Do we really live in a post-truth culture? How do we effectively communicate truth in a world dominated by feelings? Scott and Sean interview speaker and author Abdu Murray (from Ravi Zacharias Ministries) about his new book Saving Truth. Murray offers some cultural insights and practical tips for evangelism and apologetics today.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Professor of Christian Ethics and Dean of the Faculty, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here today with a guest. A friend of mine and a friend of Biola by the name of Abdu Murray. He's a speaker. He's a writer, works with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Has been a lawyer and a former Muslim. The author of a new, excellent book I had a chance to endorse called "Saving Truth."
Abdu, thanks for coming on the show.
Abdu Murray: Guys, it's a pleasure to be on. Thanks for having me.
Sean McDowell: We want to jump into the book, but would you be willing to share your story, as a former Muslim, your conversation story to Christ, with us a little bit?
Abdu Murray: Sure, absolutely. The two main branches of Islam are the Sunnis and the Shiites, and I was raised as Shiite, and I was pretty serious about that. They're largely the same in terms of their belief systems and even their practices, some minor differences and usually it's really political in terms of the differences. I thought Islam was true and I had this crazy belief that people should believe true things and not false things. So, I went and made it my business to talk to people if they were Muslims, about why they were wrong and Islam was right.
The area I grew up in, it's very diverse now, very, very diverse now, but largely then it was sort of homogeneously white, as it were. There was a few dashes of olive oil sprinkled in the sea of rice as it were. But for the most part it was white, which means either Jewish or mostly, actually Christian nominally so.
In the Detroit area, in a suburb of Detroit, I was born in Detroit, actually, had lots of family in the Dearborn area, which is really a large Arab population. But in the suburb I grew up in, at that point, now it's really diverse, but then it was, it's called Troy, Michigan. It was pretty white back then, although I did have some brown friends which was great. For the most part you had people who were nominally Christian. They would say they were Christian, but what that meant to them who knows?
I wanted to find out, because I thought if I could show them that their belief system was wrong, then I could, once the vacuum is created so to speak, I could actually rush in and give them why Islam was true.
I would ask them, "Why are you a Christian?" And they would say, "I don't know. I'm a Presbyterian because I go to the Presbyterian Church on Christmas and Easter, so I'm a Presbyterian." And they would actually sometimes actually answer that way, with that little lilt at the end, so I'm thinking to myself, do you even know? Was that a question or an answer, 'cause I'm not sure you actually know yourself.
So then I would follow up and say, "Are you telling me that you trust your eternal soul to a religion that someone else believes? Have you thought about it at all yourself?" And usually the answer was no. So then I would begin to launch into my attacks saying that the Trinity makes no sense, the Bible's untrustworthy and shouldn't be believed, the cross is the ultimate insult to God, and how could Jesus die on a cross at the hands of the very sinners he created, if in fact he is God?
And I got largely no response back, or very little response, except from a couple people who did know what they were talking about. Interestingly enough, along the journey when some Christians actually responded and gave me some resources to look into, some of the things they handed me were "Evidence that Demands a Verdict."
Sean McDowell: Nice.
Abdu Murray: And "More Than a Carpenter" and I actually heard "More Than a Carpenter" on tape-
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Abdu Murray: Actually, I didn't read it first, I heard it on tape. Tells you how long ago this happened. And then I heard Ravi Zacharias on the radio one time and I heard Greg Koukl on the radio as well. Someone had actually given me a copy of some stuff with these guys on it. I'm like, oh, you mean actually intelligent people actually believe this stuff. So that began the journey.
But the long story short is what I realized was, not only is the Christian faith historically, philosophically verifiable, but it actually satisfied an existential need in me, because for a Muslim, we have this phrase allahu akbar, and this phrase means God is Greater. Now we usually hear it in the context of something bad happening, but for the most part, most Muslims say allahu akbar as a prayer of praise or as a statement of God's help. We want God's help. So if they get good news, God is greater. If they get bad news, God is greater than their circumstances.
So God's greatness is the most important aspect of Islam, and I thought the Trinity, incarnation, and the cross all insulted God's greatness. It was when I began to look into these things, and people showed me some of these resources I had mentioned among others, that I began to see that the very things I thought insulted God's greatness, were the very things that demonstrated His greatness. Culminating in the cross, really. When I saw that if God is the greatest possible being, then He would express the greatest possible ethic, which is love, and He would do so in the greatest possible way, which is self-sacrifice. And you only find that in the historic cross.
