Sword and Scimitar | Book Review


In his 1996 bestseller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argued “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” He went on to describe several civilizational cohorts, but a comment on Islam is germane here: “In the early 1990s, Muslims were engaged in more intergroup violence than were non-Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Then came his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) conclusion: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Raymond Ibrahim neither quotes nor cites Huntington in Sword and Scimitar—and of course, Huntington can’t be held responsible for Ibrahim’s scholarship since he’s dead—but I get the impression that Ibrahim would assent to Huntington’s characterization of Islam, then kick it up a notch. Here’s how he describes the book’s thesis in the Preface:

Sword and Scimitar documents how the West and Islam have been mortal enemies since the latter’s birth some fourteen centuries ago. It does this in the context of narrating their military history, with a focus on their most landmark encounters, some of which have had a profound impact on the shaping of the world. However, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this one offers timely correctives: it sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.”

Islam’s borders have been bloody since its inception, in other words.

Ibrahim argues in favor of this thesis by tracing the causes, fighting, and outcomes of eight key battles between “Islam and the West,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Four were won by Muslim forces, four by Christian forces. The key battles are, in order, Yarmuk (636), Constantinople (717), Tours (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople again (1453), and Vienna (1683). His narration of those events is riveting, often drawing on contemporary Christian and Muslim sources. Moreover, he shows the relationship of these battles to other practices, especially Islamic slavery and the Christian Crusades.

Obviously, Ibrahim’s is not a politically correct thesis. Essentially, it blames Islam for centuries of violence against what its author variously describes as “the West” or “Christendom.” Specifically, it identifies the source of that violence as the command of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as expressed in both the Koran and the most authoritative Hadith. “I have been commanded to wage war against mankind,” Ibrahim quotes the prophet as saying, “until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

It is tempting to dismiss this interpretation of Islam out of hand, but it is an old one. Ibrahim cites both Muslim explanations for and Christian denunciations of the warfare that erupted out of Arabia from the get-go. The Battle of Yarmuk, for example, took place in 636, just four years after the death of Muhammad. In the late fourteenth century, Manuel II Palailogos, heir to the throne of Constantinople, but then a hostage in the court of Turkish Sultan Bayezid, said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword the faith he preached.” Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words in his 2006 speech at Regensburg, and several anti-Christian riots erupted in a few places in the Muslim world, which seemed to some to prove his point.

We often think of the relationship between the West and the Muslim umma as one of colonizer and colonized, respectively. That’s a somewhat accurate way to describe their relationship since the eighteenth century, but until then, it’s just as plausible to reverse the relationships. Until largely Catholic forces under Jan Sobieski defeated Kara Mustafa Pasha before the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683, the relationship was often the reverse. Successive waves of Muslim colonizers controlled formerly Christian lands, first in the Middle East and Africa, then in parts of southern and eastern Europe. (Ibrahim doesn’t mention the expansion of Islam in other lands). We’re accustomed in this postmodern age to read history from its underside. Ibrahim isn’t a postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, but much of his narration depends on reminding readers what the defeated Christian populations of the once Christianized Roman empire thought of their new Islamic overlords. It’s definitely an underside perspective.

Still, I have significant reservations about the book. First, Ibrahim positions that book as a history of warfare between “Islam” and the “West.” But by “West,” he really means “Christendom,” which included both western and eastern halves. With the exception of Moorish Spain, it’s the eastern half of Christendom that has been subject to Muslim control the longest. But more problematically, both “Islam” and “Christendom” are complex realities, whose essence is difficult to define. As a Pentecostal, for example, I’m not sure I want to be on the hook for the Crusades, as important as they may have been to medieval Christendom, let alone the cozy Constantinian relationship between Church and State that preceded it. Obviously, I can’t speak for Muslims, but if I were them, I’m not sure I’d buy Ibrahim’s essentialist understanding of Islam as jihadist.

Second, methodologically, by focusing on battles, Ibrahim paints a picture of Christian-Islamic relations that emphasizes warfighting but deemphasizes day-to-day realities. Ibrahim’s subtitle speaks of “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West,” but in reality, the battles were not nonstop. They occurred, then things settled down into an equilibrium. We shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of dhimmi status, of course. Non-Muslim residents of the umma were not treated as the equals of believers, after all. But their lot wasn’t one of constant oppression, either. As Ibrahim himself notes, the brutality often happened in the wake of Muslim losses to Christian forces.

