for The New York Times on March 17, 2010
January was an ugly month in Malaysia. At least 10 churches were firebombed or vandalized, as was a Sikh temple. Severed boars’ heads — particularly offensive to Muslims, who are not supposed to eat pork — were found on the grounds of two mosques. The cause of this inter-religious strife was a court battle over whether non-Muslims may use the Arabic word “Allah” to refer to God.
Ergun Caner, president of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, in Lynchburg, Va., in 2004.
The reports from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, described events that we imagine could never happen in the United States, where free speech is supposed to guard against such conflict. But we have fights over religious language, too, even if the violence rarely rises above name-calling.
On Feb. 3, Ergun Caner, president of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, in Lynchburg, Va., focused attention on a Southern Baptist controversy when he called Jerry Rankin, the president of the denomination’s International Mission Board, a liar. Dr. Caner has since apologized for his language, but he still maintains that the “Camel Method,” a strategy Dr. Rankin endorses for preaching Christianity to Muslims, is deceitful.
Instead of talking about the Jesus of the New Testament, missionaries using the Camel Method point Muslims to the Koran, where in the third chapter, or sura, an infant named Isa — Arabic for Jesus — is born. Missionaries have found that by starting with the Koran’s Jesus story, they can make inroads with Muslims who reject the Bible out of hand. But according to Dr. Caner, whose attack on Dr. Rankin came in a weekly Southern Baptist podcast, the idea that the Koran can contain the seeds of Christian faith is “an absolute, fundamental deception.”
David Garrison, a missionary who edited a book on the Camel Method by Kevin Greeson, the method’s developer, defends the use of the Koran as a path to Jesus. “You aren’t criticizing Muhammad or any other prophets,” Dr. Garrison said, “just raising Jesus up.”
He explained that after reading the sura in which Maryam, or Mary, gives birth to Isa, a missionary might ask a Muslim, “Do you know of any other prophets born of a virgin?”
And, Dr. Garrison continued: “It says in that passage that Isa would be able to cleanse the leper, even raise the dead. At that point in the conversation with Muslims, we say, ‘Isn’t it interesting that Isa had this tremendous power that God gave to him? Even death was under his power.’
“Then you ask the question, ‘Is there any other prophet that had this kind of power?’ And in Islam, there isn’t.”
“Camel” is not (readers might be gladdened to learn) a reference to a beast of burden in Arab lands. Rather, it is Mr. Greeson’s acronym — Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life — to help missionaries remember aspects of Isa’s story.
While Dr. Rankin, who said he had received Dr. Caner’s apology, would not offer a specific number of souls won to Christ, he said there was anecdotal evidence that the Camel Method was an important innovation in reaching the Muslim world.
“We have just heard amazing reports all over South Asia, India, Pakistan, North Africa, where people have found a receptivity to the Gospel,” he said.
Christians have long known that there is a Jesus in the Koran, but missionaries have only sporadically made use of that story.
Gabriel Said Reynolds, who teaches Islamic theology at the University of Notre Dame, said that Christians in eighth-century Baghdad defended their faith by pointing to passages in the Koran. “But that was never with an eye toward converting Muslims,” Dr. Reynolds said. “Such a thing would have been unthinkable. It was only a way of gaining legitimacy in intellectual conversations.”
In recent years, however, missiologists — scholars of mission work — have begun urging “insider” evangelism and “contextualization”: placing the Gospel in an indigenous context, to reach those from alien cultures.
“At the extreme,” Dr. Reynolds said, “these Christian missionaries will grow beards like Muslims, give up pork, even say that they are ‘muslims’ — lower-case ‘m’ — in the Arab-adjective sense of ‘submissive to God.’ ”
The danger, critics of the Camel Method say, is twofold: exploitation of Muslim culture and infidelity to the Christian message. According to Dr. Caner, missionaries who say the Koran can be a “bridge” to Christianity risk obscuring real differences between the two traditions.
For example, the missionary board recommends that in some cases missionaries use “Allah” to refer to God. As Dr. Garrison explains it, “there is only one God, the God who created the heavens and earth,” so talking about the Christian God as “Allah” is not misleading. But Allah is also the specific god of the Koran, who says things the New Testament God would not. And the Isa of the Koran, while based on the Jesus of the New Testament, is quite different.
“You can ask any Muslim,” said Dr. Caner, a Turkish-American from a Muslim family who became a Christian in high school. “ ‘Do you think that the Allah of the Koran had a son?’ The most important sura in the entire Koran, sura 112, the preeminent chapter of the Koran, says explicitly, ‘Allah does not beget, nor is he begotten.’ ”
The missionaries’ use of “Allah” to refer to the Christian God thus strikes Dr. Caner as an error both semantic and theological. In Baptist missionary fashion, he contextualizes his argument with a culturally relevant, if antiquated, example: the song “My Sweet Lord,” by George Harrison.
“There’s the word ‘Lord,’ ” Dr. Caner said. “Do you go, ‘Oh look, he’s a worshiper of God?’ ‘Lord’ is an English term, but is he talking about the same Lord” — the ones Christians worship?”
“Of course not,” Dr. Caner said, since at the time Mr. Harrison wrote the song, he was interested in Hare Krishna theology.
“Is it fair to use the George Harrison song and say he’s talking about the same god?” Dr. Caner asked. “My answer is no.”