BY REV. DR. VARTKES M. KASSOUNI
In his capacity as the General Secretary of the Bible Society in the Gulf for almost 30 years, Dr. Hrayr Jebejian has done fascinating and pace-setting research about a part of the world which we’ve know very little, and assumed not worthy of our concentrated attention, because it is almost entirely dominated by Arab or Muslim governments. In his newly published book, “Bible Engagement: The Discovery of Faith, Hope and Self,” he presents his research to the world.
I find the first three chapters of “Bible Engagement” as helpful and necessary in further understanding this project. It provides a historic perspective and context for Christianity in this region. I find it fascinating that the Nestorian Church has had a significant presence there since the 4th century A.D. Muslim conquerors did not threaten them in the early years, but their threat came mostly from within Christendom, after Nestorius was branded a heretic by the Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431 A.D) and banished.
“Heresies” do not vanish when banished, but relocate and flourish somewhere else. For example, it was so with the first “heretic” Arius who went north into the Balkans after the Council of Nicea (325 A.D) and brought Christianity there. The decline of Christianity in the Gulf is traced to the 9th century, mostly due to the dominance of Byzantian theology/dogma (Trinitarian) in the West, and unwillingness or inability to understand and accept it in the East by both Muslims and Eastern Christians living there.
With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1506, Western European Christianity was introduced in the Gulf region, followed by missionaries. However, violence and indiscriminate killings accompanied their arrival, leaving an indelible mark on the memories of the people, thus changing the image of Christianity from a pacific to a hostile one. However, this negative image was somewhat mitigated by the positive medical and educational work done by British and American missions.
Today, there are hundreds of Christian churches in the area. However, they are composed almost totally of migrant Asian workers – a majority being from India. Millions of them have constituted the work force necessary to build the modern cities there. Dr. Jebejian was largely influential in bringing the Bible Society in the Gulf to the United Arab Emirates, and it has played a crucial role in bringing the Gospel to immigrants there, as well as in bringing the churches of all denominations together in the common task of bringing to them spiritual enlightenment and support. It is in this regard that he embarked on the project which forms the basis for this book.
Chapters three and four deal with the essential core of this book. It is centered in the phrase “Bible Engagement,” and describes the process of affecting Christian change. This is done with the objective of “making the Bible discoverable, accessible, and relevant,” with the ultimate goal being that of helping these people regain their identity and personhood in community, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I had not encountered this term before, having always used the phrase “Bible study.” I prefer the term Bible Engagement, because it takes one far beyond just study of the Book to the experience of acting out and living out the truths found therein.
In this regard, the research brought Dr.Jebejian face to face with hundreds of people using a three-pronged approach: The Printed Word; Audiovisual Tools; Storytelling Tools. Limiting his research to those speaking Telegu (South India), he developed a project using three sets of questions in an interview process, including church leaders as one target group, and individual migrants as a second group. Using relevant scripture texts and verses, he asked the migrants a series of questions, first, relative to the meaning, of the scriptures; second, on how they engaged the scriptures in applying them to their own needs and struggles; and third, how they were nurtured by the scriptures. He then interviewed church leaders relative to their experiences with their people, requesting them to share their stories, and seeking from them ways in which the Bible Society could be of help to them in designing programs, especially for migrants.
The final three chapters are fascinating in that they share the stories and experiences of the interviewees: stories of struggles, faith journeys, and testimonies of lives changed under the impact of the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. They are moving and a powerful witness to the effective work the Bible Society has been carrying on in the region over these man years.
In his concluding remarks, Dr. Jebejian seeks to summarize his findings and pass on their implications for future use by the Bible Society and related parties. “No matter how differently the interviewees understood and made meaning of the same text,” he says, “we can see that their lives have been transformed…and the message of hope has made an enormous impact on their lives.” Addressing the Bible Society, he says, “The vast amount of data this research collected urges the BSG to consider some new directions for the BSG to improve, update, and modify its programs.” Right on!
Through this book, Dr. Jebejian has opened for us windows and doors to look and see, with new eyes and hearts, what God is doing in the Gulf, and, with that new awareness, to participate in Christ’s grand mission, beyond our immediate selves.
Rev. Dr. Vartkes M. Kassouni is a retired pastor affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. He has served Armenian Evangelical churches in New York, Fresno, and Los Angeles. In his capacity as Associate Executive Presbyter of Los Ranchos Presbytery, he was their new church developer in Southern California. He has also served several churches there as interim pastor. He is the author of two books: “Points of Life”, and “Pointed Reflections.” His theological degrees are from New York Theological Seminary, and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He and his wife Samira reside in Orange, CA.