When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Much to my own surprise, less than five years later, I found myself in a masjid, reciting the Shahadah in front of an Imam.
Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
Jewish Book Month, which originated in 1925 right here in Boston, ends tomorrow with the beginning of Hanukkah. We thought we'd commemorate the annual tradition with some never-too-late reading recommendations by a few of our authors. For more suggestions of Judaic titles to read during Hanukkah, or for any occasion, Beacon Presshas you covered.
Author photo: Stephanie Williams
Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both, offers several titles that celebrate the diversity of interfaith life:
Mixed-Up Love by Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll is important as the first memoir written by a rabbi married to a Catholic. Jon and Rabbi Michal will appear on a panel with me in March at the Jewish Community Center in Silicon Valley. They tell their story in alternating voices, providing both perspectives, which reminded me of the classic pioneering joint memoir by interfaith couple Ned and Mary Rosenbaum, Celebrating Our Differences.
When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew. Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.
The debate over Humanist chaplains in the military continues this week with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins offering several of the most common sentiments held by those who oppose the effort to create this resource for nonreligious members of the military.
Perkins suggests that nonreligious chaplains are a “bizarre” idea, adding that “by definition, a chaplain’s duties are to offer prayer, spiritual counseling, and religious instruction.” The confusion surrounding chaplains for the nonreligious isn’t new—or especially surprising. The popular connotations of the word chaplain are clearly religious; more often than not, they are explicitly Christian.
But if you look, for example, at Harvard University—where I work as one of two Humanist chaplains alongside Greg Epstein—you will find nearly 40 chaplains representing a plethora of religious and philosophical communities, from atheism/Humanism to Zoroastrianism. For many of the traditions represented in this diverse group, the title of chaplain has little to no historical precedent, but as a group we collaboratively work to expand the definition of the word to meet the needs of Harvard’s religiously diverse community.
There was a time when only Christians were permitted to be military chaplains:
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jews could not serve as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. When the war commenced in 1861, Jews enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. The Northern Congress adopted a bill in July of 1861 that permitted each regiment's commander, on a vote of his field officers, to appoint a regimental chaplain so long as he was "a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination."
Although Jews were permitted just a year later, it would be another 132 years before the U.S. armed forces saw its first Muslim chaplain. Definitions change, in other words.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, has defended the military’s lack of nonreligious chaplains by saying: “The department does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” The implication is that explicitly nonreligious servicemen and servicewomen are free to consult with a religious chaplain. But for the same reason that a Christian may prefer a Christian chaplain over a Muslim or Jewish chaplain, nonreligious people should be free to seek out assistance from a member of their own community.
As a Humanist chaplain, I frequently hear a version of Perkins' argument (For more on what exactly I do as a chaplain, check out a short piece I wrote last year): “[Advocates] argue that nonbelievers suffer the same fear and pain that affects every service member. But isn’t that why the military has psychologists?” (A serious question: does he mean to imply that religious people don’t visit both chaplains and psychologists?)
Some students and members of our local community visit psychologists, but they come to me and my colleague Greg for different reasons. Psychologists are medical professionals who diagnose and treat behavior and mental processes; chaplains are not. Psychologists provide an important but altogether different set of services than we do. We are available to talk with members of our community about how their nonreligious values inform their actions, and how their worldview helps them respond to and process tragedy. We are there to listen, but we can also share some of our thoughts and share from our experiences—something that most psychologists do not do. We can also go to members of our community, rather than wait for them to come to us, to connect them to a community of their peers—another role a psychologist alone can’t play. Finally, and significantly: going to a psychologist is non-confidential in the military, so chaplains play an important role in that context.
So what about the debate surrounding the use of the word chaplain? Personally, I don’t feel particularly attached to it. But when it is the standard used for other community care practitioners, as it is at Harvard and in the military, then it should be applied across the board. I feel similarly about the debate over whether to call legally-recognized same-sex partnerships “marriages” or “civil unions;” when one term is normative and certain groups of people—minority groups that have historically been marginalized—are excluded from using it, then the distinction is problematic.
“Atheist chaplains are like vegetarian carnivores. They don’t exist!” Perkins writes. He’s likely just trying to be clever, but allow me to clarify: we do in fact exist, Tony, and we’re here if you’d like to talk. Hopefully that will soon be the case for members of the military, too.
For more information on Humanist chaplains in the military, click here.
Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.
Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.
As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”
Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.
One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.
Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”
Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”
Last weekend a group of around 400 Mormons marched in the Utah Pride Parade. Calling themselves “Mormons Building Bridges,” they were met with enthusiastic applause. Carrying signs with messages like “Love 1 Another” and “LDS heart LGBT,” they were there to show their support for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community and celebrate recent advancements in issues relating to LGBTQ people and Mormons, such as Bishops no longer excommunicating members who come out and the Boy Scouts of America voting to allow openly gay scouts to participate. (LGBTQ adults and atheists still cannot do so openly.)
As I read about Utah Pride in preparation for my remarks this upcoming weekend as the 2013 Boston Pride interfaith speaker, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I learned during a recent visit to Utah.
It was late in the evening when I arrived, and I knew I would be there for only 24 hours. I was met by Alasdair Ekpenyong, a college sophomore who stands at the crossroads of intersecting identities and convictions: black, LGBTQ-affirming, feminist, progressive, a lover of bowties—and deeply Mormon.
Two weeks later, he would speak calmly and decisively at an anti-discrimination rally. But in the car that evening he spoke quickly and excitedly, stumbling over his words a bit but still impressively knowledge and articulate, referencing countless texts and ideas I’d never even heard of. I asked if we could stop to pick up some food and, with french fries in our laps, he gave me a quick tour of Salt Lake City, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the area and the people who call it home.
Alasdair, a student at Brigham Young University (a private university owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally established in 1875), was the student organizer of “Intersecting Convictions,” the interfaith conference for which I had come to speak. The conference was held in early March at Utah Valley University, a publicly funded university in Orem, Utah, about one hour south of Salt Lake City. Audience participants and sponsors from both BYU and UVU helped bring the event into being.
During our conversation in the car en route to Orem, I confessed to Alasdair that I wasn’t sure how the event would go.
The student body at BYU is 98.5% Mormon, and UVU is 86% Mormon—the highest single-religion percentage at any public university campus in the United States of America. Atheists are already in the minority in most parts of the country, constituting a small fraction of the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S., but it seemed I was to be an especially odd one out at this event. Or, as my mother once said with a laugh when I was off to speak in Mobile, Al.: “It’s kind of hip to be a gay atheist [in Cambridge, Massachussetts]. Not so much most everywhere else.”
I was scheduled to speak in an extended dialogue with the evangelical Christian presenter—as an atheist who is also a former evangelical Christian. Additionally, I was to engage other panelists and audience members, most of whom would be religious. As a queer person and atheist, what could I—and what should I—say to people who are members of communities that, both historically and contemporarily, have played a sizable role in not only demonizing atheists and supporting anti-gay ideas, but actively working to prevent LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) equality and civil rights?
Alasdair responded by reminding me that this event was not intended to be a collection of like-minded, progressive people. He told me that he personally holds a liberal mindset alongside an abiding respect for traditional institutions, and that it was important to him to bring an ideologically diverse crowd of liberal and conservative people together for this event.
“I like what Eboo Patel has said about making sure that interfaith work includes conservative subcultures, too, and does not merely become a festival of shared liberalism,” he told me.
And sure enough, as it turned out, we had a lot of different perspectives in the room—and a lot to say to one another. I was there as a liberal queer atheist, but I was just one of four keynote speakers, the others representing Jewish, Mormon, and evangelical Christian perspectives. We offered individual remarks and engaged in an honest public dialogue with one another. Questions of difference loomed that day, and much of the discussion centered around the idea that not only do we have, surprisingly, a lot in common—an important point worth remembering and repeating in a culture that frequently lifts up conflict while ignoring harmony—but that we also carry profoundly important and seemingly irreconcilable differences.