Third, we shouldn’t discount nonreligious, realpolitik, and geopolitical motivations for the warfare that occurred over the centuries. Take the Battle of Vienna, for example, which historians conventionally use to demarcate the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The September 12th battle pitted Catholic forces against Muslim forces, at least those were the dominant religious identities of the two sides. But the forces led by Sobieski included Crimean Tatars (Muslims), and the forces led by Mustafa included French and Transylvanian Catholics, as well as Hungarian Protestants. Each of the minority groups within these coalitions had grievances against their coreligionists that impelled them to join forces with the “other side.” In other words, more was at work than simple religious identity.

Fourth, contemporary Christians who read the justifications for violence blanche at the religious motives at work. When Pope Urban II called for the Crusades, he said, “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories.” No Christian today would argue that the State should plant the Church in heathen lands for the perfectly good reason that that’s not the way of Jesus Christ. Christians in earlier ages had no problems with this kind of Church-sanctioned, State-enforced violence, but we do, and with good cause. Given that contemporary Christians scratch their heads at our ancestors religious justifications for war, perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Muslims as they read their own foundational texts.

Fifth and finally, even acknowledging that some Muslims—say, the fanatics of the Islamic State—read their foundational texts to license violence against others, the vast majority of Muslims don’t. This is the great failing of Ibrahim’s book, it seems to me. Are Islam’s borders and innards bloody? Perhaps, but the first victims are often Muslims themselves, who suffer at the hands of fanatical coreligionists they do not support but cannot overcome. This calls into question the notion that Islam, at its civilizational essence, is little more than ceaseless jihad against unbelievers.

In conclusion, Sword and Scimitar is an interesting book, especially in its quotation of primary sources, which provide a lens through which to view those battles in their historical contexts. The problem is that if you look at Muslim-Christian interactions only through that lens, you miss out on important aspects of the scene before you.

Book Reviewed
Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West(New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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The Future of the Global Church | Book Review


Patrick Johnstone is best known as editor of the first six editions of Operation World, a prayer guide for Christians interested in fulling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20). Now in its seventh edition, and edited by Jason Mandryk, Operation World presents data on the geography, peoples, economy, politics, and religion of the regions and countries of the world, which is drawn from sophisticated databases maintained by WEC International, an interdenominational missions agency. This data helps readers pray intelligently about the needs of those regions and countries throughout the year.

In The Future of the Global Church, Johnstone has drawn on those databases to create succinct narratives about and visualizations of the growth of global Christianity. The book can best be described as an historical atlas of the past, present, and possible future of world Christianity. It is a helpful resource for readers who want a concise presentation of the relevant information.

Johnston divides his material into nine chapters. Chapter 1 describes nine global challenges currently experienced around the world: population growth, migration, urbanization, pandemics (such as HIV/AIDS), climate change, income inequality, sustainable energy, political and social freedom, and water resources. Throughout the book, he highlights how environmental challenges such as these affect the movements of people—physically, intellectually, and spiritually—both in the past and at present. Doing so reminds readers that the course of history is not shaped merely by human thought and action. Larger forces are at work (such as natural disasters, pandemics, and birthrates), shaping the context in which people receive and propagate religion and nonreligious ideas and practices.

Chapter 2 summarizes the global growth of Christianity from its first-century origin to the present. Each of Christian history’s twenty centuries is summarized on two pages (except the twentieth century, which receives more extended treatment). These pages present maps depicting the faith’s global growth, tables summarizing relevant demographic information, and bulleted lists summarizing major events in the world at large and the church in particular. For readers interested in a quick summary of Christian history, this chapter is invaluable.

Chapter 3 identifies six major streams of Christianity. Listed in descending order by size, they are Christian (32.5 percent of global population as of 2010), Muslim (22.6 percent), non-religious (14.8 percent), Hindu (13.7 percent), Buddhist (6.5 percent), and ethnic/other (10 percent), the last category including religions such as animism, Sikhism, and Judaism (65). Johnstone provides several pages of data and visualization for each religious stream on succeeding pages.

Chapter 4 then turns its focus to the Christian stream. Johnstone divides Christendom into six megablocs: Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans, Independents, and Marginals, by which he means “[a]ny group that claims to be Christian but displays one or more of the following characteristics,” characteristics that focus on heterodox doctrine, non-biblical sources of revelation, and extreme sectarianism (114). Johnstone predicts that in the future, Christian growth will slow “due to the slowing of population growth” generally, but also that “Christian areas [such as Europe and North America specifically] will see their majorities eroded by secularism and diluted by non-Christian immigration.” This will be offset, however by “continued growth in Africa and Asia—especially China, India and [Southeast] Asia.” And Johnnstone predicts that there “are likely to be increasing numbers of conversions to Christianity in some countries with large Muslim populations,” Islam being the chief religious competitor to Christianity globally (118).

