Post Interview Reflections: Student Steven (Online Interview 1)

If anyone had told me when I first started this blog and this research task that I would have made a contact with a student in Indonesia, I would have scoffed. It would have seemed so unlikely to me that something so borderless could occur in my life. Alas, I’m glad no one had told me that ahead of time because I would currently be eating my words.

I interviewed student Steven Djie, a fellow WordPress blogger, via e-mail on Friday, March 27. I sent him a series of ten questions after having several previous e-mail exchanges about his religious beliefs. My goal was to learn what drew a teenager to be so close to God and so in tune with his faith. Within a few days, I received answers back to the ten questions I had asked, and all were insightful. I know I shouldn’t have been shocked that they came from a 17 year old because I have grown accustomed to reading his well-developed, thought-provoking blog posts, but Steven’s keen eye for understanding at such a young age continues to amaze me.

The Findings

Steven doesn’t attribute his faith or relationship with God to any particular moment. Instead, he attributes it to the work of the Holy Spirit. Being that he is Chinese in Indonesia, as is his family, he feels like Christianity wasn’t necessarily a choice but an aspect of his family history. He develops his faith by attending a Christian school where most of the subjects are studied through a Christian lens. This was something new to me, as I didn’t necessarily know there was a Christian way to study things like economics. In addition to the regular subjects, they have sermon-like lessons and worship sessions at least three times a week.

Outside of school, Steven studies the Bible, prays, and listens to and writes worship music. For him, it is a way to write about life and minister at the same time. Many of his friends kept blogs, and for this reason, Steven also started blogging about his faith. Writing the blog has helped him develop and further his Bible study.

Overall, Steven feels that his biggest difficulty is approval. He sometime feels conflicted about wanting to fit in with friends and following his relationship with God. He has said, though, that his faith tends to win in these situations.

Successes

I believe I asked a variety of questions which enabled me to get interesting and dynamic answers. Being that Steven is a blogger, he provided thorough written responses through e-mail. I could also pick up his voice through his writing, much like I can when I read his blog posts.

What might be done differently?

InterViews by Brinkmann and Kvale suggest that one measurement of interview quality is the extent of spontaneous, rich, and relevant answers (192). While I received rich and relevant answers, the e-mail format of the online interview kept the spontaneity at a minimum. Especially after completing successful face-to-face interviews, the unique twists and turns of conversation were absent from the e-mail exchange. This could be simulated more through repeated back-and-forth e-mail messages, though with our time difference and schedules, this level of constant communication was simply not possible.

Questions that Remain and Moving Forward

Being that Steven is from Indonesia and a very Christian school, I wonder how possible it would be to generalize his experiences here in the United States.  I would like to speak with a high school student from America about their experiences with Christianity and the conflict between a relationship with God and a relationship with friends to see if the struggles parallel Steven’s and seem to be more of a universal phenomenon for teens rather than a singular experience.

Questions and Responses

1. Your blog post mentions that you had a wavering relationship with God prior to this year. What occurred that pushed you to God for good this time around? Was it an event? A conversation? A book? Please explain.

You know I think that everything that I am and have become is all the work of the Holy Spirit. It really isn’t my doing or my desire for God. No one desires God (says Romans). So i’d have to say nothing new/different occurred to me that really made me draw closer to God. Because always, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit Himself. But I guess what’s harder is not maintaining the relationship itself. I think what enabled me to really maintain the relationship is because I have decided to deal with certain sin-strongholds that I’ve held on for years.

2. I know that the majority of Indonesians practice Islam. Why do you personally practice Christianity as opposed to Islam? Do you think your geographical location in the country impacted your choice? If so, how?

My family is Chinese (race). In Indonesia, the people who practice Islam are mostly native Indonesians. The Chinese people usually practice Christianity and Buddhism in Indonesia. It is very rare to see a Muslim Chinese Indonesian. I don’t think my geographical location really impacted my choice. It’s all family.

3. You mentioned in our e-mail conversations that you attend a Christian school. Elaborate on this descriptor of “Christian” school. What is it that makes your school a Christian school?

My school adapts a classical education-approach. For the maths, english, sciences, we use Cambridge curriculum, which is the most popular curriculum used in Asia aside from International Baccalaureate (IB) <– maybe since you’re teacher you’d know that. But we have subjects such as History and English Literature which we don’t use the Cambridge curriculum. We study Lit and History and Indonesian Civics from a Christian approach, connecting with Biblical principles etc. Every morning we’d have ‘Chapel’. It’s like homeroom. We would have a praise and worship time. Then, a Christian teacher would teach some Christian values, almost like a sermon in church. This year, the theme is the Ten Commandments. So, each commandment is the topic of the chapel time for one whole month, with the exceptions of special times such as Christmas or Easter.

4. Additionally, in an e-mail, you mentioned that you find it challenging to live out your faith through your actions. What do you think your biggest difficulty is in terms of practicing your faith? Why do you think this is so challenging?

The biggest difficulty is the approval idols. I want to do good, but sometimes with the perverted friends that I have, it’s hard to do it. It’s all about approval. I’m a normally introverted person, and I tend to seek approval a lot. But I’m trying to kill those idols.
5. What do you think are some of the ways God has shown what you describe as “love moments”?

