There are a lot of things I don’t like about Los Angeles–too spread out, too hard to make friends here–but one of the things I DO like is being among so-called "secular Jews" once again. I lived with these people in New York City and I find them delightful: They don’t try to "convert" you, they are interested in the arts and support them enthusiastically, and they love intellectual ideas. They’re A BIT tribal (you’ll always do better with them if you’re Jewish too), but not too much.

When people ask me what my religion is, I sometimes reply that I’m a "lapsed Wiccan," but I’ve decided that what I actually am in a Cultural Christian. I compare this to being a Secular Jew: Christianity brought the basic Western values we treasure to Europe and eventually to the US. When we shudder at some of the things that are done (especially to women) in Islamic countries such as Pakistan, it helps us to value Cultural Christianity even more.

I realized I was a CC after I almost died from a brain aneurysm 8 years ago. For about a year afterwards, Biblical scenarios kept unfolding in my life: I met an angel in a Kinko’s copy shop. I had a "loaves and fishes" Christmas dinner.

One of the things we Westerners find the most disturbing about the Middle East is the way the two basic factions of Muslims keep trying to kill each other off. There seems to be no ecumenical movement in these countries at all and hatred between Sunnis and Shias goes back many generations.

To us, this would be like Methodists and Baptists trying to destroy one another.

In Islam, the division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. He had no male heirs–thus the question of who was to take over the leadership of the Muslim nation was left open. Sunni Muslims thought that the new leader should be elected, and the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, became the first Caliph of the Islamic nation.

But some Muslims thought that leadership should stay within the Prophet’s family, so they decided to follow Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The word "Shia" is shortened from "Shia-t-Ali," or "the Party of Ali."

Sunni Muslims make up 85% of Muslims worldwide. Shias are the majority in Iran and Iraq. Most of the tension in the Middle East comes from nations where the minority (usually Shia) rule the majority, who are Sunnis. In Iraq, it has been the opposite: a Sunni minority ruled a Shia majority through the brutality of an oppressive dictatorship.

When we learn about yet another bomb attack in a Middle Eastern city on the TV news, we feel despair: How can two sides of the SAME religion be so hateful to each other? It seem completely contrary to what a religion SHOULD be. Our prophet, Jesus, told us to love one another (since he was a Jew when he was alive, he actually got this idea from Rabbi Hillel).

Christians have done some mighty ugly things in the past (remember the Inquisition–and during the Renaissance, the popes threw the best orgies). But Christianity has had a reformation and Islam is overdue for one.

One of the problems is the way our religious books are interpreted. Christians are taught that the Bible was INSPIRED by God, while Muslims believe that the Koran (or Qur’an) was what we would call "Channeled" to Muhammad, thus it cannot be revised. For us, this would be like everyone still had to follow Leviticus as the letter-of-the-law (which would mean nobody could wear wash-and-wear clothes, since it bans "mixed fabrics").

But Jesus said he had come to break the laws, which gives us the opportunity to think for ourselves and become Cultural Christians.

The awful truth about the Middle East is that there will never be peace there until Sunnis and Shias find a way to reconcile, the way Protestants sects have here. Despite the fact that Protestantism started with a monk (Martin Luther) nailing his protests to a church door, Catholics and Protestants have pretty much reconciled as well–this is the Western way. It needs to become the human way. We need to face the fact that differences are at the core of our experience of one another.

After 9/11, most of us realized that we didn’t know enough about Islam and tried to learn more about it, since it’s one of the largest religions in the world. But sometimes I think we bend over too far backwards to be "PC" about it. We need to stand to stand up for and be proud of the Western values that stem from Christianity–they have made the world a better, more enlightened place.

No matter what our particular beliefs are (or aren’t), we need to become Cultural Christians. (By the way, I think that Secular Jews are ALREADY CCs, because of their respect for fairness, education and the arts. And this makes sense, because Christianity stems from Judaism).

UPDATE: I forgot to mention "joy." The Visitors told Whitley to "have joy." We were listening to a new version of Bach’s "Magnificat," and Whitley said, "There’s something wrong with it, it’s not joyful enough." We listened to another version and, sure enough, he was right. Is there any religion other than Christianity that puts such a premium on joy?

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  1. As always, truly brilliant.
    As always, truly brilliant.

  2. I’ve read this journal a
    I’ve read this journal a couple of times looking for the punch line or the little bit of wisdom that is so often present in these journals.
    Slipping on a pair of rose colored glasses and ignoring all that I know about christianity, I still can’t get behind this journal.
    Christianity from the time of Constintine to the present has a history that is written in blood. Whole cultures have been wiped off the face of the earth by “Good Christians” in the name of Jesus.
    The history of christianity is rife with intolerance and the promotion of ignorance.
    To this day ignorance, intolerance and bigotry is an everyday way of life for many christians here in the bible belt.
    The teachings of Jesus are beautiful and so very important but christianity has very rarely taken to heart and lived by his wisdom.

    1. Tim,
      Very well said,

      Very well said, especially your point about “No-Nothing” so-called Christians who seem to confuse religion with political and economic ideology. The bible belt cult of ‘divine ignorance’ built up around sub-literate self-ordained ‘preachers’ to whom ‘God’ speaks directly would be merely laughable if it were not so dangerous.

  3. Ann, you are so “right on!”
    Ann, you are so “right on!” Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this magnificent diary entry! I, now, consider myself a Cultural Christian, and am signing up today (figuratively).

  4. “No matter what our
    “No matter what our particular beliefs are (or aren’t), we need to become Cultural Christians.”

    I was about 80% with you, Ann, until I got to that sentence. I know you are not prescriptive in your thinking but the word Christian is so loaded that even prefacing it with Cultural doesn’t quite feel right to me.

    Religion is divisive no matter how much good will we throw at it so to identify cultural values with any one of them is to court more trouble. Things like fairness, tolerance, respect for education and the arts are not primarily Christian values or Jewish values either. They are Humanist values which could also be viewed as Buddhist values.

    Buddhists seem to be better ‘Christians’ than Christians are. Buddhists truly do practice ‘turning the other cheek’, loving their enemies, and reverencing all life forms. They live what they believe. Despite the daily assaults on their culture, the denial of freedom of religion, the outright persecution of Buddhists, the destruction of their monasteries and the planting of political operatives within the officially sanctioned few monasteries that remain, the people of Tibet have – without benefit of formal instruction, participation in religious rituals, or access to their spiritual leader – managed to retain the values of non-violence to an amazing degree. Although they had no such intent, the Chinese have given the West an enormous gift by instigating the Tibetan Diaspora for we have before us the most remarkable example of a highly evolved human being in the person of the D’alai Lama, that luminously Joyful soul who truly has brought Light to the world.

    I love the values of Buddhism which are non-theistic (no belief in “God”) but I am a Western Agnostic with no desire to convert to anything. Tolerance is an arguably Christian + Democratic ideal but it is also found in traditions outside the Christian one. Perhaps we need a new approach, Non-ism, the practice of values without labels?

  5. Siobhan…agree with
    Siobhan…agree with everything you’ve said here so far. I was born and raised in a Baptist congregation. I loved the teachings of Jesus that I learned in Sunday school, but the hellfire and damnation of the sermon was a total turnoff. I knew, even as a child with no other examples before me, that God was not present in that kind of thinking. I found God in nature, and left the church as soon as I was able to do so. Still living in the southern USA. I have to constantly remind myself that Jesus’ teachings are *not* what many modern “Christ-ians” practice, and the hate-mongering by the political radical fundamentalists is, as you say, dangerous. And frightening.

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