Religious Seekers, or Cultural Thieves?

‘Stealing My Religion’
Pilgrim at the far end gate of El Parral park on the Camino de Santiago, Spain (lkonya/Alamy Stock Photo)

When I first moved to New York for graduate school, I started doing yoga: an unoriginal choice for a young white woman, but my choice nevertheless. Yoga was relaxing and affordable. Between newcomer packages and free Saturday classes, I could exercise for less than the cost of a gym membership. I borrowed studio mats and wore ratty t-shirts. I couldn’t do a handstand, but still managed a workout.

Yoga was also, some teachers implied, something more than exercise. It was an awakening. A practice—a spiritual one. And this I struggled with. I welcomed the silences surrounding each session, but some classes also had gongs, chanting, incense. Many had mantras we were asked to repeat. Teachers told us we were awesome; they told us to find light and power within; they asked us to tap into energies so we’d be balanced and peaceful—and also, it was implied, hotter. Our classes finished with a namaste as reverent as amen, but without explanation of who or what we were addressing.

As a Christian, I wasn’t afraid of yoga: these classes were more woo-woo than witchcraft. But I did feel a little dishonest. It felt odd to lay a creed—even one as innocent as love yourself—over a workout class I was paying for.

A similar uneasiness pervades Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion, a book-length study of what she calls “religious appropriation.” Cross jewelry, meditation apps, and secular seders might seem innocuous. But using religious iconography, customs, and rituals outside of their original contexts, Bucar says, risks “instrumentalizing religion for political, educational, or therapeutic goals.” Worse, it can “communicate contempt for the deeply held values of religious communities.” Any form of appropriation—defined as a “dominant culture” stealing from “marginalized communities” in a way that causes “harm or offense”—is blameworthy. But religious appropriation is uniquely harmful, dealing not just with cultural artifacts like food and hairstyles but “ultimate concerns” and sacred truths.

Bucar, a professor of religion whose past work has focused on Muslim women’s dress, takes “solidarity hijab” as her first example. Worn by non-Muslims to signal progressive politics, solidarity hijab might appear on a protest poster, in a fashion show, or in a profile picture of a liberal woman speaking out against Islamophobia. But even when well intentioned, these attempts at support are also acts of religious appropriation. They bypass the pious virtues associated with the hijab—“modesty, shyness, humility, obedience” before God—and make it a costume. This transformation risks “undermining the religious meaning of hijab for Muslim women who choose to wear it.”

And, of course, that wearing is indeed a choice; Bucar finds solidarity hijab troublesome in part because many Muslim women don’t wear the covering. To make it a symbol of Islam is to exclude these women from their faith, she writes, “neglecting the diversity of the Muslim community.” She has other criticisms, too: solidarity hijab “coopts inclusivity in the form of a superficial allyship,” “functions as virtue signaling rather than addressing actual injustice,” and “de-centers” Muslims in the aftermath of Islamophobic violence.

These criticisms, though valid, aren’t novel: just the familiar problems of tokenism and slacktivism, white feminism and orientalism. As Bucar walks readers through harms related to race, gender, and ethnicity, she slips into academic jargon. Her central claim—it’s the religious nature of hijab that makes its appropriation really bad—is fresher and more interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get enough space. There’s only one paragraph for Quranic verses on hijab, just a page about its implications for personal piety. I wish Bucar had offered more—perhaps a fuller reading of the Quran or other Muslim commentaries, perhaps more interviews with women about their devotional experiences, and certainly more analysis of hijab’s private, pious meaning.

Yoga isn’t so obvious a theft. But it’s a theft all the same. It’s problematic for lots of other reasons, too, Bucar reminds us: poorly paid teachers, anti-vax sentiments, gurus who sexually assault their students. Yoga can be “orientalist and racist and classist,” creepy and exploitative. Fair. But again these critiques, even when correct, obscure Bucar’s more provocative “yoga as religious appropriation” argument.

That appropriation, she writes, happens during “respite yoga,” any yoga performed for health and wellness rather than devotion. With its mantras and haphazard Sanskrit, its token oms and namastes in between squats and planks, respite yoga is “marked as vaguely spiritual and yet requires no religious commitments,” no adherence to the “Eastern devotional systems with which it is associated.” “Devotion becomes respite, salvation becomes health,” belittling the beliefs of those who practice yoga as an inherited spiritual tradition. During a training course, Bucar notices that a fellow classmate—an Indian woman who grew up practicing devotional yoga—is finding herself the odd one out. The woman struggles through unfamiliar postures and eventually curls up for a nap. “Although this yoga supposedly came from her homeland,” Bucar writes, “it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.”

Being sold something ancient and reverent for the sake of your “wellness,” just as you’d be marketed a skin cream, is weird.

Even as Bucar argues for yoga’s religious roots, she acknowledges that connecting yoga and religion is controversial. Yoga may have arisen in “Hindu contexts,” but it is “not a Hindu practice,” instead “the result of interaction between multiple South Asian traditions, nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, and globalization,” influenced by Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, brought to America by Indian celebrity teachers. “Devotional yoga” can require “fidelity to beliefs, such as cosmologies and metaphysics,” but not always. Vedanta, Tantra, the Vedas, yamas and niyamas…Bucar only briefly explains some of yoga’s associated texts and philosophies. And even as she does so, she questions our ability to ever define what an “authentic” or “ancient” yoga even looks like. Yoga’s fluid relationship to religion makes it hard to understand what exactly is being stolen, and who’s doing the stealing.

