At a Crossroads: When a Young Hindu Converts to Christianity in Delhi
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
At a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.
Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.
In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.
Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.
That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.
—Daniel Foster ends with this provocative thought in the National Review Online regarding Tim Tebow’s response to Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch mocking his style of prayer after sacking the Denver Broncos quarterback: “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”
The commentary is well worth reading. What do you think?
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Is Justin Bieber the Evangelical Christian a Prophetic Figure?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You don’t have to “get” Justin Bieber. Just look around and listen to your teenage nieces or your pre-teen neighbors living next door. It’s more than just a love affair with the seventeen-year-old singer and pop star. He’s a heroic figure to many of his fans, so I get what Cathleen Falsani means when she uses the word “prophetic” to describe him (although I do, admittedly, cringe a bit hearing her making the declaration).
In this interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the author of Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber discusses the cultural icon’s religious background, the role of faith in Bieber’s life, and how the young Evangelical Christian talks about his faith in ways that make his fellow Christians uncomfortable.
Photo by Snow Belieber/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
U.S. Senators Discuss Religion and Its Role in Political Life (video exclusive)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“In some ways, our religious traditions give us guidance about the lack of working together, the partisanship, because as different as our faith traditions are, there are some common values. And one of them is something as simple as justice.”
—Senator Bob Casey
“Colson would warn that salvation does not lie in what comes out of the United States Congress or the White House in Washington D.C.”
—Senator Dan Coats
“If politics is the art of compromise, purity is not compromise; it’s inconsistent with it.”
—Senator John Danforth
Civil conversation among our politicians is at a premium these days. So rarely do we get to witness our political leaders respectfully engaging each other in a discussion about matters of the spirit and how they intersect with their civic responsibilities that we might not think it possible. But there are places trying to make this happen, venues that provide a human space for this type of thoughtful dialogue.
The Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis are creating such a communal space. The ”Danforth Dialogues” — moderated by, you guessed it, former Senator John C. Danforth — kicked off its inaugural event with Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat and Roman Catholic from Pennsylvania, and Senator Dan Coats, a Republican and Evangelical Christian from Indiana.
For the most part, the first half of this conversation is a warm-up period that covers somewhat well-trodden ground: the culture of Washington, compromise on taxes and entitlements, the budget. But there are moments of resonance too. When I hear the three men regret that there are limited opportunities for social interaction, I think of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who posits that regular, seemingly inconsequential bump-ins are a necessary starting point for deeper, more meaningful discussion. Senator Casey puts a point on this idea when he tells a story about introducing his daughter to Senator Coats on an elevator for the first time and says “the fact that it stands out in my memory indicates that those interactions are pretty rare.”
If you’re interested in a more personal discussion about faith and how it influences politics for the two currently serving senators, the discussion gets rolling about 27 minutes in. A couple of moments to highlight come in the form of references: one to a book by a former Nixon aide, the other to a church hymn.
When asked if he thinks religion is more directly involved in politics than ever before, Senator Coats cites Chuck Colson’s Kingdom in Conflict as a philosophy that informs how he navigates his distinct responsibilities as an elected official and a Christian:
“He [Colson] warns in his book that you have to be careful that the kingdom of man, kingdom of government, doesn’t dictate the essential message of the kingdom of God, and vice versa. And so it takes some discernment to not go too far either way.”
Near the end, Senator Casey remarks:
“There’s a great hymn in the Church, “We Are Called to Act with Justice.” The refrain goes on to say, ‘We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.’ If members of Congress focused on those four things, we might be better off.”
To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service
by Rick Elgendy, special contributor
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.
Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.
The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.
Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”
With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.
Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.
But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.
In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.
Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?
by Krista Tippett, host
This show with Richard Mouw was as hard as any in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.
I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4,000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.
A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncommon Decency, has recently been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes. I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies.
My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.
Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”
We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong?
This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.
Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.
And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for awhile in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. We’ve posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled “Sex, Death, and Secrets” — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.
Bob Dylan, Musical Prophet: BBC Documentary Traces Singer/Songwriter’s Spiritual Journey on His 70th Birthday
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
The BBC has released Blowing in the Wind: Dylan’s Spiritual Journey in celebration of the singer/songwriter’s 70th birthday. The radio documentary traces Dylan’s path from a Jewish boy bar mitzvahed in Minnesota through and beyond his conversion to evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s. Even if you’re not a die-hard Dylan fan, it’s well worth 30 minutes of your listening time.
The panoply of voices includes Bishop Nick Baines. A long-time Dylan fan, Baines likens the musician to a modern-day Old Testament prophet, someone who uses poetry to speak truth to power:
“He questions why it is the good people who get it right who end up strung up. … If you go back to the Hebrew scriptures that he grew up with, they’re riddled with these complaints, laments, and this question: ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ But he comes from a tradition that does that. The Jewish community is very good at questions and Dylan gets it.
Bishop Baines and others point out that religious allusions and imagery are recurring in Dylan’s cannon. “Bob Dylan is very much drawing on ancient texts and integrating them into contemporary concerns,” says author Seth Rogovy. Selected lyrics from “Blowing in the Wind” such as “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” echo specific passages from Isaiah and Ezekiel, says Rogovy.
Dylan’s musical and spiritual path have led him to explore Jerusalem’s Old City and the baptismal waters of Malibu. For Bishop Baines, the theological thread unifying Dylan’s life and work is his ongoing creative wrestling with the human condition:
“He’s constantly looking at human experience and his experience and the way the world is against this backdrop of God and his understanding of the scriptures. And my guess is if he lives to 100 he still will be doing the same thing. … What Dylan gets is the fact that spirituality isn’t divorced from reality. So Dylan moves through loneliness, love, sex, God, meaning, all of that. It’s all in there.”