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Posts from the ‘crossing cultures’ Category


Hackgate, Corruption and African perceptions of the West

During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 34 (July 2011)

Sacred Treasure

Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 33 (June 2011)

Sacred Treasure


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 32 (May 2011)

Sacred Treasure


15 questions to ask of popular history

Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…

Read more »


How churches argued when “men were men” & other mediaeval nuggets

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a lot of a fun. It’s a very refreshing take the social history of a time and place, offered in the guise of a Michelin guide to the 14th Century. This is not to say that it is tr

ivialising or populist in the worst sense. Much though I and the children enjoy the zaniness of Horrible Histories, they are necessarily slight and far too oversimplified.

This book is, thankfully, by no means a horrible history – although it is clear that the history of the period could certainly be horrible. It is a scholarly but wittily written book that opens eyes and even stimulates all the senses to evoke what life was really like in an unimaginable age. As befits any time-traveller’s guide, it is all written in the present tense, and thus full of possibility (like any good DK or Lonely Planet guide). It is an irresistible invitation for readers to be fully immersed in an alien culture.

Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 31 (April 2011)

Sacred Treasure

  • Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
  • Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
  • A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
  • And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
  • At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
  • In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more »

Fully Immersed into Babel and Ghost towns: Susan Hiller’s WITNESS & J STREET

Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.

Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT. Read more »


We’re equals… aren’t we, 007?

For International Women’s Day, M & 007 got together for this great little clip – the stats towards the end are deeply concerning:

(HT: kouya)


Swedish sculptural surprises amidst Lund’s mediaeval grandeur

I’ve been in Lund, Sweden since Wednesday, as a guest of Teofil to speak for Langham at 2 conferences this week. It is a real thrill to be here for the first time, since my late Grandmother was Swedish and the country has always been part of our family’s folklore.

Lund is a lovely, ancient University town right in the south (only 40 mins by train, in fact, from Danish Copenhagen). It is dominated by the magnificent cathedral, which dates from AD1080. So with a couple of hours to spare before things kicked off on Thursday, I was able to go for a wander. It is an impressive building – I was especially taken with the wonderfully atmospheric crypt, the extraordinary astronomical clock and the severe grandeur of the original Romanesque architecture.

But a nice surprise was a temporary sculpture exhibition in a lady chapel of contemporary Swedish sculptress Lena Lervik. There were no explanations in English so I can’t be 100% sure what they were all seeking to suggest – but it was possible to make a pretty good stab. The photo above shows 2 installations – one in the foreground is clearly a pregnant Mary – it is stunning because the back is covered in gold leaf which shimmers in the subdued mediaeval light. But facing her is what I can only assume is the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 and John 3:14, observed in the shadows by a number of penitent believers. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition – for of course, John’s use of the serpent imagery points to the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross (and probably also the resurrection). In other words, the suffering of the Christ. And the way these pieces were installed (who knows if it was intentional – I’m inclined to think it was) Mary looks on, bearing the child who will suffer in this way. There is a profound poignancy here.

Here are a few other snaps from around the building (to see the whole set, click here).

Finally, I encountered this curiosity on the choir stalls. What can it mean?! 2 earnest pilgrims seeking God – only find that he’s a squirrel…?!? Or what? Not exactly the sort of piety you’d expect from a devout mediaeval carpenter… Any suggestions?


A wander back in time from the Agora to the Acropolis

After a really successful 48 hours in Sofia in the first half of the week, have been in Athens for similar meetings for the last few days. In between meetings with various church leaders, we had a free morning yesterday so my fantastic host Constantinos showed me the ancient sites. We did all the A’s – Agora, Areopagus and the Acropolis. Fantastic. I’ve waited decades for the chance to come here – ever since being at one of those completely weird establishments that insists on 9 year olds learning classical Greek. A dream come true.

Here are some happy snaps. Click here for the whole set.

