Getting Religion in Cross-Cultural News


Have you every been to GetReligion? Edited by columnist Terry Mattingly, it’s a site that covers news coverage of religious issues. The authors, journalists themselves, point out areas where media personnel ignore or play down the spiritual aspects of news, fail to pursue spiritual leads when they are uncovered or hinted at (they call those “holy ghosts”), or demonstrate an ignorance of things religious. On the other hand, they also draw attention to journalists who show a keen understanding of religion and its impact.

The title of the site comes from a former senior political analyst at CNN, William Schneider, who once said, “On the national level, the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction.”

GetReligion wasn’t set up to target today’s much-referenced idea of “fake news,” as the blog’s origin in 2004 easily predates Donald Trump’s accusations. Its authors are also too broad and nuanced in their viewpoints to simply parrot political (or presidential) perspectives. And the stories they comment on reach well beyond the boundaries, and national concerns, of the US.

Every so often, GetReligion writers delve into their “guilt files,” where they keep stories  that they’ve wanted to write about but haven’t gotten to yet. I have my own guilt file for GetReligion, as over time, I’ve collected bookmarks from their site for posts that I’d like to comment on, all of which deal with cross-cultural issues.

Here are a few of them. If you’ve not been over there before, may these serve as entry points into the territory of GetReligion.

“Should Amazon Tribes Be Allowed to Kill Their Young? Foreign Policy Editors Aren’t Sure” (June 6, 2018)

Julia Duin’s subject is a Foreign Policy article that discusses a bill currently under debate in Brazil. If passed, the law will aim to stop indigenous tribes from committing infanticide and killing certain older children. That’s because, writes Cleuci de Oliveira, some Amazon tribes in Brazil see disabled children, the children of single mothers, twins, and children who identify as transgender as “bad omens” and believe they should not be allowed to live.

Not only is this practice controversial, but so is the law opposing it. On one side are those who agree with YWAM missionaries Marcia and Edson Suzuki. The couple helped formulate the bill and have founded a nonprofit to save endangered children from death. On the other side are those who see child-killing as a part of the tribes’ cultures and, as such, something that should be protected. The Brazilian Association of Anthropology says that the law would continue a history of colonization and violence toward indigenous peoples, “the most repressive and lethal actions ever perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, which were unfailingly justified through appeals to noble causes, humanitarian values and universal principles.”

Duin wonders, what with today’s atmosphere of advocacy journalism, why Foreign Policy seems to play it down the middle rather than taking the side of the disabled children. She asks, “Isn’t infanticide one of those issues that doesn’t require debate?”

“Reporting on the Unthinkable: Ancient, Multicultural Roots of Female Genital Mutilation” (June 9, 2018)

In this post, Terry Mattingly highlights an essay in The Media Project on the violent and oppressive practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), writing, “Reporters and editors will want to file the information, and the sources, for future reporting projects on this issue.” Mattingly cites several “stunning facts” from the article, written by Jenny Taylor, which include the following:

  • FGM predates both Christianity and Islam, with Egyptian mummies showing clear signs of the practice.
  • In areas of Sudan without access to antibiotics, up to one-third of girls who are subjected to FGM will die.
  • UNICEF reports that 200 million women and girls living today have undergone FGM, with more than half living in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.
  • In Tanzania, more Christians than Muslims practice “female circumcision.”
  • Even though FGM has been outlawed in the UK since 1985, no prosecution against it has succeeded. Tayor writes that this is because “the West is slow to tackle it for fear of being accused of racism.”

And chief among the article’s sources is Ann-Marie Wilson, founder of 28 Too Many, a British nonprofit with the goal of eliminating FGM in the 28 countries that allowed it at the time the charity was formed. (Since then, six have made it illegal.)

“The root of the problem is beyond just the physical,” says Wilson, “the root is spiritual and religious and that can only be approached in love.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why Some Persecuted Faiths Grab Consistent Headlines and Others Don’t” (August 7, 2018)

“The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities,” writes Ira Rifkin for GetReligion. So he asks, “Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?”

Rifkin looks at an article in The Los Angeles Times about Jehovah’s Witnesses who have fled Russia and are seeking asylum in Finland. This is the result of a 2017 decision by the Russian Supreme Court to outlaw the religion, saying that its adherents are members of an extremist group. This has resulted in persecution and the threat of imprisonment for Russian’s approximately 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism, calls this “easily the worst attack on religious freedom in post-Soviet Russia.”

