This is a memoir about rediscovering one’s faith. The story resembles other books: The author grew up in an evangelical church, highly participatory, with strong levels of commitment. Then a crisis came, and all that participation and commitment hadn’t prepared her to handle the questions and doubts that accompanied the crisis.
What is unusual about Pillars is that the crisis involves friendship with people of another faith, and she responds with a surprising openness to questions and discovery. Rachel Pieh Jones reveals that, even though she once believed every Muslim was “going to hell,” and “only Christians could be at peace or enjoy intimacy with God,” she became friends with real Muslims while living in Somalia (where she still lives with her husband and children, and runs a school). This expanded her understanding and transformed her faith. The result — as she says in her subtitle — is that Muslim friends led her closer to Jesus.
Her expressions of surprise, questioning, and discovery are wonderful. Often, she’s doing side-by-side comparisons of the faiths in real time, such as this one:
“The experience in these two religious buildings couldn’t have been more different, except that all of us were grasping for God, yearning for something holy. Across the street, Muslims recited memorized prayers, facing Mecca. In the church, Christians prayed spontaneously, facing each other. The Muslims washed dirt from their feet, arms, faces, and from inside ears and nostrils. The Christians affirmed that the blood of Jesus washed us clean from sin.”
Jones is a cancer survivor, and in the context of talking about it, she offers a profound understanding of good and bad proselytizing:
“When people who know me proselytize, I feel loved and cared for. When I had cancer, a Somali friend suggested I drink from the well of Zamzam and consider becoming Muslim; he promised to pray for me. His heartfelt concern stemmed from sincere friendship, and I was grateful. But appeals from strangers feel transactional, because their evangelizing me is for their own benefit. ... Also, I sensed a measure of pride. If someone convinced me to change religions, my faith would prove the veracity of theirs. This is why both Christians and Muslims make big news of any famous person claiming their religion. It is faith turned into competitive sport.”
She also allows for the possibility that stories of Jesus from the Quran may be true. She writes:
“I didn’t know the story in the Quran that says Jesus scooped up a handful of clay, formed it into a bird, and blew on it until the clay bird came to life. Some Christians say that’s just folklore — but so what if it is? It’s a beautiful story. Anyway, didn’t John write, at the end of his Gospel, that if he told all the things Jesus did, the world couldn’t contain the books?”