On the paths with Muslims

Mar 2, 2015 by

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David Shenk, longtime East Africa missionary and Eastern Mennonite Missions ambassador and administrator, is also a widely read interpreter of Christian mission in Islamic contexts. Twelve Paths is his fourth book on this topic. He says it is “not a memoir but rather a collection of stories about my journey of meeting Muslims and greeting Muslims.”

51n8oR5mHOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Because of the many stories, mostly quite personal, this is an interesting read. The 12 chapters represent the finest principles of missiology, with an application for interacting with Islamic people. This alone makes Twelve Paths a valuable book. The five appendices locate this task within the Mennonite frame of reference.

The use of the concept of “paths” suggests the missional task requires long-term presence and patience rather than a quick fix. The chapter titles illustrate the process: “living with,” “cultivating respect,” “developing trust,” practicing hospitality,” “partnering with the person of peace.” These are the paths to real relationship, which is the context for “commending Christ.” These virtues and approaches are essential for meeting Muslims — and, in fact, apply to all forms of Christian witness.

An integral part of the book’s richness is its illustrative material. Shenk and his spouse, Grace, were major participants in the Mennonite mission in Somalia — a venture that was short-lived but that has had a long-term impact. In spite of more than 50 years of Marxist government, Mennonite influence lives on in that country, as well as in the Somali diaspora.

Other stories reflect the Shenks’ speaking, teaching and listening relationships with Muslims in Israel, Palestine, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Iran and other countries, including Canada and the United States.

Only a month ago, on Feb. 3, I participated in a prayer chain for one of Shenk’s Somali student friends, Moham­med Togane, as he faced surgery in a Montreal hospital. Moham­med was a student in the Mennonite school in Somalia in the early 1960s.

While I strongly affirm this book, there are also more issues involved in good intercultural and interreligious relationships. Shenk could have given more attention to how he immersed himself in Islamic thought and practices. Readers might wonder how he learned to appreciate the other’s point of view and overcame the provincialism of Western culture. I would like to know who taught and mentored him in the art and practice of his missiology.

Shenk understands the importance of historical and cultural context. He notes that the fifth- and sixth-century world faced divergent paths represented by Jesus, Mohammed and Constantine. He does not comment on those historians who view Mohammed as the East’s response to Constantine’s imperial religion. He could have demonstrated how these alternatives influenced 14 centuries of conflict and hostilities. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars suggest that past patterns are not really past.

Christian mission always takes place in a context. The 12 paths demonstrate wholesome ways to deal with historical, cultural and linguistic issues.

The Christian movement has lived in and with the Muslim world for 14 centuries. Not all Christians fled or chose the Constantinian route of Crusade but found ways to survive and flourish within dominant Muslim cultures. Shenk says little about survival as a missional strategy. The Coptic Orthodox in Egypt; the Syrian Orthodox in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; the Armenian Orthodox in Turkey and Iran; and other groups continue their witness in spite of Muslim domination.

Shenk might have emphasized more strongly a missional path of empowering local churches. His work with Indonesian churches illustrates how Western churches can enhance and enlarge the local, indigenous Christian witness.

This is a significant book for anyone interested in Christian witness at home or abroad.

John A. Lapp, of Goshen, Ind., is executive secretary emeritus of Mennonite Central Committee.


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