Category Archives: Hinduism

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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Houston’s Diversity: An Airport Addendum

A few weeks ago I blogged about Houston’s Stunning Diversity, sharing the numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in Houston and sharing stories about Houston’s religious hotspots. I took you, the reader, on a virtual tour of a Vietnamese Buddhist Boddhisatva temple, a Swami Devotee Hindu Bhakti Temple and a local Muslim Masjid.

Of all the places I escorted you to, I did not take you to Houston’s Hobby Airport.

This then, is my airport addendum to that post.

Here at Hobby, waiting for my flight, checking my bags, standing in the security line and getting a coffee I am met with a microcosm of Houston’s stunning diversity.

Currently, I am on my way to California and sitting in Houston Hobby Airport’s food court . Enjoying my vanilla caramel soy latte, I am struck again by how religiously and racially diverse Houston’s populous is. It reminds me why I love this town.

Raised in California, I treasure heterogeneity and seek out cross-cultural contact. When I think about my childhood in the Los Angeles area I fondly recall having Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Evangelical and Atheist friends and neighbors.

Galavanting across the world over the last few years – in New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, Indonesia, Peru and Singapore – I’ve sought to gain a greater understanding of this world, its people and its religious soul-beat.

Now, living in Houston the world has come to me. It takes all of five minutes to find somebody who thinks, speaks and acts differently than me because of their cultural background or religious devotion. Here, in Houston Hobby, all I have to do is look to the person sitting next to me (who, by the looks of it is a Hispanic Roman Catholic replete with a rosary).

From Caucasian Khalsa Converts (Sikh) to Coptic Christians and “God Bless America” Baptist African-Americans, Houston Hobby has it all and I’ve seen all of these adherents here today.

I share this with you because I hope you may share the same awe. If you live in Houston, I encourage you to look around, open your eyes and see the stunning diversity that exists around you.

If you live somewhere else, have you noticed how melanged your hometown is? The USA is growing more diverse by the day. Maybe you live in a small town and you feel like your trapped in a homogeneous cage. Look again, and you will find pockets of religious and cultural miscellany in the most unlikely of places. Take a moment the next time you are in a public place – a mall, a post office or an airport – and recognize the mosaic that is your community. I even encourage you to go a step further and get to know someone different than you.

As I prompt my world religions students to do, take some time to introduce yourself to someone from a different religious background. Ask questions, listen to stories, share your own and dialogue with a Catholic, a Sikh, a Hasidic Jew, a Copt or a Hindu. As corny as it may sound, try sharing instead of staring.

Odds are you will come to appreciate your town for its cultural and religious multiplicity like I do. At the very least you will learn something about the world you didn’t know before.

On that note, goodbye H-Town, I look forward to seeing you again and hope to bring back some new stories from California. Until then, you stay stunningly diverse now you hear!

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Everybody Wants to Be Heard

Our "evangelical" Buddhist tour guide

Last week was a cultural and religious whirlwind for me. From a Lutheran Theological Convocation to a discussion with a Hindu in Austin, TX to a Houston World Tour including a visit to a Hindu temple, Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque and even to the Houston iFest where Muslims, Christians and Hare Krishnas were all represented one thing was made clear –

Everyone wants to be heard.

It was my wife who pointed this out to me.

As we were sitting down and enjoying our veggie samosas and palak paneer we were hoping to hear a little bit of Raicas del Peru to relive some of our musical experiences from our trip to Peru last August. We strained our ears to hear the beauty of the Peruvian melodies over the ever loudening sound of drums and chants of “Hare, hare, hare Krishna” coming from, you guessed it, the Hare Krishnas at their booth in the Silk Road Zone. Elizabeth looked at me and said, “I guess everybody wants to be heard.”

Hare Krishnas are known for world peace movements, drums and dance circles…not for quality of vocalisms. Nonetheless, they sang. And then as Raicas del Peru got louder, they got louder.

Like I said, everyone wants to be heard.

Earlier that day we walked past two booths of Muslim groups from Houston. Each time there was someone there arguing with them or talking with them about what they believe. When all was said and done, I wonder how much listening either side did. I bet you everyone did a lot more talking than listening.

Today, I just got an e-mail asking me to come on a local Christian radio program. I am overwhelmed with how many Christian radio, TV and internet programs there are…especially in Houston. Here in Houston, on basic cable, any Sunday morning will have at least 20 different Christian worship services available to watch. Get on the radio and there are at least as many frequencies playing messages and liturgical music.