I’m teased a lot at school. Sometimes my friends can get pretty annoying. And, in these times, I can still feel God’s protection. I can feel His assurance of deliverance. I can hear Him say that I am enough and that I don’t need to prove anything to be accepted by anyone. It’s those moments where God reminds me of His love. God is everywhere in my life.

6. You mentioned that you feel like you have a constant relationship with God. What are things that you do to maintain and cultivate that relationship?

Reading the Bible, praying, praise&worship through songs. Those three things are a must for me. Most especially reading the Bible. I think reading the Bible and praying is so important.

7. When did you first listen to worship music, and what were your first reactions to the genre?

I’ve always known worship music. As I said, my school holds praise and worship every morning for 3 days a week. But in the past I never liked them, not because they did not sound musically good, but because I thought it was so pious and weirdly religious. I think worship music reaches to the heart and if one doesn’t open up one’s heart to hearing His voice, one wouldn’t enjoy worship music at all and would try hard to avoid it.

8. How has worship music affected your faith and relationship with God?

You know worship music should never be a replacement to Bible reading. That’s what I learned. Worship music is written by people so its not and will never be the Bible. Worship music can only ‘minister’ to people. I guess at a certain degree, it helps make me feel God’s love and presence more. But not the same as when I read the Bible. As for the Worship music I write, like all the things I write, I hope to convey a message that will bless and minister to others when I sing it to them.

9. Why did you decide to start writing and performing worship music?

I’ve always been intrigued in writing songs. Taylor Swift is one of my favorite artists of all time, and she is a singer-songwriter who writes all of her songs based on her personal life. i’ve always been inspired by her. And, as for writing worship music, it kind of just came to be. I had a conversation with my cousin who also writes songs and she said how songs always convey a message and should not just be like a diary. That really inspired me. So I started uniting both my life experiences and the message I wanted to convey to people so that people can both relate to it and at the same time be ministered.

10. Why did you decide to start your blog, and how do you think it is helping develop your faith?

A lot of my friends have blogs. I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was a kid. I’ve always had a lot of things in my mind. And I knew that I need something to just pour my thoughts out on. So I created a blog. Its definitely helped remind me of for example verses that I would typically forget after several weeks or so.

Pre-Interview Planning: Online Interview 1

I will be interviewing Steven from Jakarta, Indonesia, through e-mail beginning Friday, March 27.

The Background

I met Steven through WordPress about three weeks ago. He commented on the blog post I wrote about Jefferson Bethke’s slam poem “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” His comment focused on how Christians develop relationships with God, and it was the first comment I’d received from a reader outside of class. This piqued my interest, so I immediately went to his blog and started reading. Steven’s blog is subtitled “A vessel of honorable use,” which suggested to me that he was going to be focusing on serving God. I wondered how he hoped to do that, so I scrolled back through his posts and found his introductory post, in which he described how he wanted to try blogging to work through his revelations about God. He wrote that he had always done this in song form, and, because he enjoys writing, he felt he was ready and willing to try something new.

Steven’s blog has grown tremendously in the last few weeks. He has gone from writing brief posts to lengthy reflections on life and scripture. The development he shows in his writing suggests that his blogging is really having a positive effect on his spirituality, which is one topic I would like to focus on when I interview him. Brinkmann and Kvale in Interviews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing suggest focusing the interview around particular themes rather than directive questions so that the interviewee can bring up what he or she finds important (34). I think this is a theme that would lend itself to a discussion about many significant details.

When Religious_map_of_IndonesiaI first reached out to Steven via e-mail, I was surprised to learn that he is only 17 years old and from a country that is predominantly Muslim. I feel as though it is rare to see someone so young so in touch with their faith and would also like to discover more about how a young man developed such a strong sense of self and faith this early in his life. Furthermore, I’d like to know a little bit about what it is like being a Christian in a predominantly Islamic nation. I am wondering if it develops a stronger sense of community among Christian believers or if it creates challenges in terms of worship. From what I read in his posts, it appears that worship music plays a significant role in his closeness with God. Therefore, this will also be something I hope to inquire more about through our interview process. I wrote two blog posts about worship music and Christian rock to develop a the background knowledge that would facilitate question development. Although Brinkmann and Kvale suggest that interviewers practice “deliberate naivete” or an openness to new and unexpected phenomena as opposed to “readymade categories and schemes of interpretation,” (33)  I wanted to have an understanding of the topic because I will have to form prepared questions and categories for analysis as I am not conducting an in-person, spoken interview.

The Method

I had originally hoped that Steven and I would be able to conduct an interview through interviewsSkype or G-chat because InterViews asserts that a research interview is a semistructured meeting that focuses on the subject’s experience of a theme (29). An online interview through a video-conferencing platform would have afforded the opportunity for conversation to flow naturally around several different topics. However, because of technological differences and a significant time zone difference, we will conduct our interview via e-mail. I do think, though, that because Steven is becoming an avid blogger about his faith that having him write his answers to e-mail questions might provide significant depth of knowledge and insight.

