Choose Mystery over Certainty

By the Rev. Susan Baller-Shephard

Why, then, I wonder, do we call them "religious extremists"? That implies that they are religious heavyweights. So what does that make the people who courageously and humbly live with complexities and unanswered questions, who give their lives in service to their fellow human beings, who suffer injustice and even true martyrdom (suffering imposed on them), who challenge the culture of violence and find ways to change the world without destroying it? Religious lightweights?

An educator lamented to me recently regarding her employment, "I have twenty years of life experience in this field, and that accounts for nothing." In this first book by Samir Selmanovic, life experience accounts for a great deal in the world of faith. In fact, he urges readers to pick up clues about God from life experiences.

This is not the book I thought it was going to be. The subtitle led me astray, and made me wonder if the author was going to try, in a book, to be all things to all people, or at least to the Muslim, Atheist, Jewish, Christian crowd. Samir Selmanovic is courageous in writing a book like this one; his is a voice I look forward to reading again in the future.

Growing up in the former Yugoslavia and knowing first-hand the Serbo/Croat ethnic clashes has given Selmanovic a voice to speak across ethnic divides. Selmanovic looks at cultures and traditions, and holds them in tension while acknowledging he is culturally Muslim and Christian by choice, a Croatian New Yorker living in California.

Selmanovic's early conversion to Christianity cut him off from people for a while, as he wished to convert others to "his" way of thinking. His family of origin tried to pull him away from his newfound conversion to Christianity. They called in a wise old imam who proved critical in Selmanovic's journey of faith, a person willing to say the right thing at the right time. Selmanovic's family of origin is inviting, lively, and complicated, and Christianity seems a way to rebel and break free from this tight-knit culturally Muslim family.

Moving from Croatia to New York broadens his experiences, producing fine food for fodder, as he realizes, "Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?" He refers to religious traditions as often trying to be "God Management Systems," working to house the divine in orderly containers. While some of Selmanovic's views are not new -- they echo far earlier interreligious speakers like Swami Vivekananda -- they are refreshing to hear from his voice, from his stance as someone who has been both outside and inside religious establishments.

It's Really all About Godisbest when it is memoir, when stories of his life are told, we presume, as they happened: his conversion to Christianity while in the Army in Macedonia; his first prayer; his experience as a person of Muslim heritage in post-9/11 New York. It is weakest when, in sections, it reads like he may be preaching to the reader. His ministry appears strongest, most passionate and meaningful to him, when he is not in a pulpit but on the street having a conversation, or drinking coffee or eating with people. That's when Selmanovic learns lessons he shares in this book, experiences that change him and enlighten the reader. He seems to move and work fairly effortlessly between and around borders that separate people, and often attends services and meetings held by other traditions.

Selmanovic writes bravely. At one point, after working non-stop, Selmanovic's wife asks him if his ministry is really just "all about you," a brave point to recount, and from whence the book title comes. He's impressive as he speaks about religious traditions, even to a talk-radio station "ready to take the city for Jesus," a year after 9/11. He writes of atheists as allies in faith, referring to them as "God's whistleblowers." Brave, as he enlists Soo, a Korean Wiccan woman, to pray for a gathered national network of conservative Christian men.

In many ways, Selmanovic returns to his upbringing, which highly valued life and others, with a faith that opens the borders to others of varying faith traditions and/or no tradition at all. "Other religions can challenge (or at least help us see) the idols we create because they expand the whole territory of knowing."

There will be those who do not know how to take this book, what to do with a writer like Selmanovic, who can bridge worlds as he does. He urges readers to choose mystery over certainty, in relationship to God. He writes, "Every truth is dependent on a story, and every theology is biography." This book shares Selmanovic's biographical theology, it's a memoir of a man trying to do right by God and community, and mustering the courage to do both.

I await the sequel.


Susan Baller-Shepard is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of  She is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), has pastored churches in Springfield, Peoria, and Rochester, Illinois, and is currently a parish associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Normal, Illinois. Her

writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Spirituality & Health magazine, Writer's Digest magazine, Church & Society, denominational publications,, and in anthologies by Outrider Press.

11/4/2009 5:00:00 AM
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