Despite these complexities and reservations, I agree with the thrust of Bucar’s argument. Really, I’ve felt her argument. Being sold something ancient and reverent for the sake of your “wellness,” just as you’d be marketed a skin cream, is weird. The yoga videos I watch on YouTube abound with self-care slogans covered with foreign words and empty affirmations. The transcendence on offer is superficial, more about making money than cultivating souls.

So what’s the yogi to do? Bucar doesn’t propose “de-religioning yoga,” “scrubbing” our classes of Eastern words, gestures, and beliefs. Instead, she opts to educate, trying to “acknowledge her indebtedness to forms of devotional yoga” in the classes she teaches. She calls postures by both their English and Sanskrit names. She begins classes with quotes from the Bhagavad Gita. She doesn’t say namaste (a “fetishization”).

Solidarity hijab is never okay. But yoga? Bucar uneasily continues to teach, moving through postures with all her caveats and contextualizations. Why? Well, yoga helps with her back pain. And there’s something else, too. Sometimes, in spite of her secularism, her practice “dips into devotion.”

 

If the inward, mysterious nature of religious belief makes its appropriation wrong, it also makes it powerful. Bucar gestures at this in her introduction. Secular people arrogantly think they can “engage in borrowed spiritual practices without necessarily ‘becoming religious,’” she writes: “Since we are only adopting the bits that ‘work for us,’ without buying into doctrines, dogmas, or values, we can safely remain outsiders.” But “for many religious traditions, correct practice does not necessarily come after belief.” Religion compels. Sometimes it even converts, turning outsiders into insiders, thefts into testimonies, and rituals into faith. A quiet moment on a yoga mat at home becomes a genuine meditation. A cross necklace, purchased on a whim, prompts a thought about Jesus. Religion is tricky that way. Often expressed through tangible things, it is itself intangible, liable to surprise.

No religious communities want their objects and practices desecrated. But exploration, borrowing, and sharing, whether explicitly for evangelism or as a simple act of welcome? That’s often fine, even encouraged.

No religious communities want their objects and practices desecrated. But exploration, borrowing, and sharing, whether explicitly for evangelism or as a simple act of welcome? That’s often fine, even encouraged.

That perspective doesn’t come through in the book’s weakest case study, in which Bucar writes about the popular study-abroad trip she organizes along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Bucar’s course covers history, religion, and art; the students get blisters and take bad directions and eat pastries and confess secrets. Not all of them are Catholic. No problem. The Catholic Church, which issues certificates of completion called Compostelas, “promotes the route as an opportunity for personal spiritual reflection for those of any faith.”

Bucar’s students, appropriately, sign up for her class with different motivations. They want to encounter “the better parts of religion, such as taking time to think.” They want to connect with “anything greater than me.” They want to process grief. They want to do something physically difficult. During the walk, change occurs. One student, a self-described atheist, says the Cathedral of Santiago “made him feel like ‘the Lord is bearing down on you.’” Some attend Mass. Others “wrestle with their demons.” A few are moved.

But in hindsight, Bucar isn’t proud of these trips, which she now considers religious appropriation. She worries that many of her students were “considering religious ritual merely something to instrumentalize for personal growth.” She’s concerned about the “existential risks” such a trip creates, the “crises of faith” it might precipitate even for Catholics. “I created and led a program that encouraged students not just to observe religion, but in a very real way, to do religion,” she frets.

To me, that sounds lovely, different in kind from a hijab worn for politics or yoga done for nice abs. Even if these students don’t have full theologies worked out, at least they’re genuinely curious about the things of heaven. For Bucar, it’s all very stressful, and she considers the power dynamics problematic. Of this, I just wasn’t convinced. Even if lots of Protestants go on pilgrimage, the Catholic Church in Spain is hardly a minority culture being exploited by a majority, especially by another group of Christians looking at holy sites with the same reverence. Plus—whether motivated by good publicity, more money, or a genuine spirit of invitation—the Church did say, “Come one, come all!”

Bucar argues that it’s not the institutional Church so much as individual lay Catholics who are victimized by other students—even other Christians!—on pilgrimage. She reserves special condemnation for a small group of Evangelical students, dubbed the “God Squad” by their peers. These students do sound obnoxious. They want to take Communion at Mass. They openly express their criticisms of Catholic relics and rituals, perhaps more frankly than they should. But Bucar comes down too hard on them; she reads them as solely sinister rather than at least somewhat sincere. Is the God Squad “planning to participate in the Eucharist to colonize Christianity”? Or are they genuinely confused about why they can’t have access to a religious symbol that matters to them, too? When one of the Protestants says he is encouraged by “how much in common all Christians have,” is that really, as Bucar puts it, an attempt to shut down conversation—or is it ecumenism? A few Catholic students offer other perspectives. The dialogue reads as a real educational opportunity, just what the trip was intended for.

“I’m not sure where the humanistic teaching of religion ends and a devotional trip begins,” Bucar proclaims: “But I have no interest or competency in leading the latter.” Unfortunately, “religion is not so easily controlled,” and “I could not guarantee that the experience of the Camino for a Christian student would only be a case of humanistic learning.” But why should it be? Bucar falls into the trap she accuses other secular liberals of springing, assuming that she can remain an outsider before the bones of saints, on the dusty paths, in the lofty sanctuaries.

Her students, no matter their preexisting beliefs, presume no such thing. Maybe, as in my yoga class, they’re just coming for a good time, for drinking and flirtation and a trip to Europe. But I don’t think so. To me, they seem eager and aware of implications, ready to engage with something or someone beyond themselves. They’re coming not to steal, but to seek.

Stealing My Religion 
Liz Bucar 
Harvard University Press
$27.95 | 224 pp. 

Published in the February 2023 issue: 

Katherine Lucky is an editor at Christianity Today.

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