Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!

Dreams and Visions

dreamingI have a dream…well, I had a dream…but what does it mean? In the past two weeks, I’ve received precisely the same question from two different friends. Both believe that God has appeared to them and spoken to them in a dream, and both wanted to know if it was God or something else or if they were to attribute special significance to the event. Since then, my Facebook wall has exploded with similar questions and a few mildly heated discussions on the topic. As you’ve come to expect, with this topic and all others, here at CTC we will seek to be Biblical first in all things. As my alma mater frequently emblazoned on their entry marquee, “Think Biblically…about everything.” So, what does the Bible say on this topic? And while we’re at it, why do anything halfway? So, I looked up every single instance in the Bible of God appearing to people in dreams, and this is what I found.

  1. Unless you are a prophet or an apostle, this is highly unusual. From the Fall through Revelation, God communicates to people in dreams many times, but in most cases it is to an apostle or prophet. He appears to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Jacob (Genesis 28 and 31), Joseph (Genesis 37), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Gideon (Judges 7), Solomon (1 Kings 3), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 4), Peter (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16 and 18, 1 Corinthians 12), and John (Revelation). In fact, it appears from Scripture that this is one of the primary means, if not the primary means, that God communicates with His prophets and apostles. Here’s the key – the primary way God communicates with His prophets and apostles is through dreams and visions, but the primary way God communicates with His people is through prophets and apostles. For us, that means through their writings in His Word (the issue of whether there are prophets or apostles around today is something for another blog). So, unless you are a prophet or an apostle – a bold claim with fatal consequences if you’re incorrect – you should not expect God to communicate with you in a dream, rather you should be in the habit of looking for His communication to you through His Word.

Now, there are a few exceptions (Abimelech in Genesis 20, Laban in Genesis 31, Pharaoh in Genesis 40, the Midianite armies in Judges 7, Zecharias in Luke 1, Joseph in Matthew 2, and Cornelius in Luke 10). But these are all highly unique circumstances, and are certainly not of the sort that we normally hear today where God appears in a dream to help make some decision (which house to buy, how many kids to have, or whatever — I don’t see any Biblical reason to believe that God answers these sorts of questions though dreams, but that is a completely separate blog.) In fact, after the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), with the exception of Revelation there is not another instance of God appearing in a dream. It appears, Biblically, that once His communication to the prophets and apostles was complete, His appearance in dreams ceased. [Note – if it wasn’t God that appeared to you, beware. If it was Aunt Sally or your grandmother or some dear departed friend, we are dangerously close to the demonic realms here. I cannot find a single example of this in Scripture – every appearance in a dream is God, Jesus, or an angel. Anything else, in my view, is likely demonic and reason to exercise extreme caution.]

  1. You can’t trump Scripture with your experience. Yes, I borrowed this from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, but it’s a great point that is entirely valid in this discussion. No matter how many times I have this discussion with people, it always seems to come back to this: I tell them what the Bible teaches, and they tell me about the dream they had. I know these dreams can be powerful and compelling, but you cannot “overrule” what Scripture teaches with your personal experience. If there is any inconsistency or question about what the dream has revealed, reject it.
  1. God can do what He wants. With point #1 above firmly supported by Scripture, we also know that God can do whatever He desires that is consistent with His nature, and there are multiple examples in the post-apostolic age of God appearing in dreams to both believers and unbelievers. He obviously used a vision to reach Paul, and many have heard the amazing story of Nabeel Qureshi (he told the story to Christianity Today here, if you haven’t), who is representative of many Muslims who have reportedly been converted to Christianity through visions and dreams. However, several points are critically important here.
    1. God will not reveal anything in a dream that is inconsistent with Scripture. God cannot lie, and He is perfectly consistent. If anything in the dream challenges the clear teaching of Scripture – such as a dream telling you to divorce your wife or any dream advocating or supporting sin – you can rest assured the dream does not have God as its source.
    2. God will probably not reveal anything in a dream that He has already revealed in Scripture. God is a good Father. When my daughter asks me a question I’ve already answered – usually multiple times – I quell my frustration and simply ask her to remember the answer I gave the last time she asked. When I asked my mother – a professional linguist – the meaning of a word, you know the answer I received. Yep…”Look it up!” Returning to another great point by Koukl, this actually leaves us with relatively little for God to “reveal” in a dream. If it’s contrary to Scripture, it’s unbiblical. If it’s contained within Scripture, it’s unnecessary.

Biblically, unless you are a prophet or an apostle, you should not expect God to appear to you in dreams, nor should you seek answers in your dreams. So, what do you do if you think God has appeared to you in a dream? First, test it (1 Thess 5). Is what the dream revealed entirely consistent with Scripture? If so, hold onto it…if not, then reject it. Similarly, if you are following a teacher who claims to be receiving revelations from God through dreams or visions, be extraordinarily careful, as this is rare.  Test every statement in light of Scripture.  Second, share it. Talk to other mature Christians, and have them help you understand it. Finally, obey it. If God truly has given you guidance in a dream, then it becomes an obligatory command upon the believer. You do not have the option to obey or not, such a revelation would carry weight equal to His revelation in Scripture.

