Ubuntu Spirit’s New Outlet

It’s been my joy to write about religion and spread religious proficiency through the Ubuntu Spirit blog over the past few years and more and more people have come to appreciate it as a source for religion news and literacy.

Since May 2011 I started writing for the Houston Chronicle’s online religion news service – Houston Belief. My blog there, Sacred Duty, mirrors Ubuntu Spirit and engages with the same topics and news. I encourage you to visit Sacred Duty, continue reading about religion and to join the conversation!

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The Potter Pilgrimage Comes to an End

Mecca, Varanasi, the Western Wall, Santiago de Compostela, Trafalgar Square.

What do all these places have in common?

All of these locales are holy sites, the divine destination of devoted pilgrims making a journey to a sacred site, a consecrated location here on earth where they might experience the holy, feel the celestial or experience spiritual companionship on an expedition of spiritual significance – a pilgrimage.

While places like Mecca might make sense, what about Trafalgar Square in London ? What might be the spiritual significance of such a place?  This last week Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 premiered n Trafalgar Square and there were throngs of pilgrims from all over the world present to witness the culmination of a 10 year journey through eight Potter films.

As the Daily Star reports, there was a young woman who made the journey from British Columbia, Canada to Trafalgar Square to be present for the final Harry Potter film premier. She was spending her whole life savings to guarantee she would be there to experience the moment that the Harry Potter film era began its end. First in line and waiting for a week before the premier the 22 year old Potter fanatic said “Harry Potter has been the biggest part of my life….This is the last film, so I blew my life savings to be here.” Another fan, Robert Connor, who sports a Hogwarts tattoo added that he “travelled for 13 hours and spent $5,000 to be here but it is worth it.”

Even my wife and I understand their passion. While living in rural South Africa we made a five hour drive to see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when it premiered and over the last several years I spent a fair amount of time outside movie theaters and bookstores in the dark of the night to be one of the first to see the newest Potter film or grab the spine of the freshest Harry Potter novel.

There certainly is something magical about Harry Potter, but considering the following vignettes of individual devotion and journey for the sake of Harry Potter premieres, I sense a fair bit of religious devotion as well. While we could debate the religious themes of the series itself, I find it fascinating that so many people, from such varied backgrounds would commit themselves to Potter to the point that their journey would reflect that of a spiritual pilgrimage.

Much like the Hajj or the journey to the Santiago Cathedral, the Harry Potter journey can be considered a pilgrimage in itself. Spanning some 14 years since the first book was released millions of devotees across the world have faithfully read, travelled, watched, waited, hoped and devoted themselves to Harry Potter’s seven-year journey to meet Voldemort in one final battle between good and evil.

Every year millions of religious devotees make their way to shrines and holy sites around the world. Each of these pilgrimages imbibes the individual adherent’s life with spiritual significance and meaning. Colleen Fleming, reflecting on her pilgrimage via the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the Lutheran magazine of Australia (August 2007), shares that her pilgrimage was “an inspirational journey that culminated in the satisfaction and sheer joy of having reached a goal” that filled her heart with awe and led her to praise with gusto in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. As Fleming walks away from the pilgrimage experience she feels that she feels fulfilled and noticed that the journey reflects life itself.

Perhaps more than anything else, pilgrimages bind pilgrims together. As Fleming wrote, there was an “easy companionship, a warmth and a sense of shared identity” that accompanied the pilgrims as they shared their spiritual journey together along the Camino de Compostela. Although many pilgrims begin their journey for various individual reasons they all share the same path and along the way grow together as they experience the journey and reach their common destination as one people.

For many, the Potter series has given their lives joy, escapism, meaning, spiritual guidance and a whole new circle of companions in life. Luis Guilherme, a 22-year-old graduate student from Sao Paolo, Brazil who made the journey to Trafalgar spoke to CTV News and shared, “I don’t know how my life would be without it. I would be less imaginative, for sure, and less adventurous. I would never be here in London.” He also spoke of how because of Harry Potter he “made friends” with people throughout the world. Like a spiritual pilgrim Guilherme found much more than entertainment in the Potter films and committed himself to a physical journey as a sign of his inward journey. Along the way he found companions and together with them experienced the highs and lows of the Potter journey and feels better off as a person because of it.

With its gripping story of life and death, courage and hope in the face of evil and the importance of companionship it is no wonder that in a world filled with doubt, uncertainty and conflict that young men and women across the globe find the Harry Potter saga spiritually satisfying. Devoted to Harry Potter books and films, the author J.K. Rowling and the actors who made the characters of the wizarding world come to life these believers will make the journey anywhere to experience the magic and meaning that the Harry Potter story has given them.

And now as the films come to a close the question is what will happen next? For many the on-line world of Pottermore offers some solace and in a way, is a sort of digital pilgrimage all its own. For others a Potter pilgrimage will lead them to Orlando or other locales where they may not perform the Jamarat or recite the Shahada in Mecca, but they will perform expelliarmus charms and quiz one another on lines from the Harry Potter books and movies as they visit Hogwarts, down butter beer and pick out their very own wand in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new Harry Potter themed park. Certainly, even without the films in theaters there are still shrines for a proper Potter pilgrimage, and I am sure that for years to come people will flock to them as they seek out meaning, companionship and experiential spiritual fulfillment in the story of “the boy who lived.”

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Hell, Here We Go Again

*Originally posted at Sacred Duty, my Chron.com blog

Just when you thought the impassioned discussion about Rob Bell and his theology “about heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” was going to fade quietly into the distance, several publishers thought it might be a good idea to get everyone riled up again.

Back in March of this year Christian pastor Rob Bell got the whole Evangelical universe into a general freak-out mode when he released a teaser video and then a few weeks later launched his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Following the teaser video there was a Twitterverse and blogosphere explosion, resulting in a lot of name calling and back-and-forth. Rob Bell went from hip-young-evangelical-pastor to black-rimmed-glasses-wearing-heretic-evangelical-pariah overnight (read more about When All Hell Breaks Loose in the Evangelical Twitterverse). Then the book came out and the reviews started coming in. Conservative neo-Calvinist Evangelical leaders decried the book’s theology and Scriptural interoperation about heaven and hell and made it clear that a) Bell is a universalist and b) that he is WAY off the track of orthodox Evangelical Christianity.

At the time there were plenty of soul-searching and Scripture-exploring Christians, skeptics and de-churched individuals seeking out the truth, reading the book, perusing the blogs and lamenting the whole “he said…no, she said” environment of the (dialogue, discussion, debate) drag-out fight.

As the religious community and the general public got over the initial news, many thought Bell’s Love Wins was going to recede into the background and that the Evangelical climate would calm. They were wrong. Rushing their tomes to press, influential publishers, teachers and authors are reviving the debate and hitting back at Rob Bell for his proposed hell heresy. The editor for HarperOne, the publishing company behind Love Wins, Mickey Maudlin says he is sad to see no less than six different ripostesbeing penned and printed to counter Bell and his newest book. Of those six I know of three prominent pieces: Waterbrook Multnomah Press’ forthrightly titled Hell, Rob Bell and What Happens When People Die, Mark Galli with his God Wins and Evangelical super-pastor Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell.

With all the publishing publicity the blogs, Tweets, book reviews, videos and articles on Rob Bell and his theology of heaven and hell are starting to pop up yet again. If this were not enough to clue me in to the fact that the debate is really just getting started I received three messages just this last week asking for my perspective on Love Wins, Rob Bell and the whole theological debacle. Certainly, with the ongoing discussion, the staying power of Bell’s book on the bestseller list and the release of several new titles on the topic it is clear that the Evangelical community is in for a protracted review of its doctrines of heaven and hell.

So, religious community and Evangelical universe, brace yourselves for another round of “hell-ish” discussion, because here we go again.

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Religious Liberties

*Originally posted at my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – Sacred Duty

There was much fanfare and excitement over the passage of New York’s same-sex marriage bill last week. Supporters of the gay rights movement and homosexuals across the nation celebrated as the most populous state yet to pass legislation allowing for gay marriages took what they say is a major step in the journey towards national recognition of their rights. However, the legislation almost did not come to pass. As ABC News and other sources reported the vote hung in the balance as New York Republicans fought for protections for religious institutions. At stake were the rights of religious institutions who wanted the freedom to stick to their beliefs regarding homosexuality and not be forced to condone or assist marriages they do not support.