Of course, these days they also have to compete with Clairvoyant Radio Ads and the ubiquitous sponsor-commercials of Interfaith Ministries on KUHF Houston Public Radio. Maybe, like Houston Second Baptist, they should try billboards.

Oh, the Atheists are using billboards these days too.

Evangelical New-Agey-Hindus, evangelical Muslims, evangelical Atheists and Evangelical Christians, but what about evangelical Buddhists?

Now there’s something different.

I took a group of college students on a “Houston World Tour” last week. Part of our journey took us to a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple near Sugar Land, TX. There, the monk tried to get all the students (all of them Christian) to meditate, do some Buddhist prayers or offer something to the Buddha. In all the times I’ve visited Buddhist temples on three continents and in several cities I’ve never once met such an evangelical Buddhist.

These days, everyone wants to be heard in the modern market place of religious exchange. Hare Krishnas, psychics, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Atheists.

The danger is that instead of getting people’s attention and inviting them into positive religious dialogue we might just be bugging everyone with all of our “HEY, LOOK AT ME!” advertisements. I hope that amidst it all that people don’t just get up and walk away like my wife and I did at the International Fest when Hare Krishnas and Peruvian folk musicians competed into cacophony just so that they might be heard.

In the end, it ceased to be beautiful music and wound up being a whole lot of senseless noise.

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Houston World Tour

"Houston World Tour" Participants at the Quan Am Boddhisatva Statue

Houston is the 4th largest metro-area in the United States. There are 6.2 million people in the greater Houston area. It is expected that in a decade or two Houston will overtake Chicago as the third largest city in the USA.

Houston is also one of the most culturally diverse locales in all of the United States. Over 90 different countries are represented in Houston and no one ethnic group constitutes a majority.

Houston is 39% Latino, 36% Caucasian, 18% African/African-American and 7% Asian. There are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Venezuelans, Panamanians, Columbians. There are Germans, Czechs, Scandinavians, Brits and Italians. There are Nigerians, Liberians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Lebanese, Turkish and South Africans. There are Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Taiwanese.

We’ve got Texas BBQ, Kolaches, Tex-Mex, Afromex, Soul Food, Thai food, curry, pho and everything else between.

With all this diversity, and with its immense size, Houston is a fascinating melting pot of religious belief as well.

Bucking certain “Southern” trends in the USA, Houston’s religious demographics break down like this:

Catholic – 36.1% (2.1 million)

Southern Baptist – 28.3% (1.7 million)

Methodist – 10% (600,000)

Other Mainline Christian (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran etc.) – 8.5% (510,000)

Muslim – 2.8% (170,000)

Charismatic – 2.6% (160,000)

Other (Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, Non-religion) – 11.8% (710,000)

Masjid Ataqwa in Southwest Houston

Getting to know Houston means getting to know other religions. That is why LINC Houston is sure to teach world religions at LBI (a current course I am teaching) and when visitors come to town we take them on a “Houston World Tour,” which includes stops at a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a local Masjid, an Hispanic superstition shop and some glances at mega-churches in our area.

Taking visitors/students on this journey always leads to consciousness raising. This most recent trip was no different. Whether it was a discussion about smoking, drinking and holiness at the Hindu Shree Swaminarayan Temple, Buddhist prayer ritual and Vietnamese presence in Houston at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple or a few laughs shared with a local imam at Masjid Ataqwa it is a wonderful thing to watch when individuals get to know people of other religions as people and grow in their understanding of others’ way of ritual, belief and piety.

Touring around today, the college students that were on this trip commented that they took a world religions class before but never seen “flesh” on their topic of study. They never studied world religions by visiting mosques, meeting Buddhists or sharing stories with a Hindu devotee.

As many of you well know, I am an advocate for religious education. It is important for those who are teaching world religions, and those studying other belief systems, to integrate their book/lecture learning with “hands-on” experience reading religious texts, visiting spaces of sacred ritual and community and interacting with individuals with a different understanding of the cosmos.

If we hope to learn, and educate others, about the world’s religions, it is best that  both teachers and students experience those religions firsthand.

With that, I invite you to come to Houston and come on a “Houston World Tour.” I promise you some unique experiences, some great learning and, if you are lucky, some delicious food afterwards.

Shalom.

