This is where I spoke today. The Church of God in Paris meets in this very old, historical monument Lutheran Church just down the road from Notre Dame. In fact, after church, I walked into Notre Dame and caught the last part of the poorly attended Sunday noon mass. I then got a bite to eat across the river from Notre Dame and headed back to Gare Du Nord to pick up my luggage and get online for a bit. I fly home tonight.
As you can see, it's a gorgeous sight--and tourists come to visit the church and hear the large pipe organ. Today was a joint unity service so the Lutherans and the Chogers were both in attendance. It was nice to make some new friends. Overall this trip has been fantastic, and I've been thrilled to have a chance to connect with the 20 something and 30 something young people in the church who are everything Three Worlds are looking for .
The previous three days we have been in another part of Paris closer to where I always stay just down the road from Gare du Nord--which, by the way, is the busiest train station in Europe. At this other church, we have been listening to a former Imam from Cote D'Ivoire share about his conversion to Christianity. Although it is in French, I was able to pick up a bit on the first day, and then had interpreters the next 2 days. He is a riveting speaker who is extremely clear about the key issues separating Christianity and Islam. These lectures have been really powerful.
As is so common in the Middle East and Africa, he converted to Christianity after having a number of dreams in which Jesus appeared to him. This happens a lot in this part of the world--where dreams are still taken very seriously. You can see this cultural tendency in the Bible---and Middle Easterners and Africans often find it strange that Westerners totally disregard dreams.
This man was the son of two generation of Imams. His life was set by his parents--he would become an Imam. But as he grew up he found himself haunted by two things that often haunt Muslims who hear about Christianity:
1) What assurance do I have of salvation? Islam does not offer any theology of grace. As with most non-Christian religions, it is a merit-based, transactional kind of faith which the Bible--particularly the New Testament seeks to subvert in many ways. The God of Abraham looks like he is going to be a God of appeasement and distance (as in the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac), but then the story of Israel and Jesus subverts that by moving away from a works-based, transactional, tribal religion. The lack of assurance in Islam is an issue many struggle with.
2) Who is Jesus and why don't we believe him if we revere him so much? The Koran reserves special recognition for Jesus. While they do not view him as the son of God, or the last prophet, or even that he was crucified---he is revered. But this leads many Muslims to ask why do we revere someone in Islam who we fundamentally disagree with? It's the old C.S. Lewis question: Either Jesus was a liar (and a particularly nefarious one at that), a delusional lunatic, or he was Lord. This Imam was haunted by these 2 questions.
At Yale University, my primary professor was an African from the Gambia born into the family that was the head of a tribe. They were Muslims. But as my professor grew up, he too cold not get over that second question: "Who was Jesus?" Today he is the world's foremost expert on Global Christianity and a renown expert on Islam and Islamic-Christian relations. He converted to Christianity in his college years I believe--or somewhere thereabout--after an exhaustive examination of the Bible's claims about Jesus. And of everyone I've ever met, I don't think there's anyone I know that can do research at higher level than this professor. He is a master "hunter-gatherer" in his words.
The Imam here in Paris suffered after his conversion. There is often retribution for leaving Islam. But some of his family members converted including those that experienced miraculous healings. This is the kind of thing that occurs in the Non-Western Christian world (or the Book of Acts world as I call it in Mosaic). He said there have been 6 million converts to Christianity in the last few years. Christianity is still the fastest growing religion by conversion (by far), while Islam is the fastest by birth--meaning that people are born in places like Indonesia or Saudi Arabia and just assumed to be Muslim on their birth certificate. But conversion is something that usually happens away from Islam to Christianity.
The Imam was full of interesting stories and a fascinating take on problems he sees with the Koran that miss most of our Western-based critiques. He really feels that a lot of Muslims feel hostage to the Koran. That it's extreme contradictions are far beyond the "contradictions of the Bible" which fit into a larger Biblical narrative structure that serves as a self-critique. This is something I wrote about in Passport of Faith because it's a very important point. When we talk of disisrepecies or contradictions in the Bible, they are of a different, more benign nature that those of Islam. After all, Christendom (Christian Jihad) was an abberation in which church and state and war were linked. Now this can happen in Christianity too still today---and sadly some American Evangelicals seem to think it should although they hate that Islam preaches the same thing----but Christianity offers an enormous critique against the merging of church/state/and war. At the heart of the critique is Jesus Christ who tradition and history tells us was crucified and said, "My Kingdom is not of this world." The difference between crucified sacrifice and a theocratic general is a huge one.
Because Islam does not make that move toward a non-earthly Kingdom---to quote my old professor---"Muhammed was a religious ruler and a general rolled into one." Islam has an inherently Constantinian view of the world. It has no problem dividing the world into the Islamic world and the world that must be won to Islam. Unlike Christianity with its critiques: (Church tradition, Church authority, Sola Scriptura) which create an authoratative power that can critique Christian theocracy---Islam has no such thing. Even Imams are less authoritative than your average Catholic Priest or Protestant Pastor.
Any religion can get hijacked and go terribly off course. We've seen that with all of them--even Buddhism (take the battles between fighting monks in South Korea or the persecution perpetrated in the Dharmsala area of India for instance). But Islam is more vulnerable to this because it is rooted in a specific culture, and one that was a polytheistic warrior culture that was organized and led by a warrior.
The Imam showed us footage of a Somali being buried alive and then stoned to death. For all the mistakes Christianity has made in the past (and there are many), in the final analysis there is a huge difference between having a founder that said, "Let you who has never sinned cast the first stone" versus one that existed in that same culture of stoning and never critiqued it.
If Christianity still had that same hostile spirit found in its desert culture, then the churches and Cathedrals of Europe would not be empty today.
I'll post more on the origins of Islam and a proper Christian response in future posts. I'm typing quickly before I catch a train and a plane, so more fleshed out later. Now it's back to Berlin.
BY THE WAY---I AM NOT POSTING PHOTOS OF THIS CONFERENCE OR THE PEOPLE IN IT FOR SECURITY REASONS. IT'S SAD THAT THIS HAS TO BE THE WAY IT IS BUT, IT'S NOT WORTH THE RISK.