American evangelicals often find themselves frustrated in their approach to Islam.
Two options are consistently placed before them: a polemical argument few are educated enough to engage in, or an awkward dialogue urging friendship but emptied of theological significance.
Help, therefore, may come from abroad—where evangelicals interact with Muslims everyday.
A new book, The Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, answers both concerns. An anthology of recent academic contributions to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), located in Beirut, Lebanon, the publication delves into the details of the debate over how evangelicals should view the rival religion.
But it also promotes a “kerygmatic method,” based on the New Testament Greek word for proclamation and connoting among biblical scholars the core message of early church gospel preaching. The book applies the term to seek a middle ground between polemics and apologetics on the one hand, and syncretistic and common ground approaches on the other.
Built on a foundation of academic rigor, this method aims for a tone of love within a spirit of Jesus-centered proclamation.
CT interviewed Martin Accad, editor of the anthology and associate professor of Islamic studies at ABTS. Though he remains on faculty, he recently resigned from his leadership positions at the seminary to found Action Research Associates, seeking holistic application of the kerygmatic method within the troubles of sectarian Lebanese society.
Accad described the value of the book for evangelical engagement with Islam, but also how its principles can guide interaction with “the religious other” in both Lebanon and the United States:
Out of the 30 contributors to this book, only 9 are from the West, while 16 are Arab voices. What is the impact of this diversity?
Having so many Arabs is unusual for this type of book, especially those who are not of a polemical bent. Much of the agenda of missions and dialogue has been driven by Western questions, girded by the theology of the provider.
The contributions, therefore, de-objectify the conversation. We do not claim to be authoritative, but I hope that our voices will come with some authority, as we highlight our primary concerns in this part of the world.
“Toward” a biblical understanding suggests you have no definitive Christian conclusion about Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. What message does the book want to give?
The primary goal of the book is theological, and is the crowning of years of work at ABTS. The Religious Other wants to explore what Islam really is. But I have come to the realization that a lot of what drives evangelical approaches to ministry among Muslims is polemical, rather than conciliatory and collaborative.
One of the book’s central hypotheses is that Islam cannot be oversimplified. Essentializing the “other” leads to conflict, because it fails to see them in their entirety, or as they perceive themselves.
There can be no definitive biblical understanding of Islam, because chronologically the religion comes after the Bible. But the book is the best effort of our theologians and Christian scholars of Islamic studies to get to an understanding that is both academically rigorous and theologically faithful.
We recognize the difficulty to get at anything certain about the origins of Islam, and therefore about the nature of the Quran or the person of Muhammad. But we seek to humbly bring out the complexity of these issues, and then build upon them for greater peace and understanding.
Where else will the book challenge traditional evangelical thinking?
There is a school of dialogue that says we should emphasize common ground between the two faiths, because there is much overlap in the stories found in both the Quran and the Bible. And missionaries sometimes seize on these as a bridge to the gospel.
One chapter in the book, however, struggles to find any relevance between them. In fact, the contributor says they make understanding more difficult to achieve because of the radically different worldviews of each religious narrative.
Personally, I have a conviction that the evangelical world must grapple more with the doctrine of salvation within its engagement with Islam. While probably half of evangelicals still approach Muslims from a polemical point of view, the other half is growing more comfortable with the idea of dialogue.
This is a good development.
But as some leading figures who had been missionaries in the Muslim world switched into dialogue, I’ve wondered what happened to their soteriology. It is as if they entered a new season completely. The shift has been rapid, and I think we need more reflection.
One contributor, however, pushes the boundaries of salvation beyond what the typical evangelical framework is used to. He considers the classic question about people who have never heard the gospel, and then takes it a step further, to consider those who love God but find the message of the gospel doesn’t appeal to them.
The trick is, while the contributor doesn’t give a clear answer, he interacts with a 19th-century Muslim reformer who approaches the question from the side of Islam. He then asks, “What can we learn?”
Many biblical scholars will disagree with his reading of Romans 1. The contributor is a comparative religion expert, less versed in biblical studies. But we included his perspective because it will provoke a healthy conversation.
