The Culture of God; The Syrian Jesus - reading the divine mind, sailing into the divine heart
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2018
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Reviewed by Hugh Wybrew, JMECA Director and former Vicar of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford
Born in Lattakia in Syria, Nadim Nassar’s religious background was mixed. His mother was Greek Orthodox, his father Presbyterian, and the local community was predominantly Sunni Muslim, though with Christian and Alawite minorities. Nadim chose to train for ordination in the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, an inter-denominational Protestant theological college in Lebanon. He went on to study in the evangelical faculty in Tubingen, and then at the United Reformed Church’s Westminster College in Cambridge. In 2004 he was ordained priest in the Church of England.
His Middle Eastern background explains his enthusiasm for its Christian tradition and what he sees as its distinctive character. He is not alone in claiming Jesus as a Syrian and giving the impression that Syria has been Christian since the time of Jesus. ‘People in the West’, he says, ‘forget that Syria and the Levant region were Christian for 600 years even before Islam started.’ There were certainly Christians in the region from the time of Jesus. But until the early 4th century they were a small minority, largely in the towns and cities. Only after the emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 AD did the Church grow rapidly. Syria can be said to be Christian, at least nominally, only after Theodosius I banned paganism in 389-391.
Fr Nadim’s enthusiasm leads him to another rather sweeping assertion. Writing about the importance of story-telling in Syrian culture, he says that ‘cultures that are poor in mythology and stories cannot develop a strong spirituality, because these stories feed into the spiritual life of the people.’ Should we therefore infer that Christians in modern Western cultures are incapable of a strong spiritual life? But story-telling is no guarantee of a strong spirituality, at least not in Christian terms. In the Middle East, religion is closely bound up with social and ethnic identity. That is not untrue even of churches relatively recently arrived in the region. I once overheard a conversation among Palestinian Anglicans lamenting the fact that even their church was as much a social as a religious community. The remark once made by an Anglican bishop in Jerusalem that he was first an Arab, secondly a Palestinian, and thirdly a Christian was hardly testimony to a strong Christian spirituality.
It is of course the case that Jesus, followed the tradition of his people, made wide and effective use of story-telling in his teaching. Kenneth Bailey, in his scholarly book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, writes about the teaching and actions of Jesus in the light of the culture in which he lived. Bailey takes into account modern biblical studies. Nadim Nassar’s evangelical background perhaps influences his approach, which is to take the gospels as factual accounts uninfluenced by the theological concerns of the various writers. His approach is more homiletic than scholarly; and in his Introduction Dr Habib Badr says that ‘This book contains a reservoir of great sermons.’
The book’s title, The Culture of God, needs explanation and raises a question. Its author explains that, just as human cultures arise from the interaction of human beings in societies, so the culture of God arises from the interaction of the three Persons of the Trinity. Fr Nadim embraces with uncritical enthusiasm the understanding of the Trinity as a communion of three Persons united in love. Associated closely with the distinguished Greek Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John Zizioulas, and widely popular in other Christian traditions, it is not without its critics. However the term ‘Person’ is to be understood when used of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it does not and cannot mean the same as when used of individual human persons. The three divine Persons cannot be said to interact in the same way as human beings interact: there is only one God. It cannot therefore be said that ‘love and forgiveness are integral not only to God’s commandments, but to the inner life of the Trinity’. Love certainly, for God is love; but there is no way God needs to forgive God.
But Fr Nassar’s concern is not with the details of trinitarian theology. He writes against the background of his own experiences in the 1980s of the civil war in Lebanon, and of the subsequent civil war in his own country. His chief concern throughout the book is to make the fundamental Christian point that God is love, and that Christians are called to display that same love, of which forgiveness is an integral aspect, in their relations with other Christians and all other human beings. There can be no quarrel with that; and here indeed is a great sermon, one that needs to be preached and heard, not only in the Middle East but in every human culture.
Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2019