Remembering the Story: Historical Reflection Leading to Spiritual Dialogue

by Edward Smither

The author shares how historical reflection promoted meaningful presentations of the gospel with Muslims in North Africa.

After months of waiting I was delighted to receive a slip in the mail indicating that my books had reached our new home in North Africa. After borrowing a friend’s car and spending the better part of a day going to the wrong offices, I arrived at a customs office near the airport. “We need to open the eight boxes of books, make a list of each title, and then, if approved, we will release them to you,” announced the customs officer. After my polite protests and some brief negotiations, he allowed me to take four boxes that day but kept the other four for inventory. The next day I returned and was handed a list of my books complete with the officer’s commentary (“he has books about the Jews”; “lots of religious books”; “books about Christian history”) to take to the Ministry of Interior—the highest legal authority in the country, and the previously unnamed approver of books. With little time to worry, I prayed from the customs office to the Interior Ministry, and soon found myself in the office of a polite, yet serious policeman tasked with making a decision about my books. “You have lots of religious books,” he remarked. “Yes,” I replied, “I have a degree in religious studies; religion is very important to me.” He added: “You also have books about African Christian history.” “Yes,” I responded, “North Africa has a wonderful Christian history and I hope to learn more about it during my time here.” He quickly replied, “You are very welcome in our country. Come back tomorrow for your [officially stamped] papers approving the books.” Relieved with a positive outcome (and my books) from this bureaucratic experience, I had no idea that this was the beginning of a journey of researching North Africa’s Christian past in order to share it with its modern Muslim inhabitants.

In his recent important work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Thomas Oden argues that a careful reflection on Africa’s Christian heritage will not only be a source of blessing and strength to the present African Church, but also provide Christians with a basis for meaningful dialogue with African Muslims (2008, 134-142). Although I read Oden’s work nearly two years after leaving North Africa, his assertion essentially captures my convictions that developed after my brief meeting at the Interior Ministry, and that led me through my doctoral research—largely carried out in North Africa—on early African Christianity. That is, modern North African Muslims could hear a winsome presentation of the gospel by interacting with their ancient Christian past.

In this article, I would like to share some of this journey of how historical reflection actually promoted meaningful presentations of the gospel and dialogue with Muslims. Specifically, what doors were opened and what approaches were used? What were the lessons learned? Finally, could a similar approach be employed in other contexts where there is a historical Christian presence?
Open Doors and Approaches
In my first year of doctoral work, I became friends with a student, who, in addition to doing graduate studies in history, also served as the president of the National History Society. Interested in North Africa’s Christian heritage, he invited me to give a lecture on the subject at the group’s monthly gathering, attended by some fifty students. Ironically, their meetings were held at a government-run cultural center across the street from the Interior Ministry, where I had discussed my books with the policeman the previous year. At the outset of the lecture, I communicated that my intent was not to talk about Christian faith per se, but to give an overview of Africa’s early Christian movements and leaders. However, over the course of the two-hour presentation that included telling the stories of fathers like Cyprian and Augustine, much of the gospel naturally came out. While the question and answer session was generally amicable, one student asked rather pointedly, “We are Muslims. What does this have to do with us?” Despite the noticeably tense atmosphere, I responded, “This is a question that I cannot answer for you. This is your heritage and you’ll need to make a decision about how important it is to you.” While the lecture was very enjoyable, the most exciting part of this opportunity was watching a North African believer, who came with me to the meeting, as he dialogued afterward with his fellow countrymen about the lecture’s content.

The following year, the North African university where I taught organized an international conference on the theme of “exile and displacement.” A call for papers from various disciplines, including history, was given. My department head, a European-educated secular Muslim, who thought it was very important that I was researching the largely ignored area of early Christianity, invited me to give a presentation. While most of the papers gravitated toward politics and the Palestinian issue, I spoke on Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) notion of exile, especially as a pilgrim wandering in the “earthly city” and longing for the “city of God.” I also reflected on Augustine’s assertion in his Enchiridion that because of the fall, Adam experienced spiritual exile from God’s presence. During the question and answer period, I was amazed when a female colleague stood and addressed the conference of three hundred Muslim professors and students and said, “Today we have talked mostly about politics. But I like this presentation on Augustine and exile because everyone, regardless of culture or politics, can identify with Adam being exiled from the garden and God’s presence.” Later, during the coffee break, she shared with me that she had been reading the Bible and found much delight in its message.

Sometime later, I was contacted by the philosophy department of another North African university that had started a study group on pre-Islamic philosophy in North Africa. Although not a specialist in philosophy, I was invited to present papers to the group in part because they were unable to find many scholars in the country competent enough to speak on figures like Tertullian (c. 160-220) or Augustine. Over the course of the semester-long colloquium, I gave two papers—one on Augustine’s philosophy of history from his work The City of God, and a second on Augustine’s view of the government’s role in addressing religious schisms and heresies. I recently learned that these articles have been translated into Arabic and will be published in a university-level philosophy textbook. Although my presentations were initially met with a bit of resistance because of their obvious Christian content, the philosophy professor coordinating the group pleasantly remarked after the second presentation: “This is positive. The students are becoming more comfortable discussing Christian ideas.”