In that sense, the conference left me (and I suspect many others) with as many questions as answers. But these questions are vital—and the idea that we can consider them together, without sacrificing our relationships or the civility that undergirds them, is radical. I certainly don’t believe that the idea of “celebrating different beliefs” should be extended to beliefs that are used to marginalize others—but that tension should be explored, not suppressed for the sake of “getting along.” And calm, compassionate interfaith dialogue can create space to unpack them constructively in a way that shouting matches ultimately cannot.
These differences, of course, exist not only between communities but also within them. The conference served as a reminder that no community is a monolith, and that those of us who wish to see a pluralistic society will need to work with people in many different communities in order to see it realized. There are certainly Mormon people and institutions that have worked against LGBTQ equality, and many continue to. But as was evident at this year’s Utah Pride, there is also a fast-growing number of Mormons who are working for change. They may be less visible—after all our society, and the media in particular, privilege polarizing perspectives—but these Mormons are there, doing difficult but important work.
Among them is Joanna Brooks, who served as the Mormon panelist at the conference. She has been an advocate for LGBTQ equality and acceptance among Mormons and more broadly (in fact, she was featured earlier this year in The Advocate’s list of “10 Pro-LGBTQ Religious Women You Should Know”), and I am glad for her work. We may not agree on certain issues, including whether or not there is a God, but she has my support. Her activism, her ideas, and her voice reach Mormons that I, as a queer atheist, might not be able to. She speaks to Mormon identity, culture, tradition, and values in ways that I do not understand, and she is a powerful force for change in a community that she is invested in. Her work is just one reason why I am not willing to write off Mormons, or any other group of people, just because some vocal members of their community paint an exclusionary picture of what it means to be a member—and why I despair when members of my own communities dismiss them as possible allies.
And in the case of people who aren’t yet LGTBQ and interfaith allies like Brooks, I cannot help but hope that the act of encounter with someone who is unfamiliar will bring new ways of thinking to light. After all, support for marriage equality more than doubles among people who know a gay person. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 14% of Americans who went from opposing to supporting gay marriage in the last decade, 37% (the largest category) did so because of “friends/family/acquaintances who are gay/lesbian.” The second largest category, at 25%, said they learned more and became more aware. Only two percent said that they changed their minds because they came to believe that gay people are “born that way.” Visibility and education matter, but positive relationships across lines of difference seem to matter even more.
Whether we are in agreement or not, conversation is greatly needed. The kind of tribalism that causes people to be suspicious of those they think are not like them will be overcome through relationship-building, not through shouting matches on cable news or in online comment threads. Today I strive to build a relationship whenever I can—even with people who think that who I am is innately wrong—because if I refuse to engage, how can I hope for change?
I’m glad I had the opportunity to not only interact with nontraditional Mormons, but also with more conservative individuals and with traditional institutions like the Orem Utah LDS Institute of Religion—to not only build relationships with people and organizations that may not interact with LGBTQ individuals and atheists all that often, but to do so in a way that put my queer and atheist identities at the forefront of our encounters.
My queer identity is one of the reasons I’m passionate about religious pluralism, and advancing it through interfaith dialogue. A pluralistic society embraces all of its members. As a queer person, I reject heteronormativity. As an atheist, I reject theonormativity. But the eradication of heterosexuality or the eradication of religion are not my goals. Instead, I am concerned about privilege, and about fear of the other. Interfaith work can challenge both; it humanizes difference, allowing people to see that there are many ways of being and believing, and recognize that a just society makes space for all people.
I understand that some of this sounds a bit simple and idealistic—I know that appeals for pluralism and tolerance occasionally sound like the musings of a disconnected optimist. I don’t pretend that this work isn’t difficult, or that it will always work. But isn’t it worth trying?
There is a part of me that strongly resists sitting down with members of a community that has actively worked against my freedom. But whenever I can summon the patience to do so, I am glad that I did. This conference wasn’t the first time I have found myself in such a position; I have also spoken at several evangelical Christian colleges that require students to sign agreements that prohibit “homosexual activity” and disbelief in God. These are instituions that would likely expel me were I a student. Agreeing to visit these campuses isn’t easy, but they are communities that perhaps need open conversations about faith and diversity more than many others. Though getting there requires me to deal with my own discomfort, I have never regretted accepting an opportunity to enter into dialogue with members of communities that are discerning how to grapple with internal diversity and with how to engage the world beyond their community. Participating in these discussions may require some compromises on my part—having to part with my desire to say every single thing I might want to, or having to look people in the eye who would vote against my freedom—but it is worth it when I see the conversations that unfold, and realize that I have a chance to build a relationship with someone that could prove to be transformative.
Every day I try to challenge myself to think harder, to listen to others more deeply, to be more loving and patient. Needless to say, I frequently fail. But as an atheist, I don’t think any non-human force is going to intervene and solve our problems for us. Thus, it is up to us to make our world better. As much as I can, I want to leave a space at my table for just about anyone; to see every person as someone who is worth trying to understand, and to try to help others understand me—even when that feels impossible.
But sitting at my table means being willing to share. Some will take more than others, but there must be some give on all sides. In that respect, I am grateful for how much I was given by the people I met and learned from at the conference in Utah, and excited about the possibility for a more constructive and compassionate dialogue between people of all faiths and the nonreligious about how to build a world in which all people, including LGBTQ people, are respected and have equal rights. Though the road to a truly pluralistic society will be long, I learned in Utah that you can in fact build some significant bridges—even when you have less than 24 hours to do so—and I am glad to see that there are more and more Mormons building bridges at Utah Pride and elsewhere.
As I prepared to leave Utah, less than 24 hours after arriving, Alasdair gave me a hug and said: “I hope you’ll come back soon!”
Without hesitation and with the utmost sincerity, I agreed.
In a regular feature titled “Ask Interfaith Mom,” I plan to tackle your questions about raising interfaith kids. Here’s a great question from a comment on a recent post about interfaith grandparents:
Question: In raising my son both, I realize his grandparents will not always like or support how we are bringing the two traditions together and I am interested in ways to present to them that they should always feel free to opt out of saying anything or doing anything they don’t really believe. Thanks for any guidance you have!
One of the most liberating aspects of choosing both family religions is that you give yourself permission to pass on to your children that which is meaningful to you, rather than a required system of beliefs and practices. And in making your own choices, you set a precedent that your children will have the right to opt into or out of any of these beliefs or practices.
Discussing this freedom with your parents (the grandparents) will help them to feel comfortable making their own choices about whether or not to participate in any ritual or prayer they might encounter when celebrating with your interfaith family. Ideally then, the idea that they have permission to participate, or not, would be integral and natural, and would not need to be announced in a formal manner.
But of course, it may take time for extended family members to reach this state of appreciation. Grandparents who have spent a lifetime in a “monofaith” environment, and who may still feel sadness over the fact that their grandchildren will not be raised exclusively in their own religion, cannot always be expected to jump into interfaith practice with enthusiasm. What I can tell you is that many who have started out reluctant or even upset over the idea of an interfaith upbringing, over time have come to appreciate the way extended interfaith families are able to share spiritual inspiration, religious history, and cultures.
However, everyone in an interfaith family (or for that matter, living in our religiously pluralistic society) is going to have moments, often when visiting a more traditional place of worship, when they may want to opt out of participating in a prayer or ritual. Let’s get to some challenging specifics: for instance, taking communion at church. In some churches, the ritual of taking communion becomes a public declaration around who has the right to participate. In such a setting, it would be important to reassure interfaith family members in advance (whether a grandparent, spouse, or interfaith child) that it is fine to remain seated in the pew, and not go up to take communion. Explain that even some Christians abstain from communion at certain times or in certain places, for their own personal reasons, or because not every Christian denomination invites all Christians from other denominations to participate. While those who choose not to take communion may feel like they are sticking out by staying seated, in theory no one should ask them why they remained in the pew.
When you design an interfaith family celebration, this is your opportunity to make the rituals and prayers as inclusive as possible. Ideally, such a celebration would be so welcoming that no one would feel the need to abstain. Sometimes, this means recasting a prayer or ritual to be more radically inclusive, and explicitly inviting all to participate. Personally, I have seen Jewish people (and even a rabbi) take communion at a super-progressive Christian service in which the communion ritual was presented as a metaphorical table where all share food and drink together, based on the Jewish rituals of blessing over bread and wine, regardless of religious institutional membership or beliefs.
