There’s a moment from my 7th grade Reading class that I remember with a strange mix of humor and horror.
7th grade was my first year at the private Christian School I would eventually graduate from, and Reading wasn’t really a class— it was more like study hall with a twist. The school required all its students to participate in the Accelerated Reader (AR) program, and until we’d completed the mandated AR point goals, Reading (as the name implies) was for reading books. Once we’d completed our AR goals, we could switch to doing homework for our other classes, as you would in a normal study hall. There was a teacher in the room during these periods whose primary job was to make sure students didn’t goof off and distract each other— but on the day I remember so vividly with ambivalence Coach Dooley (who “taught” the reading class) sent the entire class into shock with an at-the-time appalling revelation:
He’d read the Qur’an.
I remember feeling unmoored in the moments that followed. This was the first time in my life that I had ever heard anyone admit to reading a holy book other than the Bible, and to hear one of my Christian teachers in my Christian school in my Bible Belt small town say that he’d spent months of his life poring over another religion’s central text shocked my simple, black-and-white worldview to its core. Up until this point in my life, I had believed that the Bible was true, and all other religious texts are false.
If this is true, I thought, why would I ever need to read another religious text?
It had never occurred to me that, perhaps, I might read another holy book for the purpose of understanding another religion.
A few years later, in my senior Bible class, we spent several months studying a number of different religions from around the world, including Islam and Mormonism— and I remember several of my classmates experiencing the same unmoored, uncertain feelings I’d felt in 7th grade. I look back on these moments with such ambivalence because on the one hand, from where I stand in the land between, it seems so painfully obvious that I should be seeking to understand the world, cultures, and people around me. I look back with a degree of guilt that I didn’t come to this place of openness sooner.
On the other hand, I was 12; and I just want to chuckle at the kid I used to be.
I’ve been thinking about that moment in 7th grade a lot recently, as I’ve felt a conviction in my soul leading me to reach out for understanding more actively than I have these past few years. Perhaps, having finally reached a place where I have a decent understanding of myself, what I’ve experienced and what I believe, God has decided it’s time for me to seek a better understanding of those around me. I want to understand the stories of other religions— the stories they tell themselves about themselves, not just the stories Christians tell about them.
I want to understand Islam, and Hinduism, and Mormonism, and Buddhism— and even ideological movements like Secular Humanism, LGBTQ+ Activism, and Black Lives Matter. Wherever people gather around a person or idea, form a community, and sacrifice their time, effort, and even their lives for that cause— I want to understand.
I’ve decided to call this project my “Wanderings in the Marketplace,” after the story of Paul in Athens. When Paul arrived in Athens, he saw a city full of idols, and debated religion with Jews and Gentiles alike— Jews in their Synagogue and Gentiles in the marketplace. Then, he was invited to the Areopagus (or Mars’ Hill, which was either a forum for philosophers and other thinkers to present their ideas to the public, or Athens' high court); and there he preached to the assembled thinkers:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”(Acts 17: 22-23)
I have always loved this sermon for the way Paul uses the culture of the city as an entry point for sharing the Gospel: the altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD becomes an altar for Jesus; but in reviewing this sermon recently, I was struck by how this opening is so different from what I expect from Paul. Earlier in the chapter he's described as “greatly distressed” by all the idols he sees in Athens (v.16)— yet he doesn’t open his sermon by calling for the idols to be torn down. In fact, he doesn’t call for the idols to be torn down at any point in the sermon. Instead he calls for an end to ignorance, and proclaims the truth of Jesus’s resurrection as a remedy.
So this project I’m undertaking— this endeavor to understand the other religions and ideological movements that inhabit our world today— is the “walking around and looking carefully at the objects of worship” portion of my journey. I’m wandering through the marketplace, praying that God will lead me to the altars I can use to proclaim His truth; and along the way, hopefully I’ll learn something about the people who worship at those altars. People God created, and loves, and died for.
So all of this is to say— I’ve started reading the Qur’an.