Some Thoughts on South Africa While Fresh on the Mind

Of course, my mind isn’t very fresh as I sit at Heathrow airport in London after the overnight flight from Johannesburg (everyone calls it JoBurg).  In fact, I was so tired upon arriving that I “slipped” while shaving and took a very noticeable chunk out of my beard along the thin portion…so much so I just shrugged and took the rest off!  I’m back to a goatee for a few days!  But I’ll grow it back at least for the winter.

I have a few minutes to type up my thoughts on this year’s missions journey to South Africa.  This was the third year in a row we have visited South Africa.  It was the shortest trip, as far as the number of days, but since I had spent nearly three weeks in Zurich and Kiev only 14 days earlier—well, I’m well past my “travel expiration date” if you know what I mean.  Unlike some super humans out there, I can only be away from home so much before I start showing visible signs of wear, to be sure.  I’ve gotten better at travel over the years, but I am still not nearly as “travel tough” as some of my brothers out there.

The vast majority of this trip was focused upon debates, four of them, specifically.  But I did speak at Antioch Bible Church, where I have spoken each of the past three years as well.  For some reason South African Rugby is always connected to my visits to Antioch—the first year the Springboks lost to the All Blacks, the second year they won, and this year is the World Cup (SA is playing Wales on Saturday—sorry to all my friends in the UK, especially since I recently learned, through ancestry.com, that I have a LOT more English blood in me than my Scottish ancestors would have appreciated or even allowed!—but I have three Springboks jerseys, so I am surely pulling for the men in green to go all the way!).  Tim Cantrell and the folks at Antioch are great friends and always support our work in doing the debates in the JoBurg area.  A large contingent came out from Antioch for the debate Friday evening.

The first debate was the debate I had been most focused upon in my preparation, that on homosexuality with Dr. Graeme Codrington.  Rudolph had set this one up, as I had never heard of Graeme before.  He is, however, pretty well known internationally as a “futurist,” someone who speaks on future trends in business and economics.  But somewhat as a side-line occupation Graeme (a seminary graduate), though raised in a conservative Baptist background (he introduced me to his mother at the debate—and informed me she is firmly on my side of the issue), has become a leading voice in South Africa for “gay Christianity,” though he himself is not a homosexual.  He blogs at futurechurchnow,com, where you can find his current lengthy series of articles promoting what I (and others) rightly identify as a revisionist view of Christianity and sexual ethics.

I don’t have time to do a full review of the debate now, but I was very pleased with how it went.  There was a very good turn out (somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 people), and I am told the live streaming was excellent as well.  The topic was actually covered pretty fully, though surely not as in-depth as one could desire.  Graeme did not engage in cheap debating tricks, did not change the subject, and as a result, the encounter will be very helpful to many once we videos are posted.  In fact, I had university students tell me afterward (that evening and the next day) that they were greatly encouraged and emboldened to speak to the issue now in their own lives.

From JoBurg Rudolph and I flew to Durban and joined Adrian Pillay there.  We had three debates over the three nights we were there.  We had thought the first two nights would be at the Juma Masjid on Grey Street, as last year.  Sadly, that did not work out, and we did not know it until Sunday.  This was very disappointing, as we knew it would change the dynamic of the debate, and, as it turned out, the attendance as well.  We were given three or four different explanations as to why the mosque did not work out, which indicated to us that the real complex of reasons was not being explained to us (if you think there are politics amongst Christians in apologetics—we have nothing compared to the Muslims!).

I am contemplating reviewing portions of the two debates with attorney Yusuf Ismail there in Durban on the Dividing Line.  I am uncertain of the educational value, however, of an in-depth inquiry.  The second debate was special, not for the debate (which was terribly disappointing) but because it marks, as far as my best tally is concerned, my 150th moderated, public debate.  That’s a milestone indeed, and my dear brothers in Durban all donned bow ties (I lent out a few, and helped with the tying myself!) to celebrate.  But both debates (more so the second) illustrated the reality that no matter how much one side may wish to advance the discussion past the “gotcha” stage of debates, you simply can’t do it alone.  It takes the cooperation of the other side.  And that I did not have.

