There are a number of things that I appreciated about Miller’s book. One is that it is both a good introduction to Islam and also a nice summary of the Christian metanarrative. I also liked Miller’s honest and humble perspective. In his conclusion, Miller says, “I hope that I am as critical of Christianity as I am of Islam, and I see the umma doing a number of things correctly that I don’t see the Church, by and large, doing correctly” (p. 134). Two Stories of Everything is not a polemic against Islam, even though Miller is transparent about his own Christian faith. In addition, each chapter includes reflection questions and there is a handy glossary at the end of the book.
This essay introduces the concept of encroachment as another important fine-line tension which has emerged in ministry to Muslims. Encroachment occurs when Christian messengers enlist and redefine sacred Islamic texts, persons, and identifiers in a way that usurps from the indigenous communities those texts, persons, and identifiers.
Farrokh goes on to explore some popular missiologists’ encroachments—Kevin Higgins and Kevin Greeson being key among them. He also does a fine job showing that re-envisioning the ‘prophethood’ of Muhammad and filling the word ‘Muslim’ with a new meaning are also encroachments. He also mentions how the sword cuts both ways and notes some Muslim encroachments on Christian terms and vocabulary.
The fine insight behind the introduction of this new technical definition—something that has been stirring in my mind for some time—is that communities are the arbiters of their own boundaries. It is for Muslims to decide the meaning of the word Muslim. It is for Muslims to decide the significance of Muhammad being the “seal of the prophets”. It is not for Christian thinkers or missionaries, regardless of their intentions.
One can hope for thoughtful responses to Farrokh’s irenic and well-researched paper.
In Two Stories of EverythingI take a more Eastern Orthodox approach to the Fall. I argue that the main enemy is death, that death entered the world through sin, that sin is a very real problem, but that redemption in Christ addresses more than just sin alone, and that sin is one symptom of death. A colleague and reader, George, asked about this. Here is his question and my answer (with some editing, of course):
So, to my first question about your book. I am certain I will have many questions, mostly about Islam, but my first question is actually about Christianity. In Chapter 4 you write that “Christianity proposes that the foundational problem is death.” This really caught my attention, because I have never actually seen it written that way before. You state that sin is a manifestation of death, and state that the problem of death is deeper than the problem of sin.
It is a very interesting way of looking at it. But to be completely honest, I really don’t agree with it. Now my purpose is not to start an argument. It is inevitable that friends will disagree on something. […] So I will be very interested to read why you believe that death is the foundational problem proposed in Christian theology.
Love the question. It is a very good one. Let me outline where I’m coming from with this. […] What I’m doing in emphasizing the problem of death is actually returning to an older, pre-Reformation vision. The emphasis on sin as the fundamental problem is largely a characteristic of the Reformation. And that makes sense in its historical context. The presenting issue for Luther was the sale of indulgences, and those were very specifically purposed to erase a very certain type of effect of very specific sins. So I don’t think I’m saying anything fundamentally at odds with the main gist of the Reformers, it’s just that they were focused in a very specific issue, and I’m focusing on a much larger stage–the entire metanarrative of Christianity.
I’m returning to an older, Eastern Orthodox approach to the problem. At Bible college you were given Bible verses that prioritized sin, and so you were taught that it is the fundamental problem.
However, note that in the Garden narrative there is no mention of the word sin though death is there. Also, note that at the eschaton the last enemy to be destroyed is not sin, but death. Note also that Paul is very concerned with certain principalities which keep the world in bondage. Those are Sin, Death and the Law. Paul hardly worries about Satan–he’s concerned with how Christ is victorious over these three principalities. Also, the great victory of Christ is Easter–Christ is victorious over death. In being victorious over death he can then grant us the forgiveness of sins, not the other way around.
Note also the central role of the word ‘life’ in John’s gospel. In him was the life…I am the way, the truth and the life…whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life…I am the resurrection and the life…and the list goes on. But your Bible college, I’m guessing, did not teach you soteriology from John, or Genesis, or Revelation. And when taught from the Pauline epistles the central concern of Paul with the principalities was rarely, if ever, mentioned. No worry, that is very common. Christians the world around focus on the texts that agree with them and don’t address the ones that leave them mystified.
In the book I use the phrase, more or less, ‘the entrance of death through sin,’ and that is most concise summary of how I view the issue. The fundamental problem is indeed death, but there is also a priority for sin in that the original distrust of God (i.e., the first sin) was the conduit for the corruption of the cosmos.
Another point: an ignorance of the problem of death can lead to a wan view of the redemptive nature of Christ’s work. Death means the child with cancer. Death means human trafficking. Death means the earthquake that kills thousands of people who have not committed any deliberate sin that would presumably warrant an earthquake.
Death does keep us separated from God. Death is the cancer infesting our souls and bodies. Death is the reason that we sometimes do not know right from wrong. Death is the reason that sometimes knowing right from wrong we choose that which is evil, destructive. Sin is giving in to death. Sin is saying no to life. But again, the fundamental problem is death. Killing the cancer–not just treating the most drastic symptom.
Peace and grace! I love these conversations. Hope you are well and send out Epiphany blessings to everyone there.
