Close this search box.
Posted on

Review of Gary Fujino, Timothy R. Sisk, and Tereso C. Casino, eds., Reaching the City: Reflections on Urban Mission for the Twenty-first Century

Gary Fujino, Timothy R. Sisk, and Tereso C. Casiño, eds. Reaching the City: Reflections on Urban Mission for the Twenty-First Century. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2012. 284 pp. $11.23.

This book is a collection of 14 essays, each by a different author, which seek to respond to the “contemporary paucity of research and writing on how missional urban Christians are engaging their cities around the world today” (xi) and to offer new perspectives and strategies to reach the earth’s cities for Christ. Although each author writes independently of the others, a common thesis, summed up in a quote from the 1987 Urbana Student Missions Conference, unites the various perspectives offered in the book: “The mission field is moving to the city, and Christians need to respond to the opportunity” (xii).

Reaching the City is broken into four parts. Part one is titled “Today’s Emerging Megacities in Global Perspective,” and its three essays provide helpful, big-picture information on urbanization and call on mission practitioners to turn their attention, efforts, and resources to urban ministry. Part two, “Historical and Theological Perspectives on the City,” includes two essays on Basil of Caesarea and Jacques Ellul. The chapter on Basil is primarily an exposition of his life and approach to ministry in the city, concluding with four areas in which Christians can learn from Basil. In the chapter on Ellul, Stephen Strauss summarizes Ellul’s theology of the city while also providing a substantial critique of this theology and trying to build upon it.

Finally, the subjects of parts three and four are exactly what their titles suggest: “Theological Education and Training for Ministry in Today’s Cities” and “Contemporary Case Studies on Today’s Cities.” Rather than survey every chapter, I would like to commend two chapters in particular to interested readers. First, Larry Caldwell and Enoch Wan’s essay, “Riots in the City,” is an engaging piece that offers interesting proposals for radically reworking current ministerial training programs so that they might better prepare Christian workers to serve in the urban context. They suggest changes to curricula, courses, and faculty of these training institutions and give a case study of Asian Theological Seminary in the Philippines, which has already instituted these changes in its Center for Transformational Urban Leadership. Although these authors underestimate the importance of shaping ministers to have a robust historical consciousness and theological understanding of the Christian tradition, their proposals are worthy of consideration for any undergraduate or graduate program that seeks to train ministers for service in urban contexts.

The second essay, written by Larry Poston, is one that I would recommend especially to mission agencies or churches with large budgets. His proposal is for mission organizations to pour at least half of their urban resources into developing retreat centers far away from cities that allow certain classes or categories of newborn Christians, especially those with major addictions, to exit the city in order to grow and develop as the “new creations” they have become. Poston provides strong warrants for this proposal and offers his suggestions for what such retreats might look like.

Like any collection of essays by multiple authors, the chapters of Reaching the City are unbalanced with regard to their quality and are occasionally repetitive (e.g., nearly half the essays highlight the interesting fact that in 2008, for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in cities). Besides some of the case studies in Part four, which suffer from a lack of a clear thesis or constructive proposals, this book is a solid collection of essays that accomplishes its purpose. I would recommend it to students, scholars, and missionaries who are interested in the study of urban ministry, though I would suggest that the reader select a few individual chapters to read, depending on one’s area of interest, rather than reading the book as a whole.

Garrett Matthew East

Church Planter

Tabora, Tanzania

Posted on

Review of Joshua Graves, Tearing Down the Walls: A Guide for Christians and Muslims Living in North America

Joshua Graves. Tearing Down the Walls: A Guide for Christians and Muslims Living in North America. Kindle edition. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services: 2013. 124pp. $9.99.

In Tearing Down the Walls, Joshua Graves attempts to bridge the divide between the American Christian and American Muslim populations. Focusing mainly on the evangelical Christian tradition from which he comes, Graves utilizes his background as the lead minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, Tennessee and additional research conducted during his doctoral studies at Columbia University to construct a road map for other ministers. He aims to help them guide their congregations into mutual understanding and dialogue with their local Muslim communities.

Graves methodically lays out the history of Muslim-Christian relations in the United States. He begins with the ancient rivalry between Hagar and Sarah which led to the dueling legacies of Ishmael and Isaac, the former giving birth to Islam as the latter produced the Judeo-Christian tradition. Graves also spends time on how the September 11th attacks, as well as changing immigration laws, have forced this issue to the forefront of the American church.

Throughout the book Graves interweaves the ministry of Jesus, especially focusing on the theme of sight in Jesus’ ministry and the importance of seeing differently when engaging with people of other faiths. Through this language of sight, Graves expresses the importance of acknowledging the “otherness” of those who come from a different faith tradition. This book is not about conversion; it is about relationship.

In addition to this vital understanding of relationship, Tearing Down the Walls also provides excellent resources for jumpstarting a conversation about this topic in a local church. The arguments are laid out in a linear and compelling style written for a general church audience. Furthermore, by laying out the discussion in this fashion, it is evident that Graves understands the importance of church leadership accepting the need for relationship before attempting to move their congregations toward engagement.

Finally, the resources found in the appendix will be of great use to pastors as they attempt to uncover what knowledge and biases are already held by those in their communities. It also provides a considerable amount of perspective, as Graves shares not just the questions he asked of his small group, but also the answers they gave. This will allow pastors and facilitators to accurately gauge what content they need to focus on and what perceptions they need to work hardest to develop.

With these strengths in mind, it must be noted that Tearing Down the Walls is not without its flaws. The style often vacillates rather drastically between academic and research-based language suitable for a dissertation to the more relaxed and conversational tone of a text intended for a popular audience. This stylistic discontinuity does not take away from the content, but it can be distracting. Additionally, while the book empowers conversation within the church, it leaves leaders and other church members with few examples about how this conversation should influence future action. This may be intentional in order to allow for creativity and flexibility from congregation to congregation, but more on this topic would have been helpful.

Though occasionally disjointed stylistically, Tearing Down the Walls powerfully equips pastors and other church leaders with the resources and reasoning necessary to bring about a healthy conversation regarding the interaction between the Christian and Muslim populations in the United States. Even more, it empowers those leaders to push their congregation towards engagement and away from fear. I can recommend it as a necessary resource for any pastor or church leader looking to spark a new way of viewing interfaith relationships and a new way to generate conversation and bring about healthy dialogue with our often misunderstood neighbors.

Ben Howard


Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Posted on

Review of Dyron B. Daughrity, Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline

Dyron B. Daughrity. Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline. Peter Lang Religion and Theology List. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 289pp. $38.95.

The narrative of Christianity’s growth from Jerusalem to Rome, from Western Europe to the United States, and from the United States to the rest of the world is one that is familiar, simple, and deeply flawed. Dyron Daughrity’s Church History is an effort to correct and complicate this oversimplified reconstruction of Christian history, a task which has occupied much of Daughrity’s previous scholarship. Scholars of religion and historians have known for decades that the characterization of Christianity as a Euro-American religion is incorrect, but recent demographic shifts that have made the Global South the heart of worldwide Christianity render this academic observation increasingly relevant for ministers, missionaries, and Christians at large. In response, Daughrity joins a growing number of authors who have rightly divined the need for an accessible introduction to church history that takes seriously the religion’s global past and present.

Daughrity argues that critical to a proper understanding of Christian history is an understanding not merely of what happened but of how people think about what happened. Accordingly, each chapter of his book corresponds to a major approach to thinking about church history. The first and most familiar of these is the chronological approach in which he divides his sweeping retelling of church history into seven largely conventional spans of time. Next, Daughrity offers a denominational approach by retelling separately the histories of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant veins of Christianity. His third chapter gives a sociological approach to religion, stressing moments of statistical growth or decline in Christian history. In chapter four, Daughrity employs a geographic approach to explore the distinctive history of Christianity in the eight “cultural blocks” of the world, paying special attention to the role of location in shaping regional beliefs and practices. Finally, using a biographical approach, Daughrity offers brief sketches of figures from each of the twenty-one centuries of Christian history, taking special care to include, alongside many traditional figures, the lives of important women, Christians from outside the standard Euro-American narrative, and non-Christians who have been critical in Christian history.

The emphasis on explaining church history as a discipline in addition to relaying the content of that history is key to what Daughrity believes his book offers. Consequently, he dedicates a significant portion of each chapter, before any actual history is given, to explaining the methods of each approach and exploring how each mode of thinking about history affects the way the narrative is structured. This useful focus has the unfortunate consequence, however, of making the history retold seem redundant at times. For example, readers are offered a history of recession and secularization as one of the seven chronological periods, as a key observation of the sociological approach, and as a distinctive feature of the Western Europe geographical region. Similarly, the discussion of the Orthodox as a denomination overlaps significantly with the history of Eastern Europe as a cultural block. Differences of emphasis exist as a result of the variety of approaches, but they are subtle and will not likely be satisfying to anyone who comes to Daughrity’s text looking for an introduction to church history.

Church History will be of most use to formal students of Christian history who are still in the early stages of their training, and the discussion questions offered at the end of each chapter suggest that the book was designed for a classroom setting. Daughrity does, however, make a number of observations that are helpful for Anglophone Christians trying to navigate the global religious marketplace. His analysis of Russian Orthodox reactions to post-Soviet evangelism is an important insight for anyone trying to repair the damage of the anti-Christian communist program in Eastern Europe. The focus on genocides against Christians as a key feature of the last century is tied intimately to the psyche of surviving communities in places like Armenia. The novel analyses of secularized Western Europe, Christianized Africa, and newly opened Asia invite readers to reconsider where the global mission fields are and who is tasked with evangelizing them. Recurring musings about what makes religions thrive or die invites a scientific perspective into longstanding questions about the means and efficacy of missions. Observations like these, intentionally applied to missions or not, appear constantly throughout the text.

Daughrity’s book offers very little to those who have a firm base of knowledge about church history and—as is the case with any survey so brief—much to quibble about. Yet for those new to the discipline, particularly those trying to grapple with indigenous Christianities about which they have no historical base of knowledge, Church History is an able tutor for thinking about global Christianity. As promised from the outset, Daughrity has crafted “readable, lively, and inviting” (xi) text for recent initiates into Christian history and has peppered it with interesting and obscure characters, exotic and forgotten places, and enough autobiographical asides from his own extensive travels to make it an engaging read from cover to cover.

Sean Patrick Webb

PhD Student, History

Texas Tech University


Posted on

Mission and Dialogue: An Analysis of Abrahamic Faith in the Academy

This article analyzes the interrelationship of mission and dialogue.  It discusses the urgency of interreligious dialogue in a hostile world, citing the Shoa (Jewish Holocaust) and 9/11.  It then maps out how Pepperdine University is taking steps to become more dialogical and globally aware.  The important work of Paul Knitter (a Buddhist-Christian) and Lamin Sanneh (a Christian convert from Islam) are juxtaposed as two different approaches to dialogue.  The article concludes with reflections on Father Vincent Donovan’s mission work among the Masai and how it relates to interreligious dialogue in the academy today.

Introduction: The Necessity of Interreligious Understanding

Many professors think their courses should be mandatory for a particular major. Some even believe their courses should be required for the general education curriculum; in other words, all students should take the class. I confess I am not exempt from either of these charges. I believe the study of world religions should be required for a religion degree, and perhaps even considered for inclusion in the larger liberal arts university curriculum. Globalization has brought winds of change to our cities, to our schools, and to our overall national consciousness. It behooves the academy to educate future leaders about other religions, and—perhaps even more importantly at a Christian institution such as Pepperdine—how to think about other world religions and the people who subscribe to them. There is too much at stake if we neglect the topic.

In the past, secular liberal arts universities did not need to think much about world religions. Neither did Christian institutions. The study of Judaism up to the time of Jesus was deemed appropriate due to the importance of Judaism being the foundation upon which Christianity was built. However, rabbinic Judaism after the second or third century petered out in the curriculum. Judaism was frozen in time, a religion that birthed Christianity and slowly ossified since. Naturally, the study of Christianity held center stage once it decoupled itself from its parent. And it all made sense because, after all, how much contact do we actually have with Jews? If we did know Jews, we thought of them as a blast from the past, a relic. But we also thought of them as a living testament to the truth of Christianity. Their mere existence proved that our Christian faith was built on facts, on something that actually existed and still exists. The Bible described these people, and we can now point to them as living proof of our Scripture’s veracity. Unfortunately, these people never took the important step to follow Jesus as Messiah. They were almost where they needed to be—but one more step was necessary. Never mind that we knew little of how Judaism functions today, or the 1900 years of history that transpired between the book of Acts and the founding of the modern state of Israel.

Jews, after all, are a very small group. In 2010 the worldwide Jewish population was estimated to be around 13.4 million people.1 There are actually fewer Jews than there are members of the global Stone-Campbell fellowship, which has around 14 million members.2 With such a small Jewish population, how necessary is it to dialogue with such a tiny faith? My answer to that question would be this: very.

After the holocaust, it was obvious that religious misunderstanding, interreligious strife, and plain ignorance have catastrophic consequences—in this case six million murders. It was clear: we need to know these people. We need to engage them and their beliefs. If nothing else, we need to acknowledge their basic dignity as human beings lest we repeat the atrocities of the past.

Tables were turned however when airplanes full of American passengers plunged into the two largest skyscrapers in the United States of America’s largest city on September 11, 2001. Philip Jenkins takes us back to the day before—September 10, 2001. In the preface of the second edition of his important work The Next Christendom, he pointed out the obvious: we have no choice but to learn about Islam and what its followers believe about us, the world, and God:

For any author, the most traumatic stage of producing a book is the day when he or she returns the final page proofs, because after that no further corrections or additions are possible, and any mistakes are set in stone. I returned the proofs of my first edition on a historic date, which was in fact the last day of the old world—arguably the last day of the twentieth century—namely September 10, 2001. That date explains several features of the original book, including my repeated calls for the need to understand religious influences in politics, to appreciate the dangers of global religious conflicts: not points that need much stressing these days. . . . It is precisely religious changes that are the most significant and even revolutionary, in the contemporary world.3

As Jenkins and other academics were seeing, the study of other religions, particularly Islam, had moved from an afterthought—even in a Christian university—to an imperative. Today, no liberal arts degree plan could be considered up-to-date without at least a basic introduction to the world’s religions somewhere in the curriculum! As we globalize through constant international air travel, increased connectivity through internet, and socio-technological revolutions linked to cell phones, we are realizing the importance of religious literacy.

Paul Knitter: Going Well Beyond COEXISTENCE

My institution, Pepperdine University, has repeatedly emphasized that Christian education must be globally aware. This means a constant dialogue with world cultures must play a central role in how we educate. As a religion professor I have seen great gains in this direction, and I consider myself a participant in the task of globalizing the curriculum.

In my case, the challenge is to introduce students to global themes in the study of religion without creating an army of relativists who shrug their shoulders, put “COEXIST” stickers on their cars, and repeat that tired, pluralist platitude “There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji,” meaning there are many avenues to God.

