In her essay “Abuelita” [January 2007] Krista Bremer manages to be self-deprecating rather than self-indulgent, and honestly questions her assumptions when confronted with another point of view. She captured the character of the woman who took care of her son so well that Maria became a real person to me. I love that Bremer took a chance on someone not in the mother’s regulation handbook. Just think, our parents used to let us ride bikes without helmets, and look how we turned out.
Jane Schapiro’s essay “My Friend and Bruce Springsteen” [January 2007] brought back a fond memory. Some years ago I was photographing a bar mitzvah at which Springsteen was a guest. I watched for hours as people went up and interrupted his conversation to speak with him. Never once did his face show displeasure. I finally got the courage to go over and ask if I could have my photo taken with him. To this day I still look at that photo and remember a truly genuine man.
In the January 2007 Correspondence Bill Johnson points out that Edward Abbey drove a gas-guzzling Buick (he didn’t mention the Ford pickups) and spawned too many children (so did Al Gore). Abbey’s faults were more glaring and public than most, and anyone who has read his work already knows them well. But Johnson is wrong to say that Abbey was counterproductive. Just ask the thousands of readers he has influenced, even years after his death.
Abbey told ugly truths when nobody else would, and like nobody else can. Of course we need the Bill McKibbens of the world to speak out calmly and rationally and attempt to sway those who are inclined to listen and intelligent enough to understand. But when an ignorant, sleazy asshole builds another senseless “development,” we need people like Abbey to call him an ignorant, sleazy asshole. Abbey’s vitriol was often (not always) appropriate and necessary, and it sprang from his deep love for our little planet.
I sometimes let my Sun subscription lapse because the material is too sad for me. Today on the BART train I was reading the January issue, which has my essay “The Seed” in it. The two essays after mine — “Incredible Hulk Saving Souls,” by Doug Crandell, and “My Friend and Bruce Springsteen,” by Jane Schapiro, were surprisingly upbeat. Wouldn’t it be ironic, I thought, if the most depressing piece in this issue is my own essay?
Then I got to Athena Stevens’s short story “What Are You Waiting For?” It really hurt. I know there must be value in such a story — in imagining what life would be like after the kidnapping and loss of a child. And part of what readers respect The Sun for is its willingness to print such stories.
My question is: Why is it important to be reminded of such things? I know such situations exist, but is it somehow spiritually necessary for me to contemplate them? Stories like this one are hard to shake. I am still hurting for a fictional young girl and her parents.
Athena Stevens’s “What Are You Waiting For?” is well written, but I’m not sure the “mother-blinks-and-child-disappears” plot is healthy for our collective imagination. Books on Oprah’s list specialize in this genre: A momentary attraction to an old flame triggers a kidnapping. A dalliance with a husband’s brother leads to a child being swept overboard. Even mere daydreaming dooms kids. Fathers should never be trusted with their children, these books imply. Woe to the mother who sleeps in while her husband takes the daughter shopping. Aren’t we frightened enough?
Athena Stevens responds:
In writing “What Are You Waiting For?” I wanted to draw readers into the interior of a couple’s experience as they move through a shared tragedy. I hoped to illustrate something much deeper than a cautionary tale. And I wanted readers to feel something unexpected as a result. To me this kind of contemplation fosters a sense of connection, and perhaps a deeper capacity to love. As such, I think stories like this one are spiritually necessary — and good for the collective imagination.
I am proud to be part of the herd of readers Sy Safransky wrote of in “A Thousand Elephants” [January 2007]. Each month The Sun reminds me of my coexistence with other aspiring human beings. Like Safransky, I wonder how much influence The Sun has on our nation. He points out that 11 million pounds of American readers is equivalent to a thousand elephants. It’s also equivalent to 1.6 trillion butterflies. Imagine them sweeping their wings across your face.
