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Last time we saw a book from Booklist Contributing Editor Ilene Cooper, it was Lucy’s Holiday Surprise (2015), a gentle chapter book about a wiggly beagle. That’s a slightly different vibe than her deeply researched new nonfiction book, Faith and Fury: The Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary—the Story of Jerusalem’s Sacred Space.
But from Cooper, author of such praised nonfiction as Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy (2003) and A Woman in the House (and Senate) (2014), such genre-hopping is old hat. And this particular book has been brewing for some time.
“Religion, archaeology, and history are big interests of mine, and the Temple Mount combines them all,” she says. “Having written The Dead Sea Scrolls (1997)—a complicated topic if ever there was one—I knew there must be a way to write this book for young people.”
Suffice it to say, she found it. Faith and Furyis a lucid and tireless exploration of the venerated site, which is holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians and, therefore, fiercely embattled. “Here you have the three great monotheistic religions all claiming to be descended from one man, Abraham,” Cooper explains. “This site is holy to all of them. My thought was, well, if you could get this one small spot of real estate right, if people could bond over it rather than bleed over it, what a blessing that would be. The book has to explore all the history and reasons that hasn’t happened.”
Using photos, maps, and helpful cutaway illustrations, the book covers every major phase of the exalted hilltop location while still making room for fascinating tangents. (What happened to the Ark of the Covenant? Is the Church of the Nativity, the supposed birthplace of Jesus, real?)
The time line of conquests and defeats, which begins in 1010 BCE and ends—well, it hasn’t ended—is one of the book’s great feats. “In the earliest parts, I had to rely on a biblical history. It was difficult, and I tried to make clear that Bible stories are not history the way we usually think of it. On the other hand, there are many people who do believe the Bible is accurate. I also had the difficult task of showing the history from three different perspectives, that of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
It’s a violent history. From Alexander the Great to King Herod, from the Crusades to the Six-Day War, the temple—already a place drenched in blood from animal sacrifices until 70 CE—was flooded with human blood, too. This required consideration regarding what young readers can handle. “I sometimes omitted details, like the numbers of people killed, women raped, and so on, but tried not to pull punches either. Historical numbers may not always be accurate, but there’s no doubt that the amount of killing and pillage was phenomenal.”
This brings up a bigger point, one that Cooper had to directly contend with in this book: how religions, supposed forces of good, balance—or don’t balance—against the strife caused by those same religions.
“I don’t think there’s much argument that there has been more killing in the name of religion than for any other reason,” Cooper says. “It has been an underlying theme throughout history, and is clearly true today. That’s why I end the book writing about something that is a bit of a passion for me, the Golden Rule.” Indeed, one of Cooper’s most popular books is the picture book The Golden Rule (2007). “The rule appears in every religion and culture. If there was an effort by religions to actually practice it, that might be a start toward healing old wounds.”
In the meantime, the battles rage on, and one of the best shields one can wield is knowledge and understanding of the past and present. To that end, Faith and Fury is an important contribution, one that will not only introduce complicated ideas to young readers but will also clearly explain the basics to adults, who might be understandably perplexed.
“I used to say about The Dead Sea Scrolls that it was for young people or any adult who wanted to talk about the scrolls at a cocktail party,” Cooper says. “The same is true here. Most people have heard about the temple but have only a vague idea of its significance, despite the fact that it could be the spark of a world war.”
Cooper, a former children’s librarian, knows of what she speaks. “We often gave books like this to adults who found that adult nonfiction books on very complex subjects gave them more than they wanted or needed to know.”
For better or worse, Faith and Fury is a book for everyone, perhaps now more than ever.
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