The U.S. is suffering from a case of multi-generational and multi-cultural religious illiteracy —what Stephen Prothero calls, “religious amnesia.” The United States, in spite of its established secularism, is a thoroughly pluralistic nation with robust expressions of myriad world religions everywhere from the wheat fields of Iowa to the buckled asphalt of Los Angeles. Yet, we are simultaneously “a nation of religious illiterates” who flunk the most basic of quizzes on religion — even our own. It seems, “[m]ost Americans remain far more committed to respecting other religions than learning about them.”
To the rescue come "world religion Bible studies" that attempt to help Christians navigate their world's stunning religious pluralism. The problem is, most "world religion Bible studies" are terrible.
While most of the leaders of these studies start with the intention to help their parishioners learn more about the world's religions, the way they go about it usually leads to nominally increased religious literacy. Even worse, these studies often exacerbate pre-existing prejudices or presuppositions about studied worldviews.
Granted, not all world religion studies are horrible, but many I've been to, or heard of (and, admittedly, some of the ones I've taught), were dreadful. While I confess that I'm a culprit of creating crappy curriculums for a "world religion Bible study" or two, I humbly suggest that I have learned the error of my ways (mostly) and want to propose some strategies to remedy the oversights of well-meaning pastors and educators.
So, below are THREE REASONS WHY WORLD RELIGION BIBLE STUDIES SUCK and a few accompanying action points to make them better:
1) Unschooled teachers
The number one issue with the vast majority of these studies is those who are teaching don't know much about the world's religions in the first place. Furthermore, they are not in the least bit trained in how to properly engage in religious studies, which is a topic altogether distinct from the task of theology.
While teaching can be a wonderful way to learn, we should not feign being an expert when we really have not spent the time to gain expertise in one religion other than ours, let alone multiple world religions. And do not, for a moment, think that because you read one book, watched a movie, or visited a temple that this makes you an expert on Buddhism, Islam, Scientology, etc.
Admittedly, several pastors confessed to me that they do not know much about the world's religions, but decide to teach on them anyways because, "my parishioners are asking me to." Granted, you, as a pastor or teacher, are in a tough place when people ask you to lead a study in an area you feel you know little about. I feel for you. But then there are other pastors who took one class on world religions, watched one documentary, or read one book and decide, "My people need to know this!" and like a crusader gallivanting off to slay the pagan hordes they announce a study to equip their congregants for the spiritual battle at hand. #Facepalm. Maybe you are the former, maybe you're the latter. Either way, you aren't an expert — I implore you to stop acting like one.
Nonetheless, I feel for you. The problem is that we pastors and teachers are expected to be weekly experts on a wide variety of topics. Every Sunday a pastor is meant to churn out a sermon wherein he/she expounds on a relevant topic from a deep knowledge of the biblical text. People listen to the pastor as if he/she is an authority on the given topic (marriage, parenting, politics, etc.). While most pastors (certainly not all) are adept at interpreting Scripture, they are not mavens in every field. It's unfair to expect them to be an expert on everything — especially religions they were not trained in. Too often we pressure them to act as if they are. Likewise, teachers and educators are expected to cover a broad range of topics week-in and week-out, even if their knowledge on some of these topics is exhausted within the confines of the text they use to teach. This problem becomes paramount in teaching on world religions.
With untrained teachers and unqualified pastors diving head first into a study where they are presumed to be specialists, but are effectively faking even basic facility, what most world religion Bible studies become are cesspools of collective religious ignorance not classrooms prepped for increased religious literacy.
Sometimes, in an effort to sidestep an educator's insufficiency for the task, an ex-member testimony is favored. Oh Lord have mercy, this is even worse. Certainly, ex-members have a voice to bring to the table and their perspective is a valuable one to appreciate in our study of religion. But it is only one voice and an extremely biased one at that. Ex-members are ex-members for a reason. While they may not "have an axe to grind" they will most definitely present a prejudiced perspective on a religion they now eschew.
