Author: prepared "under the supervision of" the Universal House of Justice
Review by John Taylor
When I read a book or movie review I want first to know, does the reviewer recommend it? Yes or no? In a word, yes. Then I want to know why I should read the review any further. A good review will keep me entertained long enough to remember the book when I come across it. A better review will give me reasons for reading it when I otherwise would not. The best review will improve and enhance my appreciation enough to keep me reading the book when I otherwise would set it aside. But a review can be too good. It can be better than the book itself and make you say, "I read the review, why should I read the book? Now I can flaunt its ideas confidently enough to pretend that I read it, so why take the time to actually do so?"
Looking over what I have written here, I am very confident that there is no danger that anyone will thus misuse this. It is just that Century of Light came out so fast I did not see any reviews. So I wrote this one for myself, to enhance my own appreciation. I have avoided covering the actual contents of the book in question, just what I happened to be maundering about at the time I was reading it, a personal response to a first reading. For this work, like the Peace Message in the Eighties, clearly merits repeated study and digestion. So I hope my questions and reactions will, dear reader, accomplish the best and not the worst of what I myself like to get out of a book review.
A few months ago, after sifting electronically through the mass of letters from the House for the umpteenth time, I confess I started to wonder about the leadership of the Faith. The only way to find out what the House had to say on a given issue was to brace yourself for a tedious search safari through a jungle of letters. Everything the House has done from a literary point of view seemed to me to be reactive, in the form of letters written in answer to questions. It was not just "some answered questions" but a huge mass of answered questions. And unlike 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Some Answered Questions, the original question is never included, so you end up having to guess at what exactly they are addressing.
I would come away bleary eyed with the response and clarification. I thought, without well-known and broadly publicized position statements the same questions are being repeated over and over again. Homosexuality, abortion, men on the House, infallibility of the House, successorship to the Guardian, on and on. And what wasn't reaction was still epistolary, the annual Ridvan letters, the Peace Message letter addressed to the peoples of earth, and so forth. What research documents and policy statements do come out tend to come from the Bahá'í International Community at the United Nations, or from the House's own secretariat or research department. Little comes direct.
So it was with some relief that I read in this year's Ridvan message that the House had "commissioned" an historical work about the past century. When I got my hands on the book my relief turned to delight. The great works of history in the literature of the Faith, the stories of the martyrs in Dawnbreakers, the magisterial God Passes By and the Guardian's contextualizing master work, "The Promised Day is Come," all inspired in me a great love for history, not to mention, I may add, a tendency to copy the Guardian by writing sentences that accomplish several things and just never seem to end. So what could be more exciting than this publication, "Century of Light?" To have one more historical work in the Faith, by none other than the House of Justice, is nothing but joy upon joy.
Even if Century of Light did not come from this authoritative source, this book undoubtedly would still be the most important historical overview of the Faith since God Passes By in the Forties. It is a worthy successor to Promised Day is Come in that it sets out to give a perspective on the Faith, on the world at large, and on the relation between the two. In fact alternative titles might be "PDC, the Sequel," or "PDC, Sixty Years Later." This is a brilliant encapsulation of the wrenching, confusing age we call the Twentieth Century. In fact, far from being a passive or reactive bit of leadership from the House, this is a frontal assault on some deadly misconceptions about our era.
While very good on the early part of the century, the part to some extent also covered by Promised Day is Come, I think the main interest of this book is in how it deals with more recent events. Unlike most historical summaries this work qualifies as a "first person" account of the viewpoint of the leadership of the Faith in the century's latter years, the time since Ridvan One Hundred, 119 BE, 1963 CE, when the House was first elected. Here, for example, you can find the House's version of what the Ruhi institutes are and how they fit into the progress of the Faith.
But wait. I am assuming that the authorship of this book is clearly the Universal House. Who actually did write it? Nobody is credited. If you want to quote the author in a footnote you are out of luck. You have to think up something on your own to fill the "Author" field, or leave it blank. Does this 145 page book really come direct from the house? What did the House mean by saying they had "commissioned" it? I must say that in my experience writing and editing newsletters, I have found that anonymity does not work. Authors should be credited and not allowed to pass the buck in the name of humility. Otherwise responsibility for a given fact or opinion is unclear; a thousand problems arise because it is impossible to know whom to blame or praise, whom to believe or whom to question.
However, this objection would have bothered me more ten years ago than now. In that time the process of group writing, assisted by computers and networks, has been refined and perfected. Group writing is a major part of the information technology revolution. What used to be tedious filling in of forms is now a participatory consultative process that involves all levels of an organization equitably and painlessly. This magnifies the creative and critical process. Groups are original and flexible in ways that formerly only an individual genius could hope to be. Group writing is saving organizations and corporations billions of dollars and giving them efficiency unheard of in the history of human enterprise. Everyone who works or thinks is writing together on the Web: one huge knowledge base of humanity. This technology bids fair to make the notorious workings of officialdom, commonly known by the slur of "bureaucracy," effective and prompt for the first time ever.
Indeed to me this makes the Faith so topical, interesting and needed. Bahá'u'lláh, through the principle of consultation, made organizational work a spiritual process in a similar way to Zen with tea preparation. It is a ceremony of enlightenment. Where technical means like group writing leave off is at the human heart, which is precisely where the Bahá'í teachings begin. So the anonymity of "Century of Light" may perhaps be an early fulfillment of the prediction and mandate the Guardian made when he said that writing history is so important that in future historical works will no longer be written by individuals but by groups.
That said, though, I can certainly see in this book the mark of the only UHJ member I know personally, Doug Martin. Century of Light is full of Doug Martin-like historical insights and generalizations. It conveys his sense of excitement and intimacy, though of course it lacks his characteristic gifted aside and telling anecdote.
