A Guide for Christians
by George Dardess
Paracelete Press, 2005
review by Kim Jocelyn Dickson
The title of this book, Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians, is slightly misleading. Better it should have been called something like: Meeting Islam in Rochester: One Christian’s Journey, for Dardess’ book is no mere academic or theological exercise.
The genesis for this book came about in 1991, during the Gulf War. Dardess describes how he and his wife—both Catholic pacifists—sat in front of their television in Rochester, New York, watching the bombing of Baghdad, when he was struck with not only horror but the sense of his own complicity due to ignorance and indifference. He realized, “I don’t know anything about Iraq and its history. I can’t even find it on the map. I don’t know anything about Islam, either—or anything about these people who are being bombed in my name and with my tax money.” He vowed then and there that he was going to learn Arabic.
While this may not seem like an obvious response to taking issue with your country’s foreign policy, the reader soon learns that Dardess, an English teacher, is passionate about language. When the local Islamic Center offers Arabic lessons to the public, Dardess enrolls and soon becomes enamored. “I love words and I love languages. The stranger the word and the stranger the language the hotter my love grows. To me at that time Arabic seemed very strange. So it was love at first sight.”
flirtation bloomed into a full-blown love affair when on one
evening at the Center, Dardess overhears evening prayer—the communal chanting of the Qur’an. “What had before seemed at best pleasantly intriguing was now making a claim on me.” The seduction was complete. So began Dardess’ headlong plunge into studying the Qur’an, thus encountering Islam for himself.
That Dardess uses the metaphor of falling in love to describe his attraction to and encounter with Islam is telling. Inasmuch as the stated intention of his book is to provide a guide for Christians who would like to “meet” Islam, the reader senses an emotional undercurrent throughout that is the author’s own struggle to reconcile his deep attraction and conflicted loyalty. This would have been a better book had Dardess wrestled more openly. He does acknowledge that his encounter with Islam—what he calls “passing over”—was personal and experiential, but he stops short of exploring deeper motivations that might have illuminated what it is we all—Muslim and Christian—long for.
But just as sometimes a man who dallies outside his marriage discovers that what he wanted all along was right there at home, so Dardess finds that his encounter with Islam enables him to see his own Christian faith with new eyes. Chapter by chapter, Dardess invites the reader to explore a teaching or practice of Islam with him and then attempts to build a bridge to a similar teaching or practice in Christianity. He also takes on the theological deal breakers where common ground isn’t easily found-- the identity of Jesus, the Trinity, even Jihad in its original meaning, which is to put all of one’s energy and talent into striving for a righteous aim. At every point, the tenets of each tradition are respectfully presented.
It bears mentioning that Dardess’ exposure was to an Islam practiced and taught in the context of a religiously pluralistic society in North America. This
is not the religious fundamentalism we encounter on the evening
news any more than Dardess represents the religious fundamentalism
that characterizes some Christians in America. This meeting is that of a particular Christian—an American Catholic pacifist—and a particular Islamic worship community in the United States. The Center certainly does not represent all Muslims any more than Dardess himself represents all Christians.
Still, there is something endearing and courageous about Dardess’ journey. In crossing the street to the Islamic Center in his own hometown, he not only befriended the Stranger, he met him on his terms. His zeal for seeking understanding and common ground is not only touching, it’s far too rare and is an example from which all—Christian and Muslim—can learn.
Copyright ©2005 Kim Jocelyn Dickson
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