Freedom of Belief
Middle East
7 min read

Letter from Amman: discovering resilience around the dinner table

Dining in a different culture lets Belle TIndall contemplate struggle and belonging across the heartlands of the Middle East.
a Lebanese meal of many dishes displayed on a table.

Did you know that a traditional Lebanese meal is usually served in four or five courses?  

First comes the vegetarian feast; a smoky eggplant dip, a mountain of pita, grape leaves that are rolled around vegetables, rice and nuts, bowls of pickled turnips and ribboned cucumber.  

Then a hint of meat is introduced; chicken wings and slow-cooked liver, beef meatballs unfused with onion and parsley and smothered in breadcrumbs, all served alongside more dips, more vegetables and more pita.  

The third time the servers come around, you are presented with the climax of the meal - a plate of painstakingly cooked lamb and chicken skewers. Only once that has been enjoyed can you expect desert before a final course of fresh mint tea and little almondy-flavoured treats.  

Each time the servers re-appear, you find yourself convinced that there cannot be enough room on the table to accommodate yet another round of plates. And each time you realise that you were wrong. Lebanese cuisine, similar to many other Middle Eastern cuisines in this respect, is designed to be enjoyed slowly, continually, and communally.  

I did not know this.  

When I found myself at a Lebanese restaurant in their neighbouring country of Jordan (affectionately referred to as ‘the oasis of the Middle East’ throughout the evening), I naturally loaded up my plate on the first round, wondering why everyone around me was being so overly polite with their miniature portions. That was, of course, my mistake. By the third (and arguably best) course, I was defeated. My far savvier dining companions that evening were Christians leaders from across Jordan, the Middle East, and beyond. Among those present were Anglican bishops and archbishops, those whose provinces spanned countries and even continents. Leaders from the Oriental Orthodox family – representing Coptic Orthodox, Syriac, Indian, Greek and Armenian. There were Maronite leaders from Lebanon, Lutheran leaders from Jordan, and Anglican leaders from Israel to name but a few. And then there was me. I am twenty-seven years or so into this Christian life of mine, and as well as being exposed to six or seven different expressions of ‘church’ in my lifetime, I also read a lot. So, I had kidded myself into thinking that I understood the immense diversity encapsulated in the term ‘Christianity’. It turns out that I was wrong, again (are you beginning to sense the theme of my trip?).  

If there is such a thing as sacred geography, I think I may have experienced it that afternoon.  I was able to soak in the past, and it was glorious. Almost as glorious as the glimpse of the present that I was granted that evening. 

Utterly honoured to be at that table in Jordan’s capital city of Amman, I was exposed to more diversity in that one meal than I had experienced in my entire life. I am truly not exaggerating when I say that there wasn’t a single minute spent at that restaurant where I wasn’t soaking up something entirely new; whether that be a story, a statistic, a taste or a custom. There were seemingly endless details to learn about differing expressions of a faith that I knew so well, lived out in contexts that I knew not at all. The whole experience was a sledgehammer to any notions, consciously denied yet subconsciously held, that Christianity had come to set up its largest camp in Europe.  

On the contrary; we are, at present, but a quarter of the story.  

Furthermore, the Middle East, in many respects, is the birthplace of Christianity. These countries are the ‘biblical heartlands’, as Rupert Shortt puts it. The Christian presence there dates back to the lifetime of Jesus Christ himself, who travelled and taught throughout the then Roman-occupied lands. As a Biblical studies scholar, one of my favourite oddities of Christianity is that it is, to a degree, situated. There’s human context involved; tangible, immersible, learnable context. The death and resurrection of the Son of God happened in human history. Of course, Christianity simultaneously bursts the banks of such contexts; in a far truer way it is unplaceable and certainly uncontainable, transcending time, space and matter. It resides beyond all that we can measure. God is, after all, over all things, through all things, and in all things (to borrow a phrase from Paul… who wrote this in a particular letter, to a church rooted in the particular city of Ephesus, during the particular timeframe of 60-62 AD. So you see my point…).  

