Confessions of a Former Purist

I’m not such a huge fan of the TV show Homeland these days, but the second episode of Season 3, which aired Sunday, might be winning me over. Brody’s daughter Dana has long been my favorite character and she’s getting more so. With that complicated way she wrinkles up her brow, her round innocent face betraying a much stealthier intelligence than the other members of Captain Brody’s family. She did that move when she first discovered her father in the garage, kneeling on his prayer rug. At first mystified, then terrified, she came to a certain peace with her father’s new, secret religion. That is, until the end of season two, when the by-then-disavowed terrorist video is leaked to the press and Brody is framed for the “second 9/11” bombing that killed 200+ government officials. She tries to kill herself out of shame, and calls her father a psychopath, much to her mother’s distress. But she’s still farther ahead of the rest of the characters on the show at processing complex emotion because of what she does next.

She goes out into the garage, and sits with a box of old photographs of her father, working her way backwards in time, from a recent shot, to him and her at the swimming pool, to her parents’ marriage, and finally to a snapshot of her father at not much older than she is now, hair long, smile rakish. And then she goes to the place where she knows he kept the prayer rug, unfolds it onto the garage floor, steps onto it in bare feet, and kneels, folding forward and staying there. It’s a simple, theatrical gesture that nearly broke my heart. Here’s why: she’s acknowledging that her father had secrets, but maybe that not all of them were bad. She’s showing her love for her disappeared presumed-terrorist father, by repeating a gesture that she knows was him showing his love to something higher, or deeper, that Islam gave him.

I mention all this because normally I have a chip on my shoulder about the inauthentic use of religious gesture in pop culture, especially when it comes to the fraught cultural territory of Islam. (See this thoughtful discussion of whether or not Homeland is Islamophobic.) But that kneeling motion that Brody’s daughter makes is actually not an inauthentic gesture. It’s a deeply personal borrowing of another person’s ritual trappings. As if Carrie had put on the headscarf and it gave her comfort.

Prayer rugs had been on my brain earlier that evening when corresponding with a writer about an essay on Unitarianism. I mentioned that my only experience with Unitarianism had been as a one-time stop on the comparative-religion tour my Jewish-Protestant-hippie parents took me on, when at age eight or so I started to ask questions about death and heaven. All I remember about Unitarian Sunday School was that there was a big roll of white paper and a bunch of crayons and we were asked to draw our own Muslim prayer rugs. The concept of Muslim prayer rugs must have first been explained, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember feeling a little odd about imitating someone else’s religion. It was respectful, of course, but it felt too far afield somehow. Totally disconnected, and not answering any of my questions about what happens after you die. I always thought of that weird prayer-rug blip in my early spiritual life as the quintessential example of “buffet-style religion”, meaningless gestures taken out of context in an empty gesture of respect without knowledge. I studied comparative religion in college, everything from Balinese Hinduism to santeria, but I still retained what my senior-year housemate called “an obsession with authenticity.”

It’s been slowly unraveling ever since, as witness my wedding, which was officiated by a friend who got himself ordained in the Church of Spiritual Humanism. My intended wanted to reference a formative Apple commercial where two people got married by a Hawaiian shaman. So we drove out to an African clothing emporium in Brooklyn and bought him a dashiki, which was apparently in a women’s style. He accessorized it with a wreath of local Maine bachelor buttons, and read his remarks off a PC tablet. None of this appropriation dampened anybody’s sincerity. What I discovered there, and was reaffirmed with the Homeland moment, was the possibility of making an unfamiliar gesture authentically. Sure, Brody’s daughter didn’t do the full-on ablutions and prostrations; her folded form looked more like a girl in the yogic child’s pose, but had she more precisely replicated the prayer, it would, paradoxically, have looked fake.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth