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The prayer is what tripped us up. It was the first Christmas that my wife and I hosted in our home, and for a good 10 minutes, our two families stood around the dinner table arguing about how to thank God for the meal we were about to eat. My mother, a born-again Christian, wanted our prayer addressed to Jesus. It was Christmas, after all; we were celebrating Jesus’ miraculous birth. “Shouldn’t we at least pray to him?” she asked sheepishly. My little sister, a devout Muslim, loves and admires Jesus as a prophet and messenger of God. But she had no intention of praying to him. She adjusted her hijab and mumbled the Shahada under her breath (“I confess there is no god but God”) as a kind of talisman to protect her against my mother’s “heresy.” Continue reading the main story RELATED COVERAGE Lives: Safe on the SouthbankDEC. 5, 2014 Lives: The Iguana in the BathtubNOV. 26, 2014 Lives: Rules of EngagementNOV. 21, 2014 Lives: My Country of Origin? It’s ComplicatedNOV. 14, 2014 My middle sister, a militant atheist, was supremely annoyed with the entire spectacle. She found it hard to believe we were standing around the dinner table, watching the food go cold, as we deliberated which imaginary deity we should pray to before we could start eating. “Why don’t we just pray to Santa Claus?” she said. No one else found that funny. Photo Reza Aslan Credit Malin Fezehai My wife’s family, evangelicals from Pittsburgh, was mostly confused about why we were serving rice and shish kebabs with our Christmas turkey and mashed potatoes. Finally, my wife came up with an idea. “Why don’t we let Reza decide?” she suggested, volunteering me to be the referee in this prayer match. I suppose her suggestion made some sense. I am a scholar of religions who has dedicated his life to studying the faith traditions of the world and then teaching those traditions to people who do not share them. For me, this first Christmas at the Aslan household was practically field research. As I watched these people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds navigate a holiday with quite specific religious and cultural associations, I was tempted to pull out my notebook and begin jotting down my observations. My family is, in many ways, emblematic of America in the 21st century: multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious. I am a Muslim from Iran. My wife is a Christian from western Pennsylvania. That may seem an incongruous coupling. But when we first met, we realized almost immediately that we shared the same values and worldview, even though we expressed those things in a different spiritual language. Continue reading the main story RECENT COMMENTS Cheryl 3 hours ago This was a perfect anecdote for the season. But the author says: "That’s all religion is, really: a language made up of symbols and... bluegal 4 hours ago I haven't read all the comments so I don't know if anyone else noticed this in the story, but how did they all manage to get along? By... w84me 4 hours ago Would love to see the atheist marry a Jew and the little sister Muslim marry a Hindu. Then you'll have some interesting dialogues. and... SEE ALL COMMENTS WRITE A COMMENT That’s all religion is, really: a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allow people to communicate, to themselves and to others, the ineffable experience of faith. I already spoke my wife’s spiritual language (Christianity); I taught her mine (Islam). And now we are a spiritually “bilingual” household. Actually, we are multilingual, considering we are committed to teaching our children all the spiritual languages of the world so that they can choose for themselves which ones, if any, they prefer in communicating their own individual faith experience. But that is also the reason the prayer was tripping us up that first Christmas together. We were having a difficult time understanding one another’s spiritual languages, let alone coming to a consensus on which language to use. It reminded me of a Sufi parable about four hungry travelers from different countries who are trying to decide what to buy with the single coin they hold in common. The Persian wants to spend the coin on angur; the Turk, on uzum; the Arab, on inab; and the Greek, on stafil. Confusion turns to anger as the four travelers argue among themselves. It takes a passing linguist to explain to them that they are all, in fact, asking for the same thing: grapes. CONTINUE READING THE MAIN STORY 37 COMMENTS The parable gave me an idea. “Let’s skip the formal prayer and just tell each other what we are grateful for,” I suggested. “What we are anxious about. What we hope for in the coming year.” We took turns going around the circle: Muslim, Christian, atheist. And, as I expected, we ended up expressing similar dreams and aspirations for ourselves and our loved ones, similar fears and anxieties, similar gratitude for all that we’ve been given. As with the hapless travelers in the Sufi parable, we realized that we were all feeling the same way; we were just expressing that feeling in different spiritual languages. Once the prayer was settled, it was time to sit down for a traditional Christmas meal of turkey and kebabs. From Reza Aslan, for the New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/magazine/praying-for-common-ground-at-the-christmas-dinner-table.html?_r=0