To take another example from the other side of the aisle, the bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision for baby boys, can be difficult for non-Jewish family members. Honestly, it is difficult for many Jewish people too, some of whom now oppose circumcision and have designed baby-welcoming ceremonies that do not involve cutting. It’s important to share all the different viewpoints on this ritual with non-Jewish family. I do understand why some interfaith families choose to have a bris, and the deep meaning it has for some Jewish family members. But I don’t think anyone (Jewish or otherwise) should feel required to attend the ceremony. And it would be important to communicate this permission to participate, or not, to everyone in the extended family as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Both the new grandparents and their intermarried children must make an extra effort to empathize with each other at this vulnerable moment around birth: the new parents must try hard to accept and not resent family members who choose not to participate, and family must try hard to accept and not resent the choice of the new parents to honor (or conversely, to move away from) such an ancient ritual.
Sometimes, grandparents may surprise you with their willingness to participate, and cross theological boundaries. For instance, I was worried about how my Jewish father would react to hearing his interfaith grandchildren say a traditional Christian prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer in our interfaith community Gathering. To my surprise, I saw my father reciting the prayer along with his grandchildren, and discovered that he said this prayer in his public school classroom everyday, growing up in the 1930s. Since the prayer does not mention Jesus, my father did not even realize until much later that this is officially a Christian prayer. As an adult interfaith child who was raised Jewish, my own appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer is heightened by the knowledge that many scholars have pointed out the parallels between the language in the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish and other central Jewish prayers. So a moment I had anticipated as possibly problematic became an opportunity for interesting theological discussion with my parents.
What experiences have you had in including interfaith grandparents? Or, what is your perspective as an interfaith grandparent? And what questions do you have for “Ask Interfaith Mom”?
Susie Bright, in addition to being a best-selling author, activist, and podcast host, is editor at large for Audible. Susie's blog, The Bright List, keeps readers and listeners apprised of new audiobooks.
“Who can we be, together? ...The goal should be neither conversion nor the destruction of religion— but rather to make a better world.”
—Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God: A Love Story
If Chris Stedman had stayed in the church, he'd be everyone's favorite closeted youth pastor.
But this Fellow from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University had the bravery to come out as gay and an atheist. He found, as he tried to reach out in the atheist world, that, as organized groups, they were often defined by what they were against, rather than what they were for.
Stedman calls for non-religious people to identify their values and work towards a positive identity. He asks the religious to move beyond their assumptions about who atheists are, and to recognize our common humanity.
The first extended look into the nation's first Muslim institution of higher education, Zaytuna College
Light without Fire closely follows the inaugural class of Zaytuna College, the nation's first four-year Muslim college, whose mission is to establish a thoroughly American, academically rigorous, and traditional indigenous Islam. Korb offers portraits of the school's founders, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, arguably the two most influential leaders in American Islam. Along the way, Korb introduces us to Zaytuna's students, young American Muslims of all stripes, who love their teachers in ways college students typically don't and whose stories, told here for the first time, signal the future of Islam in this country. It's no exaggeration to say that here, at Zaytuna, are tomorrow's Muslim leaders.
"Will Islam become an American religion or remain permanently estranged? Will Muslims in America develop an identity that contributes to their country or one that emphasizes isolation and opposition? Scott Korb knows just how crucial these questions are, and in Light Without Fire tells the story of the leaders and animating ideas behind America's first Muslim liberal arts college-an institution seeking to build an American Islam-in all its fits and starts, and in prose that is both clear and compelling. I for one could not put it down-it is essential and riveting reading." —Eboo Patel, Founder and President, Interfaith Youth Core, author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America
"This is an important book, and one as original as its fascinating subject. Like Roy Mottahedeh's classic Mantle of the Prophet, Light without Fire is about education in both the broadest and deepest senses and about Islam in a particular place and time. Only here that place is America, now, a country desperately in need of stories about its own Islam. We are lucky to have a writer as erudite and engaged as Scott Korb to bring us this one." —Jeff Sharlet, New York Times bestselling author of The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die
"With the warm generosity of an attentive host, and the critical yet respectful eye of a keen journalist, Scott Korb has given us an entertaining and illuminating look into the nation's first Muslim college." —Wajahat Ali, author of The Domestic Crusaders and lead author of the investigative report "Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America"
"A moving portrait of a little known but hugely significant coordinate in America's spiritual geography. For this journey into the heart of 21st-century Islam, Scott Korb is the perfect companion—not just a tour guide with ready answers to any question, but a fellow pilgrim leading the way to deeper understanding. Light without Fire is at once a fascinating account of Muslims living their faith in the US, and a universal story of the call to make tradition new." —Peter Manseau, author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
"How many stories in American religious experience are truly new? Not so many, and Scott Korb's story of Zaytuna College is one of them, expertly and presciently told."—Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own
"Scott Korb's Light without Fire is a rare and precious book-intelligent, compassionate, and beautifully observed-one that will provide a necessary and vital contribution to any serious discussion of the role of Islam and religion in America." —Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
About the Author
Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine and coauthor of The Faith Between Us. He teaches at the New School and at New York University and lives with his family in New York City. (Photo: M. Ryan Purdy)
Today is also the Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together day, a time to wear blue to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation. Read more about it here.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race—from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King, Jr., to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line—as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was—is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
Faith as a bridge
King's life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha ("love-force") philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi's Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, it was Gandhi's movement in India that provided King with a 20th century version of what Jesus would do. King patterned nearly all the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement—from boycotts to marches to readily accepting jail time—after Gandhi's leadership in India. King called Gandhi "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."
Following Gandhi was King's first step on a long journey of learning about the shared social justice values across the world's religions, and partnering with faith leaders of all backgrounds in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959, more than a decade after the Mahatma's death, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing the work Gandhi had started. He was surprised and inspired to meet Indians of all faith backgrounds working for equality and harmony, discovering in their own traditions the same inspiration for love and peace that King found in Christianity.
King's experience with religious diversity in India shaped the rest of his life. He readily formed a friendship with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, finding a common bond in their love of the Hebrew prophets. The two walked arm-in-arm in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Later, Heschel wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
King's friendship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh inspired one of his most controversial moves, the decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King wrote, "He is a holy man... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity."
In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."
We live at a time of religious conflict abroad and religious tension at home. This would no doubt have dismayed King, who viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, not to destroy and divide. During King's time, groups ranging from white supremacists to black militants believed that the races were better apart. Today, the same is said of division along the lines of faith.
King insisted that we are always better together. Indeed, that pluralism is part of divine plan. To paraphrase one of his most enduring statements: The world is not divided between black and white or Christian and Muslim, but between those who would live together as brothers and those who would perish together as fools.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a
house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In
this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he
lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the
need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With
a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to
global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources
and technology to eradicate poverty.
by Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin
An unprecedented and timely
collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words
Too many people continue to think
of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an
American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people
around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny"is the
first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the
prism of his own words and activities.
From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an
advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated
with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national
and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle
with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance.
Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume
breaks new ground in our understanding of King.
Featuring the essay: "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of
inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders
There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under
In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward
American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric
once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become
frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the
specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.
In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo
Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to
the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington
to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders,"
illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again
defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and
confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a
primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing
body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier
of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.
Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic
country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and
in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions.
Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and
this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a
place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.
A renowned Muslim activist's personal story of building a global interfaith youth movement that might just change the world. Includes a new afterword by the author.
Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel's story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people-and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.
by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. Foreword by Walter Earl Fluker
The first biographical exploration of one of the most important African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century—Howard Thurman—and of the pivotal trip he took to India that ultimately shaped the course of the civil rights movement.
In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him-and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.
After the journey to India, Thurman's distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi's prescient words that "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers-among them Martin Luther King Jr.
Mary Daly (1928-2010) was a world-renowned radical feminist philosopher. When her groundbreaking work, Gyn/Ecology, was first released by Beacon in 1978, one reviewer called it “the most important book to come out of the feminist movement since Daly’s last book, Beyond God the Father.”
