A Q&A with Susan Katz Miller
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, one in every five Americans now grows up in an interfaith family. For some, solving the puzzle of what and how to celebrate in an interfaith family can be stressful. Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, has written a new book for this reason.
Published by Skinner House Books, The Interfaith Family Journal is a resource containing interactive exercises and creative activities to help interfaith families decide how they want to honor their histories, cultures, and beliefs in ways that nurture joy, creativity, and empowerment. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to ask about the inspiration of the book, how it can help interfaith families in our times of continued attacks and shootings at houses of worship, and more.
Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing The Interfaith Family Journal?
Susan Katz Miller: Since the publication of Being Both, I have been traveling the country, speaking about interfaith families in churches and synagogues, universities and national conferences. And a steady stream of interfaith couples and families, from all over the world, started to contact me to ask for support. Often, they come to me because they do not have supportive clergy, or they cannot find counselors who have experience in interfaith issues. And they appreciate my perspective as both an adult interfaith child, and the parent of adult interfaith children. At some point I realized that I cannot coach everyone individually, but with the Journal, I can support families everywhere. And at exactly that moment, Skinner House actually came to me, looking for an author to write a book like this, because there is no other workbook for interfaith families out there.
CC: How much does The Interfaith Family Journal build upon or reference your previous book, Being Both?
SKM: Being Both was a work of memoir, journalism, and quantitative and qualitative research, describing interfaith families choosing to celebrate both family religions. In contrast, The Interfaith Family Journal is an interactive resource designed to support any and all interfaith families in figuring out their own best pathway, whether that means choosing one religion, or two, or all religions, or none. No one pathway is going to work for all interfaith families. And while Being Both focused primarily on the religions in my own background—Judaism and Christianity—the Journal works whether you are atheist and Christian, Hindu and Jewish, Buddhist and Pagan, or UU and Muslim and Zoroastrian. So the Journal references Being Both as one resource for one of the pathways available to interfaith families, but also provides resources for those who choose to be secular humanists, and/or Unitarian Universalists, and/or any other religious or secular pathway.
CC: In the introduction, you write that the book “begins with the assumption that interfaith families, so often characterized as problematic, can actually be inspiring and successful.” Why are interfaith families often characterized as problematic? Is that still really the case today?
SKM: A lot of Americans under age forty no longer see interfaith relationships as problematic, which is great news. But they still have to deal with the expectations of parents and grandparents and clergy and society at large, and the Journal helps families to do that. And the reality is that many religious institutions still have policies that forbid interfaith marriage. And in many countries, interfaith marriage is still illegal, and may even be dangerous.
But let's return to a young American interfaith family content to be, for instance, secular humanists. They may not experience interfaith heritage as an issue. But the exercises in the Journal create a framework that will still support them in making decisions, big and small. For instance, how do your religious backgrounds and cultural expectations impact your decisions on holiday celebrations, or on birth or death rituals? And these families still benefit from the creative activities in the Journal (such as making an interfaith family recipe book)—projects designed to reframe the interfaith family as an engine of joy.
At the same time, there are people, even young people in the US, who still feel connected to religion, and really struggle to figure out how to celebrate in an interfaith family, what to honor, how to provide interfaith children with religious literacy. Those who are actively wrestling with these issues may be most likely to seek this book out. But I think it can help all families.
CC: How did you decide that five weeks would be needed for the process you developed in the journal?
SKM: The process is based on my experience as a coach for individual families and on running workshops for interfaith couples. Each week, the Journal partners respond in writing to prompts about their own backgrounds, experiences, and desires for their interfaith family. (By the way, your Journal partner does not have to be a romantic partner. For instance, a single adoptive parent could choose a Journal partner who is a mentor from the child's birth culture and religion). Then the partners swap Journals and read what was written. Next, there are exercises for engaging with the partner around what they wrote. And finally, there are creative activities in each chapter, designed to engage children as well. I also describe a way to compress all of this into an intense weekend, if necessary. But I think giving yourselves the days in between each chapter to reflect on the memories and feelings and dreams inspired by the exercises will help families to go deeper. And realistically, most people will want to do this emotionally intense work together on the weekend, and then give it a rest during the week.
CC: You wrote that many previous books on interfaith families have assumed an audience of Christian and Jewish heterosexual couples. I like the fact that your book strives to decenter white Christian heteronormativity. Is this one of the first books on interfaith families do to so?
SKM: Being Both was inclusive, in the sense that I interviewed both LGBTQ clergy and interfaith couples, and I think that was a first for books on interfaith families. But The Interfaith Family Journal is certainly the first interfaith families book in which we intended every sentence to be gender-neutral and applicable to any and every family configuration, and any and every constellation of religious, cultural, racial, and gender identities. I appreciate that both of my publishers, Beacon Press and Skinner House, are dedicated to Unitarian Universalist values and seek to break ground in this regard. Skinner House director Mary Bernard envisioned a book that would work for all families, and together we worked hard to intentionally shift this book away from historical assumptions about what makes a family, who can be parents, and which religions are normative in the US. I also wrote the book knowing that statistically, for multiple reasons, LGBTQ relationships are more likely than straight relationships to be interfaith and intercultural relationships. I think this is the first book dedicated to the idea that interfaith families live and create and thrive, almost by definition, in intersectional space. The radiant cover, with a multitude of overlapping circles, reflects that idea.
CC: And lastly, how do you see this book helping interfaith families at a time when we’re seeing attacks and shootings at synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship?
SKM: Love starts at home. This book helps you to listen deeply, and engage with each other around religious difference, on that intimate family level. In doing so, you are building skills that transfer to communicating across religious difference in the schoolyard, the workplace, the online world, and society at large. And in modeling the kind of respect, bridge-building, and ongoing interfaith education described in this book, interfaith families are actually weaving a protective network of love and understanding. As that network grows, I believe we can ultimately help to prevent such violence.
About Susan Katz Miller
Susan Katz Miller is an author, speaker, educator, interfaith coach, and interfaith activist. A former correspondent for Newsweek and New Scientist, her writing and photography have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. She is the child of interfaith parents, the parent of interfaith children, and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She has been featured on The Today Show, CBS, PBS, several NPR programs, and many other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @susankatzmiller and visit her website.