Samir Selmanovic is conducting a workshop at the upcoming ‘Re-Emergence: Christianity and the Event of God’ conference, set for March 16-18, 2010 in Belfast. If his recent book, It’s Really all about God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian (Jossey Bass, 2009) is anything to go by, Selmanovic will be looking to push the boundaries of conversation into what, in Northern Ireland, is the usually uncharted territory of ‘non-Christian’ perspectives.
The Re-Emergence Conference gets underway on Tuesday March 16. Although the conference is fully booked, all are welcome to the opening event of the ‘Insurrection Tour’ at McHugh’s Bar in Belfast on Tuesday March 16, from 20:00 – 22:30.
Selmanovic, raised in a culturally Muslim family in Croatia, is now the director of a Christian community in New York City called Citylights, as well as a co-leader of the inter-religious Faith House Manhattan. It’s Really all about God is part autobiography, part meditation, part exhortation to expand the dimensions of our conversations about God and – crucially – to learn to ‘love well.’
The subtitle of Selmanovic’s book obviously resonates with Brian McLaren’s influential A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN (Zondervan, 2004). It comes as no surprise, then, that the dedication of Selmanovic’s book is to: ‘four gospels: Roy Naden, Rafael Candelaria, Rod Colburn and Brian McLaren. You have been saving my life.’
Indeed, the content and style of Selmanovic’s writing is located firmly within the swirling currents of contemporary Christian thought that Phyllis Tickle has identified as the ‘Great Emergence.’ According to Tickle, this a crucial moment of development in which the old answers to questions about Christianity become unravelled. New thinkers are surfacing to provide alternative explanations to help people make sense of their changing and uncertain worlds. Like McLaren and other writers in the movement, Selmanovic does theology by story, illustrating his points by supplying snippets and vignettes of the mundane and the mysterious.
Selmanovic stands apart from the usual North American suspects in this enterprise. This is due in no small part to his more diverse ethnic, cultural and religious experiences, starting with his family in Croatia and including his stint in the then-Yugoslavian Army. The pages of It’s Really all about God contain moving stories about the pain experienced by Selmanovic and his family when he converted to Christianity. He was expelled from his family home for two years. When he later got married, he had two weddings, one for his atheist and culturally Muslim family and friends, and another for his and his wife’s Christian family and friends. Selmanovic writes of this (p. 173-174),
The two parallel weddings held a set of assumptions about each other that were as strong as they were unexamined. Both assumed that atheists and believers must be enemies. It was obvious to both sides that one of them must be terribly wrong. The events surrounding our two weddings was a public enactment of the prejudices lurking in everyone’s hearts. But nobody was embarrassed about the sheer silliness of having two segregated weddings. Somehow, the separation of human life into two camps made sense to people.
Throughout the book, Selmanovic laments that the mutual hostility displayed by adherents to the monotheistic religions has degraded our perceptions of God, and made some people of faith amongst the least attractive and most self-serving on earth. Selmanovic calls these tarnished religions ‘God Management Systems’ because they seek to corral and control God, and to set boundaries against ‘enemies.’ He summarises this by saying (p. 74),
Most arguments of religious people boil down to a conclusion that the other is the real problem in the world, people who just don’t get it.
The book is also haunted by the spectre of September 11th. While it contains some stories of hope, it also explores how this event has solidified boundaries between Christians and Muslims and created new enemies – reinforcing each religion’s ‘superiority complex.’ Selmanovic illustrates this with his account of an interview on a Christian radio station after the attacks, in which the hosts asked him (p. 160): ‘Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take the city for Jesus?’ Nervously, Selmanovic responded,
No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward, morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.
The radio hosts ignored this comment and cut off the interview.
Selmanovic has a lot more to say about creating space for people of all religions and atheists to interact respectfully with each other, without trying to convert each other to our particular God Management System. He says we need to learn how – with humility – to receive gifts from each other. He exhorts us that we are ‘better together.’ This, he says, is what Jesus was ‘selling’: the ability to reach out to the enemy and to love them well.