180° View of Athens from the top of the Areopagus (Mars Hill)

The Erechtheion on the Acropolis

The Parthenon & Theatre of Dionysus

The view back from the wonderful, new Acropolis Museum



Beauty amidst the Brutalists in Bulgaria

Apologies for the rather contrived alliteration but couldn’t resist. Have been in Sofia, Bulgaria since Monday and on my way now to Athens for another couple of days’ meetings. Pretty intense but lots of big encouragements. Here in Bulgaria and Greece to plan for the launch of Langham events in both countries this Autumn.

But I was very struck by this sight in a Sofia church’s meeting place, where we’ve been having our meetings and discussions. It’s amidst the brutalists, not because of the character of the neighbours or local inhabitants – far from it! – I’m using the term (albeit rather loosely) in the architectural sense. For this church has created a meeting space on the second floor of a pretty modern apartment block in a classic, anonymous suburb of Sofia. Like so many European cities, it is all grey concrete, girders and pure functionality with little or no attention to aesthetic values. Huge impersonal squares are surrounded by long residential blocks and the odd supermarket or small health-club. But on entering Holy Trinity church, you are confronted by this unexpected blaze of theological colour.

Of course, the predominant Christian tradition in Bulgaria is Orthodox – and this has clear echoes of Orthodox iconography – quite a surprise in a Protestant Evangelical church. But what I found particularly powerful was the sweeping shape of the wooden cross, which is clearly the focal point of the installation – both because it is a the only physical structure in the set up, but also because the wall-painting and the frosted glass window are designed to highlight it (note the crown of thorns traced on both).

Because of the lines and shape of the wood, this is a cross that opens its arms wide in a welcoming embrace and also, somehow, lifts one up in its embrace – which is a profoundly true theological statement. Wonderful. (Click on the photo for one or two other shots).

Of course, the real joy of being here was to get to know some brothers who will form the team for Langham Bulgaria. We had very encouraging discussions and have great hopes for how things could develop here.


Confessions of a magazine junkie

Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.

So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…

To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.

Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)

  • Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
  • The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
  • BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
  • Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
  • Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
  • Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
  • Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.

I also, from time to time, dip into The Briefing, Church Times, and EN – and for finding books I want to read, my most productive source has been the Culture section of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.

Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?

Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:

  • Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
  • Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
  • I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
  • Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.

So there we have it.

Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! 🙂


A courageous nod to God in a Soviet-era show-trial

Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading

In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:

JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.

The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.

What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).


The Dark Heart of An Earthly Paradise (Disney-style)

It was all so predictable. I suppose the only surprise is that it took 14 years to manifest itself. But it seems that the idyllic, picket-fence world of Disney’s ‘perfect’ town, Celebration, is just a facade, as reports on Saturday told of murder and suicide within this corporate utopia. Every detail of the town was planned, owned, controlled by Disney. They presumably hoped that they could purvey their own branded style of happiness. But they couldn’t control the activities and passions of their residents.

I remember first hearing of it years ago when I first read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo – and she really went to town on this fabricated town, seeing it in many ways, rightly, as indicative of the most sinister but logical outcome of any multinational game-plan.

For the families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself (No Logo, p155)

But Mickey’s big ears are never sufficient to mask the human heart. No amount of white picket fences will restrain the antics of those living behind them. We all need something far greater than the ‘perfect’ environment in which to live if harmony and shalom are to be possible.

For, as Philip Yancey quotes in What’s So Amazing About Grace:

After reporting on such moments in church history, Paul Johnson concludes, ‘Attempts to perfect Christian societies in the world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.’ This fact should give us pause as voices today call on us to break down the walls between church and state and restore morality to our society. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.’ (Yancey p234)

So it seems that Celebration is a double whammy – a symbol both of Disney’s profound naiveté about people, and, at the same time, its disturbing ambitions to swallow people up in its corporate machine.


Jesus in Tijuana Mexico… via U2?

A good friend of mine, Drew Wolff, has recently got back from a trip with his family to help on a Habitat building programme in Tijuana, Mexico. He sent these great pics. You’ll see at the centre of the first is a rather interesting biblical reference – which will be well known to U2 fans the world over.

Jeremiah 33:3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.

For it superimposed onto the Gate number at CdeG Airport Paris on the cover of their 2001 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  And it also gets a nod in one of the best songs of the last album (IMHO), No Line on the Horizon, Unknown Caller. It is particularly fitting for the latter because of the title (though note that the numbers are fiddled around a bit because obviously, there’s no 33 o’clock!).