The book provides a whole range of interpretations on many issues like these.
While The Religious Other is about Islam, you propose the “kerygmatic method” as applicable to the evangelical approach toward all religions.
Yes—and all of society. It is about how you understand yourself in a faith community, and your boundaries in interaction with others. It says that God is calling us beyond the walls of the church to something that touches the entirety of human reality.
We need to move beyond one-on-one relationships of evangelism and discipleship as the only legitimate approach to mission, and into a holistic understanding of the church’s role to transform everything.
It is not one or the other, but rather both and all at once.
Jesus inaugurated a new era he called the Kingdom of God. We are far too timid in our understanding of what it means.
The kerygmatic model of interaction with the “other” is to look for something above religious affiliation as a core element of identity, without giving up faith. And then, the person of Jesus can become very uniting, without making you a fanatic. Because the core of Jesus’ message is peace, action, and reconciliation—with God, but also with other human beings.
You are now developing a new project for Lebanon along these lines.
Over the past years I realized that engaging religious leaders is not enough. The early thrills of our peaceful revolution for change reached a dead end within a corrupt political system. The explosion at the Beirut port only made our crisis more disorienting.
So the project addresses the root issues of our sectarianism, and the different narratives that emerged from our civil war. We are where we are today because these were never dealt with in our history. This era is not even covered in our textbooks, because it is impossible to reach a common understanding of events.
Therefore, our effort will hold these narratives in tension, because they are not reconcilable. Each one develops a sense that their group is a victim, and the “other” is a victimizer.
But just like with other religions, we can accept diverse narratives as real to each person, without agreement. And this then becomes the basis for a process of reconciliation. It creates empathy to hear the story of the other, giving you permission to also share your story, without it being nullified.
I have no doubt that God knows all the intricate details about our history.
But I don’t think that the ultimate truth within these narratives can be determined by any human being. So instead of creating one single version of events, our common narrative will become the ability to be tolerant of the other’s disagreement.
Kerygma, however, is a Greek word for the proclamation of the Christian gospel. Is this also a part of your project?
I would not be where I am today, nor do what I do, without being shaped by the person of Jesus, within a biblical worldview. But it is certainly true that this is less directly a proclamation of the gospel of salvation through the cross than are the ministries of evangelism or preaching.
Instead of starting with verbal proclamation and considering application, this is an application—that is begging for the question [of who Jesus is]. Jesus is often part of the conversation, even with top officials and religious figures from Lebanon’s various sects.
Jesus is inescapable from this whole approach, and he is more at the center of a conversation about the future of Lebanon than he is in a simple dialogue between Christian and Muslim clerics. In fact, if we seek a nonviolent transition from corruption and sectarianism, Jesus may be the only viable model.
One reason is that in Lebanon, the theological component of one’s religious identity is often the least important ingredient. But the core value of the kerygmatic method is that Jesus is at the center, supra-religious.
And Lebanon, actually, is a microcosm of the situation in the whole world today. If the church doesn’t learn how to look at reality holistically, through the lens of Jesus, then we will be rapidly moving toward irrelevance.
How would you apply this to evangelicals in America?
Critics often blame them for over-involvement in politics. But I think they have not been involved enough. We just have to differentiate between political theology and a partisan theology that pushes a particular agenda, through which believers think that they will gain more influence.
The world doesn’t need more religion in public life, it needs more Jesus in public life. The church is wrong when it tries to dictate morality to the society at large, because it becomes seen as the oppressor.
Teachers in the church have the responsibility to teach with love on all questions of ethics. Leaders should encourage believers to be involved in politics and the public sphere—each according to his convictions—while shaping those convictions through gospel preaching.
It is a politic of humility, with respect for diversity.
For if anyone had the right to dictate right from wrong and compel obedience, it was Jesus. He knew the absolute position, and had absolute authority, but he chose not to do so.
Again, it is the kerygmatic method: A recognition of complexity, and the application of grace.
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