While at Abilene Christian University in the late 1990s, I wrote my MA thesis on the pluralist Catholic theologian Paul Knitter and I came away from that exercise agreeing with him in the sense that we need to be in dialogue with people from other faiths. However, I was disenchanted by his conclusion that, essentially, Jesus is one of many names by which we can get to God, or whatever one might call the Supreme Reality and cause of the universe.4 I was not terribly surprised when, in 2009, Paul Knitter admitted to having dual loyalties in his book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In the preface, he wrote:

Like many of my theological colleagues, I have come to realize that I have to look beyond the traditional borderlines of Christianity to find something that is vitally, maybe even essentially, important for the job of understanding and living the Christian faith: other religions. . . . I’ve come to be convinced that I have to do my theology—and live my Christian life—dialogically. Or in current theological jargon: I have to be religious interreligiously. . . . But . . . Am I still a Christian? That’s a question I have heard not only from others . . . but one I have felt in my own mind and heart. . . . Am I a Christian? . . . Or have I become a Buddhist who still retains a stock of Christian leftovers? I’ve wanted to write this book in order to find out.5

Neither was I surprised when I read Knitter’s conclusion:

And so I made a big, but also an easy, decision during the summer of 2008 when I was doing the final revisions of this book. . . . After careful consultation with my teacher, Lama John Makransky, I decided to “Take Refuge” and to pronounce the “Bodhisattva Vows” as part of the Dzogchen community in the United States. I was given the Dharma name of Urgyen Menla—Lotus Healer. So it’s official. I am now, you might say, a card-carrying Buddhist. In 1939 I was baptized. In 2008 I took refuge. I can truly call myself what I think I’ve been over these past decades: a Buddhist Christian.6

Knitter finds a satisfying solution to the problem of “the one and the many” in the concept of hybridity:

We’re all hybrids . . . our religious identity is not purebred . . . It’s not singular, it’s plural. We’re constantly changing and we’re changing through the hybridizing process of interacting with others who often are very different from us. . . . But being religious hybrids doesn’t mean that we don’t have an identity. . . . For me, Christ has a certain primacy over Buddha. . . . Even though my primary allegiance is to Christ and the gospel, my Christian experience and beliefs have not dominated nor always had to trump what I learned or experienced through Buddha. . . . And yet, at the end of the day, I go home to Jesus.7

One of Knitter’s students quipped, “Well, it looks like you love both Jesus and Buddha. But you sleep with Jesus.” Reflecting on that student’s observation, Knitter responded, “Uncomfortably inappropriate, the statement is also pretty accurate.”8

With all due respect, and I mean real and deep respect—I know Paul Knitter personally and spent two years researching him—I found his conclusions to fall short with regard to what I hope to foster and encourage in my students at Pepperdine. For example, my “Religions of the World” syllabus has the following statement on the first page:

Understanding the beliefs, texts, rituals, and worldviews of our fellow humans opens up potential for good relations. It is our duty to understand people of other faiths so that we can dialogue, share, and ultimately improve our human communities. It is part of the Christian narrative that we extend basic human dignity and goodwill to all our neighbors, serving them in the name of Christ. By engaging other faiths, we create room for bearing Christian witness.

Similarly, my “Abrahamic Faiths” course statement is resolutely Christian but uncompromisingly committed to a genuinely dialogical approach:

The fundamental connectedness of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a reality; understanding that reality is a major challenge facing Abrahamic peoples today. This course is an attempt to address the central concern that Abraham’s children—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will seek to understand one another through dialogue, reconciliation, and respectful engagement. From a Christian perspective, this course upholds Jesus Christ’s principles of agape love and the Golden Rule to be foundational for deeper reflection on these and related themes.

It is entirely reasonable to be committed to Christ while engaged in genuine, transformative dialogue at the same time.

While I am fully aware of Knitter’s hybridization thesis and the fact that many people in the world today have complicated ways of embodying Christian faith—such as Christians in India or in the Arab world who struggle with accusations of being somehow alien upon their conversion to Christ—I cannot imagine encouraging my students to join two separate religions.9 Where does it end? If one is a Hindu-Christian, can she become a Hindu-Christian-Bahá’í? It is a slippery slope and it threatens to morph into outright religious pluralism: “there are many ways to the top of mount Fuji.” The other possible outcome is relativism, which threatens to overwhelm a student at such a sensitive and pivotal moment of life. To me, those conclusions—pluralism and relativism—are incoherent at best and harmful at worst. Imagine the student who takes the idea seriously that he can be a Christian and something else at the same time. Students already struggle with identity; it seems counterproductive to encourage them to experiment with new faiths, rather than fostering their growth and maturity within one.

Filling a 19-year-old’s mind with relativism can potentially backfire into unhealthy skepticism, existential homelessness, and deep angst. These outcomes rarely lead to spiritual health. And spiritual health is precisely what I hope to foster in the lives of my students. Teaching them about world religions is part of my task as a Christian pastor. These students are my flock. With their parents’ direction, they have chosen to come to a Christian university. They know what they have signed up for. And as much as some of them want to resist, deep down they know, and I know, that it is my responsibility to help them through the difficult questions that arise when encountering Allah, Elohim, or Ahura Mazda. It is irresponsible to inundate them with unanswerable questions and abruptly send them on to their next class. My classroom is a rigorous, challenging place, but it is also a sacred space where I practice my vocation, my ministry. I owe it to my students to cut through the fog of relativism and simplistic coexistence platitudes, and into a richer, more informed way of being dialogically Christian.

Lamin Sanneh: The Courage to Dialogue as a Christian

One might ask, “Doesn’t it destroy true dialogue if the non-Christian interlocutor realizes that the Christian has a hidden—that is, evangelistic—agenda?” The answer is absolutely no. People from other faiths respect a Christian who knows who he is, and is not afraid to express himself in the historic Christian way—offering the good news to whomever he encounters. This is especially true in the Muslim-Christian dialogue. There are huge consequences to misunderstanding between these two leviathan faiths at this moment in time. We must break the ice and get to know our Muslim neighbors. With Christianity claiming the allegiance of 33 percent of the human race, and Islam claiming the allegiance of 22 percent, over half the world’s population has a vested interest in this ongoing conversation. Much blood has been spilt in the Muslim-Christian clash, going back to the Islamic conquests, through the Crusades, the fall of Constantinople, the age of colonialism, and now the culture of terrorism and counterterrorism we find ourselves saddled with today.

Thankfully, there are trailblazers in this area who are giving us answers. In the Muslim-Christian encounter, there are few more capable commentators than Lamin Sanneh, an eminent professor of history, African studies, and world Christianity at Yale University. Sanneh’s autobiography—a devout, Muslim boy from a poor, polygamous family in the British colony of Gambia ends up a renowned professor at Aberdeen, Harvard, and Yale—is a captivating story.10 Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh are considered the primary architects of World Christianity, a cutting-edge, rapidly expanding academic discipline that is inspiring conferences, endowed chairs, and centers of research all over the world.11 Sanneh was trained as a scholar of Islam, but he steered his expertise in the direction of critically comparing these two titanic faiths.

Due to his Muslim upbringing and training in Islamic studies, Sanneh makes penetrating insights into the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. He argues that Muslims want nothing less than a “vigorous debate” with Christians. In his experiences with Islamic-Christian encounters, he noticed Muslims becoming annoyed by the extreme conciliatoriness of Christians who went

tiptoeing around the differences between the two faiths. It was intriguing that the gentle Christian approach aroused the suspicion of Muslims—it looked to Muslims as if Christians were seeking to smuggle their controversial doctrines under the innocuous cover of dialogue. Muslims were eager to flesh out the issues. Muslims may not naturally know how to engage in dialogue, but they certainly know what dialogue should not be: an exercise in airy politeness.12

Sanneh observes that Christians seem “out of their element” when forced to dialogue with Muslims. They shrink back, unable to defend the notion of a triune God in the face of Islam’s uncompromising monotheism, “leaving sincere Muslim queries unaddressed.”13

Sanneh argues that, typically, Christians think of interreligious engagement as “action programs and community projects” which only sidestep the authentic dialogue about what faith in God means, and how it should be rationally explicated. He writes, “For Muslims truth is not something you can deduce from its indirect expression in actions. Rather, truth is truth by virtue of having its source in God the Exalted.” And here comes the punch: “Muslims are inclined to view Christian action programs as tantamount to Christian retreat from religion, their weak point.” He continues:

They do not understand that for Christians social action is a legitimate outflow of the injunctions of Jesus, an engagement that is grounded in the regard for human beings as made in the image of God. It is instructive to recognize that what looks like retreat from one standpoint is actually a form of faith commitment from another.14

Sanneh’s advice is that Christians honor Muslims with respect and openness. They should not, however, recoil on the tenets of their faith. Muslims see a weakness in Christian witness here. While Christians are happy to converse, and even to work together toward social improvement, they are often caught without a properly informed understanding of what they believe. Muslims do not admire this tendency to ignore doctrinal justifications for why Christians think and act the way they do. Christians should be Christians confidently—literally, from the Latin: con fide, with faith. Christians should take heart and cherish their rich Christian heritage even while engaged in difficult dialogue.

While religious pluralism might reign supreme in our Western cultural zeitgeist, it can breed mistrust amongst Muslims, especially when it is perceived that we are saying “all paths” are equally valid, without any qualification. This type of laissez faire pluralism does not make sense to Muslims and is illogical to more thoughtful Christians. And the question of whether one could possibly be a Muslim and a Christian is preposterous, insincere, even offensive for Muslims. A self-proclaimed Christian who embraces multiple faiths, who has a hidden, secular agenda, or who is a closet relativist, will merely cause the Muslim to want meaningful dialogue with a Christian—a sincere and committed follower of Jesus Christ who walks the historic, orthodox path of discipleship. Christians need to offer up devout and practicing Christians to the table of interreligious dialogue. To do otherwise is to miss our opportunity to share the good news that Jesus Christ is for all, not just for our tribe.

Dialogue is not always fun—to use the dominant adjective of our day—nor is it innocuous, especially with Muslims. There is bad blood: jihads, Crusades, clashing civilizations, land grabs, and a mutual anxiety that continues into the present. The Abrahamic faiths are, on some level, siblings coming from the same patriarch, but sibling rivalry is the worst kind. As reconciliation within families often requires unpacking the issues, similarly, productive dialogue refuses to skirt around the issues of the past that have caused so much pain. We cannot pick at these wounds indefinitely; there must be an end in sight. But it would be naïve to pretend they have forever gone away. Dialogue that is rooted in knowledge, openness, and friendship will function with tenderness, with a listening heart, and with tears when we hear the pain that has been inflicted in the name of God. Tragedy must be acknowledged as a first step towards reconciliation, and reconciliation will only occur when we are honest about the horrors our civilizations have caused.

While the Muslim-Christian dialogue has become more urgent since 9/11, there is still much work to be done in Jewish-Christian understanding. Recently I moderated a session at Pepperdine where we invited two rabbis—Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA—to come and share with our students about modern Judaism. Ironically, the day they came happened to be the same day of Israel’s national elections. I asked the question of what implications the election might have on Judaism. Both of them immediately lit up, passionately explaining their views on the intertwined nature of Israel’s religion and its politics. Rabbi Seidler-Feller discussed the complex relationship between American Jewry and Israel, “Jerusalem is in my very bones!” At that point Rabbi Judith looked over at me and said, “We should probably stop there; otherwise this issue will dominate the entire night.” I quickly switched the topic to Germany’s circumcision ban—which, wisely, has since been rescinded—and explored issues related to continued anti-Semitism in Europe. There was pain in the rabbis’ voices as they remembered aloud their grandparents’ generation going to the gas chambers. Seidler-Feller exclaimed into his microphone: “We are a traumatized people!” It became clear to me and to those in the audience that the holocaust was not so long ago.

The Crusades, the Jihads, and the Shoa (Jewish Holocaust) are difficult topics, and can prove highly provocative. But responsible interreligious dialogue will eventually get around to them if the dialogue continues long enough. Unfortunately many walk away from dialogue the moment such challenges arise. Conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie. Perseverance is required to see dialogue through, however. Like family relationships, dialogue should never really end. There will high points and low points. Such is the nature of being patient enough, and courageous enough, to work towards the prize of reconciliation, peace, and shalom.

Trialogical Reconciliation in the Academy: A Case Study

As a professor of religion, my best hope for Abrahamic reconciliation is found in the legacy of my students. In my courses and in my own life, I try to live dialogically, but more importantly, I try to live Christian-ly. My hope is that my courses, lectures, interactions with students, and overall scholarly agenda will open up meaningful, informed conversation with non-Christians in such a way that they might come to understand the “good news” I have to offer. To wind down this essay, I will discuss a few ways I am trying to work and live more dialogically. I will conclude by reflecting on mission as dialogue, citing the work of Father Vincent Donovan.

First, the rhythms of academic life are found in the classroom. The classroom is where I can foster a dialogical outlook and engender principles of mutual respect. At the time of writing this article, I was teaching two courses, “History of Christianity” and “Abrahamic Faiths.” Early in both courses, my lectures attempted to unpack the concept of inspiration in the three Abrahamic religions. Inspiration plays out in different ways in different faiths, at different times, and in the minds and hearts of different interpreters. For example, Christians generally believe that the Old Testament writers were inspired, but the New Testament takes a certain privilege in what we believe and do. The Apostle Peter believed in the inspiration of the Jewish Scriptures, but critical matters had been redefined in light of Christ’s teachings, death, and resurrection. Moses was inspired when he spoke of certain animals being off-limits for food, but the coming of Christ mandated that Christians reinterpret those laws. In addition, Peter sensed God was telling him that Gentiles were as acceptable to God as Jews. Peter’s vision of a sheet full of animals in Acts 10 convinced him that God was revealing new information that changed the way he thought about his faith heritage. No longer were Jews exclusively chosen. Gentiles were welcomed into God’s tent as well. Thus, Christianity’s teachings are to be taken as more recent revelations from God to humankind.

Six centuries later, Muhammad accomplished a similar feat as Peter, but in a different way. Instead of referring to the Qur’an as the fulfillment of Old and New Testaments, he argued that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were corrupted due to careless copying, poor theology, and half-truths that had been passed down. For example, in the Qur’an, Jesus is not the son of God; he did not even die on the cross. The crucifixion was invented. Jesus was protected from such a brutal, heinous act—far below the dignity of a prophet—and was assumed into heaven directly. Sura 4:155–59 reads:

No! God has sealed them in their disbelief, so they believe only a little—and because they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary, and said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him—God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise. There is not one of the People of the Book who will not believe in [Jesus] before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.)15

The gnostic Gospel of Basilides (early second century) argues ideas strikingly similar to the Qur’an on this topic, although it was dismissed by mainstream Christianity as being heretical.16 Gnostic ideas similar to these have been categorized under “the semblance theory,” arguing that while Jesus may have appeared to have been crucified, it was probably someone else such as Simon of Cyrene or Judas. Whatever the case, there can be little doubt that Basilides—or someone with a very similar understanding of Jesus’ death—influenced how early Muslims understood the crucifixion.17

Thus a dialogical starting point has swiftly unfolded, linking the histories of these three faiths, showing how their understandings of interpretation spill over into each other. This example shows how basic events get interpreted between the Abrahamic faiths and even within each faith itself—in this case gnostic versus orthodox renditions of the story. Similarly, with virtually any issue in Christian history, there is a connection to Judaism and Islam: politics, interpretations of monotheism, authority, worship, ethics, architecture, and more. Siblings indeed; the Abrahamic faiths offer three different-yet-vaguely-similar perspectives on virtually any aspect of religious life.

Part of my mission to live dialogically means I will actually get to know people of other faiths, in this case Muslims and Jews. Inviting them to speak in my classes is part of this task, but I should also go out to them. Pepperdine has been extraordinarily helpful in facilitating this goal. In 2010 my provost, Darryl Tippens, connected me with a Turkish Islamic organization so that my wife and I could be their guests in Turkey for two weeks. The friendships we made on that trip and the conversations launched continue to the present day in meals together, shared speaking engagements, and good memories of flying around Turkey while talking about theology. I will never forget one of my Turkish conversations, when someone asked, “If indeed there is only one God, then does that mean we are members of the same religion?” Still, I must pause to think that one through.

