Updated: Apr 21
In each of my Living Our Beliefs podcast interviews, the first question I ask is about my guest’s religious and denominational identity – i.e. Evangelical Christian, Conservative Jew, or Sunni Muslim. Most guests answer the question easily, but a few seem uncomfortable or reluctant. It appears to be such a straightforward question, so I have been puzzled by the hesitancy. I detect four main reasons: fear of negative assumptions, avoidance of division, feeling that the boxes don’t fit, and a desire to reframe the issue.
The ease of a label can be deceptive, lulling us into thinking we know what it means. However, these shortcuts can lead to bias. Cathy Sirvatka, an Evangelical (also known as Born Again), is sensitive to the negative impression many have about her adopted faith.
“I refer to myself as a Christian, pretty plain and simple. If I'm talking to other Christians, I might say I'm a Born Again Christian, but I don't usually put that one out there right away, because it tends to freak people out if they are not [Born Again]. So, I just call myself a Christian.”
She recounted that before becoming Born Again, she found them obnoxious at times, coming on too strongly – Bible thumpers in her words – not without reason. As co-religionist Deana Thayer noted, “evangelical actually comes from the word evangelism, where we're sharing our faith with others.” While both women find excessive effusiveness of faith off-putting, they feel that giving their lives to Christ has proved enriching.
Azra Khalfan-Kermali, a Muslim, talked about labels creating divisions. She prefers to find similarities and connections with others. She was taught to highlight the value of commonality, without regard to sect, the term Muslims use for denominations.
“I was raised always to represent myself as a Muslim. I find it's important to respect all sects."
“I was raised always to represent myself as a Muslim. I find it's important to respect all sects. There are many sects within the Muslim religion, and we've always been proud to identify ourselves as Muslims, and we respect all sects, of course. For the most part, we have more in common and we like to focus on that more than anything else.”
Boxes Don’t Fit
The third category includes those who feel that a straightforward answer does not capture the nuances of their identity. For example, Nathan Bakkan said: “I was raised Roman Catholic. I think right now I describe myself as a Contemplative Witch with roots in the Catholic tradition.” He noted that however far he has grown beyond the Catholic Church, the ‘Catholic-ness’ will remain, a fact he cannot deny nor does he wish to, as it’s the religion of his heritage. While the roots remain, he has grown and “learned to feel and experience spiritual nourishment outside of the walls of that tradition.” For Deana, it’s a practical matter. She’s not opposed to choosing a denomination, but the nature of her blended family means attending a non-denominational church can better accommodate the whole family’s faith.
Reframing the Issue
Three women, a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim, as it happens, reframed the question of affiliation altogether, instead underscoring the importance of living their beliefs.
"The belief that the Torah, the Jewish way to be in the world, is sourced back to God means that my whole life is informed with that way of being in the world"
Elissa Felder, having self-identified as a traditional Jew who attends an Orthodox synagogue, went on to say: “The belief that the Torah, the Jewish way to be in the world, is sourced back to God means that my whole life is informed with that way of being in the world.” God infuses her life. The Torah, which the Orthodox believe was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, is the guidebook for living, defining her dress, diet and activities. Her job is “to line [herself] up in this world with God in mind. Do good, be good. Bring goodness into the world.”
Deana described something similar, striving to align her daily actions with biblical precepts. “I'm trying to live in a way that honors God throughout the week. I'm trying to live in a way that would match with biblical principles throughout the week.” Additionally, she believes that, by living this way, she may entice others to to come into the faith. This belief is guided by a cliché in the community: “You're the only sermon some people will ever hear, or you're the only Bible some people will ever read”.
“You're the only sermon some people will ever hear, or you're the only Bible some people will ever read”.
Lastly, Azra talked about the internal and external expression of her faith, noting her visibility as a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf.
“Our belief is manifested a lot of times in some of the things that we do or we say. How we feel is very difficult to describe because that's very internal, but externally there's the way we carry ourselves, the way we behave, the way we deal day-to-day with people. And when it comes to women, we're easily identified because of our cover, so we we're kind of like the flag bearers of Islam.”
Why does any of this matter, in the end? It matters because these distinctions – how someone self-identifies and how they feel about it – helps us understand them. Understanding the practical and spiritual effects of identity and belief are the very reason why I launched this podcast, bringing you, the listener, into the conversation. I hope to show that religion is not something that can be easily defined or described – instead it’s intertwined with, and impacts and is impacted by the believer’s experiences in the world.
Click here to listen to Nathan’s episode (#2).
Click here to listen to Cathy’s episode (#5).
Click here to listen to Deana’s episode (#10).
Click here to listen to Azra’s episode (#12).
Click here to listen to Elissa’s episode (#34).
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at email@example.com or add a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli