10 March 2008

Women in Christianity and Islam

Weekend before last, I served as co-leader of a discussion on "Women in Christianity and Islam" for a Christian-Muslim Relations program organized by the Christian Leadership Center at Centenary. What glorious fun. And it left me with much to think about regarding biblical womanhood, the grace of God through Jesus Christ, compassionate ministry, and real faithfulness. Maybe some other things too. But in an effort to at least post some bits about this, here are some lessons I learned from the experience:

1) Lesson: putting a face to those who don't love Jesus as the Redeemer is a blessed thing indeed. It was a true blessing for me personally to meet and dialogue with the Muslim convert who served as the other co-leader for our session (let's call her Asna). She is a learned woman and I look forward to developing a friendship with her.

2) Lesson: regarding womanhood and faith, I have more in common with Muslims than with most Christians. That is, as a complementarian Christian (one who believes that men and women are co-equal in creation and redemption but distinct in role), I have way more in common with Asna and Muslims like her at least regarding the roles of men and women than I do with egalitarian American Christians. Asna seemed intrigued to learn that the idea of gender distinction is in the Christian Bible too, and that at least I would say that the Biblical ethic is adamant that no sex or type of person has inherent second-class status to anyone else, that we are all equally depraved and then also, in Christ, equally redeemed.

3) Lesson: the issue of women and faith might serve as an entry point for interfaith ministry. My presentation just hinted at the distinctions between complementarian and egalitarian views in Christianity, and Asna's just hinted at the issues relevant to women and Islam. Both of us had lots more we could have said, and our "audience" engaged interestingly; I am hopeful that we might see more discussion on precisely this topic in the future.

For example, Asna was rather intrigued to hear that the Bible does talk about head coverings for women, that the idea of veiling as such is not completely foreign to the Christian Bible. She wants a copy of the notes I made for my talk so that she can check out the New Testament scriptures I noted; she is eager to share these with so-called Christians who stop her in Wal-Mart and think she's nuts for wearing full burkha. I chuckled at the idea of a veiled Muslim woman challenging the biblical illiteracy of so-called Christians in the grocery check-out line.

4) Lesson: genuine understanding is an important entry point for interfaith ministry. The whole program, though it featured interfaith prayer and a panel discussion where Muslims and Christians called one another brother, was no kumbayah session of inarticulate pluralistic doctrine. Now, to be sure, many of those present (though the crowd was very small in general) definitely thought that, but that was not the overt theme of things. Rather, the overt theme seemed to be respect for theological distinctions even if they are not reconcilable; the general call was one of peaceful dialogue, which I dare say we should all welcome.

5) Lesson: be a person of your book. The last imam to speak in the panel discussion called all of us there to be people of our books, earnestly living out what righteousness we read there. He repeated it often, the importance of our books. At our church, we take this for granted, that Christians determine to live in faithfulness to God's revelation in His Word, and maybe we forget that it's not an altogether common belief among so-called Christians in general.

In "our book" we Christians will hear the call to humble but urgent ministry, to radical acts of love, to passionate and thoughtful relationship . . . all through serious attention to the supremacy of Jesus over all things. But most of the "Christians" in attendance that day wouldn't have agreed with that last part. At my lunch table, two women actually dismissed the idea of original sin as not in the Bible at all "unless you read Genesis literally" but as a mere fiction of the Catholic church. I was so baffled that I could not compose a reply. Later, they were surprised to hear that I actually believed Jesus is the only way, truth, and life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him. I'm still confused as to how someone could call herself a Christian and not believe that.

But the point here is that I think we may find in our local Muslim community people who are willing to dialogue about what God has actually said; the larger Christian community locally may not, ironically, be as interested in that. Oh the urgency of speaking compassionate truth to those around us who claim to be Christians as well!

6) Lesson: hanging around people who sincerely believe they must work hard to earn God's reward will sure highlight the preciousness of God's powerful grace through Jesus. The experience of being with these earnest Muslims made me recall with awe at so many points that Jesus died to make so many of the things they desire available to sinners like me completely and freely. He has set us free from bondage to sin! His Holy Spirit empowers us to walk in righteousness! I cannot begin to describe, then, the renewed joy in my own heart: our Jesus is indeed unique, precious, exalted, and good.

Perhaps more on observations from that day and beyond later. But for now, I have an assignment from one of my students to write a 10- to 15-line poem in trimeter. I have two lines:

Cheap bread and pickled fish:
a side dish, not a meal.