But while there has been sporadic coverage of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ plight in the news, journalists in the west have given more attention to groups such as the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, European Jews, and Tibetan Buddhists. Why is that? The “short answer,” writes Rifkin, is

Groups that are relatively small and politically insignificant or are oppressed by powerful governments—Russia in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses—get far less ongoing coverage than groups connected to globally significant constituencies. Think Christians in North Korea and China, for example.

Take a look at the rest of Rifkin’s post for the long answer.

And take a look at GetReligion for a religion-informed take on the news.

(Terry Mattingly, “The Mainstream Press ‘Just Doesn’t Get Religion,'” GetReligion, March 7, 2004; Cleuci de Oliveira, “The Right to Kill: Should Brazil Keep Its Amazon Tribes from Taking the Lives of Their Children?Foreign Policy, April 9, 2018; Jenny Taylor, “Fighting FGM Is a Spiritual War,” The Media Project, May 2018; Sabra Ayres, “Facing Religious Persecution in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses Find Refuge in Finland,” The Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2018)

[photo: “Newsstand,” by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons license]


For Such a Time as This: The Need for Talking


There’s an interesting discussion going on at Christianity Today’s her·meneutics blog. It begins with a post by Patricia Raybon, co-author of the soon-to-be-released Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.

In “A Nation of ‘Suspect Thy Neighbor,'” Raybon writes about her husband’s suspicion upon seeing an unfamiliar car parked in front of their house. She writes that following 9/11, “We’ve become not just a nation of strangers, but strangers who suspect each other on principle.” And then she shares another family story.

Ten years ago, Raybon’s daughter, Alana, left the church and became a Muslim. Recently, while mother and daughter were together, a man saw Alana, with her head covered, and yelled to her, “Go home!”

That man wasn’t interested in a conversation, but Raybon is. In the comments following her post, several readers have responded. Some are supportive. Some are not.

Dagney Reardon writes, “I’m sorry—I’ve having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I’m suppose to feel sorry for a Muslim-convert American woman for being subjected to a verbal insult . . .” He compares her situation to that of women in Islamic countries and then refers to the recent beheadings of Coptic Christians by the Islamic State in Lybia. “God has not even begun to give me the wisdom or insight to relate to a person who would deliberately choose to align themselves with a religion that condones such unspeakable horror.”

I don’t usually read comment sections on the internet. There’s just too much vitriol. But Christianity Today‘s policy of allowing only subscribers or registered users ups the level of  engagedness and civility. And what I appreciate the most is the willingness of CT authors to answer back. I’m not sure what I would have said in response to the above comment, but Raybon was obviously prepared. “Thank you, Dagney, for your comments,” she writes. “Your argument is interesting. You are right, in fact, about one key thing. No reasonable person would deliberately choose to align with a religion that condones unspeakable horror.” And she ends her response with this:

I’m reaching different conclusions than you. But at least you and I are talking. For such a time as this, talking is a seriously good place to start. Thank you, indeed, for sharing your thoughts. Measured conversations need to happen on these matters. Thank you for taking part in this one. Kind regards, Patricia.

As I’m writing this, Reardon and Raybon have responded again to each other. And to another commenter who disagrees with her, Raybon writes, “Thanks, meantime, for sharing your thoughts. Another view always stretches my thinking.”

I appreciate the “measured conversation” that Raybon has begun. I hope it continues, at her·meneutics and beyond.

(Patricia Raybon, “A Nation of ‘Suspect Thy Neighbor,'” her·meneutics, February 20, 2015)

[photo: “Brighton Beach,” by Mark Belokopytov, used under a Creative Commons license]

Reading the Bible without Cultural Near-Sightedness

3782“Can you imagine a Jesus without all his teeth?” That’s one of the many questions that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien ask in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

In modern America, the authors point out, we tend to associate missing teeth with lack of intelligence. But what would your smile look like without the luxury of modern and available dentistry? Would you have a full mouth of straight pearly whites? Did Jesus have all his teeth intact? The authors write, “It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise.” But for much of the world, a lack of teeth would be irrelevant—if not expected—in a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.

Richards (a former missionary to Indonesia) and O’Brien’s goal in Misreading Scripture is to get us to rethink our assumptions about what we read in the Bible. They’re not saying that non-Westerners can understand the Bible better, just that we all come to the text with our own cultural baggage that we need to lay down. (They offer that someone else could easily write Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes.)

