The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza GriswoldThe Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Published by Blackstone Audio on 8/17/10
Genres: Non-fiction

Book: B
Narration: B

From the book description on

“The tenth parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, is the defining metaphor of our time. An ideological front line stretching across two continents and nineteen countries, this is where Christianity and Islam collide—a profound encounter that shapes the lives of more than a billion people. It’s not just geographic; it’s demographic. The center of global faith lies in the jungles and buzzing megacities of Africa and Asia. Of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, more than half live along the tenth parallel, as do roughly 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians. Here, as elsewhere, Christianity and Islam are growing faster than the world’s population.

The stories of The Tenth Parallel examine the complex relationships of religion, land, and oil, among other resources; local conflicts and global ideology; politics and contemporary martyrdom, both Islamic and Christian.”

This book marks my second audio venture into non-fiction. It is evenly divided between historical information on the growth and movement of Christianity and Islam in the region bordering the 10th parallel (with a focus on Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) and the author’s account of her interviews with people who live, worship, and evangelize there. Although definitely informative, I think more than anything what this book did was remind me how much I don’t know, pointed out how simplified my perspective on the conflict is, and provided me with enough information and varied perspectives to prompt me to ask more intelligent questions.

I picked this audiobook up after reading an article that briefly analyzed Islam as, in part, a political structure that evolved as a response to a lack of centralized government and as an aid to survival in a harsh environment with limited resources. A logical hypothesis that, while not exactly a paradigm shift, at least started something of a sea-change in my perceptions of the conflict. Although this book didn’t visit that idea with as much depth as I was expecting/hoping, that ended up being a good thing. I was initially displeased with the quantity of personal accounts but the fact that this book was an even combination of history and anecdotal stories from the author’s time in the region limited my ability to hold the information at a strictly analytical distance.

Although there are some typical themes outlined such as religion as a tool for imperialism, I was fascinated by several topics in particular that I just hadn’t really thought about before. Some examples:

  • The impact the Tsetse fly had in halting organized conversion attempts from moving south of the 10th parallel
  • The outline of the Cold War era attempt by the West to employ Islam as a tool to halt the spread of communism in the Middle-East, including the search for a “Muslim Billy Graham” who would see atheistic communism as the same threat the Christian West did
  • “Herein lies one of the striking enigmas about religion. Faith grows faster under pressure.” and the analysis that in America, 9/11 initiated a growth spurt in Islam
  • Although aware of the use of relief aid (specifically food) as a tool for recruitment or conversion, I was still startled at the described perception (while discussing Islam in the area of Malaysia) that much of the transmission of Western culture, from KFC to Brittany Spears, is part of an effort by the Christian West to turn Muslims from their faith
  • The disparity between Christianity as practiced in the West and as practiced around the 10th parallel
  • Conversion and living a life of faith is as often a political, economic, or survival decision as it is a mystical experience or calling
  • The analysis that from a historical perspective, conflict in Christianity and Islam was found in “The complicated bids for power inside them more that the conflicts between them.”

I doubt that anyone approaching this book with a fully formed opinion will come away from it with that opinion significantly altered. Regardless of your views on the conflict, though, the first-person interviews provide a valuable perspective from the inhabitants of that region. The geographical area under discussion comprises a large area and the 10th parallel division makes for a nice core to structure the narrative around but it should go without saying that there are other areas at play in this topic. The ending seemed abrupt and lacked any hint of a cohesive analysis or conclusion and I’m not 100% convinced the author holds an unbiased view but as someone with an unfortunate knee-jerk tendency to shut off my brain at the merest hint of a discussion surrounding religious fundamentalism, I admire the author’s (and narrator’s) ability to engage me in thought without triggering that reaction.

I have to hand it to Tavia Gilbert; I don’t think I would have gotten through this book on paper. Her narration was uncommonly clear and adept at pulling me through an occasionally dense and potentially confusing mix of people, cultures, and locations.  I do wish I had a paper copy so I could tell if the emphasis in quoted conversations was textually indicated or narrator choice. I now also have a better understanding of the different narration styles dictated by the fiction/non-fiction divide.

In the end, this book left me with more questions than definitive answers but I think that’s a good state to be in after only one book on the topic.

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