With our Hindu temple priest guide at Shree Swaminurayan

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Religion Matters – A Review of Stephen Prothero’s “God is Not One”

 

"...even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world." - Stephen Prothero (God is Not One, p. 8)

It takes all of five seconds on CNN.com to see that religion matters. Whether it be the discussion of whether or not Jesus is/was supernatural, an article covering the congressional discussion of the “radicalization” of Islam, or a video of a judgment day caravan the top stories streaming on one of America’s leading news networks testify to how religion continues to capture our imagination, challenge our stereotypes, confirm our fears or confront our own belief.

Above all, these popular news stories make the point of Stephen Prothero’s newest book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter, very clear – religion matters. Whether it be politics, personal issues or the palpable effects of religious extremism in the public sphere, religion plays a significant role in the world. To ignore this fact is to do so at our peril.

Prothero shares that he disagrees with, “most sociologists” who “were sure that religion was fading away, that as countries industrialized and modernized, they would become more secular.” (p. 7) He argues against such religiously fatalistic commentary, claiming that the world is still “furiously” religious and religion continues to play a visible role, for both good and ill, in the world as we know it. Prothero has long been a champion for religious literacy. Whether it be through 140-character Tweets on the worlds major religions, or full books such as his foundational book Religious Literacy, Prothero believes that in order to “reckon with the world as it is” (p. 337) we need renewed religious literacy in the USA and indeed, throughout the world. God is Not One is Prothero’s attempt to “offer this literacy.” (p. 337) To that end, God is Not One leads readers not only through an overview of the eight major religions running the world today, but also why these religions are so vitally important to our understanding of humanity and the human condition. He states unequivocally that “…even if religion makes no sense to you, you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.” (p. 8 )

Ranking them according to “contemporary impact” Prothero covers Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism (with a coda on Atheism…more on that later) in as much detail as 30-40 pages allows. These profiles do not follow any strict “cookie-cutter” approach to each religion. Indeed, the author hints as much when he prefaces that each chapter will explore “the different answers each of the great religions has offered to the different questions they have asked.” (p. 24) Thus, each religion, in a way, dictates the flow of its own chapter in God is Not One.  At times it can get somewhat convoluted. However, Prothero does anchor his reader with the foundation that each religion presents a problem, a solution to that problem and a technique to get there. In doing so, the religious commentator covers each religions major theoretical, practical and sociological expressions (e.g. Islam’s Koran, the Five Pillars, Muhammed, Shariah Law, Islamism and the major branches: Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi). Below is a basic representation of Prothero’s take on each religion’s proposed problem, subsequent solution and tried technique.

1 – Islam (The Way of Submission) – the problem is self-sufficiency, the solution is submission, the technique is performing the religion (the Five Pillars etc.)

2 – Christianity (The Way of Salvation)- the problem is sin, the solution is salvation in Jesus Christ, the technique is some combination of faith and good works.

3 – Confucianism (The Way of Propriety) – the problem is chaos, the solution is social order, the techniques are ritual and etiquette.

4 – Hinduism (The Way of Devotion) – the problem is samsara (cycle of death and rebirth), the solution is moksha (release) and the technique is devotion.

5 – Buddhism (The Way of Awakening) – the problem is suffering, the solution is nirvana, the technique is the Eightfold Path.

6 – Yoruba Religion (The Way of Connection) – the problem is disconnection, the solution is reconnection to the divine, the technique is divination and sacrifice.

7 – Judaism (The Way of Exile and Return) – the problem is exile, the solution is return, the technique is remembering and obeying.

8 – Daoism (The Way of Flourishing) – the problem is lifelessness, the solution is flourishing, the technique is the Dao.

Limiting himself to 30-40 pages on each of these religions means that Prothero sacrifices depth in fully discussing major  religious beliefs, the ins and outs of significant practices or parsing contentious sociological issues having to do with particular religions. Nonetheless, Prothero makes a significant effort to cover the BIG questions of each religion and to offer the reader a little more insight into the practitioners’ journey in each religion.

With that said, this is not an academic text on world religions. At times I struggled with this aspect of the book, feeling Prothero was too chatty and “scatter-brained” in his coverage of the world’s religions. His unscripted exploration of each religion can sometimes lead the reader to get lost in the details. Some readers may finish a chapter and wonder what it is they learned about the religion they just read about. Sure, they now know more about Sufis and Yoruba orishas, but what is the essence of what it means to be Muslim or a Yoruba spiritualist?

