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A Selection of “Aggadic” Texts

Most of you will have read a smattering of lighter literature, which fits into this category, Harry Kemelman’s series of Rabbi Small stories, detective stories depicting a normal Jewish community as their background, perhaps comparable to the Father Brown series.  They are harmless but not particularly useful. If you really want to get genuine insight, you are going to have to go one step further. I am proposing two authors, who I think will enable you to do that, both have written numerous books, but I’ll get you started on two each. Doing this for Islam is going to be a little more difficult, but we’ll come to that a little later.


For Judaism you can’t get much better than Chaim Potok. I propose you start with the pair of novels: The Chosen and The Promise, which form a series. The setting is New York in the 1950’s and the protagonists are, in the first book, an “orthodox” rabbi and his son and a “Chassidic” rabbis son. Now the Chassidic son is destined to be his father’s successor and care for their people. His only brother is sickly and not up to the task. He is being groomed for this by his father. As the story opens, he almost blinds the other boy with a baseball. The latter’s father insists that his son not only accept the boy’s apology, but also that he make him his friend. That is a really difficult for the son to do, but his father explains (in Jewish terms) how and why this is to be done. It turns out much later that the Chassidic boy has not only managed to get permission to play baseball, he has, in addition to all his religious studies, been reading voraciously in the library, where the professor/rabbi has discovered him and has been guiding his reading, discussing what he has read with him and leading him on to fill the gaps in his primarily religious education. In the course of the story the problematic relationship, which the Chassidic boy has to his father, is uncovered but it is not resolved for the reader until the end of the second novel.

The second novel opens when the boys are in college, the Chassidic one now studying psychology and working as an intern in a special institute for disturbed youth. It is to him that a third “liberal” rabbi brings his son when he becomes unmanageable as an adolescent. Both he and the institute entrust the youth to the budding psychologist, who uses some very unconventional methods. When the final resolution comes, one has a panorama of three paths to the very same spiritual goals, and these bind the men together, despite their very real and crucial differences. I can think of no better introduction to our task.

Chaim Potok was a rabbi and a professor, but he was also a brilliant writer. He wrote a marvellous History of the Jews.


The other author to whom I would like to introduce you is Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, a professor of sociology, who wrote numerous novels and also serious academic works. His figures, too, tend to crop up in different novels, but these two are unrelated. The novels I would like to recommend to you are: Capital Virtues and Contract with an Angel. Virtues and vices are handholds for spiritual growth in Catholicism. In the first book the parish priest is an older man, who lives together with two rather problematic priests, one of whom is a dry alcoholic. Then he is sent a “young priest.” One who is strikingly handsome, rich, gifted in every way…. and the protagonist sets out to live the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. It’s a story about a parish with all of its characters, young and old, death and divorce and vocations and – sex – and scandal. But it’s always those virtues in the background as the guiding light.

The second story is a “reverse Faust”. It begins in an airplane when a successful businessman discovers someone sitting next to him who wasn’t there before. The newcomer announces himself as an angel and predicts the man’s immanent demise and pulls a contract out of his pocket for him to sign. Not convinced, the protagonist resists – plane spirals into a dive, man signs – angel begins to help him get his life in order. It is a more playful work than the first book; you’ll like the angels, they are a wild bunch.

Greeley’s novels are out of print but available used. Contract with an Angel is available as a Kindle ebook, see an excellent review.


In trying to assess the difference in lived quality between the Catholic and the Lutheran perspectives I’ve been looking for something that caresses the latter. I found it in a rather unusual place: NPR, which had a program The Prairie Home Companion showcasing the Midwestern United States. Theses are modest people, who “don’t make eye contact”, for whom “putting peas in a tuna casserole is ‘showing off'”, who “don’t praise their children too much”. You’ll find them  under “Tales of Lake Wobegon“, little vignettes about these modest and industrious people, how their days are formed and how they conquer life’s little difficulties. It’s a tender portrait, somewhat sad, but carrying the gentle rhythm of folks getting on with their everyday lives.

Lutheran Tendencies


Secret Lutherans

The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra (feat. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra)


This may not be the best choice, but I think I want to demonstrate a little bit of the different mind set between the two Christian communities for people from the other faiths. In the theoretical part I’ll go into where I think this difference in nuance has its origin. It’s real; making it visible is the first step.


C.S. LewisScrewtape Letters” (see: Angels and Devils)

The importance of this seminal piece is two-fold: it was written in GB during WWII, i.e. during the shoah, and explicates the mind-frame necessary to transcend propaganda. It is the story of a devil training his nephew to lead a man astray, and by implication, of the Truth behind the BS.

But it is, I think, suitable for exploring the role of grace, repentance, renewal. It is an option that makes something that is explicit in one religion but more implicit in another visible.

Now for the question of Islam.

The novel is a modern invention, dependent on the development of the individual and social mobility and the conflicts, which ensue when navigating this milieu. Traditionally Arabic culture has treasured poetry, the choice of a mobile and oral culture, and has excelled in this. Recent novelists have addressed social change, but not as a deeply spiritual process, with one exception. [I am deliberately excluding “Sufi” novels, simply because they are peripheral.]

Meet Ziauddin Sardar,  Pakistani born British scholar, a man whose approach closely aligns with mine. He’s written an autobiography that is a spiritual journey. This is the first of two volumes.


I want to thank Katrin Visse of the Catholic Academy in Berlin for bringing him and other interesting Muslim scholars to Berlin and introducing them to us. Her dissertation, which I can highly recommend, is online. It discusses three modern Islamic scholars’ approaches to the text and, in the second half, compares this to the Catholic approach to texts.

Alternative approach:

Rather than trying to fit Islam into the paradigm of Western literature, it might be more useful, in terms of furthering the spiritual growth processes of the individual participants, to open their pathways to poetry. We usually turn off when we hear that and feel it is going to be “difficult”. But in some Persian families it is a game where kids compete to win acclaim by their recitation and understanding of this genre.

So here’s another option: There is an NPR program (“On Being” with Krista Tippett) which offers a secular option to structuring Sunday reflections. Recently they explored the function of poetry in fostering spiritual growth (John O’Donohue – The Inner Landscape of Beauty )

The problem with using poetry for Westerners is that they immediately skip to the esoteric. And from there it is just a short hop to “all religions are the same.”

So although we can’t use that as our bridge to refocus our attention to a different mode of perceiving the world and its potential for unleashing spiritual growth, perhaps we could use Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists“.


I’ve actually found some quite good stuff for this and think we should definitely include it as an option.

Swarup, Vikas. The Accidental Apprentice. It’s set in a Hindu context but has elements of Buddhism – subtitle: Imagine if your life changed in an instant.

There are also a couple of fun detective stories, which analyze some aspects of tomfoolery (duping folks with pseudo gurus) in Indian society: Hall, Tarquin. The Case of the Man who Died Laughing. Arrow Books: London 2012 or (same author) The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, which elucidates the Indian/Pakistani problematic.


This option was suggested to me by a couple who were raising a child together but coming from different faith orientations and who found their common ground here. It has been included in the young children’s program. Hesse’s Siddharta is the most obvious choice.

Some even lighter suggestions

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