Pilgrimage to Self-Awareness: On Liz Bucar’s “Stealing My Religion”

By Kurt CaswellApril 17, 2023

Pilgrimage to Self-Awareness: On Liz Bucar’s “Stealing My Religion”

Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation by Liz Bucar

IN HER NEW book, Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation (2022), Liz Bucar takes on the task of articulating the problem of religious appropriation in the United States. The reading public may already be saturated by evidence that, in this time of rapidly shifting cultural and political norms, most of us are behaving badly. Reading a book like this one, which frequently calls you out for your bad behavior, is both exhausting and defeating, especially if you do not know what exactly religious appropriation is, and regard yourself as open and supportive of the myriad ways in which a human being might worship the divine. With a book like this, a person just trying to make their way in the world might feel tossed about like a small boat on a stormy sea. And such is Bucar’s purpose, to make readers feel uncomfortable, a fact she raises several times in the book.

I usually don’t bother to read introductions, which are too often nonessential overviews of what the heart of the book will tell me in greater detail. Bucar’s introduction, however, is essential. It is here that she defines religious appropriation (which she also calls “borrowing”) as a situation where “individuals adopt religious practices without committing to religious doctrines, ethical values, systems of authority, or institutions, in ways that exacerbate existing systems of structural injustice.” One example Bucar offers is Madonna wearing a cross in 1989, not to communicate “religious fidelity or obedience, but rather blasphemy and rebellion.” Such appropriation, Bucar states later in the book, “has the potential to be profoundly offensive,” and even traumatizing, because “religious practices are part of how religious group membership is formed and maintained,” and can also be “the foundation to an individual’s entire worldview.”

Bucar does make a distinction between profound offense and minor offense, which is predicated on an intention to do harm and so to strengthen or wield these systems of injustice against others. Those of us innocent of intention to do harm do not get a free pass, however, as we may cause harm just the same.

To complicate matters, it turns out you can appropriate your own religious tradition. Bucar offers several compelling examples later in the book: a small group of undergraduate students who “domesticated the Camino’s [Catholic] Christianity for their Protestant goals,” a student in a yoga teacher training program who “understood her experience growing up in India to make her [a] yoga expert,” and Muslims who consider the hijab to be a relic of the past in conflict with Muslims who regard it as necessary for virtue and modesty. “Internal debates about the right way to practice a faith can find outward expressions that look like appropriation,” Bucar writes. The introduction is not easy reading, but it is so finely written, so intelligent and fair, and laced with such surprising discoveries that it deserves a reader’s full attention.

The body of the book is organized into three long chapters: one focuses on the hijab, another on religious pilgrimage, and yet another on yoga. Each of Bucar’s three subjects, and the subject of religious appropriation generally, are personal to her. She has worn Muslim dress during fieldwork, practices yoga and is a certified yoga teacher, and leads study-abroad trips on the Camino de Santiago, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route in Spain. A prime danger of writing about religious appropriation must be the trap of becoming pedantic and righteous, a trap Bucar avoids by her willingness to examine her own acts of religious appropriation. “As I tried to avoid one type of appropriation,” she writes in her chapter about yoga, “I committed another.” Bucar is her own best example, and because she is willing to look inward at herself, we readers have the space to look inward at ourselves.

The primary draw for me personally to this book is that, like Bucar, I teach a study-abroad course on the Camino de Santiago. I have led three groups of undergraduate students on three different routes on the Camino, walking about 200 miles in two weeks. Many of Bucar’s curricular goals and activities closely resemble mine: both our courses are motivated by physical challenge, time to reflect, the pursuit of greater self-awareness, and the formation of a temporary community in which it is possible to be vulnerable and honest when talking about personal fears, wounds, and goals for the future.

A major difference in our courses is that I am not a scholar of religious studies like Bucar, nor is my course very interested in studying religion (hers certainly is). My course is focused on writing and personal growth. Bucar writes that instrumentalizing a pilgrimage on the Camino for personal growth raises ethical concerns, yet personal growth is precisely the reason I teach my course. Pilgrimage is a path to fundamental positive change (which Bucar also discusses), and those who wish to seek it on the Camino have the support and even the invitation of the Spanish government, the Catholic Church, and the tourism industry (a point Bucar also makes).

I learned a good deal about the history of the Camino by reading Bucar’s book, and so, naturally, about the conflict between Muslims and Christians that characterized the Iberian Peninsula for many centuries, and arguably characterizes it even now. And despite my dis-ease with Bucar raising questions about a study-abroad course I have long regarded as the height of my achievements as a teacher, I found that so compelling and clearly articulated is her examination that I could not help but step outside my own frame of understanding to ask new questions about the way my class and I might in fact appropriate religion. In her chapter on yoga, Bucar expresses my experience of reading her chapter on the Camino: “I’m realizing that there are monsters hiding under my yoga mat, monsters that I need to confront. When my Monday hot yoga class chants ‘Namaste,’ I now hear ignorance, entitlement, imperialism, and capitalism. By the end of this book, you might too.”

Frustratingly, Bucar makes clear, near the end of her book, that “[a]voiding religious borrowing is impossible” in the United States of the 21st century. So now that she has made it nearly impossible for me to overlook my own acts of religious appropriation, especially on the Camino, where am I? Bucar takes up this question in the book’s conclusion, where she works hard to develop a tessellated system of awareness that leads to right behavior. Instead of trying to avoid religious appropriation, she calls for a deeper engagement with the religions we appropriate. Such engagement “has the potential to help us understand communities different from our own” and “fundamentally change the way we see the world and provide ways for dismantling structures of privilege, inequity, and alienation.” The answer is not to run the other way but, rather, to step in and respectfully embrace those who might worship differently than we do.

I will be teaching my study-abroad course on the Camino again this coming summer, and while religious appropriation is not really at the center or even the periphery of the curriculum, I’ll lead with greater awareness (and greater anxiety) for ways in which my group might appropriate religion with an eye to effectively reducing harm. As the act of walking a religious pilgrimage does invite greater self-awareness, I can’t help but admit that, for me, Stealing My Religion is now an essential part of that worthy endeavor.


Kurt Caswell is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog (2018), which tells the story of the first animal to orbit the earth.

LARB Contributor

Kurt Caswell’s newest book is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents. He teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University.


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