The authors admit that they’ve had to oversimplify the topic, as there is way too much to cover in one book. But, they write, their purpose is to “unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”

For instance, they open the book with the example of the hot, cold, and lukewarm waters of the church in Laodicea:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16 NIV)

Our assumptions lead us to think that hot means “on fire” with faith, while cold means that faith is absent. This reading says that God would rather us be non believing than to have a weak faith. But when O’Brien traveled to the site of Laodicea, he learned that nearby were the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold springs of Colossae. Laodicea didn’t have any springs, so aqueducts brought water in. Both kinds of water, hot and cold, would have been welcome and refreshing to the people of Laodicea, but by the time the water arrived, it was only lukewarm. New insights bring new perspectives.

The story of David and Bathsheba gives another opportunity for us to see an “Eastern” viewpoint. The authors’ thought-provoking analysis suggests that David’s actions were motivated more by honor and shame than by feelings of guilt. In fact, they show how not only the king’s decisions, but also those of Bathsheba and Uriah, exemplify a culture where individual convictions of right and wrong are trumped by the weight of societal expectations.

Other topics covered in Misreading Scripture are the cultural differences of Individualism and Collectivism, Time, Rules and Relationships, Virtue and Vice, and Finding the Center of God’s Will. In the chapter covering this last subject, Richards and O’Brien discuss the common Western practice of a reader applying scriptures to himself, while non-Western readers—as with the Jews of the Old Testament—are more likely to apply it to the entire group. This is compounded, as the authors point out earlier in their book, by the lack of a plural you in the English language.

While I taught the Bible in Asia, it was a constant challenge to set aside my American presuppositions and allow my non-American friends to understand the Bible on their own terms. Instead, I was tempted to share my personal and cultural footnotes before they could be convicted of a “misguided” interpretation. This was especially dangerous when I found myself, as the authors call it, “arguing [them] to a lower standard.”

As I read through Misreading Scriptures, I wasn’t always convinced of the authors’ conclusions, but I was consistently “unsettled” enough to rethink my assumptions. And when I question those things that I take for granted, it makes me a better teacher and student. When I acknowledge my cultural biases, I am then better able to understand what the Bible says and less hindered by what I’m sure it should be saying.

(E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP, 2012)

Neighbors Being Neighbors after Joplin Mosque Destroyed by Fire, a Look Back

2711889859_effc34339e_mA year ago, on August 7, a mosque in Joplin, MO, was burned to the ground in an early-morning fire. The cause of the fire has not been determined but was deemed “suspicious,” especially since an arsonist had started a fire on the roof barely over a month earlier, and a sign at the mosque had been set on fire in 2008.

The destruction of the mosque, which made international news, was followed a few weeks later by a “Neighbors” rally, organized by Ashley Carter, a student at Joplin’s Ozark Christian College. As she wrote on the event’s Facebook page, the purpose of the rally was to

show that love is stronger than fear or hatred. In an effort to support our neighbors, we’ve created this event. . . . All in all, this is about paying it forward: giving love before hate crimes can be committed.

On August 6 of this year, the Islamic Society of Joplin posted a documentary on YouTube, focusing on the fire and the rally. It was very interesting to me to watch the video for several reasons: I live in Joplin and attended the event, I know several of the OCC students who helped with the rally, and I know Kimberly Kester, spokeswoman for the Islamic Society, who appears in the documentary. The film also shows local Muslims responding to the tornado that struck Joplin the year before the fire. As a Christian, I have heard many people talk about that tragedy from a Christian point of view, but this was the first time I’d heard someone speak about it from a Muslim worldview.

Rick Love, a Christian and president of Peace Catalysts International, was one of the speakers at the rally. He told the hundreds who attended,

This gathering does not mean we believe in some kind of imaginary One World Religion. We are not expecting or affirming theological compromise. We are expecting each religious community to be authentically faithful to their historic beliefs and find within those beliefs the resources to reach out to one another in love and respect. . . . We believe that our communities of faith should be a force for peace, justice, and reconciliation instead of discord and strife.

Many of the participants in the rally wore t-shirts that read on the front “LOVE—Making things beautiful from things that aren’t.” On the back, they said, “I will . . . ,” with space for each person to complete the phrase with a black marker. I can’t help but be reminded of the topic of my previous post, with its own fill-in-the-blank: “I like ____________.®”

I like good neighbors.

