This year, I’ve been participating in the Diverse Reads 2017 challenge, hosted by Mish @ Chasing Faerytales and Shelly @ Read.Sleep.Repeat (currently under construction). Each month, there’s a new diverse challenge. The only requirement is to read one book from each challenge, but I like to use it as a guide to which books from my massively long TBR I pick up. This month, for May, the challenge was religious diversity. If you’re interested, you can check out the full reading list here.
This challenge was particularly interesting to me in light of my own religious background: I was raised Lutheran, a Protestant denomination that’s about one step down from Catholicism. While I haven’t practiced Christianity or subscribed to its beliefs in about 8 years, I can’t erase being raised in that background. I attended a private Christian school from 8th-12th grades and the doctrine affected my view of the world in some interesting ways.
When I was thirteen, I went through the process of becoming confirmed in the Lutheran church. Basically, it’s a formal process of declaring your faith in front of the congregation, after having studied extensively what Lutherans specifically believe. Before my class was confirmed, we attended the city-wide Inter-Faith Tour, where kids from surrounding religious communities visited each other’s church homes and learned about different religious practices. While most of the tour stops in my Bible-Belt hometown were different Christian congregations, we also got a chance to visit the Mosque and the Synagogue. As a thirteen-year-old, I was more excited about the surface-level stuff, the way churches were designed and decorated. I don’t remember much of the conversation. What I do remember is being left with this feeling: Muslims and Jews aren’t really all that different from me in terms of what they believe.
Flash forward a couple years: my senior year of high school, when we all took a required Bible class called Apologetics. The class was designed to help us defend or prove our faith now that we were leaving the Christian bubble of private school for the big wide world. While intended to help us deepen our faith, Apologetics was the first time I realized that I could question my faith in God—and that asking questions didn’t necessarily make me a bad Christian.
As I said, I’ve since become agnostic—for reasons that I’m not going to go into in this post. I now consider myself more spiritual than religious. But because I was raised in the church, I have a deep understanding of why people have been some sort of religious for millennia. It’s human nature to want to understand how and why the world works, as well as to feel like we’re not alone on this planet. I might no longer be religious myself, but I have the utmost respect for people who are.
what I’ve learned (so far)
I have only, in this month, scraped the very surface of religious diversity in my reading. So far, I’ve read three books that can be counted as religiously diverse—and currently reading one more with so many on my TBR!
Muslims (or Jews or Christians, etc.) are not a monolith!
Even reading just these few books made me realize how false it is to assume that All Muslims or All Jews behave in a certain way. For example, in Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, the main character wears hijab and prays at specific times throughout the day, but one of her best friends is non-practicing. And while Naila’s parents force her into an arranged marriage in Written in the Stars, Sofia’s parents encourage her to find her own mate. Having only scraped the surface of books with Muslim main characters, it’s apparent to me that within Islam—as within Christianity—there’s a huge spectrum of religious practice.
the importance of cultural religious traditions
One thing I noticed between the Muslim characters and the Jewish characters I read about this month was the importance of cultural and religious traditions. For example, Sofia Khan talks about Ramadan, a month of the Islamic calendar that involves fasting from sun-up to sundown in order to promote spiritual growth. Growing up Lutheran, we participated in practice of fasting for Lent—although we generally were expected to “give up” something that was important to us, rather than fasting on a food level. The concept of fasting or giving up something to promote spiritual growth is actually a pretty common one. Sofia also talks about Iftar, the practice of breaking the fast after sundown, in which her family gathered for a meal together. Sharing a meal is something also common in the Jewish practice of Passover, and also when it comes to Christmas and Easter dinner for practicing Christians.
I also really enjoyed learning about dating practices among Muslims and Jews. Playing With Matches is a humorous book about a 16-year-old who accidentally becomes a matchmaker, and it was interesting to see the importance religion plays in dating in the Jewish community. Similarly, Sofia Khan focuses on Muslim dating, and she frequently states that she would never date a non-Muslim—because her religion is important to her.
I still have so much to learn when it comes to religious diversity, particularly cultural practices I’m unfamiliar with. But so often, I think we focus on practices white Christian Americans view as “strange” (such as arranged marriage) without an understanding of how important tradition is. I’m sure there are plenty of Christian traditions that are absolutely bizarre to those unfamiliar (like, come on, Baptism? really?)
one God to rule them all?
I am not a theologian, so someone please correct me if I’m wrong here, but this is my perception: Jews and Christians share one God, the Father; the same One God is shared with Islam. Obviously the three major monotheistic religions have different interpretations of God, different viewpoints, and vastly different understandings of the afterlife (for example). But at the end of the day, the basis is, to me, the same. This is something I noticed at thirteen when I visited the Mosque. Yes, their practice was different from mine, but the main idea—of one God who created the earth—was the same. I remember discussing this with my father, a deeply religious and spiritual dude (he literally almost became a minister once), and he agreed with me.
What I’m getting at here is that, for all the differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, we have so much in common. At the end of the day, are we not praying to the same God? And if we (and by we, I mean white Christians) could wrap our minds around the possibility of this, maybe we could go a long way in battling Islamophobia in particular.
the importance of choice
I realize that not all Christians are Westboro Baptists, or those Jehovah’s Witnesses who won’t stop coming to my door. In fact, I’ve known some pretty open-minded Christians in my day. When it comes down to it, though, I’m a proponent of religious freedom. These religious in particular have been around much too long to be overthrown, nor do I think they should be, even as an agnostic. People have always needed religion, as a way to formulate their views and live their lives, and even as a sense of comfort in prayer. These cultures deserve to be recognized and respected.
In my opinion, everyone has a choice about what they believe, about how far to take their religious practice—and about how respectful they can be of others. As long as no one’s getting hurt, I say, go forth and practice what you believe.
As always, these are my thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours! Have you read any books with religious diversity that aren’t on my list? Drop a comment for me!