On the face of it Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam is a book whose content is summed up accurately by the title. The author recounts her experiences in various African and Asian lands which straddle the tenth parallel north of the equator: Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It is a story told through personal narrative, the author’s, and the numerous people who are themselves embedded in larger forces welling up from below and descending from above. One can accurately describe The Tenth Parallel as a travelogue. But it is also a time machine, as Griswold surveys worlds which are a clear simulacrum of those which we know only through works of history; empires of faith, the lands of God’s platoons. As such, The Tenth Parallel is also a narrative which describes an alien world of ideas, outside of our conventional categories and classes. Many of the preconceptions and expectations which we bring to the table are “not even wrong” in the lands Griswold traverses, and what has been learned must sometimes be unlearned. This is not Newtonian Mechanics, where a cold and objective eye surveys the terrain and reports back positions and trajectories across space and time. An awareness of the author’s viewpoint is critical, while the viewpoint of her sources are plain. Finally, your own presuppositions and experiences as a reader shape the ultimate “take home” message which Eliza Griswold stitches together across her disparate sojourns.
As for the author, she is informs you about the details of her background repeatedly. Judging a book by its “cover” you see a young white Christian woman tasked to report on the turmoil in the lands of black and brown folk, many of whom are not Christian themselves, and many of whom are ardently Christian. But Griswold’s vantage point is more nuanced, she is the daughter of Frank Griswold, a prominent cleric in the Episcopal Church of America, who was a participant in the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. This event has come close to rending asunder the Anglican Communion, of which the second largest district is covered by the Church of Nigeria (though arguably Nigeria has more practicing Anglicans than Britain, the largest district). In many ways in terms of core values I suspect that Muslims and Christians in Nigeria share more with each other than they do with Eliza Griswold. Her meetings with Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, always seem fraught with tension because it is as if Eliza Griswold’s very being serves as a witness for the liberal mainline Protestant tradition in the face of the muscular and unsubtle evangelical Protestant Christianity she observes all around her. The author’s own subjective viewpoint as a liberal Christian (at a minimum culturally, she published no precise statement of faith) interweaves with the story she tells much more subtly in most contexts than it does when she engages with Graham and his coterie. It is as if they bring with them an awareness of American culture wars and to some extent force Griswold to play her part. The author’s peculiar perspective is always there and should never be forgotten. It does not take much reading between the lines to infer that Eliza Griswold is not sympathetic to the methods of Western evangelical Protestants who believe it is their Great Commission to bring the whole world to their own faith. This is not a conclusion which is “wrong” or “right” in a conventional sense, but derived from a set of values, which the reader may or may not share.