While such beliefs may not by indicative of wider trends in American society (see “Why Religious Conservatives Aren’t Winning the Same-Sex Marriage Debate”) they are to be protected like any other right. Why? Because the rights of religions and religious institutions are just as important as the rights of any other individual or organization.

The free practice of religion and the right to free speech are foundational principles in the United States. They often are the most pressing issues for religious institutions sometimes caught on both sides of the coin when it comes to these rights. While the rights of same-sex individuals were obviously in the forefront of this debate, the rights of religious institutions cannot be forgotten nor forsaken.

Another case in Houston, TX makes this point most poignant. The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the director of the Houston National Cemetery are under fire from local Houston veterans associations for stripping individuals of their right to free speech, specifically in the form of religious prayers at funerals. Juan Lozano of the Houston Chronicle reported:

on at least four occasions in the last two months, VA officials told them that prayer and religious speech could no longer be included in burial rituals they take part in at the Houston cemetery unless families submit a specific prayer or message in writing to Arleen Ocasio, the cemetery’s director.

Those taking issue with Ocasio claim that she does not permit any use of the words “God” or “Jesus Christ” in these prayers. Furthermore, it is claimed that a group was forced to remove the words “God Bless” from condolence cards passed out at the service.

A lawsuit is being filed and the affair is garnering national attention as Texas 2nd District Representative Ted Poe wrote for Fox News calling for a correction of this injustice. In the piece Rep. Poe writes, “The government’s attack on the very freedoms that [the veterans] lived and died for is a blatant violation of the freedom of speech and free exercise of religion promised to all Americans in the Constitution.” He could not be more right.

Although religious institutions and their constituents may often be seen as close-minded, conservative and on the “wrong-side” of recent freedom/rights debates they are still American and thus are entitled to the same rights as everyone else.  There is no reason to strip religious adherents or organizations (be they Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish etc.) of their rights or have the government force them to downplay their beliefs as expressed in religious rites such as weddings and funerals. Therefore, while the nation celebrates July 4th this weekend and many laud a victory for the rights of same-sex couples in New York, we should all call for the protection of the rights of religious institutions and individuals here in Houston. No matter your belief, or lack thereof, you cannot deny that religious rights are just as important as any other fundamental American liberties.

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Why Religious Conservatives Aren’t Winning the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

*Originally posted at Sacred Duty.

You may not have heard, but New York passed a small bill concerning same-sex marriages this week. A few people reported on it.

Note. Sarcasm. Here.

In the words of San Diego’s finest, Ron Burgundy, the news is “kind of a big deal.”

No doubt you, the reader, heard that New York passed a bill in favor of same-sex marriage. No doubt you read articles in favor of the bill and against it. No doubt your opinion was already formed before the news broke. No doubt your opinion will not change after reading this blog, or any other blog for that matter. Your opinion is already formed based on your cultural perspective and interpretation of the Bible.

One such pre-formed opinion came from Professor Lee Jefferson of Centre College who wrote a popular article entitled “What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gay Marriage?” for the Huffington Post. In it he contends that, “the Bible is a complicated collection of documents that was never meant to ‘speak’ to our contemporary situation” and that opponents to same-sex marriage misinterpret the Bible as they use Scripture to decry marriage for homosexuals and fight to “maintain the sanctity of marriage.” Jefferson goes on to make four succinct points, asserting that: 1) the institution of marriage is a secular and social institution, 2) the Bible does not clearly endorse one form of marriage over another, 3) the Biblical arguments against same-sex marriage are not proffered from texts that deal with marriage, but from texts that purportedly deal with marriage and 4) any reference to same-sex practice by a Biblical writer or a Greco-Roman writer has no knowledge or understanding of the concept of “same-sex orientation.” He concludes by saying:

The Bible is not specific, literate, or even concerned with what we call same-sex orientation or gay marriage. But the state of New York recently had quite a lot to say about gay marriage. Those that would insert the Bible into this debate would do well to reflect upon the text itself. If only we quit focusing on what the Bible didactically “says” and converse with the text in its broader cultural context. Then one can realize the multivalent value of such a book that a narrow reading cannot service.