So, does God appear to us in dreams today? I think He does, but I think it is highly unusual, largely unnecessary, and often misused. That’s all for now…go back to sleep.

What Love Isn’t

heart-3

In the last several weeks, I have been sharply critical of several popular pastors and speakers. I’ll save my concerns about Beth Moore, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and others for another blog – what I want to think clearly about this time is the most common objection I received to this criticism. In short, numerous people admonished me that I shouldn’t be so critical, that I should “just love them,” or that as Christians, we shouldn’t judge other Christians, we are called to simply love them. What this has exposed to me is what I think is a disappointingly unbiblical perspective on Christian love.

The fact is, we are certainly to love each other, but it is not enough to just be loving. I can love my enemy until the cows come home, and he will still spend eternity in Hell if I don’t make the effort to share Jesus Christ with him. News flash to “feel good Christians”: the most loving person you know is still going to Hell if he/she reject the free offer of grace that Jesus provides. You simply cannot love your way into salvation, nor can you love others into salvation, this is nothing more than repackaged works-based salvation. It gets a lot of “likes” as a Facebook status and looks great on Pinterest, but it cannot save. Any of us could quickly flip to 1 Corinthians 13 to find what love is, and any of us could probably quote 1 John 4:8 to show that “God is love.” I don’t dispute this, and I know it’s the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36 – 40), I get all that…but I want to turn it around a bit and encourage Christians to think for a moment about what love isn’t.

  1. Love does not mean agreement.  I can disagree with someone, and still love them – anyone who is married can easily affirm this truth. I love my wife and daughter more than anyone on Earth, yet we disagree frequently. If a pastor – mine or one in the media – says something that I disagree with, and I express disagreement, that is not being unloving. I can disagree with my wife on her choice of hairstyle (not advisable), her preference for Illinois basketball, or anything else, and love her no less. In fact, some issues are so important that love requires – and the Bible commands – engagement and disagreement. Which brings us to…
  1. Love does not mean we don’t correct error.  If someone holds a belief that is clearly in error, in some cases we are required and commanded to correct the error. As Greg Koukl has famously stated, if a diabetic believes that eating ice cream will decrease their blood sugar, we must intervene and correct the error – potentially saving their life in the process. I cannot retreat to my subjectivist corner and simply conclude that they are entitled to their beliefs, and it’s not my business to correct them. The Bible is clear here as well. Shortly after one of the great verses on love, Paul tells us in Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” We are to admonish one another using the wisdom of the message of Christ in the Scriptures. “Admonish – to express disapproval or criticism, in a gentle and earnest manner.” We are actually being told to express disapproval for and criticize those among us who are acting or speaking contrary to the message of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Ephesians follows closely, with a lengthy passage on Christian living. The well-known passage in 4:1 – 14 encourages us to be mature in the Lord, so that “…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” This is a clear warning against false teachers, those whose “deceitful scheming” and “cunning and craftiness” risks misleading the body of Christ. Instead, we are to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). I don’t see another way to read this verse other than as a command to correct those who are deceived by false teachers. We do so lovingly, of course (which is reinforced in verse 16), but we must guard against these false teachers. We simply cannot lean on love to avoid the requirement to correct error, which leads directly to…
  1. Love does not mean we endorse unbiblical behavior.  Especially from teachers! As young Timothy was under Paul’s charge, preparing to take over the church at Ephesus, Paul knew the Ephesians were already plagued by false teachers. Both of Paul’s letters to Timothy make this point repeatedly – in fact, the first point of the first letter is telling Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3 – 4). These people want to be teachers, but they “…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” The parallel here to the many false teachers present today could hardly be more obvious. Again, the relationship to love is reinforced – love that comes from a “…pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” from which these false teachers have departed. One could easily read 1 Tim 1:1 – 7 as saying that teaching false doctrines is a direct departure from Christian love, thus Christian’s loving response is to correct and rebuke the error. But it doesn’t stop there. After a list of the many false teachings Timothy will likely face in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 4:6). Again, exposing false teachings and holding these teachers accountable, ensuring Christians are following sound doctrine, is what it means to be a “good minister of Christ.” This wonderful chapter ends with Paul’s command to “Watch your life and your doctrine closely.” We could all benefit from such a command! What matters is not only how you behave, but what you believe. Paul’s second letter makes many similar commands, telling us that “Opponents [to the gospel] must be gently instructed,” and the well-known uses of Scripture in 3:16 which includes rebuking and correcting believers. Just prior to his death, Paul’s primary charge to Timothy was to “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction, for the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2 – 3). Not to belabor the point, but Titus echoes these commands in every single chapter: “Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), “You must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “These are the things you should teach, encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15) and so on.

Almost every book of the New Testament stands on these two pillars of belief and behavior. We are to love, that is not in question. But part of loving is disagreement, part of loving is correcting error, and part of loving is rebuking unbiblical behavior and refuting false teachings. Arguably, it is both unbiblical and unloving not to follow these commands. So, if I question the teachings of a popular preacher or teacher, I am not being unloving. Quite the opposite. This applies to me as well – I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and the most loving things my students could do is challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and hold me accountable to the Biblical standard. I expect nothing less, nor does Jesus Christ, nor should you.