In Search of Sahih (Authentic) Insider Movements, A Review of “Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus Within Diverse Religious Communities”, John Travis and Harley Talman, editors.
Reviewed by: Dr. Fred Farrokh
Islamic history recounts that Imam Muhammad al Bukhari (810-870 AD) undertook the monumental task of sifting through and winnowing out the thousands of sayings attributed to Muhammad in order to determine which ones were authentic, or sahih. In the end, Bukhari ruled out over 90% of the ahadith (sayings) he considered spurious or false. He compiled the remaining genuine ones in a multi-volume set we now know as Sahih Bukhari.
I am undertaking a similar task, albeit on a smaller scale, in reviewing Understanding Insider Movements, (UIM) edited by John Travis and Harley Talman (pseudonyms, both), which is actually an anthology of 64 articles on this missiological controversy, totaling 679 pages. Though the UIM contributors are supporters of the insider movement paradigm, their coverage of many diverse subjects makes a unified book review elusive. In my review of UIM, I will largely limit myself to the book’s methodology—what is covered, what is not covered, and who is covering it. In the cases where I have interacted with the content of the insider movement paradigm—of which I am admittedly skeptical—I have done so to stimulate further missiological discourse.
Who is Doing the Covering?
Readers of UIM may benefit from knowing that its editors John Travis and Harley Talman are two vocal proponents of insider movements. UIM provides no dissenting opinion in the 64 chapters, where such opinions would have been easy to obtain. Instead, concerns about insider movements are handled in a self-question and self-answer format by insider advocates themselves (for example, Chapters 3, 5 and 56). As such, Travis and Talman have missed an opportunity to answer their critics; instead, they have not included their critics in the discussion.
A Reprint-heavy Publication
For those eagerly anticipating the release of this book, it may come as a surprise that 45 of the 64 chapters are merely reprints or revisions of previously published articles (mostly from the International Journal of Frontier Missiology and Missions Frontiers), or excerpts from previously published books. The uninitiated may find these reprints interesting, but those acutely interested in the insider movements controversy will have previously read most of these articles. This raises additional questions: Was not newer material available? Since this book was several years in the making, was there not sufficient time to solicit such articles? Was the inclusion of so many older articles simply part of a “shock and awe” display to which the readers unfamiliar with these previous works must conclude that insider movements are alive and well?
Academic Nuance Pervades Nearly Everywhere
UIM authors frequently belittle an “essentialist views of religion” (Talman, p. 19). This is typical of the academically-nuanced insider approach to the study of Islam and other non-Christian faiths evident in this anthology. UIM readers may nonetheless wonder whether this Western academic approach is merely an inappropriate external imposition forced onto some Eastern binary contexts and questions. For example, Talman feels that the question of whether Muhammad was a divinely-sent prophet is not “black and white” (p. 501). Indigenous persons facing this question have not typically had a middle-ground choice. UIM does not seem to allow that some questions are ultimately of the “yes-no” variety, such as whether or not a person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
What is Covered by the Book?
John Travis is to be commended for defining “insider movements” in chapter 1. He confirms that the working definition of insider movements is essentially unchanged from that rendered by Rebecca Lewis in IJFM in 2007. At the individual level, Travis defines an “insider” as “a person from a non-Christian background who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior but retained the socioreligious identity of his or her birth” (p. 8).
The Book’s Strongest Point
UIM is to be commended for addressing many key missiological issues which fall under the umbrella of insider movements. In Chapter 4, John Travis and Dudley Woodberry bring several important missiological issues to the fore. First is the issue of spiritual compromise versus “ultimate allegiance” to the Lord Jesus: “…some commonly held Muslim teachings and interpretations of the Qur’an contradict the gospel. If these are retained, the gospel message would be compromised” (p. 33). The second issue focuses on spiritual freedom and renunciation of anti-biblical practices. Regarding some Folk Islamic practices, the authors write: “These must be renounced by followers of Jesus in order to experience spiritual freedom” (p. 33). The authors’ proposals regarding these issues constitute a missiological high-water mark of the book. My own experience as a Muslim-background Christian who has pastored former Muslims is that these issues are indeed critical.
Multiple Religious Settings
Though Muslim contexts feature prominently in this book, the editors must also be applauded for including material from Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and non-Messianic Jewish contexts. In several cases, the articles do not make it clear whether those featured are actually insider practitioners. For example, in Chapter 9, K. Venkatesh mentions in passing that he and his sister have come to faith in Christ and have given up their previous practice of worshipping Hindu gods (p.94). It would have been helpful if UIM had included Mr. Venkatesh’s view on the following questions: What does their Hindu family and community think of their rejection of Hindu gods? Do they still see them as retaining Hindu identity? If not, how can they be considered Hindu insiders, and included in this book as examples of insiders? Perplexingly, this same assortment of unanswered questions lays strewn behind most of the case studies offered in UIM as supporting the existence of insider movements.
