The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 5, 2010

Jacque Gage, book review: Account of religious differences compelling

By Jacque Gage
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Three days ago my husband and I celebrated 33 years of marriage.

When I picked him out, I did a good job. He has an amazing list of good qualities that I won’t enumerate now. But, my husband does not share my love of recreational reading.

How that happened, I’m not sure. Though I can lose myself in a book and be totally unaware of my surroundings, he is an infrequent pleasure reader.

Early this summer, however, our son brought us a book he had recently finished, “Tea with Hezbollah,” by Ted Dekker. Both Mike and I started reading the book.

I had trouble getting the book read because Mike always got to it first.

Once I did get it, he almost loaned it to a friend before I was done. I think he enjoyed it and believes it to be thought-provoking.

Dekker, the book’s primary author, is prolific. Since 2000 he has written more than 30 books. Some were award winners; others appeared on The New York Times best-seller list.

A Christian writer, his works are not easily pigeonholed. They run the gamut, including traditional Christian fiction, political thrillers, psychological thrillers, fantasy, murder and mayhem. A common theme through many is the age-old conflict of good versus evil.

“Tea with Hezbollah,” however, is one of two nonfiction books he has written. Co-written with Carl Medearis, an expert on Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations, the book chronicles a trip the two of them made to the Middle East in 2008 in search of the answer to the question: “Is it really possible to love one’s enemies?”

Over coffee one day, Dekker and Medearis were discussing similarities between Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jesus -- the fact they all died for a message of how we need to love our neighbor, even if they’re the enemy.

They decided (it took a year for Medearis to get a “yes” out of Dekker) to go to our country’s so-called enemies and ask them what they thought about loving enemies. It took another year for Medearis to work out details, but he and a reluctant and admittedly frightened Dekker took off to ask questions of some of the world’s most powerful Islamic teachers.

In Dekker’s words, there are several things the book is not: “This is not a religious book that seeks to correct anyone’s misguided beliefs, Christian or Muslim. This is not a political book that undermines any one ideology. And it certainly is not a historical narrative that pretends to revise any previous work by far more-qualified historians. Rather, this is a travelogue, albeit one with some fairly major twists.”

Dekker attempted to get People magazine-like snapshots “of the very people who make many in the United States cringe.” Dekker and Medearis passed on opportunities to meet with numerous heads of state (including Col. Moammar Kadafi in Libya) to concentrate on meetings with those who were the “heart and soul” of the region.

The aim was to meet with these powerful teachers and religious leaders, have tea with these perceived enemies, and ask the types of questions that would give us a glimpse into their lives and what they thought about the greatest teaching of Jesus: “Love your enemies.”

They met with the head of Al Azhar University in Egypt, a colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, a media personality in Saudi Arabia, two of Osama bin Laden’s brothers, Sheik Muhammad Yamani, a Bedouin prince, two Hezbollah fighters, a Hezbollah sheik and other leaders, as well as some everyday people.

The questions they asked ranged from the surprising (“What makes you laugh? What kind of car do you drive? What is your favorite joke?”) to the cutting (“What are Americans’ wrong perceptions of Muslims? What are Muslims’ wrong perceptions of Americans?”). And, of course, “What do you think of Jesus’ teaching of loving our enemies?”

The answers to these questions and more are presented in transcript form, so there is no ambiguity or interpretation of the questions and answers. Some of the answers are no different than one might receive were they to ask these questions of our country’s leaders or ministers.

Interwoven between the interviews and some hair-raising accounts of the duo’s travels is a tale of Nicole, an American character, that illustrates an encounter with the intersecting faiths in the Middle East.

Their travels took them the length and breadth of the Middle East. Starting in Egypt, they traveled to Saudi Arabia, Beirut and Baalbek in Lebanon, south to the Hezbollah, across to Syria, south again to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and finally to northern Israel to find the descendants of the ancient Samaritans.

All along the way they spoke to people “whose names would launch the eyebrows of any agent in Homeland Security or the CIA into his hairline.” The book contains a glossary in the back to define many possibly unfamiliar terms used (I wish I’d known this before I got to the end of the book!) as well as a brief timeline of the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Dekker writes on the issue of loving our enemies: “It’s as hard today as it was two thousand years ago. Love is the only solution, and nobody does it well. Not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews, not me. To love your enemy, you have to sit and have tea with them, so to speak.”

Thus, the title of this very readable book -- “Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies’ Table, Our Journey through the Middle East.” The book is thought-provoking and may challenge many people’s basic assumptions about the Middle East. Take the journey with Dekker and Medearis and reach your own conclusions.