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The Rise of Western Christendom​

If you are interested in Western Christianity between the dates of 200-1000, you’ve just found the perfect book. If you are not interested in this mostly unknown part of history, then what’s the matter with you?! 

  • The Tenacity of Paganism — According to Brown, there was never a clean break from Paganism to monotheism. Instead, Paganism came to be thought of as a second rate story for backwards and illiterate people. “Pagan” means countryfolk (75). Christianity was not primarily a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. On the contrary, wealthy and influential people embraced the new faith more readily in cities, which led to the Christianizing of cities at a far quicker rate than rural areas. There is very little on record as far as pagan martyrs after Christianity ascended to power. Paganism wasn’t the last remnants of a former infestation that needed to be stamped out. Christianity became the ribeye steak among the general population, and Paganism was Chicken Mcnuggets! One could continue munching on the Mcnuggets if they wanted to but why? There was steak to be had! Pockets of Mcnugget chomping pagans continued to exist for centuries. 
  • Mixed bag micro-Christianity — Christianity didn’t grow from the top down, it grew from house to house, and village to village without any overarching system. The result was thousands of “roll your own at home” variations of Christianity. Like the countless Micro brewery’s that cover the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, each with their own label, taste and texture, so too developed Micro-Christianity all over Western Europe. Brown describes the variety as “individual beads on a necklace.” One of Christianity’s most effective means of spreading was through slavery. Christians captured and pressed into slavery continued to spread their message of hope. The Christian ability to overcome the burden of his bonds through belief led many captors to salvation. This happened in Iceland, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. Slaves didn’t always have their theology straight which contributed to the diversity of Christianity. Also, many of these people groups were willing to accept Christianity, but only with significant exceptions. Ireland embraced the Jesus way but embraced the Old Testament practices of polygamy and tribal violence much to the consternation of missionaries stationed there. Iceland decided to convert on masse one night as a strategy to unify their country. They, however, doggedly clung to their practice of female infanticide and the eating of horseflesh, both practices which the Christian church condemned. 
  • Golden Age of Peasantry — With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, many have thought that Europe plunged into a dark era of misery and ignorance. Perhaps it was a little tougher for the elites of society, but for the peasants, it was a near utopian era! “No longer policed and bullied every year to pay taxes, the peasantry slipped quietly out of the control of their landlords. Rents fell as taxes vanished… Less of their agrarian surplus was taken from them than at any other time in the history of Europe…It was only until the 8th and 9th centuries that the normal life of grinding extortion resumed for the peasant classes” (31)
  • The game changers that led to Christianity’s dominance 
    • Equality — “High and low men and women met as equal subjects, now, to the overruling law of one God….If a poor man or a destitute stranger should come in, do thou, O bishop, with all thy heart provide a place for them even if thou hadst to sit upon the ground.” (64-65) The gatherings had order, to be sure, but the development of equality and even the giving of preferential treatment to the lower classes was something entirely new.
    • Sin and it’s divine and communal solution – Except for Judaism, the universal human condition of sin, had no real identity, it wasn’t a mainstream idea. People didn’t think in those terms. But when the Christians brought it forward, it just made sense, “oh so that’s what that is.” So also did the hope for deliverance in Christ. The battle against sin was not a solo endeavour. Sin was the one thing the Christian community was committed to eradicating. This new way filled people with understanding, home, and a community committed to helping each other get better. 
    • Mobilization of wealth. From the very beginning giving was a significant tenant of the Christian faith. Wealth could be amassed quickly to help the poor and make a real difference in the world. This generosity shocked the Pagans but also won them over. It wasn’t until the 9th or 10th century that giving to the church became mandatory. Forced charity turned out to be a bad idea. But isn’t that what taxes are? 
    • God has come near — The old story of Paganism, was worn out, it wasn’t helpful. The ancient tale that emphasized the unbridgeable chasm between the human world and the divine world had lived its little time. The steep upward glimpse of distant, ruthless and unreachable deities was replaced with a much better story, A story that stood Paganism on its head. As Pope Leo said, “It is far less amazing that human beings should progress upwards towards God than that God should have come down to the human level.” (117) In the Christian story, God, out of love, came to rescue the human. A concept utterly foreign to Pagan thought, but it came like refreshing rain on parched earth. 
  • When the Christian story shifts from “what” to “how” the fights begin. It was the wonder of what God had done in Christ Jesus that filled the Roman world with hope and joy and led to such an incredible conversion rate. Eventually, over time, converts began to wonder precisely how God’s son had invaded the earth. When the focus shifted from what to how, and different answers were arrived at, the gloves came off, and the fights began. They haven’t stopped either, fortunately, over the centuries they’ve become less bloody. 
  • Monophysite mayhem. — Did Jesus have one nature or two? The “official” church decided at Chalcedon that the answer was two. Jesus was both 100% human in nature and 100% divine in nature. If he had only one nature, he could neither be truly divine or human, and that made for a lousy saviour — But the “mono” (one) “physite” (nature) people weren’t buying it. To them, it made no sense to say someone had two natures. It wasn’t possible. Eventually, the Monophysite’s were severely persecuted, to such a degree, that they welcomed Islamic invasion when it came to their territories in the 600’s! I wish it could have been possible to remain amazed at the “what” and less concerned about the “how.” But that wish is impossible. It’s human nature to understand, sadly, violence was the result of the quest to understand the how of the incarnation The message of life, brought death. 
