Book Review: ‘The tenth parallel’ by Eliza Griswold

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Accept no substitutes for a writer who travels to wild places and talks to people. Eliza Griswold (what a wonderful name, like something out of Dickens or Harry Potter) explores in her book the peoples of latitude ten degrees north of the equator.

She concentrates on the human geography, the conflict between the desert and the sown, the aristocratic nomad and the dirt-digging farmer, and — her real purpose — between Islam and Christianity.

She’s either fearless, or crazy, in her pursuit of former terrorists and other dodgy characters, as well as of the people who are perhaps just the collateral damage in this turbulent region– the two Muslims who were to be caned for suspected adultery, who just wanted to marry so they would not be shamed, for example.

She meets plenty of missionaries and zealots on both sides. On the way she is led to Christ by Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, an experience that was evidently more satisfying to him than it was to her.

Halfway round the world she meets a former mujahideen trying a new career selling beauty products. And on and on.

Eliza Griswold resists cynicism, stereotyping and the urge to fit what she is seeing into some coherent analysis. She’s very likeable. The daughter of a radical, liberal bishop, her very puzzled poking around in this confusion is to me almost a vital sign of a living faith.

I loved the contrast (in a rare personal aside) between her own nail-chewed hands and the worthily worn ones of her professional-Christian mother. Hers is a ‘doubt’ that is the penumbra of bright belief.

I have one little caveat which is that her library-work isn’t always quite as excellent as her reportage. Her footnotes sometimes lead us to other popular accounts, not authoritative sources. There’s the odd place where she’s surely oversimplifying, for example: ‘Under the Roman Empire, the practice of Christianity was punishable by death until 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially legalized it.’ (p 78). Rome’s persecution was patchy and sporadic.

After reading this book I’ve learnt more, and understood less, about the people at the join between Islam and Christianity , an area mightily unwritten about and largely unknown to the Western world.

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