So if God exists, if God is truly great, then God must be the God of the Bible. And that's when I gave my life to Him. When all the things that I wanted to be true in Islam were actually true in Christianity.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, how did your family and some of your friends respond?
Abdu Murray: Well, they did not throw a party. I'll tell you that. Without going into too much personal detail, 'cause what's interesting about this question, and it's important because I think people need to understand that when you talk to somebody from a different worldview, you're not just asking them to change their academic opinion about something. You're asking them to change their entire worldview and maybe even their view of themselves. That's why it's important.
But without getting to too much personal detail, because obviously, my story isn't just my story. There are other people involved in that story. People who I love dearly. While it didn't go well, there's been tremendous reconciliation and closeness and strength in our family. And in fact, I was just telling someone recently that you know the strength of a family bond when you can go through pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a family, especially an Arab family where tradition is so important, and still come out as strong and loving each other.
And though things were pretty tough, we have a good relationship now. My kids are close to everyone who's in my family now and all that. But there were changes. There were differences. There were things that are black comfort and there's some tough parts, but I can say not only were they fixed in large respect, but they've been worth it to go through.
Scott Rae: Abdu, tell us a little bit about your specific ministry with Ravi Zacharias.
Abdu Murray: Yeah, as a North American Director, my job administratively leadership-wise is to help set the pace and the ministry goals for the North American Region. And in some sense in South America as well. But I get to see the world and travel all over the place for this job and it's a wonderful thing.
Obviously, I do a lot of talk. A lot of speaking and writing on Islam because of my background, but what I found myself branching out into more is actually questions of culture, philosophical issues, and find myself, my bread and butter, the thing I love to do the most is open forums on secular universities. So I think that my ministry generally tends towards bridging the head and the heart. RZIM's goal is to help the thinker to believe and the believer to think, in that order, so we're largely evangelistic and then we're equipping, but we believe the equipping has to happen because if believers think then thinkers can believe. Because believers can reach the thinkers.
So, if we go into these tough settings like university campuses, do the open forums and take questions from skeptics, but also I do some debates. I like to do a debate here and there. RZIM has blessed me with the ability to be in front of people of varying audiences, whether it's international or it's leaders of countries or Congresspeople, or policy makers and people who shift the thinking of entire nations.
Frankly, it's been awesome in the true sense of the word. I've literally been awed by the places that God has allowed me to go, largely because Ravi's already made these inroads and these doors.
Scott Rae: Yeah, given your background Abdu and the amount of time that you spend in ministry among Muslims, I would expect that you'd have a pretty good sense of the state of Islam today. How would you summarize that?
Abdu Murray: Well I think it's diverse depending on where you're talking about it at. So ironically, what you're seeing, and in fact, I'm actually doing an event soon on the Unbelievable podcast, or the radio show I should say, with a former Muslim who's now an atheist. And we're gonna talk about why she became an atheist and why I became a Christian, and engage in this dialogue.
Atheism is actually becoming a bit of an epidemic in the Middle East, because I think people are seeing ISIS and they're seeing other radical movements within Islam, and they're saying if this is real Islam, I don't want anything to do with it. But they've also never been exposed to credible Christianity. So to them, their options are Islam or nothing, 'cause they never really thought Christianity was a viable option. But you're also seeing tremendous moves, by some of the reports we get from some people we work with in various parts of the world, in Egypt, in Iran, in other parts of the world that are predominantly Muslim, you're seeing huge numbers of people come to faith in Christ. Now they're remaining underground because of governmental pressures, but you're seeing a lot of shift.
I think Islam is in a stage right now. To say it's in crisis is probably too strong of a word, but it's definitely not a comfortable place. You're seeing a lot of shifts where people are either becoming agnostic or secular or atheistic, or you're seeing people come to Christ in large numbers. Islam's undergoing a pretty good shift.