“In this deeply original,
provocative book, outrage, hilarity, grief, profanity, lyricism and moral
daring join in bursting the accustomed bounds even of feminist discourse.” —The
New York Times Book Review
“Daly’s insights into the background of radical
feminism…are brilliant, and her synthesis of theology, mythology, philosophy,
history, and medicine is absolutely overwhelming.” —Library Journal
“Gyn/Ecology is a great leap forward
in feminist theory…It defies simplistic categorizations of political theory,
philosophy of religion, or even poetry. The book is all of these yet none,
because it goes beyond them.” —Janice Raymond, New Women’s Times
“A vivid and exciting work, destined to become
of landmark in the radical feminist process.” —Chrysalis
“Brilliant and soaring, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology is
the most amazing book I’ve ever read. It set me spinning. A wonderfully
dangerous book.” —Gena Corea
“Daly writes with deep healing anger and
uncompromising vision. Her book gives a shock of awakening such as is found in
the works of Simone de Beauvoir.” —Publishers Weekly
Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D. is Founding Co-Director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.(www.britesoulrepair.org). She was a professor for twenty years, directed the Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, a prominent advanced research institute, and from 2001-2002, was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School Center for Values in Public Life. Her latest book is Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War, co-authored with Gabriella Lettini.
The killing of Iraq veteran and national figure Chris Kyle prompted media queries and questions for the three of us who run the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School. Our Center is dedicated to recovery from moral injury in veterans. Rev. Dr. Coleman Baker, Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer, Jr. (ret.) and I spent a day reflecting together on what went wrong when Kyle tried to help a fellow vet. Here are some of our reflections.
Chris Kyle, a well-decorated Navy SEAL sniper, completed four tours in Iraq with an extraordinary record of kills. Kyle's book about his experiences in the clandestine fraternity gained him much admiration. Then, a week ago on a firing range in Texas, Eric Routh, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq, killed him and his fellow veteran Chad Littlefield.
Kyle was beloved by many because he tried to support his fellow vets in returning to civilian life, but it seems clear that Kyle himself never really left the military. He overcame his own struggles with alcohol and a fear of leaving his house by re-building a military cocoon as a means of therapy. Kyle's idea of what worked best for returning veterans was the military espirt de corps of an active unit. He used the tools of his military experience at his Fitco Care Foundation, designing treatments built on exercise, counseling and veteran camaraderie. And he kept a live-fire range open and invited others to shoot for therapy.
In trying to treat Eric Routh by echoing his war experience, Kyle, who sought to stay in war, may have provoked a desperate Routh to seek escape from such "help." By not questioning whether military values can simply be relived in civilian life, Kyle failed to understand difficulties some returning vets might have with a "HOOHA" model of counseling and training, especially those with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and moral injury. For veterans who feel betrayed by the government, have serious trauma, or experience a collapse of moral meaning after war, more exposure to military life can compound the difficulty of adjusting to the civilian world.
It was hard trying to wrap my mind around "Well, how can I shoot another human being?" And even the first time I had to do it, they're yelling at me. "You have to do it! Take it! Take it!" And it's still trying to get over the fact that, well, I'm fixin' to have to kill someone.
And then you do it, and you have to think of it differently. You're not killing a person, you're killing an enemy that if you don't do it, they're gonna kill your guys. ... You have to de-humanize it, so you don't go crazy.
In his civilian life, Kyle continued this strategy of de-humanizing his enemies. He referred to people in Iraq as "savages." He also dismissed civilians as shallow and selfish.
We think Kyle had a good point about civilian society. The care for each other unto death and the willingness to die in service to others bonds a combat unit in ways that are rare in civilian life. During the Iraq War, civilians were shielded from images of coffins returning home and were advised to shop, rather than make personal sacrifices to support the troops. The narcissism, personal ambitions, and self-obsessions with consumerism and celebrity culture have prompted some veterans to ask, "I fought for this?"
Without a new social, emotional, spiritual system that can help veterans of war move from a military system to civilian life, we sentence many of them to military cocoons or lonely states of limbo from which transition is nigh impossible.
Few institutions in our culture ask people to commit to each other over the whole life course, from birth to death. Few organizations welcome strangers and include them in a community of care; attend to those who need help, feel hurt or are troubled in their souls; and hold each other accountable for living into their best selves in circles of generosity and reciprocity. These commitments of lifelong weekly activities describe congregational life. Though no congregation does them perfectly, most try their best, and many do them well.
We believe that congregations are one place that should be welcoming veterans home, but few have committed to this work. It should not be undertaken with just simple good intentions, though good intentions matter a great deal. To welcome veterans into a community's life, we need to understand how to assist the transition from the values of military life to religious life. We must advocate for better services for treating PTSD, and we must support veterans' families and all they go through to welcome veterans home.
We mourn the deaths of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield. They are tragic, senseless killings that have left their families and friends with unimaginable loss. We may never know why they were killed. However, we hope their deaths can help us all better understand the complicated and difficult return to civilian life for combat veterans and see this as an important responsibility of us all.
Without adequate ways for veterans to process their war experience, reflect on its moral and psychological impact, and restore them to civilian life, we fail as a society to bring them all the way home. Tragically, just before he died, Kyle hinted he might be ready to come home. He wanted to slow down and just take care of his family, saying he was tired: "I'm just trying to be the me that I am and not all of this other crap."
"Grandpa wants you honey." This is my mom now, coming up the stairs and repeating his wish. I take a deep breath, grab a coffee pot and descend slowly. When I hit the bottom stair, Grandpa motions me near and uses all of his energy to force, in a barely audible voice, these words: "This is my granddaughter, the one who wrote a book."
The book. My book. My soon-to-be published memoir. I become light headed as I feel the eyes of the praying, faithful, God-centered men on me. And while I should beam from Grandpa's pride, I don't. Instead, I pretend I don't hear him. I move into the circle of men, pour coffee and speak loudly about nothing before they can ask me questions. I do this because my book is about the thing I have learned does not go with religion: me. And to talk about my book would reveal what I believe they will reject: gay. In his weakened state Grandpa can't compete with my flurry of distraction, so he closes his eyes and fades away.
The Pentagon's announcement this week that it will lift the ban on women in ground combat positions is welcome news to many of those who value equal rights. But it is also an urgent reminder that sexual assault remains a blight on our armed forces that only constant, sincere efforts will erase.
As a writer who has been interviewing female veterans for many years, I have long argued that lifting the ground combat ban would help military women win the respect they deserve. As long as women were officially prohibited from engaging in that essential act of a soldier - fighting - they were seen as second-class. And that has contributed to the violence, predation, and harassment so many military women endure.
The ground combat barrier is gone now, but the attitudes that sprung from it will not disappear so easily. Plenty of military men will decry this decision and resent the women who wish to fight by their sides. Some will be angered, insisting that their female comrades endanger them - an assertion often made but never demonstrated. And some will express their anger with violence. [Read the rest here]
Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”
At today's Inauguration, President Obama will be using the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's bible. The symbolism of the president's choice is striking. King was of course profoundly religious, although this is sometimes lost in our thinking of him as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, however, these two aspects of King's character--the religious man and the secular leader--were intertwined, as is illustrated in the story behind the collection of his best-known homilies.
As Dr. King prepared for the Birmingham campaign in early 1963, he drafted the final sermons for Strength to Love. King had begun working on the sermons during a fortnight in jail in July 1962. Having been arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall, King and Ralph Abernathy shared a jail cell for fifteen days that was, according to King, ‘‘dirty, filthy, and ill-equipped’’ and “the worse I have ever seen.” While behind bars, he spent uninterrupted time preparing the drafts for classic sermons such as “Loving Your Enemies,” “Love in Action,” and “Shattered Dreams,” and continued to work on the volume after his release.
Beacon Press recently brought out, as part of the King Legacy Series, a new version of this book. A Gift of Loveincludes these classic sermons, along with two new preachings. Collectively they present King’s fusion of Christian teachings and social consciousness, and promote his prescient vision of love as a social and political force for change.
The following passage, "Loving Your Enemies," is an apt meditation for today. The inauguration puts to rest a combative campaign season even as we watch our leaders, having narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff, square off for battles over the debt ceiling and gun control on Capitol Hill. Perhaps if they could take to heart King's exhortation to "discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives," we might enter an era of more civil, productive discourse in Washington.
