The Middle Eastern Mindset: Insight And Understanding About Jesus And Christianity

Jul 11th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Most of us born in America think about truth and the Bible through the grid of Western rationalism and linear thinking.  That reality informs how we interpret and apply the Bible, especially its teachings about Jesus and the ethical dimensions of genuine, biblical Christianity.  I have been challenged by a recently released book, entitled Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most influential Figure by [the late] Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray.  The book challenged me to see Jesus in a broader fashion, recognizing the uniquely Eastern ways of thinking and communicating found in the Bible.  The book also challenged me personally and coincidentally offered insights into how the Church should view the tribalism of America right now, offering the redemptive themes of God’s grace and mercy at a time when they are most needed.

Filled with helpful exegetical as well as applicational insights, the book has much to offer us at this time.  Permit me to summarize several salient reflections from this marvelous book—and then draw a few applications.

  • First of all, the Eastern mindset is based on communal conformity, while the West is based on individualism and countercultural nonconformity.  “While he naturally expressed the communal nature of the Middle East, Jesus often extolled the virtues of individualism that Westerners have come to value so much.  In a patriarchal and often misogynistic society, Jesus shocked those around him by lifting women to their rightful status as equals.”  But, when we forget that Jesus spoke and ministered in the context of a Middle Eastern culture, we can easily misjudge him by modern Western idioms and customs.  “Placing Jesus’ words and deeds within an Eastern culture, where community identity and conformity far outweigh individual identity and expression, bring clarity and newfound relevance that we can benefit from today.”  While Jesus was thoroughly Middle Eastern, his actions formed the core of later Western values.  “He bucked tradition and authority to upend injustices endemic to his culture.  Interestingly, those same injustices persist in our day . . . Seeing Jesus’ Easternness brings not only fresh clarity; seeing Jesus as the Eastern bridge to Western culture also brings hope as we struggle in the West to address the same issues he dealt with so long ago.”
  • Second, in one of the book’s essays, Abdu Murray helps us understand one of the most profound dilemmas in the Middle East today:  “How can someone agree that a particular worldview is true but not believe in it? . . . For the Easterner and the Middle Easterner, whose cultures are collectivist and communal . . . community and family honor underpin and dominate all of life’s pursuits, even the pursuit of truth.”  For that reason a Muslim or a Hindu today can intellectually assent to the truth of the gospel and yet be terrified at the very idea of embracing it as true.  For the Muslim or the Hindu, to lose your family’s approval, is to lose oneself.  If that happens, who are you?  Murray writes:  “Eastern cultures are collectivist or communal, which means that each person’s value, dignity, integrity, and very identity are derived from how she or he is perceived by the community.  Perpetuating an Eastern community’s tradition, especially its religious tradition, brings honor.  Breaking from tradition, especially religious tradition, brings shame.  In the East and Middle East, if perceived honor bestows identity on a person, perceived shame robs him of it.  Understanding this can teach the West that there is a world of difference between intellectually assenting to a worldview as true and existentially embracing it as your own.”  The power of honor and shame in a culture brings profound understanding of the Bible and also an understanding of why it is so difficult for an Easterner or a Middle Easterner to embrace of Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To do so will not bring honor but shame to the family and the larger community.  But, as Murray demonstrates, Jesus did something horribly shameful (i.e., died on the cross) to restore our honor as image bearers of God.  “The very fact that the Easterner appreciates shame’s profundity allows us to communicate the magnitude of what Jesus accomplished at the cross . .  . The paradox is that in bearing our shame for us, Jesus performed an honorable act.  Jesus took shame’s momentum, flipped it around, and turned it into honor . . . Someone who takes on our shame and rises above it is the only one who can satisfy the eastern soul.”
  • Third, Jesus addressed “us versus them” tribalism.  Jesus lived and acted in a tribal culture.  “The Middle east of the first century was divided along racial and ethnic lines.  It was also strongly divided along gender lines.  Those of different religious bents were often at odds with each other.  And politics was an ever-pervasive source of division and derision.”  In Jesus’ dealings with the Canaanite women in Matthew 15:21-28 and in his dealings with the Roman centurion in Luke 7, He highlighted the faith of non-Jews before those mired in the “ethnocentric religiosity around him.  The master of paradox, he upended tradition to effectuate change.”  Furthermore, to confront the tribalism of His day, Jesus established “self-sacrifice as the chief means of harmony and reconciliation.  He gave His life for Jew and Gentile, Ethiopian and Roman, man and woman.  His is a radical example to follow, especially today, when self-sacrifice for the good of someone who stands outside our perceived tribe is in short supply.”
  • Fourth, Jesus and His Word affirm the dignity of women.  A few examples from Scripture:  1.  Numerous women in the Old Testament are named prophetesses who spoke for God (e.g., Exodus 15:20; Judges 4-5; 2 Kings 22:14; Isiah 8:3, etc.).  2.  Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge (see Judges 4-5).  3.  God honored Hagar in Genesis 16.  4.  When King Josiah found the Law, he called on Huldah to verify it as God’s Word (2 Kings 22:14).  5.  Esther and Ruth are women of integrity and courage.  Such examples are profoundly important in the patriarchal and misogynistic culture of the East.  The Bible challenged such gender prejudices.  Murray recounts a recent visit he made to New York City, where he highlighted the following “contradictions:”  “As I averted my gaze and paced through the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder, Who is the more debased—the women offering themselves to men or the men who take them up on it?  I also saw Muslim families, some of the women with covered heads and even covered faces.  Again, I couldn’t help but wonder, What do these two different kinds of women think of each other? Do the barely clothed women consider themselves to be liberated and free while thinking that the hijab-adorned Muslim women are oppressed by religion?  Do the Muslim women lament that fact that the performers are so willing to use their bodies as commodities to make a buck?  And what about everyone else who passed by, seeing both the unclad and the fully draped?  Did they even give a moment’s pause to reflect on the human contradictions?”  Feminine dignity cannot be truly secured by “flesh peddling or by religiously imposed modesty.”  The ideal of feminine dignity has been secured by Jesus.  Both His words and His actions expressed dignity for women.  “His actions imparted status to those whom society tried to suppress.  As male Easterners beheld this Jesus, they were challenged and taught to overcome their prejudices.  As Eastern women spent time with him, they rediscovered the original dignity they had been conditioned to forget.”

Reading this book has deeply moved me.  As with all things, I am reminded that the solution to our tribalism, our prejudices and our bitterness is Jesus.  He speaks to the linear thinking Westerner and the honor-shame-bound Easterner.  He transcends all cultural prejudices and offers the solution.  We who love Him must take Him and His message to the world.  Jesus offers everyone what they desperately have lost due to their rebellion against God—dignity, identity, worth and purpose.  May we, His disciples, be people of faith, people of God, who represent Him well.

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