All in the Interfaith Family
KtB’s co-editor Emily Mace spoke with author Susan Katz Miller about her newly released book The Interfaith Family Journal, published by Skinner House Books. Our conversation ranged from multi-sensory religious experience, atheists and agnostics in relationships with believers, and how to handle death, Miller’s intention is to help interfaith couples and families “figure out how to be the most joyful and creative and successful interfaith family that you can be, whatever that looks like.” Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Emily Mace: Tell me about your first book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, for those readers who may not be familiar with it.
Susan Katz Miller: My first book, Being Both, was a work of memoir, journalism, and qualitative research. I’m an interfaith kid with grown interfaith children, but I didn’t see my mostly positive experiences reflected in the literature, which tends to be dominated by a narrative that problematizes interfaith families.
I was interested in and part of a grassroots movement of families deciding to honor, practice, and even affiliate with both [Judaism and Christianity] rather than feeling forced to choose one. The book is based on surveys of hundreds of Jewish and Christian interfaith parents across the country who were doing both, and also on a smaller survey of young adults who had been formally educated in both by trailblazing communities offering dual-faith religious education for children in cities including Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. The book was very controversial, because religious institutions and most clergy still urge families to pick one religion. There was also a strong negative reaction to the idea of normalizing a complex religious identity, even though religious fluidity is far more common in parts of the world other than the U.S.
EM: When did you have the idea to create The Interfaith Family Journal, which is more of a workbook or activity-style book?
SM: After Being Bothcame out, I began traveling around the country speaking, and I became more aware of how interfaith families other than Jewish-Christian families are on the rise. The largest group is actually Christian and “religious none” couples.
Then, couples began asking me to coach them. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes they sought me out because they wanted to hear about my experience as a grown interfaith child, and as a parent who has adult interfaith children. After a while I realized I can’t help everybody individually, and I thought, “I need a tool that will help people everywhere.” And that was the idea behind the journal.
EM: Can you say more about how the journal is written, and what kind of families it’s helpful for?
SM:It’s specifically written to be helpful to families whether they’re atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish… all the way to Zoroastrian! It’s written for all families, not just young, heterosexual, white couples. The book works for empty nesters who are re-evaluating their own desire for ritual and spirituality after their children have grown and flown, or for a single parent who has an adopted child from another culture or religion and wants to honor that heritage, or for parents of a teenage child who’s made their own decisions about religion and the parents are trying to figure out what to do about that.
There are creative activities in each chapter, some of which are designed to have roles for children. I’ve been deeply influenced by S. Brent Plate, religious studies scholar and author of A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses (and KtB e-book author of By The Way: Dispatches, Devotions, and Deliriums from the Camino de Santiago) and the idea that the multisensory—that smells, sounds, and tastes are these touchstones that have incredible power for a lot of people, whether they consider themselves religious or not. I tried to approach figuring out how to be an interfaith family through the five senses, to stimulate people to think about what were the smells and tastes and sounds of religion in their backgrounds that feel most important them, and which they want to maintain and pass on.
EM: I’d love to talk more about your inclusion of atheist and agnostic people in your approach, particularly because of the statistical rise among younger people of unaffiliated “religious nones” or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious”—people who may not think of religion as playing a large role in their lives. Are atheists, agnostics, and humanists finding the journal to be useful?
SM: Atheists have told me that it is going to be equally helpful to them. The goal of the book is not for you to pick a religion. The goal of the book is to figure out how to be the most joyful and creative and successful interfaith family that you can be, whatever that looks like. If you’re an atheist, you still have a religious heritage, unless you’re a multigenerational atheist family, which does exist, but the majority of atheists come from some religious heritage. Our experiences are formative even if we rebel against them.
EM: Could you talk us through the chapters so we can get a sense of the Interfaith Family Journal’s process? Perhaps staying with the example of the atheist in a couple, since that’s one of the pairings that might be of interest to some of our KtB readers?
SM: The book is structured around the idea of working through each chapter during one week. The first chapter, “Honoring Origins,” is about your background, your experiences, your formation. The second chapter, “Creating Home,” is about your dreams, your visions, your desires for how you want to be as an interfaith family. It’s going to be helpful to work through that, even if the answer is “I want nothing to do with religion; I don’t feel spiritual in the least,” et cetera.
The third chapter is on “Finding Community.” It helps you go through a process of thinking about, for example, “What is Ethical Culture? What is Sunday Assembly? How do atheists feel in my local Unitarian Universalist community, and what are my options? Do I want a community? Do any of these feel right to me?”
Week four is “Marking Transitions,” on life-cycle ceremonies. If you are a secular humanist, you still are going to experience births, coming of ages, marriages, and deaths in your family. The question here is, how are you going to mark those? It doesn’t presume that God has to be part of the celebration.