From "Loving Your Enemies"
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven. matthew 5:43–45
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.” Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist.
In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency.
Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.
I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.
Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?
First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.
An interview with authors DeWolf and Morgan on NPR’s Tell Me Moreaired Christmas Day.
The authors begin the West Coast leg of their tour this
weekend. The entire month of January, they’ll be making appearances in
Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado. Check out their website for more info.
Booklist review, Jan
01: “Saulitis’ stunning and sorrowful ‘book of contemplation’ elucidates the
discipline, tedium, danger, and bliss of whale studies… Candid, transfixing,
and cautionary, Saulitis celebrates and mourns for a wondrous and imperiled
Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journey by Danielle
Ofri (March 05)
Kirkus Reviews in print (Jan. 15) and online
(Jan. 01): “in sharp, take-no-prisoners prose, Khalidi maintains that the U.S.
and Israel… have conspired to deny Palestinians any semblance of
self-determination. A stinging indictment of one-sided policymaking
destined, if undisturbed, to result in even greater violence.”
“Drawing on his own experience as
a Palestinian negotiator and recently released documents, Rashid Khalidi mounts
a frontal attack on the myths and misconceptions that have come to surround
America’s role in the so-called “peace process” which is all process and no
peace. The title is not too strong: the book demonstrates conclusively
that far from serving as an honest broker, the US continues to act as Israel’s lawyer
– with dire consequences for its own interests, for the Palestinians, and for
the entire region. Professor Khalidi deserves much credit for his superb
exposition of the fatal gap between the rhetoric and reality of American
diplomacy on this critically important issue.” —Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International
Relations at Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
"Every denizen of wild places
from Laotse to St. Francis to Rachel Carson to black bears to field mice has
depended upon trails. But rarely have we considered the people, tools, or toil
that lay our favorite trails down. Dirt Work is a spectacular correction of
this omission. Imbued with a tough-minded, ribald reverence for honest labor
that brings to mind a female Gary Snyder or Wendell Berry (if you can imagine
that!), Christine Byl does epic justice to the whole-bodied satisfactions that
come of staying out in the weather, staying alert, and working one’s ass off
for others with love, tenacity and skill." --David James Duncan,
author of The River Why and Sun House.
“Christine Byl has been summering
on trail crews for more than a decade and a half. A first-rate storyteller, she
details the techniques and tools, and the spirit of fellowship and feel of the
woods. If you love getting into the back country, or even if you're an armchair
backpacker as I am now at age eighty, you'll love Dirt Work.”
--William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The
Nature of Generosity
“Byl’s is not a world of groomed
nature, inert tools, or nostalgic rituals, but a vibrant landscape inhabited by
people and animals and layered by idea and history. She means this book as a
love song, she writes, and it is, not only from her to her fellow laborers, but
from the mind to the body, the hand to the tool, the human to the wild.” —Sherry
Simpson, author of The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska
Did you unwrap an e-reader this holiday season? Or did you treat yourself to one? (Don't worry, we won't judge.) Here are Beacon's most popular e-book titles for 2012 along with a few suggestions for titles sure to be on next year's bestseller list. Download one or two and see why they've inspired people to click and read.
At the time of Frankl's death in 1997, Man's Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a "book that made a difference in your life" found Man's Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.
"One of the great books of our time." —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People
"One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years." —Carl R. Rogers (1959)
View the discussion guide for UU communities: HTML or PDF.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
"Octavia Butler is a writer who will be with us for a long, long time, and Kindred is that rare magical artifact . . . the novel one returns to, again and again." —Harlan Ellison
"One cannot finish Kindred without feeling changed. It is a shattering work of art with much to say about love, hate, slavery, and racial dilemmas, then and now." —Sam Frank, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
"In Kindred, Octavia Butler creates a road for the impossible and a balm for the unbearable. It is everything the literature of science fiction can be." —Walter Mosley
In this beautiful and lucid guide, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers gentle anecdotes and practical exercise as a means of learning the skills of mindfulness--being awake and fully aware. From washing the dishes to answering the phone to peeling an orange, he reminds us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness.
"Thich Nhat Hanh's ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity." -Martin Luther King, Jr.
"He has immense presence and both personal and Buddhist authority. If there is a candidate for 'Living Buddha' on earth today, it is Thich Nhat Hanh." -Roshi Richard Baker, author of Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West
All Souls by: A Family Story from Southie Michael Patrick MacDonald
View the readers' guide: HTML or community guide:PDF
A breakaway bestseller since its first printing, All Souls takes us deep into Michael Patrick MacDonald's Southie, the proudly insular neighborhood with the highest concentration of white poverty in America. Rocked by Whitey Bulger's crime schemes and busing riots, MacDonald's Southie is populated by sharply hewn characters like his Ma, a miniskirted, accordion-playing single mother who endures the deaths of four of her eleven children. Nearly suffocated by his grief and his community's code of silence, MacDonald tells his family story here with gritty but moving honesty.
The Cure for Everything! Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, and Happiness by Timothy Caulfield
In The Cure for Everything, health-policy expert and fitness enthusiast Timothy Caulfield debunks the mythologies of the one-step health crazes, reveals the truths behind misleading data, and discredits the charlatans in a quest to sort out real, reliable health advice. He takes us along as he navigates the maze of facts, findings, and fears associated with emerging health technologies, drugs, and disease-prevention strategies, and he presents an impressively researched, accessible take on the production and spread of information in the health sciences.
Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, Dr. Lisa M. Schwartz, and Dr. Steven Woloshin
Drawing on twenty-five years of medical practice and research, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch and his colleagues, Dr. Lisa M. Schwartz and Dr. Steven Woloshin, have studied the effects of screenings and presumed preventative measures for disease and "pre-disease." Welch argues that while many Americans believe that more diagnosis is always better, the medical, social, and economic ramifications of unnecessary diagnoses are in fact seriously detrimental. Unnecessary surgeries, medication side effects, debilitating anxiety, and the overwhelming price tag on health care are only a few of the potential harms of overdiagnosis.
Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston
When Hella Winston began talking with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, she was surprised to be covertly introduced to Hasidim unhappy with their highly restrictive way of life and sometimes desperately struggling to escape it. Unchosen tells the stories of these "rebel" Hasidim, serious questioners who long for greater personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow. In her new Preface, Winston discusses the passionate reactions the book has elicited among Hasidim and non-Hasidim alike.
"Winston . . . builds fascinating case studies, inviting readers into her interviewees' conflicted, and often painful, lives . . . show[ing] us a Hasidic underworld where large families and a lack of secular education have resulted in extreme poverty and some serious at-risk behavior among youth. Her story of courage and intellectual rebellion will inspire anyone who has ever felt like a religious outcast." -Publishers Weekly, starred review
Around noon on January 15, 1919, a group of firefighters was playing cards in Boston's North End when they heard a tremendous crash. It was like roaring surf, one of them said later. Like a runaway two-horse team smashing through a fence, said another. A third firefighter jumped up from his chair to look out a window-"Oh my God!" he shouted to the other men, "Run!"
A 50-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses had just collapsed on Boston's waterfront, disgorging its contents as a 15-foot-high wave of molasses that at its outset traveled at 35 miles an hour. It demolished wooden homes, even the brick fire station. The number of dead wasn't known for days. It would be years before a landmark court battle determined who was responsible for the disaster.
Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish by Joe Mackall
Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized "running-around time" that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.
Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers' story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel's nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe's ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.
“I was born male and now I’ve got medical and government documents that say I’m female—but I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man. . . .”
Scientologist, husband and father, tranny, sailor, slave, playwright, dyke, gender outlaw—these are just a few words which have defined Kate Bornstein during her extraordinary life. For the first time, it all comes together inA Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein’s stunningly original memoir that’s set to change lives and enrapture readers.
Wickedly funny and disarmingly honest, this is Bornstein’s most intimate book yet. With wisdom, wit, and an unwavering resolution to tell the truth (“I must not tell lies”), Bornstein shares her story: from a nice Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey to a strappingly handsome lieutenant of the Church of Scientology’s Sea flagship vessel, and later to 1990s Seattle, where she becomes a rising star in the lesbian community. In between there are wives and lovers, heartbreak and triumph, bridges mended and broken, and a journey of self-discovery that will mesmerize readers.
