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A Heart Broken Open

A Heart Broken Open: Radical faith in an age of fear
Ray Gaston
Wild Goose, 204pp, ISBN 9781905010615

Many of the recent books about Islam – by Christians and non-Christians alike – are given titles confined by a rather narrow range of symbols and clichés (depending on the position of the author): ‘jihad’, ‘threat’, ‘terror’, ‘crescent’, ‘dialogue’, ‘understanding’. Ray Gaston’s title – ‘A Heart Broken Open’ – is an immediate clue that this is not your usual Christian unpacks (or attacks) Islam offering.

The book is divided into three parts, entitled ‘Solidarity’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Dialogue’. The first section relates Ray’s different experiences as a parish priest in Leeds, grappling with how to respond to the ‘war on terror’ and invasion of Iraq. The second section, ‘Truth’, has a much stronger emphasis on spirituality, with reflections on Ray’s exploration of Islam and how that in turn provided insight into his own Christian faith.

‘Dialogue’, the final part of the book, is refreshingly sincerely named, with three other voices having space to share. One contribution is from Annie Heppenstall, an author, and since 2008, married to Ray Gaston. Annie writes honestly and clearly about her own experiences as a Christian woman in dialogue with Islam, and her chapter is followed by one from Hussein Mehdi, an Iraqi Shia and Ray’s companion on the trip to Syria and Iraq. The final piece is written by Firdaws Khan, a Kashmir-born community activist from Leeds.

There is also a fourth additional contributor – Respect politician Salma Yaqoob, who writes the introduction. Highly active in local politics in Birmingham, Yaqoob – who some will have seen on her appearances on programmes like ‘Question Time’ – writes movingly about her admiration for Ray, and the necessity of his voice in a time like ours. Yaqoob remarks that “the spiritual journey in this book spoke to me in a very personal way”, a response likely to be echoed by many of the book’s readers.

A consistent highlight of the book is Gaston’s ability to share honestly and humbly his passionate and thirsty spirituality, and how that has shaped his experiences with Islam as a Christian priest. Unlike many books written by Christians about Islam, there are no Orientalist-flavoured, essentialising generalizations. In a rare example where Gaston overtly critiques common Christian perceptions, he writes that while Islam’s Five Pillars are often assumed to be “works” performed out of “fear” to “win favour with God”, he finds this “a gross simplification, and one that fails to grasp the beauty and sincerity at the heart of Muslim practice”.

Gaston points to the spiritual fruit of the historic Church tradition of structured prayer (like the Daily Office), comparing it with the daily punctuation of Muslim’s salat (prayers). But it is rare for him to be explicit in questioning Western Christian assumptions about Islam; most of the time, it is with an unassuming sharpness that his personal insights challenge and provoke. It is also through a willingness to go beyond ‘comfort zones’ that Ray is able to draw out insights into the Islam-Christianity encounter – such as when he by and large follows the Ramadan fast, keeping a diary through the month.

Inevitably for a book about Christian engagement with Islam, history is a presence in Gaston’s physical and mental journeys: from the Prophet Mohammad and the historic Shi’a martyr Hussein, to the visit by St. Francis to the Sultan during the Crusades, and the Byzantine empire – these vignettes and legacies are as much a part of the book’s story as more contemporary dates and signifiers like ‘9/11’, ‘7/7’, and the invasion of Iraq.

The book is worth reading just for the incredible stories of someone who, to paraphrase Gandhi, is ‘living the change’. Aside from the account of how his local community responded when a post-7/7 ‘bomb factory’ was discovered in a flat yards from his parish church, it is Ray’s trip to Syria and Iraq in 2005 that stands out. Accompanying his friend Mehdi to Karbala, Ray ended up half a mile away from a huge suicide bombing targeting pilgrims.

But that is not what Gaston stressed (in contrast perhaps to what many other Western writers would have done); instead he focuses on the spiritual blessing of the trip, the complex questions about the invasion and war he is confronted with, the welcome and hospitality he received, and Iraqi stories of horrific suffering and bereavement.

A Heart Broken Open is a unique book. Some Christian books on Islam and the ‘war on terror’ are anti-intellectual, fear-mongering polemics. Others are nuanced, theology-focused comparisons. Ray Gaston, however, is a man of action, and is committed to living out his spirituality with an honest courage and “radical vulnerability”. This is not a ‘comfortable’ read – it challenges us theologically, politically, and on a personal level.

In an age of fear, militarization, and willing Christian accomplices to many of the fatal assumptions of the ‘war on terror’, Gaston tries to be faithful to his belief that “violence can never bring liberation”. Rather, the “path” to “true liberation” is “to surrender ourselves to God’s love and compassion, to prostrate ourselves before the one true God of love and sacrifice by living out a life of sacrificial love, mercy and compassion and creatively resisting oppression”.

Salma Yaqoob, in her introduction to the book, answers her own question when she writes, “What responsibility do people of faith have in a world marked by intolerance and injustice? Surely, it must be to bear witness.” That is both an excellent summary of Gaston’s book, and an invitation to those who will read it.

First published in Third Way.

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