“Where Our Religious Traditions Harmonize”: Interfaith Art and Culture in a Divisive Time

Gordon Haber

The CANVAS Compendium: Dispatches from the New Jewish Renaissance

Allow me to state the obvious: this is a time of divisiveness and intolerance. Indeed, certain leading citizens now gleefully stress our differences to further their own agendas and careers, and it seems extraordinarily difficult for many to endure the existence of people who don’t look, date, or worship like the majority. I’m often reminded of Tom Lehrer’s classic song, “National Brotherhood Week,” although the current state of affairs is a lot less funny.

However, rather than give into despair during times of crisis, we should “look for the helpers,” as Fred Rogers famously said. In recent weeks, I’ve been doing just that—in this case, looking at interfaith art and performance projects. Why interfaith? For one, because when they’re done right, they reveal what unites us while accepting our differences. And so many surprising, challenging, and interesting things can happen when you juxtapose artistic responses to faith in a spirit of inquiry and equality.

A common understanding

To begin at the beginning: the Book of Genesis is of course the Biblical starting point for both Jews and Christians, and the creation stories of the Quran evince striking similarities to Genesis, such as the six days of creation and Adam. These overlapping narratives inspired a recent ambitious interfaith project, Genesis: The Beginning of Creativity.

The exhibition featured 130 works at three New York City venues this past summer—the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Interchurch Center, and Riverside Church. Additionally, there were fascinating panel discussions: “The Role of the Feminine in the Secular and the Sacred” (watch it here) and “The Art of Creation” with scholars of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (watch it here, and scroll down the Genesis home page to see art from the exhibition).

Genesis was the brainchild of Joel Silverstein and Richard McBee. Both are painters themselves and founding members of the Jewish Art Salon, a CANVAS grantee network that brings together artists and scholars who work with Jewish themes. 

“We just felt that the creation story is common ground for the three Abrahamic faiths,” McBee said. “It’s also something secular people relate to.” 

For help with bringing together a diverse group of artists, Silverstein reached out to Paul-Gordon Chandler, the Epispocal Bishop of Wyoming and founder of Caravan, a non-profit with the mission of “transformation through the arts”—that is, curating or facilitating exhibitions to promote dialogue between different cultures and faiths. 

Bishop Chandler has decades of experience in putting together interfaith exhibitions in West Africa and the Middle East, and he was enthusiastic about Genesis: “It continues for us the theme of what we have in common, where our religious traditions harmonize. The creation stories, as a theme, allow for great diversity of thought within a common understanding.”

Of course a common understanding doesn’t mean a common approach. Silverstein and McBee were fascinated by the aesthetic and cultural differences the show evinced. McBee pointed out that due to the Islamic prohibition against human images, many of the Muslim artists did not do figurative work, instead exploring the theme of creation with inventive patterns and calligraphy

Silverstein noted that “Jews are comfortable using cartoonish or satiric imagery with scripture. Christians were less comfortable with that.” 

Afarin Rahmanifar is a Persian-American artist whose work appeared in Genesis. She participated in the panel on the role of the feminine and contributed an essay on the subject to the catalog. (Her work, The Sixth Day, is the featured image above.) Her bridge to the exhibition was her friend and colleague Siona Benjamin, an active member of JAS whose work has also appeared in Caravan exhibitions. 

“I’d never been involved with an interfaith project to this extent,” Rahmanifar said. “I am really thrilled to have had this opportunity. They created a community where people of different faiths were valued, where their work was valued. It was inspiring, the interpretations and the diversity of beliefs and cultures. It was exciting.”

More than salt for flavor

An ongoing interfaith project is the series of plays commissioned by the Big Bridge Theatre Consortium (BBTC), an association of six university theatre departments from Christian colleges across the U.S. Every two years the BBTC commissions a play on interfaith themes to be developed, workshopped, and finally performed at participating colleges.

The instigator of the project is Rhett Luedtke, a member of the Society of Friends (more commonly known as “Quakers”) and a thoughtful associate professor of theatre at Hope College in Michigan. 

“The inspiration came in 2016, when Islamophobia was ramping up,” Luedtke said. “I was asking myself, ‘How are we, as Christians, responsible? What is it in our faith that leads to violence? What’s in our faith that can lead to peace? I wanted to bring that conversation to a college setting.”

The first project for the BBTC was Arlene Hutton’s The Shakers of Mount Lebanon Will Hold a Peace Conference This Month, which looks at the Shaker community during its early twentieth-century time of crisis and decline. The second was Rohina Malik’s The Hijabis, about three women navigating their lives as Muslim-Americans.

In each instance, the playwrights were encouraged to explore conflict as well as the potential for resolution, rather than look for easy answers.

“The greatest plays examine dynamic ambiguity,” Luedtke said. “The clichéd example is Hamlet, who asked, ‘Do I stay and live and engage? Or is it pointless?’”

The current project is by a Jewish playwright, Margot Connolly, who is at work on an as-yet-untitled play set at a college. When the rabbi advising the small Jewish student organization is murdered, a Christian club makes a logo of support that goes viral—bringing attention and money to the Christian organization while the Jewish students are still struggling to come to terms with the violence. 