The fifth chapter, “Reaching Out to Family,” is on dealing with extended family, which is relevant for a lot of atheists who have extended family who are more religiously oriented. The book helps you frame those relationships in a really positive way, or reframe them if they’ve been negative.
EM: Yes, as I was reading through the book, I was amazed at how many questions there are. It goes into so much depth!
SM:The people that did beta testing said it was very powerful to just answer a lot of questions in a short period. It stimulates your brain to think about it in a different way than just once in a while wondering about one of these questions.
EM: Can you say more about how The Interfaith Family Journal may be helpful to families who may already have children or who already have chosen or fallen into a way of doing things?
SM: A lot of the couples who felt that they already had talked about interfaith life said, “oh, but yeah, we really hadn’t talked about death.” And you can’t assume you’re not going to face it until you’re eighty. A death in the family is one of those transitional moments when often people reevaluate religion, spirituality, culture, and the ritual practices in their lives. Too often you have to make some pretty big decisions fairly quickly in terms of officiation, burial, cremation, how you’re going to eulogize, or what liturgies you might use, what readings you might use. One activity in the chapter on marking transitions is to write up what you want for your own funeral, which sounds macabre, but it’s actually incredibly practical and also empowering to say “these are the hymns or readings I like, but not these,” and realize that somebody actually might honor that.
EM: There’s also something about facing those things that we really fear and giving them structure, which makes them more manageable.
SM: Another activity that a lot of families found useful is interviewing parents and grandparents (if they’re still alive) about their religious histories. When you ask them to tell stories through the lens of religion, you sometimes learn about changes, conflicts, or discoveries they made in their lives about religion or spirituality, and you begin to realize how religious identity is not a static, lifelong, unchanging, affiliation for a lot of people. That process can be a really enriching way of interacting with elders and honoring them, especially if they are dubious about what you’re doing or not doing with your life religiously.
EM: I’m curious about the choice to make this a paper workbook that couples will write in, in pen.
SM: A lot of people have said, “Oh, if you want to reach people under the age of 30, it shouldn’t be a book. It should be a website.” And I wonder if we will keep printing books on dead trees. Despite this, I think there is a beauty to having the book when you’re done. I’m imagining your adult children finding the journal as they clean out your house someday, with this recordabout your history, your beliefs, your practices. It would be incredibly valuable for future generations to have it in that format.
EM: You’ve mentioned some of the aspects that readers and test couples have found most helpful, such as doing the questions in such a focused space of time, the death activity, and interviews with elders in the family. But what have they found to be particularly difficult or challenging?
SKM: The Interfaith Family Journalgives people a structure in which to have difficult conversations. The format of doing the writing prompts on your own, then having your partner read what you wrote, and then engaging together over it, creates a safe space in which to have some of those uncomfortable conversations. Often one partner wants to be more religious in some ways than the other, or they feel there’s a conflict in the religious practices that they each want to bring for some reason, either theologically or practically speaking, and being able to work that out in the format of the journal is helpful to people.
EM: I love the cover that you have for this book. The cover for Being Bothhad two intersecting circles, but The Interfaith Family Journal adds so many colors, almost like stained glass.
SM: The cover has circles overlapping in all different ways and they’re translucent circles of color, as if light is coming through them. You can see the layering and the texture, and this represents communities and people and the ways we overlap and interplay. I didn’t want a cover with a bunch of little religious symbols on it because that’s going to exclude whoever’s symbol we forgot to put on there. I wanted it to be metaphorical, and it is. Someone elsesaid to me justthis week that it looks to them like stained glass, and it’s funny, maybe because I was raised Jewish, that this actually didn’t occur to me at first. ButI guess it’s obvious for people who have a more Christian formation.
I wanted the colors to signal that this book is more multiple and even more open. My first book was primarily about a very narrow slice of interfaith families, Jewish-Christian families who are doing both. ButI always say all families are interfaith families because no two people share identical experiences or beliefs or practices. As I’ve been going around talking about the book,people have been saying to me, “oh, that’ll be really helpful, we’re an interfaith couple,” or, “hey, we’re both Jewish, but that sounds like it would be helpful anyway.”
EM: We have one of those overlapping holiday times coming up soon, Passover and Easter. I’d like to end with a question specifically about how The Interfaith Family Journal helps families handle these high-drama times of the year.
SM: The book helps you to figure out how to and whether to celebrate a holiday or multiple holidays occurring in the same timeframe, which they often do. This year the first night of Passover falls on Good Friday, which can be a theological, emotional, and practical issue for families where there’s a Christian partner observing Good Friday. The book stimulates you to bring your family histories forward and to wrestle with them when these holidays come around.
Editor’s Note: Find out more about Being Bothand The Interfaith Family Journal, including a list of helpful resources for interfaith families and couples, at Miller’s website, susankatzmiller.com. Susan Katz Miller is a former correspondent for Newsweekand New Scientist. She spent years in West Africa and Brazil, and now lives in the Washington DC area. Find her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.