An Interview With Abu Daoud (Part I)

Readers of this blog know that Abu Daoud, Anglican missionary to the Middle East, is a long-time blog partner and friend with Positive Infinity. We caught up with him in an (appropriately) undisclosed location to discuss his work and Christianity in the Middle East, now and moving forward.

1) How did you become interested in ministry to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

I had been familiar with missions since my teen years, when I made a confession of faith during a five-year stretch when I was living in Latin America. I was never a missionary kid, and in fact my parents never taught me the first thing about the Christian faith, notwithstanding their baptismal vows (May God forgive them this great offence). Anyway, I went to school with a lot of missionary kids though, so I certainly knew some basic ideas on mission. But it was back in the US when I was about 22 that the mega-church I was attending, a Bible Church, asked me to co-lead a weekday evening study group on world missions. It was a simplified version of Perspectives on World Mission which is a great program for any church to host.

It was then that I became aware of two things: One, the largest group of people in the world who have not heard the Gospel are Muslims. And two, that Christians had largely given up on Muslims. I had seen the effect of this in Latin America, where American evangelicals would cross sea and land to make nominal Roman Catholics into evangelicals. Fair enough, I suppose there is a place for that, but my heart was captured by the Church’s mission to Muslims. I felt a great burden on my heart and sense of needing to repent for the faithlessness of the Church in this area. I asked God what I could do, and he said ‘Go’. This was before I got married, which happened when I was in my mid-twenties.

2) What type of training did you obtain for this? Was it helpful? For others who might be considering this, what kind of training is best?

My own training was largely on my own. I will say that having a background in philosophy from a secular university is great. I mean, philosophy is all about listening very carefully to what people say and write, to the point where you understand them better than they understand themselves even. We debated and thought about the big questions—the relation of the soul to the body, the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, and so on. With that sort of background you are really able to interact with Muslims on a whole different level than what folks learn at the local bible college or what have you. Also, Muslims are aware that in the distant past they produced a couple of outstanding philosophers. I mean, these were the people with whom Thomas Aquinas was interacting! So when you say you are a scholar of philosophy and religions, which is what I am, and what I tell people when they ask me, ‘What do you do?’ they really respect it.

All of that having been said, that was providential and the hand of God, not some specific strategy thought up by a missions agency. For people considering the Muslim world today, I would make the follow recommendations:

  1. Read stuff about Islam by Muslims, not by evangelicals. I am sad to say that while there are some great evangelical scholars of Islam like Gairdner and Cragg (both Anglicans), most of the stuff published by evangelicals on Islam is rubbish. Don’t waste your time. If you want to know Islam pick up something by Muslims or by Roman Catholics who, for some reason, are more competent scholars by and large, in my opinion. And read Ramon Llull, if you don’t know who Llull is then don’t even think about mission to Islam until you meet him. He is the father of the movement, after all.
  2. There is no magic key. Don’t believe it when someone says that after 1400 years of mission to Islam they have discovered the magic key to getting Muslims to convert. Americans love this sort of thing. We go to conferences that promise to save our marriages or finances or spur church growth or whatever, but all of those are easy matters compared to mission to Muslims. There is no substitute for lengthy, sensitive, creative mission in the Muslim world. Ora et labora. There is nothing new under the sun.
  3. Learn about politics. Americans think that politics and religion can be separated. Not really. It sounds nice on paper but in real life it is impossible. If you want to reach Palestinians learn everything about their history and land, same with Iranians or Algerian Berbers or Turks. When they realize you know their history better than they do, they will hear what you have to say on other matters because you will have won their respect, because you have shown them respect.
  4. Finally, know how to interpret the Bible. Most young evangelicals don’t know the first thing about biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), though they think they do. What they have memorized at Bible college are the traditions of their own churches regarding how to interpret certain themes and passages from the bible. If they would say, ‘it is the tradition of the Assemblies of God (or Southern Baptist Convention) to interpret the following verses as meaning X, Y, and Z’, that would be a coherent, responsible, cogent answer. But no, ‘The Bible says X and it means Y.’ That is what you will hear, and it is not an honourable way of treating Muslims, tradition, and especially the Holy Scripture. Tradition is important and respected here. The man without tradition is the man with no soul. But they say, these verses mean X, Y, and Z, without understanding what they are saying or why. This is disrespectful to the word of God.

