Navigating the divide between Christianity and Islam

November 3, 2009

Since an early age, Paul-Gordon Chandler has lived his life in the Arab Islamic world, in western and sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East. As a teenager, then a development worker, with religious publishing groups and now as an American Episcopal priest, he has experienced daily the rich and varied culture of Islamic societies.

He has observed that many Muslims perceive Christ as a Westerner with no relationship to Eastern culture, and he has heard many Christians in the West talk about Islam with fear, suspicion and hostility.

In November, the rector of St. John's Church in Cairo, Egypt, comes to the United States to participate in multiple preaching engagements and lectures at theological colleges, sharing his experiences and the knowledge he has gained and about which he has written in Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road (Rowman & Littlefield, 215 pp., $15.95).

While passionate about sharing the life and revelation of Jesus Christ, Chandler says he maintains a great respect for Islam as a religion and for those who follow its teaching.

He talks with discomfort about the dislocation that Muslims often experience, usually at the encouragement of Christians, when they leave their own community for a Christian culture, a "foreign one," and lose their sense of identity.

"My strongest desire for them is to clearly see Christ and examine his life and message without all the sociological, religious, cultural, political and historical barriers that often exist," he writes.

This "divine tension" that Chandler himself experienced led him to read E. Stanley Jones, an early Methodist missionary and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who wrote about "how Christ is naturalized on the Indian road," and Sadhu Sundar Singh, a follower of Christ who kept his Sikh culture and became a wandering Indian holy man, writing Eastern short stories and parables that captivated thousands in India.

In his book, Chandler describes how Christianity and Islam, which share a common heritage, can coexist and enrich one another by focusing on Mazhar Mallouhi, a Syrian writer and novelist who lives in Beirut and calls himself "a Muslim follower of Christ."

"Mallouhi's unorthodox way of following Christ can provide Western Christians a great freshness for their own faith," Chandler says. "As one who truly lives within the clash of cultures and beliefs, he has much to teach us."

Chandler says the tragic events of 9/11 resulted in a growing interest within Western churches in learning more about Islam and better understanding Muslims, but at the same time it created growing discord between Christians and Muslims, often leading to what he describes as "Islamophobia."

"This, of course, all the more hinders Muslims from ever seriously examining the claims of Christ, the great bridge builder."

Chandler's newest book, published this month by Morehouse, also draws on the legacy of the Christian churches' Middle Eastern heritage. Songs in Waiting is a reminder that the Christian faith is Middle Eastern in origin. "When we forget that ... we lose our true sense of identity," Chandler says.

-- Jerry Hames is past editor of Episcopal Life.



Surprise is God's gift to us in Advent

By Paul-Gordon Chandler

Excerpts from Songs in Waiting, Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth, a book of meditations focusing on the ancient Middle Eastern songs that celebrate this season of the Christian year (Morehouse, 108 pp., $20).

If advent is about training our eyes to see God's coming and preparing our hearts to welcome God, it is essential to remember that God more often than not chooses to surprise us about the exact nature of the arrival.

God is a God of the unexpected, and being alert to the unexpected is fundamental when we're on the lookout for God.

Flannery O'Connor, the great Catholic novelist, wrote, “From my experience … I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected.” As we prepare for the Christmas celebration during Advent, we are reminded that there is probably no other time of year when the theme of surprise is more evident than the Christmas season. Everyone seems to be surprising everyone else: hence the desire to keep our gifts to others a secret. There is something inherent in Western culture, especially in the United States, that values – and enjoys – the thrill of the surprise.

Life seems to go from one surprise to the next. We may find ourselves surprised by the jobs we have ended up doing, the person we married or the place we happen to be living. A quick reading of the newspaper headlines on any given day reminds us that life is like a continuing cycle of the unexpected. The Nativity story, as presented by Matthew and Luke in their Gospel accounts, sets the stage for the mood of surprise in the holiday season. While the Bible is full of examples of God surprising men and women with his faithfulness, demonstrating the very heart of God, there is perhaps no other section of the Christian Scriptures where we see God surprising so many different types of people in diverse life situations than the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel. Approaching the Nativity story through this lens of surprise provides freshness to this all-too-familiar story and gives new meaning to the Advent and Christmas season, opening a window for us on the mystery of God.

Advent and Christmas are seasons of surprises. They are also seasons of singing: God's surprises are nowhere more evident than in the songs Luke shares with us that were sung surrounding the birth of the Christ child. Perhaps Luke was a music lover, as he chooses to tell us of Christ's birth through the medium of song. His Nativity narrative includes four canticles that have become some of the most important songs of the Christian faith: the Magnificat, or Song of Mary; the Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah; the Gloria, or Song of the Angels to the Shepherds; and the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon.



Author visits U.S. this month

For two weeks in November, Paul-Gordon Chandler has numerous engagements in the United States, preaching, lecturing and book signing.

Nov. 5: Alexandria, Virginia, Virginia Theological Seminary, 1 p.m. forum lecture. (contact:
Nov. 8: Alexandria, Virginia, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 10 a.m. lecture, adult forum. (contact:
Nov. 9 & 10: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Episcopal Divinity School, lecture. (contact:
Nov. 11: Glen Ellyn, Illinois, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 7 p.m. lecture. (contact:
Nov. 13: Colbert, Washington, Colbert Presbyterian Church, evening lecture. (contact:
Nov. 14: Spokane, Washington, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 10 a.m. lecture. (contact:
Nov. 15: Spokane, Washington, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 8 and 11 a.m., preaching; 10 a.m. forum.

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