This one presents quite a stark contrast too. This is what Drew said in his email:

I thought this one was pretty poignant, too. I struggle for ways to stretch my imagination but it seems to describe the Christian life. The bleakness of what is in the foreground is not changed. However, behind it all is the bright light that dominates the picture.  It helped in trying to imagine the light that illuminates everything in the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation. And also in the foreground, is a group of believers helping build a house. A good metaphor for God’s answer to everything


A visit to Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Life

Early this morning in Sarajevo

This rather unprepossessing, pock-marked (i.e. bullet-riddled) house was Sarajevo’s lifeline during the 4 year siege in the mid-9os. I posted about that siege the last time I was here. Am here for the first ever Bosnian Langham Seminar (the preparations for which brought me here in February) and had an afternoon off yesterday to visit the Tunnel Museum. Road signs near by direct people to Tunel Spasa – the tunnel of hope or salvation. And it was well-named. For it kept a city of 1000s of people alive.

From the outside, it looks like many of the other buildings in this area – a narrow strip of land by Sarajevo airport which was held by the UN during siege (the main runway is beyond the end house’s garden fence in the right photo above).

The city was completely surrounded by Serb forces apart from the airport – an area that cut the city off from the Bosnian forces up in the mountains (as this map below shows). The UN was only allowed to occupy the airport (the blue strip crossing the neck of Bosnian territory) on condition that they did not allow Bosnians to cross it. As a result, the Bosnians were forced to build a tunnel underneath the airport. The Serbs knew it must exist, and they shelled the area constantly – but never actually found its exact whereabouts.

It was an extraordinary feat – nearly 1km (half a mile) long and only 1.6m (ca 5ft) high. It’s impossible for a man of average height to stand up straight in it – as my good friend Slavko Hadzic proves. But this was a lifeline – as someone rather ironically highlighted in the sign above the entrance (left): 1993-1995 SARAJEVO CITY GATE

Through this tunnel came troops, weapons, food, oil (in pipes along the roof), animals, supplies – everything in fact. It was controlled by Bosnian military police – and could only work if traffic travelled in one direction, and then swapped around every 30 minutes or so.

In my two visits to Sarajevo, nothing has brought home to me the horrors of a living in city under a 4-year siege more than visiting this place.


Beauty in the Business world: Andreas Gursky shows East meets West, Ancient meets (post)Modern

Was leafing through the Royal Academy of Art magazine this week – and encountered this photograph filling a whole page. Was blown away.

It’s utterly mesmerising and bewildering all at the same time. Where are we? An airport? A fancy dress party? A film set? Who are all these people anyway? And what are they up to?

Without wanting to be patronising at all, it almost seems like a set up for a live-action Where’s Wally competition…

It is in fact a photograph taken in 2007 by Andreas Gursky called Kuwait Stock Exchange I. And it manages to convey the incongruities of the modern world, with a forum equipped with the latest communications technology populated by hundreds of men (not a woman in sight), dressed in the formality and uniformity of classic Arab desert dress. It is a picture of anonymity – even those who knew them wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from this angle – it all looks beautifully stage-managed and set up. But i suspect it isn’t.

There are all kinds of interesting contrasts with another of his images, this time from the Chicago Board of Trade:

This is equally mesmerising – but this time is a living fireworks display of colour. Half close your eyes, and it could almost be a Jackson Pollock. Wonderful.

Photography at its best should do this – show us the world in a new way. Here is beauty in the rawest of capitalist temples… Surprising really.


Istanbul at night and other photographic highlights

Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.

  • Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
  • Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior

Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:

  • Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
  • The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)


Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: Reflections on Islam & The West (2)

Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?

Hermetically Sealed Isolation

One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.

A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)

So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).

But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.

As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.

While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):

In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)

Tolerance & Freedom

I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.

The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)

I found this was very striking indeed.

Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:

According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)

And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:

[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)

But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…

But no grace…

It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)

The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….

… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)

So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.

Not on our watch…

This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.

Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.