(Rick Love, “Hate Crime Meets Love Rally: The Joplin Mosque Burning,” Peace Catalyst International, August 27, 20012)

[photo: “Row House,” by David Sawyer, used under a Creative Commons license]

Why So Few African-American Missionaries and Why Should That Change? Seven Voices

2587685795_1d8716c603_mIn the world of Christian missions, statistics play a large role. How many people groups are “unreached”? What percentage of a country’s citizens are believers? How many languages still don’t have a Bible?

Here’s another question: What portion of protestant missionaries sent from the US are African-American?

Answer: less than 0.5%—even though blacks make up 20% of Americans affiliated with protestant denominations.*

That number is reflected in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant group in the US, where 0.6% of its missionaries (27 out or 4,900) are African American.

Last month, Christianity Today devoted an article to this situation, quoting Fred Luter, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the first African-American to serve in that role, and David Goatley, the executive secretary treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, named after the first African-American missionary sent out and supported by a mission agency.

Following is some of what they have to say, on why there are so few African-American missionaries and what can be done to increase their number, along with several other voices on the topic.

Fred Luter:

A lot of our African American churches are in the “hood.” It’s a daily fight every day. [People ask me], “Why do I need to go to Africa, Asia or Europe? We need to get people saved in this community.”

It’s a both/and approach. We need to reach the people in our neighborhoods and get African Americans out on the foreign field.

Granted, some (young people) want to be nurses, doctors or attorneys. Some want to be football players or basketball players, but a lot . . . can be missionaries. I never heard that all my life in the church I grew up in . . . I don’t hear it being said in the church I pastor now.

As SBC president, I will let African American churches know that we desperately need more African Americans on the mission field. I want to challenge pastor[s] to start with your young people.

Keith Jefferson:
African-American Missional Church Strategist, International Mission Board (Southern Baptists)

Charity begins at home, but it doesn’t end there. The command begins in Jerusalem, but we don’t stop at the beginning.

Our ancestors didn’t say, “We’ve got to take care of Jerusalem before we go.” No, some of them had the call and they went.

The world is becoming smaller and smaller. African American professionals are traveling worldwide. Communication is becoming greater and greater. Younger people especially are communicating with people throughout the world, and they are more adventurous. They’re not “set.” They’re open to new things.

God is calling us, because like every other child of God, we have a responsibility. We don’t have any excuses.

(Tess Rivers, “SBC President: We Need African Americans on Int’l Mission Field,” Baptist Press, February 13, 2013; Erich Bridges, “Worldview: A New Generation of Black Missionaries,” Baptist Press, February 13, 2013)

Michael Emerson:
Sociologist and Co-Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University

On the difficulty of raising funds for mission work:

Whites have 20 times the wealth of African Americans. So when you go to raise support, it’s really hard because there’s so much less money going around.

David Goatley:

[African American] income is about 75 percent compared to our [Anglo American] siblings’—even when we have comparable education and experience. Our unemployment rate is also nearly twice their rate.

The prospect of African Americans being part of Christian organizations with sending capacity is small.

On the value that African Americans’ cultural history brings to missions:

[T]he experiences of racism and white supremacy . . . would teach them to avoid better the paternalism that too many Anglo Americans show toward Africans and other majority-world people.

(Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Black Churches’ Missing Missionaries,” Christianity Today, April 2, 2013)

Richard Coleman
Senior Director of Mobilization and Candidacy, The Mission Society

As a student at Oral Roberts University, Coleman went on a short-term trip to Uganda.

[W]hen I went to Africa, Africans would say “Where are the blacks? How come they don’t come?”

When you look at the civil rights movement, everyone had to focus inward and everybody was needed to deal with this big issue at home. They had to suspend other ventures.

And once we got the same rights and privileges as everybody else, human nature—and this is not a black thing or a white thing or any color thing—pursues security, comfort and equality. And so when the playing field became a lot more level, I think our pursuits changed toward building up the community and I don’t think we’ve really begun to look outward.

People around the world have heard that story and have seen the overcoming of struggles. Black churches have a message of encouragement for the world.

(Lillian Kwon , “Black Christians Largely Absent from U.S. Missionary Force,” The Christian Post, October 6, 2010)

Leroy Barber
President, Mission Year
Jim Sutherland

Director, Reconciliation Ministries Network

From Black in America, CNN, September 27, 2010

Leroy Barber: I’m the Jackie Robinson of missions, you know.

