Without even realizing it, many Westerners fail to understand the Bible, and the larger Christian story, from an Eastern perspective. Yet doing so unlocks the Scripture in a fresh and insightful way. In this episode, Sean and Scott interview Abdu Murray about his recent book, which he wrote with Ravi Zacharias. This interview will help you look at the stories and teachings of Jesus with fresh eyes.
If you want to see an additional interview, which goes into even more depth, check out this YouTube discussion between Sean and Abdu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMD82DiHUcY
More About Our Guest
Abdu Murray is senior vice president with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He's an attorney, international speaker, the host of the popular podcast The Defense Rests, and the author of multiple books including See Jesus from the East.
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: I'm your cohost Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we're here with a dear friend of Biola, a dear friend of ours, personally, who you all recognize, Abdu Murray. He is a Senior Vice President with Ravi Zacharias International Ministry, an attorney, author, international speaker, and he's recently written a book with Ravi Zacharias, entitled Seeing Jesus from the East. And it's a wonderful, wonderful book that I'm thrilled to unpack. But Abdu, thanks for coming on the show. Let me start by asking you this question. You dedicated this book to Nabeel Qureshi. Now, I know a lot of the audience will recognize his name, but tell us a little bit of who he is, and why you and Ravi chose to dedicate it to him?
Abdu Murray: Well, Scott and Sean, thanks so much for having me, and what a pleasure it is to talk about not only this book, but Ravi and Nabeel. So, Nabeel was a very close friend of both mine and Ravi's. Nabeel came like I did, from a Muslim background. After a lot of years of railing against the Christian faith, we found ourselves submitting ourselves to Christ and kneeling at the cross that we once denied. And Nabeel had a heart to reach out to Eastern people and really get them to see the authenticity and the beauty of the cross, especially Muslims, but all Easterners, really.
And so, he approached Ravi a couple of years ago, I should say, and asked... Well, more than a couple, because Nabeel passed away, unfortunately two and a half years ago from stomach cancer. But before that, he approached Ravi and really wanted to have a perspective of Jesus from the East, from a former Muslim perspective, which was Nabeel's, and the [inaudible 00:01:58] Indian's perspective, which was Ravi's. And Ravi agreed to do the book, but then before Nabeel could put any pen to paper, Nabeel passed away.
Ravi calls me and asks me, he says, "Would you like to take up the mantle here? I can think of no one else I'd rather do this book with." And I was honored to do so. And then I did a very Eastern thing, and I called up Michelle Qureshi, though I didn't need any permission legally or otherwise from Michelle, I thought it would be right to ask her if she would be okay with me taking the byline instead of Nabeel. We would dedicate the book to Nabeel. A lot of the content would be based on the things that Nabeel wanted us to talk about. I of course added some things of my own, in terms of chapters, but all the content is mine, but Nabeel's heart, and his mind, and his soul is woven throughout the pages, both in my chapters and in Ravi's chapters.
So, we took the task on, really enjoyed it, spending time, thinking through ideas with Ravi, having phone calls with him, exchanging the documents, my chapters, his chapters, making sure we didn't overlap too much, but making sure everything meshed together. We didn't want it to be an anthology of chapters, like there's so obviously Ravi on this one, and so obviously me on others, we wanted it to flow together and really work together. Hopefully, that's what happened.
But Ravi and I were working on the dedication, and the words are essentially that it was dedicated to our dear friend, Nabeel, who so much wanted to write this book with us, who is now seeing Jesus in a way far better than any book could ever express. He must be smiling at how little we know. And now I think, and as I say it, a lump rises in my throat. Because I think about how much Ravi is seeing far better than the book he himself wrote with me, the glory and majesty of the savior that he loved and served for so long. I wonder if he's smiling at how little I know as I talk about this book, and he can't wait to introduce us and show us around when we get to the reception area up there in heaven.
Sean McDowell: As we're doing this interview, we just really recently got word that Ravi had passed away. And the outpouring of love to him is just remarkable of a life well lived faithful to the gospel all the way to the end. And what an honor it is to be able to write, really his final book together with him. And we mourn his passing, but I saw this and I'm like, "Thank the Lord We were able to get his thoughts down on such an important topic in a timely fashion." So what was it like to write this with him, and tell us the big goal that you're really trying to accomplish in the book?