To say the least, there are conservative pundits and preachers who disagree with Mr. Jefferson.

The conservative exposition that Prof. Jefferson has in his sights as he writes this article is promulgated by theologians citing Leviticus 18: 22, 24; 20: 13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 as speaking of homosexuality as a sin. Furthermore, conventional Christian scholars refer to Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24 and Matthew 1:24-25 to out forth the Christian ideal of marriage between a man and a woman. Their interpretation of these texts leads to them to denounce the movement to legitimize homosexual relationships, vote against expanding the marriage rights of same-sex couples and disparage moves like that of the New York legislature.

My theological interpretations and opinions aside, I believe that the whole debate regarding homosexual marriage, same-sex partnerships and whether or not Christian Scripture speaks to the issue in a clear-cut way reveals a lot more about the state of America’s religious climate in regards to sociology and interpretation of the Bible (hermeneutics), than it does on gay marriage or the Christian Scriptures themselves. In fact, I believe it is because of a sociological shift and contemporary Biblical scholarship like Jefferson’s that leads to defeat for religious conservatives on the issue of same-sex marriage.

First, the sociological development. Following an ever secularizing trend in American society the general opinion regarding homosexuality has taken a progressive turn. While this shift occurred most markedly in younger demographics, the general trend has been towards more leniency when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriages (see a General Social Survey from 2008). Given time, those with a favorable opinion of homosexuality and same-sex marriages will soon be in the majority.

There is also the hermeneutical shift to appreciate. At the heart of Prof. Jefferson’s article is the concept of whether or not the Bible speaks to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Regardless of his final exposition of the source, Jefferson shows his cards to the reader in the second paragraph when he directly discloses that he believes the Bible does not speak into the contemporary scene. This is his interpretational principle. Along with Jonathan Dudley, a graduate of Yale Divinity School and guest blogger at CNN’s Belief Blog, Jefferson locks the Bible (and subsequently its proclamations) into its original cultural context. By their belief, the Bible cannot speak into the contemporary situation. It is a historical document to be understood within its own context, and not interpreted for life today. The contemporary situation acts back and interprets the Bible on its own terms, not the other way around. Such a hermeneutic is ever more popular this day and age. As is well documented in texts like The History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader and bemoaned by conservative Christian scholars, the modern Biblical hermeneutic is far more liberal than it was in the past.

Jefferson is absolutely correct when he opines that his interpretation does little to “satisfy any opponent of gay rights or of same-sex marriage to any degree.” Particularly if the opponent is coming from a conservative Biblical background. Conventional Christian scholarship reads the Old and New Testament texts as if they are meant to speak both to their original audience and to the contemporary scene. Their interpretational principle is that the Bible is meant for all ages and its words are binding both in the past, present and future. Thus, when they read passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans or 1 Corinthians they believe that they speak as much today as they did then. From such a viewpoint they are able to apply the Bible’s morality to contemporary situations, and in the case of homosexuality such a hermeneutical principle clearly reveals the Christian Scriptures as condemning homosexuality as a sin and marriage as meant for a man and a woman. With such an interpretation they take their moral maxim from the pulpit to the pew, from the pew to the home, from the home to the streets and from the streets to the halls of congress.

Before the debate even begins, the juxtaposed sides are coming from two very different starting points. It makes sense that conservatives and progressives disagree when interpreting the Bible and judging the validity of same-sex marriage because neither of them can agree to view the issues through the same lens. And because of the power of culture and sociology there is little that can be done at the moment to change tac. Thus, while Jefferson and his compatriots preach to the “sociologically and hermeneutically converted,” conservative religious pundits preach their sermons to their own converted, organizing rallies and voting vehemently for conservative political candidates in line with their moral stances. All the while, the conservative religious voice on social issues such as homosexuality (and sexuality in general) diminishes more and more into the background.