Abraham, Isaac and Insider Movements?
The editors again do well to give UIM historical breadth. Both John Travis (p. 50) and Harley Talman (Chapter 21) consider Old Testament cases they consider to be insider movements, or supportive thereof. Talman borrows heavily from the writings Gerald McDermott and John Goldingay in advocating both Religious Pluralism and Inclusivism. Talman contends that God in the Old Testament establishes an “attitude of absorption toward other religions” for the Hebrews, from Genesis onward (p. 181). The author, however, fails to connect the figures he references (p. 183), such as Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro of Midian, and the Queen of Sheba, to the Insider Movements Movement which the book seeks to validate. Were any of these biblical figures actually leaders of growing insider movements?
What is Not Covered by the Book?
A Clear Differentiation between Various Types Presented as Insiders
UIM appears to present two main distinct types of individuals (and groups) under the same term insiders, even though the second type are not actually insiders. “Type L” Insiders (my term, not UIM’s) are those “limbo-state” participants which seem to strive to hold on to two mutually exclusive faith systems—such as the Qur’anic faith and the biblical faith—simultaneously. In seeking to develop a hybrid faith, they permanently remain in an in-between state. 1
Globally, Type L is the most common outcome of the insider paradigm. Souls being taught under this paradigm seem to get just enough of the gospel to think they know it, but not enough to actually save them, since they never leave behind key spiritual covenants which bind them. 2 This is a lamentable outcome that may break the hearts of Great Commission Christians.
The second type of insider described by UIM appears to be what I might call “Type O” orthodox Christ-worshippers who yet remain within their birth communities but do not continue in the religions of their birth. Questions remain why UIM portrays these believers as insider movement participants. Indeed, these are movements that even many critics of IM are planting and seeking to nurture!
Furthermore, many other case studies in this book fail to include adequate details for UIM readers to adequately understand what is happening on the ground. No doubt there are mixed movements, and various types of believers within the same movements, but even these distinctions are hard to verify from the descriptions given in UIM. It remains unclear why so many key details seem to be almost intentionally left out.
Voices of Indigenous Authors
Though insider movements have created controversy in Hindu and Buddhist contexts, the main missiological uproar has been over the introduction of the insider movement paradigm into Muslim contexts. Nevertheless, UIM fails to provide any substantive, recent material from Muslim insider authors. Rather, UIM readers are treated in Chapter 12 to a reprinted 2009 article by Mazhar Mallouhi of Frontiers (John Travis’ mission board), as well as a 2007 reprint article from the International Journal of Frontier Missiology featuring an interview of Brother Yusuf by Gary Corwin (Chapter 52). Yes, there are two very brief sidebars from Muslim-background persons. One is from the Ethiopian “Abu Jaz” who (according to several IJFM articles) considers himself a theological outsider regarding Islam, not an insider. The second is a brief, empathy-inducing sidebar of a Muslim who has come to faith in Christ and begs Christians: “Brothers and sisters, my hope is that you can receive me as a brother as I have received you as mine” (p. 138).
After a half century of insider movement experimentation in the Muslim world, readers are still looking for any of the following from an Insider Muslim: a commentary on any book or books of the Bible, a theological work, a missiological treatise, a sample of indigenous devotional literature, song sheets, or inspirational poetry. John Travis arranged the translation of the above-referenced sidebar on p. 138, so translations and/or transcriptions could have been provided for additional works emanating from non-English sources. The presence of such material would have provided much stronger evidence that such movements actually exist. And the insights of these Insider Muslims could potentially benefit the wider Body of Christ in learning how to minister to Muslims.
Concrete Cases for those Squinting to Find the Insider Movements
UIM includes only one Muslim-context case which seems to definitely satisfy the definition of insider movements set forth in this book. In Chapter 53, Harley Talman recounts several interesting testimonies of Muslim insiders being asked by other Muslims to prove their Muslim faith through shahada confession. One Muslim insider leader, Abdo, does confess the Islamic shahada but adds a Jesus clause to it in order to confuse the Muslims present with what Talman describes as a “more inclusive confession” (p. 505). In the only bona fide example in UIM of a Muslim insider leader dealing with this key subject, the insider handles it by proclaiming allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad and then pivoting into duplicity—and grins proudly about having done so. From the few details given, this situation seems to fit the “Type L” limbo-state insider paradigm.
Several other somewhat-vague descriptions of insider movements only serve to arouse worries about syncretism. In one case, a type of bait-and-switch occurs when the permanent state of identity required by the insider identity paradigm is swapped for a temporary one. “Brother Yusuf,” in an unnamed country, states: “We do not teach the brethren that they should go to the mosque or that they should refrain from going, and there is no expectation that either will be a permanent state” (p. 497, emphasis added). UIM readers may be more than curious to find out if these believers do remain in the mosque in the long-term.
