Thursday, 3 July 2008

Provoking those who observe the church

Theodore Abu Qurra (750-825AD) was an Orthodox bishop of Harran, living under Muslim rule of the Middle East as the Abbasid dynasty approached its cultural zenith under the tutelage of Christian scholars, translators, doctors and administrators. He composed several apologetic works (defending the Christian faith by comparison with Islam and occasionally Judaism). A brave and highly intelligent man. But very much of his time. For example, in his discussion of icons at the close of one of his treatises, he says

If someone says “The ‘outsiders’ may mock us because of the cross of Christ without seeing these icons” let that person know concerning those [‘outsiders’] who enter our churches, that if they do not see these icons in our churches, it would not occur to most of them to react in the way we have mentioned. As for the icons, they are what arouses their desire to mock us.

How sad that it was not the words or the lives of the Christians in those churches that would provoke a response from the ‘outsiders’. I do not intend to deny the effect of icons in provoking discussion, maybe even profitable evangelistic discussion – huge proportions of the Arab Christian controversial literature is taken up with their defence and their pointing to Christ – but where was the concern for everyday gospel living and gospel talking? Why does it not occur to the outsiders to mock the Christians (or take an interest) on account of their radical lifestyles, sacrificial love, and bold proclamation? Sure, the Christians were often ghettoised and suffered under serious discriminatory social constraints, but Theodore is envisaging visitors to the churches so he is not living in a situation of total community or individual ostracism.

Of course the Christians under Islam then and now walk a tightrope as regards their conversations and what they read and write. If anything in their behaviour is construed as trying to convert a Muslim then it provided (and still provides) a pretext for violence. Not always, but the threat is always there, and with local variations in how the law is applied, local tensions, international politics and the greed of people in the street all thrown into the mix, is it any wonder that icons-as-gospel-proclamation was defended so strongly? Not that it did much good, for there were plenty of pogroms, confiscations and vandalism carried out by Muslims on the grounds of iconoclasm. That particular retreat from the gospel, well intentioned though it may have been, turned out tragically to be no refuge .

Text from Mark N. Swanson, ‘The Cross of Christ in Arabic Melkite Apologies’, in Samir Khalil Samir & Jorgen S. Nielsen, eds, Christian Arabic Apologetics During the Abbasid Period (750-1258) (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp.115-145 (p.139)