The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals by Lauren Slater
From the time she is nine years old, biking to the farmland outside her suburban home, where she discovers a disquieting world of sleeping cows and a "Private Way" full of the wondrous and creepy creatures of the wild-spiders, deer, moles, chipmunks, and foxes-Lauren Slater finds in animals a refuge from her troubled life. As she matures, her attraction to animals strengthens and grows more complex and compelling even as her family is falling to pieces around her. Slater spends a summer at horse camp, where she witnesses the alternating horrific and loving behavior of her instructor toward the animals in her charge and comes to question the bond that so often develops between females and their equines. Slater's questions follow her to a foster family, her own parents no longer able to care for her. A pet raccoon, rescued from a hole in the wall, teaches her how to feel at home away from home. The two Shiba Inu puppies Slater adopts years later, against her husband's will, grow increasingly important to her as she ages and her family begins to grow.
The $60,000 Dog is Lauren Slater's intimate manifesto on the unique, invaluable, and often essential contributions animals make to our lives. As a psychologist, a reporter, an amateur naturalist, and above all an enormously gifted writer, she draws us into the stories of her passion for animals that are so much more than pets. She describes her intense love for the animals in her life without apology and argues, finally, that the works of Darwin and other evolutionary biologists prove that, when it comes to worth, animals are equal, and in some senses even superior, to human beings.
Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in "The Harlem Ghetto" to a sobering "Journey to Atlanta."
Notes of a Native Son inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright's work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise.
Notes is the book that established Baldwin's voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin's own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.
Melanie Hoffert longs for her North Dakota childhood home, with its grain trucks and empty main streets. A land where she imagines standing at the bottom of the ancient lake that preceded the prairie: crop rows become the patterned sand ripples of the lake floor; trees are the large alien plants reaching for the light; and the sky is the water’s vast surface, reflecting the sun. Like most rural kids, she followed the out-migration pattern to a better life. The prairie is a hard place to stay—particularly if you are gay, and your home state is the last to know. For Hoffert, returning home has not been easy. When the farmers ask if she’s found a “fella,” rather than explain that—actually—she dates women, she stops breathing and changes the subject. Meanwhile, as time passes, her hometown continues to lose more buildings to decay, growing to resemble the mouth of an old woman missing teeth. This loss prompts Hoffert to take a break from the city and spend a harvest season at her family’s farm. While home, working alongside her dad in the shop and listening to her mom warn, “Honey, you do not want to be a farmer,” Hoffert meets the people of the prairie. Her stories about returning home and exploring abandoned towns are woven into a coming-of-age tale about falling in love, making peace with faith, and belonging to a place where neighbors are as close as blood but are often unable to share their deepest truths.
In this evocative memoir, Hoffert offers a deeply personal and poignant meditation on land and community, taking readers on a journey of self-acceptance and reconciliation.
Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Stedman is Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches.
In case you missed it, we are now in the month of December. That means that many of us have been enduring public displays of Christmas-affection for at least a month now, if not more. And while I admit that hearing a tinny rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” blare from the overhead speakers in a shopping mall in October is almost enough to turn my heart two sizes too small, I can’t help but feel excited that Christmas is just around the corner.
But why? You might ask. You’re an atheist. You’re not supposed to do that.
I’ve heard that argument before, and I still don’t buy it.
Christmas is perhaps my favorite holiday, as it is the one time during the year that my entire family is able to come together. Growing up, Christmas was never really about Jesus (I mean, if anything, it was about Santa) — it was about family. I’m the only person in my family who no longer lives in Minnesota, so I cherish the time I get to spend with those who have loved me the longest and the most, and the binding traditions that we share. (Including poking fun at one another incessantly – hey, who doesn’t engage in this tradition on any given holiday?)
As one example of why I have very fond associations with Christmas: the year I started to come out as gay, after several painful years of self-loathing, my mom got me a book about gay people and enclosed a special, handwritten note about how much she loved me and how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight, and I could see the lights from our Christmas tree reflecting off of the glossy tears in her eyes. Could she have given this to me on any other day? Sure, of course. And she did — throughout that year, and at many other times during my life, she has given me resources and support. But I remember that Christmas as a special moment in a year full of them, where she took the time to do something extra. And she, along with my entire family, has continued to do so — the year I moved out of the house to begin an independent life, she created a quilt made from scraps of the fabric she had used to make handsewn pajamas throughout my childhood. On the bottom side, she stitched in a note: “Pieces of memories… stitched together to wrap you in the love of your family.” I continue to pull out this Christmas gift every year to combat the December chill. As I wrote in a post earlier today, we ritualize our lives in various ways. For me, Christmas has been among the most significant.
A couple of Christmases past, my dad’s girlfriend asked me something just as I was preparing to leave home. “I know you’re an atheist,” she said, “but is it okay for me to wish you a ‘Merry Christmas’?” At first I thought it a rather silly question, as we had just spend the last day eating cookies shaped like trees and exchanging shiny boxes filled with gifts. But she explained that she had once dated an atheist, and that he had refused to join her for her family’s Christmas celebration. “As he put it, he’d never celebrate a ‘hol-lie-day’ for a made-up god,” she said to me.
The Humanist Community at Harvard offices, December 2012.
That same season, headlines roared over a new American Atheists billboard campaign, which exclaimed: “You KNOW It’s A Myth… This Season, Celebrate Reason!” In interviews, their president explained that the billboard campaign was not intended to turn Christians into atheists. Instead, he said that American Atheists wanted to encourage atheists to stop “going through the motions of celebrating Christmas.” And less than a week ago, Tom Flynn (who I met less than a week ago at the Center for Inquiry – Transnational) wrote a blog post advocating a similar sentiment — but he went a step further, suggesting that atheists should not celebrate secular seasonal holidays like HumanLight or the Winter Solstice, either. He has shared his perspective about why he doesn’t celebrate Christmas in the past, but reading his most recent post, I still found myself unpersuaded.
You see, for me, Christmas didn’t begin as a religious holiday. As I said, it was always about family — about coming together during the coldest and darkest time of the year to create a little more light and a little more warmth. That continues to be the case for me, and it is only bolstered by my increased awareness of the origins of religious narratives, and my expanding knowledge of the triumphs of human achievement — triumphs that have enabled me to live long enough to celebrate my twenty-fifth Christmas this year, achievements that ensure my ability to quickly travel through the air from Massachusetts to Minnesota in order to be reunited with my family, advances that allow me to communicate and coordinate my plans long before I am reunited with said family, and human efforts that will allow me to stay warm throughout the season. My appreciation for Christmas, and the family that I celebrate on that day, has grown in concert with my appreciation for the marvels of life and of human ability.
This year, I had to miss the Humanist Community at Harvard’s annual holiday party because I was on my book tour, and I admit that I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t be there. Our office was transformed with twinkling lights, mistletoe, and stockings hung along the room divider with care (see the image earlier in this post). People came together as a community to celebrate one another and the year that has passed, but we also used this event as an opportunity to kick off our monthlong cereal drive to benefit the Pine Street Inn — and, so far, we’ve collected over $400 worth of cereal for those in need, with more donations set to come in later this week.
So, in short: I believe that you should celebrate Christmas, or HumanLight, or Hanukkah, or the Solstice, or Festivus, or whatever you’d like. Or, you know, nothing. But the increasing politicization of Christmas — a discourse often polarized by many believers, who use Christmas as an opportunity to exclude those who don’t share in their views, but also by some atheists — doesn’t account for those of us who see Christmas as a tradition that gives us an excuse to huddle together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world, relishing in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. And as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action.
There are many problems in the world that demand our concern and attention — I don’t think that some atheists celebrating Christmas should be near the top of that list. Our lives are short, and they are precious. If you have found a way to make your life and the lives of those around you that much richer, whether by celebrating Christmas or by ordering takeout that day, then I celebrate along with you.
Susan Campbell is the author of Dating Jesus and the upcoming biography, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker. For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage.
Back when my parents were still married, we celebrated Christmas with all the trimmings. I sang “Away In a Manger” at a Christmas fair. One brother was a shepherd, when he wanted very much to be Joseph. We talked about Baby Jesus in the manger.
