May 23, 2009

What Does Christianity Look Like?

I am in the middle of reading From the Holy Mountain, by Scottish born author William Dalrymple.  At the end of the 20th century, Dalrymple (in much the same fashion as Bruce Feiler did in his book, Walking the Bible) revisits the now-faint trail which was taken by the sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wandered the world of Eastern Byzantium, visiting the scattered Christian monasteries and hermitages and recording the rituals he saw and the preaching he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow.  Dalrymple's observations on Islam and Christianity have challenged my thinking.

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity.  Only when you travel in Christianity's Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked.  For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation.  When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies, they assumed that Islam was merely a heretical form of Christianity, and inAleppo_Syria many ways they were not so far wrong:  Islam accepts much of the Old and the New Testaments, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets.

Certainly if John Moschos were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical.  Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is.  Moreover the modern demonization of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West's repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), have led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam.

It is this as much as anything else that has made the delicate position of the contemporary Eastern Christians - awkwardly caught between their co-religionists in the West and their strong cultural links with their Muslim compatriots - increasingly untenable in recent years.  Hence the vital importance of the syncretism which still exists at shrines like that of Nebi Uri [Northwest Syria].  Such popular syncretism - Christians worshipping at Muslim shrines and vice versa - was once much more general across the Middle East, but now survives only in a few oases of relative religious tolerance.  The practice emphasizes an important truth about the close affinity of the two great religions easily forgotten as the Eastern Christians - the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity - emigrate in reaction to the increasing hostility of the Islamic establishment.

In an interview with Radio National (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network) in April of 1999, Dalrymple summarizes much of the book and has some sobering predictions of how the Middle East would change in 10-50 years.  Keep in mind that this interview was before 9/11.


Allen Long said...

This information certainly challenges my narrow thinking in regards to Islam and Christianity. Thanks for sharing.

BenB said...


This is a book I have been planning to order ever since I saw a reference to it on Fr. Freeman's blog. We'll compare notes sometime.