Now for eight more and something for them to say. . . .


jlowe said...

First things first...my 10-15 line poem in trimeter. I call it "Ode to Fox News this Morning."

Tax breaks, rebates galore
Abound in politics
He said, she said, and war
Define what’s in the mix

Let’s give a man a fish
Instead of teaching him
Balanced budget? A wish.
Below our every whim

Just once I’d like to see
Our leaders have to know
We reap just what we sow

Now that my assignment by proxy is out of the way, I really enjoyed this post. As I am neither a woman nor Muslim, there was much to be gained for me. Having spent a fair amount of my recent life in largely Muslim nations, it is easy to notice the (at the very least) superficial importance placed upon adhering to one's book. I wonder if this was brought up at your discussion. Does Christianity seem even more divergent (multiple factions, translations of the Bible, interpretations of the Bible) than the obvious and well-defined sects of Islam? For women, specifically, is their more to be gained from assuming a more traditional (or "book") role or a more progressive or socially evolving role in either Christianity or Islam? If so, why?

Shannon said...

WOW! What an amazing opportunity... That's incredible, Jen.

Jen said...

Nice trimeter. I still haven't gotten much further than those drafted lines. Thanks for making me feel even worse about not pushing them on out :)

Good comments here, jlowe. Here are my attempts at responses:

1. Was "the superficial importance placed on adhering to one's book" brought up in our discussion? Not in the panel discussion where that imam made a point of this. But it was brought up in our small group discussion on the roles of women. Several questions to Asna about the various social problems in the world of Muslim politics were brought up--namely, inequality in divorce laws, the reality of forced marriages in some countries, etc.

Asna's response was one I admired: the way she was describing men and women in Islam is ideal. She would stand by it is right and best, but that doesn't mean that when you see Muslim law actually practiced in countries and smaller communities, it looks like the ideal. But that does not mean we should abandon the ideal.

I would agree regarding Christianity: because we are yet human, mortal sinners even if in the process of redemption through Jesus Christ, we are bound to screw up all kinds of beautiful things so that they look horrible and actually oppress other people. Indeed, buses of various sorts in the name of God are all too common, but that doesn't mean the ideals that those humans misread to justify those abuses are wrong.

All that requires lots more discussion, but I'll leave it there for the moment.

2. Does Christianity seem even more divergent than Islam? My gut says yes, but I don't know enough about Islam to say. Probably don't know enough about Christianity either. But here's my thinking: Christianity has its various denominations, but even the most significant differences between them seem small compared to the differences in Islamic sects. I mean, the different interpretations and applications of the word jihad alone seem so much more "divergent" than even whether or not one believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation, though that splits Catholics and Protestants straight down the middle. Seems like apples and oranges, though.

3. For women is there more to be gained from assuming a more traditional or more progressive role in either Christianity or Islam? Depends on whom you ask. If you ask me, I say there's more to be gained from assuming a traditional role: because I believe that is what God intends, what pleases God, what puts me in right relationship with Him and others, what He uses (among other things) to help effect my sanctification.

Asna would say the same, I think, regarding Islam except that she would particularly note that assuming a traditional role is what earns Allah's reward; I would disagree based on the doctrine of grace.

But there's more to gain socially by assuming the progressive role. Asna could avoid a lot of whispers and rolls of eyes if she didn't wear full burkha; most people behind her in line at the grocery store assume she doesn't speak English, which also means they talk about her literally behind her back. For somewhat similar (though not so stark) reasons, I don't go to work announcing that I'm a complementarian; people generally want to fight about that because it steps on their toes, or, especially in academia, they just dismiss such people as idiots who are clearly brainwashed and don't think about their lives in terms of reality.

So there's a hit on some answers there. Now where to needle in them?

Jen said...

PS to Shannon: yep, amazing :)

Micah said...

i'm embarassed to say that i don't have any clue what trimeter is, though it appears to have something to do with meter and three.

i do think it's true that jesus is not the only way; but it's quite foolish to think that those other ways end up in the same place.

Kat said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, friend. I am wowed by the arrogance and biblical ignorance of modern cultural Christians but fear I don't often know how to engage with them. I suppose I feel a greater burden for those who supposedly share my faith than for those who oppose it, yet it's a fine line between loving the Body and wanting to push my convictions about their having missed "the point." I guess I'd better spend more time on my knees, confessing *my* own arrogance and pestering God for more wisdom and understanding so as to speak the truth in love.

Jen said...

Pester, pester. Let's all pester thus, friend!