Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World
by Kathryn Ann Kraft
Regnum Books International, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HR, UK, pp. 142, 2012, $20.00.
—Reviewed by Tim Green, who has thirty years’ ministry experience among Muslims and is researching issues of identity faced by believers from a Muslim background.
A growing numbers of Muslim people worldwide are turning to Jesus and joining his community. This process may sound simple, but instead it is fraught with complications. How will these individuals define their new identity in relation to their new and old religious circles? Which community of Christ’s followers will they join in their local context? And who gets to decide?
Much has been written by opponents and proponents of Insider Movements on how these believers “should” answer such questions. Less attention has been paid to how they actually perceive their ongoing dilemmas of identity and community. “Searching for heaven in the real world,” these believers find no quick-fix solutions. Yet, as Kathryn Kraft reveals in her book, they offer insights and perspectives which missiologists would be wise to heed.
Kraft’s book makes a fresh contribution to this topic for two reasons. First, it starts from the vantage point of believers from a Muslim background rather than from missiological theory. Second, it makes connections with the secular, academic world, where conversion from Islam has been researched much less than conversion to Islam. Kraft seeks to “de-sensationalise the phenomenon of conversion out of Islam to a Christian faith” and to allow this discussion to enter mainstream academic awareness.
For her PhD in the department of sociology in a British university, Kraft had conducted interviews with thirty-three Christian converts from Islam in Lebanon and Egypt (incidentally, in academic discourse, the word “convert” is a neutral, not a negative, label). Searching for Heaven in the Real World is based on her doctoral dissertation and reflects its structure, but is written in a concise and very readable way. Kraft writes with fluent ease, interweaving sociological theory with interview material on topics including community, identity, apostasy, family, and the second generation.
This book helps the reader not only to grapple with the issues, but also to feel the pain and ambiguity of actual Arab believers in their “real world”. Compressed into the final three pages is a depth of penetrating psychological insight into converts’ identity stress, their expectations and disappointments with the Christian community, and their nostalgia at times for Muslim culture and community. Yet, to retreat into a convert-only group can become cliquish. Converts desire guidance from mentors in their new faith, but also need space to make their own decisions.
This book is unusual and important. Without being the last word on the subject, it offers fresh findings and stimulating pointers to further research. It provides less biographical detail on interviewees than a reader might like (a decision made to preserve their anonymity), and fewer verbatim quotes (since use of a digital recorder was considered intrusive). But these are minor points, and overall Kraft succeeds in her aim of allowing us to hear the voices of Arabs from a Muslim background who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 507-508. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.