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Early in 2009. Philip Yancey went on a speaking tour of the Middle East, primarily in the United Arab Emirates and other small countries along the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. In Bahrain he met in a backyard with 30 people from Saudi Arabia, all expatriates. Most of them lived in compounds built by the oil companies, and all had chilling stories about life in one of the world's most conservative Muslim countries. The hosts asked the caterers to step inside as Yancey talked, fearing they would be reported to Saudi authorities. Yancey is the author of many books, including What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters (Hachette/FaithWords), from which this article is excerpted and condensed.
IF SOMEONE HAD STOOD H ERE in Julius Caesar's day and predicted the decline of the mighty Roman Empire and the triumph of an upstart religion founded by a Galilean peasant, he would have been judged a lunatic. As would anyone who stood in the Middle East five centuries later and predicted the downfall of Christianity, by then dominant in places like Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yet here we are in the 21st century meeting rather furtively in a backyard in an Islamic state, hoping that none of the hired help are eavesdropping. As a visitor, I cannot help wondering why this part of the world, the birthplace and once the center of the Christian faith, became the region most resistant to it.
I get one possible clue from the French sociologist Jacques Ellul who, looking around him at the modern world, noted a paradoxical trend: As the Christian faith permeates society, it tends to produce values that contradict the gospel. I sometimes test his theory while traveling by asking foreigners, "When I say the words United States, what first comes to mind?" Invariably, I get one of three responses:
Wealth. Representing only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. generates almost a fourth of the world's economic output and still dominates global finance.
Military power. The U.S., as the media regularly remind us, is "the world's only superpower." The U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next 23 nations combined, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Decadence. Most people in other countries get their notion of the U.S. from Hollywood movies, which seem to them obsessed with sex and crime.
Each contradicts the teachings and example of Jesus, whose life was marked by poverty, self-sacrifice, and purity. No wonder followers of Islam puzzle over Christianity, a powerful faith that somehow produces the opposite of its ideals in society at large.
American soldiers stationed here know the pattern: while fighting in two Gulf wars, they had to get by without alcohol and Playboy in deference to the strict Islamic code in the staging nations. One …