  • Christianity’s tumultuous relationship with Icons In the East, Christians killed each other over the issue. Icons were supposed to be helpful tools aiding in the worship of Jesus, but for many, they became more than that. Pictures of the saints, relics from ancients days, and whatever tangible bits of the past gradually became elevated to the point where Christian’s were coming dangerously close to worshiping the images. For many, the thought of living life without an Icon present became unthinkable. “If only I shall see his likeness, I shall be saved.” Once some key battles were lost, and the Roman empire of the East began to shrink. Byzantines began to wonder if it might be God’s judgment for Idolatry. The “Iconoclast” (Icon Breakers) faction was born. Before long, they found a sympathetic Emperor or two, and the smashing began. Iconophiles (Icon lovers) responded by hiding their icons, and trying to smash Iconoclasts! Iconophiles also attempted to sully the reputation of Iconoclasts by linking them with Islam, which tolerates no images whatsoever. 
  • Emperors being emperors, only one kind of Christianity will do. Christian or not, violence is what emperors do. Whether Justinian in the 5th, Clovis in the 7th or Charlemagne in the 9th. Blood flowed freely and ones religious affiliation seems to have made little difference. Was Charlemagne’s beheading of 4500 Saxon captives in his conquest a bit much? Not really, all in a days work for an emperor! What about his Christian conscience? He doesn’t seem to have struggled with it. By the 9th century, the golden age of peasantry was over, and powerful kingdoms were emerging in the West, of which Charlemagne’s was the strongest. His Frankish Empire decided to go on a mission to correct the false teachings of the countless “micro-Christiandoms” that had sprung up all over continental Europe. The Pagan Saxons had been intermingling with Christian Franks for centuries, creating a “bad brew” of Christianity. For the sake of control, it was time to clarify the ingredients and make sure to get the Christian recipe just right. The monks who had long worked in these brackish waters between Christianity and Paganism protested the violence strongly, “We must preach and persuade” they said. To which Charlemagne responded, “I’ll preach with an iron tongue,” and so he did. In Ireland and England, the need for precision to the “right” type of Christianity also became a bit extreme. Wilfrid, for example, freaked out that the monks didn’t have the proper hairstyles and that the calendar of Holydays wasn’t as it should be. He had been to Rome and learned the way more perfectly. To any Irishman who objected to his changes, he reminded them of their place in the hierarchy of Christianity. They were but a “pimple on the chin of the earth!”  
  • Repentance gone wild. Augustine believed that penance was a frame of mind. It was a lifelong process, because sin, also, was a lifelong companion of the Christian. Pope Gregory and the leaders that followed him made sin and its abolishment from one’s life the absolute focal point for the Christian. In some ways, with this over-focus on sin, God became distant again. Attaining God’s presence in heaven was the goal, and every Christian became responsible to abolish his sins to accomplish this goal. Books of long lists were written, describing in blushing detail every imaginable sin, with the corresponding prescription of penance that needed to be carried out, to be purged from the stain. Priest’s came to function as extremely powerful “doctors” who held the cure for sin. Terror of hell and fear of death without giving doing penance replaced the joy and hope. Mass, confession, and penance became the key to heaven, and the priest’s held those keys. 
  • How Islam swallowed up Christianity in the East In the 6th century, modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq, parts of Iran, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain were populated predominantly by Christians who were part of a mostly Christian empire. Within 100 years all these lands had been conquered with the sword of Islam, and the Christians who remained within the borders of this expanding Islamic empire were slowly but surely converting to Islam. How did this happen? 
  • Timing is everything: The Byzantines and the Persians had beat each other up so badly that when the Arabs came round, there wasn’t much fight left in either of them. 
  • Commitment is everything: “There was nothing strange in the idea that warfare was blessed by God, but within Arabia itself, the sheer aggression of the followers of Muhammad changed the rules of the game.” (293) Islam was convinced, as was Christianity, that they alone represented the culmination of God’s purposes on earth, it’s just that the Muslims had no limitations whatsoever, coming from their theology, that would prevent them from inheriting the earth through whatever means necessary.
  • At least it’s not Paganism: Many Christians of that era viewed Islam as an “in-between” religion. It was a religion of Abraham. It even affirmed a lot of Christian teachings. Many Christians managed to convince themselves that Islam was simply a more perfected version of Christianity and so they converted. 
  • More freedom under Islam: Islamic rule was not so bad for Christians at first, especially for un-orthodox Christians. In the Byzantine empire, they were hounded, in the Islamic one as long as they paid their extra taxes for being non-muslim they were free to believe what they wanted. “Islam rested as lightly as a mist along the contours of what had remained a largely Christians landscape.” Of course, all that would change, but it was suitable for a while. In the end, it was the steady increase of taxes, the unifying nature of the Arabic language and increasingly better opportunities reserved only Muslims that led to the Islamification of the east. 
  • Gregory vs. Theodore in Bible Study — Western Christians studied their Bibles like Gregory for the first several hundred years. For Gregory, the Bible was a great encoded message sent by God to cast fire into the heart. It echoed with the mighty whisper of God. It was for this “whisper” that the devout Christian should listen, reading the Bible, as it were, “between the lines” – paying less attention to the text itself than to a message from God which lay behind the text. Theodore was not impressed with the Western scholars he found when he finally escaped encroaching Islam and moved from Antioch all the way West to Britain. For Theodore, the Bible was first and foremost a challenging text. Its different books had been written at specific times, by specific authors. One had first to discover exactly what these authors meant before one could go on to draw upon the Bible to nourish higher flights of contemplation. Modern Biblical scholarship went the way of Theodore, but the Gregorys meditative approach dominated the first 1000 years of Western Christianity. Theodore became immensely popular. Being from the Middle East, he could answer all the contextual questions Western Scholars from Britain could never even have hoped to answer. 
  • Moving into a neighbourhood — Monks moved into pagan places and built monasteries — Christianization often took place, on the ground, through a wide penumbra of half participants who had gathered around a monastery. (375) Monasteries were not closed off areas reserved only for quiet contemplation. They became centres of learning and commerce, and as a result, Christianization.

