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Angela Erisman

Yes, they are perhaps courageous comments in a sense, but also profoundly ignorant and short-sighted. The notion that "Christians don't know how to behave when they're in power" may be true for places on the globe where Christianity is and has always been a minority religion, but it is a laughable characterization of Christianity, broadly speaking, especially from a westerner. Moreover, it is specious to claim that Christianity is "our" religion unless you're prepared to deny citizenship Jews, Hindus, Muslims (and the list goes on) who were born or naturalized into America; the rhetorical effect of Elliott's statement is the same.

I agree that there is indeed something wrong when the nexus between religion and politics in Christianity can come up for criticism when it is destructive but such criticism is verboten when it comes to Muslims. But this point is lost in Elliott's manner framing it - if it is his point at all. It sounds to me like his comments are feeding into Christianity-versus-Islam apologetics (which is really unhelpful in a situation like this) rather than a critical discussion of why certain mixes of religion and politics are caustic and destructive and what we can/should do to minimize that, no matter whose religion is involved.

I think one of the best things we non-Muslims can do to help this situation is to encourage and support self-critique within Islamic communities. I think, for example, of books like "Cruelty and Silence" by Kanan Makiya, written at profound risk to the author's life to tell a very difficult truth with integrity and hold his fellow Muslims accountable to it. HERE is real courage. Think about what you feel like when you're put on the defensive; you aren't likely to admit your faults and failings. You're inclined to do that when you feel safe, with someone you can trust - but also someone who will hold you compassionately accountable. I think non-Muslims are best served to help by cultivating such relationships with Muslim friends and groups within their communities, not engaging in the kind of rhetoric found in Elliott's statements.


Thanks, Angela, for helpful and insightful remarks.

Like you, I can think of few authors better than Makiya for an inside look into the world of (semi- to completely secularized) Islamic culture. I had the fortune of making the acquaintance of an archnemesis of his, Edward Said, at a conference in the Netherlands. Said was a calculating man, it seemed to me, in the negative sense of the word, whereas Makiya, whom I came to know through reading only thereafter, was not afraid to be on the wrong side, the dirty side, when there were no clean sides to be on.

In the context of dialogue with non-secularized or integralist Muslims, I'm not so sure there isn't a place for confrontation. That is what I respect about Elliotts, though I find his confrontation off-key.

An example of what I mean. I took my youth group from church to visit an African-American mosque in Chicago - of the standard, revivalist Muslim brand, not the sectarian black Muslim brand. The iman was extremely gracious. He had some of the teenagers of his community introduce Islam to us. It is, rest assured, a profoundly touching experience to hear a 16 year-old Muslim girl describe her faith as the center of her identity when right outside the door of the mosque, there were drunks and druggies and prostitutes her own age shuffling around or pounding the pavement. That same Muslim girl finished by saying, "Now you tell me why you are a Christian." It was a genuine question, too, and I was never as proud as I was that day to hear a girl of my youth group respond with verve and conviction.

Yet I purposely found a moment to make the imam squirm in our presence and the presence of his community. "According to Muslim law," I said, "it is right and proper to cut off the hand of a thief. Would you like to see Muslim justice practiced in the United States?" This was a hard question, because, as I suspected, that is what he would like. So he answered, "Don't worry. That is not going to happen here."

I remained friends with him because I looked him in the eye with as much compassion as possible when I posed the question.

It is practicing, deeply committed Muslims, not (semi-) secularized Muslims like Makiya, that we must learn to respect and also to confront.

For an earlier post on this topic, go here:

c. stirling bartholomew

Having his post trashed by the WashPost certainly didn't hurt his readership any. I never would have read his comments unless he had been censored.

John, is this how you get the traffic up on you blog? After all, how many people are really interested in original language work in the Hebrew or Greek bible? I mean, apart from those of us who have made it our life focus.

Perhaps this is a good idea. But before I start working on religious persecution in the western world, or why an orthodox christian cannot find a church to attend on the west coast, but I drive by a messianic congregation on my way to buy groceries. Or why it irritates me to see head cloths on the teenager who shelves books at the library ... before posting on any of those topics I need to clean and oil my riot shotgun, and adopt a couple of really mean dogs.


I admit that these topics bring many people's blood to a boil. I deal with them for that very reason if you wish, above and beyond the fact that I relate to them on both an academic and existential level.

I don't know why I get a 1000 hits a day so long as I post something of passing interest; I'm as confounded as the next person by the statistics, and the endless emails I receive from the most unusual sources (most of which I do not have time to respond to).

