David Shenk has provided yet another excellent resource chronicling the encounter between an Anabaptist believer and Muslims throughout the world. This book is not a systematic comparison of Christian and Islamic theology, nor is it an historical, sociological, or anthropological comparison of Christianity and Islam. It is a comparison between these two living traditions, developed through a dialog in which the author has participated for over four decades. This dialog takes place in the context of a missionary enterprise, and is therefore both polemical and apologetic. The text, however, does not adequately address the academic questions of historical theology and comparative religions.
Shortcomings in Shenk’s assessment of the history of Christian theology appear clearly in his discussion of Arius. Shenk writes that the
main reason Arianism died out within the church was that
the ideas of Arius were not in harmony with the New Testament witness about Jesus Christ nor with the faith experience of ordinary Christians, and
though it was attractive for a while, the movement did not communicate the power of the Gospel (46). While I’m sure the author believes this to be true, it is a statement of belief, and not of academic scholarship. Shenk also shows a relaxed attitude toward historical issues in his discussion of the furor caused by Nestorius. He contends that
one reason Nestorianism took root in some of the Eastern Churches of Asia was that the
credibility of the Asian Eastern churches within their societies demanded that they define themselves as different from the union of empire and pope in the Western churches (47). To speak of Nestorius in the 6th century and a
union between empire and pope, which occurs centuries later, in the same breath reflects an unsustainable leap in analysis.
What Shenk gives to the reader is a very meticulous and careful portrayal of Muslim thought and practice in a climate where misinformation abounds, an accurate portrayal of Muslim thought and practice based on his respect and friendship for the many Muslims he has encountered. He also gives us a structure for the further analysis and dialogue between Muslims and Christians based on meaningful categories important to both traditions, instead of questions relevant only to one tradition. This framework appears clearly in the subjects raised in the list of chapter titles: Abraham, prophecy, scripture, revelation, crucifixion, Jerusalem, and the Unity of God. The limitations of polemics emerge starkly in Shenk’s chapter on Shari’a and the Holy Spirit. He offers little new in the historical distortion found in much of the Christian discussion on
law and gospel, so entrenched in Christian literature.
In the final chapter, Shenk discusses the Ummah and the Church, differing views of the Muslim and Christian ideas of
community. It is here that this book becomes a launching point, rather than the definitive word on a very important subject. This is an area where the particular concerns of the Anabaptist tradition place it in a unique position to enter into dialog with Muslims. The Anabaptist view that God’s kingdom is not a political entity to be established by governments on this earth stands in stark contrast to the Muslim view that it is incumbent upon believers to establish just such a kingdom. However, it is essential that this not become a polemical debate on which view is
better. Both views carry with them particular obstacles to overcome and issues to resolve. Christian and Muslim perspectives represent viable responses to the challenge of living for God in this world, and both deserve equal respect and evaluation, without a presumption that one is better than the other.