Abdu Murray: So much goes through my mind to think about what it was like to write this book with him from my own personal background about why I wanted to write it, and seeing his heart in it. So, before he passed, he had a project going with Vince Vitale, who I know you guys know as well. Ravi wasn't able to complete that in its entirety, it will be published eventually. But this was the last full book project Ravi worked on, he and I.
It was so personal to him, because of the goal of the book. The goal of the book is to refresh in Western people's minds, the Eastern authenticity of Jesus. Every page of the New Testament, every page of the Bible drips with the olive oil of the area. And as I think about the conversations that Jesus and the prophets before him had, and the battles and the confrontations, and then the triumphs, honestly, I can't help but think of the conversations I've heard Middle Eastern people I'm related to, friends and all that, how they spoke the same way.
So what we wanted to do for Westerners, was to capture that authenticity of Jesus, because Westerners, I think, dismiss Jesus and they dismiss Christianity as simply a tool of white imperialism used to impose itself and Western values on Eastern people or people of color. And Easterners often think that Christianity is simply the hijacking of the authentic Jesus, if there ever was such a thing, and whitewashing him, so to speak, and he loses his authenticity.
What we wanted to show was that Jesus is authentically Eastern, but he's also authentically transcultural. He breaches all of the nationalistic and ethnic borders that we have in place for him, and he belongs to no one, but he belongs to everyone, and he speaks everyone's language. And so that was our goal, was to revive a fresh look at who is in arguably, he is arguably history's most influential figure. No one can really argue that point. And if he's the most influential figure of all time, then it's important for everyone, Western, Eastern, Southern, and Northern to understand the context he worked in to see the richness of his ministry and the impact on history. So we wanted to recapture that so that everyone can see just who this person really was.
Scott Rae: Abdu, you and Ravi both grew up in what we refer to as the East. But you grew up in different parts of the East. Ravi is from India, you grew up in Lebanon. The Middle East and the part of the East that India is in, those are two different components of the East. So, what do you and Ravi have in common from your backgrounds that relate to Seeing Jesus from the East?
Abdu Murray: Well, so I actually grew up in the States, but I grew up in an area of the United States in the Detroit Michigan area that is extremely intense with Arabic culture and Arab culture. In fact, one of the cities is called, Dearborn, Michigan is sometimes called the Arab Republic of Dearborn, because so much of it is immersed in Arab culture. And you'll get some of the finest cuisines from the Middle East, outside of the Middle East, in the city of Dearborn. Everyone should bless themselves with visiting that city.
But the cultures are largely the same. There's a couple of subtle differences though. The similarities really that are there, are the honor and shame context in which both Easterners and Middle Easterners live. And what I mean by that is morality is enforced in a different way than it is in the West. Morality is just as strong, just as important, but it's enforced in a different way, the community and the effect you have on the community. So what you say, do, and even believe, matters to the community above and beyond all else. So the individual is important, but is subordinated to the welfare of the community and of the family. So individualism isn't as emphasized. That's both true in the Middle East and in the East, where Ravi is from.
What's also a common thread between the two of us is the importance of story, the importance of the way parable and story, and idioms, catchy phrases, and all these things convey truth and convey important parts of life. Where they differ is Arabs tend to be a little more on the bold side when they speak, and when looking you in the eye, as it were, is a little bit different. I know in the East, and in the far East, sometimes looking someone in the eye can be considered a challenge to who they are. In the Middle East, there's not so much that.
So, there are some pretty important differences, language, obviously, the dominance of different religions in the East, especially in India, Hindu, the religion is the dominant religion. And while Christianity and Islam exist there, they often exist in the shadow of population-wise of Hinduism, but in the Middle East, Hinduism barely even exists at all, whereas Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the dominant religions. So Middle Easterners wrestle with different monotheisms, Easterners wrestle between pantheism and monotheism, and even skepticism or non-theism as well.
