entrance like that.  The closest to such an entrance would be Statius’ entrance who is preceded by the earthquake in Canto XX. 

The procession ends with a herald calling out Beatrice with “Veni, sponsa, de Libano,” from the Song of Songs, “Come from Lebanon, my bride.”  It’s a fitting moment in that we expect Dante’s love interest to make her way in, and perhaps we envision some sort of symbolic sacrament of matrimony.  But what we will get is not a sacrament of matrimony but a sacrament of confession. 

One hundred ministers rise up from the chariot (which I guess is more of a wagon than a chariot) and sing three phrases in Latin.  In English they are (1) “at the voice of so great an elder,” (2) “Blessed are you who come,” and (3) “Give lilies with full hands.”  The first phrase is Dante’s original writing but the “elder” refers back to the Song of Songs.  The second comes from the Gospels, most notably from Mark 11:9-10, and the third comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, So in just a few lines Dante the author quickly links his poetic voice, the Old and New Testaments, and Virgil together.  All three quotes seem to accentuate the bridal expectations, especially with all in the procession tossing flowers in the air.  And then we get Beatrice’s entrance:

At break of day, I have seen the sky,
its eastern parts all rosy
and the rest serene and clear

even as the sun's face rose obscured
so that through tempering mist
the eye could bear it longer,

thus, within that cloud of blossoms
rising from angelic hands and fluttering
back down into the chariot and around it,

olive-crowned above a veil of white
appeared to me a lady, beneath a green mantle,
dressed in the color of living flame.  (Purg. XXX. 22-33)

I just noticed as I quoted above, Beatrice completes her entrance on line 33, and no that is not a coincidence.  So many flowers are being tossed in the air that it is obscuring the sun, which in turn parallels the veil that obscures Beatrice’s face.  Beatrice is dressed in the colors of white, the veil over her face, green, the mantle which I assume goes over her shoulders, and red which is the main vestment.  I picture the mantle over the vestment as Dominican friars have a black cloak over white robe.  The colors of white, green, and red are the colors of the Christian virtues, faith, hope, and charity.

The veil echoes the veil in the Holy of Holies, which is to suggest that it is not a veil for modesty as say a Muslim burqa, but a means to protect those who are not ready to experience the power God’s purity.  Indeed, Beatrice takes the veil off shortly when Dante the character has undergone a confession and absolution.

When she finally makes her appearance, Beatrice stands as the focus of attention and if this were a painting she would be positioned in a posture of immense power.  She is in charge and Dante the character trembles from her “majestic force.”  The awe that projects from Beatrice makes Dante childlike in distress, and he turns to Virgil like a child “running to his mamma” and says “Not a single drop of blood/remains in me that does not tremble—/I know the signs of the ancient flame” (46-48).  And when Dante turns to look for Virgil, “the sweetest of fathers,” he is gone, and he breaks down in tears.  This is Virgil’s send off, and Dante the author gives him incredible honor here.  As the comments in your edition probably point out, the three lines he says to a vanished Virgil echo from another of Virgil’s great poems, the Georgics where the severed head of Orpheus cries out for his lost Eurydice.  But more important is the third line “I know the signs of the ancient flame” which is nearly a direct quote from Virgil’s Aeneid.  The line comes from Queen Dido when after her husband died and swearing off ever marrying again, she sees Aeneas enter her court and falls in love with him.  She says to her sister, “I feel again the traces of the ancient flame.” 

With Dante crying because he suddenly realizes he has lost his poetic father and guide, Beatrice finally speaks.

Dante, because Virgil has departed,
do not weep, do not weep yet--
there is another sword to make you weep.'  (55-57)

As pointed out, this is the only moment where Dante’s name is spoken in the entire Commedia,” and we get Dante’s and Virgil’s names side by side in the same line, thereby honoring himself and honoring Virgil.  “Oh don’t cry Dante,” she is saying almost like a mother, “don’t cry.”  And then she turns scornful, “Because I’m going to stab you with another sword that’s going to make you really cry.”  Obviously this is not the greeting we all expected. 

And then Dante the author further emphasizes Beatrice’s position of power, standing “like an admiral” at the prow and Dante the character’s diminutive status by having him look away like a child in trouble.  “Look over here” she scornfully commands.  “I am, I truly am Beatrice./How did you dare approach the mountain?/Do you not know that here man lives in joy?” (73-75).  She uses the same phrasing as in Isaiah 43, “I am, I am the Lord,” and further echoes Moses going up Mt. Sinai and approaching God with reverence.  How did Dante dare to approach the mountain?  It was only through her intercession and God’s grace that he made it up.  And then she scornfully questions whether he realizes that up here in earthly paradise “man lives in joy.”  That is to say, not with sexual longing.  Has Dante brought his sexual desires up the holy mountain where holiness commands purity? 

