By Wes Magruder, Special Contributor…
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World
Jericho Books, 2012
Hardcover, 288 pages
My conversion began with Mohammed, a smiling 21-year-old Sudanese refugee who began attending our small missional community called New Day, in North Dallas.
He liked to attend our Sunday evening worship gatherings, at which we would eat together, sing songs and discuss Scripture.
The first time he attended New Day, I asked him if he wanted to share Holy Communion with us. He assented, but asked if he could bless the food first. I agreed, and he said a prayer in Arabic over the bread and cup.
Then my new Muslim friend participated in the Christian’s most sacred, cherished meal. It was a life-changing moment.
Author Brian McLaren shares a similar conversion story toward the beginning of his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. He befriended a young Iranian Muslim boy named Aatif, in the first apartment that he and his wife occupied after their marriage. According to Mr. McLaren, his friendship with Aatif and his family helped him shed his stereotyped ignorance about Islam. “They helped me know Muslims as my neighbors, my friends, human beings who struggled with the same mice and cockroaches that Grace and I did in that grimy little apartment building,” he writes.
Most American Christians are likely comfortable with the idea of being nice to Muslims; after all, the Golden Rule teaches us to “love our neighbors.”
But Mr. McLaren ups the ante considerably in his book. He asks the more unsettling question of what we are to do with our non-Christian neighbors. Do we attempt to convert them to Christianity? Or do we simply let other religious folks do their own thing, believing that ultimately we all end up in the same place?
He answers this question by focusing on the problem of Christian identity. American Christianity has traditionally been represented by a spectrum which ranges from a strong faith identity characterized by hostile attitudes towards those who are not Christians, on one extreme, to a weak faith identity characterized by benign attitudes toward non-Christians, on the other extreme. In between those two extremes can be found a mushy middle, where identity is moderately strong, and there is moderate tolerance toward others.
Mr. McLaren’s book is an attempt to help Christians stake out a new place above this spectrum entirely, with a “strong, generous, benevolent Christian identity.”
“Benevolence,” to Mr. McLaren, is more than tolerance or benign indifference; it is “affection, good will, neighborliness, solidarity, and support,” and the benevolent Christian hopes “for other religions to grow into greater wholeness and truth, just as they would hope for their own religion.”
He then goes on to sketch a picture of what a benevolent Christianity might look like, by tackling traditional doctrines, liturgical practices, and missional tasks, and reframing them in light of a pluralistic world.
Mr. McLaren cannot simply be defined as “liberal” or “conservative”; he believes, instead, that “our core doctrines are even more wonderful and challenging than we previously imagined,” and that a deeper Christology, a more precise understanding of the Trinity, and a more robust theology of the Holy Spirit, will lead us to a more “generous orthodoxy.”
Likewise, a renewed practice of traditional liturgical elements can help us strengthen our Christian identity, while identifying the “null curriculum,” or those unwritten things taught and passed on without being noticed or identified. Mr. McLaren makes a compelling case for new ways to understand baptism, Communion and the Christian year.
But perhaps the most challenging part of Mr. McLaren’s vision is the call to make friends, just as he did with Aatif and as I have done with Mohammed. He calls this the practice of “subversive friendship,” for it involves breaking down walls and crossing boundaries that aren’t usually crossed.
“Christian mission begins with friendship—not utilitarian friendship, the religious version of network marketing—but genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbors in general into knowing, appreciating, liking, and enjoying this or that neighbor in particular,” he writes.
This approach also subverts traditional understandings of Christian evangelism. Instead of entering into relationships with an ulterior motive—of converting the “other” to my way of thinking—we encounter others on a shared journey, in which “both of us seek a deeper conversion that begins in our deepest religious identity and transforms all of life.” We are to walk together, from the perspective of our cherished convictions into new understandings and new possibilities with God.
This is, indeed, a huge shift in the way that American Christians have viewed “evangelism,” but it is a refreshing vision of what the church in the 21st century might look like.
By the end of the book, the reader is left with the ringing challenge: So which neighbor, in particular, do you love?
The Rev. Magruder is an ordained UM elder and director of missional community development for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which operates new monastic communities in North Texas. He blogs at http://newmethofesto.com/.