Muslim Comedian Dean Obeidallah Defines “Good” Christianity

Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim and professional comedian, recently opined for CNN in “Where are the good Christians?” on his longing for a Christianity he would prefer. The title caught my eye, as it suggests not only that there is a clearly defined line between “good” and “bad” Christians but also that this author knows where this line is and feels it’s obvious enough that we all should know it, too (or learn quickly).

He complains in the piece that the Christian faith has been “hijacked” (he conveniently throws in “by the far right”) and that “good” Christians (the far left?) need to take it back. It gets even more interesting when the reader learns that Obeidallah is an American Muslim. The reader may well be baffled that someone who does not believe in a religion should claim to know who the “good” adherents of it are. Despite this lack of qualification, he seems to imply (though not explicitly state) that he knows how to get Christians back on the right path.

In his article he lists examples of recent “anti-gay” hate speech from “Christian leaders” and their followers. While it is true that hate is not becoming of a Christian according to the Gospel, Obeidallah takes this opportunity to list not only the extreme, blatant examples of “hate speech” but also throws in some more debatable “examples” and bundles them all up as one big package of “hate.” In this package he lists the following: Christians attacking Roman Catholicism as “false doctrine,” Christians saying Mormonism is a “false religion” and a “cult,” and Christians showing disrespect towards a statue of Buddha. Surely a “good” Christian would never support such things and should even vehemently speak out loudly against them! His platform for this claim is the Christian Scripture (and common secular admonition) “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, despite being a Muslim (and quoting Christian Scripture), he seems to defer wholly to the secular American view that we should all be “good” (whatever religion we are) via whatever the current societal definition of “good” is.

In keeping with his bundling, he speaks disapprovingly of negative Christian attitudes towards Muslims as if it were a uniquely Christian trait without likewise reflecting on Muslim attitudes towards and even persecution of Christians in much of the rest of the world (and growing in the US), or historical Christian-Muslim relations, not to mention what Islam itself teaches about non-Muslims. He is also appalled at some Christians labeling gay activists as “intolerant, hateful, vile, spiteful” and accusing them of “having an agenda that will destroy our society” but does not mention, let alone express disapproval, gay activists speaking the exact same words about Christians.

He continues by saying that “good” Christians need to start “speaking up.” He doesn’t consider whether society (via the media) really cares about what the “good” Christians have to say. Would the media even bother to give such people any spotlight? “Good” Christians don’t make the news unless they are of the extreme liberal, “anything goes” variety—whom most Christians would not particularly consider “good.” He also seems to assume that whatever engagement Christians have in their local communities isn’t enough, that it all must be nationally-focused or else is worthless. However, his admonition for Christians to “speak up” is essentially a call specific to his pet issues, since whenever other issues such as contraception, abortion, or legalizing same-sex marriage are raised, the preference is for Christians to “shut up.”

He posits a question Christians may ask: “Why should we have to denounce these people who are so radical that we don’t even think of them as sharing our faith?” The reason he gives is that “65% of American college-aged voters view Christianity as ‘anti-gay,’” and we don’t want them to think worse about us. I wonder though, what would these “American college-aged voters” think if they encountered true Christianity in Orthodoxy? Embrace it or deny it as not “good”? Hate speech is one thing, but young people tend to be leaving Western Christianity in droves (and staying away) not because of a few extremists and their views, but because they either weren’t taught or disagree with the fundamentals of Christianity as they perceive them.

Obeidallah continues: “Letting radicals air their views can have a serious effect on how people view you.” In a country where numerous Christian groups have polar opposite beliefs, who gets to defines “radical”? American college-aged voters? It also seems he has shifted from everyone knowing the “good/bad” Christian line to “we better hurry up and establish a line before everyone gets confused.”

He ends with “Isn’t it time to stand up to those who give your religion a bad name?” Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. If we’re honest with ourselves about our own sin, then that includes pretty much every Christian on the planet.

Unsurprisingly, Obediallah doesn’t see that he is simply part of an ongoing effort to tame Christianity by attempting to redefine it according to worldly standards. It’s perhaps most blatant in his case, since he is not a Christian. Many Christians who are paying attention perceive that forces in the world are trying either to eliminate Christianity or to shape it to its own standards. “Good” Christians will be either welcomed into the world’s arms or just left alone, while the “bad” Christians will face persecutions. As such it will become more and more tempting for Christians (and at the same time more difficult) to conform to the world’s standard of “good” and thereby reject what Christ ultimately calls us to be—one with Him in His image.

But we’ve known since the beginning that Church Militant will always be the “bad” Christians: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

Megan Leathers is a researcher at Penn State University where she received a dual degree in Psychology and Crime, Law, and Justice. She and her husband are members of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in State College, PA.

19 comments:

  1. One presumes he has already written, and we just over-looked, the companion piece on “Where are the Good Muslims”?

    I’d rather be viewed as “anti-gay” than as a “terrorist”.