Krakatoa, the day the world exploded

Krakatoa August 27, 1883, The Day the World Exploded is Simon Winchester’s title for his most fascinating book. It’s a bit of over speak to be sure, the world didn’t explode, but it must have seemed like it for many. Shock waves were recorded travelling eight times around the world. Nearly 40,000 people died. Sunsets all over the globe were terrific for three years after the explosion happened because of the dust in the air. Even in America, fire brigades were assembled on a couple of occasions to fight what looked to be distant fires on the horizon. The red glow turned out to be a Krakatoa caused illusion made by dust and sun. The sound of the explosion was heard over 1000 miles away. The tsunamis caused were in some places 100 feet high, and wave increases were measured as far away as England. The genius of a Winchester book, however, is not in the regurgitation of details connected to this incredible geological event, it is the many fascinating cultural, religious, sociological, and historical nuggets that he masterfully weaves into the overall narrative. When one reads Winchester on Krakatoa, one learns about far more than merely volcanoes.

  • Krakatoa, fulfilled prophecy & radical Islam — In the centuries before Krakatoa, Muslims from Indonesia were liberal, to say the least. Half naked Muslim women walked the streets. They worshiped local gods along with Allah and generally lived in freedom from hard-line Islamic legalism. After Krakatoa there was a dramatic shift, radicalism became normalized, rules were enforced, and infidels unwilling to convert became the focal point for violent jihad. What happened? A local Muslim leader had been predicting the coming of the Madi. (Islam’s version of the Messiah) To precede his coming. Four cataclysms were predicted. 
  1. Cattle in unprecedented numbers would die — Krakatoa accomplished that.
  2. Rain would turn red — The dust in the air turned local showers reddish brown for months on end.
  3. Flooding — Coastal villages, almost without number were destroyed by Krakatoa caused Tsunami’s. 
  4. Death. — Nearly 40,000

The timing of Krakatoa’s eruption couldn’t have been more perfect for this Muslim cleric. Overnight he had the ear of the people. In the prophecy, Holy war was to follow the calamity which would then usher in the return of the Madi and final judgement upon all infidels. People fell in line, and the Dutch East Indies became a volcano of Islamic unrest and radicalism. 