Now if you were to see people here, you might think it's not shifting at all. And part of the reason is because immigrants and first and second generation children of immigrants are taught not to assimilate. Not in terms of constitutionalism or democracy, they mean spiritually. Don't become one of them. You can enjoy the rights and privileges allowed to you by the U.S. Constitution, but don't become one of them. And so they're actually more resistant in some ways than people in the Middle East are, which is strange and ironic, but that's how it is. So there's a lot of shift. There's a lot of reason for thinking that God is moving tremendously.
Scott Rae: Abdu, help our listeners understand a little bit more about Islam today, especially the radical element. We hear there are two different ways of viewing the radical element within Islam. One is that it's an aberration of the genuine item. And the other is to say no, it's intrinsic to Islam just at a higher level of commitment. Which of those, if either, would you say are more accurate, or is it something in between those?
Abdu Murray: You know I would tend to say in one sense, it's something in between. I've been asked this question a lot, is Islam an inherently peaceful religion. It sort of depends on what you mean by religion and what you mean by peaceful. I guess if you were to say if the religion is determined by how the majority of the adherents believe or act, then yeah, it's mostly peaceful, because most Muslims have no intention of hurting another person if for political or even religious reasons.
But if you mean by religion, the foundational statements in the documents or the actions of the Founder, well then you have another issue, because it's a little more problematic then. And why I say problematic instead of dogmatically, it's always bad all the time, is that Islam has within it's pages, whether it's the Quran or the Hadith, you have some statements that are laudable. Some things that I think we can actually agree with. But then you have some statements that you really, really can't. And there's no getting around them, as hard as we might try to.
For example, the Quran itself says that Muslims are to fight unbelievers wherever they find them and let them find in you hardness. And after you strike them above the neck and until they feel themselves subdued and pay the tax and all these things. And then it goes on to say why? It says because they believe these horrible things. In other words, you can act with animosity towards people because of their beliefs, not out of self defense, but because of their beliefs.
I think that's a very serious issue to wrestle with. And what's interesting is that there are Muslims that are recognizing this. When you look at something like the Clarion Project, which is run by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they're beginning to see that there is a problem, and they're willing to address it. So there are more and more voices that are actually pointing out that it's a problem. And there might even be an inherent problem based on the words that are in the sacred texts of Islam.
SO, I would say it's somewhere in between. There are parts of Islam that you can justify peace, but there are parts of Islam that can easily justify violence. Now that's not the same thing as looking at the Old Testament and seeing some of the commands where God had given the Israelites commands to commit acts of violence. Those were episodic and they were context specific. The problem in the Quran is that a lot of these things to deal with that a lot of these things are normative commands that don't know a sort of time boundary.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, let me ask you one more question about Islam and then I want to shift to you book, "Saving Truth." I had a student in my high school class, I was teaching at a private school, Theology/Apologetics worldview. He's a Muslim and he came to Christ, he was afraid to tell his parents and he said three things. He said understanding the love of God in Scripture. He said the love that Christians how they treated him. And then third, it was that there's actually evidence that Christianity's true. Is that indicative of what you hear from many Muslims who come to Christ? Or what are the reasons they often site when they become believers?
Abdu Murray: At least two of those reasons are normative or I wouldn't say normative, they're prevalent. It's the love of Christians, which gets the thinking about what does this Bible actually have to say and I'll tell you the reason why is because Muslims have just as many stereotypes of Christians as Christians have of Muslims, and one of those stereotypes is rampant individualism, non-caring for community, and this sort of me me me kind of a feel. And when they come across Christians who break that mold, it shatters a lot of things and they begin to think maybe this is actually not so crazy after all. Which, of course, Jesus actually said, "You will know them by how they love one another."
You see that and it's sort of worldview shaking almost. So that's an intro. But every Muslim, I would say, also comes to grips with they have to in their mind get that veracity of the Scriptures down, the evidence for the Bible. So the love of the Christian plus the rationale behind the Christian faith and the back-up, those two things I think, I wouldn't go so far as to say they're universally the case, but I think that they're dominant.
Sean McDowell: That's so helpful. You're basically saying love and truth, which is the formula we see in Scripture universally.
Abdu Murray: Indeed.
Sean McDowell: It really its. Hey, let's shift to you new book "Saving Truth," which is so excellent. Tell us two things. Number one, what is the heart of the book about and why did you write it now?