To put it in a very curious, only semi-serious way, if Melchizedek had daughters, they probably wore head cloths. Not to mention the daughters of John Chrysostom. I doubt those his daughters wore from the time of their first menses were any different from those to be seen on a village girl in Syria to this day, or in the iconography of the Theotokos.

It might be time to move beyond irritation, and engage in conversation with the teenager you mention. She may have something to teach you.

Angela Erisman

John, I think you're right to make a distinction between secularized Muslims and religious Muslims. But that was why I wrote what I wrote in my last paragraph. Folks like Makiya are ready and perhaps easy dialogue partners. But how do we work to build the trust that fosters honest, open dialogue with people who aren't such ready dialogue partners? Perhaps by looking folks compassionately in the eye and striking up conversations with head-scarfed teenagers out of a desire to make a connection with someone who is different. I don't mean to suggest it's all on the non-Muslims to create this environment. But somebody has to start. Does it really matter who it is?

And also, I must add, it's important to show willingness to see and address our own faults when they are pointed out rather than responding defensively. Nothing says integrity (in individuals or communities) like the ability to say "Yeah. I screwed up. I can now see how my words and actions hurt you. I'm sorry." Americans, I think, tend to see this type of talk as a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary.


Sometimes the dialogue will be essentially wordless.

I am reminded of an experience from my days as a pastor in Sicily. In the course of working with North African, undocumented workers, ages 18-30 (the older brothers of the ones who are self-immolating across Northern Africa today), Muslim by heritage and then by conviction (a revival swept through Europe at the time), a whole family from Tunis arrived. The father, it turned out, a young, pious, clean-shaven engineer, was on the run because he was part of an organization, with a terrorist wing, that was plotting to overthrow the government. Through the UN I was able to secure political refugee status for him and his family.

I knew full well he had been trained to despise Christians, Americans in particular, powerful allies of the cruel dictator he knew. There I was, his sworn enemy, offering him sanctuary.

Did it matter? Did my actions speak louder than words I might have uttered? I hope so. It was my way, perhaps ingenuously, to put St. Francis's advice into practice: "Preach at all times. If necessary, use words."

G. Kyle Essary

Good post, and I honestly don't have the time to keep up with the comment thread, but I do find it interesting.

I think the reality of the situation, which nobody wants to admit, is that Tariq Ramadan is not a Muslim in the mind of most Muslims. Of course, he thinks he is, and from the views of those of us in the post-Christian West he most certainly is. The problem is that his views do not represent the majority of people found in the Islamic world, whether it be in "fundamentalist" Yemen (where I spent some of my formative years as the son of an oilman), or in "secular" Malaysia (where I live now). There is a Western ideal of what we envision (if not hope) that most Muslims actually are. In reality, our dream borders on myth, if not psychological projection.

I'm a pluralist, so I support Elliott. Not a pluralist in regards to personal faith (I'm an orthodox, conservative Christian), but a robust pluralist in regards to voices in the public square. In Malaysia, where I live (and of course Anthony Loke can speak better than me on this regard), comments such as those by Elliott would have been censored, not due to fear of backlash, but from a controlling majority (that despite claiming religious freedom) that cares about controlling its majority people. There is a majority mindset, just as Elliott points out...even in "secular" Malaysia, which is very Western compared to the other Islamic nations that I've lived in or visited.

What would be more appealing to me, in Malaysia, and in my motherland (USA) would be a rethinking of the naked public square. Why not allow honesty at the table? It seems to me that in the current situation (especially in America), only those who hold neutered beliefs are allowed a seat. The rest of us (who are the majority) are seen as outcasts...if we were only more like Tariq Ramadan or (for us Christians) like a Dom Crossan. Unfortunately, our studies, experiences and convictions have placed us elsewhere on the theological map, and the voicing of our positions (as orthodox Christian...or orthodox Muslim) inspires fear among the liberal elites.

I think a truly open public square would actually diminish violence, as those with majority Muslim views would be given a seat at the table, and actually listened to as having a viable voice for public decisions related to their lands. It would also diminish much of the disconnect in America between the Swedes and the Indians (to use Berger's famous image). Giving those of us, who are intellectual and still orthodox Christians, a seat at the table (not just lip service) might also bridge the gaps between these groups, helping each of us to see views from outside of our bubbles, but also not forcing us to restrain ourselves in our convictions.

Anyways, I probably won't be able to respond due to lacking time, and I'm sure that my thoughts in this comment are disjointed, but it offers some quick thoughts on the situation from my perspective.

Gary Simmons

John. It's all very simple, really.

