Judaism


Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

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.

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.

Album art of The Beatles’ Hey JudeHey, Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better.

Ahhh…probably my favorite Beatles song, and actually one of my favorite of all the New Testament texts. In the comments to a post some time ago, a loyal reader and visitor to the Aedificium (alas, may peace be upon his blog) noted to me his appreciation for interpretive posts here that “get below the surface and to a deeper place.” And so, in the spirit of Lennon and McCartney, I thought I would toss up some thoughts here that try to get under the skin of one of the least known texts in the entire Christian canon to begin to make better an appreciation of it. Which is really just a way of saying “here are some of my notes and thoughts from Sunday morning’s Bible study that I was conscripted into leading at the last possible minute.”

(N.B.: If you’ve arrived at this blog looking for the sensational live concert video of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” welcome. I won’t keep you from your true objective! You’ll find the Youtube video of the performance at the bottom of this post.)

One question I am regularly asked is “How come some books are in the Bible when nobody even knows what they say, let alone actually sit and read them? How come hardly anyone ever preaches from Leviticus or Obadiah or Jude?” Indeed! While I have occasionally heard a sermon or two from Leviticus, I can’t say that I have ever, in any church or denomination I have ever been in, heard one from Jude. I have never even been part of a Bible study or Sunday School class that focused on Jude. Even in college and university textbook surveys of the Bible or the New Testament, Jude is usually lumped in with the Peter letters at best and sometimes just in the “general letters” category. So, when on Friday evening at a social function a member of our Sunday morning study group wanted to do a few short studies for the last several weeks of the Sunday “Academic Year,” I suggested that we focus on some short prophetic books or NT Letters that no one ever reads that we could maybe bang out in a week or two for each book. Enter Jude.

Hey, Jude! Don’t let her down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember, to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better.

Yeah, baby. So anyway, two questions: Why is it Scripture if no one reads it or, if people do read it, uses it? and Why don’t people read it or use it? It’s certainly short enough; Philemon gets read and preached from and studies, so how come poor Jude gets the short end of the stick?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that at one point in time, Jude enjoyed enough currency among its 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian recipients that the letter circulated among other Jewish-Christian congregations in the eastern Mediterranean. But as these congregations were gradually “replaced” by Byzantine and/or Roman and/or Alexandrian and/or more “eastern” versions of Christianity (like Manichaean or Syriac or Mandaean) the book’s extensive imagery from the 2nd Temple Jewish period was simply not understood anymore. Despite having been admitted to the canon of Christian Scripture in the Eastern and Western churches, once the terrific images of Jude were no longer understood, the book was effectively lost. But, as Lennon and McCartney note, I think we can find Jude again and we can go and get it, and let it into our hearts.

So what’s going on here? The book, as I see it, depends on a thorough realization that it is very much a Jewish text with fairly minimal gentile Christian overlay. It won’t do to try to shoehorn standard Christian interpretations of all the explicitly Jewish imagery; 1500 years of trying to do exactly this has turned the book into a “sad song” waiting to be made better again. In fact, some of the earliest manuscript traditions even bear witness to attempts to make it more conforming to what would eventually become orthodox Christology by changing the word for Lord in vs. 5 to Jesus himself, effectively making it absolutely clear, at least to those who followed these variants, that Jesus himself led Israel out of Egypt, not Yhwh elohim. Be that as it may, the appeal to the Exodus as God’s/Jesus’ act of salvation for the people “Israel” (a contested identity by the second century, and perhaps reflected here in Jude) out of bondage in Egypt is not the only, or even the primary, Jewish allusion in the book. Ergo, a “cheat sheet” of how a 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian community might have received this letter.