Currently, liberal sociological and interpretational trends are trumping the conservative hermeneutic and essays like Jefferson’s are indicative of a wider, and well documented, liberal trend in contemporary Biblical scholarship. Thus, while state legislatures may soon pass bills in favor, or against, same-sex marriage, a rising tide of favorable opinion towards homosexuality and against conservative readings of the Bible is not likely to abate anytime soon. Because of this, those who hold to more traditional sexual values and conventional readings of the Christian Scripture will, at least for now, find themselves on the losing side of this sociological, political and theological struggle.

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Religious Ink

*Originally posted at my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – Sacred Duty

Tattoo Bans, Religious Expression and the Staying Power of Religious Body Art

Earlier this month Thailand’s Culture Minister Niphit Intharasombat sparked national controversy when he proposed a ban on all religiously motivated tattoos. A major tourist industry in Thailand, especially in Phuket, purveyors of tattoo art and religious symbols fought against the prescription. Arguing that such a ban would hurt their business the Ministry of Culture backpedalledslightly, allowing tattoos, even religiously motivated ones, could continue to be made as long as they did not include Buddhist symbols. Behind the prohibition is the idea that tattooing bodies with Buddhist symbols is insolent, culturally insensitive and potentially disrespectful. The Ministry feared that individuals with the tattoos might be found performing inappropriate activities and bearing a religious tattoo on their body might cause offense. People from all over the world come to get religious tattoos in Phuket and other provinces in Thailand whether they be Buddhist, Hindu, New Age or Christian. Some believe the tattoos endow a person with spiritual power, with certain individuals claiming that their tattoos save their lives.

To say the least the row over religious tattoos in Thailand is not soon to dissipate. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the industry of religious tattoos is not unique to Thailand or the Southeast Asian region. All over the world Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, New Agers, Pagans, Druids, Jews and other religious adherents get tattoos to represent their religion.

There are prescriptions against tattoos in various religions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism to name a few. In the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) it is seen as polluting God’s perfect creation of the human body. Some Theravada Buddhist monasteries will not allow tattooed individuals to take the monastic vow. For the most part such restrictions do little to prevent believers from proclaiming their faith and values with ink in the skin.

It does not take long to find many of the faithful sporting religious ink.

Go to a Christian concert and when a song leader raises their arms I guarantee you will find at least one, tattoo on the arm, if not more. While the arm may be acceptable, and may in a way be a means of making the tattoo less discriminate I went to school with a young man hoping to become a pastor who had a broken chain tattooed around his neck. No matter how hard you try, you can’t hide that type of ink. For Christians the most often tattooed symbol is the cross, Mary, a Trinity symbol, a dove representing the Holy Spirit or some word in ancient Greek or Hebrew (original languages of the Bible). Among Millennial Christians, the practice is becoming more and more common with tattoos showing up on wrists, arms, legs, backs and shoulders.

But what about the face?

The Maori people of New Zealand have a long standing tradition of tattooing (in the past, chiseling) the face of individuals with high social status. “Ta moko,” as they are called, are imbibed with great sacred meaning and often tell the story of an individual’s whakapapa (genealogy). While Maori designs have become fashionable, and controversial, as of late on many pakeha (non-Maori caucasians – including British pop star Robbie Williams) the original designs were meant for sacred purposes and revered members of a Maori tribe.

In Buddhism the recent prevalence of so called “dharma” tattoos has stirred some debate. While some believe these tattoos become an extension of their Buddhist practice and lead them towards mindful meditation in their everyday life opponents of such tattoos claim they are an aberration and indicative of a mindless “pop” Buddhism. Particularly in Theravada Buddhism tattoos can bar one from taking a monastic vow. For example, Angelina Jolie caused a stir when she went under the ink pen to receive a Buddhist Pali incantation tattoo in Khmer as a reminder of her adopted son’s Cambodian heritage.

Hindus, specifically many Asian-Indians, are known for their beautiful henna tattoos observable on Hindu brides. However, many modern day Hindus are getting inked up with the image of their chosen deity as a sign of their bhakti (devotion). The most popular representations seem to be images of Ganesh, the destroyer of obstacles.