Soledad O’Brien, CNN special correspondent: Leroy Barber is a man with a calling, and he’s the president of Mission Year. It’s a year-long ministry and volunteer program for Christian young adults in the United States.

Barber: There is a goal for people coming to know Jesus. There is probably another strong goal of things are not right in the world, and I want to be part of making them right.

O’Brien: How many African-Americans are involved in Mission Year’s missionary work?

Barber: Generally about five percent a year or less sometimes.

O’Brien: So why does that matter?

Barber: I don’t think it’s good for a kid growing up in an urban neighborhood, to only see white faces coming to serve.

. . . . .

Jim Sutherland: In terms of the mission area percentage of African-Americans it’s less, far less than 1 percent.

O’Brien: Jim Sutherland studies missionary work and the black church.

Sutherland: Many black churches are—do a fairly good job of taking care of their own local communities but the vocation of missionary in the African-American church is essentially off the radar. It’s basically not there.

O’Brien: So why are there so few African-Americans who are involved in missionary work?

Barber: I think the way missions is traditionally done is you raise support to do it and—

O’Brien: Money.

Barber: Money. How you work out taking a year off which means not working, not earning an income.

(from a cached copy of a rush transcript)

* The African American Missions Manifesto, ratified in 2007 at Columbia International University, estimated the number of African-American missionaries to be around 500, though they admit the actual number is unknown and say that 500 “may be overestimated.” This would suggest that African Americans make up about 0.4% of the total number of missionaries. The percentage of protestants who are African American comes from numbers derived from the Pew Forum’s “Religious Portrait of African-Americans,” (January 30, 2009).

[photo: “Hand and Cross,” by Tim Green, used under a Creative Commons license]

Wrapping Our Western Minds around Yoga . . . and Bindis and Other Things Hindu

2608411576_a9f08dd22c_mI’ve been collecting links to stories about yoga—its acceptance, and rejection, in Western culture—and have been content to let my list grow.

Then, several weeks ago, one of my sons joined  a local Color Run, and I couldn’t help but see the connection between the tossing of all that colored powder and the Hindu celebration of Holi. And later, I saw that singer/actress Selena Gomez had gotten some negative attention for wearing a bindi (a decorative dot on the forehead) at the MTV Movie Awards.

That last news item put me over the edge. I’m stretched beyond limit. I need to take a cleansing breath . . . and empty my browser of its yoga bookmarks, before the next wave of Hindu-inspired trends washes through our consciousness.

Can yoga be simply a physical exercise? Or is it unquestionably Hindu? Or does yoga have an inherent Hinduishness that’s more difficult to define?

Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits

It may sound like magic that posing like a proud warrior or a crow could have such extensive effects, but it’s not magic.  It’s neurobiology.  This next statement may sound to you either profound or extremely obvious, but it comes down to this: the things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain.  Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain (beyond, of course, the required activity to make the action).  These changes are often transient, but can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit.”

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful.  It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

(Alex Korb, Psychology Today, September 7, 2011)

Genetic Evidence of Yoga’s Impact on the Immune System

Newly published research from Norway suggests that a comprehensive yoga program rapidly produces internal changes on a genetic level. . . .

The University of Oslo experiment featured 10 participants who attended a week-long yoga retreat in Germany. For the first two days, participants spent two hours practicing a comprehensive yoga program including yogic postures (asanas), yogic breathing exercises (in particular Sudarshan Kriya), and meditation. For the next two days, they spent that same time period going on an hour-long nature walk and then listening to either jazz or classical music. . . .

Fourteen genes were affected by both exercises, which suggests “the two regimens, to some degree, affect similar biological processes,” the researchers write. That said, they note that yoga’s impact was far more widespread, which indicates the practice “may have additional effects over exercise plus simple relaxation in inducing health benefits through differential changes at the molecular level.”

(Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, April 23, 2013)

Suit Eyed over Yoga in Public Schools

Last month, half of the students attending classes in the Encinitas Union School District K-6 elementary schools in San Diego North County began taking Ashtanga (Sanskrit for “eight-limbed”) yoga for 30 minutes twice per week. In January, the other half will begin the lessons.

Concerned parents have now retained constitutional first amendment attorney Dean Broyles, who says that Ashtanga yoga is a religious form of yoga, and that religious aspects have been introduced into the schools. . . .

