Religious education is shallow in Tunisia, so there’s little theological substance to keep a young person from going to extremes. George Packer in the New Yorker*
George Packer’s recent major piece in the New Yorker details the religious and political turmoil in Tunisia. Tunisia should have been the one great success of the Arab Spring, according to Packer. It had many advantages other Arab states lacked: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions, no oil wealth to draw unwanted foreign attention, a tradition of moderate Islam, widespread literacy, and a small apolitical army. But Tunisia is a mess. One of the main reasons for this mess, he argues, is the lack of responsible teaching about the Qur’an. He details how “a religious vacuum during the Bourgiba and Ben Ali regimes” combined with widespread access to radical sermons on satellite television to create a large, radicalized population among Tunisia’s youth.
Packer makes a compelling argument. But I found all this yearning for responsible teaching of a holy book interesting. I wonder if this author, or his publication, would apply the same standard to other cultures – perhaps our own. Would he draw a line between extremism in America and a lack of responsible Biblical training? I doubt it. We all know how the mainline media views evangelical Christianity. But another expose of the media would be cliché. We have more important things to think about.
Last Sunday night Keith Clark, one of our teens, preached an important sermon I hope we listened to. He used radical Islam as a negative example, and asked us to consider how we compare. I have also wondered the same. When I think about the hate and the fear men embed in religion I am too frequently reminded of some church-going men I was raised around. The rigid, unforgiving, woman-fearing, patriarchal, aggressive stance radical Islamists take seems awfully familiar. I am not saying those church-going men would easily resort to violence, only that their prejudices were easily as virulent as those of the radical Islamists wreaking havoc around the world. So Keith’s topic resonated with me immediately.
Keith focused on the way one uses scripture. Radical Islamists, he argued, make no distinction between literal and symbolic language, and thus take extreme positions. We must be careful not to do the same, or we will treat the actual Word of God similarly, with similar results. He is right. That very morning I spoke from Mark 11 - the passage where Jesus says:
Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart it will happen, it will be granted him. Mark 11.23
Of course we know Jesus is speaking symbolically. If you disagree and believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally you are welcome to prove me wrong and make the Mount of Olives do a cannonball in the Dead Sea.
The lesson Jesus applies in Mark 11.24-25 is that we should trust the prayer of faith and believe we have the power to accomplish things that seem impossible – like forgiving each other. Reading the whole passage in context, and listening prayerfully will save anyone the price of an airline ticket to Jerusalem. More important than that – such careful attention to context, and such prayerful devotion to the Word will allow us to live by it. Otherwise we will become some version of what radical Islamists are – grotesques.
*George Packer, "Exporting Jihad," from The New Yorker, March 28,2016, pp.38-51.