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You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain quote: “When I was a boy of fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he’d learned in seven years.”
Though the quote actually belongs in the category of “things Mark Twain never said,” it does illustrate a classic truth about youth vs. age. We don’t know our parents until they’re old enough to have us, and by then they’re established adults—or they should be. It’s typical, sometimes necessary, for young folks to define themselves apart from their stodgy, unimaginative parents—even so far as accepting any plausible-sounding truth that doesn’t come from home. Youth knows nothing of the struggles, passions, and hard-won wisdom of age—at least not until the young have earned their own wisdom.
I thought of that while reading an article in First Things called “Why I Became Muslim,” by Jacob Williams. Williams is English, born and bred, and proud of it. I gather from the context he is also very young. He writes of his spiritual journey in a winning, sympathetic style, and in the process reveals flaws in his reasoning. But deeper flaws in his culture.
Culture was the problem, a deep disquiet at the way his university education trashed his homeland, heritage, and “whiteness” in favor of a radical commitment to diversity. He was taught to despise Western attitudes toward “the Other,” but “I recognized that the only way to create a world with no ‘others’ is to have no self.” As he felt the bedrock of England turn to sand under his feet, he began searching—desperately, it seems—for something to stand on. He found his footing again in Islam.
Why not Christianity? Two major reasons, corresponding with the Islamic statement of faith. First, one God: He couldn’t reconcile the all-too-human Christ with the absolute transcendence of Allah. “The mystery of the Trinity seemed to me a dark glass that made God’s majesty dimmer, not brighter.” He opted for simplicity, as did the first Muslim converts (according to historian Paul Johnson) in the seventh century.
Second, the creedal belief in Muhammad as Allah’s messenger seemed more direct and trustworthy than the Scriptures, especially after “learning of the long process of redaction and recomposition that produced the canon that became the Bible.” I wish Williams had read Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. Qureshi grew up in a devout, moderate Muslim-American household and learned the same talking points about the Bible that Williams later encountered as facts. I wish he had read more deeply into the faith he rejected, rather than dismissing it as weak—“tepid, half-believing Anglicanism.”
In that sense, he’s like the 14-year-old who rejects his father’s “ignorance,” knowing nothing of the struggle, passion, and hard-won wisdom that made the man. He rejects modern England’s contempt for “the West,” but never acknowledges that Christianity built the West. Reading his testimony, one could almost conclude that it was the other way around, with Christianity a pitiful victim of his country’s current self-loathing. A religion that could allow itself to be so watered-down, Williams seems to be saying, is fundamentally flawed. Ironically, he concludes, “My peers and teachers were busy desecrating the Western tradition. Islam stood a chance of preserving it.”
I think he means his version of Islam: solid, distinct, this-not-that—and tolerant (a virtue not endemic to that tradition). Meanwhile, real Christianity (solid, distinct, this-not-that) is spreading rapidly through the developing world and remaking it, Lord willing, as it made the West.
A few weeks ago, Europe watched aghast as Notre Dame, a testament to that vigorous faith, burned. At the moment it didn’t matter whether the fire was arson or carelessness. What does matter: Will the blaze rekindle Europe’s confidence and resolve, or does it signal the combustion of that great heritage?
God knows. In the meantime His Word is living and active and very near, as we plead with the world to be reconciled to Him.
This column has been updated to correct the century in which the first Muslim converts lived.