Blessed Are the Nones: Book Review

The most common, and the fastest-growing, type of interfaith marriage in the US is a marriage between a Christian and a “religious none.” (The “nones” are a catch-all for anyone who doesn’t check one religion box–whether an atheist, an agnostic, spiritual but not religious, or someone with many religious heritages). Whenever I give a talk on interfaith families, I always get questions from families navigating differences between religious and non-religious beliefs. Now, a lively, original, and moving new memoir describes just such a marriage for the first time, from the inside. Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community, is a deeply Christian book in many ways, but it touches on many of the emotional and practical hurdles faced by interfaith families of all types.

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook and her husband Josh, the son of a missionary, met at an evangelical Christian college, married, and spent time living off the land together in a Christian farming community. But a few years into their marriage, Josh announces that he has stopped believing in God. This book charts Stina’s journey through adjusting to this new asymmetry in their relationship to Christianity. Seeking spiritual support and community, she engages with an order of Catholic nuns in their neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis, in an attempt to learn what it is like to be “spiritually single.” But the nuns reject this term, and instead help Stina to feel connected to multiple communities, and to feel less alone by the end of the book.

The memoir follows a chronology through the seasons and the liturgical calendar of that first year after Josh leaves Christianity. Their two small children serve as minor characters, illustrating the universally messy reality and comic relief of parenting. But the focus of this memoir is Stina’s struggles: to reimagine life without a Christian partner, to face her own doubts on religion and marriage, to find community, and to forge new relationships and religious growth with the nuns. Josh, rather than being the antagonist, is depicted as a mensch, often coming to the rescue to pick up Stina and the kids at church, and patient and considerate with his wife as she works to process his revelation. By the end of the book, she has traveled through shock and fear and grief at Josh’s loss of religion, to an eventual sense of trust and peace and acceptance.

Stina is a seeker, ecumenical by nature, willing to learn from others, but with a perspective deeply rooted in the Protestant world. She describes her experiences as part of Presbyterian, evangelical, Mennonite, Episcopalian, and Baptist communities, and her enrichment through discovering Catholic liturgies, saints, and monastic life. For interfaith families who are not Christian, the language of believers versus nonbelievers, of being unequally yoked, of heaven and hell and salvation–may not resonate. By definition, this book will be most relevant for practicing Christians who have spouses who have left Christianity. And there are many.

Nevertheless, the book describes challenges that are common for interfaith couples, whether they are Christian and Jewish, or Pagan and atheist. What does it feel like to sit alone (or alone with children) in a place of worship, feeling that everyone else is sitting with a spouse? What does it feel like to feel exhausted by the burden of trying to transmit your religious heritage to children without a partner’s participation? What does it feel like to realize your children may not go to your beloved childhood religious school or camp?

I admire the author’s determination to capture this pivotal year while the experience was still fresh. As such, it will be most useful to other couples at the start of an interfaith relationship. On the other hand, those who have been in interfaith relationships for many years or decades may need to search their memories to recall some of the feelings described. The desire for a spouse to convert (or in this case, re-convert), expressed frequently in this book, may not be as familiar to those from non-proselytizing religions. And it is a feeling that has been faced and firmly put aside in many mature interfaith relationships. The strict binary of “faith” or “no faith,” (again, a traditionally Christian-centric way of considering the concept of religious identity), often shifts in longtime interfaith relationships into a more complicated conversation. And many of us eventually shift away from the undue influence of societal insistence that interfaith families are problematic, to an appreciation for the benefits and richness that interfaith families can bring.

So I hope that Stina will report back some years from now on her fascinating journey with a sequel to this spiritual memoir. We have precious few books written from inside interfaith families, and even fewer by writers aspiring to literary non-fiction. In the meantime, I will be adding this book to my list of resources for interfaith families. It pairs nicely with Duane McGowan’s more journalistic book In Faith and in Doubt, written from the point of view of an atheist married to a Christian, describing many such families. I am grateful to Stina Kielsmeyer-Cook for adding to the growing roster of authors from interfaith families who are chronicling our myriad experiences, and creating a new category in the world of books.

Journalist 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 The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Saint Francis: Interfaith Peacemaker

Though the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the season of All Saints and All Souls go by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.

Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic, and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker .

On the morning of our celebration, a simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me, contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a saint.

As patron saint of animals and the environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.

The life of Saint Francis has inspired many popular works of music and art.  Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan. My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (or The Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking crow.

While many people associate Saint Francis with nature, not as many know the story of his voyage to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. At our gathering, an interfaith father raised Catholic told the story of the journey of Saint Francis in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Two books devoted to this story came out in the wake of 9/11: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by journalist Peter Moses, and Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by religious historian John Tolan.