Both of our tour guides from that trip have come to Pepperdine to speak and share about Islam. One of them came to my World Religions class and talked about the Muslim holiday Ashure, sharing with us vast servings of “Noah’s Pudding” he and his wife made just for the occasion. Another came to participate in a three-part convocation series for students entitled “The Future of Religion,” dealing with each of the Abrahamic faiths. These young, capable men also connected Pepperdine with Turkish author Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes, who visited and spoke to a packed house.18

Pepperdine has recently established the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies with generous support from the Glazer family.19 This institute is making a difference at Pepperdine. The “Future of Religion” series was the idea of the Institute, and it was a great success as students were introduced to committed, practicing leaders from all three Abrahamic traditions. The Glazer Institute supports student travel to the Holy Land, offers various scholarship programs, supports several staff and faculty to promote Jewish studies and Jewish events at Pepperdine, and they provide grants for professors who integrate Jewish studies into their courses. The Glazer Institute illustrates that while interreligious dialogue generally begins at the grassroots, there is nothing prohibiting effective strategies from a top-down approach. Together, the Glazer family and the Pepperdine administration are creating programs that stimulate and facilitate a culture of dialogue on our campus.

Conclusion: Father Donovan and Mission as Dialogue

I end with an explanation as to why I think dialogue is imperative. It has everything to do with my understanding of the nature of Christian mission. In his book Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan provides a riveting account of his years (1955–1973) evangelizing the Masai people of East Africa.20 As a Roman Catholic priest, he was trained in method and theory, but found nearly everything he had learned to be wholly inadequate for evangelizing the people with whom he had come to work. During his years of service, Father Donovan realized that the good news would have to be shorn of its Western packaging if it was to make any sense to the Masai. There were implications in doing this, however. He would have to “rediscover” the faith he thought he was familiar with and “jettison the Western hardware and begin from the ground up.” The old missionary model was to bring Enlightenment, meaning “material advancement: . . . schools and literacy, planned development, hospitals and clinics, sanitation, organized nation-states, individual fulfillment.”21 Donovan wanted nothing less than for the Masai to discover the God of the Bible in their own culture, in their own methods, and in their own history. And they did—eventually.

When the Masai were able to be their own missionaries, and when Donovan was able to point out that God had been with them all along and they simply needed to understand God in the light of Christ, the conversion of a culture began. The Masai had to take control, and Donovan had the good sense to allow their own understanding and assimilation of Jesus to come alive, while his understanding of Jesus had to be placed aside. The Masai came to recognize Jesus as Lord, even penning their own “African Creed,” which, Sanneh argues, bears

little sign . . . as there is in the Nicene Creed, of words smelling of the litigious lamp, of the scars of bitter theological battle, of rubbing in the noses of the vanquished, of haunting heresy, or of the West’s twilight mood. Masai ideas of God are not as prickly, and it is as such that they have shaped the outlook of their African Creed.22

I have included that “majestic” creed in its entirety here.23

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.24

By the end of his work in Africa, Donovan’s mind had completely changed about missions. He came to realize he had rediscovered Christianity. And he would remain, in some sense, a foreigner to his own culture’s understanding of Christianity when he returned home to the United States. His own sister—who nursed him to his death in 2000—wrote the following:

He worked in Africa from 1955 to 1973, and the experience changed him forever. His struggle to honestly present the Christian gospel to people of a different culture caused him to wrestle with his own faith and everything that he had taken for granted about creation, the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the church, priesthood, the sacraments, the Holy Spirit. That struggle never ended.25

It is unnerving to think of having to rediscover Christianity in order to evangelize effectively. However, “it is an eminently logical outcome if you think at the deeper level of the missio dei that lies in the fact of God having preceded missionaries in the mission field.”26

May God guide and bless the Abrahamic trialogue, and may God help us to understand Christ afresh—perhaps even rediscover him—as we bring Jesus to those who do not yet trust in him as Lord of all creation. Amen.

Dyron Daughrity is Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. He is the author of numerous academic publications, including his most recent book Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (New York: Peter Lang, 2012). He can be reached at:


Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qur’an. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Akyol, Mustafa. Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

The Catholic Encyclopedia. 16 vols. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

Daniels, Gene. “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,

DellaPergola, Sergio. World Jewish Population, 2010. Current Jewish Population Reports. Storrs, CT: Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, Jewish Federations of North America, and North American Jewish Data Bank, November 2010.

Donovan, Vincent. Christianity Rediscovered. 25th anniversary ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003.

Jacobs, Lyndsay. “The Stone-Campbell Movement—A Global View.” Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry 17, no. 3 (Third Quarter 2009): 141–42,

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Rev. and exp. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Knitter, Paul. Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996.

________. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985.

________. One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995.

________. Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Lewis, Nicola Denzey. Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sanneh, Lamin. Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Tennant, Timothy. “The Hidden History of Insider Movements.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,

1 Sergio DellaPergola, World Jewish Population, 2010, Current Jewish Population Reports (Storrs, CT: Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, Jewish Federations of North America, and North American Jewish Data Bank, November 2010).

2 Lyndsay Jacobs, “The Stone-Campbell Movement—A Global View,” Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry 17, no. 3 (Third Quarter 2009): 141,

3 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, rev. and exp. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), xi–xii.

4 Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985). See also Paul Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995) and Paul Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

5 Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), xi–xiii. Italics are his.

6 Ibid., 216.

7 Ibid., 214–15.

8 Ibid., 215.

9 Dual religious identity can and does happen, as Gene Daniels addresses in “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22, Daniels’s interview tells the story of a Muslim man who slowly converted to Christ in a profoundly Muslim culture. In that case, and many like it all over the world, it is entirely sensible that a Christian convert move towards Christianity in stages, developing a hybrid identity along the way. This conversation takes us into discussions of syncretism; for example, the conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity did not occur in a day. However, I believe that eventually the Christian convert will confess the lordship of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Christian Scriptures rather than remaining content with his/her dual identity. See also Timothy Tennant, “The Hidden History of Insider Movements,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,, where he discusses Hindus and Muslims who worship Jesus, yet remain identified in their religious community. These people do not formally join a church community because of the social problems it will create. However, they often maintain exclusive allegiance to Jesus as God.

10 Lamin Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

11 For example, see Edinburgh’s centre at; Boston University’s center at; Yale’s initiative at; and Calvin College’s institute at

12 Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin, 191–92.

13 Ibid., 192.

14 Ibid.

15 Quotations of the Qur’an are taken from M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, trans., The Qur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

16The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, s.v. “Basilides,”

17 Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 63.

18 Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

20 Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003). I am particularly indebted to Lamin Sanneh’s insightful comments at the end of the book, pp. 151–59.

21 Ibid., 156.

22 Ibid., 158.

23Ibid. Sanneh refers to the creed as “majestic.”

24 Ibid., 148.

25 Ibid., 167.

26 Ibid., 157–58.

Posted on

Good Theology as Preparation for Good Conversation: A Laboratory for Christian-Muslim Dialogue at Rochester College

This essay insists that Christian-Muslim dialogue can be enriched if Christians will be mindful, first of all, about their own theological systems. The faiths are separated by authentic points of difference, but Christians can ruin the discussions if they are sloppy about their own confessions. What do we gain from performing good works? Who was Jesus? What do we mean by “salvation”? What do we really think about the crucifixion narrative? These questions, if they are answered responsibly, will reveal fascinating points of coherence and irreconcilable points of difference between Christians and Muslims.

A Laboratory for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Here at Rochester College we have created a course entitled “Diversity Seminar: Christian-Muslim Interactions.” We began in the fall of 2011, and we have used three instructors to deliver the curriculum. My field is Christian History, and I am teamed with Dr. John Barton, who brings a specialization in Philosophy. Most significantly, we have been joined by Mr. Saeed Khan, who teaches Islamic Studies at Wayne State University. As a practicing Muslim, Saeed brings an element of diversity to our Christian college campus.

Interfaith conversations are hardly new, especially in Southeast Michigan. We have a great deal of ethnic diversity in our region, and there are numerous venues for getting together. Our Diversity Seminar, however, is different because of its context. Though Rochester College seeks to be inclusively Christian, our students usually come from conservative Protestant (or “Evangelical”) backgrounds. These include Bible churches, community churches, Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, and Churches of Christ. Historically, very few of these local fellowships have been involved, in any significant way, with interfaith conversations. Predictably, our students bring a set of strong, Evangelical assumptions to the table, and to these students Islam represents a strange and forbidding world.

To the credit of our class, we are rarely distracted by the tired and shallow issues that normally dominate public discussions of Muslims and their faith. Due in part, perhaps, to Saeed’s disarming engagement, we have not belabored the caricatures of a misogynistic Muhammad or a bloody Qur’an. Instead, our classes have naturally progressed towards challenging and substantial points of discussion. Our students have struggled to make meaningful comparisons between various expressions of Christianity and various expressions of Islam. To a large degree, the value of our discussion is located in the tension that arises from our conservative Christian environment: it is good to see our students interacting, respectfully, thoughtfully, and humbly, with ideas they cannot accept. They are never pressed toward naïve affirmations of ecumenical harmony, and they are encouraged to search for points of doctrinal divergence, as well.

In these pages I will outline four of the issues that lead our students toward times of discovery—or conversely, toward moments of frustration. For obvious reasons, our students are limited by their ignorance of Islam, but I hope to illustrate another daunting challenge: simply put, they struggle to engage in fruitful dialogue because they have failed to understand their own Christian faith. What appear to be points of theological divergence are sometimes exposed as failures to communicate and our students frequently betray theological “blind spots” that generate significant points of misunderstanding. For students who discover these shortcomings, the revelations are exhilarating; for the rest, the process can be confusing and exasperating.

These observations might reveal some weaknesses in the theological teaching of our constituent churches, but that is another thesis for another day. Our students have been bright and engaging, and I am not attempting to assign any blame. I simply propose these points in order to illustrate the essential value that good Christian theology can contribute to a meaningful Christian-Muslim interaction.

How Do We Assess the Value of Good Works?

Islam is frequently described as a religion of “works-righteousness,” where God’s salvation is restricted to those who are good enough to earn it. It is easy, as we read the Qur’an, to find passages like the one in sura 5, where it says that: “Allah has promised to those who believe and do good deeds (that) they shall have forgiveness and a mighty reward.”1

In verses like these, it is obvious that human salvation is dependent, to some degree, on human performance. In addition, the Islamic tradition provides a remarkable system of merit and demerit, where deeds are weighed in a legalistic balance: a prayer in the mosque, for instance, earns more credit, by a factor of twenty-seven, than a prayer that is spoken in isolation.2

This notion, of course, sounds exotic to most of our students. Christian theology, in their experience, has no parallel for these kinds of ethical calculations. Here at Rochester College, our students are well-acquainted with Pauline passages like Eph 2:8–9, where salvation comes by grace through faith and is not the result of works. Our students find the Islamic concept, by contrast, to be completely unrealistic: to quote from one of them, it “kind of speaks of pride,” and is “sorely mistaken.”3

It would be useful, however, to revisit our own texts. For every “legalistic” line in the Qur’an, it would be easy to find a corresponding text from the pages of the New Testament. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, unequivocally, that salvation is based on obedience and does not depend on professions of faith (Matt 7:21). Moreover, when Jesus was asked to explain the way to “eternal life,” he prescribed the commandment to love, and he did not suggest a prayer to repeat or a creed to recite. Instead, when he was pressed for clarification, he recommended the ethical example of a theologically dysfunctional Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Even Paul, that paragon of evangelical, grace-centered, gospel theology, once warned the Galatians, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. . . . So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:7–9).4

These passages do not undermine the distinctive gospel of salvation by grace. They do, however, require a robust theology of works, where we are rewarded for the things that we do. We must be able to interpret the biblical exhortations to righteous behavior, and we must be able to explain what we are risking (if anything) when we ignore those exhortations. It is not enough to agree with Paul in Rom 6:1–2, when he forbids us to sin “so that grace may abound.” We must also understand the argument Paul provides in the next three chapters, and we must learn to appreciate the salvific value that he assigns to sanctification. These conversations are essential, but very few Christians, especially Evangelicals, are accustomed to having them. It is easy to say that Islam is a works-based religion, but until we can explain the actual Christian difference, we will not be qualified to complain about the Islamic perspective.

Moreover, it is risky to assert that Muslims are possessed with legalistic hubris or with anthropological naïveté. Islam does speak of meritorious works, and it rejects the idea that we are born in bondage to sin. It also allows for the possibility of human perfection, and this indicates a real divergence from Christian doctrine. But the tradition also concedes that without Allah’s inexplicable grace, very few could ever meet the mark. For example, Abu Huraira states:

Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him), said: When it occurs to my bondsman that he should do a good deed but he actually does not do it, record one good to him, but if he puts it into practice, I make an entry of ten good acts in his favour. When it occurs to him to do evil, but he does not commit it, I forgive that. But if he commits it, I record one evil against his name.5

Once again, these meritorious calculations are foreign to Christian theology; nonetheless, Allah is a benevolent and compassionate accountant. To put it another way, Muslims, too, are saved by grace! In fact, a Muslim could ask why, in light of God’s abundant and disproportionate forgiveness, Christians should need a Redeemer to deliver them from their sins. Is God’s compassion inadequate, without some sort of sacrifice?

On this point, Christians should know their own anthropology, and should be wary of their assumptions about the atonement. Very few of our students have heard of St. Anselm, and even fewer have recognized their heavy dependence on his eleventh-century formulation of “substitutionary atonement.” Anselm himself was fully aware of the issues involved, and he knew the stakes when he insisted that “it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment.”6 But it is inadequate to repeat his conclusions without knowing how he got there. These issues deserve a fuller exploration than our students (and most of their churches) have attempted thus far.

How Do We Explain the Identity of Jesus?

Jesus is highly regarded in the Qur’an, and Christians are frequently surprised to discover this. The nineteenth sura, for instance, provides an infancy narrative that is remarkably parallel to Luke’s account, and the virgin birth is affirmed without ambiguity. Jesus (Isa) is identified as the Messiah, a wonderworker, and a prophet, “worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter” (Qur’an 3:45–51).

Of greater interest, of course, for many Christians, are the things that are denied about Jesus. It is high praise to be called “an apostle of Allah,” but the Qur’an refuses to exalt him higher than that. In the fourth sura, we read:

O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which he communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His apostles, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one God. (Qur’an 4:171; see also Qur’an 5:75)

Clearly, these words are directed against a Trinitarian formulation. Of related concern is the Christian identification of Jesus as the Son of God, which the Qur’an rejects with horror. If we continue reading from the fourth sura, we can see that:

Allah is only one God: far be it from His glory that He should have a son; whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His; and Allah is sufficient for a Protector. (Qur’an 4:171)

In the Qur’an, therefore, Christians are admonished for the irreverent insinuation that Allah has “taken a son” (Qur’an 2:116; 10:68). How could God become a father, asks the sixth sura, “when He has no consort, and He (Himself) created everything” (Qur’an 6:101; see also Qur’an 72:3)?

