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A Spectrum of Faith: Religions of the World in America’s Heartland

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
April 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Total Pages: 
Drake Community Press

Timothy Knepper, Professor of Philosophy at Drake University, directs the Comparison Project, a public program in global, comparative religion and local, lived religion – 15 sites and 15 Drake student essays. This book has many photos by Bob Blanchard, a freelance photographer in Des Moines.

The Amazon website for this book is empty, so I give a good website to examine this book

This website has many photos of people in the 15 religious sites covered, several pages with very brief comments about the book , a preorder page, and ends with a 2-minute video – A Spectrum of Faith: Book Teaser by Anna Steenson, student documentarian of the project. She has a 16-min video on the website. DMARC means Des Moines Area Religious Council. When and if Amazon adds info to their presently blank website for this new book, I may revise this review.

The fifteen religious sites consist of three each for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and two each for Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. There is more info about these choices near the end of Timothy Knepper’s Introduction. The book’s cover has a photo for each of the fifteen religious sites. The book has a very inspired Foreword by Eboo Patel and an Introduction by the editor, Tim Knepper. Eboo Patel is a member of President Barack Obama's inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. He is an American Ismaili of Gujarati Indian heritage and founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that aims to promote interfaith cooperation. Here is his Foreword:

“One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is ‘the city on a hill.’ The phrase is from the Bible, specifically the famed Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners: ‘You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.’

“The words come to America aboard the ship Arbella, uttered by John Winthrop in a speech called A Model of Christian Charity: ‘We must always consider, that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.’

“The line suggests many things that Americans believe deeply, notably that our nation is an opportunity to build unique communities, and that we do this not just for ourselves but also to inspire people around the world.

“Winthrop, of course, did not intend to include the indigenous people of this continent upon which he arrived of harmonious community. And he did not consider the African slaves who were arriving in different ships, including many Muslims, part of the city either.

“But future American leaders would widen our understanding of this ‘city upon a hill’ and not only include them but note that they are fellow architects of the American possibility.

“Before assuming his duties as a president, John F. Kennedy used that image in an address where he spoke of ‘the common threads woven by the Pilgrim and the Puritan, the fisherman and the farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant.’

“And President Ronald Reagan offered a powerful description in his Farewell Address, stating that he saw this city as ‘God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace … And there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.’

“President Barack Obama, when he was still a U.S. Senator, picked up where Reagan left off and gave his own understanding of the city upon a hill in his commencement address at the University of Massachusetts at Boston: ‘I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill – that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of place.

“Speaking of unlikely places, you hold in your hand a beautiful collection of photos and essays of the City on a Hill that is Des Moines, Iowa. For people from Des Moines, it is no surprise to you that your neighbors are Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Christians of all varieties. You have been making food and music and friendships together for years. For those less familiar with Des Moines – including the Chicagoan writing this essay – I look through these pages with admiration, seeing in what you have built something that I believe cities all over the United States and the world should seek to emulate.

“I see here the common threads that Kennedy spoke about, the sea of diverse faces that Obama saw at that commencement ceremony and the harmony and peace that President Reagan described. I see beauty and possibility and a new America emerging, one that is stronger than ever before.

“And I am more confident than I ever was that this nation is sacred, and that we make it holy by who we welcome and how we relate to each other.

“Thank you, Des Moines, for building a city worth setting upon a hill.”

Wow! Had I read this a year ago, I would share Eboo Patel’s assumption of a growth in harmony in our country. But now, with the negatives of the current president and his chosen staff, disharmony is growing instead of harmony. But we must still dream of the positive, and very well written, Foreword. Can we do more than just dream?

Here is the Introduction of this ‘beautiful collection of photos and essays of the City on a Hill that is Des Moines, Iowa,’ written by the religious professor and editor of this book, Timothy Knepper about the project that led to this book.

“If this project has a remote origin in time, it surrounds my 2002 move to the state of Iowa. Having arrived from the ‘big city’ of Boston, I was astounded by the teeming diversity of religion in a state that I had previously considered ‘flat’ in so many ways. To this day, I remain astounded not only by the diversity itself but also by how little Iowans know about it. One goal of this book is simply to make Iowans more aware of the rich diversity of religion in their state and how that diversity is a function of Iowa’s rich history of welcoming refugees and immigrants.

“If this project has a more recent genesis in time, it involves my serendipitous meeting of ‘our’ photographer Bob Blanchard. In the fall of 2014, I wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register on the dedication of a forty-foot statue of the Vietnamese Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Quan Am. Bob read that op-ed, attended the dedication, and took pictures if it. Later, he contacted me asking if I could introduce him to more religious communities in Des Moines. I said, I have a better idea – let’s write a ‘picture book’ about the ‘religions of Des Moines.’

“Our early work in the project – my words and Bob’s photos – focused on the lived practices and spatial transformations of Des Moines’ refugee and immigrant religions. Although rewarding, it was also slow going, in part because we could never quite imagine the final form of the project. It wasn’t until the project was picked up by the Drake Community Press that it came together through the creative input of Carol Spaulding-Kruse and her team of student editors. We owe Carol and her students a debt of gratitude, not to mention years of our lives.

“Most of the content of this book was generated in the Spring 2016 semester. Fifteen of my religious students immersed themselves in fifteen religious communities. There, they learned that religion is lived in ways that often elude textbooks and go beyond beliefs. Their writing does not pretend to be encyclopedic or even really objective – rather, it reflects their encounters of lived religion. We also owe a debt of gratitude not only to these students but to the religious communities who warmly welcomed them. Many friendships were established and deepened.

“Why our book contains only these fifteen sites of worship is an issue that tormented us throughout the life of the project. In many cases, I was simply drawing on previously established friendships and connections. But we felt we needed criteria other than that. So it was decided that each religion would have no more than three representatives, since there are three main branches of both Judaism and Christianity. It was also decided that every religion in the book would be represented by at least two sites of worship, since religions are internality diverse. Given the preponderance of Abrahamic religion in Des Moines, it made sense to include three communities each from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And given the fact that there are only two established organizations each for the Asian religions of Hinduism and Sikhism (at least to our knowledge), we decided that we would only include two Buddhist communities, one representing the Southeast Asian branch of Theravada, the other representing the East Asian branch of Mahayana.

“Still, it pains us that more of Des Moines’ religious diversity didn’t make it into the book. If we take solace in anything, it is that, as Bob puts it, this is only volume one! As our Muslim friends would say, ‘Imshallah’ (God willing).

I cannot think of a better way to be introduced to such a diversity of religions than in this beautiful and informative book, which may introduce a reader to many neighbors. We all need to know our neighbors better and this book is a great start for seeing what religious diversity looks like. So I rate it at five stars.