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Uncomfortable with Evangelism

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a book publicist who contacts me from time to time when he is promoting a book he thinks my blog readers might be interested in. He saw what I said about Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? and wondered if I would like to feature the new book Dinner with Muhammad on Flunking Sainthood as well. The subtitle, "A Surprising Look at a Beautiful Freindship," sounded promising.

I was initially enthusiastic about showcasing a book that takes seriously the importance of Christian-Muslim relations, but then put off by what I felt was an overly evangelistic sensibility. It seemed from my cursory look to be focused more on bringing Muslims to the Christian faith than it did on understanding Islam per se. The author, Marilyn Hickey, has traveled the world to lead crusades in Muslim countries. The crusades are intended to build bridges between the two religions, yes, but they are also evangelistic efforts with an eye to conversion.

I discussed this concern with the publicist and decided to go ahead and write about the book even though it's not something I feel I can endorse. The audience is conservative evangelical Christians, and I'm not in that camp.

But Hickey's book has made me explore my own discomfort with evangelism. In particular, Christian evangelization of Muslims and Jews strikes me as deeply disrespectful of history, since centuries ago a "crusade" meant something quite different to those on the receiving end. They could convert to Christianity, or they could die. Not a particularly great set of options.

But on the other hand, I am a follower of Jesus, and I understand the "make disciples of all nations" bit. I think that such evangelism would have been a lot less fraught when Christians had no power to speak of, when they were on the margins. Now, cultural imperialism accompanies every attempt to "Christianize"; even the word itself is rife with a certain Constantinian gravitas.

There's a scene in Hickey's book, for example, when she visits Gaza (quite a feat) and asks what the people need most. "We need jobs and training," they reply. "Please come back and bring the help we need." 

It's a desperate plea, and Hickey muddies the waters of cultural imperialism still further by defending her desire to help them even though they're affiliated with Hamas. "I’m certain God’s heart is for the people of Gaza, which is why I’m willing to sully myself and befriend the marginalized," she writes.

SULLY herself? What the hell?

It's always easier to see the log in someone else's own eye, so I'm trying to remember that this author has done far more than most people to befriend Muslims, alleviate poverty in Muslim countries, and build bridges. But the book smacks of an arrogance, both religious and cultural, that is what bothers me most about evangelism.


The right way/wrong way image is used with permission of Shutterstock.

Topics: Faith, Beliefs, Doctrine & Practice, International
Beliefs: Christian, Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Evangelical, Islam
Tags: brian mclaren why did jesus, the buddha, and mohammed cross the road, christian crusades in muslim countries, christian evangelism of muslims, crusades, evangelism, flunking sainthood, gaza, islam and christianity, jana riess, marilyn hickey dinner with muhammad


  1. Professor Camille Fronk Olsen, the chair of the religious studies department at BYU, did her PhD by living in Gaza and studying the concerns of women there.  Professor Dan Peterson, who lived for several years in Egypt and teaches Arabic and Islamic history, is familiar with the way that Mormons tend to idolize the Jews in Israel and refuse to give the benefit of the doubt to Muslims.  Peterson wrote a biography of Muhammad that I found very even handed. 

    I served a two year mission in Japan.  Maybe it helped that I am Japanese and was born there, but it didn’t seem condescending for me to preach to people.  We were humbly begging for permission to take a few minutes of their time, and there was no question they were in control.  We could only offer and ask, not dictate.  Missionaries do not convince people against their will.  They teach people what they themselves believe, and let them, decide.

  2. Thanks, Jana, for your comments.  I’m with you on the “sully” part. What the hell indeed! I am a professor of evangelism and believe that the Gospel and genuinely lived Christianity are beautiful and compelling. Getting to truly know, truly respect, and truly love our neighbors in all their diversity, is inherent to the Gospel and is the best apologetic for the Christian faith.

  3. During the Crusades Jewish communities across Europe and especially Germany were attacked and destroyed. Jews who refused to convert to Judaism were put to death or in some cases committed suicide to avoid conversion to Christianity. I think that many Evangelicals want to ignore this past.

    One cannot be Jewish and accept Jesus as one’s savior. Therefore, any attempt to convert a Jew to Christianity is an attempt to reduce the number of Jews. Indeed, if the Evangelicals had their way, there wouldn’t be any Jews left on the planet. This is an attempt at spiritual genocide.

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