Rationale for Rename it, and Claim It
As mentioned above, UIM leaves out critical material in its descriptions of specific insider movements, such that readers are unable to ascertain whether the movements being described are insider movements at all. Insider advocate Joseph Cumming states correctly, “For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the prophethood of Muhammad is non-negotiably essential to Muslim identity” (p. 27). The shahada, of course, affirms the prophethood of Muhammad and Allah’s infallible messenger. Yet, the first six vignettes of insider movements in this book (pages 3 and 32-33) fail to mention whether the Muslims who are journeying to Christ actually leave behind affirmation of Muhammad!
If the new believers described above in these cases studies have left behind affirmation of Muhammad (thus refusing to declare shahada), then these movements can be considered “Type O” orthodox movements to Christ, along the lines of what is currently happening en masse in Iran and Algeria. If these new believers have left behind the affirmation of Muhammad and his anti-biblical teachings, then they are no longer Muslims. Therefore these are not insider movements. In other words, the authors may be mislabeling authentic, orthodox indigenous movements to Christ and claiming them as “insider movements.”
Allowing the Body of Christ to Rejoice with Those who Rejoice
Many of the anecdotes included in UIM seem to describe orthodox movements to Christ that are merely being mislabeled or misrepresented as insider movements. Due to the lack of clear descriptions, the wider Body of Christ is left unable to rejoice unreservedly regarding the many new souls being saved by the Lord Jesus. It would be a delight to rejoice with the angels—had sufficient information been provided to catalyze that joy.
Justification for Re-defining the terms “Muslim,” “Hindu” and “Sikh”
As mentioned above, Joseph Cumming rightly states that Muslim identity requires affirmation of Muhammad as God’s messenger—the final, perfect messenger. Many of the insider participants reported in UIM continue to be identified as “Muslims,” in the present tense, even though they have come to cherish beliefs which Muhammad specifically forbade—such as worshipping the biblical Jesus (see, for example, “Mary” on page 123). The practice of Christ-worshippers continuing to call themselves Muslims offends actual Muslims by usurping their religious identifier. UIM provides no justification by an Islamic scholar for this redefinition of the term “Muslim.” Without it, UIM readers may be left wondering if this is not a case of wide-scale identity theft.
UIM confounds retaining “Muslim identity” with simply continuing to live in one’s birth community—and this confounding is the main weakness of the book. The Muslim community views those who believe in the biblical Jesus as having de facto rejected Muhammad as God’s prophet. Those who reject Muhammad do not retain Muslim identity regardless of where they live. Therefore, these Muslims are not insiders.
On page 161, insiders describe how they have redefined the terms “Hindu” and “Sikh” in insider-expansive ways. UIM fails to include responses from Hindu and Sikh community or religious leaders on how they feel about this apparent usurpation of their identifiers. Instead, UIM sees “merit in revisiting aspects of the classic fulfillment theology of [John] Farquhar” (p. 164). This Fulfillment Theory envisions the gospel completing non-Christian religions, and comprises a significant influence on contemporary insider theorizing.
The Specific Role of “Alongsiders” in UIM Case Studies
Another issue raised by the book is the role of expatriate “alongsiders” (see Kevin Higgins, Chapter 47) in the development of insider movements. The book deals with alongsiders in a theoretical sense—and John Travis broaches the subject on p. 43—but UIM scarcely mentions the roles played by these alongsiders in various case studies it presents.
In his 2014 PhD dissertation (Biola University), J.H. Prenger describes “Muslim Insider Christ Followers” in seven countries, and shows how the alongsiders are embedded as mentors in these movements. Prenger wisely interviews the alongsiders too. Because UIM generally excludes information about the role of the alongsiders in its specific case narrations, it is unclear whether these movements are “grass-roots” indigenous movements, or externally “planted” movements more akin to the CPM (“Church Planting Movements”) variety.
Kevin Higgins lists a number of tasks and challenges for the alongsiders. One alongsider task is “how to help insiders self-theologize, expressing the message of Jesus in ways understandable and meaningful to family and friends” (p. 457, italics in original). It remains a mystery how indigenous leaders can truly self-theologize if those helping them do so are Western missionaries.
UIM does not alleviate concerns that the insider paradigm represents neo-colonial paternalism. In fact, John Travis and Dudley Woodberry state the following regarding insider believers: “Just as with all followers of Jesus, as wholehearted allegiance to God is realized in obedient lives, the relative importance of some components of their background is minimized” (p. 34, emphasis added). The question remains whether this minimization can prove syncretistic or even spiritually lethal, especially if alonsider coaches fail to recognize the spiritual implications of indigenous religious rites, practices, and confessions.
