RZIM's Abdu Murray on Cancel Culture, Seeing Jesus from the East, and Remembering Ravi Zacharias

By Christopher Reese

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries’ Senior Vice President Abdu Murray.  We discussed his relationship with Ravi Zacharias, America’s current “cancel culture,” Jesus’ cultural context, and sharing the gospel with Muslims.

Abdu is the author of four books, including his latest book with Ravi Zacharias, Seeing Jesus From the East – A Fresh Look at History's Most Influential Figure.  He also hosts the podcast The Defense Rests.  Learn more at abdumurray.com.

Worldview Bulletin: Abdu, thanks very much for taking time to talk with us.  The apologetics community is still mourning the loss of Ravi Zacharias to cancer.  How did Ravi impact you personally as a believer and an apologist? 

Abdu Murray: Ravi had an enormous impact on my faith and on my work as an apologist. Years ago, before I became a Christian, I was driving through a rural area and listening to the radio. This was before even iPods, which meant that once my cassette tapes ran out, I was beholden to whatever was on the radio. And given that it was a Sunday morning in a rural area, all that was available was either country music or Christian music. As a Muslim, I had no interest in either.  So I hit the scan button hoping to find something else. That's when I came across an Indian-accented voice talking about Jesus. It surprised me, because the Indians I knew were either Hindus or Muslims. It also surprised because at that point, I thought Christianity was a right-hearted but wrong-headed religion. But there was Ravi on my radio, explaining the gospel in a coherent and intellectually compelling way. More than that, he was using poetry in the middle of a philosophical argument. That’s when I realized that he could speak to my people, Middle Easterners, who love the use of poetry and story when expressing propositional truths.

Years later I saw Ravi Zacharias at an open forum at the University of Michigan, my alma mater. I was in line to ask him a question that still remained burning in my mind even though I had given my life to Christ a few years earlier. Unfortunately, the evening was over before I had a chance to ask my question. But Ravi happened to linger by the dais afterward, allowing me to take the opportunity to ask him my question. It was a theological and philosophical question, but he answered me in a way that was thoroughly Middle Eastern. He asked where I was from, given my name. He then couched his answer not only in theological and philosophical terms, but also in terms that spoke to me as a Lebanese former Muslim. After that, going to a coffee shop with my wife and a good friend, as we recounted the night, I commented that if I ever got the chance to answer people’s faith questions, I would want to answer them the way Ravi answered mine: by addressing the heart and the mind, by answering a questioner. You can imagine my delight when, 14 years later, I found myself sharing a stage at the University of Michigan with Ravi Zacharias, answering questions posed to us by the audience. That is the work of God, who Ravi affectionately referred to as the Grand Weaver. Ravi emulated what the Apostle Paul describes in Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” What I’ve learned from Ravi is that questions do not need answers. People need answers, but they use their questions to get them.

WB: Are any significant changes planned for RZIM in light of Ravi’s passing?

Murray: In terms of the ministry’s mission and vision, the answer is simply no. RZIM will always be about helping thinkers to believe and believers think. In fact, it is no accident that our tagline is put in that order. We want thinkers to believe, which is a mission centered on evangelism. but we also want to help believers to think in ways that can influence non-Christian thinkers, and that part is training and discipleship. Ravi had the pre-vision to build a team around him, knowing that this ministry would never be about one man, even though his voice is undoubtedly the most prominent. He wanted his ministry to outlive him. To that end, months before he even knew he was ill, Ravi commissioned his daughter, Sarah Davis, to be our new CEO, and Michael Ramsden to serve as our president. Michael and Sarah, together with senior leadership, are committed to propelling Ravi's vision into the future. With an even younger generation of apologists rising through the ranks, we’re looking to the future as well as focusing on the present.  The only changes would be that we want to do it not only with live events but with as much of a digital outreach as possible. Ravi would often say that the Internet is today's Romans Road. We need to walk on that road to point people to Christ, and our vision and mission, though unchanging, will be propelled through digital means.