Apparently, Francis and the Sultan developed deep respect for each other during days of intense dialogue in the midst of war. The Sultan treated Francis as a guest rather than an enemy. And Francis arrived home urging Christians to take inspiration from Muslims, and live peacefully beside them.

At our celebration, we sang the Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint Francis. The prayer (whether or not Francis had anything to do with writing it) has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love this version by a rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning about his life.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

On Being Both Mohawk and Catholic: Kateri Tekakwitha

In our kaledioscopic world, there are many ways of becoming “both” or acquiring complex identity. The force that spins and swirls us may be intermarriage, adoption, immigration, expatriation, colonization. As a child of interfaith parents, someone deeply rooted in two traditions, I often discover shared qualities with transracial and mixed race families, third-culture kids, dislocated populations, and indigenous peoples surviving in the 21st century.

In today’s New York Times, a headline jumped out at me: “Complex Emotions With Naming of First American Indian Saint.”  I felt immediately drawn to the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin and Mohawk woman born in 1656 who is scheduled to be canonized next October by the Vatican.

Kateri came into contact with Catholic missionaries as a teenager, fled an arranged marriage, was baptized at age 20, devoted herself to prayer and to working with the sick, and died at age 24. Over the centuries since then, those who pray to her say they have experienced miraculous healing.

On the Mohawk River in upstate New York, a shrine to Kateri created by Fransicans incorporates Mohawk symbols and cultural elements. The article notes that there are some 680,000 American Indian Catholics in America. “I don’t look at it like she gave up her native beliefs,” the article quotes a local Mohawk man as saying. “She added to her faith.”

A wise math tutor working with my children once told me, “As human beings, we love to add and multiply, whereas we struggle with subtraction and division, from a psychological point of view.” We build our complex identities through adding and multiplying, not subtracting or dividing. The New York Times quotes a Navajo man as saying that the canonization of Kateri might heal rifts by “connecting us together.” Those of us with complex identities inevitably find ourselves bridging gaps, straddling boundaries, striving to heal and connect. This fall, I will celebrate the canonization of Saint Kateri as a sister in complexity.

Catholic and Buddhist: Barbara Johnson, Deconstructing False Binaries

My days and nights are full now as I work to meet the deadline for my book manuscript. I am weaving together the stories of hundreds of interfaith families, describing the growing grassroots movement to teach interfaith children about both Judaism and Christianity.

So at the moment, I try not to be distracted by the daily news. But it has become impossible to ignore the story of local art teacher Barbara Johnson, who was refused Communion, because she is a lesbian, by the Catholic priest at her mother’s funeral. Now, the media has discovered an online paper Johnson wrote, in which she described herself as a Buddhist. So the focus has shifted from “Should a priest give Communion to a lesbian?” to, “Should a priest give Communion to someone who claims both Catholicism and Buddhism?”

Suddenly, Barbara Johnson’s story has become yet another “both/and” challenge to the “either/or” world. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, who has covered this story from the start, interviewed Johnson (and her brother) to get Johnson’s own description of the role these two religions play in her life. Johnson says that by the time of her mother’s death, ironically, she “had really integrated my Catholic identity into my larger identity as someone who is very influenced by Buddhist teachings.” She also described how, for her, Buddhism and Catholicism “inform one another in this constant internal conversation.” That conversation will be a familiar one to many of us who are born into interfaith families.

Often, clergy who claim religious double-belonging seem to carry more weight than those of us who are rank-and-file dual-faith individuals. And so, Boorstein mentions Trappist monk Thomas Merton as another Catholic who embraced Buddhism. And she mentions, though not by name, Ann Holmes Redding, a former Episcopal priest who describes her religious identity as a convergence of Christianity and Islam.

Perhaps the best contemporary exploration of religious double-belonging is by eminent theologian and former Catholic priest Paul Knitter, in his 2009 memoir, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter writes, “dualism results when we make necessary distinctions, and then take those distinctions too seriously. We turn those distinctions into dividing lines rather than connecting lines; we use them as no-trespassing signs.” When writing about his own identity, he says, “I have to be religious interreligiously.” As an adult interfaith child, I, too, feel compelled to be religious interreligiously.

As an interfaith parent raising interfaith children, this rising tide of fluid identity thrills me: I feel lifted up, weightless and exhilarated, each time a new wave rolls in. I feel supported by other Jewish and Christian interfaith families, but also by Catholics claiming Buddhism, and Episcopalians claiming Islam, and multiethnic and bilingual and immigrant and expatriate and multiracial families, and all of the many expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation in our world.

In the 2011 memoir Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender, Nick Krieger concludes, “Some people see it as a binary, a spectrum, a continuum, or a rainbow. But when I envision my own gender, it is with my eye to the lens of a kaleidoscope that I spin and spin and spin.” Thanks to Krieger’s metaphor, I can now visualize the complexity of my own religious identity as a kaleidoscope of shifting spots of Jewish belief, English and Scottish and Irish heritage, Jewish ritual, New England Protestant culture, Jewish studies, Catholic social teaching, Muslim immersion, African animist encounters, Buddhist practice.

