From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World
Lauren Anders Visser teaches in the Communication Arts department at Trinity Christian College and serves co-pastor of Jacob’s Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, IL.
In the foreword to From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World, Eboo Patel references an increasing diversity and tension in society, and he states, “All of us are required to respond to diversity; the question is how we will do it” (xi). This two-part statement frames the format of the book. Authors Marion H. Larson and Sara L. H. Shady start by challenging the notion of the “bubble,” specifically the “Christian bubble.” After attending Wheaton College and Taylor University, respectively, both authors now work as professors at Bethel University (Saint Paul, Minnesota), where they continue to see “bubbles.” They define “bubble” as “a common term used to describe the relatively homogenous culture of many evangelical Christian college campus communities” (3). They are correct in broadening their definition, though, to observe that “bubbles form whenever we draw clear boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and focus most of our time and energy in the safety of ‘us’” (3). One of the most valuable parts of this book is that it simply addresses the fact that bubbles exist and that they need to be recognized. Larson and Shady are not attributing evil motives to the formation of bubbles, though, and they are clear to state that there are both positive and negative aspects to living in such a bubble. However, they explain that at some point in the ever-changing society, Christians must be willing to leave the bubble in order to build bridges of cooperation and collaboration with people of different faiths. They then address the civic and religious imperatives and subsequent benefits of interfaith engagement in the following chapters.
The second half of the book addresses how one might be able to live out such imperatives after popping the so-called bubble. Larson and Shady provide a model for engagement, list necessary virtues, describe nurturing learning environments, and offer some sample learning activities. Throughout the book, each chapter shares some sort of personal testimony, which puts flesh on theory and aims to help the reader understand the topic from a more on-the-ground perspective. Some of the testimonies are more helpful than others (the two perspectives from April Lenker and Ola Mohamed are particularly meaningful), and I believe this portion would have been even more beneficial for those who are wading into this topic by offering perspectives from people who have not already fully bought into the importance of interfaith engagement. It would have also been advantageous to have more diversity of thought, since the majority of the testimonies came from people associated with Bethel (just as the authors are) or with Interfaith Youth Core. While most of the testimonies address some sort of journey toward embracing interfaith engagement, none of them ended with any continued wrestling or struggle, which I believe lessens the impact and helpfulness of the stories for anyone who is first engaging with this topic.
Although I stand by my analysis that sharing stories without such clear conversions toward embracing interfaith engagement would be helpful, it is understandable why Larson and Shady chose the stories they did, based on the premise of the book. The authors clearly state on the third page:
The premise of this book is that Christians who seek to live and serve graciously in a religiously diverse world must also deliberately and thoughtfully engage with our religious neighbors. We firmly believe that not only is such engagement in line with God’s command that we love all of our neighbors, including those who believe differently; it also helps us to develop a mature, committed faith that’s at the same time humble and open to learning from others. (3)
While the authors develop their premise with an emphasis on God’s command to love one’s neighbor, they start chapter 1 with the civic imperative for interfaith engagement, citing increasing diversity, unbalanced media coverage, injustice, and the need to combat fear as some motivating factors. Larson and Shady quote Martin Buber, who stated, “Education worthy of its name is essentially education of character” (6). The authors then make their own conclusion:
Based on years of experience and research, we’ve come to believe that the goal of holistic education can be met only through interactions with members of other faith traditions. Such interactions help to humanize “religious others,” making dialogue and reconciliation possible, as well as encouraging reflection on one’s own faith tradition and subsequent spiritual growth within that tradition. (8)
The emphasis on holistic education is a cogent reminder to many college educators, especially in a time when limited budgets often lead to competition between departments for funding and students. It can be an encouragement to cross departmental lines for more interdisciplinary study and cooperation. However, I hesitate any time I read a phrase that states that a goal can be accomplished only through one method. Yes, it is healthy to interact with members of other faith traditions. Yes, relationships guard against dehumanizing, which will be discussed later in this review. But these are not the only ways to cultivate a holistic education. Such a statement assumes a certain level of maturity and openness that many students do not yet possess. It also presumes that if someone is at a different stage along their journey, and hence is unable to interact fully with members of other faith traditions, then their education is no longer holistic. Such a statement discards the possibility of people from the same faith tradition, but from different backgrounds, growing together to reach a point of greater diversity of interaction. It also minimizes the vast differences among all people, whether they share the same faith tradition or not. For example, just because two people are both aligned with the Christian Reformed Church, this does not mean that they hold all beliefs in common. Sometimes interfaith engagement starts with a safe, shared space where variations can be discussed and appreciated from a point of commonality rather than of difference.
Regardless of how students begin to engage with those who hold different beliefs, such conversations require humility. Therefore, I applaud the challenging reminder in the authors’ premise that Christians need to be humble and open to learning from others, and I believe there is a clear scriptural foundation for such humility. (Some scripture passages that exhort humility include Proverbs 18:12, Matthew 23:12, Luke 14:11, 1 Peter 5:6, and James 4:10.) However, I am saddened at the sparse theological reasoning behind the command to love our neighbors, especially those who believe differently. In the transition to chapter 2, Larson and Shady state, “As Christians, we have the opportunity to change our voice from one of domination to one of love” (34). They appeal to Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Oden, and Nicolaus von Zinzendorf to attempt to explain what it looks like to love one’s neighbor, and there are moments where they offer some concrete changes in attitude and behavior, but the overall chapter that claims to set forth a religious imperative relies too much on scholarly insight and not enough on scripture, leaving one to wonder what such Christian love truly looks like.
