Monthly Archives: October 2015

Basic Islam – Part 1


Mecca, 2015
(Photo credit: Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

At a recent apologetics conference, one of the speakers I was most interested to hear could not finish his presentation on Islam. He was thoroughly prepared, but the audience interrupted him with so many questions that he only got through a few slides. It was clear they were eager to know more about Islam.

Most Christians, myself included, have spent little time studying Islam. Don’t agree? Did you recognize the photo above without reading the caption? I’ve heard about Mecca all my life, but can’t recall ever seeing a single photograph of it—as if it were a mythical place. The Atlantic Monthly did a recent photo essay showing the development of Mecca over the past 128 years. The development has caused quite a bit of controversy, even within the Islamic world.

Truth be told, our ignorance can be a barrier to understanding why there is so much strife between Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the world, and to sharing our faith. This new blog series on Islam will lay out the basics—without being disrespectful and without being naïve. (This is Veracity after all.) The posts will be short, in the hope that you will follow the hyperlinks to learn more about Islam.

One caveat before we start. If you asked someone to explain Christianity, consider how the answer might be shaped by the person answering the question. Depending on whom you asked, you might get an informed, orthodox answer or a completely off-the-wall distortion. To get the essence of Christianity, you have to get the Bible right. So for these posts on Islam we will focus on the orthodoxy of the Quran, the Hadith Collections, and the biography of Muhammad—the foundational documents of Islam. There are profound contradictions in these documents, ranging from peaceful and passive teaching to calls for extreme violence. Much of the material in these sources is contradictory, so we’ll spend some time on the Islamic Doctrine of Abrogation as well.

What is Islam?

Islam is a monotheistic religion that traces its roots all the way back through Abraham and Ishmael in the Book of Genesis. Islam is defined by:

Adherents of Islam are called Muslims, and believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Muslims are taught to accept the authority of the Quran. The word ‘Quran’ means “the recitation.”

The small building at the center of Mecca is the Kaaba, which is considered to be the “House of God.” The Kaaba is considered the holiest site in Islam. Muslims must pray their Salah five times each day facing the Kaaba. The Salah is part of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are mandatory for Muslims.

Start with the Quran

The Quran can be found online here. (This site loads the Arabic script with the English translation and individual pages can take some time to load, so be patient; their legacy Quran version seems to load faster.) There are many English translations. If you prefer to have it read to you, Audible has an English version of the Quran in three volumes (that will take 19 hours to hear). The only authoritative version of the Quran is in Arabic, although today 85 percent of the Islamic world does not speak Arabic.

The Quran is organized into 114 chapters, called suras, roughly arranged in descending length (not chronological or thematic order). Each surah is divided into verses, the smallest having three and the largest having 286. Of the 114 suras, 86 are classified as Meccan, while 28 are Medinan. Each surah has a name, and how each name was ascribed is unclear, although some were named directly by Muhammad.

Most Christians will never read the Quran. Even if that’s true for you, at least read Surah 1 and Surah 2. One of the keys to Islam is Surah 2:106. It might help to understand while reading these suras that Muslims believe Christians—by way of belief in the Trinity—are ‘polytheists.’ They also believe that the Christian Trinity consists of God the Father, Jesus, and Mary (not the Holy Spirit).

So why study Islam? Why take the time to read the Quran? Maybe we can gain some insight into the religious strife that grips our world. Well, maybe. Reading the Quran and studying Islam won’t give us credentials, but it does take away the rejoinder, “Have you ever read the Quran?

More importantly, maybe by first reading the Quran we can then have informed, empathetic, civil discussions about Christianity with Muslims.

How Would You Dress for a Halloween Party?

Recently, I was invited to go to a Halloween party this coming weekend. I need your help. What do I dress up as for this party?

Now, I know that a lot of Christians are deeply suspicious of Halloween: Is it not connected, at least remotely, to some kind of Satanic practice?

Well, the question has a point to make. After all, the timing of Halloween goes back to an ancient pagan festival, some say that was originated in Ireland, marking the beginning of winter. Samhain, pronounced “SAW-in,” from what I have learned, also celebrated the end of the harvest season. Since Samhain is at the same time of year as the traditional date for Halloween, the overlap gives the impression that Halloween has a pagan connection…. And since anything that distracts the believer from whole hearted worship of Jesus Christ could be considered “Satanic,” it only makes sense to raise such suspicion.