I will never forget when he spoke at the second ABS annual meeting twenty-five years ago. He was a bit of a "Young Turk" then and unlike other speakers he sat on the table, his legs casually splayed over the edge. He recounted the life of Sarah Farmer and the weird and wonderful visitors she invited to the institution that became known as Green Acre. Without consulting any notes he waded through a mass of detail about Farmer's life that would have stumped anyone there had they been asked to retell similar facts about their own life. He is one of those rare speakers and writers so brilliant that he fills me with awe and admiration. My stomach soars when I hear him and my head tells me to grovel on the floor before him and my conscience thinks that for anybody else such groveling would be demeaning but for this kind of insight groveling is the only appropriate tribute.
What other Bahá'í history would even mention such an oddball as Sarah Farmer? Yet there she is, listed alongside Martha Root and all the other, more familiar examples of early heroines of the Faith. Truly, the rebellious spirit of the Sixties won out when Doug entered the mainstream! And what a defender of the Faith he is! Man, you read Martin's paper, "The Missionary as Historian," and any sort of logic or sense the enemies of the Faith or the Covenant Breakers may have seemed to have is like some filthy insect stomped upon and squashed, the heel twisted, jumped up and down upon over and over until the bug is so exterminated it is not even a smear on the ground. At least that is how I would have to act to get Doug's points across. But he does it calmly, with aplomb and grace. Afterwards you can only feel sorry for the poor fool unfortunate enough to end up in the path of such a divine genius as this.
I hear that the Mayor of Mississaugua, Canada's third or fourth largest city, has read this book and requested copies for her entire town council. This I found surprising since reading it I only thought of it as for believers. But I suppose that it can and will be applied directly to teaching the faith as well.
Century of Light includes new facts that I do not recall coming across before. Not long ago our community had a discussion about what caused the death of the Guardian. The closest we came was Ruhiyyih Khanum's description of his passing in Priceless Pearl, which calls it heart failure. On page 81 of Century of Light I learn that his coronary infarction was a result of "complications following an attack of Asiatic influenza" which he caught in London. Didn't know that.
At one point I admit I thought I had found an inaccuracy, but of course we are dealing with an infallible institution here (or at least someone or something commissioned by this institution) and further investigation proved myself wrong and them right. However, because it turned up some interesting points I will go into detail on my humiliating self-refutation. My supposed error came when Century of Light, talking (pages 71-2) about the birth of the UN, recounts how the Master predicted that the flag of international peace would be raised in California, and how this was fulfilled when in 1945 "...fifty nations adopted the charter of the United Nations Organization, the name proposed for it by Franklin D. Roosevelt."
Having just read Churchill's history of the Second World War it seemed to me that Churchill was the one who proposed the name "United Nations." Wrong! He pushed the idea of the body itself (in fact he made a better proposal for its structure than what actually was adopted. Instead of nations and an arbitrary "Security Council," his idea was that continents and regions would be represented), but upon looking it up in Churchill's Second Volume, "The Grand Alliance," I found that the name was indeed first suggested by Roosevelt.
The name United Nations was born quite a long time before the 1945 event in San Francisco, which of course was about year after the President's death. In fact the term "United Nations" started when Churchill visited with the President in Washington and Ottawa in late 1941 and early 1942. There, in another example of group writing, they wrote a joint declaration for the signatures of 22 nations fighting Hitler. Churchill recalls that during the consultations the Russian representative was terrified about how Stalin would react to its reference to "freedom of religion." He goes on:
"The title of "United Nations" was substituted by the President for that of "Associated Powers." I thought this a great improvement. I showed my friend the lines from Byron's Childe Harold...Soon afterwards, United Nations became a common synonym for "Allies," meaning the nations united against Hitler and Tojo. Later the new international body officially adopted Roosevelt's term, "United Nations."
'Here, where the sword United Nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on that day!'
And this is much, and all which will not pass away.
"... The Declaration could not by itself win battles, but it set forth who we were and what we were fighting for." (p.683)
The Psalmist number'd out the years of man:They are enough: and if thy tale be true,Thou, who didst grudge him even that fleeting span,More than enough, thou fatal Waterloo!Millions of tongues record thee, and anewTheir children's lips shall echo them, and say --'Here, where the sword united nations drew,Our countrymen were warring on that day!'And this is much, and all which will not pass away.
Nations leagued together but, in the phrasing of the Tablet of Ahmad, they "combined to assist one another" but did not really unite. This book, Century of Light, is the story, it seems to me, of how humanity continues to try to learn real unity, the lesson rebels like Byron suggest, to "teach all kings true sovereignty" and thus avoid "reviving Thraldoms" and "patched up idols." In this century we put down lions like the Kaiser, then Hitler, but left wolves like Stalin, the hit-man for Lenin, and, worse, their idolatrous ideologies ruled over us all unchecked.
Fit retribution! Gaul may champ the bit
And foam in fetters - but is Earth more free?
Did nations combat to make One submit;
Or league to teach all kings true sovereignty?
What! shall reviving Thraldom again be
The patch'd-up idol of enlighten'd days?
Shall we, who struck the Lion down, shall we
Pay the Wolf homage? proffering lowly gaze
And servile knees to thrones?
No; prove before ye praise!
In life, in work, in love, in the newly opened Terraces in Haifa, in works of history and poetry, we glimpse ourselves in a more intense light. We are one, our earth is but one country. That is where the trail of imagination is leading us. Here is the intensifying vision born in Bahá'u'lláh's exile and laborious suffering. Century of Light is the story of how we are following the trail His exile blazed, of our collective journey into a clearer, steadier and more infallible light than ever beheld before.
'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.