The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs
By Martin Moseback
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I cannot remember a book that has taken me into more unfamiliar territory and yet left me asking that most troubling of questions, “What am I to do with this?”
I am certain you will feel the same way.
You may recall the pictures of 21 black robed and hooded men leading one-by-one 21 other men all dressed in orange onto a Mediterranean beach a few years ago. I recall the image but never saw the video of what happened: the first 21 men each carried a long knife with which they decapitated the men in orange.
It was the vicious murder in 2015 of 21 innocent Coptic Christians by 21 guilty Libyan Muslims.
Twenty of the men were migrant workers from the village of El-Aour in what is called Upper Egypt, or what we would call southern Egypt, somewhere between Cairo to the north and the Aswan Dam to the south. They had gone to Libya for work, as had thousands of others from countries all around northern Africa.
A noted German poet and novelist, Martin Moseback, himself a Catholic Christian with sympathies for the older forms of his faith, felt called to go to Libya and learn more about these men and their death.
What he discovered was very little about the men, largely because they had been transformed into martyrs, with the details of their lives overwhelmed by the emerging hagiography: “they had left home as poor migrant workers and would never return, but had become saints and were now more present than ever, albeit in a different form” (82).
What Moseback did come to understand was more about the Coptic Christian culture that shaped these men, their religion, their martyrdom, and their now exalted status; and this is what he wrote about, and this is what I found so arresting, so fascinating, so new, even so troubling.
Yes, he wrote a few lines about these men: “They were all staying in a single large room, where they slept side by side on the floor. Not a single piaster was spent for their own enjoyment; everything went to their parents and wives…. Those who could read didn’t have much of an edge on those who couldn’t, because they had all already committed the most important things in their lives to memory—the prayers, hymns, litanies, and pericopes pertaining to each part of the liturgical year” (122f). But the reader of this book gets the sense that Moseback harbored a bit of doubt about all these things, wondering if those who recounted these “facts” were not, in fact, stretching the truth just a bit too far.
But what he does report as the truth is the history and character of Coptic Christianity, something few of us in the United States know much about:
Moseback described all this as “the misery and splendor of the Coptic faith in its astonishing perseverance on the dark side of history” (200f).
In some ways, this book is a travelogue, featuring the account of a foreign traveler into a strange land and culture, and that is one way to receive and read the book. But it is also a testament to the faith and practice of Christians of whom we know little; and this testament helps us to reflect more deeply and truly on our own version of Christian faith and practice and what we have yet to learn about meaning and mystery, persecution and perseverance, and faithfulness to Jesus the Risen Lord.
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The 21: A Journey
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Here are four books written by Dr. Dwight A. Moody, provided here (or in the near future) in both text and audio format. All are in various stages of production for this web site. Feel free to provide comment on these books using the response form at the bottom of each page.
This was a series of sermons preached by Dr. Moody at Third Baptist Church of Owensboro, Kentucky. It is inspired by (and follows the format of) the influential book by Buddy Shurden, Four Fragile Freedoms. The text here includes an epilogue written in 2018 that offers reflections on the book, 20 years after its publication. It is also the intent of Dr. Moody to provide an audio version of this book; to date, only the Preface and Introduction are available.
On the Other Side of Oddville: Stories of Religion and Everyday Life
For a number of years, Dr. Moody wrote and published in public newspapers around the country a weekly column on Religion and American Life (something he continues to do through this Meetinghouse initiative). This book collects 105 of these 700-word essays. You may purchase a sign copy of this book–$20 inclusive of shipping; simply request it through the Response Form at the bottom of each page of the website. (This text is in production.)
Its’s About Time: A Memoir of Ministry at Georgetown College
From 1997 to 2008, Dr. Moody served as dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Georgetown College in Kentucky. This is the narrative essay that forms the core of this book. Upon leaving the school to launch the Academy of Preachers, he produced this self-published book. The book also included sermons, prayers, letters, essays, and memos; it can be ordered through Amazon. (This text is in production.)
Nine Marks of a Good Sermon
During Dr. Moody’s tenure at Georgetown College, he taught a course in “Communication for Ministry” (and popularly called “Preaching). This material was developed during that ministry and continued during his years as founder and first president of the Academy of Preachers. It is published here without the illustrative sermons included in the book.