Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity & Islam by Eliza Griswold

The concept of this book is a fascinating one: the Tenth Parallel, which runs around the earth 700 miles north of the equator, could be thought of as the dividing line between warring religions. Griswold makes the point that north of the tenth parallel, the Arab/Muslim religion and culture largely holds sway, while below, in Africa at least, Christian and indigenous religions mix. She has put her finger on a critically important subject and has found an area of the world where that divide can be witnessed within one country.

Griswold is the daughter of Frank Griswold, former bishop of the Episcopal Church. She travelled with her family in Africa and later as a journalist in the entourage of Bill Graham. Her background, therefore, informs her interest in the religious divide, and we may assume she brings both experience and a certain amount of access with her history. She doesn’t, however, appear to have an overt religious bias, but points out abuses, overstepping, political purpose, and overweening personal aggrandizement on both sides of the religious divide. She makes important points: changes in climatic conditions on the continent in Africa are forcing a mixing of religious cultures that have been traditionally separate; poverty and famine are exacerbating religious conflicts; both sides are eagerly trying to gain converts through political and economic means.

Having given credit to Griswold for staking out an important area of the world, the sub-Saharan region of Nigeria, Somalia, and Ethiopia, I had to leave half this book unread (I had the audio version) because of the diffuse and fractured manner of presentation. I note the author is a poet as well as a journalist. There was, perhaps, a little too much description of local color. Griswold’s descriptions distracted me from the points she was trying to make. (I have an indelible picture of Billy Graham’s ostrich-skin boots, and the house and face of a Somalian religious warlord.)

Griswold travelled to remote and dangerous sites to conduct interviews, but somehow what she came away with was less impressive than her getting there and back in one piece. There may have been too much running around and too little analysis in this account. I couldn’t help but feel this was one reporter who had the instincts for an important story, but was unnecessarily kinetic in her pursuit of it. There is always a wide audience for a tight analysis of a conflict area, with historical elements woven in. The audio reading was very fast (and the reader, Tavia Gilbert, has a disconcertingly young-sounding voice), but I began to suspect I was getting the same material again and again. I even checked my discs to make sure I was going forward rather than backwards. This could have used a far less indulgent editor, and instead given us a pinpointed analysis that doesn’t get buried with fact-slinging.

I am curious now why this was recommended by someone at Politics and Prose, the independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. While the subject is undoubtedly an important one, the narrative cannot rank with the best.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Very nice review -- I got excited at first but your comments tempered my enthusiasm -- sounds like it wouldn't grab me really. I snorted out my water at the mention of the ostrich boots -- things I didn't need to know! ;)

  2. I'd hate if if people didn't have a look at this, in paper at least, where you could skim easily the parts that seem repetitive. This book really made me think. There were things in here that I didn't know. For instance, apparently the American evangelical movement has a white paper based on the concept of religious divide at the tenth parallel, and has a high-end marketing plan for achieving conversions among non-Christians with monthly and yearly goals. And the descriptions of religious marketing in huge church gatherings of hundreds of thousands of followers is something out of this world.

  3. Gah, that's frightening! It's true -- I do need to read more nonfic like this, even if it makes me uncomfortable.