  • The image of “Cain.” Christians have long interpreted Cain as the archetype for murder and violence, and academics have added their two cents to this interpretation by pointing out that murder and violence in urban, domesticated settings is represented by Cain in Genesis 4. But, Jewish interpreters of Cain in the 2nd Temple period, such as Philo and Josephus (as well as the Rabbis in the classical rabbinic period), understood Cain less as an archetypal murderer and symbol for urban violence (though he was that) and more as the quintessential example of defiance to God’s authority, disobedience, and envy. Although this particular understanding of the Cainite semiotic gave way to the Christian one fairly early on, the author of Jude could no doubt have counted on his Jewish recipients to know what he meant.
  • Jude is mostly concerned about infiltrators to his community of Christians that have dared to “deny the Master,” as he puts it in verse 4. It so happens that in Jewish tradition, denial of the authority of God or his representatives is one of the gravest sins that a community or an individual can participate in. Jude uses a bunch of the most common Jewish examples of this, taken from the Old Testament and from more legendary embellishments of the canonical stories: 1) The “angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling” – v. 6. Has nothing to do with the fall of Satan. (Sorry, John Milton.) But it does have to do with the legend of the sons of God leaving their heavenly abode to fool around with the daughters of men, whom they apparently found more attractive and interesting than heavenly counterparts, in Genesis 6. This story has had a very long shelf life in the legends and tales of the Jewish people, and part of this cycle is preserved in the book of 1 Enoch, which was apparently dear to Jude’s heart. Result of this denial of God’s appointed place for these Jewish Titans: chained up in the deepest darkness for eventual judgment on “the day.” 2) Jude appeals to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Christian interpretation has long understood this verse to be talking about any number of sexual sins. But this is, again, only incidental to the story, according to Jewish interpreters of the age. Instead, the bigger problem is that the men of Sodom have insulted God’s honor by lusting after other flesh, specifically that of God’s angels. Result of this offense? Well, you know the story. And so did Jude’s addressees. 3) Michael’s disputation with the devil, in vs. 8, refers to an old Jewish apocryphal story about how the devil slanders Moses as a murderer and tells off God, via Michael, for even suggesting that Moses should be given a proper burial. Michael, though, refuses to treat with the devil and tells him to get lost. The point here is that not even an archangel will dare to take God’s place as judge; I think Jude is warning his community not to usurp the role of God even with the intruders they are dealing with, lest they incur God’s wrath like Korah did, like Cain did, and like Balaam did.
  • The stories of Korah and Balaam are, of course, in the Bible. Korah meets an untimely end for trying to upstage Moses and Aaron and claim God’s authority for himself, and ends up being eaten by the earth itself. Balaam is executed by Israel for attempting to induce Israel to idolatry, which is traditionally understood in Jewish metaphor in terms of sexual sins and infidelity to the Lord. Again, Jude is telling his audience not to treat with those who have infiltrated their community; they will meet their end soon enough.
  • The quotation from 1 Enoch in vs. 14-15. Here we have a fascinating situation where a non-canonical book is quoted in a canonical book, thus becoming scripture to future readers. The verse in Jude, quoted from 1 Enoch 1.9, reinforces Jude’s point with an apparently scriptural proof-text that God will come with his holy ones to judge and convict the folks who are getting under the skin of Jude and Jude’s community as “grumblers and malcontents” who indulge in “their own lusts” (whatever they are) and who are “bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage” (Jude 16).

So the bulk of the letter, as well as its entire rhetorical argument from vv. 5-16, is absolutely dependent on its audience knowing not only the particular stories from Hebrew scripture but also how these stories were used and interpreted by 2nd Temple Jewish communities who have adopted Jesus as their expected Messiah. The end of the letter reflects more-or-less standard Messianic expectations of the 2nd Temple Period, which is a bit surprising considering the community’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But it is entirely consistent with the expectation of the Messiah’s return in the Gospels, in Paul, and in the Book of Revelation. Jude adopts the eschatology of the apocalyptic literature of the Jewish tradition and reinscribes it with the expectation of the return of Jesus during the “end” or “last time.” He interprets the presence of the intruders of v. 4 as proof of the inevitable fulfillment of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ who predicted that these folks would show up during the “last time.” But instead of usurping God’s prerogative to judge these “scoffers” and “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (v. 19), which Jude had just spent some 10 verses warning against, he admonishes his community to simply hold each other up in prayer and in the love of God and to “have mercy on those who are wavering” and save whomever they can.

So what is the deal here? Can we read this today with profit? Of course we can. The issues Jude faced then are issues we face now, whether we try to force a gentile Christian interpretation on the letter or whether we let its authentic Jewish-Christian voice speak to us. I’m particularly smitten with the description of those in Jude’s community who are “grumblers and malcontents” and “bombastic in speech” who “flatter people for their own advantage.” I don’t care what church you’re involved in. This could have been written Sunday after the service, and it certainly could be written of so many religious figures who promote malcontent and who are bombastic in speech in their pontificating about the moral state of the world, the failures of the family and loss of “family values” and the necessity of preemptive war or the foolishness of global warming and environmental crises. Even for those of us who reject the bombastic foolishness of the rhetoric of these folks, Jude warns us not to take matters of judgment in our own hands. In an age where the very earth threatens to swallow us up today, as it did to Korah, this seems like eminently sensible advice.

Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

If you’ve slogged through this entire post, reward yourself by clicking on the fabulous performance below.

 

cmatherpreaching.jpgWho benefits? That’s the question that we have to always be asking ourselves when God talk starts showing up on a mass scale. The modern mass media is obviously a willing partner in the way this works, but I thought it might be interesting to point out that religious rhetoric has essentially always been about this. Whether we’re talking about the use of the Bible in public schools or of the personal faith of presidential candidates, the type of rhetoric that serves as sound bites or eye candy is usually of the “us vs them” variety in the extreme. (“How many minds has he polluted??”) So we have to look – and listen – beyond what is being presented prima facie.

Here’s the thing, though. In these kinds of struggles, where issues are cast in terms of being of absolute, rock-bottom religious issues, the God-talk precludes any kind of compromise, negotiation, or middle ground, because it is understood that religious truths and positions are eternal. As a result, the Religious Right, for example, can cast every political issue on which its adherents disagree as a holy struggle for what God wants, which is, of course, always the same thing as what the Right wants. The availability of a mass media who is more than willing to disseminate such sensationalism all but guarantees that this rhetoric will be heard, no matter how much or how little the rhetoric actually speaks for those who actually listen to it. On a more ominous level, when religious rhetoric is used to justify action that is willed by the Ineffable, it becomes the primary tool for justifying any violent action (such as blowing up skyscrapers or invading impoverished nations in the name of national security), since those who support us are on God’s side. Conversely, organizations and governments who find themselves having trouble with certain groups who believe that the minds of young people are being corrupted by rampant secularism (like school boards who fire biology teachers who even mention the Bible in class) have a ready rhetorical weapon at their disposal; simply label the annoying dissenters as religious fanatics. The press comes in, prints the most extreme quotes that it hears, and the governing body is able to dismiss its opponents as religious nutcases who are by definition incapable of reason, and who therefore are not worth wasting time with in responsible discussion of grievances.

None of this is new. Not even the use of the media for these ends. In antiquity, the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” meant that kings needed to justify their rule to their subject peoples, and the best way to do that was to persuade the subjects that God (or the gods) was/were on his side. Usually this was done in two ways; through success in battle, in which case the king’s victory was attributed to the gods and plastered all over the empire (i.e., published); and through building or restoring temples and sacred rituals, which were also published and distributed. Frequently we find in ancient inscriptions a cause-and-effect relationship between military success and the religious devotion of the ruler. It is not much of a stretch to witness this kind of rhetoric in the 220+ year history of the American Presidency or even in Congress; witness the uproar that ensued after Keith Ellison, an African American Muslim, took his oath of office over the Qur’an rather than the Bible. The mixture of military activity and religious piety is, moreover, abundantly clear in the speeches of George W. Bush.

Rulers in antiquity also found it necessary to occasionally make sure that everyone in the land knew about his or her religious testimony in defense of how he or she conducted his or her life in the eyes of God and how all their actions were undertaken in service to the divine. This kind of self-justification, of course, has been especially prominent during the Bush II administration and with Republicans in general, but as 2008 approaches we are now seeing it more and more Democratic candidates speak openly about their faith. Some are no doubt nothing more or less than insincere politicking, while others, are undoubtedly deeply religious people with sincere faith.

Another point worth mentioning is that ancient texts frequently couch the king’s approval ranking by the gods in terms of how well the ruler carried out the gods’ will and, especially, his or her sacred rites. What is fascinating here is that ancient priests and religious elites who disapproved of a ruler could undermine him or her by propagandizing the failure of the ruler to do the religion of the god in the right way, which would inevitably bring about a national catastrophe if it were left unchecked and which would result in the god(s) leaving altogether. While we don’t really concern ourselves today with strict ritual activity in our churches today per se, there is still a remarkable similarity to the rhetoric here with the way morality is used instead of proper ritual action. We heard Falwell and Robertson blaming the 9/11 attacks on a complete lack of godly morality in the US, in effect saying that God was leaving us as he abandoned the Jerusalem Temple in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Just as ritual infidelity of the society and especially of the ruler betokened national disaster in the ancient world, moral infidelity and secularism makes national catastrophe inevitable, according to this rhetoric. If only the king would restore the old sacrifices, the nation would prosper again … if only the government would make abortions illegal, let our kids pray in school, constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, we won’t have to worry about new national security threats…

Of course, it goes the other way. Kings regularly used religious propaganda to flatter the priests and religious elites in charge of the temples, who not coincidentally served as the bankers and banks of the kingdoms. This kind of rhetoric is, of course, particularly popular during election years, and I have a hunch that 2008 will witness more of this than we’ve ever heard.