For many of our students, these statements border on blasphemy and are absolutely decisive. For most conservative Christians, the ontological identity of Jesus constitutes an irreconcilable point of conflict between Christianity and Islam. In fact, they sometimes argue that without a trinitarian identity, Allah must be a false god, completely alien to the God of Christian faith. And if Jesus is not the son of Allah, then Allah, once again, cannot be the God whom Christians worship. As one student asked in his journal, “If we share the same god then why would god tell the world that Jesus is not god”? As he continued these thoughts, he added:

When Jesus is denied as God by any person, that person is mistaken and following a false god.  Jesus says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”7

These sentiments have been echoed by Evangelical leaders such as John Piper.8 For most of the conservative Christian tradition, God must be confessed as Trinity and Jesus must be confessed as the Son.

If we know our own creedal statements, however, we will not recoil so quickly from Qur’anic definitions of God. When Christians speak of Father, Son, and Spirit, we do not invoke three different deities, and we do not think that God has “partners” or “associates.” Hence, the Nicene Creed begins, quite emphatically, with the assertion that “We believe in one God.” We also need to be aware of the difficulties that have plagued our best trinitarian expressions: our Three-in-One conviction is easily misunderstood and misstated. Christians have disputed the language for years, and we can only guess how it was being explained in seventh-century Arabia. In the fifth sura, Jesus himself denies that he and his mother Mary should be worshiped as “two gods besides Allah” (Qur’an 5:116). Some Christians, it would seem, were advocating a Trinity of Father, Son, and Mary!

The Qur’an is arguing, explicitly, against any definition that fails the monotheistic test, and we should welcome that critique. “What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity,” says Miroslav Volf, “has been denied by every great teacher of the church . . . and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today.”9 Volf has also argued that the Christian position, when properly understood and expressed, can meet the most stringent monotheistic standards,10 and Muslims will need to decide for themselves if Volf’s contentions are persuasive. It is clear, however, that the Qur’an is not quarreling with the technical language of the Nicene Creed, and if we know our own orthodox confessions, the suras will read in a different light.

Once again, good Christian theology can be extremely helpful. In this case, it will be honest about the ambiguities that exist in our own confessional language, especially when we say that Jesus is the “Son of God.” That statement is vital because it is biblical, and our students are correct to perceive its importance; it is worth asking, though, if anyone knows what it means. What sort of paternity are we talking about, and what sort of paternity is denied in the Qur’an? Do Christians know what they are defending, when they insist on this feature of Jesus’ identity?

The Bible is not explicit about this, but if we return to the Nicene Creed, we can see that the Son is “eternally begotten” by the Father. There was no moment of conception, no maternal generation, and no time of birth. His paternity cannot be compared with any human relationship, nor can it be likened to mythological filiations (like Zeus from his father Cronus). Hence, when the Qur’an protests that Allah has never “taken a son,” it does not contradict the Nicene position, and its critique is consistent with the tradition that every orthodox Christian should know.

Once the terms are all sorted out, it is clear that Christians and Muslims have different concepts, still, about Jesus’ identity. Few Christians will agree that he was “only an apostle.” But we need to hear the Qur’an in its seventh-century context, and we need, most critically, to pay attention to the words that we use to explain ourselves. It is fruitless to build walls of separation from creeds that we are too impatient or sloppy to investigate fully.

How Do We Understand Salvation?

On a normal day, our class begins with a prepared student question. When the presentation is complete, each instructor gets five minutes to respond, and then the real interactions begin. This means that our discussions are student-driven, and the subjects are quite diverse. The topic of “salvation,” however, weighs heavier than the rest, and is a persistent point of concern.

For Muslims, this problem is not so troubling. According to the Qur’an, Christians, despite their dangerous notions, will not be condemned on the day of judgment. This assurance is given for anyone who “believes in Allah and the Last day and does good” (Qur’an 2:62). Since Islam does not require a “savior,” it is relatively easy for Muslims to embrace their monotheistic brothers and sisters. Christianity, if it can be separated from its Western, American, and “imperialist” connotations, can be salvific in most Muslim minds.

It is quite another matter, however, when Christians consider the salvific possibilities for Muslims. In the course of our class discussions, we hear frequent invocations of John 14:6, where Jesus claims to be the exclusive path to the Father. We also encounter Acts 4:12, where Peter says that Jesus’ name is the only name “by which we must be saved.” These verses seem to disqualify Muslims, and that concern trumps all others. “Will we all be going to the same place,” asked one young woman, “when we make it to the pearly gates of Heaven?”11 Or, in the words of another student:

If one religious group harbors a misguided, half-truth pertaining to God’s nature, what would that mean in the scheme of eternity? Is partial salvation given based on partial truth? Is salvation given to those who have part of the puzzle right? Or is a half-truthful concept of God a complete lie which merits no salvation?12

These questions are sincere, and they are motivated by genuine affection for our Muslim neighbors. Aren’t we doing them a disservice, if we don’t attempt to convert them?13 If we love them authentically, then how should we show our “concern for their salvation?”14

And yet, as pure as these questions may be, they suffer from a chronic theological handicap: our students keep speaking of “salvation,” but they are hard-pressed, when asked, to give a useful definition for that word. They are normally reticent to equate “salvation” with “heaven,” because they know that equation is narrow and facile; ultimately, however, a question about Muslims “being saved” is a question about heaven. In the absence of a responsible definition of salvation, that presupposition always comes to the surface.

Simply put, we need to be wary of the equation between “heaven” and “salvation,” and should not impose it on the biblical text. For example, it is barely conceivable, in the context of the first-century Jewish Sanhedrin, that Peter was referring to heaven when he spoke of the salvation that comes through Jesus’ name (Acts 4:12). Similarly, when Jesus spoke of approaching the Father (John 14:6), he said nothing of heaven; meanwhile, when the Jewish lawyer of Luke 10:25 asked a question about eternal life, he did not speak of heaven.

Nonetheless, our students have inherited a well-intentioned pastiche of these kinds of verses, and they are understandably confused. The difficulty is unfortunate, and it presents some serious obstacles. Distorted definitions of salvation cannot help us to imagine the kingdom that Jesus envisioned, “on earth as it is in heaven.” We need to be striving, here on earth, for a community of justice, purity, peace, and gentleness. Salvation, as Jesus described it, must be more than a post-mortem reality! As John Howard Yoder puts it, “Jesus was, in his . . . prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human social, and therefore political relationships.”15 If this world is not our home and we’re “just a-passin’ through,” then we are unlikely to understand the concepts of kingdom and salvation. Meanwhile, apart from an evangelistic agenda, we will not be motivated to build friendships with our Muslim neighbors.

None of this, of course, can answer the burning question about Muslim salvation. Can they enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of God? Can they belong to a community of cross-carrying disciples? Can they look forward to heaven? The Bible, remarkably, says very little about this topic, and our conclusions must be humble and tentative. It is certain, however, that our answers will flounder if we cannot make responsible definitions for the words we are using.

What Role Do We Assign to the Cross?

According to majority readings of the Qur’an, Jesus was not crucified. The key passage comes from the fourth sura:

And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Qur’an 4:157–58)

How should we interpret this text? It is not an easy task, and various points are disputed among Islamic interpreters. Some would say that Jesus’ enemies, afflicted with a delusion, mistakenly believed they had killed him. Others have theorized that another, luckless individual (like Simon of Cyrene) was crucified in a remarkable case of confused identity. Still others have said that Jesus was indeed crucified but never expired completely. In the coolness of the tomb he revived and escaped.

On one point, though, most Muslims agree: Jesus did not die on the cross. That fate would violate the dignity of God’s anointed prophet, and would mark the triumph of his enemies. And so, just as Gen 22:1–19 describes the near-sacrifice of Isaac (and the providential substitution of a ram), Jesus, too, overcame the evil designs of his adversaries.

It is unnecessary to quote biblical passages that contradict the Islamic position. Clearly, Christianity claims that the crucifixion actually happened and that Jesus truly died. Moreover, as I frequently say in our class meetings, I believe this to be the single, most significant issue that separates Christians from Muslims. If we interpret Phil 2:5–11 to mean that God’s most decisive moment of self-revelation was given at the cross, then the cross becomes nonnegotiable. As one student noted, it is difficult to find “middle ground,” here, with the Islamic perspective.16

Remarkably, though, our students struggle to recognize the depth of the problem, and they seem barely concerned about this crucial point of difference. In fact, out of several hundred journal entries from the past two years, the question of the cross has scarcely registered. For some, the crucifixion was little more than a temporary setback, soon corrected by the resurrection; for others, it has been merely understood as an instrument of atonement. After all, it is reasoned, “a sacrifice had to be made for us.”17 For another student, the crucifixion is a matter of New Testament record, and we need to accept it in order to protect our doctrines about biblical integrity. “The heart of the matter,” he says, “is the infallibility of scripture.”18 Hardly anybody, however, has acknowledged the stunning theological ramifications of a “crucified God” who redeems the world through humiliation and submission.19 To be fair to the members of our class, this perspective is formidable for every Christian, including the advanced theologian. It is clear, nonetheless, that our churches need better theologies of the cross, and this requirement is particularly crucial for discussions between the Christian and Muslim traditions.

In contrast with the story of the cross, the Islamic story speaks of Muhammad’s flight to Medina (the hijrah) and his providential rise to power in that city. It also narrates his ultimate victory over Mecca, and his decisive act of cleansing idolatrous worship from the Kaaba. In spite of his extraordinary hardships the Prophet was never disgraced or killed by an enemy. In the words of David Shenk:

It is noteworthy that the hijrah of Muhammad is the opposite of the way of the cross which Jesus chose. Six centuries before the hijrah, Jesus had also struggled with the question: How is the kingdom of God established? . . . Rather than use the instruments of political and military power to establish peace, Jesus chose the suffering way of the cross. . . . The emigration of Muhammad from suffering in Mecca to political triumph in Medina and the journey of Jesus from triumph in Galilee to crucifixion and death in Jerusalem are movements in opposite directions.20

Shenk is not trying to say that the ethics of Islam are rooted in a narrative of coercion and violence. On the contrary, he is encouraging Christians to pay attention to the revolutionary features of their own defining narrative. As Lee Camp has observed, this is a difficult thing for Americans to comprehend: with ready access to wealth, technology, and terrible weapons, we have failed, for the most part, to believe that a kingdom can be built through humiliation and submission. Consequently, since the fourth-century origins of Christendom, the cross has been robbed of its own particular genius and has been changed into a symbol of power and prestige. This is a crucial topic of conversation, especially for the sake of Christian-Muslim interaction. If Christians cannot think responsibly about the cross, they will never recognize the difference it actually makes.21

Better Theology, Better Conversations

After all the discussions we have had, several lessons have emerged. First, it is clear that Christian-Muslim interactions require a posture of humility. It is healthy for Christians to stop, sometimes, to double-check our positions, and to invite other people (even Muslims) to sharpen our perspectives. Many people are understandably reluctant to relinquish their dogmatism because we do not want to compromise our convictions and we obviously need a “place to stand.” Nonetheless, we need to be realistic about our capacity to interpret Scripture infallibly and to comprehend God completely. There might be times when a question should be answered with the words I don’t know.

Second, it is increasingly obvious that we must focus on the defining narratives of our faith. We will never be able to explain, with absolute clarity, what it means to say that Jesus was “the Son of God.” Nonetheless, if we focus on the story of incarnation, humiliation, and exaltation, we will be talking about the most crucial and comprehensible aspects of Christian belief. That story provides a legitimate place to stand, as we debate the troublesome issues of terminology.

Third, we need to remember the priority that Jesus established when he ranked the greatest commandments (Matt 22:36–40). There was nothing greater, in his estimation, than love for God and for neighbor. As Miroslav Volf has observed, Christianity shares this foundation with Islam,22 and it outranks every other point of agreement that we could hope to achieve. We are not being true to our faith if we insist upon a starting-point of creedal uniformity.

My colleague Saeed likes to say that our exchanges make him a better Muslim, and our students, he predicts, will become better Christians. I agree wholeheartedly—the process works in both directions. Faith and conversation are mutually beneficial. When Christians define their terms carefully, their discussions bear better fruit. When their doctrines are coherent, there are fewer episodes of misunderstanding. In contrast, good dialogue is always compromised when it is built on sloppy terminology and careless confessions. When Christians talk with Muslims, they cannot be satisfied with dogmatic creedal affirmations about “grace and works,” “substitutionary atonement,” or “salvation.” Those terms provide useful starting-points for valuable dialogues, but they are meaningless without nuance and definition.

Keith Huey is an Associate Professor of Theology at Rochester College and chairs the Department of Bible and Ministry. He received his PhD from Marquette University in 2000 and has been with Rochester College since 2001. He has been married since 1986 to Barbara, with three daughters, and is an elder at the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills.


Al-Nawawi. Riyadh-us-Saliheen.

Anselm. Cur Deus homo? Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Edited by Paul Halsall.

Camp, Lee C. Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011.

Mathis, David. “A Common Word between Us?” Blog. DesiringGod.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Translated by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

Muslim. Kitab Al-Iman. Book 1 of Sahih Muslim.

Shakir, M. H., trans. The Qur’an Translation. 12th ed. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2001

Shenk, David W. Global Gods: Exploring the Role of Religions in Modern Societies. 2nd ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1999.

Volf, Miroslav. Allah: A Christian Response. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

1 Quotations of the Qur’an are taken from M. H. Shakir, trans., The Qur’an Translation, 12th ed. (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2001).

2 Al-Nawawi, Riyadh-us-Saliheen, hadith 1064,

3 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, December 6, 2012).

4 Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

5 Muslim, Sahih Muslim, book 1, Kitab Al-Iman, hadith 235,

6 Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus homo? 1.12, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, ed. Paul Halsall, XII.

7 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, October 19, 2012).

8 David Mathis, “A Common Word between Us?,” Blog, DesiringGod,

9 Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 14.

10 Ibid., 127–48.

11 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, November 9, 2012); similarly, Student journal entry (PHI 3043 Class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, October 26, 2012).

12 Prepared student question (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, October 7, 2011).

13 Prepared student question (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, September 23, 2011).

14 Prepared student question (PHI 3043 Class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, November 11, 2011).

15 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 52.

16 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, September 14, 2012).

17 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, September 6, 2012).

18 Student journal entry (PHI 3043 class at Rochester College, Rochester Hills, MI, September 21, 2012).

19 I am intentionally using the terminology of Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

20 David W. Shenk, Global Gods: Exploring the Role of Religions in Modern Societies, 2nd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1999), 285–86.

21 Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011).

22 Volf, 27–33.

Posted on

On Muslim Hospitality

Missio Dei’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (

This article is an adaptation of chapter eighteen of Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves.1 It recounts personal stories that humanize the Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue. Muslim hospitality in these encounters provides a space to reconsider assumptions and reframe the dialogue. Such hospitality therefore commends itself to the church as a missional practice to be learned from Muslim conversation partners.

One does not entertain “inter-faith” conversations long without the “clash of civilizations” thesis arising: “western culture” and “Islamic culture” cannot peaceably co-exist side-by-side because one will necessarily triumph over the other. There are numerous difficulties with such a position: “cultures” can be neither rejected nor accepted as a whole, because a “culture” is by definition an amalgamation of practices and assumptions, and we never reject or accept or defeat a culture as a whole. Instead, particular cultures will have practices some of which we celebrate, some of which we will want to modify or transform, and some of which we will need to altogether reject.

