THE Christians of the Middle East have a rich and varied heritage in theology, liturgy, and poetry, and, whether from the Byzantine or the Syriac tradition, Syrian Christianity has much to teach us. The Anglican priest Nadim Nassar, having grown up in Syria as a Presbyterian and lived in Lebanon for seven years, has lived in Britain for three decades. From London, he runs The Awareness Foundation, which encourages reconciliation in the Middle East and further afield.
This book seeks to delve into the “culture” of the Holy Trinity, and I found it a confusing read. For theologians, an analysis of culture brings Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture to mind, but there is no hint of it in this volume. Nassar offers the reader an outline of the Trinity and the incarnation; he chooses a wide variety of scriptural texts, on which he comments, and which he slides into his idea of “this shows us what the culture of God is.” He means the nature of God-in-Trinity.
Occasionally, he will talk of his experiences in Syria and Civil War Beirut. We get tantalising glimpses of deeply important events in his life, and the development of his generally warm and inclusive theology. I wish that he had spent more time on telling his own story, analysing and unpacking his experiences. Instead, we get a rambling and naïve theology based on a careful selection of proof texts. He indulges in generalisations that do not stand up to scrutiny, and frequently either ignores or reverses the real and obvious meanings of passages from the Gospels.
I was deeply frustrated by this book. Other Middle Eastern scholars (e.g. Kenneth Bailey) offer us quality biblical analysis, using the culture of the Levant for insight; the two branches of Antiochian theology, Byzantine and Syriac, offer us a wealth of theological insight, but this is ignored by Nassar: his Evangelical training seems to have excised his native theology.
We need to hear the stories of Middle Eastern Christians, to bathe in the abundant rivers of their theology, but we cannot do that here.
The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired priest. He specialises in Syria and the Syriac community in Turabdin.
The Culture of God: The Syrian Jesus — reading the divine mind, sailing into the divine heart
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