I lowered my eyes to the clear water.
But when I saw myself reflected, I drew them back
toward the grass, such shame weighed on my brow.  (76-78)

Just like Adam and Eve felt shame when they had eaten of the fruit, so too Dante feels shame.  But shame for what? 

Here then the angels plead for mercy and Beatrice he must draw out sorrow.  She makes a wonderful allusion to the sower and seed parable found in all three synoptic Gospels. 

'Not only by the working of the wheels above
that urge each seed to a certain end
according to the stars that cluster with them,

'but by grace, abundant and divine,
which rains from clouds so high above
our sight cannot come near them,

'this man in his new life potentially was such
that each good disposition in him
would have come to marvelous conclusion,

'but the richer and more vigorous the soil,
when planted ill and left to go to seed,
the wilder and more noxious it becomes. (109-120)

In the parable, the seed must fall on good soil for it to bear fruit, but here Beatrice says that a bad seed on good soil yields bad fruit.  Dante, being so intelligent and gifted, is the good soil, but the philosophy that is the seed lacked faith in God, so it yielded a sinful poet.  I’ve never seen anyone turn that parable like that.  I wonder if that is original to Dante the author.  It sounds like it came from a great preacher, say like St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas.  But none of the commentaries in my possession cite anyone. 

Then Beatrice recounts how when alive she guided him with her eyes, and when she died he should have kept his focus on her. 

'For a time I let my countenance sustain him.
Guiding him with my youthful eyes,
I drew him with me in the right direction.

'Once I had reached the threshold of my second age,
when I changed lives, he took himself from me
and gave himself to others.

'When I had risen to spirit from my flesh,
as beauty and virtue in me became more rich,
to him I was less dear and less than pleasing.

'He set his steps upon an untrue way,
pursuing those false images of good
that bring no promise to fulfillment—

'useless the inspiration I sought and won for him,
as both with dreams and other means
I called him back, so little did he heed them. (121-135)

That is the crux of her indictment: he took himself away from her, “gave himself to others,” “pursuing false images of good.”  And so to save him she had to have him pass through the region of the dead to see what to see the fullness of life.

This ends Canto XXX.  Perhaps this is a good place to break since this has gotten a bit long.  I’ll conclude this shortly.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics, 100 Questions and Answers

In a quest to learn more about Islam since it’s constantly in the news, I picked up this book.  I especially liked that it’s written for Catholics.  Indeed it relates Islamic concepts against Catholic concepts, so that a Catholic can understand the similarities and contrasts.  But I think almost any non-Catholic Christian would get much if not all the same out of this book.  As I read it, there is way more contrast than similarities.  The full title is Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholic, 100 Questions and Answers and it’s written by Daniel Ali, a convert from Islam to Catholicism, and Robert Spencer, a Melkite Greek Catholic and is a well-known though controversial expert on Islam.  You can read Daniel Ali’s conversion story at The Coming Home Network, here.    

The book is organized in the form of questions that a Catholic might have and then follows an extended answer.  That makes for casual reading where you can put it down and pick it up at your leisure without missing the general flow.  I read the book over the course of several months but you could read the entire book in a day or two. 

Not surprising the very first question is, “What is Islam?”  Then follows a series of questions that gets into the heart of Islam.  “What is the difference between the terms “Muslim” and “Islam?”  “What are the basic tenets of Islam?”  Here is how the authors answer that question:

In sharp contrast to the complexities of Christian theology, Islam is a religion of simplicity.  It’s primary beliefs are summed up in the Shahada, or Confession of Faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet.”

When trying to win converts among Christians, Muslims frequently make use of this simplicity as a key selling point.  They compare the length of the Nicene Creed to the brevity of the Shahada and point to the Trinity as a sign that Christianity is not only hopelessly complicated, but illogical—and a sharp contrast to Islam’s noble simplicity…

Of course there is no compelling reason why the truth should be simpler than error.  In fact, it is often the other way around, as men unwisely try to tame divine truths by simplifying them.  We need to remember that God is radically transcendent and omniscient—that is, He exists eternally distinct from His creation and knows everything as eternally present.  He remains, then, an inexhaustible mystery to man, His finite creature.  Indeed, He is the Mystery.  Thus, it should not be surprising if His revelations to us is full of profound mysteries….

As you can see the authors contrast Islamic theology with that of Christian.  If I may add to that explanation above, most understanding of nature turns out to be more complicated than the surface.  At one time physics was fairly simple, but then we learned of thermodynamics, electromagnetism, quantum theory, relativity, and now string theory.  To requote the authors, “there is no compelling reason why the truth should be simpler than error.”

From the theological questions, the book moves to questions of foundation, especially that of its prophet, Muhammed.  “According to Muslim belief, how did Muhammed receive Allah’s revelations?”  “Is it true that Muhammed was an army leader or general?”  “Did Muhammed write the Koran?”  “How is the Koran different from the Bible?”  That is worth quoting the answer.