WB: Both you and Ravi have an Eastern cultural heritage—he was born in India and your family has roots in Lebanon—and you discuss Eastern culture in your recent book Seeing Jesus from the East.  How does your background influence the way you present and defend the Christian worldview?

Murray: In apologetics, the temptation is to rely only on solid syllogisms and well-established facts to prove your case. Of course, that is legitimate. However, providing arguments in such a straightforward, possibly even dry way, loses its personal touch. In the East, argumentation supported by solid facts is just as common as it is in the West. What’s different is that in the East and Middle East, argumentation is frequently accompanied by a parable or some colorful illustration. Now, parables are sometimes seen in the West as mere window dressing—a way to camouflage a bad argument with emotionally compelling illustrations. But a well-thought-out parable doesn't camouflage a bad argument; it highlights the strength of a good argument. In other words, a parable puts the listener inside the argument. We identify with the figures in that story. And so, while an argument backed up by facts can tell you what a propositional truth actually is, an artfully given parable can tell you what your relationship to the truth is.  

Another way that our Eastern backgrounds have influenced how we present and defend the gospel is by understanding the role of honor and shame in a person’s life. The East is predominantly what’s called an honor-shame culture. This means that morality is enforced by the collective as opposed to the individualized morality in the West. In the East, people seek to do, say, and believe that which brings honor to the family and to the community. Likewise, they seek to avoid saying, doing, and believing things that shame the family and the community. This means that changing one's worldview, say from an Eastern religion like Hinduism or Buddhism or even Islam to Christianity, is seen as an immoral act because it is interpreted as a rejection of family and community. We can see the implications, can't we? In an honor-shame culture, someone might reject a claim because believing it, even if it is true, can bring shame to that person and to their family. If we don't address this in Middle Eastern and Eastern contexts, our clever sounding arguments will never really penetrate the heart because we haven't really addressed the true barriers to belief.

Interestingly, this is important for those of us living in the West to understand as well. I've often found it to be the case that no matter what one’s belief system is, we hold emotional attachment to our convictions. What that means then is that unless we understand how a person might be unwilling to pay the emotional cost of changing their worldview, clever sounding arguments will never get them to the point of going beyond mere intellectual assent resulting in spiritual embrace of the truth.

WB: I read a recent article you wrote in which you describe our current “cancel culture.”  Can you explain what that means, and how it relates to the “honor-shame” mindset in the East?

Murray: The cancel culture is one in which the collective, whoever happens to control it at the moment, decides whether or not a particular individual has said or done something that runs afoul of the culturally accepted morality. For example, if someone were to say something deemed homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise, there will be those with loud voices and large platforms who will choose to silence that person. In other words, it used to be the case that people with differing opinions we're entitled to hold those opinions and would be given the opportunity to defend those opinions with facts and argument. The cancel culture takes that away. So instead of allowing someone to defend their views, the cancel culture engages in a social campaign to get others to stop listening to the offender, boycotting their books and the like. Canceling calls for someone to lose their job, be denied acceptance at certain schools, and so on. J. K. Rowling, the author of the immensely popular Harry Potter series, made comments about sex being biologically real and not socially constructed. The response was not to engage in reasoned debate with her but rather to deluge her with harsh, demeaning, and dismissive social media posts and calling for people to stop buying her books or burn the books that they did buy. That is the essence of canceling.

One can easily see how this relates to the honor-shame mindset of the East and the culture in which Jesus ministered 2000 years ago. In an honor-shame paradigm, the collective enforces morality by either shaming someone out of their beliefs or honoring them because they've said something acceptable. Ostracization is a common tactic in an honor-shame culture. Today’s Western cancel culture employs a similar tactic to discourage unacceptable thinking. I find it fascinating that our contemporary culture often claims that the Bible is outdated and irrelevant to today’s culture. Yet, the fact that Jesus did his ministry within an honor and shame culture, where people were cancelled for believing the wrong thing, proves him to be our “eternal contemporary,” to borrow from Lesslie Newbigin.

