by Carl Medearis, Bethany House Publishers; Reprinted edition (September 1, 2008), 192 pgs., ISBN 978-0764205675
Review by Dave Westfall
I have to admit to a love-hate relationship with the writings of Carl Medearis. He is the author of Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships (abbreviated as MCJ below). In addition, he later wrote Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism. His web site describes him as a “well-known writer and speaker on Muslim-Christian relations and the Middle East” and “an international expert in the field of Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations.”
My mixed feelings are based things I saw in MCJ. As a cross-check, I searched the Internet and found other things he had said along the same lines.
On the positive side, many of Medearis’s criticisms of evangelistic efforts are valid, and his suggestions for better approaches are quite worthwhile. I say this as a practicing Christian who has been active in several churches for over 40 years. I did door-to-door evangelism in the church I was saved in. I was involved with the Here’s Life America – “I Found It” campaign in another. Although the members taking part in those programs were mostly sincere and loving, the activities had little overall impact on those churches or their participating members.
Since then I’ve thought a lot about those kinds of ways of doing evangelism. Medearis’s criticisms of typical efforts resonated with my thoughts and feelings based on my experiences. In practice they targeted people as objects for conversion, and raw material for church growth and increased offerings, rather than attempting to build relationships as he suggests.
That’s the good aspect of Medearis’s writings. I really should resist the temptation to say “the bad and the ugly” to describe the rest. However I was quite concerned about other things I saw in MCJ. Consider this excerpt from page 163:
We would never invite them to a Bible study. Christians do Bible studies. No one else in the world sits around and studies a book. We invite them to a discussion group (which is what we’ve just done with our neighbors). We let others lead. We don’t control it when the group wanders. We’re simply studying this interesting and controversial figure of history–Jesus. I try hard not to sound like a salesman for him.
First people–not just Christians– do study books, even in other countries. Mortimer Adler started a great books discussion group in 1930. It eventually developed into the Great Books Foundation which has been encouraging book studies in schools and other environments, including prisons, in over 10 countries.
Bible studies are common in Christian outreach efforts and not just in America. For example, the web site of BSF International (Bible Study Fellowship) indicates that it offers “classes” in over 35 countries, including three with 45 percent or higher Muslim populations (Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria).
In addition other religions, including Islam, conduct group studies of their sacred writings. For example, using the phrase “Quran study group” in a search engine returns numerous links to web pages about Muslim-sponsored studies of the Qur’an.
Second and far more importantly, the Bible is essential to Christianity: “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates …” (Heb. 4:12). And it is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). That’s what the Bible says about itself, and that’s what I have found it to be through study and experience in applying it to my life since I was born again on March 13, 1971. So if Carl Medearis or anyone else, including “an angel from heaven” (Gal. 1:8), says that Bible studies are inappropriate for presenting the teachings of Jesus, I’m going to be seriously concerned. (Note: all scripture quotations are from the NIV.)
Shifting to another topic, he shares a tale on pages 156-158 of MCJ about a Jewish graduate student who confronted him after a talk he gave at Harvard. (Yale might have higher SAT test scores, and Columbia and several other universities do have substantially more Nobel Prize winners, but Harvard seems to get featured more often in anecdotal stories.) He tells us and quotes her, “She walked in loaded and ready for a fight. … ‘I want you to know that I’m Jewish, and I don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.'”
Now Medearis has a lot of words in MCJ stressing the importance of not offending people’s religious sensibilities. This includes not emphasizing the differences between Isa, the Muslim version of Jesus, and the one described in the Bible (the book we’re not supposed to study with Muslims). If he was practicing what he was preaching, it would be hard to understand how he could generate such a vehement response from this Jewish grad student. (By the way, I have two Master’s degrees and a PhD and am teaching in a public university, so I’ve met a lot of graduate students. I haven’t ever seen one act that way on campus outside of a political situation. But then again, I haven’t given any talks at Harvard.)
Medearis continued the discussion without falling into the trap of responding to her in kind. (As mentioned before, I like a lot of things about what he says and does.) Eventually she started to cry. He updates us that she “has since been in a study of the Gospels … and is close to the kingdom.” That’s wonderful, especially since that result contradicts his recommendation against doing Bible studies.
