First up: great title! Or rather, great subtitle. In a world where many people are exploring connections between different religions while others entrench themselves ever more firmly in their “unique” beliefs, many readers will be curious to know what a “Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian” might have to say about God.
Selmanovic comes by at least three of his religious descriptors honestly: he was born to a secular, non-practicing Muslim family and raised in the aggressively atheist communist worldview of the former Yugoslavia. As a young man he converted to Christianity – much to his family’s dismay – then moved to the U.S. and spent much of his working career as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. He currently lives in New York City, where he works with an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan.
Throwing “Jewish” into the subtitle reflects not so much Selmanovic’s own life experience as a desire to broaden his message to include all three of the traditional monotheistic religions. Really, he points out at the beginning, “Muslim, atheist and Jewish” in the title should be read as modifying the “Christian,” since Selmanovic self-identifies as a Christian but argues passionately in this book that Islam, Judaism, Christianity and even atheism have much to teach Christians.
Interedependence, and the humility that allows us to learn from one another, to be served as well as to serve, is the central theme of this book. As I read it, I could not help carrying on an inner dialogue with the author of the last Christian book I read, Michael Horton of Christless Christianity. Selmanovic’s vision of God, and of the role of Christians and the Christian church in the world, seems to be one of the very worldviews that Horton is railing against – a syncretistic, “God really loves us all and wants us all to love one another” message that some fear, may blunt the uniqueness of the Christian message and the saving role of Christ.
It’s a fair criticism, though I suspect Selmanovic might feel that it misses the point, that Horton is raising questions he no longer has ap articular interest in asking. Rather than preserving the “uniqueness” of any religion, either Christianity itself or any Christian denomination, Selmanovic is interested in what binds us together – the messy, flawed reality of human life and the love of God that permeates it, expressed in and through our love for one another.
While I spent most of Christless Christianity inwardly arguing with the author and recoiling emotionally from his message (even at the points where I agreed with it intellectually), I read through It’s Really All About God constantly nodding. I found that what Selmanovic had to say, much of it drawn from his life experience, resonated with my own experience and beliefs.
Of course – to drag Christless Christianity back into this again – Michael Horton would say this is precisely what is wrong with It’s Really All About God. It resonates with me (and no doubt with many readers) precisely because it feels intituitively right – deep down, we all want to believe we are basically good people beloved by a good God. The gospel (according to Michael Horton) cuts directly across our intuitive religion with the message that we are condemned sinners who can only be saved through Christ’s death on the cross.
Selmanovic addresses this view of Christian doctrine directly, and the difference in his view and the traditional view represented by Horton really comes down to a difference in how each writer interprets the concept of “grace.” As Selmanovic writes:
Many of us Christians have been insisting that we, with supreme revelation in our possession, are the only heralds and brokers of grace to the world. But as my friend the Reverend Vince Anderson says, grace has been seeping out of all of life, and others have been feasting on it all the same. We Christians have insisted that our revelation is the only container and only dispenser of grace. the rest of the world, graced from within, has been steadily proving us wrong. Grace is independent.
Is grace a specialized product, packaged and offered only through traditonal Christianity and available only in Christian churches, or is it a constant outpouring from God, evident in every corner of human life, as available to the Muslim and the atheist as to the Christian? That’s really the central question, the question Selmanovic answers with a resounding “Yes!”
It’s a powerful message especially for us Seventh-day Adventists, nurtured and trained in a substratum of Christianity that describes ourselves as “the Remnant” possessing “the Truth” – a Truth not only possessed by Christians in opposition to all other world religions, but by Seventh-day Adventists in opposition to all other Christians.
While Michael Horton would argue that the true gospel is recognized as true precisely because it violates our most deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human, Selmanovic argues – over and over, and passionately – that when religions and life clash with each other “life always wins.” Truth is not absent from the Bible, the Qu’ran, from churches and synagogues and mosques, but when the truths (and Truths) found there violate what we know from our actual lived human experience, life wins.
This is an exciting and intriguing book, though it leaves many questions unanswered. Traditonal Christians will want to know what the role of Christ is in this view of God. Has He been downgraded to merely a great teacher? Is there any point in being a Christian if Christianity is not the “best” and “truest” of earth’s religions? Is Selmanovic’s view of humanity too high and too holy? Does it fail to take into account the reality of a sinful human nature and the real, bitter difficulties of human beings trying to live together despite their differences and falling, again and again, into violence?
This book offers powerful images of the gaps we humans create between ourselves, and the possibility of healing those gaps. The most vivid stories in the book were the story of Selmanovic’s two weddings (on two consecutive days: a secular ceremony for his atheist family and a religious ceremony with church friends, because neither wanted to share the experience) and the later story of the day his parents finally attended his church. But the stories of transformation are always on a personal, or, at most, a congregational level: the author suggests no roadmap for how (for example) Muslims and Jews learning to love and learn from each other might look on the ground in Israel and Palestine.
Again, I’m guessing at what he might say in response to that question, and it might be that the theory has to come first and then be worked out in practice. But the sad truth is that “life always wins” in another and more bitter sense – our best efforts at community-building and loving one another seem inevitably to fall apart in the face of human selfishness and hate.
I suspect a lot of the questions I was left with after reading this book are questions Selmanovic may not be particularly interested in answering – they belong to a paradigm of religion as (in his words) “a God-management system” — kind of religion that he is no longer interested in.
Despite the questions – or maybe because of them – I found this a beautiful, often exhilarating, and thought-provoking book, and I would recommend it highly – to Chrisitan, Muslim, Jew or atheist, and maybe even to Hindu, Buddhist or Wiccan (who all get passing mentions in the book, even if they didn’t make the title page). If this book doesn’t challenge some of your preconceptions about God, faith, and how to reach out to “the other” (or better yet, allow the other to reach out to you) … then I’ll be very surprised. It’s well worth your time, and will linger with you long after you finish reading it.