Did the Jews Really Borrow Certain Doctrines From the Zoroastrians?

“You know the Jews only got their belief in a fiery hell from the Zoroastrians in Babylon, right?”

This argument from my atheistic aunt was a new one for me. We had traveled to the Philly area to celebrate my engagement, when one morning my aunt opened up an apologetics conversation by asking me if I believed there would be free will in heaven. Somehow the conversation had veered into the territory of Zoroastrianism, which my aunt was putting forward as a point to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. After all, if central ideas like the nature of life after death had been borrowed from other religions, this would cast serious doubt on the Bible’s authority as God’s true revelation.

I chewed on her claim and considered how to respond.

“Well, I don’t know a lot about Zoroastrianism. But I don’t think you should say that there was no concept of a fiery judgment until after the exile. The ending of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the wicked being judged by a fire that will never be quenched. And he predated the exile by a generation or so.”

That conversation may have been the first time I heard the argument that Judaism (and Christianity through it) borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. But it certainly wasn’t the last. This position is held as fact by many scholars, and even shows up in some pretty good Christian textbooks and resources. In addition, Zoroastrianism is enjoying a quiet revival in Central Asia and also has some good PR in the West with claims of being “The first monotheistic religion” and the first to teach a final judgment and resurrection.

So, how should Christians respond to the claim that much of our doctrine has been borrowed from the teachings of Zarathustra/Zoroaster, the ancient prophet who founded Zoroastrianism?

First, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of this religion. Because that story alone leaves a lot to be desired in terms of statements of historical certainty. As best we can tell, Zarathustra was an influential religious teacher sometime around 1,200 BC to 500 BC who sought to reform the polytheism of ancient Persia into something approaching monotheism. But even here, we should be cautious calling calling it monotheism, since early Zoroastrianism teaches a temporary dualism, where even though there was only one God (Ahura Mazda), now there is a second, his evil enemy (Angra Mainyu), who is a god that must be battled both in creation and in the souls of humans. But later, when Zoroastrianism was codified and organized under the Sassanians in the AD 200s, its sacred text, the Avesta, presents an eternal dualism, or even an eternal tri-theism. Even Mithra, the God of war from the Persian pantheon who became so popular among the Roman legions, is thrown into the mix. The goal of the religion remains the same, to help Ahura Mazda, the god of light, overcome the darkness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. But the nature of Ahura Mazda as the one true God is not even settled within the history and texts of Zoroastrianism itself. And even if it were, Moses predates Zarathustra by 400 years, at least. So, the claim that Jewish monotheism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism? It doesn’t hold water.

How about the claims that the concepts of a fiery hell and resurrection were borrowed? Here there a couple of big problems, as I see it. First, the later possible dates for Zarathustra’s life could place him as a contemporary of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other writers of the exile period. A number of scholars maintain that Zarathustra was active during the lifetime of Cyrus the great. So, when the concept of resurrection shows up in Ezekiel and Daniel (Ez 37, Dan 12), why should the assumption be that they borrowed from the Zoroastrians they encountered in Babylon and Susa, when it’s just as likely that Zarathustra borrowed from them? Don’t forget what an influential figure Daniel was for decades in both the Babylonian and the Persian empires. He was not only prime minister, political second-in-command, but also head of the wise men of Babylon – essentially the priestly class. It’s not an unreasonable theory to propose that it is Daniel who is influencing the religion of the Persian empire, and not the other way around.

Further, how do you establish what Zoroastrianism was actually teaching during the time of the exile when its sacred texts were not collected and compiled until 700 years later, during the first generation of the Sassanian empire in the 200s? This is the seriousness of the problem if Zarathustra was a contemporary of Daniel. But if he lived much earlier, say around 1,200 BC, then that makes for a period of 1,400 years between the life of Zarathustra and the compilation of his book of teachings, the Avesta. That would be like the Qur’an only being compiled today, when Muhammad lived and taught in the 600s. Given these huge periods of time, it seems like quite the stretch to read things in the Avesta and to say with confidence that these were indeed the teachings of Zarathustra, therefore they predate the biblical authors, therefore they must be the source for Jewish doctrine. Given this murkiness of the history of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, it seems that scholars are not really holding this ancient Persian religion to the same level of skepticism and criticism which they apply to Judaism and Christianity.

Ah, but you can’t find resurrection anywhere earlier than Ezekiel and Daniel, can you? Well, Jesus did, in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–33). And if we turn to Isaiah, once again we see this supposedly borrowed concept being taught a generation before the exile, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). For more evidence of resurrection in the Old Testament, check out this great article by Mitch Chase.

Over the years, I have heard these claims of borrowing from Zoroastrianism coming from my relatives, from Christian scholars, from online documentaries, and from Central Asian Zoroastrians trying to return to their roots. But when I dig around in the actual history of Zoroastrianism, of its founder and its beliefs, it doesn’t seem like these claims are coming from an examination of Zoroastrianism itself. Rather, it feels like some scholar made these claims once, everyone believed him, and now it’s just a big echo chamber where all accept these ideas as fact without knowing where they came from and if they were indeed sound in the first place.

Keep an eye out for Zoroastrianism in your evangelistic or apologetic conversations, and even in your resources. It tends to show up more than you might expect, claiming some pretty big things without the historical warrant to do so. A basic understanding of the story of Zoroastrianism – and how much really is debatable – can help provide a surprising answer, and get the conversation back on more profitable ground.

Photo by Shino on Unsplash

A Practical and Powerful Bible Tool For Every Christian With a Smartphone

There are certain tools and resources that have passed the longevity test. These tools have proven useful, not just for a season, but for the long-term. I want to recommend just such a tool today.

The Compare feature on Youversion’s Bible app is the kind of tool I have used countless times over the last seven years in order to read scripture side by side with speakers of other languages. This Bible app doesn’t just provide scripture free of charge in 1,950 languages (Which is a stunning thing in itself. Can you imagine Tyndale’s reaction if he knew we had Bible access like this?) But it allows a reader to work through an entire passage in multiple languages side by side, with the texts parallel to one another on the screen of your smart phone or tablet. In our multilingual world, this is an extremely practical tool for Christians eager to share the truth of Scripture.