All the ones who commit violence are extremists. They are dangerous.

All Muslims who don't commit violence are moderate or liberal. They are civilized and cultured.

Come on. Don't you know the media's Islamic metanarrative?

But seriously: I am bothered by the compartmentalization between "extremists" and non-extremists. As if all religions are inherently violent when taken to extremes. Bah.

What we need is to come down and just outright say whether violence in Islam is heretical to the Islamic religion. This, however, would require an actual coherent understanding of the faith in question -- something the media doesn't do well in. Perhaps if the Koran could be summed up in 140 characters, the media might get it right.

Admitting that violence in Islam may not be heretical, but may actually be within the legitimate bounds of the Islamic faith tradition, would require dropping the label of "extremist." A bait-and-switch term if there ever was one.

To be fair, I will read the Koran for myself one day. But it frustrates me that most who talk in the political sphere do indeed compartmentalize religion from politics from culture, as if "worldview" were not a messy overlap of the three.



Thank you for informed and insightful comment.

Consciously or unconsciously, many in the media and in academia subscribe to a reductive and anachronistic version of the Enlightenment project which seeks to circumscribe religion within the bounds of reason and/or seeks to define it in terms of inner feelings and monistic or new age mystical experiences.

All of this is as about as effective as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Religions instantiate extremely powerful metanarratives. The notion that such metanarratives can be neutered by "reason" however defined or that their proponents can be persuaded to self-limit to some ethereal inner space, the more private the better, is pure projection and wishful thinking.

Finally, the thoughtless prediction that the end of religion is near makes the assertions that Menachem Mendel is the Messiah or Christ is coming back in our generation look terribly realistic by comparison. You might as well thank God for making you an atheist and be done with it (something that the glib are already doing).


Hi Gary,

My main comment at this point would be that you engage with Islam and its texts and teachings at the feet of, or at least side by side with, religious Muslims.

Almost everything of significance about Islam that I know I have learned from believing Muslims, not from secularized Muslims or Western academics. An example.

While in Sicily, I became friends with Muslims from Senegal. Some of the most lovely and gracious people I have ever met. I am not referring to their beautiful blue-black skin and wide smiles alone. They had a wholesome piety and genuinely felt a bond with me, an evangelical pastor. We would talk about our children and they would be very sentimental about it. They would giggle at the Catholic priests in town (some of them very fine men), unable to comprehend the concept of celibacy as a spiritual gift. Many of them had wives and children thousands of miles away which they were lucky to see once every five years.

I asked one of them to give me "Sunday school lessons" in the Quran and Islam, and was blown away by the fact that I was introduced to the Prophet through the eyes of a black slave he is said to have had. I'm not positive but I think the eyes through which I was given to see Muhammed were those of Zayd bin Harith.

Meanwhile, my Senegalese Muslim friends were excluded from table fellowship with their fellow Muslims from Morocco and Tunisia, an exclusion they bore in stoic silence - until I forced a couple of Moroccans I had befriended to break down that barrier. I invited the Moroccans to sit next to me, the gran pooh-bah at the meal we would put on once a week for the resident aliens of the Sicilian community I was pastor in. Since I was sitting already next to Senegalese friends, all of sudden they were all at the same table, and they ate "mixed" from that day forward. The best thing about that is that later, the Moroccans and the Senegalese would help each other out in various ways.

Now it is true that on some occasions, Muslims we knew would pursue a path of "conversion out" of Islam, a very difficult journey. Catholics with whom I was working were very good at mentoring these journeys in non-invasive and respectful ways.

More often, we witnessed "conversion in," that is, we saw Muslims incorporate into their lives mores they picked up from believing Christians. I would think that is part of what Jesus hoped his followers would accomplish when he asked them to be the "salt of the earth."

Angela Erisman

On reductive views of the Enlightenment, liberalism, and religion, I strongly recommend reading Terry Eagleton's "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate." His wit is fantastic, although it could seriously use a good editor, and his points, well, poignant. Apart from being slightly difficult to get through, this was a real perspective-changer for me. He defies our usual (overly-simplistic) categories and resists reductionist thinking. That, IMO, is always a good thing for making people think.

Mr. Essary: I too support an open public square, and on that count, I think Elliott deserves a seat at the table as any of the rest of us do. But that should not mean we have to view all contributions as equal in merit or value to the conversation. As is already evident from my previous comment, I wouldn't rate Elliott's very high in the quality department, if quality is measured by things like thoughtfulness, fairness, accuracy in representation, degree to which it calls others to equally thoughtful participation in the conversation.