    1. He is doing currently doing a tour/ show titled “The Muslims are Coming” with the intention to “do shows, meet locals, and counter the haters”. It seems that showing Americans “funny” Muslims ranks higher on his list than “good” Muslims.

  2. I ran into this during a public discussion (and at times debate) with a Muslim scholar at a local high school a while back. He aligned Islam with the values of Classical Liberalism by drawing on popular media caricatures of Christians to prove their ostensible intolerance. Frankly, I thought it was a shrewd move. I broke through it by asking: why don’t moderate Muslims condemn suicide bombings?

  3. It is always interesting to see what non-Christians assume a “good” Christian to be. Although perhaps as your article hints, a better way of saying it is that the “good” Christian is the “Christian who is non-threatening to my particular and individualistic set of beliefs.”

    I can’t believe I have an opportunity to quote Paul Tillich here, but he’s highly relevant:

    “If religion simply followed the general trend of public opinion, it would have no word at all worth listening to..”

      1. At times, I’ve actually thought it’s a deliberate effort (not a conspiracy, just an effort) to provide succor to the Ex-Christian Who Woke Up From That Funk of Superstition.

        Or, worse, aimed at people who were invited or felt prompted to visit a church. They wake up on Sunday morning, read a story about how dumb Christians are, and it colors the whole visit.. no matter which church they go to.

  4. After reading this it was pretty clear that this man is pretty much a nominal Muslim. He doesn’t seem to realize that what he attacks western Christianity would also apply to Islam. So it seems more like he’s just pushing secularism not really a “Good Christianity”. He appears to see Christianity as some western philosophy/religion/what fairytale will i use to feel okay about my life. It’s no surprise that he thinks it can be moulded and changed and morphed to fit in better with the dominant social paradigm.

    Though something that does come through in what he says and it’s something that we can’t help but notice is the chaos of modern Evangelicalism. You have thousands of denominations each trying to scream out their message louder than the other one, each with their own emphasis on what they think Christianity was 2000 years ago (Since Protestantism is pretty much an attempt at historical reconstruction), hence you’ll get the “Gawd hates fags” crowd or the Bible thumping hell fire preacher that stick out like sore thumbs and give the confused people with conflicting ideas of what Christianity supposably is. It’s common to find secular society imagining Christianity partly as Roman Catholicism and mixed in with various Protestantisms to form an amalgamation of different things that they pieced together from what they’ve seen on tv.

    Is he alone to think the way he thinks? Not really and he said stuff we already knew and we shouldn’t really put too much weight because he says he’s “Muslim”. His words pretty much prove that he mostly wears it like a gang badge like i used to wear “Christianity” as an identification badge because traditionally, my family was “Christian”. In the West we have grown up to think that Christianity is malleable and that it can be anything we want it to be because of the example set through centuries of Protestant denominations showing how it’s done.

    In the end Dean Obeidallahj just threw his idea for a new Evangelical denomination. I think that makes it the 500 thousandth now. This just reminds me that I have to do my part to better let people know the truth of Orthodoxy.

    Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.

  5. I read the article when it first came out, and I must admit that I do not share your overwhelmingly negative view of it for several reasons. I do fully agree with you that the author is a moderate Muslim who would fit in well with a well-heeled member of mainline Christianity. They could both sit there with a glass of wine nodding wisely to each other.

    However, while busy pointing out how the author is indeed mixing behaviors in his definition of “good” Christianity, you do fully ignore the clear examples he gives of behaviors that are non-Christian and bring shame on Christianity. And, having just re-read the article, those example do take up a large piece of the article, for instance the following proposals are listed and they were made by Christian pastors with rather large followings:

    1. Toward Muslims, xxxxxxx has called for them to be banned from the U.S. military and proposed that they be required to convert to Christianity before they can become U.S. citizens.

    2. xxxxxxx went on to say that Mormons are not entitled to freedom of religion under the First Amendment because that is only for Christians.

    3. xxxxxxx went so far as to claim that Hitler used gay storm troopers because straight solders would never engage in the brutality of the Nazis.

    4. a pastor in Kansas who said a few weeks ago that the U.S. government should put gays to death because “it tends to limit people coming out of the closet.” Shockingly (not), another Christian pastor in North Carolina has voiced the same view.

    5. Christian missionaries — including members of the organization xxxxx xxxxxxxxx — traveled to one of the biggest Arab-American festivals in the country to taunt Muslims. These so-called Christians held up a pig’s head while spewing hateful words about Islam.

    I feel as though you have handled the author’s clear “liberal” mistakes in a way that has allowed you to ignore some of the very real and very anti-Christian examples that the author gives. By labeling the author a mistaken liberal, the areas where he has very accurately described a disturbing trend have been papered over and ignored. By deflecting the attention to the author’s mistakes, the article essentially told us to ignore where he is correct.