The only thing I will miss through e-mail is the embodied communiation that would come forth in an in-person interview. In InterViews, Brinkmann and Kvale write that “…bodies are never neutral but carry all their signs of gender, race, class, and so on…how people sit and comport themselves, how they smell and move, and how they are dressed…This may or may not affect the interaction…” (115) As a writer myself, I hope, though, that punctuation, writing voice, and style of the responses I’ll receive convey similar information.

The Questions

I plan on starting with ten questions, as pictured in the screenshot below. After I receive responses, I may feel compelled to ask more, and I am hoping that I will have the opportunity to send additional, follow-up questions via e-mail at that time.

Screenshot (45)

Extremism: The Commonality between ISIS, “Jesus Camp,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Snow hit New Jersey Thursday, and school was closed for two days. Translation: I was off from work  and afforded the luxury of what to do with my free time. As you may have seen from my previous post, I spent Wednesday night preparing for the storm by watching Jesus Camp, a documentary about a Pentecostal Evangelical children’s summer camp. I spent Thursday reading Writing Ethnographic Field Notes and preparing to write about my observational experience in my campus’ student center. Friday, I decided to do some more research on religion in pop culture. Translation: I spent a lot of time scrolling through Twitter and a lot of time watching Netflix’s newly released original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I had no idea this would actually become a productive task.

As I learned in just the first episode, the lead character in the series, unbreakable_kimmy_2701_NAKimmy Schmidt, was kidnapped by a fanatical “religious leader” of a doomsday cult who convinced four women God had brought the apocalypse to Earth and killed everyone but those who lived safely in their underground bunker. The show, then, picks up 15 years later, when Kimmy is rescued by SWAT team members and begins trying to make sense of life above ground by re-evaluating flashback experiences to her time in the bunker.

Three hours, and 6 episodes in, I was wondering why someone who seems so intelligent (for only having an 8th grade education) would believe this ridiculous message. Twitter, surprisingly, was there to answer my question when I received the following tweet in response to one about my blog.

While it was relevant, I hadn’t really tweeted anything about Islam. In fact, my knowledge of Islam is extremely limited to things I’ve heard in the media–things about Islamic extremists. I clicked the link in good faith, thinking I might learn something applicable to my research, even though it seemed more like a spammer trying to get traffic to his page than anything else.  What I found was a link between the facts I’d garnered about ISIS from the media, the documentary I’d watched, and the doomsday cult that captured Kimmy Schmidt.

Yes, I recognize that it may seem extremely unsympathetic of me to make a comparison between a group that is violently and publicly killing Christians and a comedic sitcom about a nonsensical cult, but hear me out. The issues at the heart shine light on some very important concepts in religion. I am not working to justify the actions of any extremist group but merely working to help us understand why the followers of extremist groups might do what they do in the name of God.

In the article “Belief vs.Trust” by Dr. Safdar DushanTappeh, as tweeted to me by @islamrevisited, Dr. DushanTappeh argues that in every religion “there are always some notions, rules, and rituals that cannot be explained rationally and the religious person is expected to blindly swallow them with the added flavor of belief and trust.” This would explain why we, as bystanders, can’t wrap our heads around the actions of self-proclaimed religious groups that seem so blatantly anti-religious. His thesis, then, argues that this blind trust is the same corruption religion was formed to confront. With this argument, religious belief and religious trust are not the same.

DushanTappeh moves to define the following two terms in his writing:

1. Belief: The foundation of religious thought, the unprovable principles around which a religious man or woman will structure his life. 

2. Trust: The reliance a religious man or woman puts on the source of beliefs, whether divine creator, religious text, or religious leader.

The problem with beliefs is that while they are the foundation of religion,they have to come from somewhere. A religious person often looks to his or her religious leaders for guidance in understanding and practicing beliefs. This seems logical and valuable. Religious leaders are trained in interpreting and sharing religious texts. Why shouldn’t they be trusted by their congregations? Well, it is important to remember that interpretation is subjective. And one thing I will always remember from my English professors in college is that some interpretations can be wrong, particularly those that take parts of the works out of context.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq andisis-army-700x430 al-Sham), according to Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlanticfollows a “distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.” ISIS isn’t Islam. ISIS is leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s version of Islam. Islamic State’s chief spokesperson, as cited by Wood, juxtaposes biblical punishments with modern violence by calling Muslims to “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”

So, yes, ISIS is attracting psycopaths and adventure seekers, but it’s central messages are derived from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam. The messages are just being skewed by Baghdadi, and the followers are misplacing trust in him.

This is the same way, in my opinion, the children in Jesus Camp, misplaced trust in Becky Fisher who called them soldiers in a war for God. This is the same way Kimmy Schmidt believed Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who declared the world was ending. Believers see an authority who is telling them something terrifying, telling them they have a duty, and. perhaps out of fear of God, they listen, even if it means going against their gut instincts.

Extremism in religion is problem caused by misplaced trust. This insight probably won’t help us solve the problems extremism creates, but it might help us understand why it seems to overtake rational, moral human thought.