All Saints Day was celebrated by early medieval Christians to remember those Christian martyrs and other exemplary Christians who had gone on before them. All Saints Day, though originally in May, was moved to November 1st, under Pope Gregory (731-741 A.D.). All Souls Day, a related Christian festival to remember the faithful departed, particularly deceased relatives, was set on November 2nd. During the Reformation, the All Souls Day fell out of favor. But All Saints Day was held on by the English Anglican Church. All Saints Day is otherwise known as “All Hallows Day,” (Hallows=Holy, or Saint), which is how we get “All Hallows Eve,” or “Halloween,” for the night before on October 31st.

All Saints Day still continues in liturgical traditions that still hold to ancient Christian calendars. Its success explains why, even for today’s pagans, it is difficult to even know for sure what Samhain was like before All Saints/Souls Days came into the mix.

Halloween today is basically secularized, as are most holidays now, but as the 21st century merges into what appears to be a “post-Christian” era in the West, the revival of pagan practices associated with the ancient Samhain festival have started to reappear, such as among contemporary Wiccans. But even most honest observers admit that neo-pagan spirituality is in a continued state of flux, morphing and changing quite a bit.

We can have endless debates about how “Satanic” all of this is. Or we can take a tip from this 3-minute video at John Piper’s ministries. Do you see Halloween as something to be avoided, or do you see it as an opportunity to be a witness for the Gospel?

Here is my spin on that this year: If Christians really want to “take back Halloween,” then we might want to take a few lessons from church history. I suggested to my wife that instead of a ghost, or something like that, she can dress up as a Christian saint at the party, such as Saint Thecla. Early accounts are sketchy, with various elaborations, but Thecla was surely one of the Apostle Paul’s most well-known converts to the faith, first meeting Paul in what is now modern day Turkey. According to this Eastern Orthodox source, Thecla was forbidden by her mother to go out into the street to hear Paul preach. But she was able to listen outside of her bedroom window, where she heard the Gospel. So, if someone asks my wife, “Who are you supposed to be?,” well, then, she has an opportunity to talk about Thecla’s story as she heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and had her life set free from the fear of darkness and death.

As for me, I am still encouraged by what I wrote about last year, that identifies All Saints Day as the same day that a young, German theology professor named Martin Luther, first nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door.  Maybe, I should try to dress up as Martin Luther?  I would probably have to gain some weight though, in order to be convincing.

The point is this: perhaps one of the best ways to celebrate “All Hallows Eve” is to remember the examples of remarkable Christians who have died and gone before us. If you receive an invitation to a Halloween party, perhaps you can read up a bit on church history, dress up as some Christian figure from the past, and then use the opportunity to share the story of that person you came dressed as, with others at the party. Sure, it sounds a bit geeky, but it is a whole lot more interesting than dressing up as some “Superhero.”

For more on the origins of Halloween, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has some perceptive comments to share in 3 minutes. In the meantime, I need to figure who I should be…  and find a costume!

UPDATE: November 3, 2015

I need to make correction to an earlier statement, which suggested that the original All Saints Day spring celebration was moved to November 1st, partly to counteract the Samhain fall festival.  A recent post at the Anxious Bench blog, references a work by historian Nicholas Rogers, arguing that while the Irish world, where Samhain came from, originally celebrated a feast for saints in April, the Germanic world, that did not recognize the Irish Samhain, had a feast for saints in November. This undermines the idea that All Saints Day was placed in November in order to try to supplant the Samhain festival. I am glad to be corrected, and so I modified the rest of the blog post. The study of history reveals some interesting surprises and busts a lot of pious fiction.

Urbana 2015

I went to my first InterVarsity Urbana missions conference some thirty-one years ago, in 1984. It was one of the last times Billy Graham ever spoke at Urbana, where he kept the attention of nearly 18,000 college students, challenging us to consider God’s call to go make disciples among all of the nations (Matthew 28:19-20). I can not think of any better place to gain a global vision of what God is doing in our world.

On December 27 to 31, 2015, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is sponsoring yet again, another Urbana missions conference in St. Louis, Missouri, having outgrown the facilities at the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana. Speakers include a worldwide representation of Christian mission leaders, including pastor David Platt, church planter Francis Chan, French Islamic studies professor Evelyne Reisacher, former Muslim Abdu Murray, missionary to the LGBT community Christopher Yuan, missionary trainer Paul Borthwick, and over 180 more. Hundreds of missionary organizations will be represented to give people thinking about a call to missions the perspective they need to understand where God might be calling them.

