Tag Archives: religion

Complicating the Single Narrative

At last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation wasn’t limited to the Christian faith. I don’t know about the extent of the diversity, but I did hear from one Muslim writer and one Hindu writer.

Why is that important? Because, as Muslim comic book writer G. Willow Wilson said at the Festival of Faith and Writing, “If a belief system is worth anything it should offer value to those who don’t believe it.”

Our society is so polarized right now I think it’s more important than ever to hear from voices that are different from our own. It’s too easy to become overly homogenous and clueless of anything that’s different. It allows all sorts of negative things to blossom.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story in her 2009 TED talk, when we allow a single narrative to tell the entire story of something we don’t understand. It happens all the time when the continent of Africa is turned into a single country. It’s what we do to Islam when we assume all Muslims are conservative or even terrorists.

Wilson also said that she’d never been to a mosque that separated men and women until she came to the U.S. The most liberal mosque she’d ever been in was Iran.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete,” Adichie said. It’s not that there aren’t conservative Muslims (and even extremist Muslims), but that’s only a tiny sliver of the truth. Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all of Christianity.

Swati Avasthi, a Hindu writer who spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing, said that in order to disrupt this single story notion, we need to make it more complex. We need to explore the wider narratives and understand things more fully.

Two great examples are Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang and Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. Both stories explore deeply divided issues—the Boxer rebellion in 1900 China and persecuted refugees in Burma today, respectively—from two conflicting perspectives. The result is a more deeply nuanced narrative. It’s not a simple, one-sided story.

I think we need to pursue those multiple narratives, the more complicated threads that start to give us fuller picture, a more honest glimpse of the truth.

Don’t be content with a token bit of diversity. Don’t assume one story about Nigeria will tell you all you need to know. Don’t be so jaded as to think a single refugee story gives you insight into the experience of all refugees.

“Let’s tell stories that humanize, rather than demonize,” said Eliza Griswold, who has done a lot of work in Afghanistan and seen firsthand the result of our single narrative. She disrupts that narrative herself with this book of poetry by Afghan women.

Lessons from a Reader: Faith is Tricky

Another lesson I learned from Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is that tackling faith is tricky. And this comes from someone who writes for religious audiences for a living and has read quite a lot of Christian fiction.

One of the secondary characters in Life As We Knew It is a Christian. She’s preachy, self-righteous and irritating. Now we can argue about whether or not that’s a stereotype. But I can live with it—Christians often come across that way. But you have to make it believable. It doesn’t help that you’re already going off on politics, now religion too?

What sunk this sub-plot for me was the stilted dialogue when the main character and this preachy Christian interacted. They were supposed to be long time friends, but every time they talked the dialogue suddenly became stiff and memorized and the Christian character preached to her friend and urged her to come to Jesus. Now maybe those conversations are stiff and memorized. But they’re also awkward and difficult and have a very realistic quality to them. Even a Lifetime special has more realistic conversations about serious, weighty topics. People get flustered. They don’t know what to say. They’re passionate, but never perfect. It should move in fits and starts. And if you’re going to use cliches (people use them when they talk, so that’s fine in dialogue), you have to poke holes in them (because that’s what people do in real life).

The worst mistake in handling faith came later in the story when [SPOILER ALERT] the Christian character had died and the main character was confronting the reverend who inspired the Christian character’s stiff faith. While everyone else is starving to death (including the now-dead Christian character), the reverend was plump and healthy. Here we go: The age old bad preacher bit. This is such a tired stereotype. Once again, I get it. It happens in real life. But give it a purpose in your story. In Life As We Know It it didn’t seem to have a greater purpose. It was just a swipe at religion.

As a writer, you should be better than that. If you don’t like religion, that’s fine. But write a real diatribe against it. Don’t set up straw men you can knock down.

Boobquake: Confounding Religious Insanity

Today is Boobquake. Funny story:

So an Islamic cleric and Iranian prayer leader was quoted in Iranian media as blaming earthquakes on immodest women:

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes.”

As if that claim wasn’t clear enough, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi went on: “What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”

As if to prove Sedighi isn’t an extremist, the minister of welfare and social security, Sadeq Mahsooli, backed him up: “We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice.”

So sin, and specifically women showing a little skin, causes earthquakes. Curious that Iran is among the world’s most earthquake-prone areas, and not, say, Las Vegas. Or Cancun during Spring Break. Also curious that these earthquakes are the fault of woman showing skin and not the men who lust after them.

A Modest Proposal
As if that little Pat Robertson moment for Muslims wasn’t entertaining enough, student Jennifer McCreight decided to put this ‘cleveage causes earthquakes’ theory to the test with Boobquake. Her modest proposal: Encourage women to dress as immodestly as they choose on one day and see if they can trigger an earthquake (McCreight is a vocal atheist and proponent of science over religion). She even set up a Facebook event. But when the event had 14,000 attendees she realized that what started as a joke was now something more (today the event has gone out to more than 1 million people).

What’s the Point?
So why am I talking about this? Because religious people too often insert foot in mouth and say something ridiculous. Sometimes it’s just a poorly phrased statement, sometimes it’s bad timing and bad taste, and in some cases (like this one) it’s just bad theology.

Boobquake is silly and juvenile (as the founder admits) and I’m not exactly on board with the pro-slut approach (we’ll save the appropriateness question for another time). But I do love the idea of confronting stupid religious statements. Drawing attention to the oppression women often face in the Islamic world is also worthwhile. It won’t change anything in Iran, but that’s not the point. McCreight’s point is that religion is stupid (I’m paraphrasing). My point is that our own comments and actions too often give people like McCreight permission and justification to think that way.

Religion doesn’t have to be the butt of jokes (the boob of jokes?). But that’s up to us.

Plus: Boob. [insert juvenile laughter]

Muslim Americans

Arlington National Cemetery tombstone of Muslim American soldier Kareem Rashad Sultan KhanA couple weeks ago I wrote about how Barack Obama isn’t a Muslim—but what if he was? Who cares? Sometimes it’s nice to be backed up. In this case former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell has my back:

“I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.” (Meet the Press)

Powell went on to talk about a 20-year-old soldier who died in Iraq and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan and he was a Muslim. He was 14 on a 9/11 and wanted to show people that not all Muslims are fanatics. He served and died for his country, proving that point.

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