Review: Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk
Review by Gopal dasa
“Is it real?” This short interrogative phrase looms large in J. Dana Trent’s first literary outing, Saffron Cross. It’s also a question that we might pose after reading the book’s surprising subtitle. “The Hindu Monk” and “The Minister” sound like mortal adversaries in the decidedly un-real world of professional wrestling. The title fight between such theological opponents would be an iconoclastic clash, replete with brash pontification, gnashing of teeth, and bruised spines (of sacred books). The monk and minister of Trent’s autobiographical Saffron Cross, however, come together in a very different and truly authentic kind of match-up: one of interfaith marriage in the pluralistic Internet age.
We first meet the improbable marital tag team in the chaotic, but sacred village of Vrindavan, India. The Hindu Monk (Fred) has whisked his Southern Baptist minister wife (Dana) off on a romantic honeymoon. “Romantic,” however, only in the sense that Vrindavan is associated with the love life of the divine Radha and Krishna. Dana confesses in the very first sentence of Saffron Cross that the honeymoon featured not a bit of human conjugal interaction.
We follow Dana as she follows Fred along Vrindavan’s roads and pathways. She struggles to adapt to local austerities and to cope with India-induced emotional overload—while also trying to honor her new husband’s foreign ritual life in action. Against Vrindavan’s backdrop, the diversity within the unity of marriage stands in sharp relief.
But in Saffron Cross’ opening sections we also learn that Dana’s unlikely partnership with Fred is based on much more than fleeting physicality. Initial (and virtual) first contact in the soft light of computer screens soon leads to hard and heavy theological tête-a-têtes over a series of dinner dates. Dana flirts with ways to lure Fred into redemptive baptism. Fred flexes theological muscle in ways that intimidate, perhaps more so than captivate. Yet rather than seeking a full refund from the Internet dating web site that proposed the match, Fred and Dana continue to seek out each other—and the stimulation (and challenges) that each new encounter affords.
Dana, with her advanced degree in Divinity and pastoral experience, and Fred, with monastic training and a mind for scriptural reasoning, throw their heads and hearts into spirited debate of Southern Baptism’s free form prayer and liturgy, and Hinduism’s devotional science. Readers will wish they’d had a chance to eavesdrop on Dana’s and Fred’s first dates from an adjacent café table. Expressions of affection and trust interlope more frequently as conversations and feelings deepen.
By the time the couple takes very real wedding vows, readers will be rooting for sustained interfaith marital ananda—while worrying that the newlyweds’ most difficult work of harmonizing their faiths and practices has just begun. This is where Saffron Cross moves towards theological poignancy. While Dana and Fred exchange many disparate ideas as their relationship matures, we begin to suspect that less distance may lie between their ultimate ideals.
In clarifying those ideals, Saffron Cross traces Dana’s journey through progressive and traditional Baptist congregations and onward through Duke Divinity School. The book shares Fred’s early interest in spiritual alternatives, and his turn from a reluctant Christian altar call to the devotional life of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, a prominent sect of Hinduism. Two roads that diverged in the formal sense of religious affiliation—years before Dana and Fred met—slowly begin to converge as they pursue relationships with God in the context of a relationship with each other. That convergence privileges essential spirituality over the details of cultural or institutional expression. Dana and Fred’s marriage is strengthened by their shared fidelity to the principle of keeping God at the center, irrespective of the variegated language, ritual objects, or practices associated with that effort.
Of course, in the process of excavating spiritual and practical common ground, Dana and Fred negotiate a series of interfaith conflicts as varied as dietary choices (omnivore vs. vegetarian), Sabbath-keeping (church vs. temple), and methods of prayer (free form vs. mantra). These struggles, although sometimes hurtful, are not without humor either. Dana’s self-deprecating wit and tendency to acknowledge her inner and outer foibles (however trivial) make for a subtle and consistent hilarity. Readers who practice Hinduism in Fred’s tradition will chuckle at (and fully forgive) Dana’s verbal faux pas and ritual flukes as she makes an ardent effort to trace out an intersection between her faith in Jesus and her husband’s devotion to Krishna.
Dana is most in her theological element when she has ostensibly stepped outside of it. Her deepest insights into her relationship with God (and Fred) almost spring up underfoot as she moves, serves, and worships her way around the 20-acre Hindu monastery in northern California where Fred lived for two years as a celibate priest and student. Nonetheless, those insights are proceeded by insecurities and disorientation as she enters a place where every activity—from eating, to sleeping, to watching movies—is deliberately oriented around service to the deity forms enshrined in the temple. What is more, these activities are performed in the context of a traditional guru-disciple relationship. By this point in Saffron Cross, Dana has decoded much about her relationship with Fred, but Fred’s relationship with his spiritual guide remains something of an uneasy mystery to the Southern Baptist suddenly deposited among saffron-clad monks.
Dana’s account of her ten-day service retreat at Audarya is especially strong, precisely because she resists constant retreat to the privacy of the monastery’s basic lodging. Instead she engages in conversation with the resident monks and the presiding Swami, and she accepts opportunities to serve in the temple. As a consequence of that engagement, Dana’s own prospect for deeper engagement in her relationship with Christ comes before her in new ways and at unexpected moments. At the same time, the prospect of an enduring marriage to Fred begins to look more definite.
When Dana and Fred return home and kneel before a shared altar with the symbols and images reflecting their chosen paths, we feel for the first time that this couple may actually be on the same path. At this moment, Saffron Cross breathes a sigh of relief—and the reader will, too. Dana and Fred have oriented themselves, together, in pursuit of love of God. With that ideal enshrined in their hearts, we can feel confident that this marriage has come to rest on ground that is very, very real.