And then my parents divorced, and my mother married a fundamentalist Christian for whom Christmas was nothing more than those Catholics trying to get one over on you — Christ-Mass. Get it? So we celebrated, but only the secular part (tree, Santa, gifts) and we did so quietly because some of the more dedicated members of my church didn’t do even that.
I remember asking about that in Sunday school, and having it explained to me that Jesus couldn’t have been born on Dec. 25, and that holidays like that weren’t really our style, that we celebrate every Sunday and isn’t that better than just once a year?
I wasn’t stupid. Sundays weren’t nearly as interesting as Christmas, and as I grew up, I found that theology growing smaller for me — and my Christmas trees getting bigger.
Ah, but the sword of fundamentalism plunges deep. You can think you’ve walked far from that whole thing, and then? Something snatches you back. I decorated our tree last night, and drowned myself in a maudlin retelling (mostly, to the ornaments themselves, as who wants to be around a maudlin hillbilly?) of each ornament’s history. The Mickey Mouse ornament I bought the year of my own divorce, when I won a writing contest and spent every penny to take my son to Disney World. The cheap, buy-’em-by-the-half-dozen ornaments I got the year I thought I’d lost all my Christmas gear. The fancy glass ornaments I saved up for, just like the ones my dad brought back from Germany. Sprinkled throughout are precious homemade ornaments from my sons, a poem, a pair of cotton skates, a carefully rendered manger scene.
As I decorated, I listened to Nat King Cole, who has accompanied me every year as I make my (slow) way back to Christmas. And every year, when the choir behind him swells, I get a little choked up. It’s a good kind of choked up, I promise. So what if Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25? It’s a beautiful holiday when people show a little more kindness, and a lot more love. We really do need a little Christmas.
So when I die, and I stand before God, and She asks, “Did you have a Christmas tree?” I will answer, “Hell, yes, I did.”
Carolyn Meckbach is a former editorial intern for Beacon Press, where she crafted the discussion guide for Faitheist. She is studying Political Science and Gender Studies at Gordon College while directing If I Told You, a student-run journal that publishes personal narratives surrounding sexual orientation, spiritual doubt, and mental health.
Get Faitheist and all other Beacon books for 20% off if you order in December. You'll also get free shipping and support a good cause. Click here for more info.
No sooner had I found a
spot in the cramped basement of an Old Jerusalem café in Central Square than I
realized I had entirely misplaced the notes and questions I had written for an
interview with Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist:
How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. My mind reeled,
trying to remember my talking points, trying to brainstorm new ones. Chris had
just arrived back in town from a cluster of speaking gigs and was already
taking time away from work to meet with me; the least I could do was ensure I
knew what I wanted to ask him. As I grabbed my notebook and began to scrawl a
few poorly-ordered questions, I looked up to see him standing before me
smiling, arms held out as if to give me a hug. (I had never met him, but
immediately doubted he was a native New Englander: as it would turn out, he is
not.) I stood to greet him, and amid his laughter about a nearly unsuccessful
attempt to find the place, I remember him glancing down at my notes to remark:
conversational today, if that’s alright with you.”
After conversing with him
for those few hours, and in the subsequent times we’ve met, I’ve realized that his
initial request—more an invitation—pretty much sums up Chris’s entire approach
to conflict-resolution: a preference for open, personal discourse as opposed to
rigid debate. In person, what’s notable about Chris is the way he becomes immediately
familiar through quirky and humbling admissions, and the forward-leaning manner
in which he listens. It’s abundantly clear that Chris is most fulfilled when he’s
creating an opportunity for both others and himself to speak with honesty.
What follows is a highly-condensed
version of some of our conversations (also found at Patrol
Magazine) in which Chris explores his transition from Evangelical
Christianity to secular humanism – as well as the various insights which have
positioned him to share about his journey.
be frank here. You’re 25, and you’ve already written a memoir…
Ahh. More often than not, people will say to me: ‘A memoir? You must have had a really interesting life.’ I suppose I
have had an interesting life, but it’s hard for me to compare it to others
because it’s the only life I’ve ever had. Most people think their own life is
interesting, and I guess I’m no exception. But this book isn’t really about
whether my life has been sensational or not; I wrote this book because I care
about trying to improve the way that the religious and the nonreligious speak
with and about one another, because it feels to me like there is an
increasingly volatile chasm between those groups. The reason I wrote this book
as a memoir is because scholars like Marshall Ganz agree that storytelling is
one of the best avenues for reconciliation and for prompting discussion across
lines of diversity. The easiest way for me to explain why I believe this work
is urgent, and why I personally care about it so much, is by discussing it
through the lens of my own story.
sheds light on when you were 10 and encountered books like The Diary of
Anne Frank, Roots, and Hiroshima. How
instrumental were these books to your initial impulse to become involved in
I was horrified. I had no
idea I lived in a country that had recently allowed for slavery. I had no idea
that I lived in a country built on stolen land. I had no idea that, within the
last 50 years, an atomic bomb had been dropped by my own country on another. I
had no idea that WWII had happened; I knew nothing of the Holocaust. And these
books, of course, didn’t just present the facts; they were stories that personified these issues, making it easy
for me to imagine myself, or friends or loved ones, in those situations.
And how did this affect your pursuit
of a god?
Well, I was looking for a
way at a very young age of how to make sense of all that—I wondered if the
perpetrators of those crimes would be on the receiving end of some type of justice,
or if the people who had suffered at the hands of such evil individuals would
experience some kind of redemption. The Christian cosmology provided the
answers to the questions I had been asking; the theology I was presented said
that those who acted in selfish ways—ways that obscured others’ rights to live
freely in the world—would be punished for their actions, and that the innocent
individuals who suffered would be rewarded with an eternal life… if they accepted Jesus Christ as their
And that’s a big “if” that you
committed to, right?
Well, I wanted that for
myself too. Converting seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Everybody there
was, like, so excited for me, and I thought: okay, now I belong. Now I belong somewhere; I belong here. And not only
in this physical space, surrounded by these people, but in this sort of larger
cosmic structure. As in: “I am part of God’s flock now.”
How did people receive you?
So warmly. I remember the
youth pastor asking me, after I casually mentioned I had a big exam coming up,
“How did that math test go?” They were very attentive; they really seemed to
care—and that felt really nice, given the way my family was fracturing at the
time. Another factor that played into my going to church was that I wasn’t the
coolest kid around—I didn’t have trendy clothes and was a bit of a nerd, and
all the cool kids went to youth group.
Youth group was this weird mix of cool kids and the nerds they wouldn’t
associate with outside of youth group. But while you’re at youth group, you’re
all best friends. Anyway, despite all of those things that appealed to me about
church—the way it substituted the structure my family once provided, how it
compensated for my feeling like a total misfit at school, and how it provided me
a framework for making sense of injustice—it wasn’t a good thing for very long.
I soon realized it was only a safe place for some.About two months into my participation in this Evangelical
Christian community, I finally put my finger on something that I had always
sort of known. I had always felt a little, um, different. And I wasn’t
altogether sure why. I mean, everybody feels a bit different at some point. But
I just knew something was ‘off.’ Something about who I was didn’t fit what I
was supposed to be.
you’re partly referring to your sexual orientation—how would you say that you
first fully recognized this “difference”?
write about it in the book: I was watching TV and this commercial came on. It
was a low-budget ad for swim suits; there was a male model and a female model
standing next to each other, and I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Oh my God. It’s supposed to be the one on
the left drawing my eye, but it’s the one on the right.’ It was horrifying.
I was like, ‘Oh f—. I’m in big trouble.’ Because I knew this was
going to be a big problem—not just in terms of societal expectations, but
particularly within this community that I was so enamored with, that meant so
much to me.
lived in a small town in the Midwest, right?
grew up just outside of St. Paul, in a blue-collar river town. To put it in
perspective, my elementary school district was the one featured in a Rolling Stone article entitled “One
Town’s War on Gay Teens,” which investigated a recent suicide epidemic where
nine students thought to be gay killed themselves within a two-year period. So,
needless to say, I didn’t want to be gay. See—things are very different today.
