Skip to main content

Who is Muslim? Who is Christian?

As someone who has studied religion in an academic setting, I couldn't care less about Bill Maher and Ben Affleck dueling over Islamophobia on late night tv. If you follow religion news at all, it'd be hard for you to escape that still-bubbling controversy though. I'm not a huge fan of either one so I don't know that I'd go to them for intellectual analysis of religious matters. But I have been taking an interest in the rise of a more...academic?...I hesitate to use that word...discussion about religious matters lately. Across the spectrum, too.

Let's put it this way, as I wrote earlier in my 9/11 anniversary post, the atmosphere regarding Islam has definitely changed over the years. And, to some extent, even conversations about Christianity have changed with the rise of the internet, social media, and multiple faith-specific content providers. I'd argue that the conversation is now more robust about religion in the US with more voices. I'm not sure if that's because people from multiple viewpoints are more comfortable about speaking out. Or perhaps some of the harsher voices of the early 2000's have died down? (They are still there, for sure, just in diluted form.) People seem to be more knowledgeable about Muslims these days. And there is far more diversity in Christian dialogue as movements have grown that are not the stereotypical ones. Bars are now churches and churches are now coffeehouses. In short, there are fewer Bible thumpers and fewer Muslim haters.

Probably the area that has intrigued me the most that I'm following is labeling and who gets to claim status as a member of a religious group. Even the Mormons and Catholics have their own crisis of identification in the news as I write. The most prominent one, however, is obviously the terrorist group ISIS. Which now gets the modified "so-called" in front of it after complaints from Muslims. IS or Islamic State or ISIL...depending who you talk to...has been called out by President Obama as non-Muslim and there is a raging argument over whether the problem is religious or socio-political. I like to borrow the old quote about the Holy Roman Empire and say that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. But the problem of a band of bloodthirsty, strict-interpretation Muslims beheading journalists is presenting all sorts of questions about whether we should refer to someone the way they want to be called. Are we playing into "ISIS" propaganda by calling them Muslim? By calling them the Islamic State? Moderate Muslims have--as everyone always wanted to see--been stepping up to counter the radical, fundamentalist version leaving us with a fringe group wrongly using the name of a larger, legitimate faith for their wrongs.

Just today I saw two articles about who gets to use the self-identifier "Christian." In both instances, they were curiously against the grain. One article explained that the once-popular Left Behind series represents a non-Christian viewpoint with its Rapture-minded believers. From the theology school at U. of Chicago, I believe, it was really directed at how to review the film version. It's awful...but why is it awful? The author wanted to ask some serious questions about rallying behind religion even if the content is dubious. The other article that surprised me today was discussing pre-Biblical Christianity and why Christians should reject going to the Bible for interpreting their faith. (In this case, standing against the theology of Islam as book-based.) The argument being that there was a Christianity before there ever was a written New Testament. In this author's vision, Protestants ruined Christianity with our Biblical proofing and relying on reading and using verses to back our theology. A non-Bible based Christianity is probably, needless to say, a fairly radical idea for most Americans. Especially most American Christians.

The moral of the story, however, is that this kind of stretching and conversations about the inner workings of the religious and religions would have--in my opinion--not been so common while I was studying. Granted, these are the topics I'm familiar with but it's delightful to see the general public (or at least more coverage) talking about these weighty issues in a civil way.