Various other religiously themed tattoos can be found on people’s bodies. From Judeo-Christian symbols to Pentagrams to Buddhist mandalas, many religious adherents choose to proclaim some aspect of their faith or practice through body art. Though the symbols may fade with time, or cause a commotion today, they are ultimately simple and yet strong expressions of personal devotion. In a recent article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones in the e-zine New Tattoo Sub-Culture they share:

The tattoo speaks to the ongoing, complex need for humans to express themselves through the appearance of their bodies. The tattooed body serves as a canvas to record the struggles between conformity and resistance, power and victimization, individualism and group membership. These struggles motivate both radical and mundane forms of tattooing. The popularity of tattoos attests to their power as vehicles for self-expression, commemoration, community building, and social commentary. At the same time, the tattoo’s messages are limited by misin- terpretation and the stigma that still attaches to tattooed people.

Without entering into a full-fledged discussion of religious aesthetics and meaningful religious iconography, religious tattoos serve as powerful vehicles for self-expression and whether they are beautiful or boring, contentious or cool, they act as an interpretive tool for people to understand religion, their own or others’. All religious art serves a dual purpose as a hermeneutic of a theological truth (for the artist, or the inked) and as a window through which outside observers interpret a religion and its adherents. In the end, religious tattoos, just like a Christian fresco or an artistically scribed Qu’ran, serve as interpretive vehicles through which humans give voice to their religious devotion and allow others to apprehend religious truth through art.

In the case of religious tattoos in Thailand the Culture Minister does have a point; religious tattoos will bring about interpretations, and misinterpretations, of Buddhism and other religions in Thailand and abroad. The real question is whether or not Thailand’s government, or any religious authority for that matter, can stop such a potent form of religious self-expression. Combining “an ongoing, complex need for humans to express themselves through the appearance of their bodies” with a strong religious devotion and offering the inked a way to convey and interpret their faith, religious ink seems to be permanently tattooed as a feature of religious art and expressionism.

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Appreciating the Indian Religious Experience

 *Originally posted at Sacred Duty

Houston Belief editor Kate Shellnutt’s recent article on a new Hindu temple in The Woodlands got me thinking about the Asian-Indian religious experience in the U.S.A. Is it all Hindu? Is it all located in prosperous centers such as The Woodlands? How does education and economics effect Indian religious choices? Are Indians more religious in the United States then they are here? What kinds of religions do they populate? What kind of people do they gather with? What do they experience from people of other faiths or non-faith? How does this shape their religious experience?

Houston has a large population of Asian-Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans. Indeed, it has the sixth-largest Asian-Indian population in a metro area (behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Philadelphia). To understand the Houston religious scene, to get the Texan religious landscape and to apperceive the new wave of American religion is to be familiar with Asian-Indian religion’s diversity and its socio-cultural influences.

First of all, Asian-Indians in America are not all Hindu. While a great number of Indians are Hindu, they are also Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Parsis and Jewish. In fact, the first exclusively Asian-Indian religious institution in the United States was a Sikh gurudwara established in Stockton, CA in 1912. A hundred years later there are thousands of temples, gurudwaras, mosques and churches serving the Asian-Indian American religious landscape of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Jews.

There are about 2.8 million people of Asian-Indian descent living in the United States and the vast majority of them are religiously active. Their demographics reflect the religious realities of India where Hindus are the vast majority, Muslims claim a sizable chunk of the population (1 in 10) and Christians and Sikhs make up another 2% respectively. The rest of Asian-Indians, at home or abroad, are Jain, Parsis, Jewish, Buddhist or non-religious.

Whatever the religion, faith and practice take on new shape and meaning for Asian-Indians in the United States. This new form is influenced by three forces:  cultural values, education/economic levels and misunderstanding and/or persecution.

Cultural Values

When any cultural group enters a new culture they look for positive vehicles for passing on their pre-existing ethnic values and rhythms. This may happen immediately and/or it may be realized in a latter-generational cultural revival. Talking with a young Asian-Indian woman who recently immigrated from Mumbai to Austin, TX I discovered she came to the United States excited to become American. For the first few months and years she adopted everything American, casting off the “shackles” of all things Indian. This process already started in India where, she said, Hinduism had taken a backseat to her education,social life and vocational aspirations. Then, a tragedy hit and an identity crisis followed. Soon after she revived her bhakti and got involved in a local Hindu community in Texas. As of today she hopes to raise her children as Hindus believing that through Hinduism they might share her Indian sense of community cohesion, family unity, self-control, emphasis on education, self-discipline and respect for authority. Back home in India such community was passed on in various ways, in the United States the Hindu religion became the sole vehicle for her to transmit and retain Indian identity and create ethnic community.