3) You come from an Anglican tradition. How is this advantageous in ministry to people in MENA? Are there any drawbacks?

It is advantageous in many ways. The main one being that Anglicanism is reformed and protestant, but in a measured way, and that is truly global. This allows for a great range of opinions within Anglicanism, and has produced probably the single best corpus of Islamic scholarship of any one church in the world, with the possible exception of the Catholics. It is also helpful because it is a broad family in that we have liberals, evangelicals, anglo-catholics, progressives, and traditionalists, and being in one family means that we have to talk with each other and be in conversation with people with whom we don’t really agree on various topics. It’s a mess, no doubt. But a good mess. Also, the traditional churches, like the Orthodox, respect Anglicans—we have bishops and liturgy and holy days. They get that and don’t react fearfully like they do with other, newer, forms of Christianity.

In terms of drawbacks, yes there are some. Anglicans, especially the Church of England, have a strong history in the area of Muslim evangelism, but most Anglicans (outside of sub-Saharan Africa) have lost that vision. So when I say I am Anglican my fellow evangelical missionaries view me with suspicion. But after a while they get to know me and things work out fine. It is a good thing about the mission field—you have to work with people who are unlike you to make any progress. I work with Baptists and Brethren and Assemblies of God missionaries and ministers all the time and that is a strength, not a weakness.

4) What types of response do you obtain as a Christian in MENA?

It depends…I live in a city with a sizeable Christian minority, but my country has a tiny Christian minority. Some people respect Christians because they have made great contributions to education and healthcare here. I feel like a lot of Muslims are really frustrated by Christians though. Our numbers are much lower but we are much more respected internationally than they are. They send their kids to our schools. They get sick and come to our hospitals. I think they ask themselves, how is it that that Qur’an says we (Muslims) are the greatest people in the world, but these powerless Christians do so much more for society?

Personally, people are usually friendly to me. I speak Arabic well; I know the local customs. I clearly identify myself as a Christian, not as a Jesus-follower or Jesus Muslim or any of those silly things that other Americans do so often. If they don’t know what Christians believe or think, I explain it. It’s not that hard. If people don’t know what a submarine is, you explain it and describe it, then they will have a basic idea. You don’t invent some new term or word or say, ‘well, you know cars…it is like a car.’ They assume Americans are Christians, which is not unreasonable. I try to be myself basically, and not fabricate some new Abu Daoud for people because I think I will do better in the area of evangelism. You need to stay in peoples’ lives over time also. You can’t just pop in and expect to share the Gospel and for people to listen. They need to see you month after month for years and then you will be part of their life, and then they will feel comfortable speaking with you and listening.

The interview is continued here.

Mathematics, the Mother Science

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows the truth of this, in his tribute to Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan:

“Men and women of such dazzling brilliance and deep intellect are born but rarely,” declared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Chennai at a function on December 26, to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Ramanujan (December 22, 1887-April 26, 1920). The Indian government has also announced Ramanujan’s birthday would be celebrated every year as “National Mathematics Day”.

Mathematics, as Manmohan pointed out, is the “mother science”, the universal language of truth through numbers, touching daily use, technology and life – working out time, distance, calendar, the grocery prices and passenger air craft navigation, from algorithms in Internet search engines, to creating secure credit card transactions and planning national budgets.

Where there is a civilization, there are numbers. And whatever happens in this world and to this world, two plus two will always equal four, and will be so for infinity remain as a truth verifiable in the five fingers of one hand.

His Excellency is spot on: mathematics is the mother science.  Without mathematics, science is just a “gee-whiz” toy, which is the way it’s portrayed more often than not in the American media.  With it science and engineering can be understood and, of more immediate interest, applied.

