It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic

allaboutgodFirst 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.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic

  1. Wow, if this book isn’t singing my song, I don’t know what one is…thanks!!

    (and I haven’t read anything by Horton, but I would like to remind him that “God loves us and wants us to love Him and each other” is what Jesus (ie, God) said was the greatest commandment, summing up the entire religion. So…its at least necessary, if not sufficient.)

  2. Catherine, this is definitely a book for you!! Put it on your to-read list at once.

  3. Eva

    This sounds marvelous! I’ve been looking more into Christianity again, after a long time as an agnostic, but I find the more progressive form makes a lot more sense to me.

  4. Trudy,

    Thank you for your perceptive and kind review. I learned so much!

    Yes, life interrupts our theologies, which is wonderful!

    Cheers and peace,

    Samir

  5. Glad you enjoyed this book. I am a fan.

    You can check out my review on http://www.atoday.com/content/it’s-really-all-about-god

  6. Great review, Nathan, although I ended up getting suckered into reading the comments below it which, as with the comments on Spectrum or any other SDA-related site, always ends up with me being discouraged beyond belief. Reading something like Samir’s book, and being able to discuss it intelligently (even the parts I might question or disagree with) is like breathing fresh air, and reading the comments section of any article on an Adventist site reminds me how hard it is to breathe fresh air when your head is stuck all the way up your … oh, I’ll stop now.

  7. I read something about this book on Spectrum, I think, and looked it up on Amazon and thought it sounded like a book for me to read in the future. This review seals it, and I look forward to reading it.

  8. I was actually going to make a point of recommending it to you, Jamie, as I think you would enjoy it. And Eva, I think it’s a really good choice for someone in your situation as well.

  9. Those commentators on Spectrum do leave one with a disheartned feeling. So many ways to pick apart a statement.

  10. It just always seems to devolve into the same polarized arguments between bitter, critical ex-SDAs, and narrow, judgemental conservative SDAs. There’s so much interesting middle ground between those two polarities — and so much else beyond and outside them — that it’s discouraging to see arguments inevitably run in those same well-dug channels.

  11. I’m probably one of the bitter, critical ex-SDA’s (though thanks to the last local church I attended, some of that bitterness was sweetened by what was an incredibly loving community).

    I bought the book because of this review and started reading it, even though I had already decided that Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious” was going to be the last religious book on my reading list (yeah right!). I’m just at the beginning, but decided it’s a much more interesting read than the Spong book, and so I’ll read it first.

  12. Samir is a better writer than Spong, and a lot less polemical (if that’s a word). And no, jlinetransport (if that’s what you’re calling yourself these days!), you are NOT one of the bitter, critical SDAs of the type I’m thinking of who post on certain SDA sites. I don’t have a problem with ex-members being critical of the church… obviously they’re going to be critical or they wouldn’t have left it. I’m thinking of people who, no matter what the discussion is about — a book, a film, a political issue — always manage within two sentences to drag the topic back around to their particular beef with the SDA church and How It Ruined My Life and the Lives of Thousands. I know leaving a church can be a huge move for some people but I honestly do not get how people’s anger at their former church has to dominate every conversation, nor why they have to dedicate their entire lives to telling people “You can be free of the bondage of this church!!!” even when people haven’t expressed any desire to be “free.” Just as annoying as the flipside people who turn every conversation into a call for us to come back to the True and Original Faith as Revealed to Our Ancestors … you know, the Adventists who I think are sorry we don’t believe in hell, because they can’t tell you you’re going to burn there even though they’d obviously love to. (/rant off)

  13. I was creating a webpage for jline and forgot to log out! I was quite surprised after submitting that last bit to find that I am now called jlinetransport. Try as hard as I might to get away from it, it apparently has become part of my identity!

    Back to the topic, I am loving this book so far. I wish I could curl up by a fire today and read the rest of it instead of going out in the rain. But alas, I must go to work and I don’t have a fireplace, so that idea is definitely off.

  14. I actually am curled up by the fire reading today; pretty sweet as it’s a horrible day out. Glad you’re enjoying the book.

  15. Glenn

    The ironic thing is Horton’s religion does feel intuitively right to him because it allows him and those who believe as he does to be “saved” while leaving all the rest of us out. I’ve heard a lot of talk in evangelical circles about how great God is and how sovereign God is supposed to be, but in reality, much if not all of this contrived obeisance is contingent on their being saved eternally. I wonder what the Horton’s of the religious community would think about a theology that allowed for the possibility that they themselves might not make it. This is one of the ideas that It’s Really Just About God tackles, in different ways. So, I don’t think Horton’s Calvinism is really all that counter-intuitive at all.

  16. I’m really looking forward to reading Samir’s book!

  17. I’ve always been delighted by the notion that there are “laws” of God that transcend any belief system or circumstance – the notion that healing occurs when people believe that they will be healed whether they are at the shrine at Lourdes, some Hindu temple, or being prayed for simply by a spouse or themselves, in short, that God rewards faith where he finds it, no matter if people really even realize what they are believing in…that while God has laid out specific formulae in the Bible for particular results, the translation of this formulae that we have been fed may have very little to do with God’s intention….
    I also quite believe that if people find any kind of grace in their life, it is the gift of God, whether they realize it’s source or not. As an example, to those who maintain a successful marriage in a society where half end in divorce (no matter their religious convictions), this is grace. God permeates things even when people don’t recognize it – He can’t help it. If he is who he says he is, then he is the source of all that is good, and whether people know, care, or believe is irrelevant to his existence and intervention…and to those who do believe, know, and care, oh! the delight of beginning to know Him!
    One thing that I truly appreciate being taught is that there will be many surprises on the Judgement Day. So many that we expected not to “make it” will be there (and vice versa) – for God looks on the heart. I so appreicate teaching that has taught me not to put anyone in, or take anyone out, but to make my own calling and election sure…

    Not sure if any of this is relevant, but these were some of the thoughts I was thinking as I read this review and subsequent comments…

  18. oops. I put in an incorrect apostrophe.

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