Chapter 5 examines “renewal movements” in Christianity, which Johnstone divides into three broad categories: Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. Evangelicals are “characterized by a theology based on the inerrancy of the Bible, a personal experience of salvation by faith through grace and a desire or obligation to witness to that salvation” (121). Given this definition, all Pentecostals are evangelical, and most Charismatics are. Elsewhere, Johnstone defines Charismatics as “those who testify to having had a renewing experience of the Holy Spirit and who exercise the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and miracles” (xii). Given this definition, all Pentecostals are charismatic. What distinguishes Pentecostals and Charismatics is largely denominational affiliation. The rapid growth of these movements is noteworthy and will likely continue well into the future. “If present projections prove accurate, by 2050 charismatic Christians will comprise one-third of all Christians and one-tenth of the world’s population” (125). This is remarkable growth, given that however one dates the history of modern Pentecostalism, by 2050 it will only be approximately 150 years old.

Chapter 6 outlines the history, growth, and geographic distribution of Evangelicals Evangelicalism in its many forms (including Pentecostals and Charismatics) provides “the main thrust for world evangelization” today, Johnstone contends (139). One of the most notable trends among the world’s Evangelicals is the demographic shift from North to South. As a share of regional population, Evangelicals are declining in Europe, North America, and the Pacific, but growing exponentially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Despite the fact that Christianity is the largest religious stream globally, and that the most evangelistic components of that stream are its fastest growing segments, major regions of the world still exist without effective evangelization efforts by Christians. The unevangelized are the focus of chapter 7. “In the 1990s,” Johnstone writes, “5% became accepted as the dividing point between ‘unevangelized’ and ‘evangelized,” by which he means 5 percent of the population that “professes Christianity” in some form. He concedes that this is an inadequate definition, but it is nevertheless illustrative of the challenge of evangelization. Using that definition, in 2008 numbers, 2.5 billion of the world’s inhabitants are unevangelized because their people group consists of 5 percent or fewer Christians. Another 2 billion inhabitants live in people groups where Christianity is a statistical minority. And approximately 2.3 billion live in people groups where Christianity is a statistical majority (172).

Chapter 8 then turns to a consideration of what kind of missionary resources are necessary for the world’s people groups to be effectively evangelized. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between the number of missionaries serving each of the six religious streams. Most missionaries serve in countries or regions where Christians constitute the majority of the population. Thus, 43 percent of Christians serve in Christian-majority countries. In descending order, 17 percent of missionaries serve among the ethnic religions, 15 percent among Hindus, 9.7 percent among Buddhists, 8.1 percent among Muslims, and 7.2 percent among the non-religious (231). The disparity is especially noteworthy with regard to Muslim-majority countries or regions. Though Muslims constitute the second-largest bloc of religious persons worldwide (after Christians), missionaries to Muslim-majority countries constitute the second-smallest bloc of total missionary personnel. Clearly, that needs to change if effective evangelization is to take place.

Johnstone concludes The Future of the Global Church by quoting the Commitment of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, which took place in South African in 2010:

Let us keep evangelism at the centre [sic] of the fully-integrated [sic] scope of all our mission, inasmuch as the gospel itself is the source, content and authority of all biblically-valid [sic] mission. All we do should be both an embodiment and a declaration of the love and grace of God and his saving work through Jesus Christ (239, emphasis in original).

Given the data Johnstone has presented to this point, the Lausanne exhortation provides the exact right exhortation with which to end the book.

Book Reviewed
Patrick Johnstone, The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Lost History of Christianity | Book Review


“Religions die,” writes Philip Jenkins in The Lost History of Christianity. “Over the course of history, some religions vanish altogether, while others are reduced from great world faiths to a handful of adherents” (p. 1). While contemporary Christians might like to think that this statement applies to other religions—after all, who worships the Greek pantheon today?—the sobering truth is in history, Christianity has experienced reduction in the historic heartlands of its faith. As Jenkins shows, for a thousand years, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Middle East, North Africa, and western Asia, but now it is at best a minority faith in those lands, if it survives at all. The Lost History of Christianity is a narrative of its rise and fall, as well as a richly textured explanation of why this happened. A valuable, insightful book!

