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.

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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