Friday, November 15, 2013
Review - Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk
According to recent research by Naomi Schaefer Riley, the number of interfaith marriages is increasing. 45% of all marriages in the last decade involved couples from differing religious traditions. Riley’s research also shows that these marriages are not easy. Although we live in an age that is calling for increasing religious tolerance, this does not make the daily struggles of interfaith marriage any easier to wrestle with.
These difficulties are illustrated in Saffron Cross, where Dana Trent, a Christian minister with connections to the Southern Baptist Convention, shares her experiences in an interfaith marriage with her husband Fred, a Hindu and former monk. This is an interesting volume that provides insights into what the partners in such marriages experience, and it includes lessons for those outside of such marriages. Their experiences navigating such relationships have much to teach us in navigating religious pluralism.
The book begins dramatically with Dana sharing her “sex-free honeymoon” in the village of Vrindavan in India. Dana is transparent with the reader as she shares her strong displeasure with many aspects of Indian life due to its very different complexion as a Two Thirds World country. Everything that Westerners, and Americans in particular, take for granted on a daily basis, from safe driving on city streets to fresh running water to the easy availability of toilet paper, are readily available in poverty-stricken India. As this chapter unfolds, Dana also shares her growing awareness of the differences between her experiences in the Western expression of the Christian faith and that of the Eastern religion of Hinduism. Unlike the American experience where religion is often relegated to the private sphere of the individual, in India religion is the center of every aspect of daily life. Beyond that, its basic worldview assumptions, rituals, beliefs, and forms of worship, are very different from the Southern Baptist church experience that Dana was used to back in the U.S. After the honeymoon experience in India, the couple’s return to North Carolina comprised the early stages of the challenges of an interfaith marriage.
Dana and Fred met as a result of using the eHarmony online dating service. When completing her profile on the question “What faith(s) would you accept as a partner?” (28), she opted for an openness to a wide variety of religious traditions, thinking that as a self-identified Christian the chances that the service would connect her with someone distant from her religious preferences was unlikely. She was wrong. Soon she was contacted by Fred, who identified himself as a religious person, and a former monk. Dana assumed he meant something in the Roman Catholic tradition. Instead she would learn that Fred had previously pursued the path of the Hindu monk in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition. This is most familiar to Americans through the work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the 1960s popularly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” This was a little off-putting for Dana, who early on in their dating made efforts to try to persuade Fred to be baptized and return to the Christianity he had negative experiences with in his youth.
Fred and Dana found great interest in each other’s religions and experiences, and in dating they also worked through various interfaith tensions that naturally arose. After the couple married these continued, and at one point seriously intensified, so much so that they came to question whether or not the marriage could survive. But Fred and Dana were just as committed to each other as they were to their differing religious pathways, and the book describes the challenges they faced and how they successful navigated through them as a married couple. As a result, Dana describes not only how she has grown closer to Fred, but also how her Christian faith has deepened and expanded. As Dana describes it, “Immersion into a religious tradition different from my own did not convert me, mix me up, or derail me” (26).
As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this volume is not only helpful for learning about interfaith marriages, it also provides food for thought on working through issues related to religious pluralism.
Dana describes herself as theologically progressive, and this is evident in several statements she makes in the book where she advocates a pluralistic understanding of religion. She says that, “the Holy Spirit lived and breathed in each representation of the Divine” (24), both Hindu and Christian; speaks of grasping “Hinduism’s validity as a bona fide spiritual path toward God” (47); says that at one point she “had no sense that Krishna was any different from Jesus” (60); and that “God was mercifully showing up as Jesus, Spirit, Vishnu, and Krishna” (140). Dana’s attempt at finding similarities between Christianity and Hinduism is laudable. And certainly these can be found. But while contrasting the religions with interpretive and analytic humility, and taking cultural considerations into account, we are left with the reality that religions teach very different things at a foundational level. We have to be careful in our search for religious unity that we don’t force this where it is not found. As Stephen Prothero has said in his book God is Not One, seeking religious unity in the name of tolerance that does not recognize real religious difference can lead to “naïve theological groupthink,”1 which he sees as dangerous rather than helpful.
This does not mean that Christians need to embrace a form of particularism or exclusivism that is hostile. In the book Dana shares her struggles with reconciling Christianity and Hinduism and says, “I was one of those Christians” (48, emphasis in original), referring to the narrow mindedness, defensiveness, and hostility that often characterizes Christian understandings and interactions with other religions. But this need not be the case. As Bob Robinson reminds us, one of the most famous Indian Christians, Sadhu Sundar Singh, was a particularist who “combined a deeply Christocentric faith with a quite positive attitude towards Hinduism.” 2 Christians can practice a faith identity that is rooted in the love and example of Christ, even while recognizing irreconcilable differences with other religions.
Saffron Cross is an interesting story of an interfaith relationship. It promises to reward readers who want insights into an increasing marital trend, and thoughts for reflection on interreligious relationships in the pluralistic public square.
1. Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
2. Bob Robinson, “Response to Bart Abbott,” Sacred Tribes Journal 8, no. 1 (2013), special theme edition on The Ethics of Evangelism: When is Proselytism Predatory?,” Kindle edition at http://tinyurl.com/nd3zzdc.