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Gardeners of God: An Encounter with Five Million Baha'is, by Colette Gouvion and Philippe Jouvion:
Review

by Marc Foxhall

The Gardeners of God: An Encounter with Five Million Bahá'ís
Authors: Colette Gouvion and Philippe Jouvion [sic: different spellings]
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 1993
Translated from the French by: Judith Logsdon-Dubois
Original title: Les Jardiniers de Dieu
Original publisher: Berg International, 1989
Review by: Marc Foxhall

In the history of Bahá'í literature, The Gardeners of God: An Encounter with Five Million Bahá'ís is ground-breaking for a very simple reason: it is the first time journalists who are not Bahá'ís have undertaken to write a book-length profile of the Bahá'í Faith and its worldwide community.

Intrigued by what they viewed as the Bahá'í Faith's "unique position in religious history and the modern world," Colette Gouvion and Philippe Jouvion set out with the dual purpose of uncovering Bahá'í history and answering some key questions about the 150-year-old religion.

These questions included: "How does one become a Bahá'í?" How has the Bahá'í Faith grown "during the past twenty-five years, without publicity, without any spectacular press campaigns" from 500,000 to 5,000,000 believers? And "how does being a Bahá'í affect one's daily life?"

To find answers, the authors journeyed from France to the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, where they visited various offices and private homes, and interviewed numerous members of the Faith. The results are of interest to anyone concerned with how individuals lives are being transformed by this most modern of religious movements.

For while the history is well researched and delivered in a readable style, the true heart of Gardeners of God lies in the personal profiles of the Bahá'ís encountered by the two authors, who, with a self-effacing style that seems uncommon among journalists today, relegate their own judgement to a few sparse phrases and instead allow the reader to access the Bahá'í experience through the eyes of the Faith's followers.

"I couldn't understand why there were so many religions when there was only one God," said Benoit Huchet, a 25-year-old gardener at the World Centre, on why he became a Bahá'í. "I lived in Buddhist temples, in Hindu temples, in mosques, and the feeling I had that there is only one God, that men are all praying to the same God, grew stronger."

"In France I happened to see a book with a title that intrigued me, One People, One Planet, by Andre Brugiroux," he continued. "I bought it and discovered the Bahá'í Faith, with its doctrine of a progressive revelation by prophets who are God's messengers, the hope of one religion for a united human race. I had found what I was seeking."

The authors of Gardeners of God, Mrs. Gouvion and Mr. Jouvion, a mother and son team, are both experienced journalists and researchers. Mrs. Gouvion worked for thirteen years on the French weekly L'Express, and for fifteen years was editor-in-chief of the magazine Marie- Claire. She is the author of several books including Les Enfants Problemes, La Symbolique des Rues et les Cites, and Le Voix des Nouveaux Paysans, and is currently editor of the travel magazine, Partance. Mr. Jouvion is a professional researcher, freelance reporter and film producer who worked for several years with the Cite des Sciences de la Villette in Paris. He has produced a number of award winning documentary films.

Originally published in French in 1989, Gardeners of God has been translated and this year was published in English by Oneworld Publications Ltd., of Oxford, U.K. The book opens with a straightforward narrative of the authors' initial contacts at the World Centre and then delves into the 150 year history of the Bahá'í Faith, beginning with its turbulent birth in Iran.

The third and fourth chapters are devoted entirely to interviews with individual Bahá'ís, who discuss their personal process of discovery and adjustment to a lifestyle wherein Bahá'í principles are applied to daily life.

Gaston Mattheus, who is responsible for restorations at the Bahá'í World Centre said he left the Catholic faith of his youth because of unhappiness with the "back-room politics." The Bahá'í Faith provided answers, he said, but he still found it difficult to accept all of its teachings.

"Some of the things they taught were difficult for me to accept," Mr. Mattheus said. "For example, the love of all mankind; I had suffered under the Nazis, and I hated Germans. Going to a Bahá'í conference in Germany was a test for me. Getting over my prejudice was a big step and it took me several years."

For others, however, the process of becoming a Bahá'í was easier. The authors asked Pierre Spierckel, a French bookbinder, if it was difficult to accept Bahá'í teachings. "Frankly, no, it wasn't," he replied. "The laws that God gives us are made to help us progress and be happy, like the rules a mother gives her child."

"The most difficult ones to obey are not the ones you would think," he said. "I can assure you that it is very difficult never to backbite...and yet Bahá'u'lláh defined it as one of mankind's greatest evils and said that we must utterly avoid it."

The authors also asked how the Faith affected the work, the social life, and the family relationships of interviewees. The answers make clear that the effects have been profound - - although not always visible from the outside.

"In our professional work there are situations that are the same whether we are Bahá'ís or not," said a university professor and doctor who practices at a hospital in France. "On the other hand," the doctor said, "being a Bahá'í can help illumine our thinking on youth and old age, suffering, life, death, even things like in-vitro fertilization and abortion."

In addition to interviewing Bahá'ís, the authors also make a survey of what "some of the most gifted minds of the last part of the nineteenth century and our modern age" have said about the Bahá'í Faith.

They note that Edward Granville Browne, a nineteenth century orientalist scholar from England, spent much of his life studying the Bahá'í Faith and that Ivan Turgenev, Izabella Grinevskaya, Sarah Bernhardt, Khalil Gibran and Leo Tolstoy were all familiar with the nascent religion. Tolstoy, for example, wrote late in life that he "sympathized" with the Faith, which "preaches brotherhood and equality between all men, and the sacrifice of material life in the service of God."

The book also covers in some detail the basic teachings of the Faith, as well as episodes from its contemporary history, such as the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran.

In the end, the authors say very little about what they themselves concluded. Instead, they state that they found their encounter with the Bahá'í Faith "challenging and rewarding," and that as they came to know individual Bahá'ís, "we were sometimes charmed and sometimes irritated, sometimes convinced and sometimes skeptical."

"Some may not agree with the answers" offered by the Bahá'ís, they concluded, "yet they cannot be rejected without thought or discussion. In this the Bahá'í Faith appeared to us to possess a contemporary spiritual value."

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