Later in the book (pp. 174-178), he writes about a citywide interfaith dialogue. There is an unusual pattern in how he describes the other participants in the meeting. First he tells us about the “honorable Muslim sheikh, the imam Yusef el Ahmadi, leader of the Colorado Springs Islamic Society.” And the “doctor, sheikh, leading thinker, Imam Ali bin Muhammad, president of the American Muslim Society of Imams [and other really important things].” They are obviously prestigious people, and this part is fairly standard (except for the bracketed text, which is verbatim from MCJ).
But after that, “rabbi Yossi Guren of the [insert name of synagogue that sounds very important, which I can't remember]” (brackets also in original; however the rabbi’s name may be fictitious) and the “first lady rabbi in Colorado, founder and president of the [most amazing something that's ever been started, which I can't remember].” And finally, they introduced “a bishop who was and is immortalized as the Catholic leader of the Colorado Springs area.”
The careless statements about the rabbis are in marked contrast to Medearis’s repeated exhortations to be very considerate of Muslims and to learn more about them so we can avoid offending them. It should have required little effort to discover the missing details that he says he doesn’t remember. When people write books, they normally fill in things like this. (I’ve written textbook chapters and articles in specialized encyclopedias and know first-hand how much editors stress that.) The fact that he did just the opposite in this situation, including the sarcastic-sounding mention of the unnamed “lady rabbi” who started “the most amazing something,” suggests a lack of respect.
After the discussion described above, people asked Medearis questions. One “lady” (sounds like someone over 50, neatly dressed) was “more than a little upset” that he didn’t mention the Trinity or the Atonement (both nouns with capitalized first-letters in MCJ). He flashed his well-worn Bible and assured her that he believed “everything in this book.” Then a young Muslim who had been in the audience told her that he was very impressed with how Medearis focused on Jesus and avoided talking about “theology or doctrine or even Christianity.”
He reports that after the “lady” heard the young Muslim’s reaction, “To her credit, she said, ‘Wow, maybe you’re right. I wonder if I’ve confused my religion with my Savior.'” Aside from the seeming incongruity between the slangy “Wow” with the previous characterization of the woman and the stiffness of her quoted dialogue, the statement is absurd. Without the atonement, Jesus couldn’t be her savior or anyone else’s either.
I also had reservations about item 12 in the section entitled “BASIC DOS AND DON’TS” where Medearis says, “Feel free to read the Qur’an. It’s not a bad book, and it mostly agrees with the Bible.” (p. 173) I agree with that advice and am currently reading the Qur’an.
On the other hand, “mostly agrees with the Bible” simply isn’t true. Although the Qur’an and the Bible (as well as other religious writings and secular ethics) generally agree on basic moral values, that does not imply in any meaningful way that they are largely in harmony. If you are at all acquainted with the Bible and do follow Medearis’s advice, you will find that the Qur’an and the Bible differ greatly on foundational issues. For example, the Qur’an says that Jesus was not the son of God, that he was not crucified (as Medearis notes on p. 66), and that he was not raised from the dead. References to God as our father are a prominent feature of the New Testament, and are found in the Old Testament too. But you won’t find that title anywhere in the Qur’an among the “99 names of Allah.”
Another difference that may be even more critical has to do with the concept of God revealing himself. He notes on page 83 in MCJ that “In the Islamic personification of God, he is vast and unknowable.” Contrast that with an Old Testament reference, “let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD” (Jer. 9:24).
He also says on the same page, “God’s completeness and unity within himself renders him so untouchable and aloof that even the very thought of God coming to earth in human form is unthinkable.” There are a number of passages in the New Testament that contradict this idea, for example John 14:9 where Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Thus Muslim concepts that Medearis acknowledges in his own book refute his claim that the Qur’an mostly agrees with the Bible.
Again, I like much of what he says about evangelism. I also understand that there’s a very fine line between trying to be culturally sensitive and being untrue to the gospel. I’m praying that in practice Carl Medearis will be able to walk that tightrope more faithfully than he seems to do in this book.