October 28, 2013
Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll have written an excellent addition to the growing canon of interfaith memoirs, called Mixed-Up Love. It is written with the intent of placing their particular relationship within the larger framework of a society that finds its security less and less through rigidly protected social boundaries and more and more through cross-cultural relationships. In other words, we are all learning that we can thrive only when people who are different from us have a stake in our survival. We accomplish this by having a stake in theirs.
The importance of reaching across cultures to achieve not just understanding but also empathy plays out on all levels, from neighborhoods to economies to warfare. Those who stay isolated falter in times of trouble for their lack of robustness. Those who let people from other groups influence them are more nimble when they encounter change.
It is a virtuous cycle. First, cross-cultural or interfaith relationships become more acceptable. Then, folks who would have backed away from the strength their partner offered from a different set of experiences now embrace the challenges of figuring out life outside of old models. This in turn, creates new roles for the next couples to look to for inspiration. The value of interfaith memoirs is to give families new ways to think about, dream about and talk about how to practice multiple faiths in one household in a way that makes everyone involved better for it.
The strength of Mixed-Up Love is the personal nature of the story: the sweet details and the actual nuts and bolts of conflict and resolution. Too often, I'm disappointed by memoirs that gloss over specific logistics in the haze of success and viewed in hindsight. I was delighted to feel as if I’d been welcomed into the kind of intimacy of minutia one usually receives in real-time over tea with a friend. As with most things, this specificity is also its weakness.
Jon and Michal met and married in their forties, after lives spent forging paths that required and allowed for lots of self-reflection and spiritual maturity. By the time they met, they had each somewhat firmly settled into religiously radical viewpoints within their own traditions. Their story might be hard to access for young mainstream couples who haven't had as much time to sort out their own perspectives or those who have decided that more traditional forms of religious practice are appealing.
But their story is fascinating and warmly told. I was entranced by their style of writing and tone: at once both deliberate and casual. These are clearly two highly intelligent people with a deep love for one another that has an additional element of strong companionship. We should all be so lucky to develop the kind of marriage they have and have generously shared with readers.
The only real objection I have is that Jon and Michal give primacy to prayer, ritual and liturgy as spiritual acts. They do not spend much time discussing home practices in Judaism and they give the sacred bread-breaking tradition of Christian potlucks no value in their lives. Although I love religious services, I was sad to find the more routine aspects of spirituality minimized. Jon does, however, acknowledge that prayer is better when in the company of people who know his name and they cite numerous times that deep relationships are a foundational value for both of them. Perhaps they do not emphasize community because their peculiarities (which they comfortably discuss in the book) have not allowed them to experience deep relationships within a religious organization and that is why it is seen as a “less-than” option for engaging God.
My own successful experiences encountering God through loving and being loved by other people at a post-modern church or with a progressive rabbi or even in high school youth group growing up make spiritual community a high priority for me. Passover seders, dinners for eight, small group study, chavura and keeping kosher are all forms of worship.
However, Jon and Michal’s obvious desire to tell a story that is unique and useful to the larger interfaith community balance out this small objection. They do a particularly good job of describing a Christian faith that is not threatened by a spouse and child who are Jewish and sensibly describing the theology behind that comfort in a way that everyone can understand. Not all faith is based on insisting a set of beliefs is the absolute truth, but those voices are often much quieter than fundamentalist voices. Jon and Michal speak loudly and clearly in this area to everyone’s benefit.
The more our organizations make room for folks to bring their whole selves to the community, the stronger we all will be. Jon and Michal's book and life together contribute positively to this transformation of the interfaith landscape.
I highly recommend Mixed-Up Love to couples navigating their own interfaith families, grandparents of interfaith grandchildren and clergy who want to better understand the couples who walk through their doors.