You can use this feature if you are sharing the gospel with someone from another ethnic or language background and want to make sure the individual verses you are sharing are clear. Instead of only showing your friend a verse in English, you can at the same time be showing it to them in their mother tongue (And in this way also know that you are indeed showing them the verse you mean to). Or, you can use this tool in a Bible study with others as you work through a broader passage, one parallel verse at a time, again, having two or more languages in front of you on your phones’ screens for the sake of clarity and understanding – both yours and theirs.

I have also used this feature to continue growing in my knowledge of other languages. Since I’m very familiar with the text of the Bible in English, it’s an easy way to learn new vocab and grammar in another language. And I’ve recommended this practice to many of my English students as a way to expose them to the Bible while they strengthen their English skills, one parallel verse or passage at a time.

This kind of practice not only helps with language acquisition, but also with language retention. Like our physical muscles, our languages need a little bit of regular exercise in order to not atrophy. A few Bible verses a day keeps that language’s part of the brain online in a surprising way. In this vein, whenever I listen to a sermon I have the Bible app’s Compare feature open in front of me for this very purpose. I’ve found the act of code-switching between Bible languages during a sermon helpful both for the insights as well as the questions that emerge.

What if you are aware of a Bible translation that exists, but it’s not included in the 1,950 languages currently on the app? Youversion provides a form for it to be added (Click My Language is Not Listed on the drop down menu and they’ll get back to you). Several years ago I filled out the request form, asking that the trade language translation I grew up with in Melanesia be added to the app. To my surprise, after a few months, there it was. I could now read the Bible in English, my Melanesian trade language, and my focus Central Asian language side by side. This is a true gift because it means that even if I’m the only one in Central Asia who speaks that particular Melanesian tongue, I can not only keep my knowledge of it alive, but even be edified by the Word while doing so.

I was recently speaking with a missionary friend who didn’t know of this tool, so I wanted to put it out there in case it might serve others who are involved in sharing truth across language barriers. For so many, the realities of immigration now mean that even without leaving our home nations we have neighbors, community businessmen, and fellow classmates from other nations. Few immigrants and refugees ever have anyone from their host nation ask genuine questions about the language they spoke growing up. And many speakers of other languages have no idea that the Bible has been translated into their language. This then can be a great way to invite someone into reading God’s word. Ask about their mother tongue, show them that you have a Bible in their language on your phone, ask them if they’d like to have it on their phone also, then invite them if they’d like to meet up another time for coffee or tea to read some together.

Our team in Central Asia has been able to “distribute” dozens upon dozens of Bibles in this way, with some of them being downloaded the very first time we meet someone and get into a spiritual conversation with them. For long-term or short-term teams, or for any Christian eager to share the Bible with others, this really is a tremendous tool for getting scripture into people’s hands, and for reading it side-by-side.

If you want to use this Compare feature, here are the steps:

  1. Dowload the Youversion Bible app from the App Store or Google Play.
  2. Set up a free account on the app.
  3. Click the Bible button on the menu at the bottom of the screen.
  4. At the top of the screen, choose the passage and English translation. This version will be your default until you change it.
  5. Tap on a verse to select it.
  6. Click on the Compare button from the menu that will pop up when you tap on the verse.
  7. At this point, only the selected English verse will appear on the screen. Click on the Add Version button at the bottom of the screen.
  8. Click on the Language button at the top of the screen in order to select versions in other languages.
  9. Click the magnifying glass button at the top of the screen to search the 1,950 languages.
  10. Tap the language you want.
  11. On the next screen, tap on that language a second time in order to add it to the Compare page.
  12. You should now see the verse you selected in your chosen languages side by side on the screen. Click on the Next Verse or Previous Verse buttons to navigate through the chapter.

I hope you find this tool as practical and powerful as I have. And to the team at Youversion, my sincerest thanks.

The Power of Proverbs

Before we moved overseas we lived in an apartment complex full of refugees, immigrants, and low-income Americans. By that point I had become aware of the power of proverbs among those from the Middle East and Central Asia. What surprised us was finding that proverbs and truisms also functioned centrally in the speech and relationships of the low-income Americans around us.

While proverbs didn’t really feature much in the speech of my middle class, highly-literate peers, or only functioned in an ironic way, I found that my black or white Kentuckian neighbors from difficult backgrounds dropped them on the regular. They were not always helpful proverbs. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to engage someone with the gospel and were met with opaque responses such as someone’s commitment to “let go and let God” or insistence that “God helps those who help themselves.” But other times they contained biblical wisdom, such as “Y’all reap what y’all sow.”

What we were experiencing was a curious similarity between the cultures of our Arab and Sudanese neighbors fleeing war and our American neighbors trying not to get arrested for dealing drugs. It seemed that every culture in our apartment complex – other than ours – was considerably more oral in its ways of thinking and speaking. Being primarily oral might mean that someone is illiterate, but it often means that someone knows how to read and write, but only does so when necessary, and not for pleasure or for organizing their life. It means that someone’s use of language is largely independent of the written word, and the corresponding ways that the written word shapes how we think and speak. Instead, it is the memorized and spoken word that come to dominate an oral person’s use of language. This has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, though it can often reflect a person’s level of education.

There is a significant communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are from an oral culture, even if they are from the same country and speak the same language. This is because the ways we use language and the ways our brains have been shaped by that usage are so very different from one another – and this is a reality that is often invisible. An oral communicator relies heavily on stories and proverbs. They end up with a kind of language that is less direct and more full of symbolism and concrete metaphor. A highly-literate communicator relies more on argument and logic and ends up with speech that is more direct and abstract.

Often this communication barrier can result in a situation such as highly-literate communicator asking an oral communicator about a concept such as sin. The oral communicator responds to the question by telling a winding story, one which might be interspersed with several proverbs or truisms. When the story is finally over, the highly-literate communicator is left unable to discern what kind of point or answer has just been made. So he tries to get back to the abstract concept he was asking about, only to be met by another confusing story. Both leave the interaction not confident that they have been heard or understood.

