The New Christians of North Africa (Tunis)

Pharos Journal of Theology, which is published by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, has recently published an article of mine on the new Christians of North Africa, specifically in Tunis. Here is the abstract:

In the last few decades a substantial number of Tunisians have converted to Christianity. This article seeks to better understand their context and based on two weeks of fieldwork in Tunis in the summer of 2014, this article outlines the history of three of the principal churches in the city—one Catholic, one Anglican, and one Reformed—describes some facets of their worship and spiritual life, and then, based on interviews with church leaders and members, explores key challenges facing the churches. Utilizing the framework of Shoki Coe’s contextual theology, the findings are then analyzed in order to better understand the priorities, aspirations and ministry strategies of the local churches.

You can download the PDF from the journal’s website or from my own academia.edu page.

Interview avec un berbère convertir de l’islam au christianisme catholique romaine

And this time in French. Did you really think I only did English and Arabic?

Hope for the English translation of this (the original) to come out some time later this year. Here is one of the interview questions:

4) Une des classes que j’enseigne ici à Nazareth concerne l’Histoire de l’Église ancienne. L’Afrique du Nord a compté quelques églises très importantes comme Carthage et Hippone ainsi que de grands saints comme saint Augustin, Perpétue, Félicité et Cyprien. Pourtant, le christianisme indigène a été presque totalement absent de la région depuis des siècles. Est-ce que l’histoire des premiers chrétiens de la région représente quelque chose d’important pour les nouveaux Chrétiens d’aujourd’hui? Ou est-ce juste un fait historique intéressant, mais sans grande importance aujourd’hui?

La découverte des saints africains, surtout le plus grand d’entre eux, à savoir Augustin de Thagaste, est toujours revigorante, presque euphorique : « Si mes ancêtres lointains ont été chrétiens, il n’y a donc pas de complexe à l’être », s’est dit plus d’un néophyte. Certains déclarent après leur baptême : « je suis revenu à la religion de mes pères ! » Mais plus généralement tout le christianisme antique permet de se poser la question de la liberté de choix. Si mon ancêtre lointain a choisi librement l’islam, qu’on me permette de faire ce choix moi-même ; mais si cette religion lui a été imposée « bessif » (par l’épée), alors je ne commets aucune trahison, à l’égard de ma tribu, si je la quitte.

Read the rest of my interview with Mohammed-Christophe Bilek at Notre Dame de Kabylie.

Al Kresta from Ave Maria Radio interviews Dr Duane Miller

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Al Kresta for his show Kresta in the Afternoon on Ave Maria Radio on one of my main topics of research, namely religious conversion from Islam to Christianity.

The interview begins around the 21st minute.

You can also listen to the audio file HERE or go to the Audio Archive and scroll down to May 7th, Hour 1. You can also listen to it on iTunes.

New article: May Muslims in Israel-Palestine become Christians?

An article of mine was recently published in St Francis Magazine, Vol 10:1, April 2014. The title of the article is “Religious Freedom in Israel-Palestine: may Muslims become Christians, and do Christians have the freedom to welcome such converts?”

Here is the abstract:

This research represents a continuation and elaboration on Miller’s research for the Christianity and Freedom project, presented in Rome in December of 2013. This article seeks to understand the challenges and context of Christians who are also ex-Muslims in the Holy Land. Attention is paid to the difference between the contexts in the West Bank and Israel, and how the established Christian Churches sometimes safeguard their own precarious sense of security by turning away Muslims who seek to know more about the Christian faith and converts from Islam.

Download it at my Academia.edu page or from St Francis Magazine.

Review of Kathryn Kraft’s book on Converts from Islam to a Christian faith

Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab WorldSearching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World by Kathryn Ann Kraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kathryn Kraft’s book is a study of groups of converts from Islam to Christianity in Egypt and Lebanon. Working in the field of sociology of religion, she attempts to analyse and understand the consequences of the decision to leave Islam and embrace a Christian faith. (Why the indefinite article? This is never explained but I’m certain this is not the way that converts speak of their faith.)

Her intent is clearly explained on page 16: After telling us, at some length, about her methodology and research experience, she will utilize two Islamic doctrines, tawhiid and umma, to “explore the lives, cultures and values of converts from an Arab, Muslim background.” She does this by treating a number of idealized topics (hence the word “heaven” in the title): the perfect researcher, perfect unity (tawhiid), perfect community (Umma), perfect dream, perfect believer and a perfect identity. A recurring theme is that these converts (and it is good that she uses the correct word here—convert) have a vision and hope for something in converting to Christianity that they do not ultimately achieve. In making the dangerous and difficult move of converting they are hoping for heaven on earth, but in fact meet with disappointment on multiple levels. They are disappointed by churches that don’t welcome them, by missionaries who are overbearing or pastors who are disconnected, they are alienated from their (Muslim) families and nations, they are disappointed by the intolerance of Islamic law, and so on (anomie is the technical term which Kraft uses to summarize this state).

