Interfaith


So, I just finished the final evaluations for the course I just taught on Jesus and Muhammad, which was an intensive month-long course that (I hope) accomplished two primary things: (1) provide the students with the primary biographical sources of Jesus (gospels) and Muhammad (Sirah) in order to (2) give the students a yardstick to assess the ways in which both Jesus and Muhammad are represented and used for different rhetorical and political purposes both in the past and in the present. I was lucky to have a group of seven excellent students who took the course seriously (most of the time).

In short courses like this, it can be a challenge to provide evaluations and assessments that really provide students with an idea of “where they’re at”. There is only so much reading, and so much class participation, and so much essaying or reviewing students can do in a month’s time.  In the end, I feel like most of the class came to realize to various degrees that when it comes to Jesus and Muhammad (and the Buddha or any other significant religious figure) what we are dealing with is not with the  historical figure, but with the constructions created by either friends or foes to the traditions they represent. 

Rather than assess on information, it is important to realize that we need to assess on knowledge and understanding, even if the store of “facts” and “information” is not what we might want it to be.

So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

Jacob wrestling with Angel of the LordSo tonight I’m giving a talk at our county public library on Judaism. I have the honor of distilling a 3,000 year old religious faith and tradition into one hour. (guffaw!)

The word is out, too. By this, I mean that apparently the chairwoman of the regional homeschooling association has learned that I’m doing this and is all excited. She got talking with some of the other homeschooling moms, who also got interested, and then they approached the wife to say how excited they are over this, began talking about having me offer classes in the homeschool co-op on world religions, give talks on the subject of Judaism and Islam and so forth at their monthly meetings, etc. Good vibes, for the most part. But… I got the “It will be so awesome (I’m thankful that I didn’t hear “wicked awesome”…) to hear someone talk about Judaism and these other religions from a Christian perspective. This is sooooo what we need!”

Wellllll….. I’m not sure how to take this. Or rather, I know exactly how I’m supposed to take this, and it kinda scares me a little bit. See, in the various circles I’m in (specifically the homeschooling one here), when the subject of world religions comes up at all, it’s always in the form of comparative apologetics. Religion X is compared with Christian doctrine and theological formulations (not Christian history, not phenomenology, symbolic imagery and iconography, ritual practices, and so on, unless it can be contrasted with Christian”orthodox” theology, doctrine, and practice), and the result of these comparisons and contrasts is as one would expect in sectarian education: We’ve got it right, and they’re off-base.

Ehhhhhh. That’s not what’s happening for this. But I feel the pressure from a demographic that is significant in the life of my family. I am there to introduce Judaism as a vibrant, living, beautiful religious faith and tradition to non-academics. I am not there to proselytize, criticize, denigrate, or even simply point out how Judaism differs from Christianity. To those informed in either tradition, the differences between them will be transparent. In fact, I have no plans to even mention Christianity except in historical context, and since this is only an hour, it will pretty much be a passing mention as a first century Jewish sect. (Rather like Josephus does in his work, actually.) Any real discussion of Judaism vis a vis Christianity will take place during the open Q+A session after the talk.

To the extent that, as Christian, this presentation will be “a Christian perspective” on a world religion, I think that Christians will – or should – recognize much in the Jewish concepts of God, the Book, and Israel. I strongly believe that serious interfaith dialog absolutely has to begin with establishing commonalities between them. I am making these the focus. And this is the aspect that I can envision frustrating my Christian, apologetically-oriented homeschooling folks potentially in the room. Evangelicals typically emphasize difference, and indeed are often afraid of having similarities in religion even pointed out, let alone discussed and engaged.

Not that there’s any shortage of “Christian perspectives” on world religions. They’re a dime a dozen, and in fact this has been going on in “orientalist” scholarship for several centuries. It’s easy enough to find. What I think makes this so exciting for these folks is the idea that it’s one of their own, someone they trust, and who they regard as being a competent authority on the subject, who is doing it. I’m more likely,launcelot.jpg perhaps, to be taken seriously than, say, a rabbi coming in to do exactly the same talk. So I welcome the opportunity. I just hope that the bridges that these types of events can potentially construct, that I seek to build, are open to everyone, and that others don’t plant a funny-looking old man demanding answers to the “questions three” before allowing others, who do not share their perspective, to cross.

ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

cross_crescent.jpgIn the July 8 issue of the Boston Globe, a fascinating piece on “What it means to be a Christian after George W. Bush” dominated the “most e-mailed” category of the paper’s website for a number of weeks. In like fashion, but seemingly flying much lower under the radar, the July 30 issue of Newsweek featured a special report on “Islam in America” that seeks to at least raise the question of how Muslims citizens of the United States can be true to both their faith and to their country to public consciousness. Despite different approaches and examples (the Globe focuses on Christian responses to the Gulf war, while Newsweek turns on Muslim experience in the US since 9/11), both articles address the same critical issue, which is how can observant and committed Christians and Muslims be faithful to their religious and spiritual heritage and be responsible citizens of the US?

The implicit argument of both articles is that the experience of living through the Bush II administration somehow changes what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim in the United States. It is true that the elections of 2000 and 2004, which brought conservative and evangelical Christians out of the woodwork and into the voting box to elect the candidate ordained by national evangelical leaders, and the support of an unreal 87% of evangelicals who supported Bush’s Iraq War in 2003 have absolutely affected public perception of the role Christians play (or ought to play, or should not play) in the governance of the country (as well as in the election of its leaders) and in our involvement overseas. Neither can there any doubt that the trauma of 9/11 has thrust the nearly 2.35 million Muslims into the national limelight in an unprecedented degree, and the continued announcements of alleged terrorist plots being thwarted does nothing to dissuade millions of others from erroneous and potentially deadly misconceptions about our brothers and sisters of our sibling faith.

At the same time, though, the question itself, that of how to be a good and responsible citizen of our country and yet be true to our faith tradition, is hardly new. It is, in fact, at least as old as the biblical prophets in the Hebrew tradition, and it is upon this tradition that Jesus and Muhammad both drew for their own particular responses and to whom Christians and Muslims today look to for their respective archetypal ethical examples. Likewise it was St. Paul and, still later, St. Augustine who formulated this problem for Christians in the Roman Empire in theoretical and theo-political terms. While the specific examples of being Muslim or being Christian in the age of George W. Bush might be new, the problem is not.

Positively, the whole Administration has called attention to the religious elephant that has always been in the political room. While we certainly may wish that the circumstances were different, there can be no question today that religion, and in particular Christianity and Islam in the United States, is political, and politics is fundamentally religious. It is ironic, therefore, that as the neocon Republican Bush administration prepares its exeunt, the Rebublican candidates have spoken little of the impact of faith in politics (which has left evangelical leaders scrambling for a suitable candidate, and even a dismayed Jim Dobson himself threatening to not vote in 2008!), the traditionally “secular” Democratic Party has itself “gotten religion,” demonstrated first by the election of Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) as the nation’s first Muslim Congressman and then by the recent and powerful declarations of the importance and significance of the role of faith and religion in national politics by candidates Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. What is becoming clear is that we don’t have to “be” Christian or “be” Muslims necessarily any different than we are, but we do need to change perceptions of “being” of the faith really means vis-a-vis responsible citizenship.

In both traditions, Jesus and Muhammad call on their respective followers to be prophetic witnesses to peace and justice in the world. Nowhere in either the Qur’an or the Christian Bible are the people of God commanded to internalize their faith to such a degree that it is solely and completely private and detached from affairs of this world, which include our politics, civic engagements and responsibilities, and so forth. The prophetic call is a call to engage issues of injustice where we are, and to exercise compassion and mercy in so doing. Our militant versions of our faiths (Islamic extremism in the case of my Muslim friends, and Christian fundamentalism in my own tradition) may very well believe they are acting on behalf of divine justice, but they fail to act on their own mandates of mercy and compassion in their scriptural traditions.

Thus to respond to the challenge raised by Newsweek and the Globe, we, as brothers and sisters in the service of God, can indeed engage our civic and political issues for the betterment of our country without resorting to quasi-pseudo theocracy on the one hand or extremism on the other. Inshallah.

Apparently Pat Robertson is a mite jealous over Chuck’s receipt of the JSU! Award; not to be outdone, we get this brilliant piece from the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club on Monday night’s show:

There you have it. “Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant (sic) on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.”