For about ten years I have been chewing on this communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are oral communicators. This is one reason I have been on my long-term experiment to learn and employ Central Asian proverbs as we’ve ministered overseas. The challenge of orality is a serious one, since it limits our effectiveness in communicating the gospel cross-culturally or to huge portions of our own societies that are poor or working-class. This is likely one reason why reformed evangelicalism is so homogeneous when it comes to our socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. We are, if anything, an extremely literate tribe of Christianity. There are amazing strengths that come along with this, but one weakness is that we are no longer naturals in communicating with those who are oral thinkers and speakers. It’s as if we speak a different dialect than huge chunks of our own fellow countrymen, especially those who are working class or coming out of backgrounds of poverty.

If this is true, then what can we do to become better oral communicators of the gospel? First, we need to recognize that this communication barrier exists. It does us no good to continue thinking that the rest of society is just as literate as we are. If you are reading this post, that likely means you are in the top literacy bracket of your nation (for the US, this is only 12 percent of the population). This means that the vast majority of our neighbors are less literate than we are. And literacy profoundly impacts how we think, speak, and comprehend others. Have we been assuming that our communication with others is being truly understood? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that assumption. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

Second, let’s learn how to employ proverbs and truisms. We might feel like those that are still in circulation in English are cliche or unhelpful. But let’s redeem what we can and set about crafting some new ones if we have to. The key to a good proverb is its ability to condense complex truth into a short, catchy statement that can easily be memorized. For oral communicators, these memorized moral statements provide a ready framework for navigating the complexities of life. What would it look like to build a discipleship curriculum around key biblical proverbs? Or an evangelism strategy? Just as you would give a literate friend a good book, consider how to give away a good proverb to a friend who is an oral communicator.

Third, let’s not be afraid to tell stories. Sometimes those of us in the reformed camp can complain about illustrations, as if this part of the sermon is really only fluff. But a good illustration or story may be one of the most important components of a sermon for oral communicators. Even for those who are highly-literate, the illustration often remains in our brains long after the outline has faded. In a sermon that is largely abstract language, a good illustration provides some helpful concrete imagery. Stories also engage our affections in important ways. And after all, our Bible is three-fourths narrative, so we should think seriously about how story functions in our own efforts to communicate God’s truth.

Music also has a huge part to play in engaging and discipling oral learners. Again, the idea is to have truth that can be memorized and carried around, ready to be engaged without the help of a written resource. To serve oral communicators, some of our songs need to be of the sort that can be memorized and sung without any instrumentation, much as was the case with the great hymns of the past. Good songs can be an incredible tool for oral cultures.

Finally, let’s stay curious about the communication breakdowns that are happening around us. I am not saying that we abandon our highly-literate forms of communication, as if we should replace all outline-based preaching and bible studies with stories, proverbs, and songs. But rather, what can we do to meet oral communicators half-way? Can we learn to become bilingual as it were, able to communicate the same truth orally to those with only an 8th grade education as well as in highly-literate fashion to someone with a PhD? These are complex, invisible dynamics. It will take some chewing and curiosity to make any changes here and to not just revert to our defaults.

Proverbs still matter. In fact, most of the world’s population still employ them as a key part of their primarily oral engagement with reality. Actually using them may seem strange, or cliche, to us. And yet learning how to use these and other oral tools may allow our churches to break out of our highly-educated, middle-class strata, and finally communicate well with the poor, the immigrant, and the hard-working laborer. And that seems a goal worth striving toward.

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

Restoration, Not Renovation

It was our first trip to a village since our family had moved to Central Asia. One of my English students – a vivacious and persistent fellow named Rahim* – had convinced us to come stay with his family for several nights in the village of Underhill. Our hope in going was to learn more about the language and culture through this immersion experience, and to try to share some gospel truth. Rahim was probably hoping to bring honor to his family and himself by hosting us, since everyone in the village would know that they had Americans staying with them, and his family would get to show us off.

This is not to say that any motivation for honor-accrual made them poor hosts. On the contrary, the locals in our area of Central Asia view guests as a gift from God, and elaborate and generous hospitality as the primary way to gain any honor from a hosting situation. So geese were slaughtered, the chai flowed, the TVs were left constantly on, and I was invited to go fishing with the men on the lake at 5 a.m.

Apparently the men of the family liked to fish either with small explosives or by using a car battery and cables to electrocute any fish close to the boat. Both methods sounded slightly dangerous, but worth observing at least, so I actually woke up at 5 – a very rare occurrence for a night owl like myself. Alas, none of the men of the household woke up with me, so I eventually went back to sleep.

“I called the fish this morning,” Rahim later told me at breakfast, cracking a wry smile, “They said they were still asleep, so I decided to stay in bed also.”

To make up for not going fishing, Rahim offered to give me a walking tour of the village later that morning. The village of Underhill was a newer village in a very ancient area. The hill that overshadowed it and gave it its name was crowned with the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian fortress. The valley behind it contained villages where not only Zoroastrians and Muslims had lived, but also Jews and Christians in centuries past. Like many areas of Central Asia, it was now one hundred percent Muslim, and proudly so.

Underhill village had been built a couple decades previous, as families were resettled whose original homes had been destroyed by a genocidal dictator. Surrounding the village and in the pastures where the goats and sheep grazed, broken down stone outlines of homes could be easily seen scattered here and there, sad reminders of the terrible things that had taken place when Rahim’s generation were still toddlers.

As we walked in the spring sunshine, I shared with Rahim that I was trying to learn the words in the local language that would help me explain the big story of my faith. I asked if I could run them by him to see if it made sense. Rahim, an observant Muslim who was not at all shy to discuss spiritual things, eagerly agreed.

So I started with the word I had recently learned for creation, and explained that we believed that God had created the universe and made it very good. So far, so good. Rahim agreed with both the content I was sharing as well as the word I used to summarize it. Next, I shared the word I had learned for fall, telling Rahim that our first parents had sinned and had broken both our our good human natures and our relationship with God. Rahim agreed with the word I used, but it was clear he wasn’t very familiar with what I was saying about the devastating consequences of sin for humanity. Islam believes in a watered down concept of sin where it is more like an external mistake, and not an internal corruption. Because of this, they believe that humans are still freely capable to choose good anytime they want to. Given this difference in theology, I wasn’t too surprised that Rahim’s brow furrowed as I tried to explain our doctrine of the fall.