That Kraft is frank about the difficulties faced by Christians from a Muslim background is refreshing. Much of the material that exists about these converts tends to lionize them and portray them as having faith to move mountains and standing up under persecution like Polycarp or Perpetua. This does indeed happen sometimes, but Kraft’s exploration of the other side of the coin is welcome, even if at times the “anomie” of these “deviant persons” tends to overpower the equally genuine truth that these converts often have a powerful and refreshing sense of hope and love which they had not experienced in Islam.

Kraft is able to explore some new territory in relation to these converts. How do converts manage the question of self-identity in a country like Egypt where they cannot legally change their religion from Muslim to Christian? How do they relate to their families? What are the effects of leaving a structured diin like Islam, with set fasts, pray times, a manner of chanting the Qur’an, for evangelicalish Christianity (mostly), which tends to eschew such structure and (blandly, perhaps) encourages people to simple pray to God whatever is “on their heart”? Also welcome is Kraft’s willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the convert identity, and her treatment in Chapter 7 of various strategies used by converts to figure out how to live as Christians from a Muslim background is nuanced and does not oversimplify the topic. In engaging with the question of identity she is following in the footsteps of Seppo Syrjanen who composed the first sociological case study of converts from Islam to Christianity.

There are problems with the book, however. At times it was not clear to me whose voice was speaking: the convert’s, or hers? Some sections had a wealth of quotations from her sources which were helpful and welcome, but at other times one could go for pages reading the author’s analysis on some facet of conversion life without reading a single quotation from the sources themselves. This does not mean that her conclusions are false, my own research among converts (Arabs and Iranians, mostly) actually tends to back up most of her points. But there are sections where allowing the voices of the researched subjects to be present before going on to analyse them would improve the reading experience.

As to the methodology and her own reflection on herself as a researcher (the end of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2), I am ambivalent. Students doing scholarship among MBB’s in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, will find this lengthy section helpful and indeed may well want to use it as a template for their own methodology section. Comaprisons to nuns leaving the convent may warm the heart of anthropologists, but add nothing to the book. Readers who simply want to know about the converts from Islam may well want to skip her chapter on “the perfect researcher”.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make in relation to field research is related to how to analyse the data. After weeks, months or years of interviews, e-mails, conversations, visiting churches and hearing sermons and songs—one must figure out how to go about identifying what stays in and what stays out, what is worth exploring more and what is not, what gets a whole chapter in the thesis, and what gets a paragraph or an appendix or is simply saved for future articles. It is at this point that

Kraft makes her most puzzling move by choosing two Islamic concepts: tawhiid and Umma. Kraft has claimed that she wants to let the converts speak on their own terms, using their own ideas, and not impose ad extra her own presuppositions. So why would she choose these two concepts? The question is never answered in her book.

The author overestimates, I think, the significance of tawhiid, which refers to the monadic monotheism of God’s essence in Islamic theology. Kraft believes that this tawhiid is refracted onto the life of the Muslim by creating a unified and integral way of life. For instance, tawhiid would resist the idea that secular order and religious order should be separated from each other. And so, she appears to believe, in leaving Islam converts are hungering for this same sort of integrated life and identity they had experienced (maybe?) in Islam, but become disappointed when this dream of heaven on earth is not fulfilled in Christianity.

The implication is that there is something special about Islam, because of tawhiid, that makes the Muslim (and ex-Muslim) hunger for a well-integrated life and identity that is not present in other societies. This is a problematic claim. Is it not more likely that modernity tends towards compartmentalized, fragmented identities, and that the normal way to be human, including for non-modern Christians, is to desire and perhaps attain such an integrated life? This position has been argued extensively by Peter Berger in his book, Facing Up To Modernity: Excursions In Society, Politics, And Religion. According to him, Modernity has created five key problems. One, abstraction: this is related to the mass state and media, and the rise of the Machine, and the destruction of what have been historically integrated communities (71, 72). Two, futurity—as children of Modernity are always focusing on the future and not the present or the past. Three, individuation: entailing the separation of the individual from the collective, which has led to greater anomie. Four, liberation: people have liberty to choose who or what they will be, but that liberty may convert itself into being forced to choose, and thus become oppressive, this experiencing of being forced to choose is called the heretical imperative. Five, there is secularization: “Modernization has brought with it a massive threat to the plausibility of religious belief and experience” (78).

