Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church
David W. Shenk. Waterloo, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2003. 283 pages.
This book is certainly timely and its author well qualified for this comparative study. A child of missionaries and a career missionary himself, Shenk has been deeply immersed in Islamic socioreligious contexts for decades and has carried on vigorous, if always amicable, conversations with Muslims of all walks of life for some forty years (cf. his “Preface”). Other books by the author (283) include Global Gods (1995), A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (1997), and Surprises of the Christian Way (2000).
Journeys, a sequel (20) to A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (with Badru Kateregga), comes with a hearty commendation in the “Foreword” by Bedru Hussein, Vice President of Mennonite World Conference, who is a convert from Islam to Christianity. Shenk’s autobiographical “Preface” is an overview of his “journey of conversations with Muslim friends.” He alerts the reader to expect “not a comprehensive theology” in the book; rather, it offers a “narrative theology” (18) with considerable anecdotal backing—which, in my view, is a strength, not a weakness.
Shenk’s opening chapters put the rise of Islamic religion in historical, theological, and cultural context, presenting key historic events or circumstances that have shaped Muslim-Christian relations. This includes the confused or distorted Christological debates among Near-Eastern Christians in the seventh century that may account for the Qur’an’s rejection of certain Christian doctrines, e.g., Jesus’ divine-human sonship. Chapter three illustrates how similar the two creation stories are. Yet very different conceptions of human beings and of historical time flow from them, Muslims asserting human goodness and downplaying our sinfulness by saying, “we need guidance, not a redeemer” (59).
After thus setting the stage, chapters four to fourteen—the bulk of the book’s extended interfaith dialogue—contrast a series of roughly comparable pairs of Muslim and Christian personages, doctrines, and practices. He respectfully points out the considerable similarities, but does not shrink from also naming the decisive differences. Chapter four explores the common roots of both faith families in Abraham, through Ishmael and Isaac respectively. Then Shenk contrasts the founding leaders, prophet Muhammad and Messiah Jesus, and the respective Scriptures, the Qur’an and the Bible; while the former resolutely rejects translation, the latter longs to be rendered (“incarnated”) in every language and culture. These diverse positions have far-reaching consequences for the mission outreach of these two religions.
We learn further how differently revelation is understood. For Muslims it is “sent down” law (or guidance) in the Qur’anic word, whereas for Christians it happens centrally in the incarnation of the divine-human person—inconceivable to Islam. Muhammad the prophet is shown to seek political power as he flees from suffering in Mecca to Medina and later returns to conquer Mecca militarily. By contrast, Jesus rejects the crown, offered to him by the enthusiastic crowds he has fed, and resolutely goes to Jerusalem where suffering and the cross await him. Shenk further tackles the controversial issue of the Muslim and Christian conceptions of God: Tawhid (one God) and the Trinity. Shenk also makes comparisons between the Muslim pilgrimage and the Christian Eucharist, the Muslim sacred law (Shari’a) and the Holy Spirit in Christianity, and between the Muslim Ummah (nation) and the Christian Church. Finally, a brief “Concluding Comment” rounds off the text of the book.
The great strength of Journeys is its extensive and engaging use of material both from the Qur’an and the Bible. As well, Shenk enlivens the discussion with frequent illustrations from anecdotal experiences. Furthermore, while the author never hides his Christian conviction, he seeks to offer the gospel to the Muslim dialogue partners on terms they will understand. (At times, however, the book is repetitive and would benefit from some editing on grammar, e.g., 118.)
The book is readily accessible to readers, offering translation of foreign words in the text. It also has a glossary of Muslim terms and Christian terms, respectively (253-64). Sunday schools, mission and service workers in Muslim countries, teachers and students of world religions, and anyone interested in better understanding Muslim-Christian relations, will find this a valuable resource.