Briefly Noted: Jonathan Benthall on Islam, Theology, & Politics

Islamic theology matters. Or so say the authors of seven recent books on Islam. In a recent edition of Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Benthall provides a review of these recent books on Islam, theology, and politics.[1] Though these books differ in their perspectives, Benthall notes, “… all the books under review here indicate in varying ways that theology has to be one ingredient in our understanding of these difficult questions” (11). This brief post will also summarize Benthall’s comments on three of the books more relevant to this blog-those books written by John Renard and Miroslav Volf, and one that is edited by John Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin.

  • John Renard, Islam and Christianity: Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective (U. of California Press). Benthall tells us that this book is a study of the major theological tenets of Islam and Christianity. His method is to compare and contrast. For instance, according to Benthall: Renard claims, “The deity that Muslims worship is often thought of by non-Muslims as severe and judgmental; but many Christians have such a concept of God as well, whereas many Muslims believe that God’s mercy always takes precedence.” Renard also “compares the Christian understanding of Jesus as God’s Word made flesh with the revelation of the word of God in the Qur’an …” (11). Renard’s work may provide a glimpse into what Christians and Muslims believe, but on a sociological and descriptive and not a polemical and prescriptive level.
  • Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (Harper One). Volf’s book explores theology proper, asking whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Volf’s aim is to frame the debate that has often become vitriolic. The book is a follow up to the 2007 “Yale Response” co-written by Volf and published in The New York Times, which supported the “common word between us and you” drafted by Prince Ghazi of Jordan and signed by 138 Islamic scholars. This “common word” claimed that love of God and neighbor are common to the Qur’an, Torah, and New Testament. As such, “the identity of the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an assumed by the drafters of the Yale Response is strongly endorsed by Volf in his new book, and he insists that, though before September 11, 2001 the question seldom surfaced in discussions of Christianity and Islam, it has now become vitally important” (11). [Note to reader: Christian Scholar’s Review recently hosted a review of Volf’s book by evangelical theologian Ben DeVan, as well as a response by Volf. See volume XLI, Number 2 (Winter 2012).]
  • John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, eds., Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press) is a collection of articles by Muslim and non-Muslims from America and Europe. “Together,” writes Benthall, “the authors give a comprehensive, well-documented account of the historical roots of present-day Islamophobia in white supremacism and in the colonial manoeuvre whereby Muslim societies were both eroticized and stigmatized; also of the more recent tensions in Muslim-Western relations that were brought to a head on September 11, 2001” (12).

The other four books reviewed by Benthall are:

  • Chris Allen, Islamophobia (Ashgate)
  • Robert Lambert, Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership (Hurst)
  • Charles Kurzman, The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press)
  • Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human (Allen Lane)

Again, I’ve not read these books, and have relied upon Benthall’s essay for this briefly noted. Hopefully these books will be helpful reads (though surely in unequal measure) for those of our readers who are interested in joining the conversation about Islam, theology, and politics.

[1] Jonathan Benthall, “Still a challenge for us all,” in Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 20, 2012): 11-13.

Q&A 4: Should Christians Obey the Government?


Question: There are multiple Biblical Mandate’s, from Moses onward through Hebrews, regarding a Christian’s responsibility to ‘obey’ the government, rulers, laws, authority, etc. of the State or Country in which the Christian resides. As an American who resides in the United States, the highest authority concerning civil liberties and the role of govt. is the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, however, many leaders, who vow to uphold the Constitution in their oath of office, do the precise opposite and go so far as rejecting it with the laws, ‘orders,’ and mandates, they create, and actions they take forbidden by the Constitution.

As a Christian, what, or whom, do we obey in instances of conflict between the Constitution, and national (and state) leaders?

Reply: I asked my friend Dan Heimbach to help me with this question. The answer provided is almost completely his.

To be clear, this question really involves two parts. The first regards the extent to which Christians have a duty to obey the authority of whatever civil government we live under, and the second regards conflicts that might someday arise between what a civil leader orders and fidelity to the United States Constitution. These questions are related but not the same, and must be handled separately.

First regarding biblically defined obligations to accept and submit to what civil authority requires, the important thing to understand is that while obligation to respect the authority of civil government is unconditional, obligation to obey depends on fidelity to God. This means there is no exception to a Christian’s moral obligation to respect the authority, role and responsibilities of human government no matter how bad it gets. But there are exceptions to what Christian’s can obey. This distinction is made very clear in the response Peter and John gave to the Sanhedrin when they respectfully refused to accept and obey a sinful order saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This qualification of Christian duty to obey civil authority applies to all forms of government including ours. So, even if the Supreme Court of the United States were to rule that our Constitution requires Christians to oppose something God requires, Christian citizens would have to obey God over the Constitution.

The second question does not dispute what the US Constitution requires, but asks how Christians who are good American citizens should respond if a government leader were to issue orders that are directly and openly outside boundaries of power delegated by the US Constitution. This question is easy to answer but could become hard and perhaps risky to carry out. Biblically the answer is that no human government has moral power to order wicked behavior, and Constitutionally the answer is that no US official has any legitimate legal power outside what he or she is given by the US Constitution and can therefore never legally demand or require anything of citizens contrary to the US Constitution. It other words there can be no moral obligation to act immorally and no legal obligation to act illegally.

But the reason this “easy to give an answer” to the second question could become hard to live by is that should persons ever come to occupy civil office in our land who oppose God’s moral law and the US Constitution at the same time, then a Christian’s mere refusal to obey their illegal-immoral demands, however respectfully and politely stated, will make them very unhappy and could result in persecution. In that case Christians should prepare to go to the lion’s den with Daniel.rpg mobile online

Some Recommended Links

Doug Baker asks Robert George and Greg Thornbury if morality is past its prime in the latest Insight Podcast from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Nathan Lino has some provocative thoughts about what would happen if churches lost their Non-Profit, 501(c)3 Status–I think he’s right.

In the latest issue of First Things, John Green wonders “What Happened to the Values Voters?” in the 2008 presidential election.

Russ Moore weighs in on “Love, Sex & Mammon: Hard Times, Hard Truths & the Economics of the Christian Family” in the latest issue of Touchstone.

In Baptist Press this week, Ben Mitchell offers his perspective on “Why the Stem Cell Policy is Wrong,” while Malcolm Yarnell opines on “The Revelance of the Word of God.”

Michael Spencer argues that America is facing a coming evangelical collapse; I hope he’s wrong.

If Spencer turns out to be right, I suspect Carl Trueman is on to one reason why such a collapse is imminent–our obsession with evangelical celebrities.