Friday, January 1, 2016

Book Review: Fleeing Herod by James Cowan

Fleeing Herod: A Journey through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family by James Cowan

James Cowan recounts his experiences as he travels the route of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they flee from King Herod's attempt to kill the child born to be king of the Jews. Cowan uses the Vision of Theophilus, a text purportedly written by a late 4th century patriarch of Alexandria (who has a rather dubious reputation; the text itself has questionable merit). He follows the trail from the Egyptian border, up the Nile to Deir al-Muharraq, where the Holy Family stayed for six months. There they received the news that Herod was dead and they could return to Israel. The site is considered to be one of the most holy places by Coptic Christians and is where Theophilus said he had his vision. It is also the high point of Cowan's pilgrimage. A strange dream he had earlier in the trip is explained by a holy monk. Cowan comes to the realization that the spiritual part of his journey, the search for understanding and insight, is not an easy task and requires much hard work, prayer, and openness to grace.

The book works quite well as a travelogue linking modern-day Egypt and Egyptians to two thousand years ago. Cowan meets many different people along the way and has a variety of interesting conversations. He has a poetic flare for descriptions, making the places vivid and the people memorable. He shows modern Egypt and how it looks under the shadow of thousands of years of history.

As a spiritual journey, I found it much less convincing. Cowan's intention for the trip is a bit ill-defined. He wants to explore the mythology and miracles in search of understanding. But an understanding of what? He seems to accept blithely the truth of any and all events related to him, or at least to stand by as a passive observer. He chronicles the impact of the Holy Family and Christianity on Egypt as he goes along, making an interesting story of the people there. But his own desire for faith is not presented. Only in his final discussions at Deir al-Muharraq is he confronted with a deeper challenge. He's experience a taste of the spiritual life through meeting monks, bishops, nuns, and holy men. Does he have the courage to accept the grace to move forward in the spiritual life, in spite of the difficulties and challenges it will present? His reply is a bit underwhelming: "'I will try to put your advice into practice, Father,' I said. 'I just hope I have what it takes.'" [p. 248]

The book is much better as a travelogue and a slice of life (the Christian slice) in Egypt rather than a spiritual odyssey.  Going in with the right expectations makes for more satisfying reading.

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