Sohrab Ahmari — a writer for Commentary, Wall Street Journal, and op-ed editor at the New York Post — is a rising star in journalism. His book, "From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith
" (Ignatius Press), is a thought-provoking story. It’s also a breath of fresh air for at least three good reasons.
First, it is beautifully written. The author is a gifted wordsmith, ably portraying a variety of colorful scenes and scenarios — physical and philosophical.
He begins the narrative with his somewhat eccentric boyhood in Khomeini’s Iran.
He writes: “My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rosewater. There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure. But when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia…”
From Iran, Ahmari guides us into his Mormon-infused adolescence in a Utah trailer park, through various educational venues, and finally to his present home in New York. We encounter several memorable stops along the way — including a detour into a Turkish refugee smuggling ring.
Second, Ahmari is deeply reflective. An avid reader, his intellectual curiosity and spiritual hunger introduce us to some of the Big Ideas he considered along the way. Many were political, at least to begin with, and most of them he wisely discarded.
At one point he explains, “I now shudder at ideas that I had entertained a few months earlier. I wanted nothing more to do with man-made utopias of any kind. In fact, I wanted to rededicate my life to thwarting the utopians. I became a conservative almost instantly, though I didn’t embrace that label right away.”
Third, the book is exceptional because Sohrab Ahmari is young — still in his early 30s — and a memoir from an author his age is rather unusual. Still, his perspective offers invaluable reflections on his own generation’s moral relativism, ineffectual educational institutions, and obsessive drive toward identity and self-fulfillment.
“My father had urged me to be myself,” Ahmari writes, “and every philosophy that I had tried on since then stood for the same idea in different guises. But my pure ‘self,’ without more, was insubstantial and purposeless and interchangeable. It lacked a metaphysical home and destination….”
Ahmari gradually opened himself to belief in monotheism and in “a universal standard of good conduct, an objective morality.” Once there, he encountered an uncomfortable awareness of God’s existence, meanwhile becoming increasingly conscious of his own failings and weaknesses.
Still, he dreaded letting go of his self-indulgent, albeit pleasurable, lifestyle.
"I feared that I would have to relinquish my freedom — the freedom to gossip at the office, to ogle that girl in the midriff and miniskirt, to have that ruinous 'one last' drink. Was I prepared for that?"
"In the end I answered in the affirmative. And once more it was reading that saved me. Two books in particular helped me to see that biblical faith was not only reasonable but compelled by reason."
Those two books were Robert Alter’s extraordinary translation and commentary on the Pentateuch, "The Five Books of Moses," and Pope Benedict XVI’s "Jesus of Nazareth."
Ultimately, Ahmari chose to seek God, and all evidence confirms that he found Him. But why did he choose to embrace the Roman Catholic church rather than some other expression of the Christian faith? His decision may puzzle some readers, while reassuring others.
The Catholic question and Sohrab Ahmari’s response to it comprise his book’s final chapter. For that intriguing resolution, along with myriad other points to ponder, reading "From Fire by Water" is time well spent.
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning writer, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians," and "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." Follow her on Twitter @lelagilbert. For more from her Faith a Freedom blog, Click Here.