Book Reviewed
Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, May 9, 2011


This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Over at ChristianityToday.com, Mark A. Noll asks, “What would it have been like if the KJV had always been only one among several competing English-language versions of the Bible?”His answer:

When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, it was easier to focus on the literary excellence of the translation without stopping to face the divine imperatives and promises that are any Bible’s primary reason for existence. The pervasive cultural presence of this Bible also made it easy to exploit scriptural words, phrases, images, and allusions for their evocative power, even when those uses contradicted the Bible’s basic spiritual meaning.

Yet even soberly considered, the immense good accomplished in and through the KJV is a marvel. When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, the spiritual impact of the Bible was certainly enhanced because the scriptural message was carried far and wide via an all-pervasive cultural standard. The substance of divine revelation that lay immediately beneath the words of the KJV could also exert a dramatic public impact for good, precisely because this translation so dominated the English-speaking world.

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Over at Patheos.com, John Fea concludes an excellent four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.”

  • Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible”
  • Part 2: “God’s Judgment Upon the South”
  • Part 3: “The Confederacy’s “Christian Nation”
  • Part 4: “A Slaveholding Nation is a Christian Nation”

Fea’s conclusion is worth keeping in mind when you hear talk about America as a “Christian nation”:

As we’ve seen over the past four columns, by 1860 there were two visions of Christian America. Many Northerners believed that the national Union was sacred because it was created and blessed by God. Many Southerners argued that the Confederate States of America was a Christian nation because the Bible’s teachings were compatible with a southern way of life.

Throughout American history there was seldom a common understanding of what it meant to be a Christian nation. The Civil War is merely one example. This is certainly something to remember whenever we get the urge to talk about America’s so-called Christian roots.

If you like what you read, check out Fea’s America as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design.

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The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films does not include The Mission but it does include The Story of the Weeping Camel. Something’s seriously wrong with this list.

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Who is the devil like? David Bentley Hart offers these thoughts:

  • “the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party”
  • “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
  • “Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer”

Ouch. And, heh.

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“Faith unshaken by tornado.” Well, yeah. Psalm 46:1–3.

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“Bin Laden’s theology a radical break with traditional Islam.” That’s both true and good to know, although Mollie Hemingway has some questions.

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“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” There Be Dragons, a new film about Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, gets a good review from Cathleen Falsani Possley.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Psychologists discover “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in ‘we’ and ‘us’ and the expression of positive emotions.” I am personally outraged at popular music’s narcissism and anger. Just kidding! Although I wonder what level of narcissism is present in contemporary worship songs.

Al Mohler offers insights about why conservative churches are growing. Sure, evangelical churches are growing and the mainline churches aren’t. But what if the country as a whole is growing at a faster rate than evangelical churches are? That’s the relevant missional problem, it seems to me. I don’t particularly care if evangelical churches are growing because of transfer growth from mainline churches.

How do you contextualize Christianity in majority Muslim countries? One answer is the so-called “insider movement,” which encourages converts to continue to self-identify as Muslims and to attend prayer meetings at the mosque. Is that a good idea?

“What is the key spiritual issue of our time?” Jesus offered a two-fold answer: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Eboo Patel gets the second half right.

Joe Carter asks, “What Would Jesus Drink?” I get the feeling this one’s going to be controversial.

Francis Chan asks, “What would the church look like today if we really stopped taking control of it and let the Holy Spirit lead?” That’s a good question, especially for Pentecostals.

Over at AGTV, my dad explores “Life’s Greatest Question” from Mark 8:29–30.

The Welcome Rise of the Pastor-Scholar. Well, I certainly welcome its rise.

Christ Alone is the first book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Extensive excerpts are available online. (My own review of Bell’s book is here.)

The 20th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference looked at the topic, “Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective.” You watch or listen to each of the lectures at the link.

Timothy Dalrymple begins a series on abortion over at Patheos.com. Part 1 looks at Kermit Gosnell and the climate of disregard for life created by the abortion industry.

If you’re into this kind of thing: the religious aspects of the upcoming royal wedding in the United Kingdom.

P.S. This is not really a religious story, but the White House has released President Obama’s certificate of live birth. This should put to rest all conspiracy theories about the president’s birth. Now if someone would just get Andrew Sullivan to shut up about Trig Palin.