We stepped over some goat droppings and passed some chewing cows on our left. I could sense that Rahim was good with me continuing to share, so I told him the word I had learned for redemption, and explained the good news to him that Jesus is God-become-man who made the perfect sacrifice for our sins and rose from the dead to break the power of death. Rahim listened respectfully, surprisingly not pushing back with the normal objection that Muslims have – such as the belief that Jesus never really died on the cross, because God would never allow his prophet to be shamed like that.

I got to the last word, restoration, as we turned a corner and started going uphill again. I explained how the Bible teaches that when Jesus returns evil will be finally defeated, all who believe in him will be resurrected with new spiritual bodies, and that even the heavens and the earth will be resurrected and new. Heaven and earth will be completely reconciled. Rahim seemed to be thinking hard about what I was saying.

“You’ve got the wrong word for that one,” he said.

I was surprised, the word I had learned seemed a pretty straight forward translation of “to make new again,” a good way, I thought, to communicate restoration.

“We use that word for when someone is renovating their house,” Rahim continued. “You know, new paint, new windows, new drop ceilings. No, there’s another word that I think would fit better, one we use for rebuilding a house that has been completely destroyed, like these houses here.”

Rahim motioned off to his left where more crumbling stone walls rose up out of the bright green grass.

“If you were going to make these houses new, you need a stronger word. One that means a complete restoration after destruction. At least to me that sounds a lot closer to what you are describing.”

Rahim proceeded to teach me the appropriate word, one which carries the sense of restoration from the ruins, rather than mere renovation. As I later checked these terms with local believers, they agreed with Rahim. I’ve used the term he taught me ever since when explaining the big story of the Bible in its four parts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.

Rahim was more correct than he knew. Renovation of humanity, of this world, would never be enough. Our spiritual and material substance needs a lot more than a fresh coat of paint and some new shiny light fixtures. We’ve got problems deep down in the foundation, in the plumbing, in the wiring, and in the walls and beams. Our metaphorical structure has been condemned, and rightly so. No, to live in a world with no more suffering, sin, or death, we need a complete rebuilding from the ground up. Who could ever afford such a rebuilding? The cost would be staggering.

We walked back to Rahim’s house and my light-hearted friend was a lot quieter than usual. It was probably the first time in his life he had ever heard of the need for a costly redemption and restoration of his own heart – and of the entire universe. I prayed that this new message would go deep within, and puncture the whitewashed Islamic veneer of goodness that he was trusting in.

To this day we still don’t know of any believers in Underhill village, though there are a few Bibles there now. Bibles, and memories of many conversations – conversations that we hope will long linger as witnesses, like those bombed out shells of ruined homes. Renovation is not enough. We need restoration.

*Names changed for security

Photo by 李大毛 没有猫 on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Grant Me One Muslim Friend

“The most strategic thing we could do to reach the Muslim world is for every Muslim to simply have a believing friend.” As a nineteen-year-old, I remember hearing the missionary-statesman Greg Livingstone share this insight at a gathering in the Middle East. His point was that the vast majority of Muslims today are living and dying without ever hearing the gospel message and seeing it lived out in the life of a good friend. It wasn’t complicated, Greg encouraged us, so much could change by giving Muslims access to Christian friends who would genuinely love them and tell them about Jesus. The simplicity of this idea gave me courage. Having grown up among tribal animists in Melanesia, I might not be the most skilled in engaging Islam, but by the grace of God, I could be someone’s friend.

Being at the very beginning of my gap year in the middle east, my prayer became that God would grant me one Muslim friend who was open to Jesus. He answered, and gave me that friend in the person of Hama*, the jaded wedding musician with a British accent who would eventually come to faith after many misadventures together – including nearly getting blown up by a car bomb. In my friendship with Hama I learned that the relationally-intense culture of those from that part of the world meant that one close friend was truly all that was needed for full-time ministry. This is because a Middle Easterner or Central Asian almost never comes alone, but with their own large network of relatives and friends. One good friend serves as a gatekeeper to an entire community of those who will be open to getting to know you if you are hanging out with their boy, and who may also be open to getting to know Jesus.

The following year I found myself back in the US to finish up university. After a difficult semester at a Christian college in a very rural area, I transferred to a different school in Louisville, KY, in large part because I knew there was a community of refugees and immigrants from the Muslim world there. Once again, my prayer became, “God, grant me one Muslim friend.”

One day I learned about an international festival taking place at a community center in the part of the city where most refugees were being resettled. I hitched a ride with some other students, excited to see if I could make any helpful connections with the Muslim community.

At some point I found myself at the booth of a local library which offered ESL tutoring to new refugees. Somehow the librarian present found out that during my year in the Middle East I had become conversational in one of the region’s minority languages.

“We need you!” she exclaimed. “We have a newcomer, Asa*, who has almost no English. And he speaks the language you do. Please come and meet him this weekend!” Before I knew it, she had signed me up as a volunteer.

I was elated to hear that there was at least one person in my new city who spoke the same minority language that I’d been studying. Maybe Asa would be the friend that I had been praying for. It certainly seemed like a providential connection.

The next ESL session I showed up at the library and was introduced to the other volunteers. One older couple greeted me happily.

“We heard that you speak Asa’s language! That’s wonderful. So glad you’re here.”

“Thanks, I’m excited to be able to help.”

“We are in such need of volunteers, but we keep getting these dratted Baptists who try to worm their way in to proselytize, can you believe that?” said the husband, squinting his eyes and glancing around the room. “Keep an eye out. Well, have fun!”

This comment caught me off-guard, so I don’t know what happened to the color on this Baptist proselytizer’s face in that moment. But my mouth stayed shut.

Soon I was introduced to Asa, a single man in his late twenties. We hit it off immediately. Not only could we speak the same language, but Asa was from the very same city where I had spent most of my gap year. Before long, we were lost in that particular joy and relief that overtakes two speakers of a common languagge who unexpectedly run into each other in a foreign land.