I enjoyed Eagleton's book. I wonder what his next move will be.

I was helped in understanding it in that I am familiar with the European Left, the humus in which key elements in Eagleton's (photo)synthesis finds root. The only political party I have been a member of was the Italian Communist Party.

At the time they were accepting Christian believers without hesitation. One of my mentors in politics was an old-fashioned Communist atheist still confident of Soviet truths. A keen intellectual, he was generous when talking with me. Convinced though he was that Christianity was on the decline and that the Soviet model not to mention the Emilia-Romagna model (social-democratic with strains of harder core Marxism) represented the contexts in which the New (a-religious) Man best grew, he told me that history would decide. If Christianity endured, that was because it was true in one or more significant senses of "true." That was in the late 1980s.

Marxists like to think of history as the arbiter of truth - a position I would accept only with a thousand qualifications. In any case, if history is the arbiter of truth, that puts Marxists in a bind. Marxist ideology has then been falsified as thoroughly as an all-interpreting ideology can be falsified. Which is not to say that capitalist ideology has been vindicated - the contrary is true (but I digress).

My point is: in the midst of the cognitive dissonance created by the collapse or humiliation of all Marxist regimes that have ever existed, Eagleton picks up the pieces and tries to make sense of them in light of Christianity. Compare Leszek Kolakowski.

My mentor in politics - besides trying to work through things with his therapist - might follow Eagleton's lead with profit.

Angela Erisman

It's a fantastic digression. One I will mull over.

I am now reading Eagleton's "On Evil." I picked it up because I thought I might assign it to my undergrads next time I teach Job and Popular Culture. When I taught it last, I discovered that their views on evil are too simple and reductive, and need to be challenged and complicated intellectually before they can really grapple with the questions and issues Job raises. I don't think this book is the ticket, simply because my experience is that most students will not work that hard to get an argument, although I wish they would and am thrilled when some of them do.

G. Kyle Essary

Let's not forget the deep friendship that Eagleton had with Herbert McCabe. Eagleton has moved closer toward McCabe recently, and I think that McCabe could have written Eagletons book on Ditchkins. It's gotten less fan-faire, but I'm reading Conor Cunningham's recent "Darwin's Pious Idea." It's brilliant in many of the same ways, and I highly recommend it.

I agree that there is a certain naivety in neutering other metanarratives on the basis of Enlightenment reason without realizing the metanarrative you have embraced to even attempt such a move (nor the ends that such a move entails).


It's been a long time since I read him (and it was in Italian I believe), but I think Kolakowski (whose own journey is not without interest) deals incisively with the problem of evil in:

The key to heaven: edifing tales from Holy Scripture to serve as teaching and warning. Translated by Salvator Attanasio and

Conversations with the devil
Translated by Celina Wieniewska.

New York, Grove Press [distributed by Random House, c1972]

I like the way K refuses to solve the problem of evil. You can solve it only if you believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Such a belief might suit, for example, a non-Jew or non-Christian, but how does it suit a Jew or Christian?

Jews and Christians look forward to, and consider it obvious, that the world as we know it is in need of Tikkun, rectification, healing. That implies that the problem of evil has yet to be solved, that the most we can hope for is that someday - it comes naturally to speak of a new heavens a new earth, olam ha-ba - it will be solved.


Thanks for referencing McCabe. For a brief orientation, I recommend:

Gary Simmons

John, I just started working at a grocery store. One of my bosses is a Muslim, and she is as sweet as peas. I also worked with a Muslim-agnostic from Turkey and a practicing Muslim from Morocco. Both great guys.

Unfortunately, I do not have very much first-hand experience with the Islamic faith, though I do intend to do so in irenic terms.

My polemic lies specifically with the media for lacking the will or courage to show discernment in terminology. I wonder, for instance, if the Amish would be considered religious extremists.

Angela Erisman

Thanks for that link. I just heard about McCabe and put that book on my list of things to check out. I appreciate the summary.

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    Mississippi Fred MacDowell's musings on Hebraica and Judaica. With a name like that you can't go wrong.
  • p.ost an evangelical theology for the age to come
    seeking to retell the biblical story in the difficult transition from the centre to the margins following the collapse of Western Christendom, by Andrew Perriman, independent New Testament scholar, currently located in Dubai
  • PaleoJudaica
    by James Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. Judaism and the Bible in the news; tidbits about ancient Judaism and its context
  • Pastoral Epistles
    by Rick Brannan and friends, a conceptually unique Bible blog
  • Pen and Parchment
    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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