Religious diversity is a fact of American life these days, even though pollsters continue to report that the vast majority of Americans identify their faith as “Christian.”
In fact, as global connections expand, diversity is woven into the fabric of our lives in countless ways that we may not even discern, at first.
For instance, this fall, we’re talking more about the place that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds within our religious community. Mitt Romney is running for president and there are regular news stories exploring his faith. Marie Osmond, part of one of America’s most famous Mormon families, is back on network television competing in “Dancing with the Stars.”
Not all of the media attention on the LDS church is welcomed by Mormon families. From the HBO series “Big Love” to news reports about legal action against tiny sects of polygamists — there are as many negative as positive images of the church at the moment.
Or, consider this issue of religious diversity from an entirely different vantage point. Think about all of the families who adopt children from other countries. The 2000 Census reported that 2.1 million American children were adopted by their current parents. That number is expected to rise in the next Census. Many of those children came from religious cultures different from their adoptive families’ faiths.
Or, consider this: We’re seeing more Hollywood movies and documentary films that explore diverse spiritual pathways through life.
Susan TeBos and Carissa Woodwyk, authors who share extensive experience with adoption and family counseling, have created a workbook for adoptive parents who want to help their children come to terms with their origins, “Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory.” (That’s TeBos at left in the photo above; Woodwyk is at right.)
They wisely warn overly enthusiastic adoptive parents that most adopted children are not especially eager to go through a detailed examination of their birth families right away. But, eventually they will want to seek out and understand this important formative part of their lives.
What TeBos and Woodwyk suggest is that adoptive parents help their children get this whole process started by creating a Lifebook — which they describe as quite different from a baby’s scrapbook. Creating a Lifebook involves far more than saving adoption announcements, infant snapshots and cards from baby showers. In fact, those cherished mementos may not even wind up in a Lifebook. This format, which they describe in great detail, involves digging back into a child’s origins enough to honestly document the first chapters of the child’s life.
This may sound difficult or even grim in many cases, but it’s actually a way that the adoptive family can help a child begin to “think through” these important issues. Because TeBos and Woodwyk both are evangelical Christians, they also weave scriptural encouragement into the process. But, whatever your own faith, this is sound advice from compassionate professionals and experienced Moms.
This week as we have thought about our religious diversity, we’ve placed a special emphasis on the stories of women. As I was writing these stories, I kept thinking about lines in Sallie Tisdale’s fascinating book, “Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom.”
Tisdale is a nationally respected writer whose byline has appeared in a lot of prestigious places, including the New Yorker and Harper’s, but her most enduring work is likely to be this history of Buddhist women, recovering some amazing stories from the shadows of obscure library shelves.
In the opening of her book, she writes about how she came to Buddhist practice in an American community that welcomed the talents and leadership of both men and women. She was aware that sexism was a perennial problem, of course, but she didn’t realize the depth of the void of women’s experience in most literature about Buddhism.
She writes, “Many commentaries and histories of Buddhism do not discuss the experience of women at all — literally, not at all. It is as though being a man is what being a Buddhist means.”
Wow. That’s a powerfully true indictment of so many of our religious communities, isn’t it?
Thank goodness for Tisdale’s calling to the writer’s craft and to this book she has produced. Click on the cover or the title — just as you can do with all of the books in ReadTheSpirit — to read more about her book and even buy a copy, if you’d like.
The problem of clearing our vision to even see the presence of women in our traditions is illustrated perfectly in Janice Gates’ wise and gorgeously designed book, “Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga.”
She describes a nearly 5,000-year-old soapstone seal from the Indus Valley that historians claim is one of the oldest visual images of Yoga. Since most historians are men, they traditionally described this image as a bejeweled man, probably royalty, sitting on a throne deep in meditation.
But, women looking at the image saw something quite different. This may have been an ancient pregnant woman with bracelets on her arms poised for childbirth. In fact, reading her alternative women’s interpretation of the stone, our vision shifts and it makes perfect sense.
She concludes by sharing different interpretations of yet another work of art, a mural showing women poised in space: “Interpretation is always limited by perception, as described by this graffiti, found on the wall below a mural of paintings of women in Sri Lanka, fourth century CE:
“Don’t we all see things our way?
“For me, these women fly upward.
‘For you, they plunge from the sky.”
The mark of really good writing about religion is that we’re not quite sure where the story will take us — and we’re often surprised by the twists in the tale — but we feel comfortable in the presence of the storyteller’s honesty and compassion.
That pretty much describes all of these books I have highlighted today. In particular, it describes Dorothy Allred Solomon’s new book, “The Sisterhood: Inside the Lives of Mormon Women.”
As a non-Mormon, I couldn’t stop turning the pages as she describes women’s experiences of Mormon customs — most of them quite positive experiences — but also tells us about women who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the church’s burden of responsibility or who find real-life dilemmas that we all face becoming doubly difficult to resolve within the confines of Mormon life.
Overall, this is a very positive look at the church, but there’s an honesty in the way she reports the women’s stories — including stories about the enduring legacy of polygamy — that give those of us whose lives are far removed from their experiences a feeling of real compassion and respect for these women.
There’s really no way to build strong, enduring community among us, as Americans, without understanding the diversity of our experiences.
Bravo to these authors who have helped us take a big step in that direction!
Speaking of Twists and Turns of the spiritual tale — NEXT WEEK — on Monday — tell friends and show up here at ReadTheSpirit bright and early Monday to start a five-day pilgrimage with us to the fabled shores of rocky Iona, an island poised between Scotland and the vast Atlantic. It’s been the destination of thousands of pilgrims over many centuries and we’re going to take you there next week!
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