A Gentle Answer has cosmic implications

Cover of the Mizan Ul Haqq: Blance of Truth by Carl Gottlieb PfanderIn this age of instant bestsellers, it is difficult to comprehend the historical and cosmic scope of this book project. It is the next stage in a discussion that is measured, not in months or years, but in centuries. And the issues involved are as far-reaching as they are timeless.

That is the nature of A Gentle Answer, a book project being undertaken by three writers based in different continents.

The project was initiated by a man identified as “Paul,” a Christian leader from Asia. In his church work, he kept encountering arguments against Christianity being brought by Muslims, and he wanted some help in dealing with them. In the end, a team was formed that includes Gordon Nickel, a Canadian theologian and expert on Islam, and Jay Smith, who debates with Muslims from his base in London, England.

There was a certain similarity to the arguments Paul was encountering, and it became clear that they had a common source in a previous century.

History still matters

In the 19th century, with the encouragement of the British colonial rulers, Christian missionaries had begun evangelizing in India, and had been having some success in converting Muslims in northern India. Among them was a Swiss/German missionary named Karl Gottlieb Pfander. In 1829, Pfander wrote a book titled Mizan ul-Haqq (Balance of Truth), which upheld the authority of the Christian Bible over the Muslim Qur’an.

The book was so effective that Muslim leaders felt they had to answer, and they challenged Pfander to a public debate in Agra, northern India, in 1854. The main Muslim debater, Rahmat Allah Kairanwi, had discovered the writings of 19th-century liberal German theologians and academics, who were arguing that the Bible had been composed of other documents, had been changed over the years and was not historically accurate. He used these writings very effectively in the debate, particularly because Pfander had left Europe before these theologians’ books had been published and was not familiar with them. Kairanwi published his materials from the debate as Izhar ul-Haqq (Demonstration of Truth) in 1864.

Izhar ul-Haqq, became a very influential book and is still very widely used by Muslims to discredit Christianity. In fact, it marked a turning point for the Muslim understanding of Christianity. Instead of believing that the Christian Bible contained some distortions, as Muslims had always said, they now believed that the Christian Bible was totally corrupted and unreliable.

A Gentle Answer

No systematic Christian response to Izhar ul-Haqq has ever been published—until now. A Gentle Answer is intended as a textbook for Christians anywhere in the world who encounter arguments drawn from the 150-year-old Muslim book.

Of the three Christians mainly working on the project, “Paul” brings a practical and pastoral grounding. The issues are of particular importance to him because he is a Christian from a Muslim background.

Paul is a friend of Gordon Nickel, who spent ten years studying and teaching in Pakistan and India. Nickel earned an M.A. in South Asian Islam at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and then a Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. His dissertation, “Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries of the Qur’an,” pointed out that early Muslims generally accepted the authority and reliability of the Bible and only thought Jews in the seventh century had “hidden” certain biblical references to Muhammad.

The other scholar involved in the project is Jay Smith, who has become well-known for debating Muslims at Speakers’ Corner in London over the past quarter century. Smith, who is working on a Ph.D. at London School of Theology, leads Hyde Park Christian Fellowship. Among his initiatives is the Pfander Centre, which prepares missionaries for ministry among Muslims, and a collection of videos on YouTube he calls “Pfander Films” – both named after the missionary who started the whole debate almost two centuries ago. Christianity Today profiled Smith’s work a few years ago.

The proposed project will be a lengthy (400-page), four-part book, which is scheduled to be ready for publication by 2014, 150 years after the publication of Izhar ul-Haqq and 160 years after the debate in Agra.

The goal of the first part of the book, based largely on Nickel’s research, is to “level the academic playing field.” Nickel explains that it is inconsistent for Muslim scholars to question the reliability of the Bible on the basis of literary criticism but then insist that the Qu’ran is a divine book and therefore beyond question. He says that if the Qu’ran is subjected to the same historic and scholarly critique that the Bible was subjected to in the 19th century, it raises more questions than are raised about the Bible. In fact, a number of scholars – Muslim, Christian and secular – have already begun studying this question.

Nickel also points out that much has happened in Western scholarship in the past 150 years. The documentary theory of the liberal theologians, that seemed so definitive to Muslims in the 19th century, has not generally found acceptance among Christian scholars. Moreover, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls half a century ago has confirmed that the Bible text has been transmitted without significant distortion over the past 2,000 years.

Love and Respect

This is where the book becomes dangerous, Nickel says. If the book demonstrates that the Bible has not been distorted, then it can also be demonstrated that the Bible does not prophesy about the coming of Muhammad. This will call into question the reliability of the Qu’ran, which claims that the Bible did prophesy of Muhammad, and it will call into question whether Muhammad really is a prophet of God. This is dangerous, Nickel says, because history shows that “the Muslim world will defend Muhammad to the death.”

That is why the project is called A Gentle Answer. The authors are taking their model from Proverbs 15:1 (“A gentle answer turns away wrath”) and 1 Peter 3:15 (“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”). They say they want to enter a dialogue with Muslims based on mutual love and respect.

Ironically, Nickel says, this is more understandable in Muslim countries than in North America. In the post-modern Western world, “North American Christians don’t see such debates as helpful.” North American Christians want to “emphasize similarities” and foster tolerance and relativism in society and avoid divisions in the church. Some even wonder “why we want Muslims to become disciples of Jesus.”