For Christians, who after the apostle Paul see ourselves as ministers of reconciliation, such an observation is particularly helpful I think, as it allows us to first look for common practices which we can celebrate. So far as my own particularities, I tend to think that “southern hospitality” is an example of an American cultural practice that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all celebrate: the guest received with honor, regardless of social status or position or wealth. It has been my privilege to sit at tables set by other hosts at which the homeless and the blind and the poor and the wealthy and the glamorous and the homely have all been welcomed. My parents and my in-laws and my wife and my extended family and my church family and my university family have all exhibited this good practice, and I have learned much watching them. It is part of the ancient wisdom, going back to Abraham, the patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, that one may entertain angels unawares; it is part of the ancient story of Jesus, especially as told by the Gospel of Luke, that the table embodies a special place of grace, in which the reconciliation offered by God to the world may be made manifest. The table is a sacred place, where one may encounter all sorts of mysteries, may encounter manifestations of reconciliation unexpected and surprising. And I also suspect that the political shape of Christian discipleship will have a much more profound impact upon the world by taking the table seriously than will any sort of quest for dominating power.

A similar sort of tradition around the table exists in Islam. Snjezana Akpinar notes that

for Muslims, the concept of hospitality goes deeper into history than is commonly understood in the West. It is a virtue that lies at the very basis of the Islamic ethical system. For Arabs in particular, hospitality is an ancient concept. Pre-Islamic Arab civilization saw hospitality as a humanizing element that involves both the guest and host, creates trust between them, leads to an ennobling and transformative moment, and evokes a restorative energy crucial for the survival of the human race. Linked closely with honor and chivalry, hospitality was considered an act of unconditional surrender to the needs of others. Islam accepted this heritage at its very inception.2

Until a few years ago, I had never eaten or taken tea or drunk coffee with Muslims, either as host or guest. In the meanwhile, it has been a grand adventure: drinking a Coca-Cola with a twenty-year member of the PLO, a colleague of Arafat, at a tiny shop in Hebron; breaking Ramadan fast at the local mosque here on Twelfth Avenue in Nashville, the same mosque about which I had been told that all the Muslims there wanted to “kill us”; taking tea with Professor Sari Nusseibeh, activist, author of a beautiful memoir on his life in Palestine, and president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem; eating breakfast in Istanbul, complete with cream and honey, with a writer and a university administrator; eating pizza with the spokesperson for the Nashville Islamic community, a highly trained specialist and medical doctor at one of the world’s leading research institutions—immediately following which I received an email from the physician showing that some vandals had defaced a local mosque, spray-painting Crusader crosses, along with an inscription telling the Nashville Muslims to “go home.”

My first meal as a guest in a Muslim home was fabulous. I found myself along with an esteemed professor and priest, Fr. David Burrell—whom I had known in passing as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame—trekking through the streets of East Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from the Garden of Gethsemane. We made our way to the home of an equally esteemed Muslim professor of theology, Professor Mustafa Abu Sway, a theologian at Al Quds University, the Arab-Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. Welcomed warmly by the family, we removed our shoes (yet another southern tradition I rather appreciate) and sat in the living room, where we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Dome of the Rock, just across the valley below us. We enjoyed, too, a fantastic meal, wonderful conversation, and numerous kind gestures of hospitality.

I would have several opportunities to meet with Mustafa during my stay in Jerusalem: he would patiently tutor me on some basic considerations and issues of Islam, would suggest questions I had not yet considered, would show me ways to transliterate important Arab words. We would spend some hours together later at the American Colony Hotel, and then later again at Tantur, the study institute near Bethlehem owned by the Vatican. While his knowledge of Islam and the particular research questions I raised was immensely helpful, perhaps more important was what often happens when one eats with another: I encountered him as a kind and caring human being, struggling with the realities of existence in occupied Palestinian territory. His children were respectful and gracious, his wife welcoming and well attired. She had cooked all day for us; meanwhile, Mustafa had done the dishes. (“I am no good at cooking,” he said with a smile.) I came to understand that though we were very different and had different ultimate claims upon our lives—he the Qur’an and the teaching of Muhammad, I the lordship of Jesus and the calling to Christian discipleship—we still could and did share all sorts of important commonalities.

I would come to realize, for example, that his academic work entailed critiques of both the West and of the Islamic tradition that paralleled the sort of anti-imperialist critiques I had been trying to make in my own academic work. We were both trying to sort out what it meant to take seriously one’s faith in the midst of competing powers. Unlike the too commonly heard stereotypes of Muslims as self-serving and concerned only with acquiring an indulgent eternity in the afterlife, Mustafa had written his dissertation on Al Ghazali, the medieval professor par excellence in the Islamic world, who realized upon introspection that he performed his work and faith not simply for the sake of the love of God, so he gave up fame and wealth, and lived an unknown life for eleven years.3

I would quickly come to realize as well that Palestinians face hardships we Americans would find intolerable. For instance, Mustafa and his family had spent nearly US $70,000 in an attempt to acquire a building permit over three years’ time, to build a new home, while a block away another illegal Israeli-settlement high-rise was going up. I came to appreciate that he would say what, as noted earlier, I heard other Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, say: that the conflict in Palestine is not about “religion,” but about land, and sustaining a living, and justice, and the dehumanizing effects of the existing “security” policies. I came to appreciate his concerns over raising families; he said in a lecture I heard him deliver, when asked what he worries about regarding raising a family in Palestine: “I worry about my children being exposed to radical political movements, too much materialism, the electronic jungle too many are surrounded with.” And I knew that I was concerned with the very same questions in raising a family in the buckle of the Bible Belt; and I knew that my own Western culture was, on the whole, contributing more to the problem than to the solution.

The media can so narrow our fears upon “the enemy” that we fail to see common enemies we may face along with our Muslim neighbor: threats to family life, to sober life, to quiet and sensible work. The enemy identified centuries ago by Hilary of Poitiers is the same that many Muslims face and see with greater clarity than Westerners so deeply shaped by consumerist impulses: “We are fighting today against a wily persecutor, an insinuating enemy, against Constantius the antichrist, who does not scourge the back, but tickles the belly, who does not condemn to life but enriches to death, who instead of thrusting men into the liberty of prison, honours them in the slavery of the palace . . . who does not cut off the head with the sword, but slays the soul with gold.”4

This was not to say that Mustafa had no cautionary or critical words for the West. When one audience member asked, “Do you have any fear of nuclear annihilation from Iran?” he promptly responded, “Never. We know the country that has used it: neither Sunni, nor Shiite, and it’s not Iran.” All we Americans knew the country that had used them too. Indeed, he knew the issue was very often about profits and power: “Nuclear proliferation is lucrative, and allows defiance.” Just as many Western Christians grapple with such questions, so did he: the immense expenditures on nuclear arsenals, he described as “absolutely harmful.” It was “immoral,” he said, that Arabs accounted for the purchase of such a large percentage of the weapons purchased from 1980 to 1990. Such a social strategy he described as “bunk.” There is plenty of wealth, but it is wasted on extravagant city projects and weapons, instead of spent building universities and cultivating spirit. Technology, which should be employed in useful fashion, is instead often wasted on extravagance and “is an addiction sometimes.” We spend exorbitant amounts on sending space probes to Mars; perhaps we should first put our own planet in order, raising questions about the shameful discrepancies of wealth between Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The question of consumerism was, he said, “a difference of loss of way of life,” and it brings about a strange sort of prioritization. Thus, he recounted that while traveling in a rural, impoverished area of South Africa, he came upon a Kentucky Fried Chicken; upon leaving the mosque in Mecca on hajj, he found a Starbucks. “A hamburger is a hamburger,” he would go on to say, “but the question is one of deforestation.” The Qur’an teaches, on the one hand, not to be cheap, and on the other, not to be extravagant. Muhammad taught that men ought not to wear gold or silk (but permitted it for women), and that women’s dresses should not have trains. That is, wealth should serve you, not overwhelm you; do not busy yourself with it, accumulating it, for the pursuit becomes a wall between yourself and the spiritual life. Echoes of Walden Pond? “Yes,” he admitted, “I love it. And I love the place. I went there.”

Regarding warfare, there are of course, he said, Islamic militants. “They are militant because of their context, and they don’t flip [read] the Qur’an,” and those who do don’t really have access to it in Arabic. “The invasion of Iraq is a shame. All the pretexts were shown to be false.” Saddam was a dictator, yes, but there are others. And if a country decides to deal with a dictator, they should operate within sanctions and auspices of the UN. The militants are such because of colonial and neocolonial projects, he said, and some of them defy the Islamic code of ethics. The earliest Muslims, he noted—and as we have already seen—were strict pacifists, but then war came to be treated as a last resort; and if it comes, there are strict limits. Today these conditions are impossible to keep in war. Thus, we must not go to war. And in order not to go to war, we need to know each other. And knowing each other—as in marriage—entails difficult issues that must be dealt with and worked through. We Muslims and Christians, he continued, will continue to have substantive theological differences, as do Catholics and Protestants, but essentially we must respect each other as different but having a shared humanity.

“In one case,” he said, “my mother breast-fed the baby of her Christian neighbor” who was unable to do so herself. Mustafa’s mother, he continued, “understood Islamic jurisprudence,” so that he and his siblings “became brothers and sisters” with the Christian child and thus “could not marry.”


Farther north in East Jerusalem, I made my way one day to the office of Professor Sari Nusseibeh. The president of Al Quds University, an activist for peace and a well-respected academic, Nusseibeh is well known in Israel and Palestine. He graciously made time for tea and conversation in the midst of a hectic schedule. I was met first by his security detail and then ushered in after a brief wait. Nusseibeh’s beautiful memoir Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life5 provides a Palestinian perspective on the current impasse and hostility. But what I found most striking, both about his book and about Nusseibeh himself, was his graciousness in the midst of a situation in which his family and he himself had faced so many difficulties and persecution. Nusseibeh would be struck early in his life with the importance of the attempt to see the world from one’s opponent’s point-of-view. He grew up in the city of Jerusalem, after the 1948 war, in which there was a no-man’s-land that divided Jews from Arabs. He would gaze across the no-man’s-land at bearded men wearing black clothing and wide-brimmed hats, and wonder who they were, these Others across the chasm. Reading Jewish author Amos Oz’s account of Oz’s own childhood—imagining military strategies for defending the Jews from perpetrators of new crimes against his people—Nusseibeh realized Oz had no good stories of Arabs in his childhood. And then Nusseibeh wondered about his own childhood: “What had my parents known of [the Jews’] world? Did they know about the death camps? Weren’t both sides to the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”6

Nusseibeh’s family story is one of loss: of property, community, and health. His father, a prominent figure, lost his leg in the fighting of the war of 1948. His mother’s family lost their estate, and the mother would tell for years of the rolling hills covered with groves of fruit trees that extended down toward the Mediterranean Sea. His mother habitually struggled with resentment toward the Zionists “who plotted to take over her country, who’d shot her husband’s leg off, and whom she held responsible for her father’s early death, the uprooting of her ancient roots on the coastal plain, the despoiling of her homeland, and the exile of her mother. Even her dear father’s grave was now in inaccessible enemy territory.”7

For Nusseibeh, “religion” was meant to be a unifying rather than an estranging force: quoting from his father’s manuscript describing the days around the war of 1948, “Religion, being essentially universal and one, should be made to serve the end of uniting the world rather than separating it.” His mother’s version of Islam “inculcated in us . . . a religion with minimal miracles—Mohammed’s nocturnal ride on his magical steed is one of the few I can think of—and a cornucopia of rock-solid humanistic values. For her, Islam taught dignity, honesty, self-worth, simplicity, kindness, and of course love. Endless love. It was also flexible enough to change with the times. . . . In her Islam, there was also no competition among faiths.”8 In contrast, “the only place to meet the sort of wild-eyed fanatics who pose as Islam’s spokesmen today would have been in old musty stories of Sheikh Qassam, or in St. George’s library collection of Victorian-era horror novels.”9

Nusseibeh sought opportunity to understand the Other, as, when a young man, he sought the opportunity to stay at a kibbutz, which was an agricultural settlement, an experiment in socialist living. From the perspective of the Palestinians, the kibbutzniks “were the shock troops of the Israeli system, merciless Spartan soldier-farmers on the front line of every fight. I wanted to see for myself where the swords of Zion were being fashioned.”10 And he reports that he found fascinating, “high-caliber” people in the “enemy territory.” They were idealistic, well-meaning people, with high humanist values, who simply gave little consideration to the fact that the land on which they were living, and the freedom they were enjoying, had been extracted at a high price from the Arab Palestinians, who never crossed their minds. From 1948 to 1967, the Arab Palestinians were “out of sight, out of mind.” And the fact that they thought little of this cost to the Arabs was, he discovered, not due to ill will or malevolence. It was simply that “their humanism never had to face us.”11 It is—it occurred to me—the same as our good Christian living in the Bible Belt: we too celebrate our freedoms and way of life, and it never crosses our minds that such enjoyment was extracted at such a high price to those who lived on the land prior to us.

So on a number of occasions Nusseibeh says that he simply did not know what to do with such situations. What should be done? Who was to blame? “They were without question fine people, despite their blind spots. Didn’t we have our own? I concluded from all this that ignorance, rather than some undefined evil intent, had to be at the core of our conflict.”12 He recounts that part of the wisdom he lives by, taken from the Muslim philosopher upon whom he wrote his dissertation, is “quietly doing your best to humanize an ‘imperfect society.’ ”13 Engaging both Christian and Muslim activists as a university teacher, he and his wife, Lucy, would join Palestinian Christian Mubarak Awad, “a crusader for nonviolence and a proponent of Gandhi’s civil disobedience.” Lucy later joined Awad to start the Palestinian Center for the Study of Non-Violence, in Jerusalem.14

Near the end of our conversation, realizing the toll his work and convictions had cost him, I asked him one last question: “What has kept you going?”

“Islam,” he said, “that is, ‘submission to God.’ ”


I went away humbled and grateful for having had the opportunity to visit with him. He asked his bodyguard to drive me back into the city. On the return trip, the bodyguard told stories of the dangers Nusseibeh has faced. He clearly cared very much for his boss and obviously and dearly loved his own wife and children. I exited the SUV, stepping into the bustle and noise of East Jerusalem, wishing more knew of the compassion and humility and self-sacrificial service of the good Muslims I was meeting, and would continue to meet.

Lee C. Camp is Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. This article is an excerpt from Lee’s book Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Brazos Press, 2011), used by permission. Lee is also the host and curator of the Tokens show (


Akpinar, Snjezana. “Hospitality in Islam.” Religion East & West 7 (October 1, 2007): 23–27.

Nusseibeh, Sari, with Anthony David. Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

Hilary of Poitiers. Contra Constantium imperatorem 5, cited in Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of the European Unity (1932; repr., New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 54–55.

1 Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam—and Themselves (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Missio Dei ’s standard copyright does not apply to this article. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group (

2 Snjezana Akpinar, “Hospitality in Islam,” Religion East & West 7 (October 1, 2007): 23.

3 The “Sufis” are a sect of Islam who reject the material order. While this very rejection can and has been critiqued on numerous levels, what is attractive about it is the question that, so far as I can tell, drives it: the question of whether the life of faith is ultimately self-serving or for the sake of one’s love of God.

4 St. Hilary of Poitiers, Contra Constantium imperatorem 5, cited in Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (1932; repr., New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 54–55.

