By Tim Walch
“Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation” by Liz Bucar. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2022). 272 pp., $27.95.
“If you are ending this book uncomfortable,” writes Liz Bucar, “I have achieved my goal.” Wow! So much for the typical comfort and consolation of religious tradition. Bucar sets out to challenge readers to think deeply about the meaning of religious appropriation.
She readily admits that many of us are quick to adopt religious and cultural traditions without giving the decision much thought.
In fact, she begins her book with a story about her own youth. Baptized a Catholic but raised a Protestant, Bucar had rejected organized religion by the time she was a young teenager.
Then the pop star Madonna came along with her song, “Like a Prayer.” The music video featured the singer wearing a large Christian cross as a piece of jewelry. She was flaunting the cross as an act of blasphemy and rebellion.
Young Liz Bucar followed suit. “My decision as an 11-year-old child to wear a cross did nothing to keep me in the Protestant church or reclaim my Catholic roots,” she remembered.
“It was all about being cool. This was the first time I stole my religion. It would not be the last. And I am not alone.”
Bucar has a very precise point of view. “My first goal,” she writes to her readers, “is to convince you to stop seeing all religious borrowings as morally benign. Some forms, including some very popular forms, are harmful.”
But it’s not enough to stop this insensitivity to religious tradition.
“My second goal,” she adds, “is to think through how we can borrow in more responsible ways, by describing how religious practices are grounded in traditions and communities, identifying the range of exploitations borrowings cause and understanding the systems of inequity and violence they reinforce.”
It’s a tall order. To make her case, Bucar draws on her personal experiences as a scholar of religious ethics at Boston’s Northeastern University and the author of four books on related topics.
She begins with a discussion of the popular misuse of the Muslim hijab by non-Muslims. Second is the mixed purposes and intentions of “pilgrims” who walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Finally, Bucar writes about the growing popularity of yoga for exercise rather than religious devotion.
The fight against Islamophobia is noble but can be misguided, in Bucar’s view. For example, appropriation of the hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, for socio-political purposes could be seen as offensive by orthodox Muslims.
Bucar cites World Hijab Day and Head Scarfs for Harmony as two well-intentioned but troublesome misuses of the hijab.
Bucar also highlights her personal experience in leading a study group of college students on a pilgrimage to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, a traditional Catholic devotional site in northwestern Spain.
Although many pilgrims join the pilgrimage with good intentions, Bucar discovered that some of her students lacked respect for Catholic liturgy and its sacraments.
Bucar’s third case is both personal and controversial. Many of the millions of individuals who enjoy yoga realize that it began as a religious practice.
To be sure, as Bucar notes, there are two distinct types of yoga, “devotional” and “respite.” It’s important that those who enjoy respite yoga also respect the traditions of devotional yoga, she says.
This is an interesting and important book, one that makes you think about religious practice in everyday life. “Careful engagement with the religion of others,” adds Bucar, “has the potential to help us understand communities different from our own.”
We all need to be better students in our appreciation of religious tradition.
(Timothy Walch is a lay director for St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of The Catholic Messenger’s board of directors. He is also the author of “Irish Iowa,” 2019.)