Recently, I watched my various social networks light up with conversation in the wake of a Pew Forum study on religious knowledge in the United States. The executive summary for the study is available at www.pewforum.org. I recommend it to the readership of this journal, or to anyone with an interest in religion and culture. Much of the ensuing online conversation centered on a lack of religious knowledge among Christian denominations—regarding both their own traditions, and those of other major religions. Like many of my colleagues, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when I read that about half of Protestants can’t identify Martin Luther as the founder of the Reformation, and that many respondants can’t recall that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist. However, I think the issue in need of most immediate consideration is how uninformed many Americans are on the role of religion in public life. Responses demonstrated that one-third of Americans do not clearly understand the Constitution’s stance on government and religion, and more than half do not know the proper parameters for discussing religious traditions and their texts (most notably the Bible) in public schools. I do not have a definitive answer for why this particular kind of ignorance is so widespread. But there are significant problems with the quality of public conversation on the subject, and there is some action that higher education can take there.
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education editorial titled “Spiritual Life on Campus: Agreeing to Disagree,” Susan A. Minasian, Chaplain at Franklin and Marshall College, describes a regular program of conversations on current issues of faith and society. A carefully designed set of guidelines for engagement allows students, faculty, and staff to discuss their own thoughts, and to be better prepared to hear what others say. Discussing the hard questions, and learning to do so in a civil way, nurtures critical thinking skills and helps the participants to overcome the natural human tendency to avoid uncomfortable conversations. And while “agreeing to disagree” is a basic rule of engagement for the events, Minasian hopes that the final outcome will be the discovery of common ground, and an increased willingness to use that as a basis for social action.
Agreeing to disagree is certainly an important critical step in what Minasian calls the “messy beauty of democratic discourse”…it is, however, a single step. Allowing for differences of opinion is only the beginning of the work that must be done; a successful pluralist society is going to require much more. Laws and regulations must be established and enforced, infrastructure built and maintained, commerce conducted, and civil exchanges played out with the other humans we encounter every day. Agreeing to disagree makes it easier to live together, but it isn’t sufficient to sustain a collective life. You have to have consensus on a number of basic premises in order to plan and execute any kind of social endeavor, even for simple things like driving kids to school (imagine if there were no traffic laws), or walking your dog (those baggies aren’t for show, folks). The people of a society may keep the peace by allowing for very profound differences of belief on any number of subjects, but they must agree and act in concert to build and maintain a nation. Religious faith and practice complicates that work, especially when theological and material imperatives overlap. There is a strong inclination to push matters of belief and praxis into the private spheres of home and church, especially in a pluralist society. They are issues deeply embedded in our culture, however, with implications beyond any individual’s specific professed belief or non-belief. Lance Gharavi, in an interview on his work in religion and theatre, offers an unvarnished and compelling argument:
In the U.S., religion is not a context from which one can opt-out simply by not attending temple or church, mosque or yoga class. You can’t absent yourself from it by unbelief. And as scholars, it’s our job to try to be conscious, rather than naïve or in denial, about the content of the cultural atmosphere in which we live, move, breathe, and perform.
And the work of performance within this? It opens dialogue through imaginative forums, reflects on the consequences of choices made, and ritually affirms—or contests—established standards and statutes. The features of this issue of Ecumenica address problems of civil engagement through and in performance. Two present thoughtful, close historical analysis of dramatic material. Two propose significant paradigm shifts in the theoretical lenses for their subjects. The first, Bethany Wood’s “Incorporation of the Incar(nation): Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Man Born to be King,” considers the BBC’s depiction of Christ in WWII England. David Chandler’s “Bible Lite for Schools: How Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Redefines Classical Old Testament Theatre for Young Audiences” compares the Webber/Rice collaboration to a modern staging of Méhul’s opera Joseph, analyzing the effort of both productions to connect with children. The social and spiritual nature of successful creative relationships preoccupies Ben Spatz in “‘This Extraordinary Power’: Authority, Submission, and Freedom in the Actor-Director Relationship.” In “Ceremonial Embodiment: The Problem of ‘Liturgical Drama,’” Donnalee Dox proposes a need for a different critical approach in dealing with sacred performance in the medieval church. Our Highlights section underscores the work of two deeply community-conscious performance artists, via an interview with Tim Miller and a profile memorializing Sekou Sundiata.
As the work of this issue’s authors demonstrates, the discourse of democratic nations offers a potential forum where a multiplicity of material and ideological imperatives are measured, where lines are drawn to delineate spaces where the individual will needs liberty to choose its own course, and where the membership must agree to be bound to a collective standard. And it does that with full knowledge of and engagement with the differing faith traditions of its membership. Granted, I will hold out more hope for the fulfillment of that potential when the majority of Americans can tell the difference between Martin Luther and the Dalai Lama.
Minasian, Susan A. “Spiritual Life on Campus: Agreeing to Disagree.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 19, 2010: B24.
“Scholar Spotlight: Lance Gharavi”. ATHENews. Vol. 24.3 (Sept. 4, 2010). http://www.athe.org/newsletter/ 100903/100903-sa3.html
“U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey: Executive Summary.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Sept. 18, 2010. http://pewforum.org/other-beliefs-and-practices/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey.aspx