5 Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

6 Ibid., 12.

7 Ibid., 66.

8 Ibid., 65.

9 Ibid., 66.

10 Ibid., 113.

11 Ibid., 114.

12 Ibid., 115.

13 Ibid., 146.

14 Ibid., 179–80.

Posted on

An Interview with Miroslav Volf 

Brad East: The upcoming summer issue of the journal Missio Dei is dedicated to the topic of mission and interfaith dialogue in the Abrahamic family. Given your work in the last few years, I thought we’d focus the conversation1 on Christian-Muslim relations, and then specifically in the setting of Christian missions. So to begin, how did you get interested in this subject in the first place? What led to writing Allah: A Christian Response?2

Miroslav Volf: Well, the immediate occasion was the “Common Word” document,3 the argument that Muslims—learned scholars and leaders—have endorsed that what binds Muslims and Christians is the command to love God and to love neighbor. If that is true, then the more “religious” both Muslims and Christians are, the better their relations will be. But then the question, “Well, are we talking about the same God?” immediately surfaces. The whole initiative, as I saw it, depended on the degree to which we can affirm that in some significant way we worship the same God. The issue of whether we worship the same God has been prominent ever since 9/11. That triggered my interest in the question. But my personal and theological interest in Islam is very long. I was born in a fortress that was built after the Ottoman Turks were driven out from the region; it was built in the beginning of the eighteenth century. All around me are remnants of Islamic culture as well as monuments of struggle against Islam. So Islam was always a point of interest.

BE: Did you know in advance of writing the book what you wanted to say, or was part of this a journey of discovery?

MV: Put it this way: I had a hypothesis. And the hypothesis was given to me when I was a ten-year-old boy and when I, for whatever reason, talked to my father, who was a Pentecostal minister, about whether Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God. (Don’t ask me why.) But my father was quite convinced that we did worship the same God.4 He had some experience with Islam early on in his youth and continued to be interested in the question; and so I think that gave me my hypothesis. The research confirmed the hypothesis.

BE: How did you perceive the range of reactions to the book to be?

MV: The range of reactions was all the way from, “I am persuaded; I used to believe differently, and I am persuaded” (that’s kind of roughly in the middle); to, on the one side, “Why did you have to write this 300-page book arguing for what seems to be a totally obvious answer to this question?”; to, on the opposite side of the spectrum, “I know what you’re trying to say; I don’t believe it; and I’m not even going to open up your book to read it.”

BE: Were you surprised by any responses, whether from Christians or from Muslims?

MV: I was surprised by this response, “I know what I believe and I don’t even want to read what you have written.” And I’ve gotten this response, also, from people who, I know, trust what I do, and admire me as a theologian and person—some of my fellow students when I was a student of theology, with whom I have stayed in touch. No prejudice involved against me in their judgment, just a prejudice about the issue. I realized then what I suppose I should have known all along: that there’s something really visceral about it. I can understand if somebody says, “Oh, there’s this guy that teaches at Yale; who knows whether he takes his Christian faith seriously—trinitarian convictions, christological convictions? For the sake of dialogue with Islam, he’s willing to compromise some convictions just to keep peace between religions.” Reaction like that would be based on a prejudice because that’s not where I am theologically and that’s not the kind of book I have written. But I could possibly understand that. It was hard to understand a viscerally negative reaction to the thesis of people who trusted my work and admired me as a person.

BE: Has your thinking on the issue since the publication of the book changed or developed in any way?

MV: It hasn’t changed significantly. In hindsight, I wish I had addressed in the book the analogy between the Christian relationship to Judaism and the Christian relationship to Islam, on that very issue [of worshiping the same God]. I think that analogy needs to be further explored. I think that it gives the strongest support to the thesis I advocate.

BE: That’s interesting—I hadn’t quite connected the “Common Word” document and, sometime in the last five to ten years,5 Peter Ochs’s coauthored piece in The New York Times“Dabru Emet”],6 on the part of Jews, saying, “We worship the same God as Christians, etc.”7 So it’s interesting that both of those things are happening at the same time.

MV: That’s right. From the Jewish side, this was a radical step, a novel step, and I think a very important one. Throughout the centuries, notwithstanding the fact that many Jews, the majority of Jews, have denied that Christians worshiped the same God as they do, Christians have affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews. Understandably so, because, if you ask Christians, “Who is your God?” the answer is “The God of Abraham, God of Moses, God of . . . and so forth. Hebrew Bible is Christian Old Testament, Christian holy book, therefore, we worship the same God.” But this is a formal argument: “The God of this book is our God; this is the God who is the same one that I worship.” But you can’t leave it at the formal level. You have to ask, “Well, we have trinitarian convictions; they don’t. So how can we then make that claim that Jews worship the same God as we?” Substantive arguments for the claim that Jews worship the same God as Christians will be the arguments for the claim that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. For Muslim objections to the Christian God are actually the same as the Jewish objections.

BE: Turning to more specific questions about missions, evangelism, and so on, your focus in Allah and then A Public Faith8 is, in your words, a matter of “political theology,”9 and so you’re concerned primarily with living peaceably in diverse communities and flourishing in pluralistic societies; but you do also address the practice of Christian witness or evangelism in different ways. So, in Allah, you refer to “a common code of conduct”;10 and elsewhere you give various descriptions or accounts of what this would look like.11 But, in your own words right now, what for you characterizes faithful Christian evangelism?

MV: Christian faith is “a missionary religion.” Christians, both by the internal logic of the faith that they (classically) embrace and by specific injunctions of that faith, are called to bear witness to faith. My sense is that we ought to think of evangelism precisely in those terms, as bearing witness—not converting other people, not making them into Christians, but bearing witness to who God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is, and leaving the encounter between that God and the person to the conscience of the person and to the work of God in their lives. Christian witness goes wrong when it tries, in subtle or explicit ways, to manipulate people into making a decision, and not allowing sufficient freedom for people to make that decision. Or, to put it the other way, the problem is not respecting the fact that it is the Holy Spirit which adds people to the church, and that Christian evangelists and pastors don’t grow churches. At their best, evangelists do what John the Baptist did: they point to Christ; they say, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And “He should increase and I should decrease.”12

BE: Keying in on the conversion piece, would you say that “to convert” is not able to be predicated of Christians because Christians are not able to do that? So therefore they should not try to do it, because inevitably it is coercive, and so unfaithful to faithful Christian evangelism? Do I understand you correctly if I were to say it is appropriate for Christians to bear witness with the hope of conversion? With the hope of God converting the person?

MV: I absolutely think so. I think that Christian witness is predicated on a sense that the faith to which one bears witness is true, or, better, that Christ to whom one bears witness, is the truth. Its core convictions, to use the phrase that my colleague here, Kathy Tanner, uses that “Christ is the key”—to who human beings are and to who God is as well.13 So we hope that people would embrace Christ and rejoice when they do. I would expect that somebody who believes that Muhammad is the prophet, the seal of the prophets, would relate to me in a very similar way. That they would bear witness to what they perceive to be the beauty of their faith, which they would hope for me to discover.

BE: So part of the “code of conduct” in bearing witness to one another, individually and as religious communities, is the posture of being willing to receive from the religious other the way in which we would bear witness to them.

MV: Yes. I believe that the “code of conduct” in evangelism ought to be an explication of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says “in everything you do”—which means also in evangelism—“do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.”14 If I wish to be able to witness to you about my faith with the hope of you embracing that faith, I ought to wish that you have the same freedom, and grant you the same freedom, to witness to me. That to me means according equal respect to you that I except you would accord to me.

BE: In A Public Faith, you recommend practicing what you call “hermeneutical hospitality,”15 in the mutual reading of one another’s sacred texts, and you cite Scriptural Reasoning16 as a model for imitation. You may have already answered this, but just to be explicit about it—distinguishing between formal or even informal interreligious dialogue and mission (or bearing witness, or evangelism), the first question would be: Is it appropriate to distinguish those, or are they not to be distinguished? And then: How would you say that “hermeneutical hospitality” relates to something like an apologetics of persuasion, whereby you are seeking to convince or convert the other? How do those relate? Are they different tasks? Are they not so distinct? What would you say about that?

MV: The task of dialogue and the task of witness are distinct; they have distinct goals and distinct modalities of engagement with the other. But they’re mutually implicated. I think every good witnessing happens in the modality of dialogue, in the modality of openness to the other person, imparting gifts and being willing to receive gifts. Similarly, every proper and successful dialogue is a mode of witness, of an attendant claim: “This is what I believe; this is what I consider to be beautiful, true, good.” Dialogue is always an invitation both to understand the other and to consider convictions of another person as having a claim on my life. I think that’s what’s important about interfaith dialogue, that’s what gives it its urgency, weight, and depth—that the conversation makes a claim on the lives of those involved in it. That’s also, of course, a feature of, say, a conversation about any great, classic text. If I don’t open myself to a classic text making a claim upon my life, I am going to have an impoverished conversation with that text. I think the same is true of interreligious dialogue (which is always a dialogue also about religious texts).

BE: I’m interested in the way that this gets played out, both in the American context and in international settings, and specifically in the US in comparison with majority Muslim nations. For example, the ways in which, say, a Muslim in the US might have contexts where he or she were to feel uncomfortable bearing witness to the Muslim faith, and, say, a missionary context where Christians might feel uncomfortable bearing witness to their faith. I’d be interested to hear you talk about the challenges that you perceive in either context, both for Christians to work on and for Muslims to work on.

MV: Let’s assume that we had in place a “code of conduct” for witnessing, for evangelism, which is to say that both Muslims and Christians agree. You still get into a concrete situation, and people might find it uncomfortable, awkward, even if they want to act according to that “code of conduct.” It’ll depend on what happened two weeks ago, prior to your witness “engagement,” whether some suicide bomb has gone off somewhere, or whether some drone has struck somebody somewhere else. To what degree people would feel comfortable, people would feel open, both to share, to speak openly, as well as to receive. I do think that witness has its own proper settings, and we have to attend to the settings, and not just to the “codes of conduct” for those settings. For witness (as well as for the interfaith dialogue), the quality of the relationships is fundamental, both to the articulation of the message and to the receptivity, to the ability to hear what the other person has articulated.

BE: Specifically in the US context, focusing closer to home, what do you see as the greatest single challenge or set of challenges facing Christians in the US in their relationship to Muslims in general17 and to the global Muslim community?

MV: I’m not sure that I can identify a single most important challenge. But it seems to me that we live in a poisoned environment; that after 9/11, something analogous has happened to our psyche as what happened after World War II when we started fearing communists and were gripped by the “red scare.” In many settings, something like a “green scare” is going on. Which means that there is a posture toward the other, a way of reading them and what they say, that can be perhaps described as a kind of hermeneutics of—uncharity. Or hermeneutics of a certain kind of suspicion.

BE: A different kind of hermeneutics of suspicion.

MV: Yes, of radical suspicion about motives. And this isn’t serving us well. Sometimes we Christians end up bearing false witness with our words and deeds. We both twist our own theological positions and distort our practices by failing to follow Jesus in regard to those whom we deem to be our enemies. Such stance has impact on theological reflection, for instance, around the issue of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Here is a good example. Muslims claim that God doesn’t have an associate. In response, some Christians say, “See, they deny the doctrine of the Trinity! Jesus Christ is an associate! We Christians are different than they are!” This is, from an orthodox Christian perspective, obviously a heresy; but they feel that they must be different than Muslims, and so they find themselves learning theology, wrong theology, from the Muslim critique of Christianity! Instead, they should step back and say, “I don’t need to affirm what they deny with regard to my convictions. For in fact what they deny—that God has an associate—is not what Christian faith teaches. I’ll affirm what the Christian faith affirms, what the great teachers of that faith have affirmed through centuries.” One of the things all great teachers absolutely reject is that the Son, or the second person of the Trinity, is an associate of God, of God the Father.

So that’s how enmity sometimes distorts Christian theological reflection. As to the Christian practice, an essential element of the Christian way of life is love of the enemy. Christians who think of Muslims as their enemies, often bristle at the idea that they should love them, really practically love them. If you deny the love of enemy, in general or particular cases, you un-Christian Christianity. It’s so fundamental to the character of the Christian faith.

BE: Along that line, your book, the book you edited,18 interviews like this, and other essays I’m sure,19 contribute to an intellectual response to these challenges that are continuing to face Christians in particular and societies in general. Who else do you see doing good or admirable work, or work that you would commend to others, on these issues? Whether it’s scholars, Christians, Muslims, theologians, or people more on the ground?

MV: When I talk and speak, especially immediately after the book Allah was published, I would often have four or five people come to me and talk to me: “This is the circle that we have, Muslims and Christians, we are gathering; how can you help us? Tell us, what do we do?” So there is quite a bit of engagement with the other going on at a variety of levels and I think that scholarly engagement of the type that I was involved in, or interfaith dialogue at the level of international leadership of Christian communities or in Islam—that’s just one level, one aspect of this.

A lot of good work is happening associated with the Building Bridges Seminar which was going on for 10 years under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury and now has moved to Georgetown University. I think Scriptural Reasoning (associated with David Ford, Peter Ochs, and Aref Nayed) as a method of engagement is extraordinarily fruitful, and it’s fruitful because it doesn’t call into question the identities of the interlocutors, and that I think is very important in these discussions. Nobody should have a sense that one is selling out their faith, or that some kind of a compromise is being reached for the sake of peace. That would be counterproductive, short term and long term. Different church initiatives are taking place in this country: I think of people like Rick Love20 or Bob Roberts.21 I may not always agree with every aspect of what they pursue, but I think those are very useful endeavors.

BE: At the Christian Scholars’ Conference in Nashville last June, you were on a panel convened by John Barton, who is the guest editor of this issue of the journal, on the topic of Abrahamic religious traditions and their reconciliation. To paraphrase—and correct me if I don’t get this right—on the panel you said you were less interested in trying to nail down the “uniqueness” of Christianity, whatever differentiates it from other religious traditions, and more interested in discovering the central importance of shared commonalities which are embraced by the lordship of Jesus. I’d be interested for you to expand on what you meant by that, but obviously correct me if I got that in any way wrong.

MV: I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but the thrust of it is quite right. I’m not interested in the uniqueness of the Christian faith. I’m interested in faithfulness to Christ. Whatever is faithful to Christ is good. Whether what is faithful to Christ is also unique, that’s irrelevant. Not just irrelevant: in fact, the less unique the Christian faith is—provided you are faithful—on the whole the better it is. The reason for that being, that then the other person is closer to truth. The more they share with you, if Christ is the truth and you are faithful to Christ, the closer to truth they are. Christians should have zero interest in uniqueness, and all interest in faithfulness. Presumably around the throne of God in the world to come there’s not going to be any unique religious convictions. Because everybody will have embraced the full truth about the Lamb and the one who sits on the throne nobody will hold to unique theological views. I think therefore that we should concentrate on the center of faith, on Christ, and hope that other people will find this attractive, true. To the extent they do, we rejoice; to the extent they don’t, we patiently wait, and hope.

BE: So if I understand you correctly, it’s less a positive claim—certainly not that there is nothing unique about Christianity, or even that there’s little unique about it—but rather that concentrating energy and focus on making absolutely clear all the unique things about the Christian faith, is just not a very helpful endeavor. That’s not where the energy should be put.

MV: Yes. And more. Some Christians seem to take great pride in their uniqueness and therefore seem happy to act, “the more unique we are, the better it is.”

BE: That that equation doesn’t work.

MV: We often celebrate uniqueness, and we emphasize the difference. I find that posture quite inappropriate and unnecessary. The extreme case is what Origen reports about Celsus’s critique of Christians, who said they’re so obsessed with being different, wanting to be different, that if the whole world became Christian, there’d be something else!22 Difference means demarcation, and demarcation means here pushing away. Again, our interest should be faithfulness; uniqueness will take care of itself, the difference will take care of itself, if you are faithful.

