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The Contextualization of the Gospel Among Bektashi Albanians

Richard William Shaw

Editor’s note: The author’s dissertation, from which this article is excerpted, focuses on the contextualization of the Christian gospel among Albanian Muslims. Contextualization may be defined as “clothing” the gospel in ways that make the Christian faith understandable in a given culture. In 1995 The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) commissioned Richard William Shaw and his wife, Martha, as International Coordinators for Albanians, “with the task of making disciples and planting churches among Albanian diaspora populations.” Following language study in Tirana, Albania, the Shaws and their children moved to Skopje, Macedonia, where they studied the Macedonian language and began to minister among the large Albanian minority in the Macedonian capital. The Shaws organized an Albanian-language Baptist church in Skopje and later a second church in Rahovec, Kosova.

In particular, the Shaws worked among Albanians of the Bektashi tradition, one of 12 orders (tariqat) of Sufi Islam, as distinct from the larger Sunni and Shiia Muslim traditions. Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw define Sufi Muslims as mystics who “seek not only to follow his [Allah’s] external commandments, but to know him intimately and even to lose themselves in love into the depths of his being” (Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, 6thed. [Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999], 408. See also John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes [London: Luzac Oriental, 1937], 162-66). Westerners historically have characterized Sufi Islam as mystical and the Sufi Bektashi in particular as exotic (“whirling dervishes” being Bektashi adherents). Sufi Order Bektashi comprise the largest number of Albanian faithful in Albania, western Macedonia, and southwestern Kosova.

For his dissertation Shaw prepared and administered a questionnaire to 80 Albanians seeking to determine the best ways to present  (contextualize) the gospel to Albanian Bektashi. He “also recruited 21 Albanian Bektashi Christian  believers to assist in the process of relating elements of Bektashi belief and practice to Christian faith in ways that would be meaningful from a Bektashi cultural perspective.”

* * *

Historically, Albanians have hailed from four major faith traditions: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Bektashism, a branch of Sufi Islam. Perhaps because of the inter-religious conflicts which transpired through centuries of history, and in search of a unifying national identity, the Albanian Renaissance poet Pashko Vasa (1825-1892) declared, “The religion of Albania is albanianism.” 1 Undoubtedly, the motivation for this statement stemmed at least partially from a desire for reconciliation among divergent Albanian groups.

Preparing for and Beginning Missionary Service

Following the completion of language study in Tirana, Albania, my family and I moved to Skopje, Macedonia, where we became acquainted with Albanians from many strata of society, from the very poor who reside as squatters in abandoned, condemned buildings, to ambassadors and worldclass musicians and artists. We began Bible studies in the Albanian language, using the storytelling idiom prevalent within Albanian culture, and incorporating indigenous Albanian melody and poetry. We borrowed heavily from Christian Albanian writers and extracted excerpts from the writings of Albanian heroes and heroines who professed faith in Jesus Christ and were identified as Christians. We founded ministries of justice and mercy to orphans and other indigent children, widows, displaced persons and refugees, and urban and rural poor. Our closest friends were Bektashis, and we conducted many conversations with them and grew to love them as our own family.

Bektashi Converts

As our ministries and cultural adaptation progressed, waves of refugees began to pour out of Kosova due to the Serbian military and paramilitary policy of ethnic cleansing. Our Bible study groups swelled, with many of these Kosovar refugees searching for fellowship, solace, and community, in an often hostile Macedonian environment. I realized that many of these persons curious to dialogue about the parables of the Kingdom of God hailed from a Bektashi heritage.

Moreover, I sensed that many of these Kosovar Albanian Bektashi were either consciously or unconsciously responding to God’s Spirit working in their lives. As several of these persons professed faith in Christ, I perceived their desire to understand the teachings of Christ as presented in the Albanian Bible. These new believers wrestled with issues of religious and cultural identity as they learned the commands of Christ for devotion, holiness, service, and community. Increasingly over time, I came to understand that if Albanian Bektashi were to ever become disciples of Jesus Christ and an indigenous church established among them, the gospel would have to be contextualized, appropriating indigenous language, symbols, and ceremonies.