If you know of someone who should go, particularly a college student, then contact, and pray for God to work in the hearts and minds of these students. What is God doing in our world, and are you where God is at work?

Why N.T. Wright Can Be Both Fascinating and Frustrating

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, ... and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants.

This fall, our church has been conducting a Bible study on the first eight chapters of the Book of Romans. We have been using a study guide written by an Anglican New Testament Scholar teaching at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, N.T. Wright, Romans (N.T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides).

I need not give you a biography of N.T. Wright, other than to say that Wright is perhaps one of the most influential evangelical scholars of our day. In the 1990s, Wright wrote about and impressively critiqued the rather infamous Jesus Seminar, that sought to determine the “truly” authentic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels simply on the basis of majority vote among the Jesus Seminar scholars. Wright also wrote perhaps the best contemporary defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Resurrection of the Son of God (the only other book that comes anywhere close to exceeding Wright’s work is Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). He has been a bishop, and he regularly speaks all over the world, appealing to conservative and liberal-minded Christians alike, along with interested skeptics and seekers. N.T. Wright writes faster than most humans can read… and he is overall an excellent and engaging writer, writing for both academia and also for the popular audience, as with his C.S. Lewis-like introductory book to the Christian faith, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. For the intellectually inclined, Wright is very much like a C.S. Lewis for our times… and he even has a great English accent to listen to!

But Wright also disturbs many of his fellow Christians, particularly those from a Reformed theological background. Now, the study of Romans is incredibly rich and rewarding in and of itself, but if you are not familiar with N.T. Wright, you might find yourself perplexed by some of the things N.T. Wright argues for in his study book. Consider a note on Romans 1:17 that Wright gives us on pages 13-14 of the Romans study guide:

Here Paul introduces a word and theme that will be critical throughout the letter. The Greek word and its variants are often translated as “righteous,” “righteousness,” “just” or “justice.” The problem is that Paul (though writing in Greek) has Hebrew words and meanings in mind, which English translations often overlook…..the phrase “the righteousness of God” [refers] to God ‘s own faithfulness to his promises to Israel, to his covenant…He keeps his word and thereby shows his trustworthiness, justice and righteousness…. What does this mean for what Paul is saying in Romans? [God] does not impart or impute or transfer his righteousness, his just character [to the believer]….”

and here is this remark on page 26:

The phrase often translated “righteousness of God” … is not, as some have argued, a righteous quality that God gives or imparts to humans. It is God’s own righteousness, his being true to the covenant. This covenant faithfulness carries with it more of the overtones that Paul is trying to highlight, referring back to God’s covenant promises to Abraham to undo the problem caused by the sin of Adam. But Israel failed to both keep the law and bring the message of God to the nations.

For evangelical Christians who read this, those who have grown up hearing sermons about the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, primarily through Christ’s “active obedience” to the Mosaic Law, thus enabling God to see us clothed in Christ’s righteousness, instead of our sin, sentences like those above from N.T. Wright are frankly startling. It can even be downright maddening! So then, what is N.T. Wright up to here? (CAUTION: you might need to put your thinking cap on!)
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Whitner David Paine, b. October 8, 2015

Whitner “Whit” David Paine, b. October 8, 2015

I pray that you will:

  • recognize that God loves you
  • be a good friend
  • be dependable
  • be able to let things go
  • be humble and gracious
  • be a compelling witness
  • be slow to anger and quick to forgive
  • be a good steward
  • be willing to make difficult decisions
  • be loved unconditionally
  • love unconditionally
  • try hard
  • laugh easily
  • smile when people need you to smile
  • enjoy the small things in life
  • listen to and respect those who disagree with you
  • know that God has a plan for your life
  • know the joy of personal discipleship
  • discover and appreciate that Christianity is objectively true
  • have courage
  • have compassion
  • have an uplifting sense of humor
  • have friends like your parents

I pray that you will never:

  • hate people
  • burn with anger
  • chase things that don’t matter
  • worry about things that you cannot control
  • waste your time
  • embrace cultural values that contradict your faith
  • forget who died for you

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