The Power of a Book — In 1860 a Dutch civil servant made the trip to the Dutch East Indies. What he witnessed horrified him. He saw exploitation of local populations at such extraordinary levels that he was unable to continue in his work. We travelled back to Holland and wrote a book excoriating the VOC (Dutch trading company) and the Dutch people as a whole for their maltreatment and abuse of indigenous people in their colonies. To the consternation of the VOC and all those who profited from the exploitation and violence, the book became an immediate bestseller. This book made an entire nation feel guilty. The civil servant had to flee to Germany to save his life, but the damage was done, the Dutch demanded change. New rules were drawn up and enforced that made colony governors responsible for the health and well being of all peoples under their domain.

Too Much Freedom or not enough? —The Dutch granted freedom to travel and lowered taxes. Life became better for local Indonesians. However, the immunity granted also provided fresh wind in the sales of Muslim activists who felt compelled to follow their leader into Jihad. The trip to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia was prohibited before the freedoms; now the Muslim faithful rushed to make the pilgrimage. The Dutch knew that the trip had a radicalizing effect on the population, but with the new laws, they could do little to stop it. In the end, freedom enabled the rebellion that the Dutch were hoping to avoid.

Geology and Nihilism — According to Winchester, a prevailing philosophy coming from 19th-century geological study and discovery was the incredible insignificance of man. The conclusion that we are, but specs of dust on a continually moving very dangerous earth helped to spiral man into a depressed state of nihilism. The science didn’t leave a lot of room for a loving God.

Plate Tectonics — He even made plate tectonics sound interesting! One belt of earth moving north lowly crashes into another belt of crust heading south. One slides under the other. One belt heads down and melts into the core of the earth. Mountains rise from the collision and earthquakes, and volcanos come alive along these fault lines. If plate movement per year is more or less consistent (that’s a big if) Then I wonder if one accurately guess the starting point of when the earth was one single land mass. 

Elephants and Spiders — All sorts of humorous bits are scattered throughout. Whether that be the story of Miss Lockheart smuggling her pet elephant into her hotel room in Batavia to catastrophic ends, or his optimistic words describing the first life that either returned or emerged from Krakatoa “This pioneer of the renovation was discovered spinning a web. This arachnids optimism was admirable.” (I also discovered that the “returned vs. emerged” debate was very spirited among 19th-century scientists).

Capitalism — There is a whole section in the book about how the Dutch Trading Company became the first publicly funded company and how that economic approach set the course for our modern capitalistic system.

The first shared worldwide event — The 1816 eruption of Tambora was much worse. The growing season in the USA reduced from 160 days to 70. It became known as the year without summer and sparked massive famines worldwide. The global temperature reduced for over a year. Tambora’s worldwide impact was unparalleled, but it wasn’t near the news event that Krakatoa was. During the time between eruptions, telegraph cables had been laid all over the world. As a result, news for the first time could travel around the globe at speeds faster than ever imagined. Competitive news media outlets hungry for a story also fanned Krakatoa’s fame, so much so, that the story of the volcano permeated the imagination of the world for generations.

Tea with Hezbollah​

This book comes to us because two Christian friends decided to go to the Middle East in a daring and dangerous bid to find enemies of America, sit down to tea with them, and get their thoughts on Jesus’ controversial teaching to love one’s enemies. The book is not a clever apologetic for Christianity or some technique to make the faith that comes from Jesus look better. It’s an honest search for truth. I had a hard time putting this book down because these boys at places seemed to be in real danger and their topic over tea time with terrorists was indeed something I wanted to listen in on.

No one is good at loving their enemy.

“I don’t know what I should believe with respect to governments’ use of power. But one on one, love is the only solution, and nobody does it well. Not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews” — Carl Medearis

Christian Included  I learned that the first suicide bomber was a Christian, I learned all about the Shatila massacre of 1982, In which a Christian group from Lebanon invaded a Palestinian refugee camp and slaughtered over 3000 innocents in revenge for the assassination of the then Christian president of Lebanon. It turns out the real perpetrators of the president’s murder were another Christian group from Syria. I also learned about one of the great tragic ironies of history. The Samaritans whom Jesus uses to communicate his great message of love for all were almost entirely exterminated by Byzantine Christians in the 6th century.  The Spiritual progeny of Jesus destroyed the very people upon whom Jesus built his “love your enemy” teaching. Well, that’s encouraging. Over Tea, these enemies of America didn’t even have to bring up the crusades, they had plenty of more current events to point to regarding Christianity’s failure to love the enemy.

There is always an exception to this rule. Every Muslim interviewed agreed in principle that Jesus’ teaching was more or less useful, but also that there are explicit and necessary exceptions to this rule.