UIM authors Richard Jameson and Michael Roberts quote New Testament scholar Terence Paige as if Paige supports IM: “When Paul called believers to remain in the condition in which they were called (1 Cor 7:24), he was stressing that spirituality was not tied to social condition” (p. 209, quoting Terence Paige’s paper, “Early Gentile Christianity, Conversion and Culture-shift in the New Testament,” presented at the Bridging the Divide Consultation in 2011).
Since I was present when Dr. Paige presented that paper, and since I noted that the paper was critical of IM, I re-checked Paige’s quote in its context. In the next sentences, Paige writes: “There can and always will be culturally distinct expressions of Christianity; but they must always be critically distinct because of the Lordship of Christ. And these churches will have a sense of unity with all Christian churches, past and present, in the common apostolic faith and teaching (2 Tim 1:13-14; 1 John 1:1-3).” In the same paper, Page concludes: “Any Gentile converts to Christianity were necessarily and inevitably drawn into a position where they shamed their ancestors and family; rejected the deities of their city and country; rejected the reverence of Roma and the divine emperors; and withdrew from multiple social events ranging from daily family rituals to civic festivals.”
In this case, UIM authors were willing to quote a NT scholar out of context to enlist his service for the IM paradigm which he was in fact critiquing. Roberts was also present at the meeting, so he has little excuse for this misrepresentation. I only researched this because I was present at the said paper and knew I detected dishonesty. UIM readers may be left wondering if other experts are misquoted to advance the IM agenda.
Guilt Blocking the Path to Addressing Deeper Issues
UIM is painted on a background canvas of Western post-Colonial guilt, which is never adequately acknowledged or addressed. An “early expression of insider paradigm thinking” (p. 14) focuses on Henry Riggs’ 1938 Report to the Near Eastern Christian Council. Riggs’ states: “We cannot forget that the sad history of the conflict between Islam and Christendom, past and present, makes it inevitable that the Moslem should see in our missionary zeal, merely a part of the imperialistic arrogance to which he has been accustomed…” (p. 394). Since Riggs is cited by Talman as a father of the insider paradigm, the question remains: has the response to post-colonial guilt resulting in Western missionaries promoting theological accommodation with non-biblical religions?
Due to this issue of unresolved post-Colonial guilt, much of the book is left to ruminate on an embarrassingly shallow level. As such, UIM does not adequately deal with the deeper issues faced by many new believers from non-Christian religions, such as: discipleship of new believers from diverse faith backgrounds; indigenous leadership development; the formation of Christo-centric identity; and overcoming persecution.
A Sound Conclusion
As UIM ends, Insider advocate Brian Lawrence asks, “If we are, regrettably, the mission that plants a heresy, are those that adhere to it worse off than before?” (p. 622). Though Lawrence implies they are no worse off, as a Muslim-background Christian, I beg to differ. By bringing Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs into insider Type L limbo status, the insider paradigm has the effect of immunizing these precious souls against the gospel.
UIM is a key work on a white-hot missiological controversy. Editors Harley Talman and John Travis are to be commended for addressing this controversy, yet their work disappoints in many facets. Most of the articles in UIM are simply reprints of previous works that have touted the insider movement paradigm. The information the authors leave out in their descriptions of these movements is, in many cases, more important than the information they include, since UIM readers are left unable to judge whether the movements being described are actually insider movements according to the book’s own definition. Rather than re-assuring readers that insider movements are alive and well, UIM merely doubles down on the insider theoretical paradigm as presented by Western theorists, and ultimately raises more questions than it answers. I have brought forth some of these unanswered questions in this review.
Since some apparent orthodox movements to Christ are misrepresented as “insider movements,” UIM readers are left in a state of confusion, rather than being able to fully rejoice regarding these apparently orthodox movements. Had UIM provided more information regarding these movements, it is possible that all Great Commission Christians, including insider proponents and insider critics, could have shared a much-needed, unified season of joy and thanksgiving to God. To my controversy-weary soul, this missed opportunity is no small tragedy.
In summary, UIM readers may not come away satisfied that the title of this book, “Understanding Insider Movements,” has helped them acquire that understanding. To the contrary, confused UIM readers will likely be left looking for a modern-day Bukhari to further help them on their quest to find Sahih (Authentic) IM.
- Dr. Emir Caner, a former Muslim, has used the term “limbo” in the book Christlam to describe insider movements; the more I study the issue, the more I believe he has picked an accurate term to describe this particular type of insider participants. ↩
- UIM addresses helping people get freedom from demonic folkish and animistic practices, but not the binding covenants of high-religion (for example, the Islamic shahada confession). See Anna Travis’ Chapter 55 for a good treatment of this topic. ↩