In content, the closest books to the Koran in the Bible are the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  The Muslim holy book has the same mix of laws and narratives about God’s dealings with His people.  But the Loran is unlike any book of the Bible in that there is only one speaker throughout: Allah (although there are a few exceptions to this that bedevil Muslims to this day).

While the Pentateuch presents a more or less continuous narrative from the creation of the world to the Israelites imminent entry into the Promised Land, the Koran makes no attempt at linear history.  Though the Koran is shorter than the New Testament, a surprisingly large amount of what it says is repeated.  Nevertheless, the reader often cannot figure out what exactly is being said, or why, without reference to the Hadith.  We will examine this later.

The Hadith is explained in a subsequent question, “Is the Koran the sole rule of faith for the Muslim?”

Not precisely.  Muhammed’s Tradition, the Hadith, is the second source of Islamic faith.  In Muslim theory and practice, the Hadith is virtually equal in importance to the Koran.  Indeed, since Allah refers to many matters with which Muhammed is familiar but we are not, the Koran is often unintelligible.  Muslims, however, are not free to interpret their sacred book in any way they please, for “whenever Allah and His apostles have decided a matter, it is not for the faithful man or woman to follow a course of their own choice” (Sura 33:36).

Muslims can find Muhammed’s own authoritative explanations of passages of the Koran in a number of voluminous collections of Ahadith (Ahadith is the Arabic plural of Hadith).  The Koran also commands every Muslim to follow Muhammed’s example, obeying all that he did, said, commanded, or prohibited (see Sura 33:21).

Other questions pertain to Jihad, Islam’s cultural norms, and Islam’s views of other cultures.  So without more quoting, Muhammed is “the perfect” man in Islam, where by all Muslims are supposed to emulate.  Now that presents itself many problems.  Muhammed was, among other things, a military leader and by the force of his sword mustered the polytheistic Arabic tribes into religious unity.  He killed people.  He had people killed.  He accumulated wealth and women.  He had 800 Jews beheaded. There is no parallel between Christ and Muhammed.  A shorthand comparison between Christianity and Islam (this is not in this book, I picked it up elsewhere) can be summarized in this way: Christ died to start Christianity; Muhammed killed to start Islam.  The difference is critical.  Christians are supposed to emulate Christ; Muslims are supposed to emulate Muhammed.  So when you see Islamists beheading in Jihad, they are emulating Muhammed.

The book is incredibly fair.  It really is not a rag on Islam but presents the religion fairly but in contrast to Christianity.  For my conclusion here, I wanted to present two stories the authors of Inside Islam use to contrast the two faiths.

Consider the difference in the following two stories, first from the Gospel of John and the second from Hadith.  In the Gospel narrative, we read about the woman committing adultery.  Not Jesus’ response:

Then each went to his own house, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  But early in the morning He arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to Him, and He sat down and taught them.  Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.  They said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So what do you say?”  They said this to test Him, so that they could have some charge to bring against Him.  Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger.  But when they continued asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again He bent down and wrote on the ground.  And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.  So He was left alone with the woman before Him.  Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  She replied, “No one, sir.”  Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 7:53-8:11).

The following episode is from the Hadith.  Note how Mohammed’s actions are in sharp contrast with those of Jesus:

There came to him [the Holy Prophet] a woman from Ghamid and said: Allah’s Messenger, I have committed adultery, so purify me.  He [the Holy Prophet] turned her away.  On the following she said: Allah’s Messenger, Why do you turn me away?...By Allah, I have become pregnant.  He said: Well, if you insist upon it, then go away until you give birth to [the child].  When she was delivered she came with the child [wrapped] in a rag and said: Here is the child whom I have given birth to.  He said: Go away and suckle him until you wean him.  When she had weaned him, she came to him [the Holy Prophet] with the child who was holding a piece of bread in his hand.  She said: Allah’s Apostle, here is he as I have weaned him and he eats food.  He [the Holy Prophet] entrusted the child to one of the Muslims and then pronounced punishment.  And she was put in a ditch up to her chest and he commanded people and they stoned her.  Khalid b Wahlid came forward with a stone which he flung at her head and there spurted blood on the face of Khalid and so he abused her.  Allah’s Prophet heard his [Khalid’s] curse that he had hurled upon her.  Thereupon he [the Holy Prophet] said: Khalid, be gentle.  By Him in Whose Hand is my life, she has made such a repentance that even if a wrongful tax-collector were to repent, he would have been forgiven.  Then giving command regarding her, he prayed over her and she was buried.  (Muslim, Vol 3, Book 17, No. 4206)

At least the “holy prophet” prayed for her.  Next time you hear about of the “most merciful” Muhammed, think about one who brings true mercy, Jesus Christ.