The two topics were peace, war and violence in the Bible and the Qur’an (first night) and the Synoptic Gospels and Parallel Accounts in the Qur’an for the second night.  I had never addressed the war/violence/jihad style topic before—and as such chose to do so differently, of course.  I wanted to lay out the fact that fairness demands that we recognize that both sides have texts of violence in their Scriptures.  The question is, is there a flow, a narrative, a context to our texts that allows us to fairly and properly affirm the need for peace (both between men and, more importantly, between men and their Creator) while properly handling these texts?  I think it is an important topic, and I wanted to focus upon the spiritual aspect in particular.  Mr. Ismail decided to stay in the “attack mode” of discussion rather than joining me in a meaningful exchange, even going so far toward the end of the debate of making the argument that someone (Jay Smith?  He sure quoted him a lot) had said that Western nations had been influenced by Christian values, so…why not throw pictures of deformed babies wounded or killed by American “depleted uranium” bombs on the screen as a relevant argument that the Bible does not teach peace?  And why not, without having even listened to my approach to the subject, have pre-made slides ready to go accusing me of inconsistency?  Sure, why not?  Early in the debate I happened to glance up just quickly enough to see the phrase “That’s B*****t” on the screen, though it was only left there briefly.  I was, of course, disappointed.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: he spent about five minutes saying I have no grounds for criticizing the Qur’an on the issue of violence because of…ready for it?

Sitting down?

SERVETUS.  Oh yeah, there we go.

The discussion portion was actually valuable, and on the whole I think it will be a useful discussion to have available.

Now I should note that the acoustics of the venue were terrible.  As you can see from pictures, it was not our normal set-up at all—two couches, no tables—we were constantly dodging each other, trying to write notes on our laps—just not well organized at all.

But the second night was most disappointing.  The topic, I knew, would require restraint, focus, and scholarship.  I fully expected Mr. Ismail’s opening discussion of the Synoptic Gospels to be the normal litany of alleged, surface-level “contradictions” and the like.  I did not expect him to go beyond that, and he surely didn’t.  He did repeat, yet again, the same error Shabir Ally made in 2006 in trying to promote the “clear evidence of an evolutionary growth regarding the person of Christ” meme, though he briefly flashed Shabir’s utterly unconvincing excuse for the error on the screen briefly (Mr. Ismail’s presentations are often very hard to follow, for he talks way too fast, flips back and forth between poorly made slides, sometimes leaving them up only momentarily).  But I was really hoping to get some serious, in-depth Islamic reasoning on a topic that has yet to be the subject of a debate, at least to my knowledge: the differences in the parallel accounts found in various surahs of the Qur’an.  So, I went first, put a number of charts up, showing how the Qur’an will even report the very words of Allah in different forms, and pointed out that we need to use the same standards in evaluating these as we did the Synoptic gospels.  And since Mr. Ismail had shown no willingness to give the Synoptic gospels any room for contextualization, demanding they be word-for-word reproductions of each other or else be guilty of contradiction, this would be a great opportunity to demonstrate the double standard.  But I also wanted to know whether Mr. Ismail actually believes the Qur’an was written in Arabic on a heavenly tablet, and though it took some work, we eventually got the answer to that: no, he doesn’t.

When Mr. Ismail got up to give his second 25-minute presentation on the Qur’an, it took less than sixty seconds for me to realize this was going to be a disaster.  Rather than admitting the glaring double standard that was inherent in his position, he dismissed my presentation as “irrelevant” saying that all the texts “basically say the same thing.”  While the NT texts were not allowed the slightest variation, the Qur’an was allowed wide variation.  But he rushed past this because he had something far more important to do in the final presentation of the second debate—and that was to throw as many fuel-oil bombs as possible while attempting to inflame the emotions of the Muslims in the audience.  At one point he said, “Why not be open about your rejection of the Qur’an?”  Someone was confused on the point?  Seriously?  He was waving around a copy of my book on the topic, and yet I am to be faulted for not being “open” about my rejection of the Qur’an as inspired Scripture?  It was beneath the level of absurdity.