This happened to me when I was reading through the chapter on Daoism. I found myself getting lost in the yin and the yang, the nature and the chaos, the alchemies and the immortals. As I read I asked myself, “what’s the point of Daoism?” However, as I started and re-started the chapter and its sections I was reminded of when I read the Daodejing itself. The lost feeling I felt reading Prothero’s chapter mimicked the lost feeling I felt reading Lao Tzu’s tome on the dao. Thus, in a subtle way, Prothero recreated the Daoist practitioner’s experience in his coverage of that religion. Whether or not this was his specific intent I cannot say. However, what my experience reflects is Prothero’s true intent to present a practitioner’s view of each religion. Shying away from a purely academic review of each religion, Prothero successfully offers a layman believer’s account of what it means to be Muslim, Christian, Confucian etc. while not ignoring the major issues that leaders of each religion have addressed or those expressions of each religion that outsiders necessarily confront when interacting with people of such belief.

In the end, Prothero’s approach to each religion reflects his own religious journey. As he mentions in the introduction he follows German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to “‘love the questions themselves.'” (p. 23) The reader is invited to explore each of the eight major religions covered in God is Not One as a religious seeker who yes, delights in understanding, but also thoroughly enjoys the tension and the mystery that is left in the wake of each religion’s questions and ensuing doctrinal or practical discussion thereof. This approach may leave some readers wanting more, but then we should ask ourselves, “Are we reading this book to understand religions on their own grounds or according to our prescribed presuppositions?”

Further reflecting his pursuit for the sake of quest, the reader can also deduce Prothero’s mystical bent. In each of Prothero’s chapters he outlines the more mystical elements of the various religions and often gives them a positive nod (specifically in his chapter on Islam). This makes sense, given the fact that many mystics answer their respective religion’s questions less with definitive doctrine and more with ambiguous experience and even more questions. However, do not expect Prothero to belabor the mystical aspects of each religion, there are those who criticize him for not writing enough about mystics in the various religious traditions!

Another element of Prothero’s survey of world religions that makes it stand out is his effortless interlacing of notes on comparative religion. Straying away from systematic comparisons of each religion, Prothero often mentions how certain beliefs, features or practices of each religion are similar, or in antithesis, to another religion’s doctrine or act of devotion. Comparing a Yoruba belief to a Daoist practice and a Christian practice to a Confucian belief not only helps his readers better understand each religion and integrate that knowledge into their own experiences, but also paves the way for better religious dialogue in the future; a religious dialogue that notes the differences between religions, but can also reflect on each religion’s similarities. As Prothero himself notes, “the world’s religions do converge at points. Because these religions are a family of sorts, some of the questions they ask overlap, as do some of the answers.” (p. 333) Prothero’s method of noting these similarities is not overbearing or systematic, but is instead quite natural and thus more enjoyable than typical explorations of such comparisons, which are typically represented in less-than-engaging tables and comparison charts.

The punch of Prothero’s book comes in his final two chapters. In his brief coda on Atheism, Prothero holds little back in regards to how he thinks the New Atheism undermines society in trying to argue that all religions are equally poisonous. Instead, Prothero shines his light on the friendlier side of Atheism and highlights its attempt to coexist with other religions and enter into dialogue with people of religious belief and practice. Almost as a segue, this “coda” serves to set the reader up for the author’s concluding chapter. In it, Prothero contends that both perenelliasts and the New Atheists misconstrue and misunderstand religions when they proclaim that all religions are the same because they are all true, or that they are all the same because they are all equally false (read a related Ubuntu post here).

Prothero instead offers a “middle way” that appreciates religious diversity and seeks to analyze it in order to better understand the variance of what it means to be human and strive for a better humanity through religious pursuits. He asserts that  “denying differences is a recipe for disaster” and encourages a more “secular way to talk about religion” that is focused on objective religious observation and reporting. All the while, he affirms religious reporting that avoids dogmaticism and instead promotes and reports on the mutually shared human quest to understand the transcendent, share it with the people of the world and do so from a perspective of humble awe.

For this reason, Prothero’s book is a significant popular milestone in the effort to improve religious dialogue in the post-modern era

And so, I highly recommended this book.In fact, it will form the basis for my introduction to the world’s religions class I am offering in April. Why? Because religion DOES matter and to make sense of the personal, the political, the promising and the problematic things of this world is to make sense of the religious motivations and foundations of the people involved. Furthermore, being a religious practitioner myself, I appreciated his exhortation for all students of religion to examine belief-systems from a perspective of mutual interest and awe, with our eyes wide open to both the similarities and differences in the world’s great religions. From such a vantage point students will not only better learn, but better discuss religion, dialogue with people of other faiths and share with one another in the great human pursuit to understand the human condition.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Are you engaged in the effort to promote and share religious literacy?  Is this the type of resource you believe needs to be read in our world today? What do you think of the points made and reviewed here? Agree? Disagree? Share your comments below!

