The Culture of God: The Syrian Jesus, Reading the Divine Mind, Sailing into the Divine Heart
by Nadim Nassar (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99)
Nadim Nassar is the first Syrian Christian to become a priest in the Church of England. This is his first book and it’s well worth reading.
He says of his life in the Middle East: “In my short life I have lived through four major wars, beginning with the Six Day War in 1967, which opened the floodgates for violence and open warfare between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
“In 1973, the Yom Kippur War was the first to leave a major scar on my soul: my Syrian homeland, Lattakia, was bombed by Israel and, for three days, night turned into day as huge oil tanks burned close to my home. I heard the bombers overhead, and my house was shaken by the explosions that followed. I remember that, every night, I would sit on my mother’s lap for hours, shaking in fear.”
Growing up as a Christian, Nadim always wanted to be a priest. In 1981, aged 17, he travelled to Beirut in Lebanon to study at the only Protestant school of theology in the Levant. The Lebanese civil war was going on at that time. He spent seven years in Beirut living close to death every day.
Of this time he writes: “I am sure many people have very happy memories of their time at school or university, relaxing or studying in the quiet calm of the library. We literally had to crawl into the library to fetch books because snipers were watching every window. Despite our best precautions, no one could truly be safe. Early during my time at the school, one of my fellow students was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the brain.”
Nadim Nassar describes the culture of the Middle East and the temperament and character of the people who live there, the culture and environment in which Jesus grew up and lived.
We lived near the sea, and I cannot remember a single day in the summer when we did not have visitors staying with us”
This atmosphere and character of the people has not changed since Jesus lived there. Hospitality and generosity are essential features of the people of Syria and the Middle East. They greet one another with a blessing.
“The people of the Middle East are so generous” he says. “I grew up as one of six children with a huge extended family. All my life in Syria, I remember very well that our home was open all the time for guests, especially for food.
“We lived near the sea, and I cannot remember a single day in the summer when we did not have visitors staying with us.”
He goes on to tell us that in the community where he grew up, people rarely invited others ‘for dinner’; they simply visited each other without the need for appointments, and food would always be on hand in case of visitors. This was nothing to do with rich or poor, food was always available.
He comments wisely: “Perhaps this is one of the reasons that God chose to manifest himself in the Middle East.”
A very interesting aspect of life in the Middle East that the author describes is the warm, tactile friendship between males there: “We cannot talk about Jesus and his disciples without stopping at the very special relationship that bonded Jesus with John. What kind of relationship did John and Jesus have, and how can we understand it from two perspectives: the culture of their time, and the culture of God? Having lived my childhood and youth in the Levant, and having lived in Europe and the West now for over 25 years, I can see very clearly the difference between the Levant and the West in terms of personal relationships, especially deep friendships between men. In the Levant, a man’s life would not be right if he did not have a special close male friend. Such a friendship is vitally important for any man in that region.
Contrast this with other cultures: “…In the West, the word ‘intimacy’ indicates the absence of barriers but mostly it encompasses sexual relations. In the Levant, intimacy means closeness, total trust, deep sharing and fellowship, and a sense of being soul mates.
We must liberate the culture of God from our limited understanding…to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’”
“All my time in the Levant, I experienced, deeply and beautifully, such intimacy in friendships…Levantine men, from the time of Jesus until today, are not afraid to be physical with each other; I remember I used to go to school with my intimate friend arm in arm every day.
“Even teenagers and adult men would walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm, or with our arms around each other’s shoulders. This type of physical contact had no sexual connotation whatsoever.”
What comes across from this book is Nadim Nassar’s deep spirituality and love of God. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking book.
“The culture of God also guides us in our relationships with other faiths,” he writes. “This culture is not an exclusive club for Christians any more than the Holy Spirit was only reserved for the Jewish community after the Resurrection. As the disciples experienced the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles (the outsiders) we must liberate the culture of God from our limited understanding and the temptation to decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.”
He dedicates his book to his mother with these touching words: “To you, my mother. When my lips touch your cheek, mum, I know I have kissed the garment of God.”