Next came a harangue against missionaries and a demand that I answer the question, “Was Muhammad mad, possessed, or lying?”  Yes, well, that kind of demand sure helps foster a deep discussion of the differing views between our communities on the matter of Scripture and its inspiration!  Then he actually uttered the words, “Stop engaging in duplicitous double standards!”  Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle is on line 2!  He even faulted me for not addressing the use of other documentary sources in the Qur’an (a vital topic—but not one raised in the thesis of the debate).  He almost seemed upset that he had so many slides ready and I hadn’t violated the rules of the debate by changing the topic!  It was plain Mr. Ismail does not believe I am honest in actually hoping to foster serious exchange on deep and important issues.  That has become painfully obvious over the past few debates.  He even went on to accuse me of seeking “to deceive uninformed Muslims,”  which made me wonder if he was intending to put it that way in front of a Muslim audience (were those in attendance uninformed?).

This reprehensible implosion was then capped off to my utter amazement with yet another repetition of the absurdity of the “Qur’an Codes” absurdities.  The first time I heard Shabir Ally presenting this kind of material, I just chuckled and chocked it up to novelty.  I assumed his finishing his Ph.D. work in Qur’anic studies would disabuse him of this silliness.  I have been in error.  He has, twice in the past year or so, made the numerology argument in his public debates (once with Jay Smith, once with David Wood).  I struggle, mightily, to find it in my heart to have the slightest respect for an argument that I honestly find to be infantile and childish.  I happened just now to google one of the arguments he presented, and it was the first thing that popped up.  Here it is:

“Human being” is used 65 times: the sum of the number of references to the stages of man’s creation is the same: i.e.

Human being 65

Soil (turab) 17

Drop of Sperm (nutfah) 12

Embryo (‘alaq) 6

A half formed lump of flesh (mudghah) 3

Bone (‘idham) 15

Flesh (lahm) 12

TOTAL 65

Who takes this kind of stuff seriously?  Well, I guess the same folks who respond to Nigerian millionaire emails!  It is is transparently absurd!  Who gets to make up this list of the “stages” of man’s creation?  Where is this list of stages taught by God?  Why can’t we add, or subtract, stages?  Where is, well, uh, BIRTH in there?  Why is “soil” but not “dirt” there?  I don’t have time to do all the counting right now (I will be doing it when I get home), but I’ve already found sources on line pointing out that the means of “counting” these terms is highly subjective as well, counting some forms and not other forms.  And, of course, all of this assumes the July 10, 1924 printing of the Qur’an—ignoring the reality of textual variation in the earliest manuscripts.  In other words, it is apologetics done on the level of used car sales—and I was just as harsh, by the way, in denouncing the absurdity of the Bible Code foolishness back when it became the craze a few decades ago.

To make a long story short, a few good things did come out during the interaction period, though Mr. Ismail attempted to filibuster then as well.  But what did come out is that Mr. Ismail does not believe “God spoke Arabic” when speaking to Muhammad; that there are “metaphorical” passages in the Qur’an (though it is hard to understand which parts are which with any certainty).  He really struggled in coming close to teaching a “concept” style of revelation to Muhammad while, at the same time, bold-facedly claiming the Qur’an numbers argument!  How can you not have the specific Arabic words being part of the revelation (and hence bringing us back to the question of why accounts differ on the level of the wording) while claiming the specific numbers of Arabic words are a miraculous indication of divine inspiration?  It was a glaring contradiction that Mr. Ismail simply could not explain.  But he could bluster.  And bluster he did.

That debate, my 150th, convinced me that attempting to advance the conversation with Mr. Ismail has proven a failed attempt.  He is a very nice fellow in personal conversation and interaction.  But there is a vast, and disturbing, difference between the man to whom you speak face to face and the man who stands before the audience.  Mr. Ismail knows I am the same person in both places.  Only he can answer why he is so different.  But I see no reason to attempt further conversations with him, for his pre-meditated, planned behavior (seen in the slides in his second, and last, presentation) makes it clear that there is no reason to invest the effort to “go more in depth” with him.  He will not allow that to happen.

I am running out of time, so I will be brief to simply say that the last debate in Durban, with Ayoob Karim, was well organized, well attended, and exactly as I had expected it to be.  Mr. Karim is indeed the very disciple of Ahmed Deedat, and he argued just as Deedat did.  This also meant that I had to, repeatedly, explain basic Christian beliefs, the Trinity, etc., but this is what you always have to do in dealing with Muslims around the world, for the author of the Qur’an itself did not understand these very things.  It was a great evening, and I look forward to posting the videos of that debate as well.

I will make some more comments on the DL next week, but once again, thanks to all those who helped make this trip possible.  I truly am looking forward to next year!

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