A Conversation about Islam with Karen & Carl Ellis

Article by   February 2016
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Karen and Carl Ellis to discuss some issues surrounding the Church's role in the discussion over Islam, how reformed theology can speak into the exchange between both faiths, the situation surrounding Dr. Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College, and a few other thoughts, besides.

Carl and Karen Ellis are co-founders of Ellis Perspectives and The Makazi Institute, affectionately known by their students as "Black L'Abri." They teach nationally and internationally on Cultural Apologetics, Understanding Islam, US Church History and Theology. Carl serves on the board of UK-based Barnabas Aid, and Karen serves as the Ambassador for the Swiss-based International Christian Response, both vibrant charities that serve Christians living in hostile regions

MM: What are some of the biggest concerns you have about the Church's understanding of, and posture towards, Islam?

CFE: For me, it's the fact that the church is asleep about Islam and the challenge it brings. That's been my biggest frustration.  I find it easier to minister to Muslims than to wake up many Christians about the Islamic challenge we face today.

KAE: One of my frustrations is that we paint the entire community with a very broad brush. People who haven't been exposed to Islam tend to overlook how varied the Muslim community is from region to region and culture to culture, and lack the understanding that qur'anic interpretation is often affected by those cultural differences.  Another challenge is fear-mongering that exploits those broad brush strokes - news outlets, whether on the right or the left, have their own agenda and are not invested in moving us towards seeing people with kingdom eyes, but with eyes of either fear or naïveté. Whether right or left, there will always be those more committed to their political position than to God's kingdom principles.  But in our courses, we teach that "while we may critique the system, we must love the people."
CFE: And a critique of Islam does not equate to Islamophobia.

KAE: That's right. The fear-mongering comes too harshly on one side; we human beings have an ingrained and hostile tendency toward 'other-making.'  Yet on the opposite side, there are those who are unrealistic about Islam and ignore its weaknesses and abuses.  We urge our students to balance truth and love, to think humanely and with nuance, and to look for the many opportunities to serve those in the Muslim community while maintaining our unique distinctiveness as Christ-followers.  Many Muslim people around the world have done heroic things to protect their Christian neighbors - I love to tell those stories to balance out the stories of radical jihad and religious freedom abuses.

MM: how has your message and your role within this dialogue been met by the reformed community?

KAE: Favorably, I hope. Our approach to Islam isn't merely historical or comparative, we also incorporate discipleship solutions based on Reformed principles. The historical and comparative aspect helps students understand the Islamic community more fully and accurately, and the discipleship principles prepare them to address cultural and personal concerns with a rich theology. 

CFE: To piggy back on that, those of us who have been in the reformed community for a long time have seen how reformed theology has been reduced down to a narrow set of theological "points" with a narrow application.  When Reformed theology gets reduced like this, we lose sight of the robust heritage which can actually help us speak to Islam, and other issues.

KAE: As I study systematic theology, I see the implications that the concept of union with Christ holds for discipleship, particularly for people who live in a sub-dominant cultural reality. As I teach and unpack these concepts, I find this doctrine, that is, union with Christ, offers a lot of insight into core themes of dignity and identity.  I enjoy getting those concepts out of the classroom and finding ways for them to live and breathe in the world. 

MM: What are some of your own reflections about the situation that has come to global attention out of Wheaton involving Dr. Lawrycia Hawkins? How would you respond to those who say that all three faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, worship the same God?

CFE: I would say no, that all three faiths don't worship the same God. Or maybe a more moderate way of putting it would be to say that Islam misunderstands God.  If you look at the character of God in each book, the God of the Bible is knowable; He reveals Himself by making covenants, and doesn't go back on His Word but rather fulfills His word.  The god of the Qur'an is unknowable; only his will can be known, and he can never be known himself.  He doesn't make covenants, and he abrogates his word.  Those are two very different characters.

KAE: If you take in the whole global and cultural perspective, the answer can also be "yes but ultimately no." Scholars like Nabeel Quereshi and Kyuboem Lee have done detailed work on the theological and cultural aspects of answering "yes but ultimately no," pointing out distinctions on how the name of Allah is used in the Arab speaking world (and in parts of Southeast Asia as well), and some of the missional controversies surrounding the use of that term by Christians. 

The Muslim folks that we personally interact with are eager to point out the differences, and we engage in vigorous conversation around those differences.  The conversations are challenging, but they help us understand how the character of God in the Bible has been taught to the individual with whom we're engaging.  As an academic mission couple, differences around the character of God have been a much more effective touch-point than seeking commonalities. We tend to reserve using commonalities as touch-points for temporal issues, like the things that concern us all about our families, our neighborhood, or local and national events.

MM: A follow up question to this is: can a Muslim worship the same God as the Christian with incomplete knowledge and theology?