BE: As a follow-up to that, do you think that implicit Christian claims to uniqueness, say, specifically the figure and person of Christ—

MV: So you ask me, “Are there unique things about Christian faith?” Absolutely there are unique things. “Are there some really important things that are unique?” Absolutely. Trinity, divinity of Christ, death of Christ for the ungodly—they are all unique.

BE: And so what role do those play—given the account you just gave, about the way that they should come to the surface, namely, indirectly or in the train of what we should be focusing on, namely faithfulness to Christ—what role do they have, either in interreligious dialogue or in the church’s missionary tasks? Meaning, for example, interreligious dialogue between Christian and Muslim: Is what you’re saying that, say, a Christian and Muslim talking should focus on what is shared, that that should be what is the primary focus of interest?

MV: I don’t think that we should concentrate only on what is shared, because that would be to make the opposite mistake. I think we should focus on what is central.

BE: Whether that be unique or not.

MV: If it’s unique, we’ll deal with it as unique. If it’s shared, we’ll deal with it as shared. But we ought not to concentrate either on difference or on similarity; we ought to concentrate on the central claims of the faith, central claims of a particular text, and parse it out.

BE: So you’re critiquing and proposing a different criterion for what is important. Meaning, you were talking about Christians a second ago who think the criterion for how we should relate ourselves to Muslims or religious others is what makes us different. But what you’re saying is, the criterion is what we think matters most. Whether that is unique or common to others.

MV: Right, a different way of defining ourselves and a different way of determining relation to others. Obsession with uniqueness is a sign of insecurity. “I want to assert something special that I have, affirm my specialness, or specialness of my faith.” We should have no stake in that. What we need to do is affirm the glory and the beauty and the truth of who Jesus Christ is. Ours is a positive message. Obviously, when we affirm something we implicitly negate the opposite. Omnis determinatio est negatio. There is no way to avoid negation, to erase boundaries. And there is no need to do so either. Our basic posture is that of attachment to Christ, not of rejection of others.

BE: A final set of issues or questions, returning to Allah, which we discussed at the beginning—specifically the claim that you argue for and defend, namely that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I’m interested, not in the claim itself, but in the reasons for making it. I have some quotes I can refer to,23 but at times in the book it feels as if the concern is as much pragmatic as anything; and you push back, you anticipate that critique, and you say that what you’re interested in is the truth, the truth theologically understood. But at times the rhetoric sounds like: If Christians and Muslims did worship different gods, or did not have a common God, it would be effectively impossible for them to live at peace with one another, or to have public debate on issues. Do you feel that strongly? Is that a misreading? What role does the pragmatic approach, what it accomplishes, play in trying to understand this question?

MV: Well, I think my first task as a theologian is to be faithful, not to achieve this or that socially beneficial outcome. But I also think that we need to explore what effects faithfulness or lack of it has on relations with other people; that tells you what’s at stake in the world in the theological discussion we are having. This is especially so if one is doing political theology, rather than simply dogmatic theology. Then the kind of behavioral consequences of faithfulness, or, more precisely, the practice side of faithful convictions matters. The Christian faith comes in a package. You don’t simply have ideas from which consequences follow, so you figure out the truth completely unrelated to the ways of living in the world. I think Christian faith is about living in the world, and Christian convictions as true convictions are modalities of living in the world already. Reflecting on effects of Christian convictions is an important part of reflecting about faithful Christian way of living in the world.

Is this a pragmatic argument, a functionalist argument, in the sense of saying, “I need to achieve a certain goal, I need faith to function in a certain way, so I’ll construct it to be a certain way”? Absolutely not. Because such functionalizing of the Christian faith would be unfaithful, would be to make God serve your ends, instead of you aligning your thinking and life more generally with God’s and serving God’s ends.

BE: As a concluding question, are you doing any further work in this area right now, or in the future? If you’re not—for example I know you’re doing work on globalization—how do you see other work you’re doing, or anticipate doing, relating to some of these issues?

MV: My next projects are on God and human flourishing, and for that I do believe that I need interlocutors on the religious side of things and, on the other hand, on the more secular side of things. So Islam is continuing to be an interlocutor; not a major focus of research, but an interlocutor. In the book on which I am working right now about faith and globalization, I ask two questions, “What is the relationship between faiths and globalization, and what is the relationship of faiths among themselves?” It’s a kind of risky and delicate endeavor, because you are making suggestions from your own perspective—in my case, obviously, Christian perspective—about what other faiths ought to do with regard to globalization and how they ought to relate to one another. But I think that’s the only way we can actually deal with the question. It’s a very important question, and the only way to do it is through a particular lens, rather than trying to do the impossible thing and view things from nowhere in particular. In this project the question of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, obviously plays a significant role.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

Brad East is a PhD student in Theology in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.

1 I conducted this interview in person on February 21, 2013. The following is a transcription of the audio recording of the conversation, edited for clarity and meaning with the approval of Prof. Volf, though I have kept certain breaks and interruptions to maintain the give-and-take of the exchange.

2 Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

3 The letter was published on October 13, 2007; the text, along with resources concerning signatories, recipients, events, initiatives, publications, responses, and so on, is available online: See also the subsequent volume: Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, Melissa Yarrington, eds., A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); there the letter is summarized in this way: it “was launched . . . initially as an open letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals . . . to the leaders of the Christian churches and denominations of the entire world, including His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. In essence it proposed, based on verses from the Holy Qur’an and the Holy Bible, that Islam and Christianity share, at their core, the twin ‘golden’ commandments of the paramount importance of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Based on this joint common ground, it called for peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims worldwide” (3).

4 The dedication at the beginning of the book reads: “To my father, a Pentecostal minister who admired Muslims and taught me as a boy that they worship the same God we do.”

5 It was September 10, 2000.

6 For the text, at the conclusion of Jewish and Christian theologians’ responses to and discussion of it, see Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, ed., Jews and Christians: People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 179–82. See also the book that followed on the heels of the statement: Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, Michael A. Signer, eds., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).

7 It would have been more precise for me to paraphrase: Christians worship the same God as Jews, that is, the God of Israel. The actual theses that, with explication, comprise the statement are as follows: “Jews and Christians worship the same God. . . . Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible (what Jews call ‘Tanakh’ and Christians call the ‘Old Testament’). . . . Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel. . . . Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah. . . . Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. . . . The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture. . . . A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice. . . . Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace” (Jews and Christians, 179–81; emphasis removed).

8 Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011).

9 Volf, Allah, 13.

10 Ibid., 211.

11 See, e.g., ibid., 15: “All people have the right to witness about their faith; curtailing that right in any way is an assault on human dignity.” See also Chapter 6, “Sharing Wisdom,” in Volf, A Public Faith, 99–117, which is dedicated to this topic. Finally, see the essay “Soft Difference: Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” in Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scripture for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 65–90, for an exegetical and theological consideration of some of the larger issues in play. He offers there his own concise definition: “Mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. . . . To be a Christian means to live one’s own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others” (84–85).

12 See John 1:29; 3:30.

13 See Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

14 The reference is to Matthew 7:12; see the fuller discussion in Volf, Allah, 211–13.

15 Volf, A Public Faith, 136.

16 See David Ford and C.C. Pecknold, eds., The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).

17 I.e., their neighbors, coworkers, etc.

18A Common Word.

19 See, e.g., Miroslav Volf, “God, Hope, and Human Flourishing,” in Covenant and Hope: Christian and Jewish Reflections, ed. Robert W. Jenson and Eugene B. Korn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 191–208. Chapter 4, “Human Flourishing,” in A Public Faith, 55–74, is a different form of this essay.

20 Further information is available at his personal website:

21 See Bob Roberts, Jr., Bold as Love: What Can Happen When We See People the Way God Does (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012). See also and

22 See Origen, Contra Celsum.

23 Cf. the following statements made by Volf in Allah: “The claim that Muslims and Christians worship radically different deities is good for fighting, but not for living together peacefully” (8); “Muslims and Christians will be able to live in peace with one another only if (1) the identities of each religious group are respected and given room for free expression, and (2) there are significant overlaps in the ultimate values that orient the lives of people in these communities. These two conditions will be met only if . . . Muslims and Christians . . . turn out to have ‘a common God’ ” (8–9, emphasis added); “If Muslims and Christians worshiped different Gods, they would have different and largely opposing ultimate values, and their ability to live together in the same state and in the same globalized world would be diminished significantly” (248).

Posted on

An Interview with Lynne Hybels

Sara Barton: Several months ago, I heard that Lynne Hybels would be speaking at a local community church where I live in Michigan. I knew of Hybels as co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church and author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World, but she was not scheduled to speak about church growth or women’s issues. She was, instead, slated to speak about her ministry engagement in the Holy Land. I was immediately intrigued that Hybels had the courage to undertake not only the ministry itself but also public discussion of a topic so fraught with explosive realities.

Hybels’s speech lasted about one hour and was carefully crafted to challenge an American Christian audience to think anew about a topic we might think we already know. Her presentation represented not only her ability to speak; it represented her ability to listen. She had obviously listened, hour upon hour, to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Israeli Jews, Christian Zionists, and American politicians. She found a way to honor all the groups during her speech, and her challenge to listeners has stayed with me. Because she brought it to my attention, I have joined Lynne Hybels in prayer for the Holy Land, that the acts of violent people will be thwarted, that people committed to nonviolence will be protected, that reconcilers will be sustained as they seek friendship among former enemies, and that politicians involved will be true moral leaders.

I was blessed to share breakfast with Lynne the next morning, where I found her enthusiasm for peace to be contagious. I am thankful she agreed to this interview for Missio Dei.

SB: Lynne, thank you for your ministry of engagement in the Holy Land. Can you provide our readers with a summary of your work over the past several years?

Lynne Hybels: I’ve travelled repeatedly to Israel and Palestine, listening to and learning from Israelis and Palestinians, from Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who are committed to relationship, reconciliation, and the freedom and dignity of all the people in the Holy Land. My desire is to stand in solidarity with the peacemakers, to tell their stories, and to give more Americans an opportunity to learn from them.

SB: Some critics have labeled you a Palestinianist and leveled charges that you work against Christian Zionism. How do you answer these charges?

LH: I am a Zionist to the extent that I wholeheartedly support a homeland for the Jewish people where they can live in peace and security, free from the threat of suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza. I am a Palestinianist to the extent that I wholeheartedly support freedom, human rights, and self-determination for the Palestinian people. I hold to a theology of the kingdom of God that, I believe, leaves theological and geographical space for Jews and Arabs to live as neighbors in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

SB: Scripture calls Christians to seek peace. Is peace possible in the Holy Land?

LH: In the Holy Land I’ve met Christians, Muslims, and Jews (both secular and religious) who are working for peace. In whatever I say or do I want to honor their work and their commitment. As a Christian, of course, I believe followers of Jesus are uniquely called and empowered to be peacemakers. Consequently, I see the shrinking of the Christian community in the Holy Land as a great threat to peace, and the active encouragement of Christians in the Holy Land as a significant means of supporting peace.

SB: How do our shared Abrahamic histories provide resources for the peace process? Reflect on the interfaith dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

LH: At various times, each of the three Abrahamic faiths has been co-opted by extremists who support separation, hostility, violence, and/or death. However, there is a truer manifestation (in my opinion) of each faith that calls for respect for the others. I do not believe that all religions are created equal; I believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Merciful One, the fulfillment of everything. So, I’m not suggesting that the differences between religions don’t matter. However, each of the three Abrahamic faiths acknowledges the image of God in every human being, despite our differences in culture, race, or religion, which is an extremely important belief to share. I also believe that when we build relationships of respect and friendship between people of different faiths we create space in which God can work out God’s purposes, including peace.

SB: As an Evangelical, how have your experiences affected your views on evangelism and Christian mission?

LH: I am saddened when we Christians talk about “reaching people for Christ” when we don’t even know those people. We think it’s enough to know what we believe and to boldly speak it, though we sometimes wonder why nobody seems to be listening. What might happen if we sat and listened and became friends and shared not just “our faith” but our lives with others? How might God work in our midst?

SB: How can American Christians engage in dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian conflict and simultaneously honor the dignity of both Jews and Palestinians in our conversations?

LH: First, we need to genuinely believe in the dignity of both Jews and Palestinians. I don’t think that’s generally true for American Christians. It wasn’t true for me.

During my early engagement in the Holy Land, my sympathies and my conversation shifted depending on what part of history or current events I was studying. Was I focused on Holocaust studies? Then I would speak of the incomprehensible suffering of the Jews, and I would tend to place the white hats on their heads. Was I walking through the rubble of an Arab village destroyed in 1948 or an Arab home demolished last year? Then I would sympathize with the displaced Palestinians, and I would tend to put the white hats on their heads. Was I focused on the horror of Palestinian violence during the Second Intifada? Then I would mourn the losses of the Jews. Was I focused on the unrelenting oppressiveness of the Israeli military occupation? Then I would grieve the injustices of Palestinian daily life.

Only when I can hold in tension both these realities, that two peoples are suffering in different ways, can I speak honestly about the conflict while honoring both Jews and Arabs.

Sara Gaston Barton is an assistant professor of religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. She is married to John and they have two children, Nate (20) and Brynn (17). The Barton family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. Sara is currently working toward a Doctor of Ministry at Lipscomb University and is the author of A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2012).

Posted on

‘To Boldly Go’: Why Cross-Cultural Missionaries Should Read Science Fiction

The weary traveler arrives by aircraft, landing on the outskirts of a bustling metropolis. While in some ways this city reminds him of home, he is disoriented by the new language and strange clothing. People stop and stare at him, touching his hair and skin. He feels unsettled, wondering how he will be able to fit in and how he can find people who can help him accomplish his mission.

Another voyager awakens in what seems to be a different age. She seems to have traveled back in time, as the people surrounding her use antique tools and weapons. They cook over open fires and prepare foods with strange names and smells. She is intimidated, wondering how she’ll be able to survive in this new environment.

The two plot summaries detailed above could describe the latest movie releases in the science fiction genre, or they could be descriptions of the challenges facing cross-cultural missionaries. There are a number of similarities between frontier mission work and science fiction stories; from encountering new cultures, to learning how to live in alien environments, to the significant potential for misunderstanding and unintended consequences, there is much they have in common. Even the language that describes them is similar: exploratory ventures to other worlds are called—space missions.

My family and I have been serving in northern Mozambique for almost ten years now, and every time I read a work of science fiction I am surprised at how much the characters’ challenges and emotions resonate with me. These stories often have unexpected applications to our work and context. What surprises me in talking to colleagues and friends on the field is how few of us cross-cultural missionaries read science fiction. While I am certainly not an authority on the genre, I believe it would be profitable for missionaries to explore science fiction.

The Power of Fiction in Formation

Stories can effectively engage readers with difficult ideas and concepts. Jesus used narratives of everyday life in order to expand his hearers’ imaginations and teach them about life in the kingdom of God. As a master storyteller, he created fictions that resonated with members of an agricultural society and continue to touch us today even though time and culture separate us greatly from that society. Whether it is Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, or even Tolkien’s tale about Frodo and the Ring, good stories have the power to shape us.

Fiction, by its very nature, has the ability to construct safe places for personal reflection. One science fiction author notes that “fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.”1 As we dive into a fictional world that draws our attention away from ourselves, we are more apt to lower our defenses and make connections back to our own lives.