WB: Racial minorities in our country often experience discrimination.  On the other hand, there are those who embrace critical theory who see all of reality through the lens of those who oppress, and those who are oppressed.  How do you think we should think about these issues Christianly (which I know is a big question)? 

Murray: The importance and depth of your question requires far more space then I can give here in an answer.  Nevertheless, it's important to at least set some kind of a groundwork for understanding these things Christianly. First, the Bible repeatedly recognizes that there can be a dichotomy in society between the oppressed and the oppressor. The Bible is almost obsessed with the idea of liberating people from oppression. One only needs to think of the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, the commands from God for the Israelites to treat strangers and sojourners with equality, Jesus’ efforts to elevate women to their rightful status as equals to men, and even Paul's letter to Philemon urging him to free the slave Onesimus. Indeed, the message of the cross is one of liberation, where Jesus comes to gives his life as a ransom for many. Thus, if confronting oppression is important to God, it must be important to Christians.

The Bible goes further than critical theory, however, in acknowledging that spiritual paradigms are at play. Christianity sees the phenomenon of oppression as based in the human condition of sin. In other words, it doesn't just look at structures as the sources for oppression, it looks to the human heart as the seat of oppression. It points out that every human being, regardless of their class, wealth, race, or status is oppressed by their own sinful condition. Outward oppression—from person to person or group to group—flows from there.  Jesus tells us that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”  It’s equally true that out of the abundance of the heart, a person acts.  Now, we mustn't succumb to the temptation to espouse the “miracle motif.” This is the idea that full and proper belief in the gospel message that all humans are equally made in God's image naturally leads to one ceasing to racially discriminate.  History has shown us otherwise. No, from the Christian perspective, belief that human value is rooted in God is a necessary but insufficient condition for change. It's necessary, because without it, change is not possible. What's also necessary along with proper belief is proper discipleship that leads to action. That action leads to cultural improvement. For the Christian who believes that people are made in God's image so much that it impels him or her to act in a way that changes culture and policy, we have the coalescing of two necessary conditions for real change in the world.

As I've been thinking about the racial tensions, I find my mind dwelling on Micah 6:8. There, we’re told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That phrase is packed with so much meaning. The scripture calls us to actively seek justice, not just post well-meaning sentiments about it. But we are also called to love mercy. All one needs to do is look at those using social media posts to vilify, and even cancel, those with whom they don't agree to realize that the love of mercy is atrophying in our day. Any mistake, as well meaning as the person might be in making that mistake, will go unforgiven. But the gospel is all about the reconciliation of justice and mercy. Justice was done at the cross because Jesus paid the debt of sin. Mercy was loved at the cross because we did not pay for that sin ourselves, but God in his mercy offered his Son as the one who pays that debt for us. Of all people, Christians ought to seek justice in a way that also loves mercy because we are brought into the Kingdom of God by one who simultaneously sought justice and loved mercy.  The final part of that passage commands us to walk humbly with our God.  When we look at social media engagement on matters of social concern, the posts are rife with judgment and condemnation.  I fear that whether we are on the left or on the right politically, what we say on social media is often anything but humble. It perpetually criticizes the other, never affording the benefit of the doubt, and almost never looks inward to consider the injustice and darkness that stalks our own hearts. The Christian message is unique in that it offers a realistic diagnosis of the problem and hope that healing is possible.

WB: What are some insights into Jesus’ life and ministry that we can miss if we don’t recognize his Eastern cultural setting?