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University, has published several books on American Religion and is a regular contributor at CNN.com’s Belief Blog. Visit his website to learn more.

Ken Chitwood is a graduate student studying theology and culture at Concordia University Irvine, CA. He reports on religion, religion in the public sphere and encourages religious education through his Ubuntu Spirit blog.  He also serves as an intern with LINC Houston, a charitable organization working towards the development of whole communities in the diverse urban landscape of Houston, TX. He has published articles in both secular and religious publications and speaks on theology and religious issues on a regular basis, having taught in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa and Indonesia.

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Filed under African Spirituality, Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Non-Religion, Religion and the Public Sphere, Religious Education

The Hollywood Walk of Faith

The Oscars are coming Sunday.

Whoopee!

It’s time for glitz, glam, Vanity Fair specials, a little naked gold guy with a huge sword to get manhandled by some and coveted by others. It’s time for TIME to go absolutely nuts posting the top ten opening sequences, the top ten movie theme songs and the top ten weird giant movie monsters. Basically, it’s time to go nuts about some awards many of us would literally kill to get our hands on.

Whoopee!

Amidst all the glam and the style and the fashion and…oh yeah…the movies, spirituality and religion creeps in and colors the film industry with some heart, meaning, complexity and controversy. Although none of this year’s Best Film nominees are explicitly religious in theme they certainly play off the spiritual quest of humanity. For a more in-depth exploration of the spirituality of this year’s major Oscar nominees look here to a CNN Belief Blog on the topic.

With all the spirituality making its way into the movies I began to wonder about the spirituality of the movie makers. It seems all you hear about when it comes to religion in Hollywood is good ole’ easy-for-laughs-but-not-for-substance-scientoligist-Tom-Cruise

Oh yeah! Scientology!

Or maybe when it comes to religion and the stars you naturally gravitate to thoughts about so-racist/sexist/crazy-but-also-devoutly-Roman-Catholic-it-seems-to-overshadow-the-priest-sex-abuse-scandals-walking-contradiction-Mel-Gibson

There just isn't a caption for a picture like this...

But there is way more going on in Hollywood than one might think.

Here is a quick run down on the faith of some of the major hitters in Hollywood and a few of the nominees for Best Director and Best Actor in a male or female role.

Before getting into this year’s Oscar nods, I thought I would start out with every tabloids favorite couple, Brangelina. Where do they turn when life gets tough, when they are thinking about divorce for the umpteenth time or when Brad is with Jennifer or Angelina is in Africa…it turns out, nowhere.

So many kids, so many faiths...why pick one?

Brad told German magazine BILD that he doesn’t believe in God by stating, “I’m probably 20% atheist and 80% agnostic.” But what about Angelina Jolie his philanthropist wife? Surely her good-deeds come from some spiritual awakening? Apparently, Angelina’s religious position is as confusing as her relationship with her father. Asked in 2000 about her belief in God, Angelina hoped that for the people who believe in God that there is. Some Buddhists claim her because of her Khmer Buddhist tattoo (inspired by her son Maddox) and atheists claim her as well for her vague references to all religions being right/wrong. Certainly, Angelina is not Bible-toting Evangelical, but she is certainly someone on a journey without coming to a final conclusion.

What about the axe-weilding (American Psycho), crime fighting (Batman) and former crack addict boxer portraying (The Fighter) ubiquitous Hollywood favorite Christian Bale?

Batman, Patrick Bateman, Dicky Ecklund and why not Jesus?

Okay, so he’s played Jesus…but does he believe in him?

Growing up  with a father connected to the local bishop Bale grew up believing that Jesus looked like Neil Diamond (according to an E! Online interview in 2000), but since then his beliefs have become murky. Christian Bale prefers to keep tight lipped about his faith, although many suspect he is still nominally Christian he has chosen to keep even diehard Bale fans in the dark. What is known is that somebody decided to start a religion called Bale-ism and get it going on Facebook. So, maybe Bale is a Bale-ist.

