Thursday, January 15, 2015

Duke Chapel: The Call to Prayer

This week, one of my alma maters, Duke University, made waves by announcing that the Muslim call to prayer would be allowed to sound each Friday at 1pm from the tower of Duke Chapel, the "great towering church" Mr. Duke envisioned at the center of the campus.

You can read more about that story here.

Many notable Christian leaders have decried the decision, including Franklin Graham, who is quoted in the article.

To me, this is a complicated and multi-faceted issue, my own feelings on the matter are mixed, and I'm not particularly looking to push a side or foster an argument.

The (perhaps A?) complicating factor is that Duke Chapel belongs both to the Christian tradition, and to the University.  Neither owner has "exclusive" rights to the use of the building.  Like co-owners of a business, there are times when they get along nicely.  There are other times when they are a bit at odds with each other.  Sometimes compromise comes easy, sometimes compromise is difficult, and sometimes there is downright hostility and resentment that extends far beyond the owners, as everyone who knows one or the other feels compelled to take a side.

On the one hand, Duke University has historic and ongoing ties with the United Methodist Church.  Duke Chapel is distinctly built and used as a building for Christian worship, and to this day, is the site for hundreds of services a year of Christian worship, including 52 Sundays.  The cruciform (cross-shaped) architecture, the symbols found throughout the building in glass, stone, and wood, the font, the altar, the pulpit - all inescapable reminders that you have entered a hallowed space with a distinctly Christian tradition.

On the other hand, Duke Chapel is not exclusively a Christian building.  It is not a United Methodist Church or the church of any denomination.  Duke Chapel serves as the spiritual center for a vibrant and multicultural University and the wider Durham community.  It is the campus home to a breadth of religious groups.  The Chapel is used by the University for services and occasions that are not particularly Christian, specifically, or religious, generally, even as many local churches similarly provide space for their community within their facilities.

A symbol is always open to interpretation.  A symbol with two owners is almost impossible to interpret.

Duke Chapel is a building and symbol both (to say nothing of a people, as in the non-denominational Congregation of Duke Chapel), a building and symbol belonging simultaneously to the Christian tradition and to the University.

Again, it's complicated, as both owners have their claims and interests.  I see the claim of both.

Franklin Graham and others are asking their friends and supporters to write letters to the University administration and withhold financial support.  Meanwhile, the Muslims are praying, no less than five times a day.  I've seen no Christian response that encourages the same fervency of prayer.

I find the Christian response ironic.  The Muslims are being called to prayer.  In response, the Christians are being called to protest.


  1. I agree it's complicated. I also agree with Hays that the initial decision was misguided. A secular University has no business encouraging or facilitating one faith tradition over others.

    Its also quite ironic that a facility so identified as a place of Christian worship would remind Muslims to ask their God to keep them from the path of Jews (those whom God has cursed) and Christians (those who have been deceived).

  2. Hi James - thanks for your thoughtful engagement here.