  • If your enemy attacks you must defend yourself and the ones you love, you are a coward not to.
  • Violence towards neighbours and enemies is ok only if it is “In Defence” — over and over again Carl and Ted were told that every violent act committed in the name of Islam was a justifiable matter of defence.
  • “We believe that what Jesus said applies to some situations but not ours” Unnamed “freedom fighter” from Lebanon.

Once Mohammed extended love to a Jewish neighbour who regularly showed disdain for him by dumping her garbage on his steps, when asked if this Muslim folktale could be used to support Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy among the followers of Islam, the Hamas leader being interviewed flatly said: “dumping garbage is one thing, killing people is another!” I will not turn my cheek, I will fight!” and so it is, and so it will always be it seems.

A light in the darkness So was Jesus’ teaching a complete fail? Seems like it, however, there was one interview that was different than all the rest.  His name is Sami Awad. He is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem who has been persecuted for decades by Israelis. He is regularly the object of false accusation. His property has been taken from him; he’s been arrested, shot at, and had family members deported. He has been humiliated at checkpoints and has received death threats. He has no freedom of movement, and his neighbourhood disappears from behind by high partition walls. But Sami as a Christian person believes in loving his enemies, but how? His enemies are terrible! He says the critical part of loving one’s enemies is to understand their suffering. So for him to do that,  he took a trip to Auschwitz, spent the night in what was an open grave on the grounds. Sami, found himself weeping through the night for the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust. When he came back he knew we would continue with his non-violent protests, always resisting the gradual takeover of his land peacefully, but he understood more than ever Jewish pain, and somehow that made him not hate them. Sami was quick to say that It’s a dangerous thing to speak about peace when everyone around you wants violence. Or to talk about love when there is so much hate. I suspect that someone will probably kill him at some point. But does that make him wrong or misguided? I say no.


If Jerusalem is a showcase for faith, it is also a clear picture of the utter failure of organized religion to bring peace and harmony to those it purports to love. Faith may have exalted Jerusalem, but religious fanaticism has decimated it time and time again. If God had ample cause to banish Adam and Eve from Eden how much more does he have for banishing religion for his city!

Jesus gazed out over this land and said, love God and love the heretic next to you. He died for that truth.

Is it belief or behaviour that matters most? If violence is always justified in the name of defence than violence will never stop. Only Jesus’ teaching can break that cycle. I noticed that in addition to Sami there was also a Saudi and a Druze who seemed to be loving their enemies as well.  Are these guys Jesus followers without knowing it? Does belief come down to behaviour? Is it true that it’s not so much what one believes about theology, historical data, or doctrine instead what one does? If faith in Jesus is not actualized through sacrificial love for even my enemies can it even be called Christian faith? I have my doubts. But if this is true, I also have my worries, because I know that many times in my own heart, I do not wish a blessing on my enemies at all. Does that make the Druze and the Saudi more of a Jesus follower than me, even though my theological view of Jesus would be much higher than theirs?

The book is not tied up nicely with a bow at the end, loving one’s enemies seems an impossible task and Christians just like everyone else are generally terrible at it. Moreover, many of those interviewed said, it’s not even right to try to love one’s enemies. Sometimes justice is more important than love said almost everyone who sat down to tea. Are they right? The book leaves us with much room for thought. In the end, I have to side with Sami, his way might get him killed but it’s the best way, I think.

To heal someone, you must meet them where they are. This was what the Good Samaritan did. We serve them by understanding them and speaking to them in love, not by shooting at them.  — Sami Awad.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Review By Mistin Wilkinson

Briefly reviewed by Mistin Wilkinson


It’s been a long time since I completed a book – not that I’ve read a book, but that I’ve completed a book; and this one was accomplished in record time!  It’s not that I’m not a reader – I am!  Reading is important and valuable, but completing a non-audio book in actual paperback – that’s been a while.  I have a whole stack of books that are more than half way through, but oh the distractions. . .

Persepolis was an exception in so many ways!

1 – I read the entire thing!

2 – I read it fast!

3 – I knew it was gonna end badly, and I kept going.

4 – It ended badly and I cried, and have cried in each recounting of the storyline.

5 – I couldn’t even sleep – not because it was horror, but because it was horribly real.

And now the real confession: It’s a graphic novel.  That’s a first for me too and explains the quick read.  The comic style stole nothing from the depth of communication though.  In fact, I think it enhanced the drama of the story in a plethora of ways.

Do I recommend it?  YES – so much so that I shared it with my 11 year old daughter who completed it’s 153 pages in just over an hour.  She didn’t cry as I did, but then she’s only been a daughter, never a mother, and never suffered through war or anything close to the kind of loss and desperation this story communicates.