I wonder what our own politicians would designate the “mother science” to be.  Evolution? Global Warming? Environmentalism?  Such is a product of a country which struggles with mathematics and consistently bypasses those educated in the sciences for election to high office.

Muslims will understand the importance of a “mother science,” as noted here.  But they have their own problems in the mix:

Ramanujan is part of a rich, 1,500 years-old Indian heritage of mathematics and astronomy. Luminaries like Brahmagupta in the 6th century AD, Bhaskara (600-680 AD) Sankara Narayana (840-900 AD) and Vijayanandi (940-1010 AD) created and built upon the foundations of science as we know it today.

Perhaps the greatest of them all was Aryabhata (476- 550 AD), who gave the world the concept and number “zero”. He was just 23 years old when the first of his works became known. He calculated the circumference of the Earth, found that the Earth spins on its axis and revolves round the sun. He also realized that the moon was a satellite of the Earth.

It is conventional wisdom that zero was an invention of Muslim scholars, but this has been disputed by those on both sides of Adam’s Bridge.

The Real Reason Daniel Was Thrown Into the Lions' Den

Although one underestimates Biblical ignorance at one’s peril, the story of Daniel in the lions’ den is well known to many.  Most Christians would interpret Daniel getting pitched into same den as a result of his refusal to worship a god or gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

If one reads the text carefully, though, there’s a more subtle point.  Consider this:

Then these presidents and princes assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever. All the presidents of the kingdom, the governors, and the princes, the counsellors, and the captains, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a firm decree, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any God or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions. Now, O king, establish the decree, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. Wherefore king Darius signed the writing and the decree. (Daniel 6:6-9.)

Note the fact that Daniel and others were not only prohibited from petitioning God or other gods, but other people as well.  That points to a simple fact: the decree was designed to force people to acknowledge that all substance came from the secular ruler and not from another source.  It’s true that Middle Eastern societies tended to personalise that source of sustenance in their pantheon of gods, and thus to merge the worship of the deities with the subservience to the state.  But that only made things simple: the concept that all that was beautiful and good in life came from above, i.e. the state or the ruler, was firmly entrenched in the mentality of the day.

Today secular states generally eschew the deification of the state (the “atheistic” North Koreans are something of an exception these days) or forcing people to worship state-sponsored gods.  But the idea that the state is the source of all sustenance and life is firmly entrenched in today’s mentality towards government.  Atheists and secularists who would recoil at even worshiping an idol think nothing of ascribing god-like authority to the state, especially when their funding comes from that source.  And they take a dim view of those who think that life comes from somewhere else.

But the Christian should know better:

Do not be deceived, my dear Brothers. Every good thing given us, and every perfect gift, is from above, and comes down to us from the Maker of the Lights in the heavens, who is himself never subject to change or to eclipse. Because he so willed, he gave us Life, through the Message of the Truth, so that we should be, as it were, an earnest of still further creations. (James 1:16-18.)

As modern states, mired in debt and overtaken by multinational corporations and other entities, become more defensive about their position, expect those of us who know this fact will face more hostility and persecution.

As for Darius, he knew a good man when he saw one, and was grieved that his own decree–logical by Middle Eastern standard of the day–was turned against his real wishes (as laws and regulations frequently do.)  But God came through for both Darius and Daniel:

Then the king went to his palace, and passed the night fasting: neither were instruments of musick brought before him: and his sleep went from him. Then the king arose very early in the morning, and went in haste unto the den of lions. And when he came to the den, he cried with a lamentable voice unto Daniel: and the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. Then was the king exceeding glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he believed in his God. And the king commanded, and they brought those men which had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions, them, their children, and their wives; and the lions had the mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces or ever they came at the bottom of the den. (Daniel 6:18-24.)

An Episcopalian's Appeal to Authority Falls Flat

Although I’m sure his Presiding Bishop finds this post suitable for framing, somehow Episcopal minister Frederick Schmidt’s appeal to the authority of the church doesn’t quite connect.