I learned that Asa was not particularly profiting from this ESL group class (the librarian seemed to have a crush on him) and he earnestly asked me if the two of us could meet separately for English tutoring instead. Between his aversion to the class and the class’s aversion to Baptists, I thought this was a great idea. At the end of the tutoring time we exchanged numbers and proclaimed a barrage of respectful farewells to each other. We both left, mutually elated to have a new friend.

The next couple weeks were just like it would have been with a promising new friendship in the Middle East. Lots of calls, lots of hanging out, lots of chai, cutting up, and talking about all kinds of things. Middle Eastern and Central Asian men love to talk, and the particular Western masculinity that focuses on doing rather than talking is one of many factors that contributes to profound loneliness for most refugees from those regions. We had even begun to have our first spiritual conversations, and to my great excitement, Asa expressed interest in learning more.

This was it, I thought, this was God answering my prayers. Asa was going to be like another Hama for me. I was a busy Bible college student, I couldn’t do a lot. But I could be a good friend to a guy like Asa. I was so encouraged by God’s kindness in providing me with this friendship.

Two and a half weeks after we met, Asa called me.

“Hey A.W., I’m… moving to Boston!”

“Boston? That’s like seventeen hours from here. Why?”

“Well, a friend there said he could get me a job.”


“Can you come by my apartment tomorrow to say goodbye?”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

The next day I made my way across the city to Asa’s neighborhood, disappointed and feeling a bit misled by God. Things had seemed so providential, so perfect. Why was it turning out this way? Why must I so quickly lose a friend who seemed like he could become a brother?

I walked up the creaky wooden stairwell to Asa’s apartment and knocked on the door. Asa opened it and greeted me excitedly. He was packing, he said, and he invited me to come in and have some chai. In the tiny living room were two other refugee men, one tall and lanky, named Farhad*, and another short and energetic, named Reza*. As Asa packed his small bags, we began to converse in his dialect about his plans. Farhad and Reza turned to me with wide eyes.

“How is it that you can speak _____ ?” they asked. Turns out both of them were from other regional unreached people groups and were also conversational in Asa’s language. To see a skinny white boy speaking this language was one of strangest things they had seen in America so far.

Asa handed me a scarf as a farewell gift and insisted that I exchange numbers with Farhad and Reza. “A.W. is my true brother,” he said to his two other guests, in the honorable overstatement so typical of his people. I smiled, wondering how many cultures would extend brotherhood in this way so quickly. For my part, I sent Asa off with the last New Testament I still had in his language.

Asa left for Boston and I didn’t hear from him again for years. Farhad and Reza, on the other hand, started reaching out to me. Eventually, we started meeting up regularly to argue about politics, culture, and how so-and-so’s people group was related to that other guy’s people group. Sure enough, God opened the doors again for gospel conversation, and before long we had a Bible study going that would at its inaugural meeting run afoul of Al Mohler’s security.

We eventually lost Farhad when discussing Jesus’ call to love our enemies. “If Jesus requires me to love them, then I will never follow Jesus!” he raged during the last time he would ever study the Bible with us. Farhad’s people group had suffered genocide and centuries of oppression at the hands of the dominant people group of his country.

Reza, on the other hand, kept coming around. He became a dear friend. And he became a brother in the faith. What I thought God was doing through Asa, he had in store for me with Reza. One friend who was open to learning about Jesus. One friend who would in turn go on to share the gospel with his network, both Middle Eastern Muslims and Kentuckians.

God had answered my prayers in a way I hadn’t expected. It had first involved disappointment. But it had ended in kindness. As ultimately, it always will.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Sohaib Al Kharsa on Unsplash

Divinity, Prophethood, Judgement, Cheesecake

“So what would you say are the main differences between Islam and Christianity?” asked Hamid*, taking a bite of the cheesecake we were sharing. One welcome development over the past decade has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of cheesecake in our Central Asian city.

Hamid, Darius*, and I had gathered at a nice local cafe in order to field Hamid’s many questions. A new teacher of history and comparative religion at an elite local high school, Hamid often found himself at a loss when students asked detailed questions about Christianity. His personal studies on the internet yielded some clarity – as well as a lot more questions.

Darius and Hamid were good friends, and Darius had shared the gospel with him several times. Though neither of us were sure to what extent Hamid’s questions were for his students or actually to satisfy his own curiosity. But we didn’t find it necessary to press. In an honor-shame culture, this sort of “I have a friend who” framing of a conversation allows seekers to explore hard questions as they weigh the risk of admitting that they themselves are having potentially explosive doubts. If the questions were for Hamid himself, then that’s great. And if they’re only for his students? Still great. At the very least, the truth shared now might serve to create in Hamid’s mind what locals call a “brain-worm” that could lead to more searching down the road.

“I mean, other than what you have already described about salvation by faith instead of by good deeds,” Hamid went on to clarify. “I think I understand that point.”

I sipped my hot drink and mulled on how to respond. We had already discussed the key difference Hamid had mentioned, Islam and Christianity’s mutually-exclusive answers to how a person can be saved. I decided to proceed in a slightly different way than I normally would.

“Well, let’s frame the differences in light of three central tenets of Islam’s worldview: the oneness of God (tawhid), prophethood, and the last day.”

Darius and Hamid leaned in. The three aspects of Islamic teaching that I mentioned are so central to Muslims’ worldviews that they are what a certain historical American document might call self-evident – so obvious to locals that they feel that no logical and honest person can ever deny them.

“When we speak of tawhid, or the oneness of God, Islam teaches a simple unity. There is only one God and he exists eternally as one person. However, the Bible teaches something that contradicts this understanding of God’s nature. It teaches that God is actually a complex unity. Yes, there is only one God, but he exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons, or three distinct consciousnesses, are equally divine, and completely one in their nature, essence, and will – yet they have distinct roles and they have real relationships of love and communication and glory with one another. In this way, the God of the Bible is totally different from the God of the Qur’an. You would agree that a disagreement about the very nature of God is about as big a disagreement as you can have, right?”

Here Hamid and Darius nodded their heads. Hamid and I had previously spoken of the Trinity while on a picnic together, where he had asked a great question, one which I had never heard before, “Do the members of the Trinity ever compete with one another?” “In only one respect that I can think of,” I had responded after a while, “In giving one another glory.”