Science fiction stories resonate particularly with cross-cultural missions, because they both often deal with the unknown and unfamiliar. The genre uses many of the same raw elements found in Christian missions and creates realms beyond us and our situations—places where we can get some distance from our own contexts, where hopefully we may find some new light to shine on our lives.

Themes from Science Fiction that Resonate in Cross-Cultural Missions

How, specifically, can science fiction illuminate aspects of a missionary’s life and work? In reading works of science fiction I have come across a number of themes that resonate with our experiences in cross-cultural missions. These books are not necessarily written from a Christian perspective, and the reader may find some objectionable content or language, but I believe they are still very worthwhile. So, at the risk of spoiling some plot points, I will articulate nine instructive themes from example works of science fiction.

1. Encounters with alien environments have a great possibility for misunderstanding and unintended consequences.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow tells the story of Father Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat. This tragic story deals primarily with the unintended consequences of mission, one of those being the ruining of the missionary. As the story progresses, the reader realizes just how little the characters understood the host culture and the ways their incorrect interpretations had heartbreaking consequences. Russell’s book is a helpful reminder of how significant differences in language and culture can blind us to what is really happening around us.

2. Mission is inherently risky and painful.

If The Sparrow is a book about mission failure, then its sequel, Children of God, tells the story of Father Sandoz’s redemption. Father Sandoz has experienced some truly horrible things, and he is angry with a God who “abandoned” him. He has renounced the priesthood and has begun to move on with his life when he is abducted and taken back to the alien planet. We learn more about the unintended consequences, both good and bad, of the first mission to Rakhat. This book reveals more about Sandoz’s personal journey as he struggles to see God in the midst of tragedy. A major theme in this work is forgiveness as Sandoz comes to the realization that holding onto his anger at God or the people who wronged him will do him no good. He recognizes that the mission has ruined him, but still finds that he has an important part to play in the story.

These two books can challenge cross-cultural missionaries with the fact that, in spite of our best intentions, we or those we love may be ruined because of our decision to go. We must wrestle with the real risks and rewards of following the call to a “new world.” And in accepting the risks and pain inherent in mission we must prepare ourselves to deal with feelings of abandonment.

3. The mission team can be a major source of joy—and conflict.

In Russell’s novels (The Sparrow and Children of God) we also learn about mission team dynamics as the main characters are forced to work together in a dangerous and unfamiliar environment. The teams struggle with isolation, frustration with each other’s weaknesses and strengths, and the place of leadership on a mission team. While the team that Sandoz is a part of in the first book has great rapport, they ultimately fail in their mission. In Children of God, though, Sandoz is part of a severely dysfunctional team, yet, they achieve some success in the end despite the best efforts of certain team members to sabotage the endeavor.

In these books we see how these fictional mission teams function for good and bad. Cross-cultural missionaries may relate easily with Sandoz and the way that so many of his moments of both deepest happiness and greatest frustration stemmed from his relationships with teammates.

4. The mission can be endangered by going alone.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin tells the story of a solitary emissary from a galactic network of planets who travels to the frigid world of Winter. The people of this alien planet do not have one specific gender. Their maleness or femaleness changes as part of a monthly cycle. This characteristic shapes Winter’s language and culture and the story dives into the anthropology in a fascinating way. The lone emissary struggles to accomplish his mission as he wrestles with the similarities and differences between Winter’s culture and his own.

At a number of points in this book the main character is at a loss for what to do and struggles without a partner in this endeavor. The main character’s isolation leads to miscomprehension, which endangers him, the mission, and his alien friends. This story shows the real value of having colleagues to help interpret the “alien” environment.

5. Mission involves equipping people to engage a reality that we ourselves may not fully understand.

In Orson Scott Card’s books, Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, humanity lives in fear of another alien attack. These books tell the same story from the perspectives of two central characters, Ender and Bean, children who have been selected by the world government for military training. We follow their journeys through Battle School, where they prepare for an eventual conflict with the alien enemy. Ender and Bean, while both extremely capable, are driven by different forces, and their teachers use what they know about their personalities (Ender’s empathy and Bean’s intelligence) to manipulate their environments in order to facilitate their training.

A primary task of Christian missions is to develop followers of Christ from within that host culture. The surprising ending of this story led me to reflect on cross-cultural discipleship and training for ministry. The teachers at the Battle School were training soldiers to do something that the teachers themselves were unable to do. This book raises important questions about how a person from a different culture can equip people for service to their own home culture: specifically, how can cross-cultural missionaries develop leaders with integrity for a context that missionaries themselves cannot fully understand? How soon should they share difficult truths with new disciples? And how can they train leaders to solve currently unforeseen problems? While Christian formation certainly is not solely dependent on human initiative and planning, these are essential questions that missionaries need to wrestle with as we train followers of Jesus in a foreign context.

6. Going on mission changes us, but the people we leave behind will inevitably change as well.

In Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card’s sequel to Ender’s Game, we see Ender hopping through the galaxy alongside his capable sister, Valentine. Valentine’s marriage and pregnancy, though, mean that she will stay behind as Ender moves on to fulfill his mission on other worlds. Their conversations bring out the tensions that are often felt in families where one member leaves home to go on mission in a far-away context. Later in the book Ender has to accept the fact that his sister has matured and changed in his absence. This theme is important to consider. Cross-cultural missionaries cannot expect family members and relationships back home to be frozen in time. While we are being shaped by new “worlds,” our friends and family are growing and changing as well.

7. The host culture is not static.

One thing that I appreciated about Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation is the way he used science fiction as a way to tell a story about the development of a society. Asimov’s story spans hundreds of years and dozens of characters as it relates the way political, religious, and economic forces mold a culture over time.

New Christian missionaries must do the important work of studying their host culture. But, there is a danger that these students of culture (fresh off the plane, notebook in hand, language flashcards in back pocket) may imagine themselves studying a civilization that is fixed. It is extremely important to remember that, especially in this increasingly urbanized and technologically infused world we live in, cultures change. Asimov’s novel reminds us that due to a number of forces, both seen and unseen, society has changed, is changing, and will change again.

8. In mission we will meet evil in forms both familiar and unfamiliar.

Some of the best science fiction to deal directly with the problem of evil comes from authors with an explicitly Christian perspective. C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series have been some of my favorites since childhood. In these books the main characters travel to new worlds where they must wrestle with the powers of evil. Interestingly, while Lewis portrays the evil in other worlds as being connected with or having origins in the evil at home on earth, L’Engle’s stories portray our home world as “a bulwark against evil, and the battle is fought on other worlds.”2

As the characters in Lewis’s and L’Engle’s stories do battle with evil, their position as aliens makes them all the more vulnerable. At times the evil reveals itself in familiar ways, and in other cases evil reveals itself in unexpected forms. As cross-cultural missionaries we must recognize the evil that exists in both our host cultures and our home cultures. And we must be aware that evil may take totally unfamiliar forms in our host cultures.

9. Beware the messiah complex.

Now we turn to a danger of reading science fiction. Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune is an excellent example “of the most frequent science fiction concept of the messiah—a human being more advanced than those around him or her, a ‘man of the future’ who pulls society into a new age.”3

In this story a young boy is brought to a new planet by loving parents, and after dealing with tragedy he is able to fulfill his destiny as the messiah of a desert people.

In reading science fiction we must not let the “messiah complex” be the narrative that we adopt for ourselves. Depending on the context in which one is serving, we may be tempted to put ourselves in the role of the messiah. As people gravitate towards us because of wealth, nationality, or influence we may be drawn into patterns of behavior more fitting to a patron or savior. Missionaries must resist this tendency. Thankfully the people we serve already have a Messiah, and a good and all-sufficient one at that! So, in reading and applying science fiction to our lives we must be careful about the characters we most identify with.


My hope is that I have piqued the curiosity of missionaries, especially cross-cultural ones. The genre of science fiction is a treasure chest of resources for those who cross new frontiers. My belief is that those of us called to “boldly go” on mission can benefit from these narratives as they shape our imaginations and aid us in effectively serving the people of these new “worlds.”

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three girls live in Montepuez, Mozambique. Alan has an MDiv from the Harding School of Theology. The Howells have lived in Mozambique since 2003 as part of a team serving among the Makua-Metto people. They blog about life and ministry in Africa at

1 Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: Tor Science Fiction, 1994), xxv.

2 Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 105.

3 Ibid., 143.

Posted on

Review of Carl Rasche, Globo-Christ: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn

Carl Raschke. GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn. Church and Postmodern Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 176pp. $19.80.

Evangelicalism, with which I often futilely resist being identified, is in dire need of women and men dedicated to working in academia for the sake of the church. Academic writing and publishing, in both mainline and evangelical streams, tends to serve the academy primarily and the church secondarily. I applaud Carl Raschke for his commitment in GloboChrist to strengthening, challenging, and moving the church to become the faith community of God’s intent. Raschke continues, in the tradition of the rabbis, to ask really good questions—questions we cannot ignore, if we are serious about our task of leading in the twenty-first century. Because, we know, at a deep level, that questions are more important than answers.

Specifically, I found Raschke’s treatments of current attitudes towards economics, politics, globalism, and religion to move us beyond the rigidity of fundamentalism in conservative communities of faith as well as the lackluster, laissez-faire thinking in liberal Christian circles. His voice is welcome and fresh.

Raschke’s is a prophetic voice that demonstrates one does not have to sacrifice intellectual integrity for the sake of getting the church’s attention. The clearest example of this in the book is found within the “4 R’s principal” elaborated throughout chapter five (though I usually have an allergy to such formulas—this formula was helpful). Raschke suggests that local churches, serving a GloboChrist (from Colossians 1), will exhibit four core values: (1) radical (back to the root), (2) relational (people-centered), (3) revelatory (capturing the human imagination for God’s work), and (4) rhizomic (like Kudzu in the American South, a network/band of kingdom-minded communities).

I also appreciate the subversive way Raschke names, exposes, and defeats the many American Jesuses, which are mere caricatures of the Jesus found in the canonical Gospels. He does this by introducing the idea that every church/movement faces the daunting task of “indigenizing” the Jesus story. Moreover, christology (Jesus), eschatology (end things), soteriology (cross and resurrection), and missiology (our purpose) too often get pimped by American consumerism and denominational politics. Raschke challenges readers to develop a larger (and paradoxically smaller or local) view of Jesus at work in the world. This happens through indigenization: “universal concepts are intelligible only if they are understood in light of specific circumstances. Meaning or signification is located in the singularity of an event” (39). This is the hard work each generation faces.

As stimulating and helpful as this book is, I have one significant objection to Raschke’s epistemological assumptions. While so much of his treatment of globalism, politics, economics, and religion challenges both the right and left (in America and the West) in provocative ways, I found his ultimate conclusions regarding Islam to be rather predictable and, predictably, neo-evangelical. That is, Raschke continues to perpetuate the myths and biases that fuel so much of the animosity of Christians in the West versus Muslims throughout the world. For instance, almost all of his citations regarding contemporary Islamic thought betray the fact that Raschke believes Islam to be a religion inherently comprised of violence, power, control—a religion primarily concentrated among Middle Eastern Arab-speaking men. For instance, Raschke claims, “it has been said that if ‘fundamentalism’ means the attention and strict adherence to all the minutiae of the Qur’an, then all Muslims by definition are fundamentalists” (110).

Raschke sees the unavoidable clash of civilizations and revelations as necessarily creating a scenario in which Christianity will have to win out over and against Islam. My straight-forward suspicion is that Raschke, while clearly important, brilliant, and prophetic, has yet to engage Muslims in personal relationships. If he had done so, his tendency toward narrow categorizations of Muslims as “Middle Easterners” who operate as “fundamentalists” in every area of their life would have been blown up long ago. I find it strikingly ironic that although Raschke argues for a stronger claim of relational faith, when he arrives at Islam there are no people, no stories, no experiences, and no faces. It appears to be all esoteric; he does not draw upon shared-life, embodied moments. If there was ever a moment in the book in which the reader needed and deserved a real tangible expression of a very complicated subject (Christianity and Islam)—Raschke had such a moment and missed it as he was building his case for the overall situation and the necessary Christian response.

The truth is, however, that Islam is just as global as Christianity. The majority of Muslims in the world live outside the Middle East, do not speak Arabic, and are not of the radical ilk insinuated in chapters four and five. While formidable and dangerous, Islamism (radical Islam) does not constitute the whole of a faith of over one billion people. Islam is just as complicated and varied as Christianity.

Islam is not the enemy, terrorists are. And terrorism is the result of the perfect storm of economic depravity, fundamentalist notions of revelation and eschatology, and the truth that Western nations’ attempts to expand and colonize have left us in a precarious global situation, as Raschke argues but then falls woefully short in providing a framework for moving forward. He also fails to name clearly the sins of Christianity while he is so comfortable naming the sins, injustices, and problems within Islam. He generally refers to a weak Western Christianity but fails to name and recognize the history of violence by Westerners/Christians towards Muslims. We are where we are because we have all (Muslims and Christians) sinned and fallen short of the glory of the one true God.

And here, I think the Anabaptist voice is much truer to the trajectory of the Gospel accounts of Jesus than are the other Protestant appropriations of a Jesus who sought not to be savvy, sophisticated, and overly intellectual in his approach to the enemies of his day (Samaritans, Romans, religious leaders). Rather, Jesus sought to go the distance, to love all the way, even unto death. If the powerful global church has an eschatology worth touting, it is the eschatology of Revelation in which Jesus (and the church, his faithful band of martyrs/witnesses) is not the powerful lion after all. Rather, Jesus is revealed as the unexpected lamb, whose blood is his own. His sacrifice becomes the liberating moment in human history in which all the powers of death—and all death’s friends—are exposed for the hucksters they have always been. Raschke rightfully and powerfully states: “The kind of radical, relational, and incarnational Christian witness that a postmodernized Great Commission entails would have the ferocity of the jihad and paradoxically also the love for the lost that Jesus demonstrated” (131). I am simply astounded he gives the reader no tangible pictures or embodied narratives of what this incarnational approach looks like. For incarnational to stay esoteric is antithetical to the very nature of incarnation.

A few years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I preached in my home congregation in Nashville on the good news that God has overcome the world through sacrificial love, not military power. I then boarded a plane via Southwest and flew to LAX in order to speak to a group of college students at Pepperdine University. Both groups, while vastly different in many ways, left me with this striking feeling: people—whether Christians in Nashville or Christians on the West Coast—are hungry for answers and stories bigger than fear, anxiety, panic, stereotype. Why? Because all of the former are simply byproducts of death; and people—whether spiritual or not—are drawn to life, hope, and the sense that “there has to be more than this.” Death doesn’t need to be the last word.

Christianity (2.5 billion) and Islam (1.3 billion) comprise nearly half of the world’s population. We all have stake, religious or not, in the condition of the relationship between the two. The answer cannot simply be, “Let’s kill them and let God sort it out” or “Let’s convert them all.” There may be times for nation-states to wage war. There may be times for conversion (though, if you are not willing to consider Islam, do you have the right to ask a Muslim to consider the Jesus Way?).

Why is it that Raschke calls us to move beyond our fear and paranoia as we follow the GloboChrist into the world only then to bow to fear, reductionism, and anxiety when it comes to Islam—arguably the single most important practical theological issue of our time?

The test of Christianity for the remainder of this century will be, as it was the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century, whether or not we can make good on the inherent biblical notion that Christianity, with its central message about the kingdom of God in the image of Jesus, have been unleashed in the world.

Josh Graves

Lead Minister

Otter Creek Church

Nashville, Tennessee, USA