Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: Muslim, Christian and Jew

Review by Aaron D. Taylor

On the cover of Dr. David Liepert’s book, Muslim, Christian and Jew, renowned religion scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “An honest and wholehearted attempt to fulfill a task that is incumbent upon us all….make our traditions speak with compassion and respect to our dangerously polarized world.”

Throughout the pages of Muslim, Christian, and Jew, Dr. David Liepert attempts to do just that. As the subtitle of the book suggests, “finding a path to peace our faiths can share”, Liepert spares no rhetoric in declaring his ambitions. Liepert wants nothing less than to put an end to the centuries-old tradition of Muslims, Christians, and Jews killing each other in the name of God, and the manner in which Liepert attempts to achieve that in this book, is as unique and nuanced as the author himself.

As an adult convert to Islam who grew up in evangelical Christianity, Liepert could have taken the path that many Anglo-Saxon converts to Islam from Christianity seem to take—embracing a radical form of Islam that hates Christianity and all things Western. That Liepert chose to adopt a moderate to liberal form of Islam—which Liepert  would probably say is the true Islam—makes him an interesting person, which in turn, makes Liepert's book interesting to read, especially for Western Christians who are used to the image of radical converts to Islam joining the Taliban or decrying the evils of democracy. Liepert is not that....by a long shot.

It’s not that Liepert doesn’t have his beefs with evangelical Christianity. He does. And he makes them very clear in this book. But because Liepert spends so much of the book decrying extremism in his own tradition—Islam—when Liepert singles out the issues that lead to extremism in other traditions, like evangelical Christianity and some forms of modern-day Judaism, he has a built-in credibility that makes him worth listening to. Liepert is not a selective critic that sees flaws in every other faith tradition but his own.

Having said that, the effectiveness of Liepert’s arguments depends more on the reader and his or her background than on the author’s persuasiveness. For example, as a Christian from an evangelical background, I found Liepert’s use of the Bible to disprove the deity of Christ unconvincing.  And while I was delighted that Liepert gave a credible basis for accepting the crucifixion of Jesus as a Muslim, I found it odd that he then relegated the crucifixion to a minor issue of passing interest , as if the issue could go either way and it wouldn’t really matter (Christians find this reasoning bizarre. There’s no ambiguity whatsoever on the crucifixion in the New Testament, so when Christians hear Muslims say, “We accept previous revelations, including the gospels”, but then deny the crucifixion—or relegate it to a passing interest —the claim that “we accept your revelation” appears shallow and suspect).  And while Liepert gives with one hand by accepting the crucifixion, he takes away with the other by denying it’s cosmic saving significance. This puts Liepert in the awkward position of using the New Testament—even the epistles—to bolster his arguments, while having to backtrack by writing off the entire Book of Hebrews.  As a New Testament believer from an evangelical background reading this section of the book, I was preoccupied with the nagging question: If Liepert can accept the crucifixion as a Muslim, then why not mine the New Testament to explore it’s cosmic significance? One doesn’t have to accept the doctrine of penal substitution—a non-starter for Muslims—to do this.

The point I wish to make with this criticism is not to reignite a doctrinal debate, rather it’s to address what I think is the primary structural problem with the book. Because Liepert attempts to chart the historical and doctrinal path of each of the three religions, and to show how each of them have gone astray, he often goes off on unnecessary rabbit trails that could alienate him from the very audience he’s trying to reach, whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews.  For example, if a Muslim doesn’t agree with Liepert’s analysis of where and when Islam went astray (according to Liepert, it has something to do with the Ummah not accepting the authority of the Caliph), then he or she might not be willing to accept the central thesis of Liepert’s book. And that would be a shame, because Liepert’s central thesis is really worth listening to.

The central thesis of Muslim, Christian, and Jew is that when religions become overly obsessed with right doctrine at the expense of right practice, it leads to extremism, and the reason why Liepert is able to make this point so well, is because he is an equal opportunity offender.

On page 10, chapter 2, Liepert writes:

“When Western editorials and commentators call for moderate Muslims to condemn Muslim terrorists, the vast majority of us agree. But we would be able to respect your advice more if you hadn’t killed almost fifty times more of us than we have of you.”

I thought this was the most brilliant line in the book, and the reason why the statement has so much force is because Liepert goes on to criticize Muslims for killing each other. Liepert makes an interesting broad historical point that, percentage-wise, the body count perpetrated by members of Christianity and Islam are the same, but the difference is that Christians tend to kill members of the opposite faith, while Muslims tend to kill members of their own faith.

Liepert’s target audience is members of all three Abrahamic faiths, and while his criticisms of each faith might be off-putting to some of his target audience, Liepert also points out the best in each of the Abrahamic traditions, and because of that, when Liepert does criticize, it feels fair and even-handed.

And on this note, I feel that there are two things that Liepert does extraordinarily well in this book:

1.     Criticizes the obsessive focus on doctrine in Christianity.

2.     Defends Islam from accusations of promoting violence and anti-Semitism.

Liepert’s criticism of Christianity (especially evangelical Christianity) as obsessively focused on doctrine at the expense of right practice deserves some serious thought and reflection. I would even go as far as to say that a symposium on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is in order. There are too many passages in the New Testament that link salvation to loving thy neighbor and feeding and clothing the hungry and the naked for evangelicals to go on as if the only way to witness to the faith is to ask the question, “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going to go?”  and then—buzz, wrong answer!—when the response has a hint of “works.” At some point, evangelicals are going to have to ask the question of whether reducing salvation to passing multiple choice test questions needs to be reexamined.

Lastly, I think that the most persuasive part of the book is the section where Liepert lays to rest the notion that the Qur’an promotes anti-Semitism.  In my opinion, chapters 20, 21, and 22—the ones that expound an Islamic theology towards Jews, Judaism, and the Holy Land—are the best chapters in the book.  For these chapters alone, Muslim, Christian and Jew is well worth the read.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Experience.

1 comment:

Donald "Bud" Stark said...

I just read this entry and want to point out a paradox that you are overlooking when you say that "There are too many passages in the New Testament that link salvation to loving thy neighbor and feeding and clothing the hungry and the naked for evangelicals to go on as if the only way to witness to the faith is to ask the question, "“If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’re going to go?”" I am a died in the wool liberal, or at least that is how Fox News and such like would describe me if they even knew I existed. But I must point out that evangelical Christians give far more in dollars to world needs than any mainline churches do. This I cannot understand, but I think it is important to point it out. They are seriously involved in this, and not as an evangilizing tool, as their enthusiastic participation in World Vision shows.