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Everything You Need to Know to Avoid Awkward Moments in Other People's Religious Ceremonies

Review of How to Be a Perfect Stranger, 4th Edition. Edited by Stuart M. Matlins & Arthur J. Magida, 2006. 1-594731403; The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Wedding Ceremonies. Edited by Stuart M. Matlins, 2000. 1-893361195; The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Funerals and Grieving Practices. Edited by Stuart M. Matlins, 2000. 1-893361209. All three published by Skylight Path Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont.

Although religious diversity has long been a cornerstone of America's heritage, until fairly recently people who practiced a faith outside the mainstream Christian denominations did so either privately or at the periphery of public vision. But that was when America was still perceived by most as a “melting pot” in which people from diverse backgrounds were expected to blend into a common cultural stew. When the concept of multiculturalism supplanted that of the melting pot, it brought with it a new interpretation of religious pluralism. Rites and customs of formerly obscure (or at least, less well known) religions were “outed,” and are now practiced openly and with pride.

These days it's not unusual for people of different faiths to be invited to one another's religious celebrations and services. But even the most worldly among us can't be expected to know the etiquette of the various lifecycle events of so many traditions. For this reason, How to Be a Perfect Stranger should be on the bookshelves of anyone who has family members, friends, or colleagues belonging to different religions--and that would include most us living in North America today.

How to Be a Perfect Stranger is a remarkably comprehensive guide to religious protocol. It includes twenty-nine religions and denominations ranging from the most prevalent, such as Roman Catholicism with 67.3 million members in the U.S., according to the 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, to those with relatively few adherents, such as Quakerism, with just 104,000 members, according to the same source. Each chapter focuses on a particular religion and is structured around the fundamental elements of that religion--its history and beliefs, the basic service and a description of the sanctuary in which the service is held, its dogma and ideology, major lifecycle events, such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death, and the rituals associated with each, and home celebrations, when applicable. The editors also provide information on proper attire, gift-giving practices, and acceptable conduct during the service and other events. For example, some religions allow guests to take photographs during selected ceremonies while others expressly forbid the use of cameras.

Appearing at the end of the book are several informative glossaries worthy of note. They are: a glossary of common religious terms and names; the meanings of popular religious symbols of major traditions; a calendar of religious holidays and festivals; and a summary of proper forms for addressing leaders of various faiths.

The companion books--The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Wedding Ceremonies and The Perfect Stranger's Guide to Funerals and Wedding Practices--are arranged in the same manner as the larger volume, and contain very similar information. They do have a wider scope, however, as they include thirty-eight religions instead of twenty-nine. The two smaller books are recommended for those whose interest is subject specific--weddings and funerals, respectively--and who may not want to spend time reading about other particulars, such as birth, initiation, or home ceremonies.

All three are superb references, not only for those who want to avoid awkward situations when they are guests at unfamiliar religious ceremonies, but also for anyone interested in gaining deeper insight into the current cultural climate in which we are living today.

Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at

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