One could ask similar questions about the concept of the Umma. Are we to believe that the desire to belong to a close-knit and united community is particular to Islam? Is it not in fact particular to many forms of Christianity throughout history (if not evangelicalism today)? In other words, it is not Islam that is different here, it is modernity that is bizarre and novel in its willingness to fracture and compartmentalize facets of the human life, and while not all Christianity is the fruit of modernity, evangelicalism certainly is.

Kraft’s choice of two concepts from Islam, a religion which her converts claim to have left, to explain how Christians live is the most problematic and puzzling aspect of this book. In spite of this over-reliance on the explanatory power of tawhiid and Umma, her analisys actually succeeds quite well. I just wish she would have used different words to treat the topic. After all, the chapter on tawhiid is very much about relationships, and the chapter on Umma about community. Simply acknowledging that relationships and community are integral aspects of what it means to be human—whether one is Christian or Muslim—and that the convert’s life cannot be examined without treating the two topics would have sufficed.

The book’s conclusion (the final chapter) is its strongest note, with Kraft briefly explaining the next frontier of exploration in relation to Christians from a Muslim background: the second generation. How converts raise their children in societies like Egypt where the extended family is Muslim and the child is, according to the dictates of the shari’a, by necessity Muslim and must be taught Islam in school—these topics are completely unresearched to my knowledge.

Kraft has provided us with a valuable book, one of the only ones in existence about converts from Islam to Christianity. Her sober treatment of the difficulties they face and the complexity of their strategies in negotiating identity and relationships outweighs any deficiencies on might identify, and mean that, without a doubt, this book will be indispensable reading for any scholar researching similar converts.

Reviewed by Duane Alexander Miller, NETS Book Reviews, October 2013

View all my reviews

You may also download the PDF of the review here.

Contextual Theology-making and ex-Muslim Christians: abstract and PDF

This is the abstract to my doctoral thesis, Living among the Breakage: Contextual Theology-making and ex-Muslim Christians (University of Edinburgh, unpublished doctoral thesis, 2014):

Abstract

Since the 1960’s there has been a marked increase in the number of known conversions from Islam to Christianity. This thesis asks whether certain of these ex-Muslim Christians engage in the process of theology-making and, if so, it asks what these theologies claim to know about God and humans’ relation to God.

Utilizing the dialectic of contextuality-contextualization of Shoki Coe, and the sociology of theological knowledge of Robert Schreiter, the thesis seeks to answer these questions by the use of two case studies and an examination of some of the texts written by ex-Muslim Christians. Lewis Rambo’s theory of religious conversion and Steven Lukes’ theory of power will be used to clarify the changing dynamics of power which have helped to foster modern contexts wherein an unprecedented number of Muslims are both exposed to the Christian message and, if they choose to do so, able to appropriate it through religious conversion.

The two case studies are of a Christian community which founded a Muslim-background church in the Arabophone world and some Iranian Christian congregations in the USA and UK Diaspora.

Aspects of the contexts of these believers are investigated in some detail, including motives for religious conversion, numbers and locations of the converts, how apostates may be treated by Muslims, changes in migration and communications, and the Christian concept of religious conversion.  The concept of inculturation which helps to describe the meeting of a specific community with the Christian message will aid in analyzing the communities and individuals being studied.

The final chapter brings together the various threads which have been raised throughout the thesis and argues that ex-Muslim Christians are engaged in theology-making, that areas of interest to them include theology of the church, salvation and baptism, and that the dominant metaphor in these theologies is a conceptualization of love and power that sees the two divine traits as inseparable from each other; they represent a knowledge about who God is and what he is like, which, in their understanding, is irreconcilable with their former religion, Islam.

(End)

The thesis is now available in print and be purchased from the publisher or at Amazon.

Also note that the bibliography can be found at my Academia page.

A Turkish Christian on persecution and conversion

I really like this article by an ethnic-Turkish Christian over at Christianity Today. I have met so many ‘new’ Christians over the years and sometimes they really do have miraculous stories to tell, but mostly they feel like normal Christians and would like to be treated that way. The author inserts a dose of realism with these words:

More Christians are killed than are saved from execution at the last minute. More Christians stay locked in prison, beaten and tortured, than are able to walk free, guided by miraculous escape plans. More Christians suffer lifelong deprivation of their most basic civic and economic rights. More converts from Islam give up their faith than stay Christians, and those who remain in the church struggle with lifelong battles with shame, depression, and isolation, caused by the loss of ties to their families, communities, and nations.

Above all, for the average persecuted Christian, there are unanswered prayers and the absence of peace, strength, courage, and joy. Their humanness in a very earthly plot line finds no place in our modern-day obsession with heroic stories with victorious resolutions.

Read the rest of article HERE.