Broyles says that it has been argued that the in-school yoga programs have been stripped of their spirituality. But he says that kids in EUSD are being exposed to Hindu thought and belief within the school.

“On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga, or 8-limbed deity. There are words showing what the limbs are,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga.”

(Kevin Dolak, ABC News, October 24, 2012)

Yoga Has More to Offer Than Traditional Classes

“Yoga is constantly evolving,” said Kaitlin Quistgaard, editor in chief of Yoga Journal. “Variety gives people an opportunity to approach yoga from different perspectives.” . . .

Want to hold side crow to some classic Notorious B.I.G.? At YogaHop, with studios in Santa Monica and Pasadena, you can do just that. . . .

Stand-up paddle boarding has grown exponentially popular in recent years. So why not try some yoga while balancing on a paddle board? That was Sarah Tiefenthaler’s logic after taking her yoga-teaching course in Costa Rica and getting introduced to paddle boarding soon after her certification.

(Mikaela Conley, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2013)

Wary of Eastern Spirituality, Christians Try Yoga with a Twist

“Everybody has their own path that they have in terms of their spiritual journey, and my point of view is that I would want everybody’s path to eventually merge into the Christian path,” said Nancy Harvey, who leads the PraiseMoves group at Huntington Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke. “But it’s not my judgment to make one way or the other.” . . .

Kristy DiGeronimo is a certified yoga instructor who teaches classes at two Virginia Beach churches. She said she understands the concerns but thinks yoga allows her to honor God and gives her a calm that makes her more receptive to biblical teachings.

“It really is a tool,” she said. “Anyone of any faith or background can apply it to their life.”

(Jorge Valencia, The Roanoke Times, March 22, 2011)

Seeking to Clear a Path between Yoga and Islam

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters and held a street fair to promote diversity.But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.

Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to “denouncing my religion.” . . .

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so—putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

(Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times, April 8, 2012)

To Some Hindus, Modern Yoga Has Lost Its Way

One group, the Hindu American Foundation, has launched a “Take Back Yoga” campaign to address what they see as a fundamental disconnect between yoga and Hinduism.

Sheetal Shah, senior director at the foundation, says the group started the campaign when it noticed that while “Vedic,” “tantric” and many other words appeared regularly in yoga magazines, the word “Hindu” was never mentioned.

So, the foundation called up one of the country’s most popular magazines to ask why.

“They said the word ‘Hinduism’ has a lot of baggage,” Shah says. “And we were like, ‘Excuse me?’ “

(Margot Adler, NPR, April 11, 2012)

The Theft of Yoga

Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste—the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. . . .

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. . . .

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage—not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

(Aseem Shukla, On FaithThe Washington Post, April 18, 2010)

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America

After writing about yoga as part of the White House’s Easter celebrations, the author adds,

There certainly was no better proof that Americans had assimilated this spiritual discipline. We had turned a technique for God realization that had, at various points in time, enjoined its adherents to reduce their diet to rice, milk, and a few vegetables, fix their minds on a set of, to us, incomprehensible syllables, and self-administer daily enemas (without the benefit of equipment), to name just a few of its prerequisites, into an activity suitable for children. Though yoga has no coherent tradition in India, being preserved instead by thousands of gurus and hundreds of lineages, each of which makes a unique claim to authenticity, we had managed to turn it into a singular thing: a way to stay healthy and relaxed.

(Stefanie Syman, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

The Subtle Body—Should Christians Practice Yoga?

The president of The Baptist Theological Seminary, after quoting the above passage, responds to The Subtle Body in this way,


Syman describes yoga as a varied practice, but she makes clear that yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. She is also straightforward in explaining the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of yoga and of ritualized sex in some yoga traditions. She also explains that yoga “is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.” . . .

When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.

(Albert Mohler,, September 20, 2010)

Now that I’ve seen all these pieces on yoga, I’ll be looking to see if anything more pops up about Holi celebrations and the wearing of bindis. For now. . .

Hindu Spring Festivals Increase in Popularity and Welcome Non-Hindus

“All of this is related to our culture—our Krishna consciousness. This is a very fun lifestyle, it’s a very vibrant lifestyle,” said Ramdas Shingdia, 25, moments before Chaitanya Prakash, 25, ambushed him with a smear of green powder to the cheeks. “And love!” he added. “This is love.” . . .