In an attempt to set forth a Christian foundation for interfaith engagement, Matthew 22:37-39 is quoted at the beginning of chapter 2 (as an admonition rather than as an explanation), and there is a use of Matthew 25:35 as a proof text in the middle of the chapter. There is also a mention of the golden rule, but there is no biblical connection or quotation of this rule itself; instead, the authors rely heavily on interpretations by Buber and Miroslav Volf. I am not trying to say that the Bible is the only source of understanding or authority when it comes to love, but when one is endeavoring to guide Christians and direct Christianity, such guidance and direction is woefully inadequate without an accurate treatment of the Bible.
Larson and Shady seem to attempt to correct this oversight in chapter 3, in which they unpack the parables of the Lost Son and the Good Samaritan. However, neither of these passages is discussing interfaith engagement. What the authors are missing is that in telling these parables, Jesus was not addressing a twenty-first-century world. As a pastor, professor, and student in a Doctorate of Ministry program in New Testament Context, I issue a caution against misapplying passages to prove one’s point rather than striving to understand the point that was actually being made. (I have found Klyne R. Snodgrass’s book Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus1 to be a brilliant and crucial resource for a deeper understanding of such parables. It also serves as a protection against such misappropriations of scripture.) Recently, I have witnessed this error to be particularly egregious when applying the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In one week, I have seen it applied to interfaith engagement, justice, and missional living. I am not arguing against these ideas and pursuits, but again, I caution against making scripture say what one wants it to say rather than what it may actually be saying. With this glaring flaw, both chapters 2 and 3 fail to provide a compelling argument for a religious imperative for interfaith engagement.
While I struggled with the shaky theological foundation, I think the model presented in chapter 4 is tremendously helpful. Traditionally, people have been encouraged to form alliances and attend conferences, but Larson and Shady encourage starting such engagement on a smaller, more manageable, and more personal scale: friendship. Friendship, as proposed by Buber, is the most concrete manifestation of inclusion, the model advocated by Larson and Shady. This model warns against tolerance and a basic celebration of differences while encouraging true dialogue as opposed to monologue disguised as dialogue. The authors again quote Buber, who explains, “Inclusion promotes a shared reality where all partners in the dialogue come to understand each other’s position, even if they don’t agree with it, and build a meaningful relationship despite their differences” (75). For those who struggle with protecting and preserving their Christian faith in a world with increased religious diversity, this chapter offers the permission and grace to hold onto your faith while interacting with others. Larson and Shady also do an excellent job explaining the significant problems of both tolerance and affirmation and how inclusion helps people address those problems.
Not only is the model of inclusion illuminating, but so is Larson and Shady’s advice on creating a nurturing learning environment. Perhaps the most critical reminder in this section is that the conversation surrounding interfaith engagement is not meant to focus on a choice between pluralism and exclusivism. Larson and Shady quote Charles Soukup and James Keaten, who state that “the issue in interfaith interactions isn’t that of ‘pluralist’ versus ‘exclusivist.’ Instead, the issue is whether a person responds to religious otherness in a ‘dehumanizing’ or in a ‘humanizing’ way” (117). This emphasis on others’ humanity is possibly the most helpful take-away from the entire book. When this perspective is honored, it leads into the authors’ other pieces of advice, such as building trust, creating a hospitable environment, and lowering the risk. Whether someone chooses to engage with this book or not, like it or dislike it, the injunction to humanize others rather than dehumanize them is worth remembering.
As an educator, I found myself anxiously anticipating the Sample Learning Activities in chapter 7. However, I found that section to be underdeveloped. While Larson and Shady set forth some ideas for creating learning activities, I had hoped for more concrete lesson plans and instructions for implementation. There were also six pages of titles of autobiographies, films, and television shows in this chapter, but a helpful bibliography does not offer the same level of concrete detail found in a developed learning activity.
As I reached the end of the book, I could not help but wonder if the authors are asking too much of students. I fully support the desire to create nurturing communities, and I think that such an environment is crucial for cultivating safe spaces for healthy dialogue. However, I see a second facet in the truth Larson and Shady state at the beginning of the book: “But most of our students don’t have many opportunities to talk about their faith with people who believe differently, and they haven’t yet learned to listen well when those who aren’t Christians share about their own faith” (2). I agree with this statement, but I also consistently see a greater, overarching issue: that students do not have opportunities to talk about their faith, and they have not yet learned to listen well. It is these spaces that need to be provided and these skills that need to be cultivated before healthy interfaith engagement will even have a chance of succeeding. The virtues set forth in this book about interfaith dialogue (receptive humility, reflective commitment, and imaginative empathy ) are the same ones I taught in my intercultural communication courses this spring. Perhaps before we challenge students to tackle a soul-searching and bubble-popping experience such as interfaith engagement, we must first equip them for basic intercultural communication, providing skills and tools for any type of cross-cultural engagement, regardless of faith identification.
From the very beginning, I was intrigued by the topic Larson and Shady were covering, and I was curious to see how they could indeed move people from bubble to bridge. Perhaps I expected too much from the book, since both the authors and I are keenly aware that such movement and transformation comes from personal interaction rather than pure academic engagement. While the exegesis and theological foundation was flawed, and I could hear my students responding to many salient points by saying, “That’s good, but how?”, I still think there are beneficial portions that could aid someone as they start to move from their bubble to becoming a bridge. For someone who is looking for a more accessible and balanced model of engagement, I highly recommend chapter 4 (“A Model for Interfaith Engagement”). For someone who is leading groups and wondering about some first steps to take, I also recommend chapter 6 (“Inside the Bubble: Creating a Nurturing Learning Environment”). And for someone who is interested in learning more about the world or is intrigued by hearing other people’s stories, then the book, film, and television list in chapter 7 (“Inside the Bubble: Sample Learning Activities”) would also be a helpful starting point.