So those are some of the differences, but largely the similarities are so amazing. Ravi talks about the way in which invitations go to weddings. He talks about it in the book, and so do I, and we were rubbing this thing over a conversation. I said, "Ravi, I saw in your chapter that when an Indian gets an invitation to a wedding, it is to Ravi Zacharias and his family." I said, "That's exactly how we get invitations. There is no seating chart, there is no RSVP, you just show up. And everyone tries to get the seat closest to the buffet." That's exactly how Indian weddings are, and they last for days. And that's exactly how Arab weddings are too.
Sean McDowell: That's awesome. I love that. Hey, one of the things that was so helpful to me in your book was that you and Ravi talk about how, in the West and the East, we tend to proclaim the gospel differently. Could you explain what you mean by that?
Abdu Murray: It goes back to the paradigm of what the gospel actually is. And so, I was explaining how in the East, we have an honor and shame culture. And in the West, we have more of what's called the innocence and guilt culture. Now, the reason why those differences exist is because in the West, we tend to be more individualistic, which has its wonderful virtues, but also has some shadow sides. So, in the West, how we've come to view morality is that if I do something wrong, I can make up for it. Because as an individual person, I'm the master of my own ship, I'm the captain of my own destiny as it were. And so, if I do something wrong, there's an inner sense of a conscience that requires me, that impels me from within to confess that sin or to make up for it.
So if I do something wrong, I can do something to make up for it. Because we have an innocence and guilt culture, I'm innocent, and then I become guilty, but then I can assuage that guilt by doing something. It's very forensic, it's very judicial. In the East, it's just as moral, but the control for morality is from the collective. So, if the collective culture has a certain moral code, if I violate that code, I'll have an internal sense that I violated, but I won't do anything about it until someone else knows about it. Because now what it means is, and not because I'm a sneak, or not because I'm trying to hide it, it's because that sense of shame now comes upon me, that I have done something that brings shame to myself, or brings shame to my family, or brings shame to the entire community. And so I feel the need to make up for it because of that.
So here's the paradigmatic difference. In the West, it's very judicial. So once you pay your debt to society, you have paid it and it's over. In the East, it's different. You see, as Juliet November says, in the West, if you do something wrong, you can make up for it by doing something good. In the East, if you do something wrong, you have become someone bad, which means you need a new identity.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Abdu Murray: And so, the gospel has proclaimed oftentimes, in the West, accurately so, that Jesus pays the penalty, he pays the judicial penalty for us. In that penal substitution, he takes on our guilt, he takes on our sin, and imputes to us, his righteousness so we are deemed righteous judicially, and he is deemed judicially to be a center and punished in our place. And so, we have that freedom from sin based on that.
In the East, what happens is our shame is imputed to Jesus. And he takes on the consequences of our shame, and the wrath of God is poured upon him as it were as if he were shamed filled and deserving of that, and we are deemed honorable. And so, if we present the gospel in an honor shame framework to an Easterner, they'll see exactly the power that is involved there because their whole life they've been trying to uphold honor and avoid shame, and they recognize their shame. And the gospel says that Jesus takes your shame from you. He despised the shame because of the glory that was set before him, the joy set before him. So I think if we presented an honor shame context to the Easterner, they begin to see the depth and beauty of the gospel.
Scott Rae: That would also make a lot of sense out of the idea of say, for example, Paul's teaching in second Corinthians about, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, they have a new identity.
Abdu Murray: Indeed.
Scott Rae: And then, I think it even makes maybe a little deeper, the concept of someone being born again. Would that resonate more deeply with someone from an Eastern background than it typically does in the West?
Abdu Murray: I think it really, really does. And I'm so glad you brought that up, because people forget Paul was a thorough goingly Middle Eastern Jew. Yes, he was from a Greek city and of Roman citizenship, but he understood the Middle East and the Eastern mindset very well. And so, you're absolutely right. I think that these messages about new creation, new identity, and all of this are so important to Paul because of that background, understanding of honor and shame culture. So, I think it resonates with an Easterner.