The following year, the department organized its annual conference around this theme of pre-Islamic philosophy. Amazingly, the Christian philosopher I had recommended was invited and gave a lecture on the rational arguments for the Trinity from Tertullian’s third-century work Against Praxeas. Finally, the most encouraging part of working with this study group was being able to serve alongside a North African believer, who was working on his doctorate at the university and who had a good testimony with his professors and classmates.

After returning to the United States, I was invited to return to my former North African university and give a paper at a conference addressing “mutual misunderstanding” between the Muslim world and the West. Accompanied by a group of American students who came to build relationships with African students, I gave a presentation on how Augustine’s notion of friendship—informed by his understanding of the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is a model for overcoming cultural conflicts. I concluded the talk by suggesting that the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, etc. could be embraced regardless of one’s religion. This assertion was quite well received by the three hundred Muslim students and professors in attendance. Afterward, a former colleague approached me, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “You just lectured to a group of Muslims on the Trinity!” I responded that I was simply endeavoring to interpret faithfully the thought of Augustine, one of early African Christianity’s greatest thinkers.  

Lessons Learned
So what have I learned in this ongoing experiment of reflecting on North African Christian history in a modern Muslim context? Four things:

1. Most North Africans are proud of their history and culture, even their Christian past. Strolling through the major universities, one will find classrooms and lecture halls named after Augustine and Tertullian. In ancient Carthage, the small road leading to the church where Cyprian is believed to have been buried is called “St. Cyprian Street.” While these names and places remain—including an abundance of Christian archaeological evidence—the average North African knows nothing about his or her Christian history. Hence, by probing into their past and “memory,” Christian history and thought—a diverging message from the majority religion to be sure—was perceived as less of a threat, and Christianity became viewed less as a “Western” religion. Although some protested, “We are Muslims. What does this have to do with us?” and generally speaking, pre-Islamic history has been suppressed in North African schools, a thoughtful reference to North Africa’s Christian history was largely well received because it was part of them.

In fact, there almost seems to be an agenda among intellectuals in the universities—many of whom studied in Europe—to oppose this Arab-Muslim hegemony in North Africa. Having already embraced atheism, communism, or at least a very secular Islam, many North African intellectuals are happy to encourage their students to consider other philosophies and schools of thought, including Christianity. Indeed, the intellectuals and educated in North Africa seem to be the most viable change agents in the culture, and, interestingly, many of the current church leaders in one country are university and high school teachers.

2. This approach represents a long-term investment—via books, articles, publications, and lectures—toward a worldview shift. Could it be that after considering North Africa’s Christian history over the next ten to twenty years, a generation of students and professors will conclude that, since many of their ancestors were Christians, then this might be a viable option for them, too? Could the faith and testimony of Perpetua (d. 203), Cyprian (195-248), or Augustine help a Muslim overcome the great cultural barriers he or she faces when contemplating the gospel?

3. Like most ministry opportunities, this approach works best when national believers are involved. Prior to beginning doctoral work, I consulted a mature North African pastor who confirmed that such research would benefit the modern church movement. Whenever I gave a lecture, I always invited North African Christians to attend so that my presentation could be a catalyst for their personal relationships. As noted, in one case, my role was to encourage a doctoral student in his research and in his personal ministry within the university.

4. Inspired by Don Richardson’s Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts many years ago, I went to North Africa praying I would discover relevant bridges from the local culture to the gospel. North Africa’s Christian history turned out to be a blatant and well-documented aspect of the African memory, and I became convinced that it could be used as an important bridge to the gospel. I am amazed by the doors that have opened, and I pray with anticipation about where this approach will lead.

Further Application
Could reflection on Christian history also be a helpful approach in other places? While much remains to be done in North Africa, how would Muslims in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia respond to a survey of their Christian past? Could Syria’s ancient Church and monastic tradition, not to mention its modern Aramaic-speaking villages, be of interest to its modern inhabitants? Could interaction with India’s Thomas Christians be helpful for contemporary evangelism? Finally, how would the modern Chinese respond to their Christian history, which dates back to the seventh century? My prayer is that Christian history, where it can be considered, would serve as a helpful means of correctly remembering the gospel and ultimately encouraging belief in the gospel. As the character Lucy stated at the end of the film edition of The Chronicles of Narnia: “Whenever I see the first signs of spring, I’m going to be remembering you. I’m going to be remembering Aslan, remembering the story and what is to come.”

Augustine, trans. Dodds, Marcus. 1994. The City of God. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume II. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.

Augustine, trans. Shaw, J. F. 1994. The Enchiridion. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Volume III. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.

Oden, Thomas C. 2008. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity.  Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.

Richardson, Don. 2006. Eternity in Their Hearts. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

_____________. 2007. Peace Child. Seattle, Wash.: YWAM.

Tertullian, trans. Holmes. 1994. Against Praxeas. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume III. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson. 


Dr. Edward Smither is associate professor of church history and intercultural studies at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. Author of the recently released Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, Edward spent ten years serving the Church in France and North Africa.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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