Fundamentalists need not apply…

‘Fundalmentalist’ is a word so over-used and abused in modern parlance that one could almost wish it banned from the English language. Every year the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognizes new words and phrases and adds them to the ever-growing compendium of words making up the English language. Perhaps there should also be a process for removing words that have become so misused that they only serve to distort our communal dialogue.

All of this to say that for the purpose of this blog post I will use the term ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern sense and not in it’s original meaning. Historically the word has its origin in a  movement in the early 20th century that sought to identify the key beliefs of Christianity that could not be dispensed with without abandoning the faith altogether. It was a response to a post-enlightenment movement in the church which felt that all, or most all, of the supernatural elements of the Christian faith must be abandoned in the light of a modern understanding of the world.

In modern usage the word has come to signify a group of people who have become so ideologically committed to their beliefs that they are unable to entertain the slightest possibility that those beliefs may be in need of refinement; if not complete abandonment. In addition to their unwavering devotion to their own understanding of the world, they become condescending, intolerant, and in some cases, violent toward those who don’t share their particular point of view. So the term, in modern usage, describes behaviour more than it does beliefs; although the two are connected.

All worldviews are prone to the virus of fundamentalism and religious worldviews are particularly vulnerable. This is why fundamentalists are to be found in every religion and ideological group. Most people are aware of Christian fundamentalists, but increasingly the focus has shifted to their Islamist counterparts. There is, however, no lack of atheist, communist, humanist, capitalist, and secularist fundamentalists as well. They may not be as noticeable, but this is only because they have better press agents. When an atheist such as Richard Dawkins states that his fellow atheists should be known as the ‘brights’ the stench of fundamentalism is all too apparent.

Throughout Christian history there has been a consistent effort to turn the good news of Jesus Christ into the very bad news of a fundamentalist religion that denigrates outsiders and seeks to construct a system of dogma that leaves little room for dialogue.

What is so ironic about this situation is that God did not see fit to provide such a rulebook for the nascent Christian movement. Jesus left us no written record and after He told the disciples that He was going away He didn’t say, ‘It’s okay, I will send you a book to guide you in building my church.” On the contrary He promised something quite different. He promised to send the church His Spirit.

Throughout the book of Acts we see the church struggling with a host of issues and in no case do any of the Apostles step forward claiming they have discovered a set of scrolls that will settle these matters. One example stands out: the question of how to accept Gentile Christ followers. This issue became so serious that eventually a council was called in Jerusalem to settle the matter. It is interesting to note that what ensued was a vigorous discussion which resulted in a compromise.

Gentiles would be welcomed into the Christian community with open arms, but asked to abstain from sexual immorality, strangled food, blood, and idolatry. In other words, under the guidance of the Spirit and through engaging dialogue they made a determination that fit the circumstances. It is hard to overstate how monumental a decision this was. If they had decided to force Gentiles to adopt Torah, and in essence become Jewish, Christianity would likely have ended up a historical curiosity – not a major world religion. It is a shame that the church has not been more faithful to this pattern.

This brings me to the main point of this entry, viz. Christianity does not make it easy to be a fundamentalist. Paul made it clear that the Torah has served its purpose. He admonishes us to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This is done under the guidance of the Spirit and in communion with other believers. It can be uncomfortable at times because it means we have to listen to, and love one another in our search for guidance.

Instead of a new rulebook we have the living Christ living in us and through us by His Spirit. If you want a religion with clear cut rules may I suggest you look into Mormonism, Islam, even Judaism? Christianity, however, does not have much to offer in this regard.

Paul tells us that, “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” The Spirit’s leading we are told in other places, is discerned through prayer, dialogue, scripture, experience, and reason. In other words it takes a concerted effort on our part and we may not always be one hundred percent sure we are getting it right. Paul reminds us of this when he says that we, “…see through a glass darkly”. When we do get it wrong God is merciful and will correct us. The one thing I’m convinced He will not do is  drop a new rulebook out of the sky!

Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity A Follow-up Review

When I shared my thoughts on the title of Michael Coren’s recent book in my last post I promised to follow up with a review once I had actually read it. So here goes. In the introduction to the book Coren states clearly that he needs, “…to establish two foundational aspects of this subject. First, it is surely obvious and self- evident that not all Muslims behave in such an intolerant and violent way and that hundreds of millions of them are appalled by what is going on. More than this, moderate, progressive, and secular Muslims are often victims of Islamic radicalism just as are Christians.”

So far so good. If we are going to engage moderate Muslims in a helpful dialogue it is critical that we recognize that the vast majority of Muslims do not support the actions of the extremists. He then further states that, “It might be comforting to assume that intolerance is an aberration within Islam but, as we will see later, discrimination against Christians or any other non- Muslims is in fact integral to orthodox Muslim teaching…”.

I find such a statement curious, and frankly, unhelpful, but I will save my comments for the conclusion. However, one thing this statement makes clear is that a key thesis of the book is that there is something inherent in the Islamic faith that results in widespread, systemic persecution of Christians and other minorities.

The meat of the book is a series of chapters outlining the persecution of Christians in primarily Muslim countries. The list includes: Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, and a few other smaller pockets of persecution. This material is a tough read as the author, for the most part, simply lists atrocity after atrocity without a lot of commentary or detail.

I suspect His purpose in taking this approach is to overwhelm us with the shear magnitude of the crisis. In this he succeeds admirably. Reading through such a litany of unspeakable horror perpetrated on innocent civilians, including many thousands of women and children, is emotionally draining to say the least.

One thing I appreciated was the fact that the author doesn’t paint every country with the same brush. In each country there are unique circumstances and the level, and type of persecution differs significantly from place to place. For example he notes that in the case of Egypt,

“Islam developed, as we have seen, at a much later date but did manage to transform Egypt into a Muslim nation with extraordinary speed and success, albeit always with a large and vital Christian Church existing within the Muslim majority state. There were times of relative peace and times of persecution, but the latter was never as consistent and severe as it has been for the past forty years. It’s worth remembering that Jews had lived in Egypt since long before the life of Mohammad, had played a central role in Egyptian society, and were considered integral to the country’s way of life.”

Providing this type of background material is very helpful and to his credit the author provides similar material for each country he discusses. In the case of Egypt, it is important to understand that there has been a long-standing tension between the Coptic church and the Muslim population that did not begin with the “Arab Spring”.

At times I wish he gave us more of this type of background, but this would have distracted from the main thrust of the book which is to outline what is going on today; not to offer an analysis of the roots of the problem. And this leads me to my overall conclusion, namely, that I think this book serves a useful purpose in raising awareness about the extent and level of the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East. However, it is short on analysis of the roots of this persecution even though hints are offered along the way.

I also don’t believe the author proves his opening thesis, namely, that Islam has an inherent tendency toward intolerance; in fact I find this an odd question to ask in the first place. Let me explain. There seems to be a concerted effort among some Western intellectuals to prove that Islam is “inherently’ violent and that the Muslims that are truest to their beliefs are the extremists. I see this as a red herring that doesn’t add anything useful to our analysis of the current situation.

All the major religious faiths are open to various levels of interpretation. It may be true that some are less open than others, but none are immune. In fact, the reason some faiths endure and others fizzle out is in no small part due to their ability to be re-interpreted over the course of history. To try to argue that there is only one possible de-facto, faithful, interpretation of any faith is to retreat to a naive, pre-modern understanding of how texts work in a culture.I expect the author knows this as well as anybody.

Islam consists of hundreds of different factions which demonstrates the above point. To try to say that there is such a thing as “Orthodox Muslim teaching” is misleading since Islam does not have a central authority like the Vatican. From my dialogue with Muslims from various groups, about the only thing all Muslims have in common is the belief in one God, Mohammad as the final prophet, and the Quran as God’s final word.

Beyond these basic dogmas there is a wide variety of beliefs on issues such as the treatment of those outside the faith. Rather than engaging in such fruitless rhetoric I believe we need to create a dialogue with the majority of Muslims who do not advocate the kind of violence so well documented in this book. Such an ongoing dialogue can promote mutual understanding and respect and help us to provide a common front in opposing extremism throughout the world.