Let’s start with the issue he uses to illustrate his point: the proper colour for Advent:

In a recent dust-up over liturgical colors, a colleague of mine was challenged on her decision to use purple instead of blue during Advent. Only in an Episcopal Church.

Of course, colors are never about color. And I am fairly sure that the parishioner who took her to task had concerns that go well beyond liturgical propriety. But the case that she made for using blue over purple was telling. “Purple is hierarchical,” she complained.

Well, duh, yes it is. Kings, royalty, all that jazz. And, by the way, so are some shades of blue.

When I grew up in the Episcopal Church, purple was the colour for Advent.  So by whose authority did TEC change this?  And why?  Did they want to de-emphasise the penitential aspect of Advent?  Did they want to honour the Virgin Mary, whose traditional colour is blue?  (Why would they want to honour any virgin, given their current stances?  And do they really believe that she was a virgin, either before, during or after her pregnancy?)  Or is it a hidden hat tip to the Lodge, whose defining colour is also blue?  Fortunately Advent candles are beyond the domain of TEC, and they faithfully preserve the reality of purple as the true colour of Advent.

The whole business of authority is problematic in Protestant churches and especially Evangelical ones, as I discuss in Authority and Evangelical Churches.  The Church of England and its progeny, the product of state-induced rebellion against the duly constituted ecclesiastical authority of the day, are subject to the same objection, although they did preserve the apostolic succession.  The whole drama of Anglicanism in North America in the last decade can be seen as an appeal to the authority inherent in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, although the current holder’s own philosophies on the issues at hand is an open secret.  TEC’s current representation of itself as a “hierarchal church” like its Roman Catholic counterpart is not really faithful to the desultory and inconsistent way the church developed in the U.S. after the colonies severed their own relationship with the Lord and Governor of the Church of England.

The serious question that those who invoke the authority of the church should answer: how have we and our church been obedient to the authority of God?  Had many in TEC and other Main Line churches thought about that a long time ago, they would not be facing the inexorable decline they are now.

HT to Dan Tomberlin for putting me on to this.

My Thoughts on Sleeping in Class

It’s time once again for a new semester.  This is not true everywhere; for some schools with greater prestige and the possibility that the graduate could become President of the United States (yeah, Republicans, we’re seeing that again,) it’s just the end of what is now denoted as Winter Break, with exams looming towards the end of January.  Perhaps that’s the secret to Ivy League success: anyone who can remember something over the break formerly known as Christmas Vacation can do just about anything.  But I digress…

In any case, any teacher who gets up in front of the class has to deal with either one or two extremes: either the students showing out or falling asleep.  Since my class is at 0800, and I have to darken the room for my PowerPoint presentations, the latter usually rules.  What I think about this is an interesting way to encapsulate a good deal of my approach as an educator.  In preparing my coursework, teaching, evaluating the students and receiving their own comments on what I do, there are several governing factors, some old, some new.

The first is that my “traditional” students (which are the majority of those I teach) are in the process of becoming adults.  Our society is bad about dragging out the road to adulthood; sometimes I think the ultimate goal is to eliminate that state altogether.  In any case part of that road is to take on some adult responsibilities along the way; one of those is keeping up with the studies.  Although we as a society waste a lot of time trying to motivate people to do all kinds of things paid and unpaid, it is my opinion that ultimately long-term motivation is something that has to start from the inside and move outward.  In this case, the end goal of a degree, an engineering licence and a career should be motivation enough to stay awake, and if it isn’t then the student needs to make some more fundamental self-examination.  This is especially true because I (and I don’t think I am alone) have the bad habit of making statements in passing in class that end up being critical on tests and homework.  (Most of the time these will also appear on my slides or in the book, but that doesn’t always help.)

The second is that having your audience fall asleep before your eyes is a signal you should try to make things more interesting.  That’s no mean trick in engineering courses, where the material is frequently complex and the students’ interest is varied from one to the next.  In the past education (and especially higher education) was more of a “process of elimination” affair; you either cut it or dropped out.  That’s going by the wayside, and in any case ever since I’ve been teaching here at UTC that’s never been the model put in front of me.  So I try to make things better.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I do not.  One reason we have a laboratory part of the geotechnical curriculum is to have at least one place where sleeping is next to impossible.

