It’s hard to know exactly how to reply to the charge that ISHMAEL “condemns Christianity.” In ISHMAEL, the words JESUS, CHRIST, CHRISTIAN, and CHRISTIANITY appear ONLY in the following seven texts.
1. [Ishmael]: “I’m telling you this because the people of your culture are in much the same situation. Like the people of Nazi Germany, they are the captives of a story.”
I sat there blinking for a while. “I know of no such story,” I told him at last.
“You mean you’ve never heard of it?”
Ishmael nodded. “That’s because there’s no NEED to hear of it. There’s no need to name it or discuss it. Every one of you knows it by heart by the time you’re six or seven. Black and white, male and female, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, American and Russian, Norwegian and Chinese, you all hear it…”
2. [Ishmael]: “One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad in Taker history is simply enormous. I’m sure you’re aware of that.”
3. [Ishmael]: “Doubtless many of these peoples had their own tales to tell of this revolution, their own ways of explaining how these people from the Fertile Crescent came to be the way they were, but only one of these tales survived—the one told by the Semites to their children about the Fall of Adam and the slaughter of Abel by his brother Cain. It survived because the Takers never managed to overrun the Semites, and the Semites refused to take up the agricultural life. Even their eventual Taker descendants, the Hebrews, who preserved the story without fully understanding it, couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the peasant life-style. And this is how it happened that, with the spread of Christianity and of the Old Testament, the Takers came to adopt as their own a story an enemy once told to denounce them.”
4. [Ishmael]: “I think it’s safe to say that the story of Adam’s Fall is by far the best- known story in the world.”
“At least in the West,” I said.
“Oh, it’s well known in the East as well, having been carried into every corner of the world by Christian missionaries.”
5. [Student]: “Nevertheless, here’s the fact: after a few thousand years, the descendants of these neolithic farmers were scratching their heads and saying, ‘Gee, I wonder how people ought to live.’ But in that very same time period, the Leavers of the world HADN’T forgotten how to live. THEY still knew, but the people of my culture had forgotten, had cut themselves off from a tradition that told them how to live. They NEEDED a Hammurabi to tell them how to live. They NEEDED a Draco and a Solon and a Moses and a Jesus and a Muhammad.”
6. [Student]: “Yes. Far and away the most futile admonition Christ ever offered was when he said, ‘Have no care for tomorrow. Don’t worry about whether you’re going to have something to eat. Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but God takes perfect care of them. Don’t you think he’ll do the same for you?’ In our culture the overwhelming answer to that question is, ‘Hell no!’ Even the most dedicated monastics saw to their sowing and reaping and gathering into barns.”
“What about Saint Francis?”
“Saint Francis relied on the bounty of farmers, not the bounty of God. Even the most fundamental of the fundamentalists plug their ears when Jesus starts talking about birds of the air and lilies of the field. They know damn well he’s just yarning, just making pretty speeches.”
7. [Ishmael]: “Nor is there any reason to imagine that it’s impossible for Takers to be goddess-worshipers. Remains from the peat bogs of northern Europe make it clear that the Takers of that region were goddess-worshipers throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, right into the Christian era.”
Certainly there’s nothing in these passages that could be construed as a condemnation of Christianity. On this basis, it’s clear that the notion that ISHMAEL “condemns Christianity” is someone’s INTERPRETATION of the book. In other words, it seems that the book is simply to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. I think you would be within your rights to ask that the book be presumed innocent until proven guilty—by bringing forth SOME evidence. If it was going to be censored on the basis of obscenity, surely its obscene passages would be cited. If ISHMAEL is going to be censored because it “condemns Christianity,” then (even setting aside the fact that such censorship violates the First Amendment) fairness would seem to dictate similar treatment for it. (I realize, of course, that you may not care to make such a demand.) Here are some comments from Christian ministers who clearly do NOT perceive my book as “condemning Christianity.” (Webmaster’s note: The names of the individual ministers were trimmed by me – to prevent unnecessary harassment of these people – as they have not been consulted to have their quotes in this public venue. More information is available upon request.)
“A men’s breakfast group read ISHMAEL last year. Seldom has any book promoted so much discussion, useful questioning and broadening of faith and life.” Minister of the United church of Christ — Presbyterian and UCC traditions
“I especially appreciated your exegesis of Genesis 3 & 4.” Pastor in Wisconson
“From the beginning of my ‘real’ study, which began after formal schooling, I’ve seen the inconsistencies within the Genesis stories and puzzled over the love-hate relationships the Hebrews had with their prophets. Your presentation has brought all the pieces together for me.” Pastor in Arizona
“I have enclosed a note that I wrote to my former biblical studies professor regarding the Cain and Abel narrative. The explanation given in class never did sit quite right with me. You explanation fills the bill perfectly. Your book is the most thought provoking work I have ever read. What I do with it remains to be seen.” Clergy in Pennsylvania
“What a remarkable little book ISHMAEL is! Thank you for helping to expose the “lie.” I intend to order it for my church’s bookstore, and to speak about it in a talk I will do at the end of this month…” Preacher in Georgia
“I just finished ISHMAEL and trust that I will never ‘finish’ it, let it go, forget it. It was plenty revelatory to this 56-year-old Episcopal clergy guy. Great exposition of some of the likely cultural genesis of the early literary Genesis. Our types as somehow outside the ‘other system for the other creatures’ has never computed for me, always seemed dangerous. ISHMAEL gives an engaging, inviting journey into that truth.” Clergy in Pennsylvania
Gary Partenheimer–trained as a clergyman but has spent most of his career teaching, currently in Religion and Philosophy Department at Northfield Mountain Hermon school in Massachusetts – he has been using ISHMAEL in his classes for several years. (See ISHMAEL COMPANION for his use of the book with his students.)
“Dear Ishmael–thank you! The truth you tell is clear. Your understanding of Genesis is far more accurate than most of us church monkeys have seen.” Pastor in Texas
“ISHMAEL stimulated much good discussion at our book group last night. Thank you.” Senior Minister in Colorado
“You are right about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I am a biblical scholar, and nobody had gotten it right before. Same with Cain and Abel.” Teacher in a US Theological Seminary
“I just finished reading ISHMAEL and felt a need to respond to your interpretation of why the world is in the condition that it is today. I liked your interpretation because it makes sense. Being a Christian clergyman I was also interested in your interpretation of the basic message of the Christian Bible. I also liked what I read in that respect.” Pastor in Minnesota
From a review of ISHMAEL in the newsletter of the First Congregational Church, Russell, KS : “It has been almost two years since I last suggested you read a book. This is one you should immediately call the library and reserve or rush to the mall and purchase…and I favor the latter since this is one you will want to consult again and again. The author would probably not appreciate my saying that this is a biblical commentary, but it is. He might also not appreciate my saying that this is ground-breaking theology, but it is! Read this book. Then maybe you will better understand the Bible.”
There’s no doubt that ISHMAEL is used in many more schools than are listed on the website, but the schools in that list are the ones we happen to know about. We only know where it’s used when someone tells us about it.
posted: 01 Jun 1997
updated: 01 Jun 1999