Review: Dialogue of the Heart
Father Martin McGee's Christian-Muslim Stories of Encounter calls for an approach based on love, not fear
Dialogue of the Heart
Christian-Muslim Stories of Encounter
By Fr Martin McGee OSB
Dublin: Veritas, 2015
ISBN 978 1 87430 599 2
Reviewed by Shaun Lambert
I met Father Martin McGee at Worth Abbey recently, a Benedictine monk and a chaplain in Worth Abbey School, Sussex, with an interest in inter-faith dialogue. His first book Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People (Paulist Press, 2008) tells the poignant story of the 19 priests and sisters assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria in the mid-1990s.
His latest is the timely Dialogue of the Heart – Christian-Muslim Stories of Encounter, which summons us, compellingly, to base our inter-faith dialogue on love and not fear. The living water of this approach comes from the lives, witness, and martyrdom of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria.
Inter-faith dialogue is an area I am exploring out of everyday necessity, living in Harrow the most religiously and ethnically diverse borough in Western Europe. At least 12 per cent of our neighbours are Muslim, and this is growing rapidly.
At a grassroots level here in Stanmore we have begun engaging in dialogue, and this book is written to encourage that approach. I like to look at a subject from more than one perspective, and this book is an important and refreshing angle on getting to know and love our Muslim neighbours.
The challenge of the story of Father Christian and the other monks who refused to leave their Muslim neighbours in Algeria, when their lives were threatened, is one of ordinary men trying to leave out the fullness of Jesus’ Gospel message to love our neighbour as our own self. I might not agree with all the theology but the spiritual mettle and Christlikeness of these witnesses to Jesus invites us to stop being spectators of dialogue and participate in it.
Father Martin makes a compelling case for the fact that dialogue is not just for specialists, but that through the ‘dialogue of life’ itself, through friendship and hospitality, we lay down the foundation for all other dialogues.
Father Martin, as a French speaker, has visited Algeria and met the two survivors of the Tibhirine massacre, where seven of the nine monks were kidnapped and beheaded by Muslim fundamentalists in 1996. The story can be followed in the award-winning 2010 film Of Gods and Men.
In part one of the book the author looks at the lives of four of the Tibhirine monks, distilling profound wisdom from their stories about how we might relate to our Muslim neighbours. In part two of the book he takes a wider look at how the Catholic Algerian Church relates to its Muslim neighbours. There have been Christian communities in North Africa since the second century, with the most famous Bishop being St Augustine of Hippo (modern-day Annaba in Algeria).
The book would make an excellent resource to use in small groups to help churches explore how their own local community might enter into dialogue. The presence and consecrated stability of the monks and small Catholic church can be contrasted with the more overt approach of Evangelicals in Algeria, and I’m sure lively debated.
The importance of visibly being people of prayer, and people who try to live holy lives is an important witness, for many Muslims ‘Those who pray are much more respected than those who don’t.’ This can be contrasted with approaches that focus on knowledge, arguments, information and apologetics.
The book carries an urgent message, dialogue between Christians and Muslims at all levels is not an optional extra. In the words of Cardinal Duval, Archbishop of Algiers (1954-1988), and this should be the last word and the beginning of our own encounters, ‘There is no dialogue except among equals.’
The Revd Shaun Lambert is minister of Stanmore Baptist Church in Greater London