    Worse, the cute quote at the end about all of us who live and love the Light being considered “bad” Christians by the world almost seems to acknowledge the original author’s criticism that we are not willing to clearly say that non-Christian behavior is just that, behavior that brings shame on us. In fact, that final quote almost aligns us with those who uttered those non-Christian phrases above. Let me make it clear that I am not that type of “bad” Christian.

    We can do better than that while still pointing out where the author of an article is wrong.

    1. well said Fr. Ernesto. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think we may have over-emphasized the author’s inconsistencies but failed to see where his words were coming from. That they actually reflected a real observation. One thing that we can always count on comedians for is their observations. His conclusions on what his observations meant were clearly wrong but the observations were legitimate anyway.

      We as Orthodox Christians can say that all those examples are not Christian, but we know there’s going to be some Western Protestant denomination that will claim that it is. Heck, with thousands of denominations each yelling out what’s Christian and what isn’t and each contradicting the other, it’s not easy for people to know what’s real anymore.

      This is the fruits of people who “play” Christians with their “gawd hates fags” signs

    2. Fr. Ernesto, thank you for taking the time to read my post and write your thoughts!

      The point of my response wasn’t to ignore, dismiss, or cheer on “haters” but to point out how Obeidellah didn’t just stick to admonishing Christians to oppose blatant hate, but also to accept his definitions of “hate” and “good”. The examples you listed are indeed terrible, but are in no way similar to proclaiming Catholic or Mormon doctrine to be false, so why did he add those examples in? It was an “and” situation. One is a bad Christian if you spew hate speech AND reject others religions.

      Also, as it was pointed out in the above comments from others, he isn’t admonishing Muslims at all. Is suicide bombing/honor killings/blowing up churches (like recently in Kenya – haven’t seen a post from Obeidellah condemning that)/hijacking and crashing planes, the same as hate speech?

      I further suspect that if Christians were indeed to take up the cause of continually, publically opposing those types of “Christians” he mentioned in his article, we’d literally have no time for anything else and, as I pointed out, who would listen? These “hate” articles make front page news and top interviews for a reason. The media doesn’t want to interview Christians to let them talk about a loving God and loving our neighbor. If they do (on rare occasions) it is merely to taunt the speaker with questions like “Didn’t your ‘loving’ God viciously kill half the people in the Old Testament?” “Doesn’t your love-your-neighbor-Christianity say your neighbor will burn in Hell? “How can you claim you aren’t hateful when you say homosexual relations are a sin?” “Why do you put up an arrogant barrier of saying that not only Christianity but your ‘version’ of it is the ONLY correct religion?”

      Based on the tone of Obeidellah’s message, by being an Orthodox Christian one is automatically a “bad” Christian. Why? Because we don’t believe in moral (or Christian) relativism and will not give ground to conform to the secular idea of what “good” is. Though we may not protest with a pig’s head, neither will we do daily prayer in a Mosque, agree that Atheism may be accurate, accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, commune a Catholic, or marry a gay couple. Do you think that secular society will accept all of that and still label us as “good” Christians?

    3. I had flagged this, thinking it might be worth Tweeting or putting on my Facebook wall – probably not blogging. Then I finally read the CNN piece.
      Yes, CNN would love to domesticate and secularize Christianity. Yes, the original column includes dubious examples of pretty tame and solid Christian behavior, eliding it into obnoxious behavior.
      But I thought, overall, that the column was okay, and probably a sly attempt to mock Christians who presume to define Good Islam versus Bad Islam, or True Islam versus False or Nominal Islam, and to deflate the frequent calls for Muslims somehow to suppress their own extremists.
      So I’m basically with Fr. Ernesto.

  6. A very late reply, but Dean Obeidallah’s identification as a “Muslim” is purely a marketing gimmick. The man knows next to nothing about Islam (he even asserted in a piece earlier this year that Muslims worship Jesus – as much a heresy in Islam as the assertion that Muslims worship Muhammad. Muslims do neither, they venerate both Jesus and Muhammad as prophets – but worship only God – aka ‘Allah’ in Arabic, used by Arab Christians and Jews, by the way). It’s likely the man knows more about Christianity, not because of any religious study, but since he was born and raised in the US, a society that celebrates Easter and Christmas. Then again, the man lacks almost all intellectual curiosity, so perhaps he isn’t aware of the significance of either holiday, either. As for his “Muslim” background, Dean only became aware of his “identity” in the past decade, or, perhaps, aware of the utility of his now adopted identity All to say, Dean is to be criticized for his presumptions about Christianity not because he writes from a Muslim perspective, but because he thinks (bad) comedy compensates for ignorance.

    For the record, there are a lot of people out there who say a lot of ignorant things in the name of Christianity, too, even those who claim a theological basis for their statements.

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