At the student-center coffee shop of Kirkland's Northwest University, David Thompson, a 19-year-old sophomore, took a break from making lattes to talk about a symposium Tuesday on how Christians today should respond to Islam.
"I'm really stoked about it," he said. "I'm excited that in kind of a closed Christian community, they would be open to get a fresh perspective."
At Northwest University, an Assemblies of God college with about 1,200 students, e-mails and posters have announced the symposium, sponsored by the university and the Northwest Ministry Network of the Assemblies of God, which includes more than 340 churches in Washington and northern Idaho.
The symposium is organized by David Oleson, Northwest University professor of intercultural studies, who considers the event a "groundbreaking effort in our religious community."
Though attitudes among evangelical Christians vary, "typically, I feel our churches have a very myopic view of Islam — they look at it as the enemy," he said.
Oleson was astounded not long ago at his students' reaction to a movie he'd sent them to view at a local church, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West."
"They were angry at Islam," he said. "I thought: This is only one side of the view." That shock was the seed that grew into Tuesday's symposium.
Evangelical Christians are typically pro-Israel, Oleson said, stemming from their belief in biblical prophecy that says Jews must be returned to the Holy Land before the Second Coming of Jesus can occur.
"And they see Islam as the enemy of Israel. ... I don't think we look at these issues from an Arab or Muslim point of view."
No Muslim speakers
Tuesday's event will feature no Muslim speakers, though the symposium is titled "Faces of Islam." There will be a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, along with Arab Christians and missionaries and professors who have worked in Muslim countries or who specialize in Islam.
"I'm trying to avoid confrontation at this point," Oleson explained. "It's not really a Christian-Muslim dialogue. I would hope that could be something that follows."
Having no Muslims on the panel is not an issue for Sandra Cosby, 28, a first-year transfer student. She'll be able to listen to the speakers without worrying that they're "trying to influence me to be Muslim," she said.
Cosby, once an intelligence analyst for the Army, said some friends who had never been overseas had thought all Muslims hated Americans. But once those friends had served with the Army in Iraq, they realized, "it's not Muslims in general, it's a small fraction."
At the symposium, she'd like to get a sense of what Muslims think about their portrayal in the news.
For Thompson, the sophomore and part-time barista, not having a Muslim on the panel "is problematic." Still, he'll attend, considering it a rare opportunity to learn more about Islam.
"Especially in the sheltered Christian communities, Muslims are considered scary and the media doesn't do a good job of battling that kind of stereotype," Thompson said.
An "unreached" world
These Northwest University students' views are in line with many other evangelical Christians who don't believe Muslims are the enemy, said James Wellman, a University of Washington assistant professor of comparative religion.
"It's sort of unfortunate when evangelicals get painted with sort of that uniform brush of being haters. Because I don't think that's who they really are," he said.
There's a growing sense among evangelicals that "the Islamic world is a world that is unreached," Wellman said.
Whether one agrees with the goal of evangelizing or not, "there's a real attempt to understand the culture, the religion, the plight of the people in these different cultures," he said.
But Pastor Joseph Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell believes Islam is "violent to its core" and said his church showed "Obsession" because "it's needed to let people know about the nature of Islam."
Though he says the symposium is a good idea, he's likely not attending because "I think I know what I need to know about Islam."
Rocky Davis, 21, a junior at Northwest University, said that, at the Assemblies of God churches he's attended, the preaching from the pulpit relating to Muslims has largely stressed "we need to love them, minister to them." Yet over the years, he says he's also gotten the impression that "Muslims really hate Christians."
At the symposium, he'd like to find out if that's true.
"It's a great opportunity to learn about a culture that's really not talked about on this campus," Davis said.
Source: Seattle Times