Yikes. Not only do we need to present Pat with his own JSU! Award, but we may have to institute the F-Bomb Award for Religious Ignorance (see here, here, and here, all on Aedificium) as well.

There are something like 2.3 million or so Muslims in the US alone. That means that we Christians are more likely to bump into Muslims in the grocery store than we are to bump into Episcopalians. Pat’s, and Chuck’s, comments ought to be as unwelcome to those of us who are Christians as they are to our Muslim friends and neighbors. Neither of these guys speaks for the majority of Christians, but they’re the ones getting the airtime.

It’s not like we can get Pat off the air, I guess, but those of us in the rank-and-file of American Christians can still be active in denouncing this kind of extremism through our relationships with our Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, and so forth, in pretty much the same way that American Muslims denounce terrorism and extremism. We can blog, we can call in to radio shows, we can write op-ed pieces, and engage in other creative ways of rejecting this kind of influence.

Upshot: Islam is a religion. And it’s a sibling of Christianity and Judaism. Spread the word.

Charles Wendell Colson MugshotESPN’s “Mike and Mike” show has a weekly segment on Tuesdays called “Just Shut Up!” Being Tuesday and being in the mood to blog, I’m making a nomination here for the first ever recipient of the undoubtedly soon-to-be-coveted Just Shut Up! Award of the Aedificium. After reading this piece in the online edition of Sunday’s Washington Post, the Aedificium has awarded the Just Shut Up! Certificate to Chuck Colson. Congratulations on your well-deserved accomplishment.

The WP headlines the short note containing Colson’s comments as follows: “Baptists Warned About Islam, Atheism,” and observes that Colson’s address to the pre-conference gathering of Southern Baptist pastors was a call to Christians to “do a better job of explaining their religion’s worldview.” He then singles out Islam as “vicious” and “evil,” noting that the merger of Islam with fascism results in an ideology that is “evil incarnate.” Colson also apparently dismissed the emergent movement as an irrelevant aberration in the church that is “abandoning the search for truth” in favor of “conversations in coffee shops,” and juxtaposes emergent with the “pure orthodox truth” of Third World Churches.

Colson has done some great work in his career, but his brand of evangelicalism makes me want to just secede and give it up completely. We simply don’t need a Christian denomination of nearly 16.5 million members to be taught that every Muslim (and, in fact, Colson can’t even bring himself to use that word, but calls Muslims “Islamists”), every one of the 1.3 billion or so who live on Late Great Planet Earth, is an evil fascist who could, and who would be perfectly willing to, blow himself or herself up just to kill off Christians. This, of course, is totally different from Christian behavior, who would never do anything of the sort. For the love of God and all that is holy, how can we get the word out that this is just simply, patently, and devastatingly untrue and that this kind of hateful, propagandistic drivel is exactly what the extremists want to hear?

The post and ensuing discussion from a few weeks back on the idea of Christian worldviews holds here too. Colson believes that if Christians do a better job of explaining “their religion’s worldview” that the evil of Islam and atheism can be defeated and the emergent movement shown for the fraud he thinks it is. This is hopelessly misguided, not only because there is not and has never really been a single Christian worldview, but because Colson has sold himself to the stereotypes of Islam and of emergent at the expense of actually knowing much of anything about them that is anything other than destructive and divisive. How about constructive and uniting? And how about considering the possibility that Muslims, “emergents,” and the Brights of Dawkins’ and Harris’ brand of faith are engaged in the “search for truth” every bit as much as Colson is? Or, that this search might entail other elements besides regurgitating outdated propositional expressions or coming up with new propositions to add to the outdated ones? To dismiss the emergent church as an abandoning of truth in favor of coffeehousing relativism is as irresponsible as it is ridiculous.

Yes, I’m ticked off, because, damn it, I’m a Baptist, I’m extremely sympathetic to the emergent movement and consider myself part of it, and I have numerous Muslim friends and acquaintances who condemn acts of terrorism and Islamic extremism and all forms of governmental fascism every bit as much as other people of faith do.

Colson is committed to his own ideology and is blind to everything that doesn’t fit; he’s made the world in his own image. Not even God had the audacity to do that.

