Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor

In today’s “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau acknowledges the interfaith zeitgeist. In the strip, a medic informs a military chaplain that a patient is going to survive and won’t need last rites, after all. The medic notes that the patient “was worried he wasn’t eligible for rites. He’s from some sort of multi-faith family.” The chaplain replies that this would not have been a problem. The medic asks, “You do mash-ups?” The chaplain responds, “It’s not pretty, but yeah.”

In a handful of words, Trudeau touches on several key interfaith family issues.  First, note his use of the term “multi-faith family,” which indicates to me that perhaps my insistence on using “interfaith,” which I defended in a recent blog post,  is indeed behind the times. Trudeau has an ear for the sound of the future; I am reconsidering my stance.

Calling an interfaith prayer or ceremony a “mash-up” is awfully clever, and appeals to me as a tech-savvy adult (and obviously would appeal to my iPod-addicted teens). On the other hand, I think I will resist taking up this term. I am just too old-school I guess. To use a musical analogy, when I hear appropriated bits and pieces of music in a current hit, I enjoy them, but for me, the joy is in using the mash-up as an opportunity to teach my children about the original music being mashed.

For instance, both my teens and I love Sublime’s 1996 hit “Doin’ Time.” My kids happen to know that it is based on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” because I sang the original to them as a lullaby, and because my father and my son both play the tune as jazz pianists. We are educated insiders, we get the reference. I worry about kids who are ignorant of Gershwin, who don’t understand that Sublime did not actually write the hook on which they are caught.

In the same vein, I worry about mash-up interfaith prayers or services: unless our children understand the references, appreciate the originals, they lose the historical context. I believe interfaith children should be grounded in the classics, in the rites and rituals of both their Christian and Jewish heritages. Am I just uncool?

At the same time, I understand the gleeful power of the mash-up. My teens, all teens,  resonate with the harmonics and the dissonance, the new produced by combining and overlapping old tracks. They have an intuititve understanding of Ecclesiastes (that “there is nothing new under the sun”): that  all religion, and art, evolve through recombination.

Trudeau also touches on the reality that clergy are acting, by necessity, as deejays: they are innovating, riffing on traditional rites for every life transition, in order to accomodate their interfaith flocks. Often, they are writing and performing new rituals quietly, without permission from institutional authorities, because institutions lag considerably in comprehending that this is the dawning of the Age of the Interfaith.

Trudeau also hints at the truth that many clergy are ambivalent about their roles on the cutting edge of creating and leading interfaith liturgy. “It’s not pretty,” the chaplain sighs. The mash-up makes her long for the original, the unadulterated Gershwin. But Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, was appropriating, transforming, mashing-up the African-American gospel form with jazz and opera. And religions have been cross-fertilizing since the beginning of time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Finally, Trudeau refers, obliquely, to a conundrum facing this first great generation of interfaith families as we age: how do we gracefully ritualize the end of our lives in an interfaith world? I personally know a Jewish man whose wife was exhumed after someone decided to enforce a prohibition against non-Jews being buried in a Jewish cemetery. My own mother, after more than fifty years of interfaith marriage, makes nervous jokes about needing to do a deathbed conversion before she can be buried in our family plot. Our interfaith community is seeking a solution: a final resting place for interfaith families. Or, if you will, a final mash-up.

Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions

The concept of raising children as “both” continues to raise eyebrows, hackles, and goosebumps. From where I stand, with my second-generation-interfaith children almost grown, the benefits of raising them with both religions seem clear. But I thought it might be useful to sum up my reasoning and experience:

  1. Children have the right to understand and appreciate both cultures and religions represented in their family tree. Withholding information or explanations about this background can create resentment, or a sense of the suppressed religion as “forbidden fruit.” This was my own experience, growing up in an interfaith family without any education about my Christian side.
  2. Children who are equally rooted and equally comfortable with both sets of extended family may feel they have greater family support from both sides. My children, teens raised with both, are comfortable in church with Grandma, and at the Passover Seder led by Grandpa. All of the grandparents participated in my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony, which drew on both traditions.
  3. Whether they eventually choose to identify with one religion or with both, people who are religiously bi-literate, who know the stories and rituals of two religions, will have a greater understanding of world politics, history, culture and literature.  My teens often find themselves explaining religious imagery and concepts to their peers from “monofaith” families.
  4. Some interfaith families abandon religious education altogether when they cannot agree on one religion. But interfaith adults raised with “nothing” sometimes express regret and frustration at their own religious ignorance. If both parents are unified in passing on an atheist, secular humanist or ethical culture perspective (different from choosing nothing), that’s fine. But for me, teaching both is vastly preferable to avoiding religious or ethical education altogether.
  5. Children deeply appreciate it when both parents are equally comfortable sharing their religious traditions, places of worship, and thinking, and when they sense a balance of power between parents. When one parent is the “out” or “odd” parent with a religion that differs from the rest of the family, the child may sense the lack of family unity, and may even interpret one parent as dominant and the other as submissive, misguided, or even in moral danger. I have encountered children who worry and take it on themselves to try to convert the “out” parent.
  6. As parents, we cannot ultimately control the religious identity of our children anyway. All adults can, and many do, switch religious affiliations in adulthood. Giving children some basis in both familial traditions gives them a better basis for making a choice or shifting labels, rather than forcing them to start from scratch in learning a new religion.
  7. Even if parents label their child with one religion, the outside world may reject that label. Jews will either label your children based on the religion of the mother (in the case of Conservative and Orthodox), or based on meeting certain litmus tests of Jewish practice (in the case of Reform). Meanwhile, Muslims go by the religion of the child’s father. Some Christians will label children based on whether they have been baptized, or “saved.” Your ability to control your child’s label is limited once they go out into the world, and the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting criteria in different religions and denominations may diminish your ability to make a particular label stick.
  8. The sense that learning about both religions is radical or controversial actually appeals to teens and young adults, engaging them at precisely the moment when many youth lose interest in religion. I know more than one teenager who has used their interfaith identity as a college application essay topic. The jazzy, rebellious pride exhibited by young “half-Jews,” the reappropriation and transformation of this once-derogatory label, is further evidence of positive energy derived from interfaithness.
  9. The ability to see the world from more than one perspective, the interfaith child’s stereoscopic vision, has benefits beyond the religious domain. Many adult interfaith children testify that their interfaith status predisposes them to become natural peacemakers and bridge-builders.
  10. Celebrating both sets of holidays, and studying the intertwined history of any two religions (particularly any two of the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam), creates a rich synergy. No religion ever sprang full-blown into the world, out of nowhere. Each religion is woven from the strands of previous traditions, and discovering their historical interconnectedness is deeply satisfying to those of us in interfaith families. The rich tapestry of each interfaith family is a microcosm of the lively design of religious evolution through history. Scientists testify to the power of this type of “fractal” design, in which  each small part echoes the pattern of the whole: fascinating, complex, and gorgeous.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

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