Imagine this -- an atheist meet-up group wants to learn more about Christianity. To do so, they bring in a former evangelical who no longer believes in God to talk about their former faith. Would you, as a Christian, say that the atheists in that group necessarily got a fair picture of Christianity? Would you want them to perhaps balance out their learning with some supplementary teaching or a current member's testimony? If not, you should. Relying on ex-member testimonies or teaching is a sure way to get a skewed impression of a world religion.
So, how do we fix this? Three ways:
The fix: Get an education. Take a class, keep reading, enroll in a master's program. Become the expert you are pretending to be. Even a few classes on one religion will equip you to better teach that topic. However, do not think that taking one intro class on world religions or reading one book is enough. Dive deep into one religion before you endeavor to teach it. Enjoy that process? Keep going deeper or expand your knowledge to include other religions. Repeat as necessary.
The fix: Study in the presence, or even under, the "religious other." While I do not like the fertile terrain for prejudice that "othering" a people group creates, the reality is that most Christians feel that Muslims and Mormons, Jews, Jains, and Jedis are "the religious other." They feel uncomfortable talking about these other faiths in the presence of "the other" (cue creepy sci-fi music here). So, they round up the wagons, close the parish hall doors, and "study" them from the safety of their own sanctuaries. As an educator, your task is to bust those doors down and make the learning environment an uncomfortable one. Bring in a Muslim to team-teach on Islam, invite an atheist to present their non-religious ways, visit a local mosque, temple, or place of worship to engage in experiential education, make your study public, or at the very least ask a Buddhist to sit in on your teaching to call you out or offer further food for thought. Yeah, it will be awkward, unsettling, and a bit "weird," but that's a good thing. In that environment learning is probably going to take place on all sides.
The fix: Bring in the experts. f all else fails, ask the experts. Bring in a local professor or your denomination's resident religious scholar, anthropologist, or sociologist. As mentioned before, bring in a Buddhist monk to share their practice, an imam to elucidate their beliefs, etc. Shameless plug: invite me to come and speak. While I can't speak to EVERY religion with expertise, I can at least point you in the right direction or start you off with the right tools/perspective.
2) The category of "world religions" is problematic anyways
Even if a pastor/teacher is schooled in the ways of the world's religions, what is a "world religion?" Most studies pick out a few heavy hitters among the sundry spiritualities that are held and practiced around the globe. There are some usual suspects that pop up in almost every world religion study. Here's an example from the table of contents of a self-titled "world religion Bible study" curriculum: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Bahai Faith, Spirit Religions, Atheism, New Age Movement, and others. This is a generous list. Another "world religion" study I saw recently (at a Lutheran church) sought to teach the following: Catholicism, Islam, Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, Buddhism.... Yikes.
The issue here is that these lists, and most other scopes and sequences of world religions studies make three mistakes: 1) ignore religions and spiritualities on the periphery (e.g. Sikhism, Yoruba, Juche, etc.); 2) lump together multiple world views and practiced spiritualities into general categories that obfuscate more than they educate ("Spirit religions" covers a wide, diverse, range of religions/spiritualities ranging from indigenous religion to hybrid spiritualities, New Age and "others" is necessarily ambiguous, and "Islam" and "Hinduism" obscure realities that exist in the margins); 3) make divisions where they need not do so (is a "world religions" class the proper place to present the differences between Catholics and Lutherans?).
These categories, meant to help simplify the study or book (however well-meaning they are) betray a dangerous unsophistication when it comes to apperceiving and appreciating the wild diversity of religious beliefs and spiritual practice around the world.