The historically based tale takes place in Iran around the time of the Revolution encompassing a few years both sides of 1979.  Many lives are lost, many thought processes are challenged, compromised and changed.  And then possession of Michael Jackson’s picture gets a young jean-jacket clad teenager in serious trouble.

Do you wonder if you can relate to people in Middle Eastern countries? You can and you will as you read this story of a young girl’s wrestling to make sense of it all.

Moving on … please read the story, don’t forget those who have suffered for your freedoms, and lend me a copy of Persepolis II.

A House in the Sky

81WS5WQhg3L.jpgThis is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.

So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.

High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!

She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?

  1. Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
  2. That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
  3. Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
  4. You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
  5. Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.

This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.

Seeking Allah Finding Jesus


It’s costly to convert — I always feel that anyone who writes a book like this must be very brave. Muslims don’t really have the option to change their religion. It’s one of those unthinkable things, something that still warrants capital punishment in many parts of the world. The cost of leaving the Muslim faith is immense. If physical death is somehow avoided, there is certainly the death of relationships, career opportunities and social standing. Nabeel was not just a cultural Muslim, he was a devotee to his Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. From the time of his birth he was indoctrinated in his faith, as he grew up in the west, his parents were delighted to see their only son become a staunch defender of Islam. In the Western world, preconceptions are freely and regularly challenged but Nabeel met these challenges with apologetic fervour. Eventually, over the course of many years, Nabeel left Islam to embrace Christianity, the price for him, even in the west, was tremendous.

Sharing ones faith is best accomplished in the context of a relationship  — The book is about Nabeel’s story but it certainly could be David’s story as well. They were best friends through high school and university, the two were inseparable even though David was a committed Christian. Regarding evangelism Nabeel points out that

“Effective evangelism requires relationships. There are very few exceptions, the discussions that we had about faith arose naturally after we became friends and in the context of a life lived together. In fact I was the one who brought them up.”

I could not agree more.

Historical probability, truth and faith. — David and Nabeel were debaters in high school and university, they constantly challenged each other to find out the truth about whatever topic they were debating. Rational and reasonable argument became the norm for discovering truth. When it came to historical discussions the highest amount of probability based on the historical method was the criteria for distinguishing truth form error. One day David asked Nabeel the following question.

“Nabeel, stop trying to win the argument instead look for the truth — If the truth could be known, would you want to know it?

Nabeel’s answer was both “Yes” and “No” because he knew full well the cost if truth was not on his side. This launched his intense search for truth about the Bible, Jesus, the Quran, and Muhammed.

What about Jesus, the Bible, the Quran and Muhammed? Acknowledging the possibility of truth based on historical probability, Nabeel set out to undercut the claims of Christianity. Christians claim that Jesus died on the cross, Muslim’s say he didn’t. Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, Muslims say he did not. Christians claim that Jesus is divine, Muslims say that he is not. Looking at the evidence by use of the historical method the goal was to set the two stories side by side and determine which one is more likely the true one. This book settles into a relentless search for truth, but never does it disconnect from the humanity of this story or the cost of this search. It’s way more than just straight up apologetics.

The book reads like it might feel to be on board a ship that’s sinking. Nabeel doesn’t want the boat to sink, you as the reader can feel his anxiety and alarm, he writes in such a way that you don’t want the boat to sink either. After all, the boat of Islam is all he has known, it’s been a good boat for him. But the holes in the boat he discovers are real holes. They are undeniable. To leave the boat is the right course, if truth matters, but oh the struggle.

Faith more than just facts  — Towards the end of the book Nabeel is broken, Christianity has withstood his withering scrutiny and his own faith has fallen. Muhammed is not the man Nabeel thought he was, the perfect preservation of the Quran is a myth. The ancient Muslim historians upon whom he depended for vindication of his faith, revealed the truth, and the truth was far from the story upon which his faith was built. Even still, it was too costly to leave his faith. If Jesus was real, If he was who the Christians claimed then Jesus would just have to show up and tell him directly. In three successive dreams, Jesus did. Nabeel knew the truth. To embrace Jesus as Lord would cost him everything, but hanging on to a lie would ultimately cost him more.

Serious Study — Nabeel is not like most people in the Western world who are content to embrace at a minimal level whatever cultural and religious back drop they are born into just so long as it doesn’t interfere with their personal freedom to do and be whatever they want. Truth was all that mattered to Nabeel he had to find it and align himself accordingly. In the end It was Christianity that was true not Islam.

The Enlightenments Effect of Religion – Good or Bad?