In recent years, as social media and colorful fanfare have helped Holi festivals gain traction in the United States, some say American Holi festivals are downplaying Holi’s religious and spiritual history, putting more emphasis on its allure as a lively social event.

An increasing number of Holi-inspired color throws on American college campuses is also seen as a sign that Holi may be adopting more of a secular tone.

(Chris Lyford, The Washington Post, April 5, 2013)

Indian-Inspired Bindis a Hot Trend in Winter Bling

“As a fashion impulse it makes perfect sense,” Anya Kurennaya, a faculty member in Parsons’s fashion studies department, told The Daily Beast’ “A bindi is going to attract interest and has that level of sparkle, but it’s not a big style commitment, and demonstrates a level of culture and spirituality.”

But the flirtation with bindis also may have something to do with a heightened attention to India, with many in today’s Internet-inclined generation heading to the country during their school recesses. “There is so much more global perspective today that it’s only natural that you would find these cultures more appealing than the typical European cultures that are more canonized in our history books,” Kurennaya explained, “It’s kind of a rejection of traditional Western education.”

(Misty White Sidell, The Daily Beast, January 4, 2013)

Selena Gomez under Fire for Wearing Bindi at MTV Movie Awards

“The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance,” Rajan Zed, a spokesman for the Universal Society of Hinduism, said. “It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol. . . .  It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religions.”

(Sadie Gennis, TV Guide, April 16, 2013)

[photo: “Strobist CTO Exercise 2,” by Sami Taipale, used under a Creative Commons license]

Three Quarters of World’s Population Live under High Religious Restrictions

From mid 2007 to mid 2010, the share of the world’s people living in areas of “high or very high” restrictions on religion grew from 68% to 75%. This is according to a recent report from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The report combines scores on government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. Findings include the following:

  • The percentage of countries with combined high or very high restrictions rose from 29% to 37%.
  • Six countries scored “very high” in both categories (government and social), as of mid 2010:
    1. Afghanistan
    2. Egypt
    3. Indonesia
    4. Russia
    5. Saudi Arabia, and
    6. Yemen
  • In the year ending in mid-2010, 28% of countries showed “moderate” levels of government restrictions, while 35% were in the “low” category.
  • At the end of the four-year period, 19% of the global population lived in countries in the “moderate” range of social hostilities, with 6% living in “low” countries.
  • Overall, from 2009 to 2010, 66% of countries showed an increase in restrictions, while 28% showed decreases.
  • The three groups that were harassed in the highest number of countries were Christians (in 139 countries), Muslims (in 121), and Jews (in 85).

While the United States ended the four-year study in the “moderate” range in both categories, it was one of sixteen nations whose scores on both indexes rose by one or more points in the final year. This was a first for the US during the four-year period.

(Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, September 20, 2012)

Pop Quiz: World Religions

In 2010, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a phone survey of over 3,000 Americans, asking them factual questions on a variety of topics, including religion. Eleven of those questions dealt with “world religions other than Christianity.”

Answers were tracked by the religion of those surveyed, showing that the group with the highest score on the world-religions questions were Jewish (with 7.9 correct answers), followed by Atheist/Agnostic (7.5) and Mormon (5.6). Catholics as a whole answered 4.7 questions correctly, while Protestants were right on 4.6.

To see how you compare, take a look at the 11 questions below. Do not click on the answer you choose (that will simply reload this page). Rather, hover your pointer over your selection and wait for the verdict to appear. Hovering over the correct answer will also show the percentage of participants in the original survey who answered correctly.

  1. Is Ramadan the Hindu festival of lightsthe Islamic holy month, or a Jewish day of atonement?
  2. Do you happen to know the name of the holy book of Islam? (answer)
  3. Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? HinduismIslam, or Buddhism?
  4. Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, or Mormon?
  5. In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? TaoismHinduism, or Islam?
  6. What is the religion of most people in India? Buddhist, MuslimChristian, or Hindu?
  7. What is the religion of most people in Pakistan? HinduBuddhistMuslim, or Christian?
  8. What is the religion of most people in Indonesia? ChristianMuslim, Hindu, or Buddhist?
  9. Who is the king of Gods in Greek mythology? MarsZeus, or Apollo?
  10. When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? Friday, Saturday, or Sunday?
  11. Was Maimonides Catholic, MormonBuddhist, Jewish, or Hindu?

(“U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, September 28, 2010)

[photo: “The Prayer,” by Connor Tarter, used under a Creative Commons license]