Connolly is a two-time winner of the playwriting contest run by the Jewish Plays Project (JPP), a CANVAS grantee; her work came to the attention of the BBTC via David Winitsky, JPP’s artistic director and founder. Fifteen writers submitted work samples and letters of interest; three finalists submitted a more detailed pitch, with Connolly’s ultimately selected for development.

“It was a dream,” Winitsky said about working with the BBTC. “They had their heart completely in the right place, and they’re committed to the arts as a bridge between communities and as a way to prevent violence.” 

“It’s been super-positive so far,” Connolly said. “My concern was that a Christian consortium wouldn’t be interested in other faiths. But talking to Rhett, it was really clear how invested they are in the interfaith process. It’s not about having one group as a protagonist and the other adding salt for flavor. It’s how these faiths exist in conversation.”

There also have been encouraging by-products of the commission. For one, Connolly is enjoying learning about the progressive Christian community.

“So much of Christian scripture is so beautiful and meaningful. Even though some twist it or ignore it, I’m seeing how people can use it as a tool for their spiritual lives and to make the world better around them. It’s inspiring to see young Christians want to figure out how to make the world not broken.” 

And finally, the submission process has created opportunities for more JPP playwrights: “The other finalists had exciting plays,” Winitsky said. “We’ll continue to provide ongoing support for these writers.”

Archbishop F.W. King of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy Reboot.

Validating other disciplines

Visual art and theatre are fascinating ways of exploring interfaith themes. One yearly event, however, invites people of all faiths—or none—to participate in Jewish ritual.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews perform the ritual of Tashlich, casting bits of bread into running water as a symbolic casting off of sins. For over ten years, Reboot, a CANVAS grantee network, has invited the San Francisco community to take part in their version, Tashlique.

Every year, some 400 to 600 people gather at Crissy Field East Beach for community and a sense of renewal. 

Nathan Shedroff, a Rebooter, interactive designer, and educator, explained: “An old friend of mine, Laurie Blavin, would go to the beach, find a stick, and write things in the sand that she wanted to leave in the past year. Then she’d watch the water come and take it away. She invited me, and over the years, we invited more and more people.”

For the ritual, a local rabbi talks and “grounds us in a religious sense,” Shedroff said. “But it’s all very casual, which is why it works as an interfaith ritual. You don’t have to listen to the rabbi. It’s just an opportunity to consciously leave the past year behind in a poetic way, to make the New Year meaningful.”

Meaningful and festive. Reboot CEO David Katznelson was the impetus for bringing music to the event—players from the Jazz Mafia, the Irish Pipers Band and the Ministers of Sound from the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

Founded by Archbishop F.W. King and his wife, Supreme Mother Marina King, the church recognizes the jazz giant John Coltrane as a saint, both for the quality of his music and for the spirituality he embraced towards the end of his short but brilliant life. 

“We look forward to it every year,” Archbishop King said of Tashlique. “Hearing those ancient Jewish horns. The ancient language being expressed. Throwing bread over the water. The whole thing validates the other religious disciplines that come out of Judaism, and it validates our desire to embrace other disciplines.”

Due to the intensely musical nature of the church, Archbishop King is no stranger to celebrations with other faiths. Supreme Mother Marina King, who was also on the call, mentioned that Jews and Christians of other denominations frequently come to the church to worship and play music—which, for them, seems to be one and the same.  

I asked if they had any advice for how to help an interfaith project succeed.

“The motivation has got to be there,” the archbishop said. “Why are they doing it? What’s the justification? Are you trying to be hip or is this coming out of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man? You can’t just be trying to gain some advantage as opposed to gaining some brotherhood.”

When asked the same question, Bishop Chandler suggested looking at the motivations of the participants: “The artists really have to be in sync with the theme. They can’t just be looking for another sale or a bigger audience. They have to embody the mission.”

Bishop Chandler also believes that organizers should insist upon quality: “For us what’s strong is the level of the art. In my experience, art on religious themes is often amateurish. Our criterion is if an artist is highly respected or a gifted emerging artist whom we can platform with meaning and purpose. Keep the bar high.”

Joel Silverstein of JAS encouraged an attitude of respect. “Do your homework,” he said. “You have to understand their take on the narrative on the Bible. Also don’t privilege one kind of work over another. We tried to be inclusive about figuration and abstraction and calligraphy. All the pictures were displayed in the same way. It was all equal, whether text or pictures.”

Clearly then, it’s possible to bring together people of different backgrounds, to encourage inclusivity over divisiveness. And there is a role for the arts, even when exploring a topic as potentially divisive as religion, in bringing people together. It takes some effort, but the artists and organizers I spoke to all expressed it’s well worth it. 

As Rhett Luedtke of the BBTC said, “When we create space for a pluralistic society, when we demonstrate that value other voices, when we show empathy across boundaries, something magical happens.”

Featured image: Afarin Rahmanifar, The Sixth Day, 2021, mixed media on board, 20”x 24”.

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