It is a bestselling book. It is a “template for religious dialogue,” according to one of the authors. It is required reading in high school and college religion classes. It is a scandal to some, and an inspiration to others. Last but not least, it was adapted and performed as a play by folks in a Florida retirement community.
The phenomenon in question is the book titled “The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding,” by Suzanne Oliver, Ranya Idliby and Priscilla Warner.
Oliver came to St. James Episcopal Church in Batavia Saturday to discuss the book, answer questions, and sign copies of the book at a reception afterward. An Episcopalian Christian herself, Oliver attends a church of the same name in New York City.
“Except we have an apostrophe after the ‘s,’ ” she said, eliciting laughter from her audience.
Her visit was part of St. James’ bicentennial celebration, which will include other events as well.
“When I imagine Batavia 200 years ago,” Oliver said, “I imagine a variety of Christianities, as well as native religions that must have been present. Diversity of religion is not really new. But we have to learn to approach it in new ways that affirm the humanity and divinity in all of us.”
This is what Oliver, Idliby (a Muslim) and Warner (a Jew) tried to do with their book, which was first published in 2006.
Oliver sees this as part of a nationwide movement to foster interreligious dialogue and understanding in the face of much fear and violence associated with religion. One reason she feels this is especially important and timely is the increasing number of non-Christian immigrants to the United States.
“From 1992 to 2012, the proportion of Christians in the United States fell from 68 percent to 61 percent,” Oliver said. “At the same time, the proportions of Muslim and Hindu immigrants have doubled. It is important that we integrate these growing religions into our American communities.”
According to Oliver, the genesis of the project came in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“I met Ranya (Idliby) at our daughters’ school bus stop the week of those attacks,” she said. “Our girls had started kindergarten together, and 9/11 was supposed to be their school picnic day.”
At the time, Oliver was part of a book club that decided to read about Islam and the Middle East in order to explore who these Muslim terrorists were, and why they hated Americans. She invited Idliby to their talk on Thomas Friedman’s book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” and found that she “defied my stereotypes about Muslim women.”
Prior to meeting Idliby, Oliver believed Islam was a violent religion that mistreated women. But she was surprised by Idliby’s personal independence and her ability to read the Koran (Islam’s principle religious text) and see connections with Judaism and Christianity.
It was Idliby who conceived the idea of teaming up with a Christian mother and a Jewish mother to write a children’s book consisting of a miracle story from each of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Through a Jewish friend, Oliver met and recruited Warner, whom she described as “open-minded and curious enough” to join the project.
But when they pitched the idea to an agent, the agent wasn’t interested. Instead, she was interested in the relationship these three women had forged among themselves in trying to write what had seemed like a simple children’s book. How they handled their disagreements (some of them major), found common ground, and continued to work together despite tensions and differences were to become the “stuff” of their joint project.
“This was a bigger commitment than any of us had anticipated,” Oliver said. “We would have to be vulnerable, honest, and forgiving with each other. We would have to figure out how three people could structure one story out of a shared, yet individual experience. And we would have to be willing, ultimately, to share this story with the world.”
And this is what they have done. With more than 200,000 copies sold, “The Faith Club” has reached many people throughout the country and garnered much praise.
At the same time, Oliver acknowledged, there are people of all three faiths who have criticized the book for presenting a watered-down version of each faith. One fairly well-known religious leader even compared it to “the coming of the Antichrist.”
But Oliver, for her part, is not only determined to continue the pursuit begun with “The Faith Club,” but also insists on the need to let go of “religious absolutes” and on the “obligation of contemporary religious leaders to prepare their congregants for the inevitability of interfaith encounter by teaching pluralist theologies of religion.”
In fact, that was the topic of her thesis at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she earned a master of arts in Interfaith Theology and Ecumenical Studies in 2012.
“I began to recognize (in my faith journey) that no religion had all the answers,” Oliver said. “As Ranya had said in our conversations, ‘Religion is only as enlightened as the human hands it finds itself in.' ”
For more information on "The Faith Club," visit the book's Amazon page.