Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Moslem observes Christian worship

John Updike's riveting new novel entitled "Terrorist', which I will be reviewing once I finish it, reveals a Christian writer trying to think into the mindset of Moslems angry with the West and its culture which is perceived to be decadent, decaying, and in various ways indecent and unclean.

The central figure of the novel is a bright teenager named Ahmad who is a practicing Moslem, son of a lapsed Irish Catholic mother and an Egyptian father, who was not a practicing Moslem. At one juncture in the novel, Ahmad is invited by a girl in his high school to come to an African American worship service where she will be singing a solo. Here are a few of his observations which are interesting and telling, since it is good to know how we look to outsiders.

"The mosque was a domain of men; here women in their spring shimmer...dominate....The black man hands Ahmad a folded sheet of tinted paper and leads him forward, up the center aisle to the front pews. The church is nearly full, and none but the front pews, apparently the less desirable, are empty. Accustomed to worshippers squatting and kneeling on a floor [for prayer], emphasizing God's height above them, Ahmad feels, even seated, dizzily, blasphemously tall. The Christian attitude of lazily sitting erect as at an entertainment suggests that God is an entertainer who, when He ceases to entertain, can be removed from the stage, and another act brought on." (p. 50).

What is striking about this passage is how accurately it depicts the casual demeanor of much of Christian worship, as if one were cozing up to an old pal, and also the consumer, or entertainment character of that worship which has come to dominate a great deal of what passes for large church worship.

I am reminded of Paul's call for orderliness in worship and a sense of reverence before God when he scolds his Corinthians who are all too eager to put their spiritual gifts on display in egotistic fashion. He reminds them, showing his sensitivity to how worship appears to the outsider "If therefore the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and outsiders or unbelievers (the former word is actually 'idiotai'-- meaning an uninitiated person) enter, will they not say you are out of your mind?" (1 Cor. 14.23). Worship as it turns out is not just for insiders, it is also meant to have a prophetic or positive evangelistic impact on outsiders as well.

This in turn raises the question--- what sorts or forms of worship are both faithful to God and inspire people, both believing and non-believing, to worship God, to be convicted of their sins etc.? What sort of worship is truly soul-stirring, seeker friendly, and also inculcates the sort of reverence for God that is of the essence of true worship (see. e.g. Isaiah 6). It is always a good thing to see ourselves through the eyes of those who are watching us, both with contempt but also with open minds. Therein we learn ways we can better glorify God and edify all those who come into his presence.


R. Mansfield said...

I was the sole patron eating at a Middle eastern restaurant in Louisville a while back and got into a conversation with the owner who was a devout practicing Muslim. He would even leave the front at designated times to pray telling me that Allah would guard his cash register because he was being faithful.

Our conversation turned into a bit of a debate and I felt myself on the receiving end of what was for lack of a better term, an evangelistic encounter aimed to convert me to the Muslim faith. Now I know how the other side must undoubtedly feel at times!

A couple of interesting realizations came from the conversation. (1) He equated all of the excesses in American culture with Christianity. He asked me how Americans could claim to believe in God and charge on their credit cards--something he refused to take in his restaurant!

(2) He saw all forms and expressions of Christianity as the same and saw us all as hypocritical. He asked me point blank why, if I believed the Bible (which I had established by this point), I would get drunk. I told him I don't get drunk and didn't know what he was talking about. He pointed at the church across the street from his restaurant and said, "Every Friday night, your church across the street holds dances with kegs of beer and people get drunk. I see them come staggering out of there" That part was true, but I tried to explain to him that that was not my church and I didn't think it was proper behavior or proper either.

He told me that the problem with Christianity is that there are too many different opinions/denominations whereas "There is only ONE Islam." I said I didn't believe that--there were Shiites and Suni's... but he said over and over there was only one Islam. He was hard to debate because when cornered, he would merely make his point again, but louder.

What was so interesting about the conversation is that as I said, he equated America with Christianity and in his view we were weak, hypocritical and decadent.

The experience described in the book your are reading, Dr. Witherington, sounds very true to the feelings expressed by the owner of the restaurant whom I encountered. I'll be interested to read your full review.

Brian said...

sounds more like a critique of charismatic style worship than anything.

I am sure those from more liturgical approaches to worship (e.g., orthrodox or catholic) would be equally opposed to the situation described in the book.

If there is one major point to critique in the charismatic movement (in general) is its lack of respect for the holy and sacred.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks to Mr. Mansfield and Brian for these acute comments. Yes indeedy, many Moslems assume America is a Christian nation and then can't figure out why we do so many unBiblical things.


