DO I KNEEL OR DO I BOW? What You Need to Know when attending Religious Occasions. By Akasha Lonsdale. London: Kuperard, 2010. 335 pp.
We live in an increasingly pluralistic world. At least in the West, due to immigration and conversion, the religious options have increased exponentially. The community I live in is a pretty typical American suburb. It has a Christian majority, as is true in most communities in the United States, but even here there is great diversity. Driving from my house to the church I pastor, a five-mile drive taking me from one side of the city to the other, I pass by a Croatian Catholic Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Free Methodist Church, a Jehovah’s Witness congregation, a Reformed Jewish Synagogue, a Lutheran Church, and a Presbyterian Church. In my neighborhood, which I walk regularly, there is a Calvary Chapel, a Romanian Pentecostal Church, another Roman Catholic Church, and a Serbian Orthodox church. Within the city limits, or just outside, one can find the mosques of two very different Muslim groups, varieties of Catholic churches, including Albanian and Romanian versions, varieties of Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Baptist, Pentecostal, nondenominational Christian, Zen Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, and a large Hindu temple that is expanding its facility. My doctor is a Sikh and one of my good friends here in Troy is a Hindu. Because we live in such close proximity to such religious diversity, it’s important that we get to know each other. That includes gaining an understanding of each other’s religious traditions.
Although many people remain uncomfortable in the presence of people of other religious traditions, it’s likely that we will come in contact with “the other.” Although the United States may have been predominantly Christian at its birth, and it may remain a majority Christian nation, but the fact is the diversity of this nation is increasing rapidly. Indeed, in most of our communities, the faith tradition that is growing the fastest, especially among the young, is “decline to state.” Even as Americans are becoming increasingly averse to political affiliation, the same is true of their religious affiliations. Still, we remain a very religious people, even if the options before us are increasing quickly. Because this is true, it’s likely we will encounter a person of a very different tradition, and we might even be invited to share in a religious service or ceremony. It might be a regular service of worship, or, more likely, a wedding or funeral. The question is, how should one behave?
Akasha Lonsdale is a self-described Interfaith Minister and trained psychotherapist. I’m not exactly sure what that an Interfaith Minister is, but Lonsdale has written a book that fills a great need. In less than 350 pages, she shares with the reader basic information about beliefs and practices of the great world religions. She explores the three branches of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. In each chapter, Lonsdale lays out the basic beliefs, explains the religious rites, and describes the events that fill out the religion’s calendar. In the course of reading the book, we learn how each tradition celebrates marriages and births, as well sharing the rites and beliefs that surround death. At the end of each chapter, the author provides a glossary of important words. By reading these chapters, one will be prepared to engage people of other faiths with respect and understanding. The fear of the other that so often keeps us separated can be dissipated. We can understand why, for instance, a Sikh male wear’s a turban or carries a ceremonial sword. We gain an understanding of why a typical Muslim woman would choose to cover her hair.
In writing this book, the author has consulted leaders and scholars from each tradition. This is important because if we are to be properly introduced to a religious tradition, we must be assured that what is written reflects actual practice and not stereotype. Lonsdale writes with great respect for each tradition. There is no condescension or condemnation. If one is looking for a critique of the religious tradition, they’ll want to look elsewhere, because that’s not the point of the book. If I have any real criticism of the book is Lonsdale’s decision to use the Church of England (Anglicanism/Episcopalianism) as the representative Protestant body. It’s not surprising, considering that she hails from Britain, that she would make this choice, but the reader might have been better served had she lifted up a free church tradition, and then noted the way in which Anglicanism stands between the Catholic and the Free Church Protestant traditions. That said, I found her descriptions accurate, and thus showing that she is able to describe with fairness a religious tradition’s beliefs and practices.
I expect that I will make good use of this handbook, and would recommend it for anyone wishing to better understand the beliefs and practices of their neighbors. And, should you be invited to participate in the religious ceremonies of your neighbor, you'll want to have this reference handy to consult before going to the event. You will feel more comfortable and less likely to commit an embarrassing faux pas. You know, like bringing a bottle of wine to a Muslim wedding.