When I say “interfaith,” what comes to mind? People generally think of dialogue projects, with people of diverse religions talking about their beliefs and practices. Or an interfaith service like you see in many communities for Thanksgiving. Or interfaith marriage, with partners of different religious backgrounds and commitments.
But interreligious encounter is everywhere. We get messages about religious “others” through media; we are impacted by religious difference in public policy. We meet people of different lifestances in school, at work, and around town. (I use the term “lifestance” to include people who identify as humanist, atheist, interspiritual, spiritual but not religious, indigenous, or any number of identities that do not fit in tidy boxes – as well as all the familiar religious “isms.”)
Some people are delighted by this development; it brings the world to their doorstep and enriches their lives. Other people are fearful, however, as it changes their sense of place. Or they simply fear making a cultural error, feeling ill-equipped to navigate the differences that they face. While we can examine large-scale religious conflicts or international bridge-building projects, the most common interreligious challenges unfold in the everyday life of our increasingly diverse, globalized world.
Consequently, before my new book Interreligious Studies: An Introduction explores various approaches to interreligious programming, it examines the complexities of meeting religious difference “by accident” all over the place. Let’s think just about media, old and new. Television, film, journalism, museums, advertising, websites, podcasts, and social media – they all influence our perceptions of religious difference, provide information both reliable and suspect, and occasionally facilitate contact with people who orient around religion differently. We are not always aware of the impact.
Picture a Jewish person. I guarantee that a sizable percentage of you came up with an image that does not look anything like me. This is because, when the media want to present a generic Jewish person, they most often show an ultra-orthodox Jewish man – with his long black coat, shtreimel (fur-trimmed hat), and tightly curled peyot (sidelocks). It reinforces conceptions of Judaism’s archaism or strangeness – and erases Jewish women as well as progressive and secular Jews, who collectively make up 95% of the American Jewish community.
Messages are transmitted through words as well as images. For example, Western media generally refer to Muslims as either moderate or radical/fundamentalist, but they identify Christians as progressive or conservative/evangelical. We know that there are radical fundamentalists among them as well, but the media framing reaffirms a double-standard that plays out in the way religiously-motivated crimes are classified.
But media can also challenge bias. Satire is a wonderful tool for that, as demonstrated by the character of Homer on the long-running cartoon, The Simpsons. In one episode, a recurring Hindu character named Apu, who manages the Kwik-E Mart, shows Homer his shrine to Ganesha, the god of worldly wisdom. Homer’s response is to offer the elephant-headed deity a peanut – a clear indictment of interreligious ignorance and insensitivity.
And sometimes media can spark valuable public conversation about religious difference. The Disney/Pixar film, Coco, presents one example.It began with Christian press, print and digital, debating whether parents should bring their children to see the film. Some claimed that the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was not consistent with Christian spiritual teaching (so don’t take them), but others valued how Catholic celebration of the saints was incorporated into Indigenous cultural traditions. Secular news outlets addressed issues of religio-cultural authenticity, respect, and the potential for appropriation or exploitation as Día de los Muertos celebrations multiplied, including many people who were neither Mexican nor Catholic. Social media networks amplified the conversation.
When we consider the public square – public discourse, public policy, public services, public space, public schools – it is even more apparent that the ways we engage religious difference matter, with personal, interpersonal, institutional, and societal implications. These examples help to explain the rapid emergence of Interreligious Studies: critical analysis of the dynamic encounters – historical and contemporary, intentional and unintentional, embodied and imagined, congenial and conflictual – of individuals and communities who orient around religion differently.