 

The Black Swan star and popular actress Natalie Portman was raised Jewish and indeed she’s stated that she wants to raise her children as Jewish. However, don’t be fooled by the lip service. Natalie Portman openly stated she neither believes in the afterlife nor practices any particular faith. In a Rolling Stone interview back in 2002 she shared, “I don’t believe in [the afterlife]. I believe this is it and I believe it’s the best way to live.” While not specifically talking about G-d, Natalie Portman effectively rules Ha Shem out of the equation by negating the afterlife and affirming the positive dimension of living as if the supernatural does not exist. We could go way down this rabbit hole, but Portman is part of the large rank-and-file of “atheist” Jews, which may seem contradictory, but is an ever growing blend of culture/philosophy/religion/secularism in the Jewish world typified by the likes of the other Oscar fags the Coen Brothers. While creating a religion of their own with “the Dude who abideth” and touching on their own Jewish roots in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers are avowedly non-religious. Ethan even went so far as to say that believing in an all-knowing and all-loving G-d is “the height of stupidity.” Although not an Oscar nominee per se, Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in this year’s critically acclaimed film, The Social Network, and also is an example of someone still culturally Jewish, but philosophically atheist.

Zuckerberg doesn't "Like" G-d

Now, this one is a personal favorite tidbit from this article. I’ve had a man-crush on Colin Firth for years now, ever since I first saw him grace the screen as the indubitable Mr. Darcy in Sense and Sensibility.

Raised by academics in Nigeria, Britain and America and with grandparents that served as missionaries in India Colin Firth’s religious journey is an interesting one. In fact, his mother is a comparative religions professor who studies mystical religions in particular. Above it all, Firth seems to be an open-ended man who respects the religious journey of his family. However, with all that said, he is for all intensive purposes a pantheistic Western-style Hindu akin to his mother. Why is this so interesting? a) because Colin Firth is dreamy and b) because his grandparents were Congregational missionaries in India, where his mother was raised and through this influence they both actually became Western-style Hindus. What a fascinating journey!

Now, leaving the best for last, the person you are all wondering about. The actor who perplexes people with his spiritual complexity and challenges movie-watches with the depth of his emotive acting and stunning realism. Woody from the Toy Story series. Although his pull-string isn’t too telling, sources close to Woody tell me he’s sporting the red-thread bracelet of the Kabbalah. Only time will tell if this is a fad or if Woody is serious about his mystical portage through life.

There's a red wristband in my gun holster!

As you can see, it isn’t always easy to know what the makes actors’ souls tick. While we know Richard Gere and Orlando Bloom are Buddhist and it’s pretty obvious that Kirk Cameron is a full-blown Evangelical, other stars keep quite tight lipped about their faith. It kind of makes me wonder why? With all the other things they speak out about why not their faith? Maybe they should keep their mouths closed, I mean, they say enough about politics; but maybe they should speak out. With their lead, there might possibly be a better dialogue on faith in the public sphere. I mean, if Hollywood stars can be honest about their spiritual journey and share their struggles then we could too?

For now, while all the other news agencies are telling you who will win and what to watch out for on the red carpet (not to mention a few drinking games to go along with the live broadcast from the Kodak Theater) I encourage you look out for spirituality and religion at the Oscars this year. Listen for references to the spiritual side of life in movie clips, red carpet fashion, interview questions and acceptance speeches. You might be surprised by what you hear, and you may just be encouraged to find out that along with the fame of Hollywood, comes a very human struggle with faith.

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Filed under Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, New Age, Non-Religion, Religion and the Public Sphere, Uncategorized, Worldview

Stealing on Valentine’s Day

No, I didn’t snatch Mrs. Poinley’s purse to buy a box of chocolates on the way home so I could earn points with the wife.

Really.

I swear.

I didn’t.

No, today I am permanently borrowing a good article from Stephanie Fenton over at Read the Spirit on Valentine’s Day and its religious roots, expressions in different countries and reception by Hindus.

Read the Spirit article HERE

I also want to take this opportunity to apologize for my lack of posting as of late. I could say how busy I’ve been with travels to Big Bend, TX; Myrtle Beach, SC and Phoenix, AZ or that I am in a five-week intensive class in my master’s program right now but I won’t (even though I just did).

I am looking forward to posting soon enough, and I feel like I have a few good ideas. I am habitually indecisive, I think…

So help me decide! Along with stealing that great article on Valentine’s Day I am also looking to steal your thoughts.

NOTE: There used to be a poll here, but I tallied the votes already and the first post already went up regarding religion and Hollywood, the next one due is on atheists going to church and enjoying Bible study. After that I hope to log a v-log on transsexuality and the church. Thanks for voting!

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Filed under Christianity, Hinduism