Paul-Gordon Chandler, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road; Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 215pp.
The earliest Christian movement was so completely Jewish that followers of Jesus continued to worship in their synagogues, Rome considered it a sect of Judaism, and Paul described the later influx of Gentiles as "wild branches" grafted onto the natural and nourishing trunk of Judaism. The first major conflict of the movement was whether and how Gentile converts could join this Jewish faith. Given this heritage, it's a bitter irony that centuries later Christianity earned a reputation that was anti-semitic, anti-Arab, and pro-western.
Paul-Gordon Chandler, a U.S. Episcopal priest who has lived and served most of his life throughout the Muslim Middle East and Africa, argues forcibly against the status quo of cultural and civilizational clash. Just as the apostle Paul insisted that Jesus "destroyed the dividing wall of hostility" between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14), he intends to show how and why Christians can bridge the bitter divide between the Christian West and the Arab-Muslim Middle East. He does this through a comprehensive study of the life of Mazhar Mallouhi (b. 1935) a Syrian novelist and "Sufi Muslim follower of Christ." Chandler finds earlier wisdom in The Christ of the Indian Road (1925) by E. Stanley Jones, and in his notion that "Christianity" with all its attendant sociological, religious, cultural, political, and historical baggage, "is not the same as Jesus."
"What might it look like," Chandler wonders, "for Jesus to be naturalized upon the Arab Muslim road." Side-stepping questions of Islamic theology, he focuses on the implications of Mallouhi's conversion and subsequent Christian experience. It's a colorful and compelling story, well worth reading in its own right. Chandler's narrative reminds us just how deeply and tragically so much of what passes for Christianity has been deformed by its marriage to western values.
But whether someone like Mallouhi can "bridge" the Arab-Western and Christian-Muslim divide remains to be seen; he himself has paid a very high price for his allegiance to Christ. He's hardly an "orthodox" believer, he rarely attends church, he has little use for the historic creeds, and he's been roundly ostracized and persecuted by both sides. And alert believers on both sides will not miss the point that, despite a more culturally-friendly evangelistic style and means (less confrontation), the substance and end (religious conversion) remain the same. And that's a profound theological matter that I'd love to read a book about that's written by Chandler or someone like him who combines his personal experiences, cultural sensitivity, pastoral care, and theological nuance. Like most good books, this one left me scratching my head with many complicated questions.