Working to Contextualize the Gospel

One warm August day in 2006, after 12 years of ministry among Albanians, I realized that all the preparations I had made and all the years of establishing and nurturing relationships with Muslim peoples had reached a watershed as I sat in the sanctuary of the Kisha Baptiste “Udha e Shpëtimit” (“Way of Salvation” Baptist Church) in Rahovec, Kosova. I was listening to an often heated, though not polemical, discussion of how followers of Jesus Christ in a Muslim-dominated culture can make sense of the gospel and communicate their understandings to family members, friends, and acquaintances in the umma, or Islam community, and among Sufi Muslims. Kosovar Albanian Pastor Eliza Durguti,2 whom I had guided some eight years before in identifying the god-man whom she had seen many times in visions, often called upon me to broker a consensus among the Christ-followers sitting in the large circle. Much to Eliza’s chagrin, however, I often refused, choosing instead to reflect -upon the process in which we were engaged.

Each of these Kosovar Albanians came to faith in Jesus Christ some time between 1992 and 2006. In many cases, I was privileged to be a link in the chain of belonging and belief, as these former  Muslims entered the Kingdom of God. Vjollca Gojani, an optimist and former Bektashi myhype, or second-stage Sufi mystic, challenged Pastor Eliza, also a Bektashi myhype, and the ensuing high-pitched, cacophonous exchange of these two women, quashed my reverie.3 “For a Bektashi, nasipi4 is a death, a ceremony of passage from death to life.” Vjollca Gojani continued, “For Bektashis who accept Jesus Christ, nasipi is baptism – death to the old life and birth to the new life.” Pastor Durguti added, “We must make that clear, but not to the point of insisting upon baptism as essential to acceptance in the Kingdom.” 

During the course of this discussion I realized that the process of contextualizing the gospel, putting new clothes on the ancient story, is arguably the chief end of church planting. Eliza and Vjollca and the others gathered in this sweat-borne building in this picturesque and fragrant hamlet were participating in the task of re-imagining the gospel story. This context-sensitive process takes culture (and sub-culture and counter-culture) very seriously, while upholding the non-negotiable biblical text. As a Christian cross-cultural missionary serving among Muslims, I have endeavored to assist Bektashi to embrace and affirm both their Bektashi cultural and religious identity and their new identity in Jesus Christ. I have sought to lovingly guide the members of this new faith community to scrutinize their religious and cultural inheritance, challenging those elements which they deemed incongruent with the gospel, and affirming those which they deemed consistent with Christ’s ethic and message.

In conclusion, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to be understood deeply and penetratingly by members of a given culture, must be contextualized, i.e. “clothed” in the forms of that culture. A contextualized gospel will be communicated in relevant ways that make sense and that engage a culture’s worldview and cultural assumptions, allowing persons to come to faith in Jesus Christ while remaining true to their culture. F

Notes:

1 Edwin E. Jacques, The Albanians; An Ethnic

History from Prehistoric Times to the Present (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995), 397.

2All Albanian Bektashi background believers identified by name in this dissertation have provided written consent for inclusion. Copies of these forms are held by this researcher and at the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.

3 The egalitarian nature and practice of Bektashi Muslim believers and Albanian Bektashi background Christian believers challenge the patriarchal patterns of Sunni and Shia Islam and many Christian traditions. Female Kosovar Albanian Bektashi background Christian believers who are leaders within local congregations add their voice to the discussion, taking their rightful place at the table.

4 Nasip has been defined by Birge (1937: 162), as “’portion’ or ‘share allotted’ and hence ‘fate.’” “The word nasip has general use among Bektashis in the sense of formal acceptance by the initiation rite of Bektashi teachings.” Edited excerpts published with permission from Richard William Shaw,“The Contextualization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ Among Bektashi Albanians,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2007.

Richard William Shaw is assistant professor of religion and missions at Wayland Baptist University, Plainview, Texas.