They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the  Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13

Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians)  wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44


With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.

For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.

As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:

There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess.  Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.

If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip  based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.

Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents  are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.

  • Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
  • Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era.  The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
  • Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion.  (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.

Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table.  How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?

Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love.  This is good advice for all the religions of the world.

This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.





The Insanity of God


Somalia’s civil war, not the place to be if you are white, from the west, and Christian, but that is exactly where Kentucky born, Nik Ripkin found himself in the early 90’s. He wanted to help. The overflow of his love for Jesus made it impossible for him not to try to assist this beleaguered muslim nation.

The light of Jesus must surely overcome the darkness of civil war, violence, radicalism, abuse, starvation, needless death and hopelessness right? His experiences in Somalia left him doubting the answer to that question.

For the love of power and control, feuding tribal warlords and muslim extremist’s continually thwarted anything good for their country. The cost was the death and displacement of millions of their countrymen.

To be a Somalian Christian was not possible. If you were even suspected of following Jesus you were summarily executed. The handful of Christians that Nik got to know while in Somalia were all assassinated while he was there. In part, because they knew Nik. Finally one of Nik’s sons perished from a fully preventable medical emergency had they not been in Africa.

Hearts broken and discouraged, the Ripkins headed back to America. They had so many questions: Can God truly overcome evil? Is love really more powerful than hate? How can a person maintain even a small hope in a dark place? How is it possible for faith to survive in an insane environment like Somaliland’s? Can Christianity work outside of western, dressed-up, well-ordered nations? If so how?

For the next 20 years Nik traveled the globe in search of answers to these questions.

His answer after interviewing over 700 Christian people who come from the worlds most oppressed places is “yes”. In fact, according to Niks research the light of Jesus actually shines brighter in the face of persecution. This book bears out the truth of this claim in one story after another.


  1. Freedom is not always so good for faith: Nik laments how the Christian Church in Russia has lost more of its fervour and zeal in it’s first 10 years of freedom than it had in nearly 100 years of persecution. It seems as though one of freedom’s unintended consequences is the depreciation of faith. Why is that?
  2. Persecution is a good thing: No one interviewed asked for an end to persecution, only that their joy in God might be sustained through it. These suffering saints had accepted persecution as almost a gift from God, a welcome cross to bear, in China for example, you were not even considered for a position of spiritual leadership in the house church movement, until you had done at least three years in prison.  Prison was the necessary “seminary” training, without it, one’s faith was just viewed as mostly theoretical.
  3. The incredible power of song: Over and over again, these suffering saints from all over the world, clung to songs of faith that helped sustain them in their difficultly.
  4. God becomes real: The suffering of Christians Nik uncovers is almost unfathomable from our positions of comfort, ease and freedom in the west, but the dramatic ways God reveals himself to those who suffer for him is also equally unfathomable. The miracles, visions, and direct interventions from God recounted made me feel like I was reading right out of the book of Acts.

Click on “Love the Story” to listen to a talk I gave recently at Trinity Western University.

This is a good story about our love story and the ultimate love story.