And it is this important. We point this out because Easterners often think, and Muslims specifically think that Paul is one of the greatest criminals in history, because they believe that Paul hijacked Christianity and turned it into the thing that became the church of Rome. But they forget that Paul was Middle Eastern, and he understands honor and shame contexts, and the verses you just quoted are so important for us to point this out, is that Paul gets you, he understands you. He understands you because he's one of you. And it's very important to point that out.
Scott Rae: Let me take that a little bit further. Tell me how this looks through Eastern lenses. That in an honor shame culture, the concept of grace would be something that would be really revolutionary. How do people from the East tend to understand the message of grace amidst an honor shame setting?
Abdu Murray: This goes right to the heart of when Paul was talking about foolishness to the Greeks and the stumbling block to the Jews. Because the whole idea of law and the whole idea of doing that, which seems honorable in the eyes of the community is so important. And so, you have to earn that and you have to maintain that honor. It's very, works-based in that sense. So the idea of grace becomes revolutionary. It almost becomes appalling in some senses, because it's like, my goodness, how can it be that God just simply offers you this freely and his free gift. So it really does come off as scandalous, because it's so law-based.
When you look at the old Testament with the old covenant where you have the law, and then you have Islam, which is basically a return back to old Testament, thinking in terms of the law, it's a regression, not a progression of theology. It's the gospel really that is the progress of what the law is all about. It becomes scandalous in the mind of the Easterner. Because again, it's that whole idea of, "I bring honor by doing wonderful things. And if God just grants me that honor, then how does that work? Do I earn it?" This doesn't seem to make any sense.
But there are ways in which we can actually show, through the parables of Jesus, some amazing ways to show just how grace works and how grace can be translated into an honor and shame culture. In fact, I wouldn't even say, the grace originally starts in an honor and shame culture. I think Easterners have lost that perspective. And so there are wonderful examples of parables of Jesus, where you can see just how honor, and shame, and grace go hand in hand.
Scott Rae: I take it, this also resonates with what Paul said in Romans eight, where there's therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ. That'd be very radical concept for people who come from an Eastern honor shame background.
Abdu Murray: Well, the reason, Scott, is because you say that as for so many reasons. One of the things about honor and shame cultures, and this goes right to the heart of it, doesn't it? Is that in an honor and shame culture, getting your honor back is extremely hard. And this goes back to what Juliet November says, is that in the West, if you do something wrong, you have done something bad. In the East, if you do something wrong, you have become someone bad. How much more difficult is it to go from, I did a wrong to, I am wrong? It's very hard to fix the, I am wrong part. So the condemnation you just pointed out is so readily given, and so easily dispensed, and so hard to get out of in an Eastern culture.
So when Paul says, when the gospel says there is now no longer any condemnation, "What? Are you telling me no longer any condemnation? That's all I'm getting from society." And you see this in the gospel, you see stories like this in the gospel, in John chapter nine, when the man who was born blind confesses that Christ is the one who brought his sight back. The religious leaders cast him out of the synagogue. It's the worst kind of condemnation possible. And Jesus basically tells him, "That cultural condemnation that you're constantly suffering and worrying about, that is temporal, and I'm giving you, I'm replacing the temporal honor bestowed by your compatriots in culture with the heavenly honor, that can only be bestowed by the son of God." And he says, "The synagogue you've been removed from, there's a heavenly kingdom you're now entering into." There is no longer any condemnation that is so radical, but it is something honestly, Easteners are desperately clamoring for.
Sean McDowell: Abdu, a couple of weeks ago, you were to come on my YouTube channel and we discussed this stuff. And on the moment it was done, I went to my wife and I said, "I can't believe this one parable that you shared. I had never thought about it the way you explain it before from an Eastern perspective." And it's the parable of the land owner and the different workers who come in different periods of the day. Will you unpack how seeing that from the East really helps us understand what Jesus was getting at in that parable?
Abdu Murray: Absolutely. I'd love to. It's one of my favorite parables, partly because I have a history with it in terms of my coming to faith. So, the parable found in Matthew chapter 20 is The Parable of the Vineyard Owner, who goes, and he hires day laborers in the beginning of the day. And then he hires them throughout the day. Now, the context behind why this is special to me is because when I wasn't a Christian, I was trying to read the Bible to find out all the flaws and the holes in it. I didn't understand the whole idea of grace. I thought it was just this unfair thing or this overly generous thing that didn't incentivize good behavior.
