This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spiritualiy Forum on February 5, 2007.
OK. For what its worth, here’s something that makes me grumpy: Americans are so impatient that we’ll pay extra money to have someone else wear out our blue jeans. I can go to the mall and find any number of denim trousers that have been pre-shrunk, pre-faded, pre-stressed, and even pre-holed (if that’s a word). If my fellow pants wearers want to pay a premium to the purveyors of fashion to have someone else make their pants look ratty, that’s no business of mine, but here’s the rub: if I want to wear out my own pants I’m increasingly out of luck.
I live in San José, California, a mere 50 miles from where Levi Strauss put rivet to denim. It’s the tenth-largest city in the United States, and if there is a retailer in this town that carries the pants I’ve been wearing non-stop since early in my adolescence—shrink-to-fit Levi’s 501 jeans—I don’t know about it. My current pair, still stiff and un-faded, I purchased online from a place on Oklahoma.
Levi’s shrink-to-fit 501 jeans are great. Each pair comes several sizes too large and emerges from its first washing looking starched, indigo hued, and they’re still a little too big. After a few years of good use, they are soft, powdery blue, and they fit just right. There’s beauty in the process. When the pants finally disintegrate around the knees, a relationship, based upon knowledge and experience has developed. The pants know the body that has worn them and vice versa.
Ultimately, it really is not a big deal if my new pants are the last pair I’ll ever wear through the complete denim life-cycle. One man’s eccentric love for his dungarees cannot dictate the world of fashion and commerce, but the problem goes beyond pants. Our impatience keeps much of life’s goodness from shrinking into a knowledge that is guided by the wisdom of experience.
This is especially true in how we talk about religion. Our opinions about religion are far too often guided by the experiences of others—by rumor, reputation, and stereotype—than they are by personal knowledge.
A good example can be found in the now discredited news story suggesting that presidential hopeful Barak Obama had attended an Indonesian madrassa as a child. The story (which originated in a publication owned by the same folks who publish this column) was sensational both because it was false and because of what it would have meant if it were true. If Obama had indeed attended a madrassa, even as a pre-adolescent, it would have been a serious liability for his campaign because most Americans arrive at an understanding of religion the same way we come into the ownership of faded, pre-ripped jeans: we let someone else do the work and we pay for it.
Americans have nothing to fear from Islam, but a lot of us think we do—so much so that attending a Muslim grammar school could keep an otherwise qualified person out of the White House. If non-Muslim Americans would take time to learn about Islam and to befriend Muslims, if we would allow a knowledge of Islam to shrink into a proper fit around our experience of it, the story of Barak Obama not attending a madrassa would be irrelevant, and we’d be better for our patience.
But we’d rather let someone else shrink, fade, stress, and poke holes in our knowledge of Islam and other religions. It’s easy and fashionable, for example, to consider Islam a religion of ignorant and fanatical terrorists, hell bent on the destruction of Western liberties, especially those enjoyed by women; yet no one I know who has taken the time to meet Muslims—to allow a knowledge of Islam to become personal—has so negative a view of Islam.
It’s not just Islam, either. One can buy a perception of any faith that’s the pre-packaged work of somebody else’s misconceptions. But the good news is that with a little work, we can grow into a understanding of religious traditions that fits properly; and if we do, the goodness and comfort of knowledge formed by personal experience will be our reward.