Here in Houston the growing Telugu Christian Fellowship provides not only a place of religious devotion, but a means of passing on Telugu Christian culture and traditions to next generations. Telugus from all over Houston drive long distances to find cultural familiarity alongside fellow Telugu Christians. As one visiting student put it, the Telugu Christian Fellowship is “a Telugu home away from home. They help me remain Telugu in America.”

Education and Economics

The Pew Forum released data in 2007 and 2010 that showed that some of the most educated and affluent religious adherents in the United States are Hindus, the vast majority of which are Asian-Indian.  From what I can tell anecdotally, this holds true across religions with prosperous Asian-Indians filling the majority of the pews at local Indian-Christian fellowships. These figures reveal an immigration bias – prosperous Asian-Indians can afford, and have the education, to immigrate to the United States and be successful. Be that as it may, their educational and economic attainment impacts the way Asian-Indians gather and worship. While Asian-Indians associate with ethnically familiar fellowships (Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras, Indian-Christian churches etc.), they will often also attend ethnically diverse mosques and churches that are more homogeneous in economic stature. Over time they may even come to prefer the latter and identify more along the lines of economic and educational values than ethnic ones.

I see this played out at the University of Houston where intelligent and highly educated Hindu students tend to associate with similarly endowed individuals, whether they are Hindu or not. They are more likely to associate with someone who is just as sharp and educated than they are who shares the same beliefs as them. This leads to their continued education as they interact with Asian-Indian Muslims and Christians learning about the “religious other” in a way that, as they admit, they may not at home in India.

Misunderstanding and Persecution

While Hindus in the The Woodlands do not experience much persecution, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims elsewhere certainly do. Most natural born Americans don’t understand the diversity amongst Asian-Indian religion. For example, an older woman I know thinks all Sikhs are Muslims. Bless her heart, but when we pull up to a corner gas station near her home in the San Jose area she let’s me know how the Muslim man that runs the joint is doing. While she doesn’t think it’s nice that so many of her neighbors talk bad about this nice Iraqi man, she herself has no clue who Talan is, where he is from or what he believes.

I had the opportunity to talk with Talan a couple of years ago. It turns out that Talan is not from Iraq. He is not Muslim. He is Sikh. He is from India. He is Punjabi.

According to Campbell and Putnam in American Grace, Hindus are just as likely as any other minority religion to experience scorn, distrust and misunderstanding. Most of the time Talan feels at home in the U.S.A., after all he’s been here for over a decade. However, the misunderstanding and the occasional unflattering remarks that Talan, his family and his people struggle with make him feel ostracized, marginalized and discouraged. Talan flocks to his local gurudwara in San Jose for comfort, support and shelter from a storm of misunderstanding and prejudice.

Conclusion

More than anything else, culture, education/economy and misunderstanding influence the way Asian-Americans practice their religion in the United States. The obligation to pass on cultural values and re-create authentic ethnic identity, the desire to associate with people of similar educational and economic prowess and the need to protect a community from negative outside forces give shape to the Asian-Indian religious experience in the United States.

Prema Kurien puts it well in her book A Place at the Multicultural Table:

The institutions of popular Hinduism in the United States, in addition to practicing and reproducing Hinduism, also become the means to create community; provide professional, educational, and economic support; understand and articulate identity; and provide a shelter from the racism and cultural misunderstanding that Hindus encounter in the wider society (237).

While speaking solely of Hinduism, Kurien’s words apply across the Asian-Indian religious spectrum. I see it here in Houston, throughout Texas and in associations with Asian-Indians in places like Los Angeles, San Jose and Chicago. So much of what Asian-Indian religion is here in the U.S.A. is shaped by Asian-Indian socio-cultural needs. Such a realization not only helps us understand the Asian-Indian religious experience, but might give us pause to wonder just how much our own cultural needs, education and economic attainment impact our faith and religious practice.

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