Cui bono? Who benefits?

faithsymbolscopy.gifBetween surfing a lot of blogs lately, reading lots of articles and other types of “religious news” pieces, and my own day-to-day work with teaching religion and religious studies, I come across a lot of stuff, some of which leaves me scratching my head, some that leaves me shaking it in disbelief, and, occasionally, some that permits me to nod it, either in agreement or in sleepy boredom.

Two pieces that fall into the “nod” category recently ran across my desk (or, more accurately, my Thinkpad screen). One is USA Today’s piece that reviews Stephen Prothero’s new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, available in bookstores tomorrow. The other is Martin Marty’s short little “op-ed” in today’s Sightings, out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty’s article points out that the US “gets religion wrong” across the board, and he does not simply limit this to politicians. Marty calls out the secular humanists and politicians, but he is fully aware that dedicated, committed religious folks are every bit as part of the failure to get religion “right:” “Fault often lies with religious folk who agitate for the teaching ‘of’ religion – their religion – as normative and exemplary.” He goes on to note that “fault also lies with some tone-deaf academics, including Harvard faculty who ruled up and then ruled down religion requirements in the curriculum. And you can further fault the Rip Van Winkles who have been napping all these years” [note to Marty: many of them are still sound asleep, if not entirely comatose] “since religion came to be central in world affairs.” Marty knows as well as I do that there has scarcely ever been a time in history where religion has not been “central in world affairs,” but his point is well-taken. The general religious public, as much as the politicians, the media, clergy and other religious leaders, and academics are getting an F in religion, which is where Cathy Lynn Grossman’s USA Today article, “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” comes in. Grossman’s review of Prothero’s new book points out what many academics in the study of religion already know to a certain degree, namely, that religious ignorance is a major problem for the US, and not least in terms of national security. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and Grossman gives enough quotes from it to get a sense of the implications of “bombing” the religion test: “If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told that Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to the demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda” (emphasis mine).

Here’s the rub, and I’m wondering if Prothero will address it in the book. Religious rhetoric is always political rhetoric. When Group A fears that its particular identity or worldview or ethical code is under assault by Groups B-Z, the Religious Rhetoric comes out. The thing is that Americans are bombing the test and failing the grade in the subject, so that the religious rhetoric being employed is ineffectual at best and downright dangerous at its (literally) terrifying and terrorizing worst. Rather than provide a forum for edifying debate, rhetorical ignorance, especially from the mouths of sophists like John Shelby Spong, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Sam Hill, and of politicians and influential media personalities generally, sets the stage for a demonizing condemnation based completely on falsehoods, lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings, either willful or unintentional, all to ensure that “we” are ok, even if “we” are not necessarily in positions of power and influence. When we think we’re threatened, we need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat has had many faces.

The cure for religious ignorance isn’t religious or cultural relativism, but neither is it more indoctrination. It also matters little whether the individual believes in God or not or whether he or she is a committed and active member of a religious community. God’s existence isn’t the issue here, and neither is the argument that “religion” is historically more responsible for the world’s violence than any other factor and, accordingly, should be done away with. Religion is not going anywhere, and this is true regardless of whether God really exists or not. Rather than spend our time focusing on all the differences between “our” religion and “their” religion and using those as points of attack, we should be figuring out what the similarities are between us and what our mutual concerns are, both spiritually and “earthly,” and learning how each religious tradition addresses those concerns using their particular cultural expressions from their own wells of tradition. Then, and only then, can we start a dialog that discusses differences without demonizing the Other. Contrary to the popular expressions of relativistic religious pluralism, religions are not all saying the same thing. Religious traditions, including those in the same larger tradition (such as Sunni, Shi’a or Ahmadiyya Muslims in Islam or Baptist, Holiness, or Catholic denominations in Christianity) began with different answers to problems that are common to our humanity and yet which are also unique to specific historical and cultural circumstances, and they express these differently today and have entirely different goals and objectives now than they did when they started.

The immediate challenge, as I see it, is combating ignorance of our own traditions, whether we profess to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else. Prothero’s book may be a good start, but this can’t simply be the domain of academics. It needs to get into our houses of worship, our families, and, yes, our schools. We simply have to start with the basics of our own traditions and with those religions that so clearly have an impact on our current global situation. If we fail to at least understand who “we” are, we’re going to continue to bomb a lot more than just Religion 101.

Just ask the Iraqis.