But in Africa and Asia, Nickel says, “questions of truth still matter.” In those places, it would be “disrespectful not to talk about such issues.” He says, “If friends see friends going in the wrong direction, they say something.”

Information about A Gentle Answer is available on the project website, and an opportunity to support Nickel financially is available on another website. Also available on the project website is a download of parts of Margins of the Mizan, a novel written by Nickel and set in Pakistan; it is offered free of charge to supporters of the project. It includes a discussion of Pfander’s book by Muslims and Christians.

Canada’s connection to 420 million

There was a Canadian in the mix, last week, as a string of Christian and political luminaries eventually persuaded Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, not to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an, on September 11.

Geoff Tunnicliffe, the CEO and secretary-general of the 420 million strong World Evangelical Fellowship (WEA), talked to Jones by phone two days before the pastor announced, unannounced and reannounced cancellation of the holy book burning.

Tunnicliffe’s tack, according to an online newspaper, the Christian Post, was to try to get Jones to consider the fallout from any Muslim-originated violence emanating from a highly publicized book burning exercise.

Tunnicliffe told CP reporter Michelle A. Vu: “I pled with [Jones] on behalf of the global church to abandon his idea. I asked if he went ahead [with the plan] and violence followed and lives [were] lost, if he would be willing to sit with a widow of a pastor and explain to her why his church felt it needed to take this kind of action.”

Dove World Outreach Center is not a member of the WEA or its American regional group, the National Association of Evangelicals. But Tunnicliffe said his organization has a responsibility to intervene, as some might consider the 50-member Florida church at the “fringe” of the evangelical family.

The WEA head noted that, after his conversation with Jones, he had the sense that the Florida pastor was growing “ambivalent” about his book burning plans.

Tunnicliffe and his wife, Jewel, live in Delta, south of Vancouver. They have a lot of early background in Christian (Plymouth) Brethren assemblies and, in more recent years, in a suburban Baptist church. Presently, they are part of The Way Community Church, a Christian and Missionary Alliance theatre-sited Richmond church pastored by Mike Sherbino.

Through the years, Tunnicliffe has been a missionary, then a missiologist. In the 1980s, the WEA began tapping his skills in the interests of bringing evangelicals together globally. He is in his second five-year term as the organization’s CEO.

The Tunnicliffes do a fair amount of travelling and, since the WEA decided to put its global office in New York City, maintain a small apartment near Battery Park, close to 9/11 Ground Zero.

It was at that NYC office where I tracked down Tunnicliffe last Friday (September 10), for a phone interview. My first question: “Your office is in Trinity Place. Is that close to Ground Zero and the proposed location for the controversial Islamic centre?”

The answer was in the affirmative. The WEA’s14th floor office is as close to Ground Zero on one side as the Islamic centre would be on the other – about two blocks away from where the planes flew into the World Trade Center.

“I can just about see where the Islamic centre will be, from the window,” he told me.

There is an intriguing irony to the WEA office location. It is in an office tower on property which is a part of the holdings of Trinity Wall Street Church, a long established Episcopal (Anglican) congregation housed in a classic Gothic 164-year-old edifice. The parish actually received its charter from King William III in 1697, when what is now New York state was a British crown territory.

It does not escape either Tunnicliffe’s attention, or mine, that Trinity has been part of the neighbourhood for over three centuries. Community acceptance, for them, is no problem.

For the Muslims, it is different. In the American mindset, 9/11 was all about radical Islamists who arguably use the Qur’an as justification for a jihad against the west. To them, putting a ‘mosque’ so close to Ground Zero is like a sacrilege.

I asked Tunnicliffe why people insist on calling it a mosque when its proponent, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, insists that it is an ‘Islamic centre’ – sort of like an Islamic version of a YMCA community centre.

Tunnicliffe gently reminded me that the Imam has taken, recently, to referring to his project as an “interfaith centre.”

That is a point to ponder. The Muslim presence in New York City is considerable, but relatively new. Nevertheless, there are an estimated 200 mosques in Manhattan and its adjoining boroughs – an area that would likely be home, also, to 2,000 or more Christian churches of various stripes and close to 1,000 Jewish synagogues.

Listening to Imam Rauf, one gets the impression that he believes he is the soul of reason, wanting to build bridges to all the disparate parts of the community that was so raucously impacted by the destruction of the World Trade Center. But his detractors see his rationality as more of a hard sell for Islam acceptance.

There seems to be a consensus in Manhattan that a mosque elsewhere than in line of sight of Ground Zero would be relatively more acceptable.

For his part, Tunnicliffe wanted to avoid getting too deeply into what is, in some respects, a local problem, albeit with global side currents. The WEA, he suggested, is cognizant of the fact that the great world religions need to get along with each other.

But he spoke of a countervailing signal as well. In a Washington Post online interview, he suggested: “I feel that in the midst of this … an important message … could be missing. It has been absolutely the right thing for leaders of various faiths and politicians around the world and the media to condemn the acts of this small church in Florida. My question is: Can these same groups come together when there are significant acts of violence in other parts of the world?

“For example, last year in India, churches were burned, and 50,000 Christians had to flee for their lives.

“One more example: A radical politician in Afghanistan stands up in parliament and says Muslims that leave their faith and become Christians must be executed.

“Will we do the right thing and speak out against these kinds of acts as well?”

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Tunnicliffe has blogged about this issue in more detail.

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Lloyd Mackey on parliament hillLloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at lmackey@canadianchristianity.com.