In Barbara Johnson’s eloquent academic paper posted online, she discusses the dilemma of gay and lesbian teachers in the context of queer theory that is “deconstructing the false sexual binaries of masculine/feminine and heterosexual/homosexual.” And now, by her own example as a Catholic and a Buddhist, I believe that she is helping to deconstruct false religious binaries, as well.

Interfaith Corned Beef: Irish and Jewish for Saint Patrick’s Day

I called my mother yesterday and told her I was making corned beef for Saint Patrick’s Day. I thought she would be pleased, because she often points out that I put more emphasis on my father’s Judaism than on her English-Scottish-Irish heritage. And she is right. Whenever my siblings and I were asked in school to write a report on family history, we always seemed to choose the Jewish side. Our Judaism felt more exotic, more compelling–frankly, like a better story–especially since we were just about the only Jews in our little New England town.

I made the mistake of bragging to my mother that I was planning to write about Saint Patrick’s Day, and she took the opportunity to grouse at me that this blog tends to focus on Judaism most of the time. And again, and as usual, she is right. I usually see interfaith issues through my Jewish lens because I was raised as a Jew (her agreement with my father), but also because Jews are frantically concerned about the growing number of interfaith families, whereas most Christian denominations do not feel demographically threatened by intermarriage (exceptions might include Catholics, other Orthodox Christians, and Mormons). Even while I find myself writing from a Jewish perspective, I resent the way that this perspective dominates the discourse on interfaith families–one of the reasons that I insist on referring to myself as interfaith, rather than half-Jewish.

“So are you making Jewish corned beef, or Irish corned beef?” asked Mom. I was momentarily silent, stunned by the idea that even corned beef must fit into a religion box.

“I don’t know Mom, what’s the difference? The package has a leprechaun on it, so I guess it’s Irish,” I replied.

In my childhood, we celebrated a secular Saint Patrick’s Day with great gusto. My Jewish dad would play jigs and reels on the piano and we would march around the living room in green foil hats and wave a flag that said “Erin go bragh.” And my mother made corned beef and cabbage.  But if I thought she would be pleased by the idea that I was making Irish corned beef, I had underestimated the complexity of my own mother. Her response: “Well, I know I’m the one who’s one-eighth Irish, but I kind of prefer Jewish corned beef, because I love garlic.”

“Well Mom, I guess that’s because you’re a common-law Jew now,” I replied. My mother, though she never converted, refers to herself as having a Jewish heart.

Being one-sixteenth Irish was important to me, growing up in Boston. Being Irish is a big deal in the land of the Kennedys, and everyone wore green to school on Saint Patrick’s Day. By wearing green, by surprising my friends (who thought of me as Jewish) with my display of pride in my Irish roots, I was able to cross over for at least a day and experience life in the majority.

Then came the terrible moment when my mother informed me, sotto voce, that to be historically accurate, I should probably be wearing orange, not green, since my Irish family had married into Protestantism in the New World. I was horrified. This was the late 1960s or early 1970s, and I knew that Irish-Americans from Southie were throwing rocks at buses as Boston schools desegregated. In Boston, orange was the color of the colonial oppressors, of the English. If I were to wear orange to school on Saint Patrick’s Day, I  thought I might possibly risk getting beaten up.

I was steeped in the traumas of Jewish history at Sunday School, but now I began to contemplate how strife between Christians can be as powerful and violent and persistent as strife between Jews and Christians, or Jews and Muslims. And I began to think about how interfaith families sometimes hide their roots beneath yarmulkes, or tam o’shanters.

My Irish Catholic great-great-great grandfather, Michael Gorman, immigrated to America from Clonmel, a town noted for its resistance to Oliver Cromwell and the British. The Gormans are an ancient Celtic tribe, probably converted from their pagan or druid religion by Saint Patrick or his ilk.  The word “Gorman” is thought to come from Celtic for “little blue ones” and the family crest features a blue shield. This may have something to do with Celts painting themselves blue to intimidate their enemies in battle (as in the movie Braveheart). So before they were green or orange, I guess the Gormans were blue: a pagan stripe in our interfaith family rainbow. Maybe on Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll wear blue.

But, returning to the corned beef I made last night, it was a big hit. I avoided pledging culinary allegiance this time to either the Jews or the Irish. Instead, I found a Joy of Cooking recipe that calls for slathering the meat in brown sugar, mustard and soy sauce, to create a vaguely Asian corned beef. I called my mom to urge her to try the recipe: her big Jewish heart often craves Chinese food.

 

Journalist 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 The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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