But still, the context is there: the depth of history, the breadth of legacy. As Augustine once said of the Church: it is on a pilgrimage through time. And I would suggest that nowhere is such a pilgrimage more obvious than the ‘biblical heartlands’ of the Middle East. Indeed, one of the variables that fed into me being embarrassingly eager at the dinner table that evening was the appetite that had been worked up that day. An appetite caused by venturing into the Jordanian wilderness, walking along the Jordan River, journeying up Mt. Nebo, looking out over the landscape that one can find detailed in the pages of the Bible.  

‘Not a bad place to have a cup of tea, aye?’, remarked the Archbishop of Dublin (who knows these regions well), as we sat next in the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery on the top of Mt. Nebo, looking out over the Dead Sea and all that surrounds it.  

If there is such a thing as sacred geography, I think I may have experienced it that afternoon.  I was able to soak in the past, and it was glorious. Almost as glorious as the glimpse of the present that I was granted that evening.  

I began to ponder at length what faith looks like when it is laced with defiance. By the third course I was beginning to appreciate (albeit in an incredibly limited sense) what hope feels like when it must be stubborn to survive. 

Over a long and shared meal, the kind that makes getting to know the stranger opposite you quite inevitable, I was able to hear about what it’s like to be a Christian in the Middle East in the here and now. The hospitality extended to me at the table included me being so generously provided with stories of what it can be like to be a Christian in their contexts.  

Of course, many stories shared throughout my time in Jordan were pertaining to the on-going Israel-Palestine conflict. I was able to speak with a Greek Orthodox Bishop about the Greek Orthodox church, filled to bursting with refugees, which was struck and destroyed in a Gaza City blast. I was able to hear about the Anglican-run Cancer Treatment Centre of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, which was hit and damaged in a similar way.  

I learnt about the Christian communities who are readying themselves to respond to the needs and trauma of those who may, eventually, be able to seek refuge in their countries. I heard compassion flow from people whose eyes hadn’t for one moment turned away from the on-going plight of the Palestinian, nor the Israeli, people.   

I also realised that evening, just how much there is much to be learnt about the faith that one has taken for granted, from those for whom the very same faith is a source of discrimination, even danger. The pressure that 360 million Christians across the world are living under is referred to by Rupert Shortt as ‘christianophobia’ and profoundly coined a ‘360-degree threat’ by Janine Di Giovanni.  

I heard how it feels to receive word that members of your community have been executed for their Christian faith; how such news incites instant fear and unimaginable grief. I spoke to one man who plans to leave the country he’s currently residing in as soon as a certain political leader is no longer present, because according to him, this sympathetic leader’s presence is the only reason his Christian faith has been tolerated thus far.  

And very quickly, I realised that I was no longer learning about these Christian leaders and the communities they represent, I was learning from them. I began to ponder at length what faith looks like when it is laced with defiance. By the third course I was beginning to appreciate (albeit in an incredibly limited sense) what hope feels like when it must be stubborn to survive. I glimpsed first-hand the difference that resilience can make to one’s compassion. Like I say, I was intending to learn about these communities, but I found myself learning from them.  

Sitting at a table in a country that I had never been to before, with a group of people who were all strangers to me before this trip, trying to wrap my head around contexts that I have no experience of, the words of the afore-mentioned Janine Di Giovanni sprang to mind,  

‘It (Christianity) combines ritual, which soothes in anxious times, with a vast sense of belonging to something much larger and greater than yourself.’ 

How, in that situation, where I had utterly misunderstood the meal-time etiquette, could it be that I felt a sense of belonging? On one level, it could very well have an awful lot to do with how naturally hospitality seems to come to people in Jordan, and it appears, the Middle East in general. But, I would suggest that it is something else too; something larger, something greater, something unseen.  

Perhaps Christian community, in accordance with the Son of God upon which it is built, is both completely situated in one’s individual time and place, and simultaneously utterly un-containable.  

1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.