I started reading The Sun in the fall of last year after receiving an unsolicited brochure in the mail. I knew right away I had stumbled upon a unique publication. Sy Safransky’s essay “A Thousand Elephants” led me to ponder which attributes of The Sun have made me part of that herd of elephants, eagerly awaiting each new issue. A key feature is that there are no ads offering to enlighten me, awaken my soul, make me a better person, or show me the path to financial, spiritual, and bodily success. It’s raw, human feeling, without anyone “striking a pose,” as Safransky said. Thanks for sending me that initial nonjunk mail.
I was shocked to find, in the otherwise affirming article “A Thousand Elephants,” the words “rise up and stone the son of a bitch.” Such words are violent and misogynistic, and add to the creeping darkness in the world.
Arnie Cooper’s interview with Reza Aslan [“The War within Islam,” December 2006] should be sent to every candidate for president of the United States and every member of Congress. Our misunderstanding of Islam helps fanatics like Osama bin Laden gain greater clout among Muslims.
If influential people in government could read that interview, it would do more for homeland security than all the paranoid airport-safety measures, and all the billions we’ve wasted on wars, put together.
Reza Aslan’s interview about Islam comes off sounding like a public-relations campaign to create a lovable image of a poisoned product. In order to support his claim that Islam is flexible, reformable, and inherently peaceful in nature, Aslan needs to make up facts, twist events, modify history, and misrepresent the Koran. The Sun, in hopes of fighting the policies of the Bush administration, has fallen prey to the adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Aslan tries to convince us that there is a strong “moderate” movement within Islam. This is wishful thinking on the part of a naive intellectual. The so-called logic behind his belief is that if there are extremists, there must also be moderates. And if they don’t exist, let’s just make them up.
Aslan’s claim that common people are free to interpret the Koran is a flat-out lie. No Muslim will ever have the right to interpret the Koran the way he or she wishes. That right belongs only to certain people within the hierarchy of Islam. Any deviation from this principle is against the essence of the faith itself. His attempt to cast Mohammed as a proponent of human rights is insulting to readers’ intelligence. His claim that the Covenant of Medina was the first constitution in human history is also incorrect. The Covenant of Medina was only a peace treaty between Mohammed’s followers and the three major Jewish tribes, not a written guarantee of inalienable human rights. And Aslan’s idea that human-rights laws should be modified based on the culture of each country would be catastrophic if implemented.
Aslan may be the best-looking knight of Islam, and perhaps the first Harvard graduate among their ranks, but he is not, by far, the most intelligent. There have always been Muslims who, embarrassed by their religion but still emotionally attached to it, have tried to humanize it, but they have failed over and over. Islam has such a vivid literature of violence and human-rights abuses that it will never be modernized unless the Koran is rewritten. Since no Muslim would dare to do that, the only way around it is to twist and misrepresent what it says — something that Aslan is attempting to do, with the help of The Sun.
Reza Aslan responds:
It is a sign of how poisoned the discussion about Islam has become that anyone who says anything positive about the second-largest religion in the world is immediately labeled an apologist or a “naive intellectual.” I wonder if Davoud Changizi would say the same about a Christian who argues that abortion-clinic bombers do not reflect true Christianity.
The problem with Changizi’s comments is not just that they are uninformed. (To be blunt, I would suggest that someone who has spent his adult life, as I have, traveling through the Muslim world talking to moderates would be more informed about their views, let alone their existence, than Changizi.) The real problem is that his letter is bereft of any counterargument. He is merely rejecting, in the most knee-jerk fashion, arguments culled from a decade of study and fieldwork, without providing any evidence for his refutation. For example, he simply discounts the Constitution of Medina, which nearly a century of scholarship has demonstrated was the most sophisticated political document of its time, as nothing more than a “peace treaty.” To support his statement, he could have at least tried citing the document, which actually included every single tribe and clan — Jewish, Muslim, and “pagan” — in the entire city, granting everyone “neighborly protection” and promising all eight (not three) Jewish clans and their clients total autonomy and equality with the Muslims. Of course, none of this probably matters to Changizi, whose mind seems already made up about Islam. In that sense, he is not unique.