Third, as a Christian, I don’t think there’s a Biblical sanction for going postal when people fall asleep in your class.  Why, you ask, does being a Christian have anything to do with it?  Consider the following:

On the first day of the week, when we had met for the Breaking of Bread, Paul, who was intending to leave the next day, began to address those who were present, and prolonged his address till midnight. There were a good many lamps in the upstairs room, where we had met; And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, was gradually overcome with great drowsiness, as Paul continued his address. At last, quite overpowered by his drowsiness, he fell from the third storey to the ground, and was picked up for dead. But Paul went down, threw himself upon him, and put his arms round him. “Do not be alarmed,” he said, “he is still alive.” Then he went upstairs; and, after breaking and partaking of the Bread, he talked with them at great length till daybreak, and then left. Meanwhile they had taken the lad away alive, and were greatly comforted. (Acts 20:7-12.)

Face it: if they fell asleep on the Apostle Paul, who took the Gospel to the Gentiles and was inspired to write much of the New Testament, what can I expect?  Fortunately the window doesn’t open in my class…

Finally one must recognise that students burn the candle at both ends, and that sometimes it’s hard to do much else.  That gets into some time management issues, but I have enough trouble covering the material I have in front of me.

So we move onward…

What a Motorcycle Gang Knows that Katharine Jefferts-Schori Does Not

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church depicts Our Lord and Saviour in a rather topsy-turvy way:

In her book The Heartbeat of God, Jefferts Schori also taunts Jesus many times, calling him both a Hell’s Angel gang leader (115) as well as a “party animal” (4).

This kind of depiction of Jesus Christ and other good people in the Scriptures is in line with a half century of liberal attempts to make Jesus “counter-cultural.”  But others in a better position to know what a gang is all about have another opinion:

One pastor performed a funeral for a motorcycle gang member whose gang called itself “Hell is Our Home.” They left no doubt where they intended to meet for that last bike ride.

Eternity, however, is something else the Presiding Bishop is hazy on.  For now…in the meanwhile, her reference to Jesus as a “party animal” probably refers to this:

When the Teachers of the Law belonging to the party of the Pharisees saw that he was eating in the company of such people, they said to his disciples: “He is eating in the company of tax-gatherers and outcasts!” (Mark 2:16.)

Rather than religious leaders…let me see, has she checked the mirror lately?  Especially when she puts on that silly looking mitre?  Isn’t she a “religious leader?”

Like John Shelby Spong, if one realises that “religious life” (and I’m not using the Catholic meaning of that) is a hypocritical affair, not backed up by a real Saviour or reliable Scriptures, one should start by finding another line of work.  Sadly for the Episcopal Church, too many people of this persuasion have not.

The Value of Failure: A Lesson From Soccer

One of the many things that separates me from my contemporaries is the fact that I played soccer in junior high (that designation dates me!) and high school.  Today soccer is de rigeur for people growing up in these United States, but until, say, the late 1970’s that wasn’t the case.  A good deal of that comes from the fact that I grew up in South Florida; escapees of Fidel Castro made the sport respectable and exciting, to say nothing of those who had made The Trip to Europe.  It paid off in other ways even then: high school classmate David Posey turned his soccer style kick into a stint in the NFL with the New England Patriots.

Right: ahead of our time, ahead of our society, boys’ and girls’ soccer at Palm Beach Day School, from the 1969 Islander.

I permanently dropped out of soccer in high school because I was too slow and clumsy, preferring to rack up athletic letters in managing (something that is more respectable now than then, too.)  But my last run with “no hands” sports took place in 1981, when a business associate of mine roped me into the Signal Mountain Soccer League.  In addition to all of the graded competitions for young people, someone got the idea of having the adults (in age, at least) play.  My associate needed a ringer from off the mountain, and so I hit the field once again.

