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Book Review - John W. Wilson, Christianity alongside Islam, Acorn Press, 2010

Monday, 31 October 2011  | David O'Brien

I must admit that I approached the task of reviewing the late John W. Wilson’s book Christianity alongside Islam with some trepidation.  After reading many books in this area, I have found most fall into one of two categories.  Either they offer a relatively uncritical apologetic for Islam, or else they label all things Muslim as evil and allow little room for constructive engagement with Muslim people.

From the introduction to this book onwards, I was pleasantly surprised.  John Wilson’s desire to respect and engage with Muslims while insisting that critical issues be faced squarely was encouraging, as was his desire to recognise and accept with humility that Christians have not always acted according to the highest values of our founder.  He had a broad knowledge of Islam and a sensitivity to ordinary Muslims that makes the book an enjoyable read.

A number of books on my shelf seek to compare the teachings of Islam and Christianity.  Some put the Quran next to the Bible, and these have their place, but this book is a little different from these.  John Wilson seeks, quite successfully, to focus instead on the actual realities of how Christians and Muslims in various cultures live out their faith in their families and communities, hence the title: Christianity alongside Islam.  He succeeds in depicting the human face of Christian and Muslim peoples seeking to live their lives in the interplay of community, family, culture, faith and religion.

He discusses how people of the two faiths see things similarly and where they approach issues differently.  Key topics include views on the nature of history, approach to the scriptures, conversion, human rights, women and gender issues, science and the environment, and he concludes with an encouraging chapter on Hope.

There were two areas where, I believe, the book did not live up to its promise.  When discussing the place of Abraham, Muslims, Jews, Christians and World History, the whole issue of the basis for any of the Abrahamic story was lacking.  While Biblical history was affirmed, in so far as the Genesis accounts reflect an environment consistent with current historical scholarship, the intricate and quite detailed Islamic stories of Abraham and Hagar were only mentioned very briefly and no comment or challenge was evident.  As these stories loom large as foundational for Muslim festivals and rituals, including many Hajj rituals, this seemed a significant oversight.

The second is not really a criticism, more a comment.  The book begins with a discussion on the difficulty that Western secular societies have with any religious commitment that insists on implications for the public sphere.  Islam in particular, a faith that demands that its adherents live out their faith visibly and publically, finds itself in opposition to the secular materialism of the West, and many Western governments, particularly in Europe, are struggling to know how to respond.  Recently though, such materialism has expressed itself through some vocal and vitriolic atheists who criticize all religion and blame religion for the problems of the world.  Thus at one stage, rather than fulfilling its title, the book felt more like “Christianity and Islam” against Atheism – not necessarily a bad thing, just not really in line with the professed topic.

Christianity alongside Islam touches on too many areas to be academically comprehensive, but it is a good addition to the literature and will help any Christian to better understand the mindset of Muslims, and how faith is worked out in daily life.  It could also be recommended to a Muslim, as it could be a good resource to help a Muslim understand Christians and some of the issues that separate us.

Rev David O’Brien B.Sc.  B.Ed.  B.D.  M.Theol.
Senior Pastor, Waverley Baptist Church
Adjunct Lecturer, Whitley College, Melbourne.

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