Marching for Allah (4): culture, and the complex task of commending Christ

Having made the observation that what is rational in one culture is often weak and irrational in another, as Christian evangelists, we are left in awkward place. On the one hand, when we speak as missionaries to people of other cultures—whether in Egypt or Hyde Park—we probably want to be understood. We feel like we should commend the gospel to them in a way that will appeal to their rationality, using arguments that will be convincing to them. After all, do we not want to become all things to all men so that by all means we will win some (1 Cor 9:22)?

But most of us, I suspect, will recoil a little bit at the prospect of debate and dialogue in the form that is common in much of the Middle Eastern world. Some of this no doubt is cultural stigma on our part. Most of us just aren’t used to the idea of shouting down our opponents in public debate until our views are seen by all to have won. Is our goal in evangelism really to see Christ honoured, even among those who deny him? Should we, as Christians, pick up our placards and march every time Hollywood produces a movie that shames Christ? (After all, how dare they!?) But as much as we want to see Christ honoured, there’s something a little bit anomalous about commending in this way the one who was humbled in flesh, betrayed by his friends, handed over to his enemies, rejected, spat upon, flogged, beaten, stripped and put to death with criminals. After all, he taught us that the meek will inherit the earth, and he told us to turn the other cheek, pick up our cross and follow him. Shall we now go about demanding that he be seen to be honoured and exalted in the sphere of public opinion? Or even worse, shall Christian’s demand that we be seen that way?

It seems that Christian missionaries are destined to speak at cross purposes. The gospel, by its very nature, is foolish in the ears of a Muslim. Not foolish like it is to a westerner—it’s foolish to us as well. But at least we in the west have a long cultural heritage of Christian thought to fall back on. Western culture, by virtue of whatever shred of Christian heritage remains, understands the virtue of loving self-sacrifice, it understands the dignity of humility, and it knows what it means to lay down one’s life for the benefit of another. The concept of a crucified God is not completely ludicrous to western ears. But for a Muslim, can you even begin to imagine the offense of the cross?  Can you even start to hear through their ears the Christian who claims that the creator God who made the heavens and the earth, the transcendent Lord of the universe, became man—more, became a servant!—and humbled himself, and allowed his own creatures to shame him in the most public, visible, excruciating way possible? Foolishness. It’s irrational. Allah wins.

Yet it’s really not tenable to argue any other way. Christians argue from a position of weakness and meekness, because it’s a position congruent with the message we proclaim. There is a valuable missiological lesson to be learned here. There’s a time to “become all things to all men,” but not always. Sometimes, what at first glance appears to be something western, that we might give up for the sake of the gospel, on closer examination could prove to be a result of the gospel itself.

Missionaries are these days blatantly aware of the mistakes our forebears have made in this regard. Review any history of missions and you will quickly notice that missionaries of the past have very often failed to distinguish between what was gospel and what was just culture. We have insisted that people become western before they can become Christian. We have demanded that people become “civilized” before they come to church. However well intentioned (and however much God graciously used the missionary efforts despite their failings), much of what passed as mission was ultimately a form of cultural imperialism.

But these days the pendulum has well and truly swung back. The western self-loathing has pushed us so far that we do not now believe that western missionaries have anything valuable to say. Everything we say is tainted with the west, and many even within the church don’t believe in the task of mission at all. But perhaps sometimes we fail to realize that some things we think are just western are actually Christian. It’s true that western culture isn’t Christian culture, and that the gospel is not western. But it’s also true that the west has been shaped for 2000 years by thinkers who worked in a vaguely Christian milieu.1 The west is post-Christian, and not post-something else. Might it be possible that we have something to unashamedly contribute to God’s people who haven’t enjoyed this heritage?

  1. A good read on this is Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions : The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

10 thoughts on “Marching for Allah (4): culture, and the complex task of commending Christ

  1. This is pure speculation: Perhaps the people within an honour culture who are most likely to be responsive to the gospel are those within that culture who do worst – those on the bottom rung of such a society may be more ready to hear a gospel in which humiliation [for the gospel] is re-imagined as the greatest honour? This would seem to be how it worked out in the 1st century – the bulk of Christian converts in the first few centuries of the Christian era were the slaves, peasants, women and others whom the Roman elite sneeringly referred to as “the rabble”.

    Is it worthwhile (if a coordinated attempt is to be made to reach people in such a culture with the gospel) to go first to those who loose out the most in an honour culture and expound the notion of a God who triumphed through humiliation?

  2. Thanks David,

    A great thought. There’s been a lot written about the predisposition of the gospel for the poor (both financially and in other ways) and I think there is something right about it. You can see both in historical and contemporary Christianity that the church flourishes amongst the nobodies. It’s the pattern of 1 Cor 1:26-27.

    God will do what he will do; but I strongly suspect that if the gospel takes deep root in Muslim communities it’s going to come primarily through the women and other disempowered groups. There is a lot of good work being done through the servant classes in some countries, and I know of a whole missionary movement that uses that as its strategy. Humanly speaking, I don’t much like our chances of reaching those that Islam holds in high esteem.