Abdu Murray: Sure, so the heart of the book is about the fact that we live in a post-truth culture that doesn't so much say that everything is relative in terms of truth, that everything's subjective, but actually is saying that there is an objective truth, but my preferences and my feelings matter more. So if the truth lines up with my preferences and feelings, great, but if it happens to contradict my preferences and feelings, I'll either lie about it or I'll ignore it altogether.
I think the reason, the heart of the book is to say how do you actually offer the value of clarity and truth to a culture that values confusion and preferences? How do you actually do that? And I go about some ways of doing that.
And the reason I wanted to write it now, is because in 2016 Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth as it's word of the year. And post-truth is a mindset that elevates preferences and feelings over facts and truth. And I think this is absolutely accurate. When you look at the political realm, when you look at the social realm, when you look at the sexual realm, when you look at personal interaction with people, this is what's happening in our day. And I think this is timely because it's going to come to a head and I think relatively soon where preferences matter more than truth and people's preferences are gonna clash. The arbiter that decides between us will no longer be truth 'cause truth is subordinated. What will decide between us will be power, and that's a dangerous place to go.
Scott Rae: So Abdu, it seems to me that we've been abandoning truth for millennia. Paul predicts that in Romans 1 that people know the truth and suppress it. So what's new about the way people abandon truth today as opposed to the way it's been done in the past?
Abdu Murray: Well I think it's more overt now. In the past I think it was, you needed divine revelation to reveal to us that we're post-truth people. But when you look back at the Garden of Eden, in fact I think Paul is just telling us a statement of human condition. Adam and Even walked and talked with God in the cool of the day, literally the truth incarnate, or the source of all truth and He said, "Don't eat of this one tree because you'll die." And then they basically forsook that, not because the truth mattered, but because the truth didn't matter as much as their preferences. The truth was they were supposed to be with God and their preferences were to be God. So we already see preferences mattered more than truth. And that's just a human condition.
And so the seeds in the Garden have blossomed into the full blown post-truth tree we see today. I think what's different about it now, though, is that it's brazen. We're willing to say things despite the facts to the contrary. When we see facts like people are far more likely to commit suicide after sex reassignment surgery, which suggests to us a couple of things. One of which may be we need to change our way we view people who have sex reassignment surgery, but maybe it's that it doesn't actually help fix the underlying problem. That's ignored. And we're willing to just run rampant right over it and say no, no, no we have to give people full vent to their preferences.
I think that's what's happening and it's actually happening in the halls of learning where clarity used to be a virtue. So I think that's the difference now. It's not that we're doing anything different than we used to, it's just that now we're being brazen about it.
Sean McDowell: In the book, you tie truth to questions like sexuality, gender, and identity. Can you make that connection for us?
Abdu Murray: Sure, absolutely. In John 8 Jesus says that if you know the truth and the truth will set you free. He links truth to freedom. He links those two things together. I think we've gone away from what the truth about sexuality is. What the truth about identity and gender actually is. Because we want freedom and what we have envisioned in our minds is that freedom knows no bounds. That we can do, say, think, act, or even be whatever we want, whenever we want, and in whatever way we want.
Well that's not actually freedom. That's autonomy. And autonomy is, you guys both know, it comes from two Greek roots autos meaning self and nomos meaning law. You are a law unto yourself when you're autonomous. And if you're a law unto yourself, well then you're not accountable to anyone and certainly not to me or anybody else who's preferences you might not like.
Well that knows no boundaries, but truth by definition, has boundaries. It excludes that which is false. That's the first thing. But truth always has boundaries. And so freedom, if truth and freedom are linked, and I think they are, then freedom itself has to have boundaries. And if it has boundaries ... You think about Chesterton once said that you may think you're free to draw a giraffe with a short neck only to find you're not free to draw a giraffe at all. Truth is limited by facts and sexuality therefore has to be examined in the light of facts. And I also think in the light of human experience of what's good about biblical sexuality or gender identity, or even faith and science and these various things. So truth has boundaries. Freedom necessarily has to have boundaries if it's linked to truth, and therefore the things that we want to be free to express has to be bound up in the boundaries of truth itself.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, I've become convinced that the primary question people are asking about Christianity is not is it true, but is it good? Meaning why are Christians such bigots is how people see it. Nobody says they don't want freedom, but based on our worldview, we have a different understanding of what freedom entails. And you're saying freedom is tied to truth. My question is, how do we make that a captivating idea that people understand that they see as good and then ultimately true?
