This is a book I’d heard about for awhile and was anxious to read. It’s the story of three women — one Muslim, one Jewish, one Christian — who began meeting together to talk about their three faiths, to explore differences and find common ground. Ranya, Suzanne and Priscilla didn’t know each other when they first began their project, which started after the 9/11 attacks as a plan by Ranya Idilby to write a children’s book about Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The project soon became a friendship — but not one without challenges and arguments as the three women got to know each other and talked honestly about what they believed.
I found the process these women went through, both as a group and individually, to be absolutely fascinating. The group process is interesting because we are so trained to avoid discussing controversial subjects in social settings — and, as women particularly, trained to avoid conflict altogether. My closest group of women friends doesn’t include a Muslim and a Jew but it does include a wide diversity of religious beliefs and unbeliefs, and while we have had a few frank conversations about religion we have also tiptoed around possibly controversial subjects.
There’s no tiptoeing here. Suzanne, Ranya and Priscilla honestly confronted and thrashed out questions like: Does Christianity portray Jews as Christ-killers? Is Islam a repressive religion for women? and many, many others. At the end, they found common ground they could stand on and an appreciation for their differences.
Each woman also went on an individual faith journey as she explored her own beliefs in the context of the other two — as well as in the context of her own life. Ranya, the Muslim, became more comfortable identifying herself as an American Muslim and looking for a faith community she could feel at home in. Priscilla, the Jewish woman, became more deeply committed to her faith. And Suzanne, the Christian, found herself questioning and doubting beliefs she had taken for granted.
One thing that struck me was that all three of these women, though observant to some degree and deeply spiritual, all came from more liberal branches of their religions. Their explorations led all three of them to a kind of pluralism and universalism in which each could accept the other’s religion as equally valid to her own — and, in fact, that was not far from the point where each of them had started. I was left wondering whether this kind of dialogue and friendship would be possible between three conservative or even fundamentalist Muslim, Christian and Jewish women. Is pluralism necessary for real dialogue and openness, or can those who are convinced that their religion is objectively true still have meaningful conversations with those of other faiths?
As far as the actual writing of the book went, the narration alternates among the three, with each woman taking turns telling her own story, punctuated by some passages of dialogue transcribed from tapes of their conversations over a period of a couple of years. None of the three voices comes through as particularly compelling or strong in a literary sense — there is no budding Anne Lamott or Nora Gallagher among these three. But the story they tell is so compelling I wasn’t worried about literary quality — I was pulled along by the desire to find out what they talked about, how they resolved their differences, and where each woman ended up in her spiritual journey. The Faith Club was an intriguing and satisfying read, and offers a much-needed perspective on interfaith dialogue in today’s world. You can also check out the three authors’ website for much more interesting material about them.