Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel.
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007.
Adult nonfiction/autobiography, 189 pages.
Part autobiography, part nonfiction, this is the story of Eboo Patel’s life, how it could easily have been so very different, and what he feels is most important for young people today.
This was a very unique read. Patel intersperses the story of his own life with a look at the way various Western minority youth were influenced by religious extremists and carried out various acts of violence.
These are two very different styles of writing, and once I figured out the dual nature of the book, I was concerned that Patel wouldn’t be able to carry it out. While it makes sense to interest people in a larger topic through an interesting life story, too often the books are unbalanced (The Right to Be Cold) or end up focusing primarily on the topic and becoming more of a memoir than a life story (Down Came the Rain).
Acts of Faith is an autobiography that progresses through the events of Patel’s life in chronological order, as well as a nonfiction work that examines larger trends in society, and it achieves a remarkable balance between the two. Just when a story of religious extremism is starting to bore, Patel is back with an anecdote from his life. Before the reader can tire of his (fairly ordinary) early life, we are looking at the broader implications of trends in youth recruitment of religious extremists.
Patel is doing work, and calling to our attention, something that many people overlook. We may decry youth becoming involved with extreme groups (whether terrorists or, more recently, hate groups), but it’s also important to offer those same youth another option. That’s what Patel is doing, and he lays out, step-by-step, how he came to the conclusions that he did and why.
One of my favorite parts was how Patel came to an understanding of his own faith through interfaith work. This rung very true to my own experiences. During my questioning period, I spent a lot of time with non-Christian friends and devoted much effort to studying other religions and denominations. Some people felt that this was a result of my family having too much contact with the outside world, but having that time to question and to learn about other religions actually caused me to be more devoted to my faith once I was ready to commit.
Patel sides with Prothero rather than Smith – he does not believe all religions are the same, or even equal. He believes his faith is the best one, and assumes you believe the same about yours, but that doesn’t mean followers of different religions can’t get along, bond over their shared beliefs, and respectfully discuss their differences.
Patel shares a great deal about his own religion, and in particular I was fascinated to learn so much about Ismaili Muslims. However, he also imparts a great deal of information about other religions he passed through on his way to a committed faith, and those of his girlfriends and close friends. He had a serious Mormon girlfriend, met the Dalai Lama, studied with a Catholic priest, and had a close Jewish friend.
The portions about Patel’s shared-values service-learning methodology will be valuable to anyone working with young people. It’s a unique and delicate approach, but can be very fruitful. A common virtue is identified, and the youth examine how their particular religious tradition approaches it. Then they put that virtue into action through a service project. After the shared experience, they come together for further learning and processing. The goal is to deepen one’s own religious experience through study, action, and conversation.
Patel does a difficult thing well, both in his life and in this book. I certainly learned a lot and enjoyed the reading experience as well. Recommended.