“OK, so the Trinity is a big difference,” Hamid continued, “But why do you say there’s a difference in prophethood? Aren’t prophets just men sent by God with a book, preaching God’s message to their people?”

Here I decided to be a little more blunt than usual.

“Well, the writer of the Qur’an, for his own purposes, took Mohammad’s story and did a copy-paste over the story of all the other prophets. So, yes, in Islam all the prophets seem to follow the same script. They are spoken of as basically-sinless holy men who are sent by God to their own people with the message of God’s oneness and the coming judgment of the last day. The message is often communicated to the prophet directly via an angel or some kind of verbal revelation. Many of the prophet’s people reject their message and go on to suffer the consequences. The formula is very simple and is repeated over and over, whether the Qur’an is talking about Moses, Lot, or others. God is claimed to have sent countless prophets to their own peoples in this same formula until sending Mohammad as the final ‘seal’ of the prophets, with a message for all humanity and an incorruptable book. This is why Muslims think that the Injil is one book, given to Jesus, later corrupted, and why most are unaware that there are actually four Injils (gospels), none written by Jesus himself, and unaware that they are only one part of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.

“The prophets in the Bible are very different from prophets according to Islam. They are presented as sometimes very sinful men, chosen by God’s grace to display and communicate God’s message to his people. Yes, this message involves coming judgement and turning from idols to follow the one true God. But it centers around God’s covenant faithfulness toward sinners – including the sinful prophets themselves whose failures demonstrate that we need someone who is more than a prophet. Prophets also receive many different kinds of revelation, whether seemingly more ‘spiritual’ like angels, dreams, or visions, or whether seemingly more ‘natural,’ like doing historical research or writing proverbs. Some prophets write multiple books. Other prophets don’t write any books at all. For many of our books of the Bible we don’t even know who the author was!

“The difference in prophethood between Islam and Christianity is a big one. When it comes to Jesus, rather than him being the final prophet in a long line of sinless men, each with their own people and book, Jesus is the Word of God and the Son of God himself, the only sinless one after many flawed and sinful prophets, whose coming is the climax of God’s revelation to men. All the earlier prophets point to him positively through their inspired writings and faithful deeds, as well as negatively through their sin and failure – kind of like shadows or signs that point us to the real thing.”

“OK,” nodded Hamid, “That’s prophethood. So how is the understanding of the last day different?”

“Well this one connects again to how a person is saved. In Islam, a person is judged based on a scale which weighs their good or bad deeds. The heavier side determines their eternal destiny, though no one can ever know for sure since God’s mercy is presented as unpredictable and mysterious. So in Islam, the last day motivates people to obey based out of fear that their scale will condemn them, or that God may condemn them for some other reason, simply because he is God. There is no certainty about that day of judgment, and a lot of fear.”

Here Hamid nodded his head. Whatever internet Islamic scholars may say, this is very much what Central Asian Muslims on the street believe and live by. Fear is necessary because it keeps us from sinning which will (hopefully) keep us from hell. God can be won over by just enough good deeds (hopefully) – unless he plays a divine joker card and sends some of the undeserving to heaven and others to hell, simply because he’s God and he’s beyond our understanding.

“However,” I continued, “the key for the last day, according to the Bible, is that we are known by God and by Jesus. That we have a relationship with him based on faith in his promises. And that all our good deeds on that day stand as evidence that he knows us already and we know him. They’re not the basis for our acceptance, done out of fear, but the evidence of it, done out of love and gratitude. The last day for a true believer is not something with an uncertain outcome, but a time when we are promised acceptance and welcome by God, who never breaks his promises.”

Hamid sat thoughtfully, “Thank you,” he said, turning to me. “These differences are much clearer for me now.”

I sat back, grateful that some of that I had shared had been understood, maybe even accepted. Believe it or not, convincing local friends that Christianity and Islam really do fundamentally disagree with one another is one of the most stubbornly-difficult tasks we face when we seek to do evangelism. It was interesting to use the Islamic worldview of oneness-prophethood-judgment as a familiar framework for illustrating these crucial differences. Like the scale vs. sacrifice approach, it might be a way to present gospel truth in a concrete fashion Muslims are better able to understand.

We had been talking for a while by this point and I though we had probably given Hamid enough food for thought for one evening. The cheesecake was gone. Likely, he would want to switch topics to something a little lighter.

“OK, then!” Hamid said as he rubbed his hands together. “Next question. Explain to me the different branches of Christianity – and how to keep them all straight. Google was no help on this one.”

We were going to need some more cheesecake.

*names changed for security

Photo by mahyar mirghasemi on Unsplash

Mercenary Dan

“I’m gonna invite you guys over for burgers, like I said. I make a mean American burger. But uh… well, you know how kids are always finding stuff?”

“Sure, they do find all kinds of things,” I responded into the phone, not sure what my friend was getting at.

“Well, I lost a hand grenade somewhere in my apartment. Don’t worry though. I duct-taped the pin so it’s not dangerous. But all the same, I’d hate for your kids to find it under the couch or something, you know?”

“Yeah, uh, that makes sense,” I responded, trying to sound normal.

How do you lose a hand grenade? Then again, I reminded myself that my friend Dan* was a mercenary. Everyone misplaces items from the office every now and then. Apparently mercenaries misplace hand grenades.

There are really only a few types of Westerners you run into in our corner of Central Asia. There are the missionaries, like us. The kids, collared shirts, and kind manners are usually dead giveaways here – as well as any proficiency in local language. Then there are some foreigners who are there only for business or adventure, but these tend to be a pretty questionable crew who can’t help but stick out by their awkward and sometimes scandalous conduct in the local culture. There are also the security contractors, the mercenaries. These former military types have their own dead giveaways. Cargo pants, scruffy facial hair, sunglasses, large muscles, and a kind of gnarled weathered look that comes from spending a lot of lot of time in the sun and in the dust.