Abdu Murray: Boy, that's a great question and I think there's two ways to do it. There's sort of a via negativa way to look at it where you actually look at it and say, "let's take a look at unbounded freedom where there are no limits. Does that actually work?" And this is an important thing for our culture today, 'cause we're extremely pragmatic. We say if it works for you then you use it kind of a thing. Well, the reality is, is unbounded autonomy just doesn't work. It betrays our sense of reason. It betrays our sense of accountability. And it betrays our sense of human value. There's no way to actually have a sense of human value and I think that's a progression.
So I would say that first we have to show that it doesn't work. You think about the fact that if I were to have a certain preference, let's say it's a sexual preference or let's say it's just a religious preference. I think one way is the only way, and someone else says no, no, no they're all equally valid, well then you automatically exclude me 'cause I think only one way is valid and your attempts to say that all ways are valid excludes my way. So there's no way around this. So it betrays reason.
There's a number of ways in which you can see this. Like I said, if autonomy is true, if that's the way it actually works, that we have the freedom to do whatever we want and preferences matter more than truth, then when my autonomy clashes with somebody else's autonomy, and truth is no longer important, the determiner between us will be power. And that's when we're gonna get despotism and that's when we're gonna get actual enslavement. So I think the first way is to show that autonomy will lead to chaos and it will lead ultimately to enslavement.
But the second thing, I think, is to show that freedom linked to truth actually leads to flourishing, to human flourishing and, I think, the flowering of human dignity. I think of it for example, when it comes to sexuality as an example, we have this autonomy with these little machines that we laughingly call phones to look at anything we want whenever we want. And now we're giving these machines names and we're calling out to them. We've humanized machines so that we can dehumanize people and make them objects of our desire. But everyone's got their autonomy. They can do whatever they want whenever they want. And they're hurting themselves because we think that freedom means to do whatever you want whenever you want.
We've lost that sense of what it means to be human and the inherent dignity that human beings have. And I think that if we would capture that, then we'll see what true freedom actually is. Freedom isn't just the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. I think freedom, biblically speaking, is the ability to do what you want in accordance with what you should, which is the moral objective reality, based on what you are. And I think what we are is creatures made in God's image. Because if we are just can do whatever we want, then we're like amoeba or other multicellular animals as well, but we're just basically animals or complex computer machines. I think that's a problem.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, I'm sitting here saying Amen so many times in my mind, because my Dad just hammered home to me growing up, where he would say, "Son, freedom is not doing what feels good or whatever you want, but living according to God's design. Having the capacity to do what is right." And that's essentially what you're saying. I think that's such a good takeaway.
And let me ask you one last question and then we'll wrap up. Give us one practical takeaway. Something we can just run with to start making a difference in light of how much confusion there is about truth today?
Abdu Murray: I think that Christians need to be people of truth. If I were to say one practical takeaway is don't, and this is gonna sound almost petty when I say this, but it's very important. Don't click share, don't click like on something that just happens to fit your narrative of what you think the facts should be or make the other side look as bad as possible. If we're to confront a post-truth culture, we have to be people of impeccability when it comes to wanting and spreading the truth. And if we are going to get the post-truth speck out of our brother's eye, we need to be careful as Christians to keep the post-truth log out of our own.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, that is not petty at all. I think that's wonderful advice, 'cause there's such a temptation to do the very thing that you're mentioning. I saw a leader this week, someone I really respect whom you would know, he tweeted something out and somebody corrected him, and he retweeted and said, "Hey I was wrong about this. I own it. Thanks for pointing it out." I thought wow, what a small yet powerful way to care about truth. And I think that's essentially what you're saying.
Abdu Murray: Indeed.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, your new book "Saving Truth" is outstanding. I hope our listeners will get it, study it, share it with a friend, blog about it, do a book review for you. It's so timely. Thanks for your courage. Thanks for speaking truth. And we're thrilled about the opportunities that God has given you with Ravi Zacharias Ministries. And just pray that you keep having the courage and boldness and health that God has given you. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Abdu.
Abdu Murray: It was a real pleasure to be with you guys and thanks for all the work that you guys do, as well. Thanks so much.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." To learn more about us and today's guest, Abdu Murray, and to find more episodes go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.