March 2013

The Price to Pay: A Muslim Risks All to Follow Christ.  By Joseph Fadelle. Translated by Michael J. Miller. Ignatius Press. 224 pages. $16.95.

I read this book during the same week that I belatedly became aware of the Lykov family saga. In case you don’t know, the Lykovs were a family of Old Believers (a splinter group that in the 18th century resisted efforts to modernize the Russian Orthodox Church) who escaped Stalin’s persecution by hiding so deep in the Siberian forest that no one found them for 40 years. Their days were marked by unimaginably hard work and privation, yet they were sustained by a regular prayer life and family solidarity. The discovery of that story and the one told by Joseph Fadelle made for an uncomfortable week of self-examination. What do the Fadelle family and the Lykovs have in common, and what do their stories mean for us?

In both cases, religious persecution leads otherwise ordinary people to sacrifice everything they treasure, including extended family and country, to be able to live fully the Christian life to which they have been called. How many of us would do the same? After all, this is the country where people are still talking about how Sandy Koufax would not pitch on Yom Kippur. Such a mensch he was! We tend to think of inconvenience as persecution. Real persecution is so much more.

Mohammed al Masawi, now Joseph Fadelle, was born into a well-off aristocratic family in an Iraq that is still, despite decades of foreign intervention, ruled by tribal considerations. His father was a clan leader and, as his son, Mohammed had access to most of what he wanted along with substantial responsibilities: to uphold Islam, to marry appropriately as arranged, and never to shame the family honor. He also had limitations: no need for an education, or work plan, or to associate with the unclean, in this case Christians.

When he is conscripted into Saddam Hussein’s army and billeted with a Christian named Massoud, Mohammed is shocked. Surely he is not expected to endure this! What he thinks might be a one-night burden grows into a months-long billet with someone he finds viscerally repugnant. But as he observes his roommate over the months, the disgust turns into curiosity and then admiration. Mohammed loses the arrogant certitude that he would bring Massoud to Islam and instead begins to explore first his own religion and then slowly and tentatively the Bible.

Becoming a believer is the easy part. Jesus and His love and miracles can be very persuasive. Now Mohammed has to live a Christian life — and herein lies the story. His secret conversion needs to be kept from his wife, both of their families, and the neighbors — a virtual impossibility given the traditional communal living arrangements even for married children. Weekly trips to Mass become adventures in deception and subterfuge. Only when his wife questions whether he is seeing another woman does Fadelle confide in her, knowing that with one word to either family, he is doomed. Yet God is working not only in his life but in hers as well, and then it is the couple against the Islamic community into which they were born. Even during an extended period of imprisonment instigated by his family to make him see reason, Fadelle’s wife, left behind in the “maw of the wolf,” perseveres in her faith.

On release, when he is under virtual house arrest, he and his wife seriously begin to pursue baptism and entry into the Catholic Church. But within some Muslim countries, not only are you forbidden to convert but anyone who assists you also courts death. No priest is willing to risk his life and the lives of his community to baptize one renegade. In this case, fellow Christians don’t even want him in the church building.

Still, Fadelle sees God’s protection and miracles under truly terrifying circumstances, among them a kidnapping and attempted assassination by his “loving family.” Finally, in Jordan, where fear of reprisal is slightly reduced and where he enjoys the limited protection of brave sisters and priests, Fadelle is successful: First his children are baptized and then he and his wife. Is there great joy? Of course, but it is quiet joy, and it is not fully lived until he and his family are safely living in France. There they remain, now estranged from all they held dear.

Fadelle is not a professional writer, but he tells his story with clarity and force. He colors his portrayal of life in Islamic society with many positive experiences, and the picture is one of robust family and community ties. Of greater clarity, though, is the terror he feels when someone might discover that he has converted. In this milieu, being lax in Islamic observances could perhaps be tolerated; even taking a second, more appealing wife while regarding the first as “furniture” would be acceptable. But to believe that Jesus is our God and salvation? No. Yet, as Bl. Restituta Kafka, a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity who was martyred in 1943, said in a letter from a Nazi prison, “No matter how far we are from everything we are, no matter what is taken from us, no one can take from us the faith we have in our heart.”

What does Joseph struggle with most today besides the pressing issue of supporting his family without a profession in a culture that is entirely alien to him? The same struggle that many of us have: forgiveness. How can he forgive his father and brothers for betraying him, for casting him out, for trying to kill him? These were the people who loved him most, who doted on his son and treasured his wife. Unlike Islam, which does not require forgiveness, and Judaism where only the offending party can set the matter right, Christianity demands more: forgiveness and reconciliation. It does not teach an eye for an eye. Instead we must turn the other cheek, forgive others’ trespasses against us. That Fadelle continues to work at such forgiveness and struggles with it says much about him and the losses he and his wife have endured.