The fix: Teach the tools. For years, the archetypal format of religious studies tended to place different religious traditions, typically those deemed to be “the world’s ‘great’ religions,” in their respective silos and investigate them each according to some prescribed rubric based on the author’s own definition of religion. This pedagogical approach tended to dissociate individual traditions from the study of religion as a whole and, even, from the students themselves. Since, as authors George D. Chryssides and Ron Geaves noted, students “rarely come to study religion because they wish to be neutral social scientists or simply to describe religious belief and practice more accurately,” this method bequeaths a superficial knowledge of religion at best and exacerbated stereotypes of the spiritual at its worst. Hence, I suggest an initial approach that involves considering what it means, and looks like, to study religion from a disciplined, self-reflective, point of view rather than a theological one. In lieu of teaching the religions themselves, teach how to study religion in the first place. Teach how to ask questions, be a participant-observer, etc. The rules that apply to training apply here too. If you don't feel comfortable as a religious student, bring someone in who is.
3) Straw man studies
Now, if untrained leaders and unrefined categories are bad, this problem is the Satan-of-world-religion-studies incarnate.
I get what the leader of these studies is trying to do: help their flock better understand other religions so that they can witness to their neighbor, coworker, family member, or friend. Typically, the end game of these studies is to help the Christian better evangelize someone of another faith.
Putting the issues of hegemony, colonialism, and arrogance involved in discussions of Christian mission and evangelism aside for a moment, such an approach in a world religion Bible study is bad for the simple reason that in the rush to get to "what's wrong with this religion" that we usually end up skipping over "what this religion is" in the first place.
We either misapprehend, or misrepresent, world religions by presenting a "straw man" form of the faith (a hollow, or sham, version of the worldview that is easily defeated in an artificial argument without "the other" present) or do so by seeking first to pinpoint error rather than attempting first to understand.
Sabine MacCormack in her book Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Colonial Peru shared how missionaries in colonial Peru set out to comprehend Incan religion as it was practiced in both in the centers of power (i.e. Cusco) and in the rural Andes. In their accounts, they made two fatal mistakes: 1) by setting out with the primary purpose of extirpating (destroying) these beliefs and practices and 2) interpreting these religions through their own spiritual lenses. These approaches meant that the missionaries completely misinterpreted the religion as it was presented to them. They misconstrued myths, received a false impression about beliefs, and misread rituals. All the while, the Andean beliefs and practices survived and even thrived, whether under the guise of Catholicism or out in the open, and often with greater emphasis than before. Setting out to eradicate the religion of the Andes, the missionaries misunderstood it completely. Too often, world religion Bible studies do the same.
The fix: Study in the presence, or even with, the "religious other." Again, there is nothing better for our mutual learning and understanding than having a Muslim present when you teach on Islam. Give permission for them to correct you where they think you are wrong. Maybe you're not and they just don't like the way you put it. But, maybe you are. Have the guts to have a practitioner of the faith you are studying call you out. Assume insiders are the experts, you would expect the same from someone studying Christianity. Your study will be MUCH BETTER because of it.
The fix: Seek understanding and relationship. The primary goal of your study should be understanding and bridge building, not apologetics or polemic. Before you call the heresy police, hear me out. While we often see our friendships with people of other faith as a means to an end, I am proposing that we see the relationships as ends unto themselves. Part of God's grand plan is a restoring of what was lost in our fall from grace. Part of Christ's redemptive work is to bring together that which was torn asunder. Understanding other religions, and building relationships with "the religious other," is part and parcel to the resurrective, restorative, and recreative kingdom of Jesus -- to bring unity and fellowship where there was disharmony and division. This does not mean forsaking witness, but it does mean not orsaking friendship for the sake of witness. Witness to the worldview, sure. Share your faith, certainly. But the friendship must endure, the understanding must be the primary goal, and the first step in evangelizing needs to be shutting our mouths, and opening our ears, to listen and learn.
*Was this post helpful? Hurtful? Have a suggestion? Want to accuse me of heresy or worse? This blog is meant to be a provocation toward deeper understanding. It's a beginning. There will certainly be revisions in my own thought -- additions, subtractions, and perhaps a crumpling of the entire project and a total re-write before we can, together, build a “strong, benevolent Christianity” (a la Brian McLaren) that can successfully engage other religions, spiritualities, and worldviews in a context defined by religious pluralism. So, please share your thoughts with me below or via e-mail.