So a friend said, "Well, go read this parable." And the first time I read it, I thought to myself, my first impression was, "This Christian clearly doesn't know what this parable says, because it's so unfair." The landowner pays the guys he hires in the beginning of the day, the same way he pays the guys at the end of the day. And that seems unfair. But then my Easternness saw something, and this is what I want to describe.
So the parable goes like this, the master of the vineyard comes and he hires day laborers. And we have this today. Of course, you go outside in front of the home depot or somewhere else where there's these new rough carpenters, there's plumbers, there's these people who work for the day. And typically what happens is in the morning, the person comes and hires who he needs, and then that's it. The first round of hires happens, everyone else goes home dejected because they weren't able to earn a living for their family that day. What's happened in Jesus's day, which is why he tells the parable.
So, the master of the vineyard, who is the proxy for God in this parable, goes and he hires people to work in his vineyard. And he hires those folks, and then he engages in negotiation with them, which is also very Eastern. And the workers agree to work in the vineyard for a denarius, for that's the wage that they a very fair wage for them to have that day. So they agree to work for that day. The master of the vineyard comes back a second time, a third time, a fourth time, and even a fifth time until there's only one hour left of work for the day. And each time, he sees... The Bible goes out of its way to say that he sees the workers there and he hires them.
Now, the parable goes, of course, at the end of the day, he pays the guys who only worked for one hour, he pays them first, so that the first guys who were hired, see it. And he pays them a denarius. He pays them the same wage for the one hour work that he pays the guys who got there first. And the guys who were hired first say, "Wait a minute, this is unfair. You owe us more money." Notice that they didn't say, "You owe them less money," He said, "You owe us more money." And the master of the vineyard says, "Friend, didn't you agree for this denarius? And can't I be generous with who I want to be generous to?"
Now, what's going on here, and it's suddenly struck my Eastern mind. I wasn't even a Christian yet. And I saw this from my Middle Eastern mind of seeing the honor and shame framework. Why was it that the master of the vineyard paid the men at the end of the day, the same amount he paid the guys at the beginning of the day? It's because of this, those guys who waited around all day, they should have left. They should have left after the first round of hiring because no one hires a second, third, fourth, and fifth round, it's this not done. And yet they waited. They did not want to go home in the shame of telling their wives and their children, "I was not able to provide for you today."
And so, they held out hope that someone would honor them with an honest day's labor at an honest wage. And so, the master of the vineyard credits to them, their faith that someone would come along and honor them as if it was work. Now, what's interesting is the master of the vineyard doesn't give them charity. He doesn't say, "Here, take some money back to your family and buy something for them today." No, he dignifies them with a day's work so they can go back and they can say, "I have fulfilled my obligation and my duty to you." And it wasn't something that they could go back and even shame with. He honored them, even though they were in the midst of shame, and they must have felt that shame all day long. And then someone comes and honors them. He speaks the Eastern language of honor and shame, and he tells everyone within the sound of his voice, "God gives you honor, it's not people who give you honor." God can give you honor, even in the midst of the seemingly impossible odds that you will experience shame, God honors you.
But what I love about this parable is that it also speaks to the Western mindset about the philosophical conundrums we raise in theology all the time. We raised this issue, "How can God be sovereign?" Man have free will. If God is in control of all things, then men have control over nothing, and therefore the decisions mean nothing. Well, this happens in the parable too. When the guys, in the beginning of the day, go to the master of the vineyard then they say, "Wait a minute, you owe us more money," The master of the vineyard said, "Friend, didn't you agree," In other words, "Didn't you exercise your free will for the denarius of wage? And can't I be generous, my sovereignty, with what I have and gift to whom I please?" Human free will, God's sovereignty happening in the same story. I love this story because it speaks to the Eastern mindset that what the Mid Eastern mindset of honor and shame, and it also speaks to us as we think of the philosophical conundrums of sovereignty and free will. Only the Lord of glory, only God, the word made flesh could use words so amazingly.