CH: You write: “After living in the Middle East for most of a decade, I must say that I find the public religion of Muslims (and Eastern Orthodox Christians) compelling and refreshing. Yes, sometimes it can be confrontational, but the introspective Christianity of the West with its quietism and compartmentalization strikes me as defeatist, bland, and feeble-hearted.” This relates to one of the key elements of secularism, the internalization of belief. You expanded on this in the book, but I wonder if you have seen this done in a Western context?
DM: The word introspective is from Latin and means looking inwards. The response to this is public religion, meaning an expression of religious commitment lived out in the midst of the people. I have seen baby steps towards this in America—it is easier in Europe. A church opened its grounds to local families for a movie night and it was well-attended, for instance. But that was still on the church grounds. I remember doing theology at the pub in Edinburgh with a local church. The deacon, who was quite liberal I’ll say, and I went to buy pints at the bar and this old Scotsman just saw his collar and started telling him about God. The point is he wore his collar in public, and that allowed a space for witness.
I’m in Spain and I wear my clericals several times a week because our cathedral is a very busy place. One day an old Spanish lady stopped me in the street and said, “I’m glad to see a priest wearing a collar! They used to do that all the time!” So obviously she thought I was a Roman Catholic priest, not an Anglican deacon, but it doesn’t really matter. We need to find ways of bringing the presence and reality of our religious commitment into the public world. No, we don’t need to be confrontational and abrasive—though we should realize that God may indeed call us to that sometimes. And here is me as the evangelical preacher who wants a practical application for everything: be deliberate about saying grace with your family when you eat out. Hold hands, bow your heads, make the sign of the Cross. Not to impress people. But to witness to Christ. To witness that his Church is still alive and well and it’s there at Applebee’s or Taco Cabana.
He rejects the approach of the “comparative religions” school because this Enlightenment discipline believed the topic of “religion” could be neatly compartmentalized and analyzed as an almost incident subset of “real life” as defined by secular humanists. So instead of analyzing Islam and Christianity in some topical fashion, he approaches the issue by narrating how the respective faith systems understand the origin of all things (creation), anthropology, Israel, Jesus, Muhammad, life in their respective communities, their respective missions, and their understanding of the end or eschatology. By the end of the book, the reader should understand that both Islam and Christianity, far from being easily compartmentalized abstractions, are, instead comprehensive – though differing – ways of life.
Miller’s analysis is fast paced and extremely accessible for non-specialists. A glossary and a good array of footnotes adds to the value of the text. As a Christian in the historic tradition but acquainted with the breadth of world Christianity, he is able to portray the Christian story in a way that is fair to Christians whether they be “high church” or “low”. As one who has lived a significant portion of his life in Muslim majority areas such as Nazareth and who can read the Qu’ran in Arabic, he offers an even handed view of Islam as one who knows and appreciates Muslim people.
Christians wanting to understand Islam as it relates (or doesn’t) to their own faith will find this a very helpful guide. The work is not to be confused as another missive from the “can’t we all just get along crowd” because Miller does not indulge in political correctness. Nor can he be charged with “Islamophobia” because his conclusions are based on his specialist study and familiarity with his subject.
Suitable for Sunday Schools, Small Groups, individual reading or introductory class work, this book makes for a thought provoking introduction to the topic. It especially challenges Christians in the West and those who confuse the “West” with Christianity itself. Likewise those who have an interest in the contemporary Christian Mission will be challenged when the “professor” gives the church a barely passing grade on this subject.
Of particular interest is the way that Islam’s growth highlights the weakness of the West … our self destructive attitudes towards family, procreation, our naive views on virtue and vice, and the danger of the Church’s privatized faith. Indeed, Miller’s work operates as a running critique of the secular establishment and narrative itself. The complete ignorance and impotence of the thinking of the West’s political class on the topic of Muslim-Christian relations soon becomes apparent as well.
I am happy to announce that my new book, Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity has been published and is now available for purchase. This book represents the culmination and summary of years of experience teaching at churches and institutions of higher education on Islam and Christianity. It is written for an educated audience who is not, however, a specialist in religion or theology. Think business person, Sunday school teacher, pastor who has been out of seminary for years…
Scholars and preachers have been approaching Islam and Christianity for centuries as two religions. But what if we set that approach aside and try something new? What if we look at the stories that Islam and Christianity tell? In this book we do exactly that: we go back to the beginning of the stories—Creation—and work our way forward to humanity, Israel, the founders (Jesus and Muhammad), why they founded their communities (the Church and the Umma), what those communities are doing in the world today, and then look down the road to the end of the two stories of everything with their different accounts of the final judgment.
Approaching Islam and Christianity as two stories of everything, or metanarratives, produces fresh new insights relevant to any person – whether Christian, Muslim, or of no religion—concerned with the question of how Islam, Christianity, and modernity interact and sometimes clash with each other.
The book contains a glossary and discussion questions for each chapter, making it ideal for Sunday school classes, study groups, lower level college courses, or discussion groups. The book, published by Credo House Publishers, is available in print and for Kindle.
If you’re interested in a review copy please contact me.