She’s a teenager. They attempt to assassinate her. What for? The Taliban had been dishonored because she said she liked some western ideas. She said publicly that she admired Barack Obama. She wanted a full education, and one rumor that had been circulating even suggested that she was against beards on men! For these reasons she must die. But they failed to kill her, The bullet shattered her skull, disfigured her face, severed her facial nerve, and destroyed her eardrum. The Taliban have not apologized, instead they have given assurances not to kill her if she would return to Pakistan, don a burka, get married, and shut up. For the western world this is insane. What would cause a people group to arrive at such conclusions about ways of living? Malala shares with great courage and an open heart so we all can learn. It was a great privilege to read this book.
Honor is the most important thing in this culture. To be shamed is worse than death itself and thus the reason why these cultures fight so much.
Women are not equal here. At the birth of a son there is celebration, but at the birth of a daughter there is weeping. If you want to insult a man all you need to say is “he even asks for his wife’s advice!” — what a slap in the face! No real man would consult his wife. A Woman is equal to half a man in the minds of so many from this culture and religion.
Malala’s father refused to fall in step with these norms. He threw a huge party at his daughter’s birth. When he was taunted by a headmaster for his stutter, he offered to donate blood to the headmasters sick wife instead of letting his shame turn to revenge. He clung to the belief that men and women should be working side by side and that everyone in the country should be entitled to an education. Malala’s courage and outspokenness come from her father, who was willing to stand against the current of a culture that was flowing in the wrong direction.
The Islamification of the area in the 1970’s did not help stem the flow of these cultural currents.
An example of this is clear in 1989 when Salmin Rushty’s book Satanic Verses came out besmirching the character of Mohammed. The dishonor of such a book created riots, bombings and deaths around the world. The intensity of revenge for offense was fanned by the Ayatollah who called for the author’s assassination. Malala’s dad objected strongly saying, “Let’s read the book and write a response to it. Is Islam so weak a religion that it cannot stand a book written against it?” But no one listened to him. Malala commented about her own Peshtoon people, “We never forgive, we never forget; we only repay kindness for kindness and evil for evil. It’s why we never say thank you.” Written into the religion and the culture is the necessity of revenge to restore honor. But Malala asks “where does it stop? It doesn’t.” Malala has come to see that the worldview that underpins her culture is broken.
In 2005 a devastating earthquake leveled the area. Sadly the Pakistani government was slow to respond. Help from the Americans was rejected as they were considered the enemy in the minds of many because of the constant anti western rhetoric coming from the religious establishment. Some misguided drone attacks, on Pakistani soil didn’t endear the United States to the Pakistani people either. The extremists were quick to bring help and hope to the devastated area, but their help came with a message: God’s judgment, was the reason why the area was devastated. God hates television, DVD’s, music and dancing, he hates women laughing in public. He hates that men are not growing beards, and that woman have failed to cover up properly. He is enraged that women are being educated, and that boys are not going to the religious schools. All this made sense to many in this God fearing part of the world. The extremists had been kind and supportive, maybe their message was right. The Taliban offered swift justice options, instead of the lengthly complex and corrupted legal system of the government, they also empowered lower cast people if they were faithful to believe.
The grip of Taliban power tightened around the area, The government lost control of SWAT Valley. President Musharif, couldn’t allow the Taliban to have complete control, but because of the shame culture, he also couldn’t allow the West to be seen as winners either. He sent in the army to crush the Taliban insurgency, but they were really just a figurehead to appease American pressure. Quietly he took 20 billion American dollars, over 8 years and only very slowly gave up prized Al qaeda targets one by one. None of that money made it’s way over to help rebuild the SWAT valley infrastructure. Meanwhile, in full view of the army, the Taliban flaunted their power. By 2008, 400 schools that had educated women were blown up. Regular murders took place throughout the night with Taliban leaders stacking the bodies in town squares for everyone to wake up to. If a woman was caught dancing she was killed. If a man failed to wear the proper pants he was killed. All during this time Malala and her father secretly shared the atrocities with the outside world. There were warnings, the Taliban were closing in.
In 2010 a flood devastated the region. Al qaeda had stripped the trees from the sides of SWAT valley, the resulting floods and mudslides were massively destructive, the worst in the history of the area. The local leadership managed to blame the Americans accusing them of developing a super weapon that caused floods. When Christian and Jewish relief organizations responded, they were told they would be killed. For those suffering, they were told the same message as in 2005: The flood was God’s judgement. Only radical allegiance to Islam would prevent more destruction. This message was not just limited to the SWAT valley. All through Pakistan this intolerance for other ideas and beliefs would regularly manifest itself. Most notably it is found in the blasphemy laws. One case in particular received international attention: Ausia Beebee a single Christian mom in Punjab got into an argument with a Muslim neighbor. Peeved, she made the comment. “Jesus died for the sins of Christians what has Mohammed done for Muslims?” She was arrested and jailed for the comment. It went through the entire legal system, resulting in a guilty verdict and a sentence of death.
Meanwhile, Osama Bin Ladin lived in peace for 9 years in Pakistan, ironically just a few miles from Pakistan’s military headquarters. When the USA finally tracked him down they were furious, concluding that Pakistan must either be involved or incompetent. Pakistan was shamed that the USA could sneak into their country like this.
This shame/honor mindset was almost responsible for Malala’s demise even after she survived the gunshot wound. She lay dying in a Pakistani hospital. The help she needed Pakistan could not offer. Several western countries stepped forward to offer Malala a chance at survival, But the Pakistani government declined the offers. It was dishonorable to accept help from an enemy and an infidel. Finally, in the face of mounting worldwide pressure, the Saudi Prince offered a solution, his personal jet would evacuate Malala, and transport her to the west. This way, a Muslim brother would be responsible for the rescue, rather than an infidel.
Malala is surviving and thriving in her new British home, but she misses terribly her beloved SWAT valley. Her and her father are not good Muslim’s according to the views of many of the Muslims that still dominate her homeland. Is it possible to change the worldview that is the foundation for Malala’s culture? perhaps, but maybe an all together new worldview would be the better long term solution. I would love to meet this brave young lady some day.