  3. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for the excellent series of posts! They’ve been really thought provoking. I’ve attended some Muslim debates before and even had discussions with Muslims and I’ve experienced exactly what you have written about.

    I have three questions for you.

    The first is that since the cross is seen as a shameful event to certain cultures, might it be wise for us to initially emphasise the resurrection rather than the cross when speaking to these people? Christ was greatly honoured by this act and is now seated in heaven as the king.

    The second question is a related one. Why do Muslims believe that they personally have to show Allah to win? At the risk of sounding offensive, it sounds to me like insecurity. I know God will win (has won!) and he doesn’t need me to make it happen. Doesn’t it make Allah appear weak if his reputation is solely dependent on his followers?

    Finally, might Revelation be a good book to read with people from shame based cultures? It portrays the gospel but also clearly portrays the vindication and exaltation of Jesus!


    • I too had been thinking that Revelation might be a good book to read in such a context – it’s the loudest proclamation of Jesus winning in the NT! Perhaps you could read through it, almost skimming through, to get caught up in victory of Jesus, before slowing down to see that the reason why Jesus is king is that he is also the lamb who was slain.

    • Hi Adam,

      My response to your first question (and also to Dannii) is this: are you sure you want to try to minimise the shame of the cross? Paul seems to think that it’s the only thing worth boasting about (Gal 6:14). I’m going to suggest almost the opposite approach in the final two articles: that we want to precisely highlight the differences, rather than try to minimise them: as soon as you try to make Christianity into a religion of glory, rather than the cross, you loose something essential to it. I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to be able to out-glory Islam. Perhaps you can come back at me and tell me whether you agree or not after the final two articles are posted.

      In response to your second question, Muslim’s don’t believe they are making Allah win. But they do believe that Allah must be seen to win. Their is no weakness in their doctrine of God. Again, have a read of the final two articles and see if it makes more sense then.

      In terms of reading the Bible with Muslims, the OT and the gospels are a good place to start, because Islam affirms these to be revelation from God (the Torah, the Psalms and the Injil at least – google it). I wouldn’t go for Paul or Revelation: Muslim’s will deny that these parts of the Bible are from God, and you will spend an enormous amount of time debating whether Christians have corrupted the holy texts that they were given. Then again, if you’re prepared for that discussion, go for it!

      • Thanks Nathan for your reply.

        I see now that my first question was really a half-formed idea. What I was getting at is that the resurrection shows Jesus to be victorious. We might start there with Muslims and maybe they would find the risen Lord attractive. But then the next question to ask is how is it that Jesus came to be honoured by his Father? It’s through the shame of the cross. So by starting initially with the risen Jesus, perhaps we can then show that the shamed Jesus is not so bad after all. The road to receiving glory and honour is actually through humility and bearing shame.

        So I am not for a second suggesting that we minimise the shame of the cross, but rather put it in its wider context of God’s plan. I think your discussion of Friday vs Sunday in your 6th post spells this out really clearly. Glory and shame are both a part of the Gospel, but this age is characterised more by shame. But because the resurrection is a consequence of the crucifixion, the shame of the cross is not the end of all things, but part of the end. Humility and service are vital parts of this life and the next and the glorification of Christ explains why.

        I hope that is clearer. Happy to have my ideas sharpened though!

        As for my third question, point taken. Revelation might be a bit “risky”. However, having said that, I have found that Muslim’s I’ve spoken with will even deny the validity of the Gospels if they are seen to contradict Islamic beliefs!

        Thanks again for some great posts and I appreciate the time you’ve taken in replying to people’s thoughts.


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  5. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for your excellent and stimulating series of posts. I really think what you had to say on the subject of honour and meekness is very important, and should be lived by more Christians.

    Probably the most significant Christian open air evangelist to Muslims in the world today is Jay Smith working in London (he comes over to Australia quite regularly). I have heard him speak, and if anyone can pick up some of his talks about how to reach Muslims, it is well worth it (good talks are from the European Leadership Forum and New Word Alive 2009). His ministry in London (a city that contains over 1 million Muslims) involves an evangelism workshop on a Sunday afternoon, before going down to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park (the London one!), and engaging with the crowds of Muslim speakers and groups.
    Its interesting that, he says speaking to Muslims involves considerable flexing; i.e. if speaking to North Africans they often talk about politics and colonialism, if speaking to someone from the Middle East they often talk about Palestine/Israel, and Turks are so secular that they often don’t know much at all. But if talking to someone from the Indian subcontinent he has to be on his toes as they are the sharpest debaters with Christians – the best Muslim apologists being from the subcontinent – this is because of the long and deep exposure to western thought and values the Indian subcontinent received through the history of colonialism.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    • Thanks Duncan.

      That’s a very interesting observation about Muslims from different parts of the world. I wonder how Jay Smith would characterise Australian muslims?

      I’ve heard of Jay Smith before, and also the ministry at Speakers Corner, but I’ve not heard him speak myself. Someone else to look into is Keith Small – involved in the same ministry I think. I heard Keith speak once about Trinity and Tawhid and it left a very big impression on me.

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