Murray: I really like the way you put this question because it suggests that the Eastern way of looking at the Bible, using that setting, doesn't create a new truth that we have hitherto been ignorant of and mistaken about through Western eyes.  Rather, it shows that looking through the Eastern cultural lens reveals added facets of truth in Jesus’ life and teaching. Let me give an example. When I look at the parable of the generous employer found in Matthew 20, I see two facets of truth being woven together. We might miss one of them if we don't look at it through an Eastern lens of honor-shame. As the proxy for God in the parable, Jesus depicts an owner of a vineyard who hires day laborers to work in his vineyard.  Day laborers usually only get hired in the morning. Those who do not get hired that morning go home dejected in the shame that they did not have the opportunity to earn an honest day's wage for their efforts. Yet, in the parable there are laborers who wait around for work all day. The vineyard owner comes back a second, third, fourth, and even a fifth time, each time hiring those hoping for work. Logically speaking, they shouldn't have been there, yet there they were. Why? Well, I remember reading this parable as a non-Christian through my Middle Eastern lens and seeing something going on that others may have missed. The men were waiting for work because they were holding out hope that someone would give them the honor of a day's wage so that they would not have to go home to their families in utter shame of failure. The vineyard owner gives everyone the same wage no matter how long they worked. Why? One can speculate, but looking through my Middle Eastern lens, it occurred to me that the owner credits those who waited in faith that someone would honor them as if that faith were work itself. That's why he paid everyone the same wage, whether they worked all day or had faith all day. One immediately thinks of Abraham, whose faith was credited to him as righteousness. This parable is obviously about God's grace and his sovereignty.  But it’s also about honor and shame. Jesus communicated to his audience—steeped in honor and shame—that they no longer needed to be worried about cultural shame because God, in his sovereignty, will bestow upon human beings a heavenly honor that cannot be taken by people. If we look at this through Western eyes only, we might miss this facet of the message.

WB: You were a committed Muslim into your twenties, and often had debates with Christians about the truth of Christianity.  What advice do you have for believers who want to share the gospel with their Muslim friend, coworker, or family member?

Murray: My advice is this: speak to the person first, then the worldview. I have discovered that just because someone bears a label, like “Muslim,” doesn't necessarily mean that they are committed to the tenets of Islam or to the worldview that the religion requires. I’ve had more than one occasion to speak to someone who proudly wears the label of Muslim while really being more of an agnostic.  I would say, however, that depending on a particular Muslim’s cultural background, it’s important to keep in mind that while truth remains a concern in their spiritual journey, the drive to avoid shame and the quest to find honor are always present. So much so, in fact, that the Muslim may turn away from the gospel message even if they intellectually assent to its core.  Showing how Jesus bestows honor when the culture heaps shame upon us will go a long way.  Apologetically speaking, there are common theological platforms from which the Christian and the Muslim may meet to have meaningful dialogue.  Muslims believe that there is only one God, that God is relational, and that he is the greatest possible being. Christians agree with every bit of that. With those commonalities in mind, the Christian and the Muslim can now discuss which worldview justifies the view that God is truly the greatest possible being.  The message of the cross, in which God expressed the greatest possible ethic (love) in the greatest possible way (self-sacrifice), justifies our worship of Yahweh as the greatest possible being.              


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Book Highlights

There are very few histories of apologetics. Besides this volume, there is only one other major work on this topic, published 15 years ago. Thus The History of Apologetics is a very welcome volume and one that apologists will greatly benefit from. The book surveys 44 apologists beginning with Justin Martyr and ending with Timothy Keller. Each chapter covers a figure’s historical background (especially their biographical details), their theological context, their apologetics work and methodology, and contribution to the field. The book reminds us that we are part of a great cloud of witnesses who have been teaching and defending the faith for millennia.

“This volume employs competent scholars to write about noteworthy apologists throughout the history of the church's intellectual engagement with the unbelieving world. Apologists shouldn't defend the faith in a historical vacuum since we ought to stand on the shoulders of giants. This is the most thorough history of its kind that I know of and will repay careful study for the defense of the faith given once and for all to the saints.”

DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS, professor of philosophy, Denver Seminary

“This book contains richly developed surveys of the apologetic arguments and approaches of a wide array of the Christian faith's greatest and most influential advocates over the centuries. Though the book is easily readable, it is extraordinarily informative—like the best apologetic works themselves! I learned so much from reading this book, even with regard to authors whose writings I know. Highly recommended to every Christian and especially to clergy and scholars, for whom the task of Christian apologetics is an urgent call.”

MATTHEW LEVERING, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary

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