David Ker said...

Isn't is spelled "Muslim?" Sorry when I can't think of what to say I just try to correct spelling...

Ben Witherington said...

Nope, the proper spelling is Moslem. Muslim is the Americanized form of the spelling used by African Americans.

Shawna Atteberry said...

The one thing that really hit me when I went on a retreat at a Benedictine monastery was the reverence worship services were treated with. From the holy water to genuflecting, I felt like I was preparing to meet the Holy God. This is opposed to the normal evangelical attitude of plopping down in the pew and say, "Hey God, how are ya?"

I do think there is an attitude of irreverence towards God in worship. I try to achieve a happy medium between knowing I can come into God's presence at anytime, but it is God's presence. I think that's a very fine line to walk in public worship though.

I've been wanting to read this book, so I will be interested in reading your whole review too.

byron smith said...

As I understand it, seating in church buildings is a relatively recent innovation. For centuries, people would stand - except for the weak, elderly and ill, who would sit on seats about the wall. This is where the phrase 'the weak go to the wall' originated.

PamBG said...

I keep struggling with whether there is any "right answer" about forms of worship.

I have two immediate thoughts which are not necessarily connected.

The first thought is that there is a careful line that needs to be walked between teaching reverence for God and literal, earth-shaking fear. Especially in dealing with small children. I was taught from an early age that "God hates sin and human beings are sinners" and the logical conclusion at the age of four was "God hates me". It wasn't untll I went to university that I met other Christians who thought that God loved them and I was stunned. I realise that this is no longer most people's experience of Christianity but I think we do have to be careful, especially if we feel we need to "correct" for a "too loving message".

Second thought. I have just spend nine months in a church comprised mainly of Africans. Not African-Americans but people who were born in Africa and have immigrated to the UK in their own lifetime. The worship is more "charismatic" than traditional British Methodist worship but, in general, I'm certain that Christianity was more an integrated part of these people's lives than it is in the lives of most white British Methodists. The worship in the "African" church could have easily fit the description in the text from the novel, but these people had real testimonies of God's work in their lives.

Ben Witherington said...

Excellent reflections one and all. There are two issues here--- attitude towards worshipping and form of worship. On the former the Bible is quite clear--- for example 'come into his presence with thanksgiving'. On the latter multiple forms are possible.

Jo Anne said...

Does the story involve a critique of Christianity? It is a story, after all. That being said, I'm getting weary of the "world" pigeon-holing me into the sterotype that is portrayed of a Christian. Have you read any books lately that depicts us in a positive light?

And on a personal level, Dr. Witherington, I'd be interested to know 'how' you worship. Our church is not charasmatic by any means, but I do wish that there was a more reverentual (sp) atmosphere within the building and within my heart.

Dan McGowan said...

A few comments from a commenting commentator...

First, to Brian (2nd post) - I think it's a bit pompous to assume that your liturgical worship experience is superior to a charismatic worship experience... that just reeks of the typical pious attitude so many churches have regarding how THEIR way of wroshiping the Lord is the "correct" way. What, you don't have pews? People don't SIT in your church? As you gaze around the room in your church - ALL in attendance are 100% completely engaged in the presence of the Lord thru the power of His Holy Spirit? Miracles are being done on a regular basis during the worship service? If not, then guess what - YOUR church is just as "off-base" as those charismatic churches... I think you owe those in the charismatic church an apology... and, no, I am NOT part of a charismatic church - I am more like you...

Second comment - I agree with this Moslem/Muslem... our churches, for the most part, ARE (or have become) places of entertainment... that entertainment is far-reaching and, again, is not ONLY the fault of those "big, bad mean contemporary worshipers" out there... A highly liturgical worship experience can be, and in many cases is, JUST as pre-planned and programmed and, thus, entertaining as anything offered in more modern services. A collection of well-crafted choral anthems that a choir performs, for example, is NOT something that the Bible deems as "needed for worship." And, in many cases, it is geared towards PERFECTIONISM - which only serves to please MAN. The only way out of this entertainment trend - be it in a traditional or contemporary setting - is for WE WHO LEAD to set the pace... this is why I NEVER call a song "a hymn" or "a chorus" for example... we are simply - singing songs TO the LORD - implied: not to each other.

As you can tell, I have far more to say on this matter... perhaps a visit to my blog might offer those who want it, more to chew on regarding this and other issues related to music and worship in the church today. Thanks!

David Ker said...

A search of the BBC news site returns 47 results for "Moslem" and 500 results for "Muslim." There must be a lot of African Americans working as journalists for the BBC. ;^)

Pastor Burt said...