The cumulative picture of this small foreign community is a bizarre one. Foreigners in Central Asia tend to eye one another warily from a distance, not sure whether they should interact, suspicious by default of what the other is doing in this desert on the other side of the world. One writer compared these expat dynamics to the desert moon of Tatooine in the Star Wars galaxy. Sure, there are some good guys scattered here and there. But most outsiders who end up in our corner of Central Asia are running from something, or are some kind of bounty hunter.

Dan and I met while I was out on a date with my wife at a local mall. He and his wife were at the same mall, spotted us as fellow foreigners, and asked us about the very restaurant that we were going to. Unlike most other expats, Dan didn’t seem standoffish at all. Instead, he was rather forward, even asking if they could join us for dinner. A split-second pivot from my wife and me had our date night quickly turn into an evangelistic opportunity with these new friends who seemed desperate for connection. Pro tip: date nights are hard to come by on the mission field, so only attempt this kind of move if you are absolutely sure you’ll be able to make up for it soon.

We sat down to dinner and began learning about their story. Originally from Portugal, Dan had been a gun-for-hire all over the world and had seen some truly terrible things. A serious injury landed him in Scandinavia, where his future wife nursed him back to health. They had been in our city for less than a year. Dan was working for a leader of one of the local militias, and his wife had gotten a job at an international school.

“I am the only person in the country with a license to open-carry a RPG!” Dan quickly let me know, proudly showing me the license itself. I was legitimately impressed.

As we talked, I learned that Dan swore like a sailor, was very proud of his Catholic military heritage, but really only believed in the power of weapons and the goodness of animals. He hated most people. But for some reason he liked me, and we began a unique friendship. Dan would tell me horrific stories of battle on behalf of corporations in African jungles. I would spiral the conversation in toward the gospel. Dan would eventually catch on, “How did you get me to talk about this again?” he would ask, squinting his eyes at me as if I were enacting some sneaky plan.

Dan would try to convince me that I would only be safe if I was packing adequate firepower. “I get it. You’re a Christian, you don’t want to kill people. How about a good shotgun? You wouldn’t have to kill them, just maim them with bird-shot! I can get you a real nice one at a great price.” I would shake my head and try to convince him that knowing the local language and culture and relying on local friends could get me safely into places Dan could never get into with his weapons. And that ultimately I was in Central Asia under God’s protection.

We got to share the gospel several times with Dan and his wife, including the time we facilitated a small wedding for them in the living room of the international church pastor. Turns out Scandinavian common law marriage is not recognized in Islamic societies that demand a certificate from an approved religious official. They were going to have to live separately, so we threw together a small ceremony for them and used it as another chance to point them to Jesus.

This meant a lot to Dan. And during the next security crisis he was sure to call me up to assure me that he had various options for armored convoys at a great price should our friends in another city need to evacuate. Then later on in the same crisis, he called me from the front lines, telling me that the news media was lying. Open warfare was taking place a couple hours from us, bodies were in the streets, in spite of the international media claims that it was just a “coordinated training exercise.” Now it was my turn to be grateful to Dan for alerting us to what was really happening when our own government and media were lying and trying to cover things up.

“Dan,” I asked him at one point. “There’s a little airstrip outside of town. If things got really bad and the airport were shut down, could you manage to hire some kind of Russian cargo plane to come in and evacuate us?”

“No,” Dan said. “I couldn’t do that… couldn’t do Russian, that is. I could get you an Emirati one though. But that’ll cost you. No friendship discounts there, ha!”

Eventually, though not surprisingly, Dan got kicked out of the country. Anyone with an open-carry license for a RPG is bound to get into serious trouble sooner or later. At the time of his departure Dan hadn’t yet professed faith in Christ. To my knowledge, he still hasn’t. He is one of many friends (though admittedly one of the more colorful ones) that God brought across our path for a short time and that we tried to share faithfully with. Even with our focus of reaching our Central Asian friends, we’ve never wanted to turn a blind eye to the gospel opportunities with others that may come about. Even if those opportunities are with those we never imagined we’d become friends with – like Catholic burger-cooking mercenaries.

Dan never found the grenade. We never had those burgers he promised. But given the strange way our paths crossed, I have a lot of hope that wherever he ends up God will bring him more believing friends who keep spiraling the conversation back to the gospel. And I pray that even mercenary Dan, who hates most people and has seen so much death, will one day be transformed.

*name changed for security

Photo by Sven Verweij on Unsplash

When My Iranian Friend Took Mohler’s Parking Spot

The year before I got married was the only time I lived on campus at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during my studies there. Two single men from my church had an opening for a roommate, and it proved to be a great opportunity for fellowship as well as saving some money for marriage.

At the time, a group of us were attempting to get a Bible study going among Iranian refugees in Louisville. My roommates agreed that we could host the first one. The only problem was that the individual buildings on campus didn’t have separate addresses. This meant that we could only give the main campus address to our Iranian friends for them to navigate their way there. The plan was for them to call us once they arrived somewhere on campus and for us to direct them to our hall.

I was excited for this Bible study to begin, and while we waited I prepped some chai in the coffee maker and fried up some chicken. Soon, a couple of the attendees arrived. We waited to get started until another new friend, Reza*, had arrived. He seemed to be taking longer than he should. Maybe he had gotten lost?

My cell phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize.


“Hi, this is campus po-lees,” began the thick Kentucky accent. “Are you A.W.?”

“I am. Is everything OK?” I replied, suddenly nervous.

“Well… I got an Eye-rain-eeun here who says he’s comin’ to your place, but I caught him parkin’ in the president’s parking spot.”

I bit my lip so as not to laugh. Anyone who’s been around SBTS knows that the campus police and staff are very serious about guarding Dr. Mohler’s official spaces, parking or otherwise. Of the hundreds of parking spots on campus, how had Reza managed to park in the only one reserved for the seminary president of all people? I shook my head as the guard continued.

“When I approached him, he took off runnin’! But I caught him and he’s tellin’ me a story I’m not sure I believe. You got some kind of Eye-rain-eeun Bible study goin’ on here like he says?”

“Uh, yes sir, we do. You can let him go and send him over to Fuller hall.”

“Alright, then… well, tell him next time not to park in the president’s spot. Have a good day,” the officer concluded, sounding not quite convinced by our story.

Reza arrived, looking relieved and a little winded. We all had a good laugh as he described what happened.

