Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and ChristianityWritten by Duane Alexander Miller Reviewed By Matthew Bennett
Religion, theology, doctrine, and ideology do not arise in a vacuum. Rather, each of these elements emerges from a certain way of viewing the world that is both implicit and explicit. One way that values and worldviews are implicitly carried along is by the stories that individual communities tell about the world. According to Duane Miller, comparing such overarching stories—or metanarratives—provides a more fruitful opportunity to see the distinctions between faiths than is achieved when merely comparing doctrines.
In his book, Two Stories of Everything, Miller contends that when comparing Christianity and Islam, the “approach of ‘comparative metanarratives’ is more fruitful than that of ‘comparative religions’” (p. ix). Throughout the book, Miller rehearses the overarching stories told by the two faiths in an effort to demonstrate that, beyond mere doctrinal disagreement, there are worldview-driven causes for why Islam and Christianity differ on Jesus.
Contrary visions of divine nature lie at the heart of the worldview differences that Miller identifies between Christianity and Islam. Not only does Miller recognize the distinction between Islamic monotheism (monadic) and Christian monotheism (Trinitarian), but he rightly identifies the implications for this distinction on each faith’s theological anthropology (p. 65).
For Miller, this works itself out narratively within Islam as follows. If God is a monad, love cannot be an essential part of his nature prior to creation. Thus, the Islamic worldview is not compatible with the biblical teaching that God is love. Since the Islamic God is not love, his creation is an act of power, not an expression of his love or an instantiation of a loving relationship. Therefore, when a Muslim conceives of the ultimate telos of humanity, it is not “to love God and enjoy him forever; in Islam it is to know God’s power and be his vice-regent on earth” (p. 66).
While Islamic theology would perhaps include a more eternal vision of human purpose— such as passing the test of life and being admitted to paradise to enjoy gardens of pleasure—Miller is correct in identifying the locus of divergence in the conception of God and his relationship to his creatures. From these points of divergence, Miller traces the different stories told by Islam and Christianity as it relates to the essential human problem and each faith’s proposed solution.
Miller argues that since the story that Islam tells of the world involves humans created to know God’s power rather than knowing God relationally and dwelling in his presence, there is no sense of conflict between human imperfection and divine judgment. Ultimately, since Muslims do not anticipate God’s loving extension of himself in relationship, their sins can be merely forgiven and overlooked. They need not be removed. Therefore, human failure can be conceived of as a failure to submit one’s will to God and a forgetfulness regarding the instructions of God. The answer to a problem of a wayward will and forgetful mind is clear, objective instruction. Thus, Miller views the Islamic solution to the human problem as the final dispensation of divine instruction given through Muhammad in the Qur’an.
For the Christian, Miller argues, the essential human problem is death (p. 21). Though some might argue that a more accurate description of the fundamental human problem is separation from God, Miller’s point is that human life is characterized by death while God is a God of life. This plays itself out throughout Miller’s retelling of the Christian story as one that anticipates an eschatological condition of living in God’s triune and unmediated presence in the new creation spoken of in Revelation 21. For Christians, then, the human problem is not one that can simply be overlooked, but rather something that needs to be radically transformed.
While valuable for comparing the basic stories told by Islam and Christianity, Miller’s book is not to be mistaken for a precise theological articulation of each faith’s tenets. For example, in discussing Genesis 3:20, Miller states without explanation—and without connection to or contrast with Islamic teaching—that Adam naming Eve is a symptom of their mutual alienation from God instead of a statement of faith that she will be a mother to all the living (p. 3). Another instance of theological imprecision occurs a few pages later when Miller refers to sin as “a symptom of death [that is] not the fundamental problem” (p. 6). To the contrary, according to Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23, death is a symptom of sin.
Despite this occasional lack of theological precision, Miller helpfully demonstrates the value of considering the metanarrative undercurrent that is influential in creating doctrinal divergence between Christianity and Islam. Such an approach is invaluable to Christians who seek to understand why they share some similarity with their Muslim friends and neighbors while also exhibiting radical disagreement over central doctrines.
This book does not offer a deep dive into Islamic or Christian theology, but rather an incisive analysis of the central points at which the biblical metanarrative and the Islamic metanarrative part ways. As points of difference between Christian doctrine and Islamic teaching arise, then, the reader will be ready to explain such differences as features of different stories rather than merely viewing them as competing doctrines. For that, this book is to be commended.
Cedarville, Ohio, USA
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