Overall I thought this was an insigtful post. And I have enjoyed the various comments, finding that my own thoughts tend to line up more with Dan McGowan's.
I then started to write a much longer comment but felt that it was too long to post, so I made my own post over on my blog: As always, Dr. Witherington, thanks for the intersting discussion.

jul said...

Frankly, I don't like the idea of taking the critique of the church by a Moslem very seriously. Moslems do not worship the same God as Christians, therefore of course the form of worhip will be different. We worship in spirit and in truth and I don't think the form is necessarily important since God looks on the heart. Shouldn't we also look at the heart? Isn't that the primary difference between Christianity and false religions--that we do not focus or depend on law and outward behaviour to justify ourselves before God? It is a great deception if Moslems believe they are presentable to the true God because they kneel down and perform certain duties. Christians can be susceptible to similar deceptions as well and it is ironically the same self-righteousness that contributes to a lack of reverence toward God.

Jo Anne said...

Percival .... Best post of all!!

Jo Anne

Ian said...

Jul makes the assertion that the God if Islam is not the God of Christianity.

I'm curious why one would say that, as I've always understood them both to worship "the God of Abraham" and differing principally on the status of Christ, in much the same fashion as Christians and Jews.

What are the textual justifications that distinguish Yaweh from Allah?

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

"one of the key principles of the Reformation that the Bible should be placed in the hands of ordinary persons, not kept in the scholar’s study or chained to a pulpit in some church."

And the corollary was the right of private judgement. I sat in on Peter Toon's lectureship on this topic 30 years ago and discussed it with him afterwards. After three decades of reflection on the impact of giving the bible to the people and letting them interpret it for themselves I am wondering if this was really a good idea.

Travis said...

I was recently reading "Dark Ages America" by Morris Berman. In it he points out that every great civilization has placed at its summit a model of the fully realized human being. Christ, Muhammad, the Buddha and so on. He makes a good case that in the last century America dispensed with any spiritual model of man and replaced it with the fully realized consumer.

IMO, no where do we see this more than in the consumer culture Church. I live in the south and the vast majority of Church's I see built have a cheap warehouse look. Inside the sanctuary's are nothing more than speaking halls with nice, relaxing, cushion seating. I sometimes wonder how much of our talk of, "all God cares about is the heart", is just a way of being spiritually lazy.

The Incarnational God should inspire Beauty. I can't help but think that when our worship is controlled by comfort and Church buildings become nothing more than things reduced to a utilitarian purpose this will affect how we see God, the world, and the spiritual life. If I cant bother with standing during a service or to make prostrations before my Creator because it isn't comfortable, how can I possibly cultivate a mentality that equips me for a rigorous spiritual life that consistently rejects the comforts of this world both in body and mind?

lakshwadeep said...

I agree with steph and lingamish that the spelling is "Muslim" because it is not just the Americanized form. To say African-Americans only use that spelling is a hasty generalization.

The reason for changing spelling is because the pronunciation of "Moslem" can easily degrade into "mawzlem." In Arabic the word "Za'lem" means "oppressor" or "one who is evil or unjust." "Muslim" is an approximation of the Urdu form of the word. "Moslem" pronounced in England as "muslem" wouldn't cause trouble, but who knows if the reader ever learned the prefered pronunciation from a follower of Islam.

I humbly thank you for taking the time to read this message. The reason I had to write is my European History teacher argued the same basis as you, and so I decided to research many articles, and ask some of my friends who are followers of Islam.

check wikipedia's article on "Muslim" for some information.

P.S. I'm Catholic from India, so please view this message not as a hostile attack but as a suggestion to clear up misconceptions.

Prometheus said...


You said:

"Nope, the proper spelling is Moslem. Muslim is the Americanized form of the spelling used by African Americans."

Having grown up in an Islamic country (Indonesia), I always thought "Moslem" was an odd spelling. I always saw it as Muslim. I am white and all the people who spoke English (American, British, Swiss and Japanese), as far as I can remember, spelled it "Muslim".

Saying that something is used (only) by African Americans as if African Americans are especially uneducated makes you sound racist. Besides being degrading to African Americans, the comment is rude to those others of us who use the alternate form "Muslim".

Your tone and word choice make a big difference in showing respect. I once had a superior, when correcting a sheet of comments written by me, once say that a certain word I used was not a word. I went away quietly and looked it up and found it under the heading informal. I certainly would have preferred if my superior had told me that in writing any comments for others outside the organization to see, it was important not to use any informal English (I understand, maybe I was being stupid). Not only is it more correct to say that the word is informal than to say that it's not a word, it is also more polite.