Scott Rae: Abdu, I suspect that many of our listeners are concluding what I'm concluding right now, is that that parable finally makes sense to me. Such richness to what Jesus was teaching. And one other aspect of the gospel accounts. The gospel accounts are pretty honest about the flaws and foibles, as is most of scripture about its heroes, but the gospel stories in particular are pretty honest about the flaws of the disciples. Peter betrays Jesus, and even Jesus being crucified, it's a hard one for a lot of people to choke down. But to an Eastern mind, how do these, "Embarrassing" Or "Brutally honest" Elements of the gospel stories, how are they seen? And what's the value of those in terms of apologetics?
Abdu Murray: Well, these are so important, because in an honor and shame culture, you always want to honor your heroes by creating an aura of infallibility, whether it's moral infallibility, or intellectual infallibility, or whatever it might be. And so, legend creeps up. I can say this because I'm Middle Eastern. We are the consummate exaggerators, this is a thing with us. You want to learn how to exaggerate, just talk to a Lebanese person and you'll figure that out. And that's no exaggeration.
But what's interesting is that even when I was a Muslim, I thought this way about the Bible, and many Muslims do this as well, is that they'll say, "How can I trust the Bible, because all the messengers in the Bible from Adam to David, to Noah, to Abraham, to the disciples of Jesus, they all have these incredibly terrible moral flaws?" Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife, Noah had committed these terrible things even after the world was saved, and all these things, and the disciples seem dim at times and also morally questionable. How could God entrust his word to such dishonorable people? Is the objection.
What I found though is I began to study the veracity of the scriptures. And even from my legal training, is that the most unbelievable witnesses on a stand to a jury are those who are impeccable in terms of their lives. And I don't mean people who have a good moral standing. I don't mean that. What I mean is that everyone knows that the world is messy, everyone knows that people are messy. And so, often times, it's the witnesses that come up to the stand and will candidly admit their shortcomings, whether their own personal shortcomings, or that the facts in the case don't support them 100%, but 90% of the time they do. It's those who have the most credibility.
In fact, in history, we have this idea of the principle of embarrassment, that you don't tend to include embarrassing facts in the narrative, unless that's the way it actually happened. Because the tendency for human beings, whether we're writing the King Arthur legend, or Robin hood, or whatever it is, is to embellish and make legend out of someone or something that happens. We don't include embarrassing facts that hurt our case, because, well, they hurt our case. But it's those very embarrassing facts that lend authenticity and reliability to them.
So, I remember a Muslim Imam was trying to talk me out of Christianity, and he pointed this out. He says, "My goodness, why would you believe the Bible with all these stories of these people who are morally checkered?" And I said, "The more I read these things, the more I believed these things, because they wouldn't have put these things into their record." I mean, the claim is by Muslims, that the Bible has been changed and corrupted. If it was changed and corrupted, they wouldn't make it so that the characters and the historical figures are less morally savory, they would have made them more morally savory. So it shows to me the authenticity of the scripture, that God uses flawed human beings, he honors those who don't deserve it. And so, that is wonderful news. Not only does it give it the authenticity that this is real and true, but it also says to us that we can have hope, that in our dishonored state, that in our shameful state, God can even use us.
Sean McDowell: It really is pretty amazing in both the West and the East that these impair scene details speak to its truth. And that's just one of the insights that really comes out of this book. There's nine chapters. Ravi wrote five, you wrote four. And I think as I'm looking at it, we've discussed really two, almost three of them. And I'm saying that to our listeners, because the new book that Abdu Murray has written with the late Ravi Zacharias, Seeing Jesus From The East is just a wonderful, wonderful book.
And I know, Abdu, that Ravi is proud of you, and he would feel so honored by the way you've written this and the way you're talking about it. So thank you for coming on the show, thanks for writing this. And I hope all our listeners will go get a copy, share it with a friend, and really just digest it, because it changed for me, and I am a professor in this. It changed for me a lot of the ways I look at scripture. So thanks for coming on, and thanks for just writing a good book, Abdu.
Abdu Murray: Well, my pleasure guys, it was an honor to do so. And thank you for honoring Ravi as well. You guys mean a lot to me and this honored him.
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 please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about it.