Nana’s 19th-century Family BibleRegular readers of this blog (and of others where I’ve left comments) know that we homeschool our kids and also that while I support teaching religions in schools I’m not so keen on teaching “The Bible.” (I have a feeling this could be a longish post. You are forewarned. 😉 ) And now, suddenly, I’m confronted with the necessity of choosing a homeschool curriculum that includes, of course, “The Bible,” for my second-grader.

Homeschool parents know that the three big clearing houses for educational supplies and curricula are Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist in orientation. Some of them, such as Bob Jones Press (representing the Fundamentalist wing), write their own stuff. Logos is another one that is very focused in its stuff, not necessarily following the Fundamentalist curriculum (it does not, in fact) but in its very particular conservative Reformed/Providential emphasis. Logos does not market itself as a “home school clearinghouse” so much as it does its “classical-Christian” educational program, but with a decidedly conservative evangelical slant toward providential history and historical biblicism. The third, and biggest, player here is Veritas Press. Officially, Veritas is “unaffiliated,” and they carry everything from Penguin Classics to classical apologetics. It is, however, very much an Evangelical outfit that places the Bible at the center of its educational philosophy and markets its material specifically for Christian schools and for Christian homeschools.

So, here’s my dilemma, and it is largely the same dilemma I have with the idea of teaching the Bible in public schools. The reason why I can’t support teaching Bible in public schools is primarily because in the public, government supported schools, the curriculum is written and backed by the state, which would be tantamount to officially endorsing, in fact officially creating, a state-sponsored, official interpretation of the Bible. Not only would this be unconstitutional, but, especially in the current political climate and in the US’s role in the global economy, it would be especially dangerous and undesirable. No thanks.

Even supposing that such a curriculum could be written that was as value-neutral and non-sectarian as humanly (heck, even divinely) possible, there is the issue of Who is going to teach this? What criteria of qualification to teach the Bible in a public school will satisfy the parents and students? It simply won’t work. Churches can’t even agree on a Bible curriculum. Fundamentalist parents would never permit their kids to be taught Bible by a biblical scholar of any denomination that isn’t Fundamentalist in its outlook no matter how conservative or pious that scholar might be. Evangelicals committed to an Evangelical worldview and interpretation of the Bible would be only slightly more accepting of the same figure. But even here it would be rather out of the question to accept a completely secular Bible teacher who is unaffiliated with any church and/or trained in a “secular” university. Mainline Protestants, as well as students whose families are not committed to any flavor of Christianity (to say nothing of Jewish or Muslim students) will reject a bible teacher from Bob Jones or Liberty. It goes both ways.

This brings us back to “Christian schools” and “Christian” homeschools and the curriculum. Christian schools largely arose in reaction to political decisions to not include (or no longer include) Bible in the public school curriculum. Over time, these schools became the training grounds for kids (again, see yesterday’s post) to combat rising tides of secularism and moral deficiency in the broader American culture, and the solution to this in Evangelicalism has been “more Bible!” and, especially in Fundamentalist schools, hyper-isolationism. So the schools continued to emphasize the centrality of the Bible in every aspect of the curriculum, and the curriculum for the Bible became the centerpiece of the entire endeavor. But here the problem is fully illustrated; the only Bible curricula out there for primary and secondary education are defined, written, supported, and distributed by Evangelical or Fundamentalist clearing houses and distributors like CBD, Veritas Press, Logos, and Bob Jones. It may not be the State, but the impression is that if you’re going to do Christian ed, you have to do it this way or it’s not Christian. There are, of course, much smaller places that do in fact have more mainline Bible curricula, but these are primarily geared towards Sunday Schools and not for large-scale, institutional Evangelical primary and secondary education.

For those of us who homeschool, who are Christian, and who are (at best) highly suspicious of the Evangelical agenda and of its particular spin on history and biblical interpretation, this creates an ethical dilemma. Indeed, homeschool teachers, by definition amateurs in most of the subjects in the curriculum (if not completely ignorant!) are more or less at the mercy of the defined curriculum they settle on, or, if done in a local cooperative network, on whatever the board of directors settles on. If you as the parent of a homeschooled child do not agree with the cooperative’s adopted curriculum for the Bible component, or don’t like the choices available to do it on your own, and lack the competency (or the time) to draw up your own curriculum, well, good luck to you.