Reading this book gives us a chance to think about what we’d do if faced with real persecution. Not inconvenient Mass times, or media jabs, or the avalanche of secularism but genuine persecution. Surely we can try harder to live the Gospel, with all its requirements of self-control, self-effacement, and self-giving. After all, the worst to be faced is what? Ridicule? Inconvenience? Financial hardship? Not estrangement from an entire culture including family ties, not fatwa.

- Elizabeth Hanink



Killing Jesus: The Unknown Conspiracy Behind the World’s Most Famous Execution.  By Stephen Mansfield. Worthy Publishing. 288 pages. $22.99.

Stephen Mansfield has written on Lincoln’s, Bush the Younger’s, and Obama’s insights about God. Now he looks at those of the One who knows God best: His Son. Killing Jesus is an in-depth overview of the death of Christ, and its subtitle, The Unknown Conspiracy Behind the World’s Most Famous Execution, prompts an immediate question: What could be unknown about the death of Jesus Christ at this remove? In the past 80 years especially, Christ’s crucifixion and the events leading up to it have been investigated, dissected, and examined, not just by theologians but by doctors, reporters, mystics, NASA scientists, photographers, and lawyers.

Killing Jesus is not a theological treatise. The divinity of Christ is barely touched on, as it’s not what’s on trial here. Mansfield is intent on informing the reader that the crucifixion actually took place, that it was cruel and as bloody a business as Mel Gibson depicted so graphically in The Passion of the Christ. This conclusion flies in the face of many high-school and college instructors who belittle anything to do with Jesus, even to the extent of denying His very existence, for the “benefit” of their students. Mansfield seems itching to take on these deniers. He includes citations from ancient pagan and Jewish sources that refer to Christ and, naturally, from the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. Mansfield’s large bibliography contains the names of Pierre Barbet, Jim Bishop, Alfred Edersheim, Edith Hamilton, and Joachim Jeremias, whose comprehensive and well-written works have been revered for decades.

The “conspiracy” aspect of Jesus’ death is not made as clear as one would wish, though Mansfield does emphasize the concerted efforts of Annas and Caiaphas to have Jesus executed, specifically for having interrupted the Temple trade on Palm Sunday. Jewish historian Josephus is very clear about the rapaciousness of Annas and his family. The family of Hanan, the patriarch of which at that time was Annas, licensed and franchised every vendor within the Temple precincts and took a cut from every transaction made on the Temple Mount. The high priest and his family wanted to put an end to the man who entered Jerusalem as king and dared to wish that belief in the One God be extended to all the Gentiles. Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, and Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, are minor characters, tools in the hands of the Sadducean priesthood.

It’s a shame that Mansfield’s research into the mechanics of crucifixion is out of date. Much of it is based on the groundbreaking study by Pierre Barbet, M.D., in A Doctor at Calvary, first published in 1936. Since then, new data in crucifixion studies have come to light through the work of Dr. Frederick Zugibe, Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias, and the scientists who probed the Shroud of Turin more intently than Dr. Barbet was able to.

Mansfield presents the revolutionary message brought by Jesus: that Israel’s God was inviting Gentiles to know and love Him. The Gospel of St. Luke is traditionally credited with underscoring Jesus’ outreach to the nations. Mansfield shows that the invitation is made in each evangelist’s account and that this gathering-in was an important aspect of our Lord’s teaching. He too finds poignancy in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, how He longed to gather the city’s rulers and leading citizens to Him “as a hen gathers her chicks,” and the final rejection, “but you would not.”

Mansfield misses on a few points. For example, despite Jesus having “brothers and sisters,” they are not Mary’s children. He subscribes to St. Jerome’s mistaken notion that the execution ground, Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull,” had earned its name because the skulls of criminals were left strewn about the area. This despite the prohibition in Scripture against leaving the bodies of criminals unburied and the innate Jewish cultural attachment to cleanliness so remarkable in the ancient world. Lastly, he remains silent about the connection between the Last Supper on Thursday night and the bloody sacrifice of the cross on Friday. This may be beyond the scope of Mansfield’s work, but he raises the fact that much of Jesus’ teaching took place in the setting of a meal.

In an odd coincidence, Killing Jesus has the same title as another book-length discussion of Christ’s death, co-written and promoted by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly [reviewed by this writer in the Dec. 2013 NOR — Ed.] and released within five months of Mansfield’s book. Notwithstanding some minor drawbacks, this Killing Jesus is highly readable and powerfully written — in contrast to O’Reilly’s — with fascinating asides that go far in making the simpler time in which Jesus lived come alive for modern readers.

- Sean Wright





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