“I just followed the address on the GPS and it took me right there! I didn’t know that was the president’s special spot!”

“But Reza, why did you run from the campus police?”

“I’m a Middle-Easterner and an Iranian! When the police are coming after us, we have learned to run!” To be fair, Reza’s father had been imprisoned in Iran and Reza had himself to flee the country while still in high school.

We all sat down, passed out the chai, and began our time in the word. We ended up in Romans 5 that day, discussing how in Adam, all die, but in Christ, all can be justified. I distinctly remember when our point landed home for Reza.

“So you’re telling me that I am part of the wrong human family, one that is condemned, and I have to join a completely new human family?”

He seemed very surprised and somewhat incredulous.

“Yes, that’s exactly it!” we replied. “You have to become part of a new humanity, to be born spiritually into a new family by believing in Jesus.”

That day may have been the first time Reza had ever clearly understood the claims of the gospel. Unfortunately, that particular Bible study group soon after fell apart as one attendee claimed that another attendee was a spy – a common reason for group implosion among this particular demographic. However, Reza and I continued our friendship. He later came to faith and is still one of my best friends in the whole world.

The next day I was walking down the hallway on the way to class when I overheard one of the missions professors asking a colleague, “Did you hear about the Iranian who parked in Mohler’s parking space?”

I smiled, quietly enjoying the small disruption our little outreach had caused. From the few brief interactions I’ve had with Dr. Mohler over the years, I’m sure that if he did hear of it, he would have smiled as well.

*Names changed for security

Photo by chris robert on Unsplash

Why We Go Light on Polemics

“You don’t have to point out what’s wrong with our religion. Deep down, we know more than you ever could regarding the dark things in Islam.”

This comment years ago from a Middle Eastern friend has always stuck with me. Over time, it has proven to be sound advice, wisdom that has been borne out in countless relationships with Muslims who are coming from honor-shame cultures.

I’ve never had a personality that naturally goes hard after polemics, which is the practice of highlighting the weaknesses and errors of other religions and worldviews as a method of thereby getting to the gospel. But when locals outright deny, brush under the rug, or just plain don’t know about the the scandalous or dark parts of their holy books or prophet’s life, it is awfully tempting to start attacking these foundations of their belief, even for me.

I am not saying there is never a time to do polemics. After all, Paul says that we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5). There will be times when we follow the Spirit’s leading into saying something true that makes our hearers very angry – let’s not forget about the example of Stephen in Acts 7. And sometimes a direct assault will land home and result in further questions. But let’s also remember the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, where Jesus doesn’t take the bait of entering into religious controversy in order that he might more effectively speak to the heart of his hearer. Many times, arguments about controversies are mere talking points or smokescreens meant to deflect from the real heart issues going on.

The main issue I’ve faced with polemical approaches is that they risk triggering a defensive response, where someone is overtaken by the sense that they are duty-bound to protect their community’s honor from the attacks of an outsider, whether they internally side with their community or not. Westerners might feel this way if the attacks aren’t perceived to be fair and balanced. Those coming from honor-shame cultures often feel this fire to defend simply because there is an attack at all – fair or not. This means that someone who might otherwise listen to the gospel can go into fight mode if I start “dishonoring” the creed and traditions of his people – and then the chance to get to the gospel can be lost.

This is where my friend’s comment has proved to be so helpful. By sharing what he did, he let me know that things in Islam’s sources and history like child brides, slavery, wife-beating, the killing of Jews and infidels, the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, and the jihad-gained wealth of Muhammad and his companions are not only known to many locals, but can even keep them up at night. Many Muslims are already wrestling with these things, albeit quietly.

Since this is the case, I don’t have to go to these risky places of conversation early on in my relationship with my Muslim friend. When I share with him about Jesus or we study the Bible together, often he is automatically comparing what he hears with what Islam has taught him. And our conversation can keep on going since no open attacks on honor have yet taken place. Instead, a thousand indirect attacks are taking place and are mounting through the simple explanation and illustration of gospel truth.

Taking a look at how husbands are called to love their wives in Ephesians 5 or how Jesus calls us to love our enemies in Matthew 5 holds up a powerful contrast for a Muslim friend. He must then wrestle with this contrast that his mind is now faced with, the stark difference between texts like these and his own. In this way, polemics are in a sense happening, but indirectly, as a kind of open secret. We both know what is going on, but without verbally acknowledging it we have room in an honor-shame culture to skip the usually-required defense.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for this kind of beginning to eventually lead to an explicit discussion of Muhammad, the Qur’an, or those seventy virgins promised in the Islamic conception of paradise. But the respectful long approach to these topics and the relational credibility established by that point often mean a very different kind of conversation – one where my friend lets me know he’s ready by asking my thoughts on these topics, where he is free to share his own doubts and questions, and where I can say direct things, knowing that they will be heard in love.

There is also a big difference in this area between ourselves and local believers. We’ve found that local believers are able to engage in helpful polemics much more quickly than we are, because they are not viewed as outsiders. This seems to mean that the honor-shame defense mechanism doesn’t trigger in quite the same way for them as it does for us foreigners. This can go too far as new believers from a Muslim background do tend to go overboard with polemics – and at times forget to talk about Jesus. But it generally holds true that they have more of a chance than we do of having their attacks actually heard.

Now, when we’re on a visit and someone publicly goes after the reliability of the Bible, I want to still be ready to respond back with a defense and questions of my own. The door to a kind of “challenge-riposte” conversation has been opened by a local, and to not defend and counter would be viewed as dishonorable. However, even in this kind of context I will hold back on the most controversial topics, knowing that, unfortunately, those from honor-shame cultures can dish the attacks out, but they struggle to take it back without losing their heads. Alas, every culture has its weaknesses.

However, our usual approach to polemics is to go light and indirect, the equivalent of giving a man some roast lamb before we try to take his poorly-cooked rice away. Once faced with the choice, he will want to choose the lamb. But if rice is all he has, he will fight for that bowl of starch with all that he has. Instead, set the lamb down, let him smell and taste it, and then attempt the rice away. This kind of contrast – and timing – can make all the difference.

Photo by Hans Ripa on Unsplash