Listening to our colleagues: Muslim, secular, Christian. Interview with David Vishanoff

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ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful, with Oliver Marjot interviewing David Vishanoff. You can read Oliver’s previous post on David’s chapter in Faithful Is Successful here. David Vishanoff is an associate professor in the Religious Studies program at the University of Oklahoma, where he strives to put his theory of sacrificial listening into practice in both teaching and scholarship.His research is principally concerned with how religious people interpret and conceptualize sacred texts—both their own, and those of other religious traditions. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma with his wife, their two teenagers, his parents, and his mother-in-law, in a large home that often welcomes students and friends from church.

1. Oli: What was it that drew you to studying non-Christian religions in the first place?  And why Islam especially?

David: At my Christian college there was no course on world religions. But it seems to me that studying Christianity without studying other religions is not a complete Christian education: a vital part of following Jesus is understanding our neighbours, so that’s what I chose to do. In my experience, the Church is not very good at listening to others – it has enough people to be its mouth, but it needs to grow bigger ears. I wanted to be the Church’s ears.

As far as studying Islam is concerned, it was a somewhat arbitrary choice. I quickly discovered in graduate school that many people were studying Hinduism as a hangover from the 60s. The study of Hinduism wasn’t really about Hindus as people, it was just about these exotic, eastern ideas. I wanted to develop relationships with people. I wanted to study something not because it was cool and exotic, but because it involved real people: I was really committed to the idea of going into this to study people as they are. The tradition of Islamic studies seemed better geared to understanding people. And then I also realized that Islam was not going away: understanding Muslims was going to be increasingly important for the Church and American society.

2. Oli: You speak a bit about how in your experience the Bible challenges us and our motivations in ways that the Qur’an doesn’t: in what other ways have you found the Bible and the Qur’an to be different or similar?

David: To my mind, the Bible, and particularly the Gospels (for example, the Sermon on the Mount) present a worldview that turns the world on its head. It shows us that our drive to independence is misguided, and it calls us to view the world totally differently than the way we are naturally inclined to view it. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is a very right-way up, common-sense book. In a way, the Qur’an is like the Book of Proverbs: it gives good advice; it is very logical, straightforward and reasonable. Remember that in the Qur’an, Jesus is not executed. Why not? Because of this right-way-up way of thinking. The idea that the crux of human history could rest on God’s defeat just never crossed the Prophet Muhammad’s mind. I think that in this sense, Islam is just a very reasonable, good, pious human attempt at religion.

3. Oli: How has working on this essay deepened your own understanding of what it means to be faithful in your vocation as a Christian and a scholar and/or professional?

David: My essay for Faithful is Successful has been in the works ever since I wrote my application for a Harvey Fellowship in the fall of 2000. That was what forced me to put in writing for the first time why I, a Christian, was studying Muslims in the secular academy. The first hard test of that calling was when I very nearly came up empty-handed after two job searches in 2004 and 2006. Thanks in large part to the affirmation and encouragement of that very special Christian community, the Harvey Fellowship, the rejection I experienced ended up galvanizing my commitment to pursue my own Christian vision for Islamic studies, regardless of the professional consequences. Writing my essay for Faithful is Successful helped me to own that story and that commitment publicly.

4. Oli: How do you hope your essay will encourage our readers as they live out their callings to follow Christ in the academy?

David: First, I hope it will encourage others to be imaginative. There is no one formula for making one’s work more Christian; there are thousands of possibilities. Too often we are so immersed in the tacit standards of our own discipline that we don’t stand back and try to reimagine them in radically Christian ways. Not jettison them and start over, but just notice how our standards and expectations embody and reinforce our sinful nature, and imagine how those particular sinful patterns and blind spots might be redeemed, right here in the specific department or conference or library where we find ourselves. It’s exhilarating, really, if we let our imaginations run wild a bit.

And then, of course, one needs both courage and discernment to pursue what we imagine for our fields and for our own careers. For that we must rely on the Holy Spirit and the community of fellow believers. We need each other.

5. Oli: Is there anything else you’d like to say to emerging Christian academics?

David: If I could say one thing, it would be: think very hard about who you are, and about why you’re doing this. Think about how your work advances, or could be advancing, the kingdom of God. Then, when you’ve thought hard about it, do it absolutely recklessly. Be yourself: don’t try to be what the people around you want you to be. You should care about your colleagues, of course, but only because you want to learn from them and serve them, not because you want to please them. Be who you are, transparently and honestly. Not obnoxiously, though. We don’t need to be trumpeting our own ideas so much as looking for how our Christian perspective can help our colleagues with the problems they feel they are facing in their own work.


Image courtesy of wahyucurug at Pixabay.com


Note: An interview part of the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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Oliver Marjot

Oli grew up in England, and spent a year working as a children's intern at St. Aldate's Church, Oxford, after graduating with a BA in Classics and French from Oxford University. He is currently studying for a PhD in Medieval Latin at Harvard, and hoping to focus on inter-faith dialogue and polemic in the Middle Ages, and relationships between the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic worlds more broadly. In his (rare!) spare time, he enjoys eating, reading science fiction, running, and learning languages.

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