CFE: Of course - we're not saved by theology, but by Christ alone.  We also ought to be asking, "Do all 'Christians' worship the same God?"  Who is this God that blessed ontological racism, on which American chattel slavery was built?  I don't know that god.  Who is this God that ordained apartheid in South Africa?  I don't know this god.  In 20th Century America, there was a region that people called the "bible belt."  The exact same region from an African American point of view was known as the Jim Crow belt - the racism-segregation belt.  What then should I conclude about the Bible?  The point is, we create idols and conceptualize God according to our own limitations and biases; we tend to reduce Him to a tribal deity.  If our ideas of God are not constantly disciplined by Scripture, we very easily veer off into idolatry.  So, if I can make this point towards Muslims, then I can also apply it to Christians, as well.

MM: Some argue that there exists a good deal of commonality and overlap between Christians and Muslims - is this a case of worshipping the wrong God and worshipping God wrongly?Is an appeal to classical theism enough?

CFE: No, it's not. Creation tells us that God is real, that we are sinful, that we are in trouble with God and that we are unable to resolve this problem. Special revelation tells us how, in Christ, God has solved our problem with Him.  This is a good question, but I want to ask the evangelical community to rethink what it means to 'reach people with the gospel.'  You can be surrounded by "Christianity."  However, because of our poor practices in social ethics, what many in other cultures perceive is in fact an anti-Christianity - a distorted representation of our faith that often communicates the opposite of what the Bible actually teaches.  Again, we have a tendency to reimagine God according to our own sinful and finite limitations.  From an African American perspective, our evangelical culture has done a disservice to the Church because it has failed to present a biblically-chastened picture of God.

With that said, an understanding of classical theism shows us that Allah of the Qur'an appears to be a tribal deity.  Let's look at the evidence: the only language Allah speaks is Arabic; the exclusive language of the Qur'an is Arabic; the Qur'an translated into any other language ceases to be the Qur'an because the "inspiration" is only in Arabic; prayers aren't legitimate if they're not in Arabic. What does this tell you? There's a parochial aspect to Islam that, when set alongside biblical Christianity, looks very shallow in comparison to the universal character of God as depicted in Scripture - "the God of all mankind" who speaks and understands all languages.

MM: Should evangelicals who do not have a direct stake in Wheaton be concerned about whether or not Dr. Hawkins' views constitute being outside of orthodoxy?

KAE: It's raised questions in our minds around the boundaries of academic freedom within Christian institutions, minority engagement by historically white American evangelical institutions, the polarization of our culture by race and faith, and the framing of religious freedom for Christian institutions in general.  Christian education may well look very different in five to ten years' time.  As we anticipate those changes, we're asking how confined are we to our present educational models?  What would a healthy future picture of Christian education look like with these considerations, and how can we help build a healthy foundation for that picture now?

MM: How ought the church in America balance love for the persecuted international Body with love for our Muslim neighbors?

KAE: That's tricky to answer, because the scale isn't evenly weighted.  Even as the apostle Paul exhorts us to good works, he qualifies the primacy of our unique relationship in Christ: do good to all, "especially those who are of the household of faith."  For us, "one" isn't a number - it's a state of being.  In our unity with Christ we share a relationship that's intimate, Christ-centered, physical, and distinct.  No other earthly relationship is bound up in our union with Him. Our unity in Christ's body doesn't necessarily cancel out our ethnic, tribal, or societal associations, or even our familial and blood relations, but our union with Christ's Person does carry a strong suggestion of Spirit-wrought uniqueness centered only in Him.  There simply is no comparison to any other earthly alliances. 

To be crucified and risen in Christ is a communal affair, and Scripture places a priority on looking after those within the Christian family - we struggle with this when what's happening to our family isn't happening in our own back yard.  At the same time, we're mandated to make disciples - and unfortunately, we struggle with this as well.  I'd like to see us rediscover what it means to be the body of Christ on both levels, the inward focus and the outward.

MM: Finally, can you give us a sense of why you think it is that Islam is on the rise in prison populations?

CFE: Two factors stand out to me.  First, a person in prison may realize that he has been taken in by illusions of instant wealth through crime.  He may also realize he has been alienated from God, consequently he desires to achieve God's favor. Perhaps he wants to purge himself from those false values that led to his incarceration. Therefore, when he witnesses the Islamic community with its disciplined, rigorous approach to life, he might see this as the means to satisfy his desire for righteousness.

The second factor could involve a protest motivation. He may feel alienated and angry at society - a "system" that, in his mind, has 'robbed him of his dignity and identity' and resulted in his incarceration.  He becomes a Muslim to recover his dignity and identity while resisting or provoking the "system."

Islam, with its prescribed routines like prayer five times a day, ritual washings, etc., lends itself to a situation where one needs to pass a lot of time of time.  Also, in many prisons the Muslims tend to do a better job of mutual protection from harassment, molestation, etc.  This is a strong incentive for being a part of the Islamic community behind bars.

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