I had a great time and it was great exercise, and our team did well, but there was one game in particular that stands out in my mind.  We were playing a team that we didn’t feel were much opposition, so our team captain stuck me at goalie.  I had never played goalie in my entire career at the sport; fullback was my preferred position.  But same team captain wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I waited for the ball in front of the goal.  It didn’t take the ball long to get there either; my team-mates were playing decidedly lackadaisical soccer that day.  I did what any totally inexperienced goalie would do: I let the ball pass me and go into the net, and we were down 1-0.

That was a wake-up call to my team-mates; they realised that a) their goalie was as bad as he said he was and b) they better get cracking and keep the ball away from our own goal and into theirs.  So they picked up the pace of their own playing and we managed to win.  (They never put me at goalie again.)

As we start the new year and face a really stupid election, there’s a lesson to be learned from my lackadaisical team-mates.  It doesn’t take a genius to realise that their largest mistake wasn’t as much poor judgement as overconfidence.  Once the error of their ways was apparent, they learned from their mistake, adjusted their attitude and enhanced their performance.  Sad to say, in the years since that fateful match this country has undergone what can only be termed as the largest ego-inflating exercise in human history.  Our entire system, from the education of the young to the motivation of the employed to the uplifting of the saints, is geared toward the self-image enhancement of just about everyone and the shielding of same from any disappointment or adversity.

That process was given a major boost by our victory in the Cold War.  It can be argued that the worst thing to happen to this country in the last century was the beginning of the Cold War.  Stipulating that, the second worst thing was its end.  The result was a world where we had no natural enemies.  For that to happen in an environment of self-image inflation was like giving a pyromaniac matches and jet fuel.  In retrospect the worst thing that took place was the credit bubble.  Starting with a population whose image of the fulfilment of Micah 4:4 went far beyond vines and fig trees, both our banking system and our government pulled every string to put people in houses they could not afford.  This contagion of irresponsibility, percolating through a financial system more than willing to accommodate it and banking on sovereign states not letting things go under, spread around the world.  Now we have a zombie system where small businesses struggle to get loans and expand the productive sector while every effort is expended to hold the system together irrespective of how unproductive the use of funds is or the long-term consequences.

Our military adventures reflect the same idea, from Bill Clinton’s “wag the dog” war in Bosnia and even before that in Haiti to the grand fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan.  We might as well face it: we’ve lost in Iraq, as surely as we had done more than a generation ago in Vietnam, our valiant men and women in uniform notwithstanding.  Our opponent needs to be a little more patient than the last one, but then again it was two years between the Paris peace accord and helicopters on the roof of our embassy.  Saddam is surely dead, but a CIA hit squad could have done that.  George Bush thought “democracy in the Middle East” could be accomplished through Iraq’s “reconstruction” and liberals were orgasmic about the Arab Spring, but the realities of Middle Eastern politics, from careerism to Islamicism, have made it a one step forward, two steps back proposition.

Between our economic woes and our military setbacks we should be learning something.  But there’s something that thirty years has done to our psyche: we cannot bring ourselves to learn from our mistakes any more, let alone fix them.  We are so obsessed with denying the reality of our mess that any hope of repair is lost.  Our only solution, it seems, is the bad habit we learned in the Cold War of solving all of our problems: throwing money at them.  As long as our faith based monetary system can keep the faith up, its weaknesses will never be apparent, but sooner or later that will run out too.

Today we live in a society where “reality based” secularists bemoan the existence of suffering in the world, sure as they are that the existence of same is proof of the non-existence of God.  But a fair question to ask is this: why do we, in command of all of this knowledge, allow it?  But that would be admitting failure, and you know how well that goes over…in the meanwhile, Christians need to be mindful of this:

My Brothers, whatever may be the temptations that beset you from time to time, always regard them as a reason for rejoicing, Knowing, as you do, that the testing of your faith develops endurance. And let endurance do its work perfectly, so that you may be altogether perfect, and in no respect deficient. If one of you is deficient in wisdom, let him ask wisdom from the God who gives freely to every one without reproaches, and it will be given to him. (James 1:2-5.)

Happy New Year!