As someone who emphasizes the need for local, community-oriented education and economy and who tries to resist our dependencies on large-scale, institutionalized forms of education and economics (see some of my earlier posts), homeschooling is perhaps the best option we have. Part of good stewardship is being a good steward to our children, and not simply to our land our our heritage. Small, local cooperative networks of homeschooling has tremendous potential to offer an education to our kids that advocates the kind of ethical education that is lacking elsewhere. It is, by necessity, local community oriented. However, I have not seen this, despite its potential. From what I can see, homeschooling goes either in the direction of individualism, whereby individual families insulate their kids from anything that could contaminate the indoctrination they are giving their kids, while coopting the word “education” in the process. Or it takes the approach of parochialism, where similar and largely like-minded homeschool parents band together in a kind of wagon circle to protect what’s inside from outside influences, including the influences of “formal education” that Christian schools have adopted from public schools. In such groups, I’ve learned from experience that it’s their way, or the highway. Their Bible curriculum is nothing short of the gospel, as defined by the experts in Christian education. Take it … or leave it. This isn’t local, community oriented education at this point. It’s ghettoizing indoctrination.

Now, I’m a classical historian, a biblical scholar, and historian of religions by training, was “brought-up-born-again,” an active member of a left-leaning mainline suburban church, and a certified lay minister in my denomination. Beloved wife is a former public school elementary teacher, private tutor, current Sunday school teacher, church elder, and chair of the children’s ed committee at said church, and she’s also a leader in our local SBC evangelical church’s MOPS and AWANA groups. If ever there should be a couple who could figure out a good history and Bible curriculum for kids, we’re it. What might this look like?

I don’t know yet, but we’re working on it. In the next few days, maybe, look for a post on some criteria that such a curriculum might contain. And as always, I’m happy to take suggestions.

clitheroe-mosque.jpgI admit that’s a bit of a hook for this post, but I make no apologies. Today’s NY Times has a fascinating article about the the former home of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Clitheroe, England. The impressive stone church building has been a factory that makes scarves for the past forty years, but is now once again the home of faith: Islam.

Converted structures for new faiths are nothing new, and historically, the conversion of a church to a mosque or a mosque to a church has been a feature of both faiths since the seventh century. I don’t need to list examples, but two of the most famous are the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (church to mosque) and the Cordoba Cathedral in Spain (mosque to church). To me, this is a fascinating image that is, as Sheraz Arshad, the leader of the Clitheroe Muslim community recognizes, “visually symbolic, the coming together of religions.”

The article relates the legal and political struggles that Mr. Arshad has had to face, who simply wanted to find a home for his community of Believers, hurdles which are testimony to the need for interfaith relationships in the contemporary world. Contrary to the views of so many, not every Muslim is a militant jihadist, just as neither is every Christian a fundamentalist Armageddonist. In fact, in both faiths these particular worldviews are by far the minority, but, being the sensationalist representations that they are, make for easy media fodder and therefore guaranteed to receive the loudest microphones. Indeed, the NY Times story here wouldn’t even BE news if there was no local controversy over the transition of the old church into a mosque.

The story speaks more to the increasing irrelevance of Christianity than it does the spread of jihadism. The fact that the old church had been a factory for 40 years should be more upsetting than its resurrection as a new home for Muslims. Mr. Arshad, a progressive Muslim who is also the facilitator of interfaith relationships in England, is probably more representative not only of his own faith, but of many in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well, than the secular politicians and “Christian” reactionaries who have already begun persecuting the Clitheroe Muslims and their new home, despite Mr. Arshad’s point about not having the daily calls to prayer or a dome, which would “look like a big onion” in Clitheroe.

In view of my call for recognizing common ground in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in various faith traditions, Christians who react negatively over this should re-think the stakes here. Should we prefer that our dying houses of worship leave empty shells around to be converted into mass industry? Or should we be grateful for the fact that there are those who know that our religions and spiritual traditions do have a major impact in the world, regardless of whether we are part of that particular tradition? For myself, I will pick the latter; if we abandon our houses of worship, let someone else worship there. If we have a problem with that, the best way to make a difference is not by complaining about it, but by actually returning to our churches.

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