When asked about his views on Palestine Jimmy Carter is fond of saying that he believes in, “The Prince of Peace”. I know the author is also a follower of this Prince and I hope he will use his media platform to promote both awareness and understanding.

Creating dialogue is key to this process and a good place to start would be to avoid provocative titles that promote stereotypes rather than invite a nuanced discussion. So in conclusion, read the book for its content and then seek further materials that provide an analysis of how we got to where we are today. And if you really want to become informed visit a local mosque and start your own dialogue.

Loving our enemies (or Bless a Muslim,Hindu, Athiest….)

I came across a new book today by Michael Coren titled, “Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity”. I have only read a few Amazon reviews of the book so far so I can’t comment on the content. However, I must say that I was immediately put off by the title. I had the privilege of meeting Michael a number of years ago through participation in a  think tank that took place in the upstairs of a small pub in Oakville, and I can say unequivocally that he is a highly intelligent and affable man. This is why the title surprised me. 

So why did it bother me? As most people who read this blog know my youngest daughter converted to Islam several years ago launching me on an inter-faith journey I had never expected to embark on. It has been, and continues to be, a wild ride. It has also made me very sensitive to the public dialogue that we carry on in the West regarding her newly chosen faith. I have witnessed firsthand the abuse hurled on her by Christians and secularists alike. It is heartbreaking to say the least; especially when it comes from my own faith tradition.

If I read my Bible correctly, in His most famous sermon, Jesus said that we are to love and bless our enemies. The Christian church was built on the blood of thousands of believers who refused to strike back in anger as their enemies tortured and murdered them. There is solid historical evidence that this, more than any other single reason, is why the church eventually conquered the hatred of the Roman empire. In  other words these early Christians had the audacity to actually live out Jesus’ words. They died having no idea that, as one writer states, “There will come a day when men will call their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.”.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the very embodiement of grace and truth. It is therefore incumbent on us to reflect this grace and truth into a world torn by hatred and oppression. I hope that MIchael’s new book is written in that spirit. Why didn’t they call it, “Hatred: Radical Islam’s War on Christianity?”. I suspect it is because the publisher’s marketing department wanted to stir peoples emotions and get more sales.

It is absoultely true that Muslim extremists are making war against many innocent Christians as well as anybody else who doesn’t subsribe to their ideology of hate. There is nothing quite like religious fanaticism whether it be Islamic, Christian, Athiesit or otherwise. As a follower of Christ I mourn and pray for my brothers and sisters throughout the world who are suffering for their beliefs. I especially pray that God will give them the strength and grace to “love their enemies and bless those who persecute them.”. 

So if you have a chance to bless a Muslim, Hindu, Atheist or anybody else for that matter don’t hesitate. I will be sure to report back on my further thoughts after reading the book. 

Peace. Out. 

Scott

Tapestry enters the blogoshere!

Well I guess it is about time that Tapestry join the blogoshere and the 21st century all at the same time. The main purpose of this blog will be to host some podcasts and provide a platform for dialogue on issues facing both our local Christian community as well as the church at large. Of course it’s also yet another way for me to share my thoughts and ideas – and doing it on a blog means I don’t have to look out at an audience that is  hovering in the intersection between my spoken words and dreamland.

We had a great kick-off to our new Small Group study this Wednesday. There’s nothing like the topic of human sexuality to get people’s interest! We had a good discussion about sexuality from a biblical perspective and laid the foundation for our next discussion on sexual identity and orientation. These are challenging topics and pose the greatest threat to church unity in quite some time. Being able to work through challenging subjects such as these, as a community, is one of the things I value most deeply about our Tapestry body.

As most of you know we are conducting interviews with all the Tapestry partners and adherents over the next week or so. Due to some schedule challenges this process has taken longer than we had hoped, but we are determined to see it through to completion. This feedback will be critical in determining the best way forward. God speaks through His people so please pray we will be sensitive to what the Spirit is telling us through this process.

Please feel free to add your comments to anything discussed in this blog so that we can make this another forum for dialogue within the Tapestry community.  That’s all for now. Peace out, Scott