There are representations of happy, healthy LGBT folks all over the place.
Ellen DeGeneres, Glee—they’re
everywhere you look. But when I was in middle school, I don’t think even Will & Grace was on the air yet. And
even by the time that show did come, they, you know, lived in these fancy New
York apartments with lives that didn’t look anything like mine. I was a dorky
Midwesterner—I could not relate to that. I didn’t personally know any gay
people, and the few things I had heard about gay people were not good. At the end of the day, though,
my being gay was just another way thing to make me feel different from the
majority of my peers.
How did the realization that you
were gay affectyour faith?
Since I didn’t really
want to be gay, I decided I was going to change my sexual orientation. I got
the idea from my Christian church, who said that homosexuality was solvable,
changeable. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being ostracized, but
I got the impression based on ideas promoted within the church that being gay
was a spiritual affliction—one that could be overcome through dutifulness to
tradition. So if I prayed and I fasted and I studied Scripture and was just
this model Christian, my ‘burden’ would be lifted. I came to see my same-sex
attractions as a test, or a punishment—one I could overcome. So I worked very hard
to do just that, but became despondent as years passed by and I didn’t see any
progress. The irony is that I had become a part of this community because I was
looking for a way to make sense of suffering and because the communal aspect of
Christianity was very appealing—but when I became increasingly serious about my
quest to change my sexual orientation for them, I ended up retreating further
and further into myself, and suffering more and more. Eventually I was just a
zombie stumbling through my own life, completely unengaged with the world
around me; focused solely on this one
You write in the book about certain
times that you were harassed by Christians. How much did those experiences
influence your break with Evangelical Christianity?
atheism wasn’t born out of the negative experiences that I had had within the
church, although I will admit that they sort of set me on a course of
self-reflection that led me to the conclusion that God probably does not exist.
As a college student, I was encouraged to turn a critical eye on my initial
conversion experience. When I did, I realized I hadn’t really converted for the
theology of the church, but for the community and the ethics and the positive
social action. But I wonder if I would’ve had the opportunity to enter into
that deep kind of reflection if I hadn’t had to question everything about who I
was for a number of years. I don’t know. I actually think those kinds of
hypotheticals are a bit silly. I am where I am now, and that’s what I know. But
it’s important for me to say that I didn’t decide that I don’t believe in an
anthropomorphized deity who is an interventionist force simply because
Christians were mean to me. I feel that’s what a lot of people think about
atheists—that they don’t believe in God because of negative experiences with
atheism is portrayed as something that is purely reactionary. For me, it was
actually more the result of critical self-reflection, which I go into in the
book. I looked at my own underlying values and beliefs and I just decided, you
know, this community isn’t my community and this Christian narrative is not my
narrative. It’s interesting to me that when I tell a very brief version of my
story of my years in the church, I’ll have Christians come up to me afterwards,
and they’ll say: “I just want to apologize on behalf of all Christians for what
you went through and you should know that not all Christians believe this. I’m
a part of a community that would welcome you without question for who you are.”
And while I really appreciate that, and I know it’s usually coming from a very
good place, part of me wonders: ‘did you
listen to the second half of what I talked about?’ My issue with
Christianity wasn’t solely because I hadn’t been entirely welcomed, though that
was a big part of it; I had to find a place where I fit. I had to find the
right language to describe the world around me. And that right language is a
humanistic, naturalistic way of seeing things.
existential problems don’t concern you as much anymore, why do you feel so
strongly that the irreligious should care about religion?
care in the sense that other people care. I recognize the significance religion
holds for so many other people. Even though the debate about the existence of
God is increasingly irrelevant to me, that doesn’t mean that it must be
irrelevant to everybody else. I have many friends and colleagues and people who
inspire me to action who are deeply motivated by their religious beliefs—and not
only isn’t that a problem to me, I actually celebrate
it, when it’s something that enriches their lives and propels them to enrich
other people’s lives. It’s not my business to say that because their source of
inspiration is different from my own and because I believe it is incorrect,
they must abandon it. If something is
a force for good in somebody else’s life, I don’t feel that it is my place to
erode that belief.
this sense, you’ve been known to deviate from the New Atheist movement.
this is where I diverge very strongly from some other atheists. A lot of other
atheists I encounter believe that the solution to the problems in our world is
to convince other people to drop “magical thinking” as they would put it—to
look at the hard, cold facts of existence and face them in the eye and just
deal with the fact that ‘we are all we
you’ve received criticism from such atheists as being “too soft” (with the
title of your book as evidence), you haven’t always been so open to the fruitful
aspects of religious belief. (After your conversion from Christianity, you
express in Faitheist
that you had been confrontational, mirroring the kind of atheism you now object
to.) What changed? What’s a key principle for you now when you’re interacting
with those who are outspokenly committed to religious beliefs that oppose your
first and foremost. It sounds backwards, but focusing on myself has enabled me
to find common ground with others. I try to be increasingly aware of my own stuff: where my own pressure-points are,
when I’m engaging in an interaction with someone else and it’s really about
something that I myself am dealing with. I think self-awareness for me has been
the key for being able to find common ground with people who believe really
different things than I do, and the key to being able to forgive the people who
perpetuated the beliefs that ultimately led me into a really difficult
I write in the book, so much of my issue in college was that I really wasn’t
self-aware. So much of what was preventing me from having those conversations
with others – so much of what led me to be confrontational – was my own lack of
self-awareness, and less what they had done. I hadn’t fully acquired a
disposition which made me want to
learn and want to listen — I had this
orientation of wanting to project and disagree, or wanting to isolate myself,
and I could sort of twist what others said. I could totally manipulate anything
anyone said into something hateful. But as I got older, I shifted into a
position of wanting to understand what I cared about the most and where my
values were. A lot of that has had to do with my education in pastoral care
work—my Masters was in Pastoral Care. My focus shifted from wanting to align
the beliefs of others with my own, or wanting to confront differences, to
wanting to live as fully into my own convictions as I could.
feel religious belief can ever become a problem?
becomes a problem when a person’s religious beliefs compel him or her to impose
those beliefs onto other people’s lives in ways that are harmful and hurtful;
when they’re used to diminish others’ liberty and dignity. Of course, I don’t
think that religious beliefs have a monopoly on dehumanization and diminishment.
The issue for me is not religion or religious beliefs as much as it is any kind
of totalitarianistic, dogmatic, exclusivistic, tribalistic way of thinking and
way of seeing the world—anything that is used to oppressive ends. If we can
reduce the prevalence that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior, we will
live in a much more peaceable world.
sheds light upon both your adolescence and early adulthood, and I know that the
work you immerse yourself in – interfaith activism—involves reaching out to a
younger crowd who oftentimes feels hesitant to validate their nonreligious,
religious, and sexual-based identities due to their age. How do you hope that
younger individuals will interact with this book?
hope that it might encourage younger people to step out into the public arena
with their stories and their beliefs. I believe young people have the capacity
to do such good work in the world, but many don’t feel they have the authority
to speak, or to act, or to influence. This is why I’m so involved with IFYC,
because I hope that other young people will see me say: ‘You know, he’s not the
smartest guy around. He’s not the most well-spoken; sure, what he’s doing
resonates with me, but I could do what he’s doing.’ Young people’s voices are
largely absent in these circles of influence, and I hope that my experience
inspires other people to be confident, to speak out, and to not feel like they
have to have everything figured out in order to participate in discussions
about religious diversity.
As with any memoir, publishing this
puts you in a vulnerable position. How do you feel you might respond to any
criticism about “not-having-all-of-your-ducks-in-a-row” – that your life is too
much in flux to be penning it down in a memoir?
[Laughing:] I’m sure that
in 5 years from now so much will have changed, but I suspect that my central
concerns will remain relatively stable. Without being apologetic about it, I
come right out in the book and try to explain that I don’t have it all figured
out. Still, I hope my striving for authenticity will come through in the
writing, and in who I am as a person. And if that doesn’t translate, then, you
know, I’ll keep trying. What I’ve learned over the years from struggling with
all of this is that every day is a new day—a chance to try again, to try it
anew, to try something else. It’s
constantly ongoing, meaning: nothing is at the end of the book. There is no