Q: My wife and I got an invitation to the wedding of a couple we work with. She's Muslim; his family background is Catholic. What does Islam teach about mixed marriages?

A: You probably won't be surprised to know the answer: it depends. The general rule is that a Muslim man is free to marry a woman from outside Islam, so long as she belongs to a recognized "divinely revealed" religion (Christianity or Judaism, for example). A Muslim woman, however, isn't allowed the same privilege. Muslim law says she must marry a Muslim. But Islamic cultures differ. Some allow a non-Muslim man to qualify by affirming basic monotheism, the belief in One God. Perhaps your friend did.

In actual circumstances, Muslims are coming into contact more and more with non-Muslims and--nothing shocking here--are getting hitched without benefit of formal approval at an increasing rate.

Q: Were the disciples of Jesus good family men?

A: The Bible is conspicuously silent on this subject. Most were apparently involved in the trades, including the hauling of fish from the Sea of Galilee. But regarding their life as disciples, Scripture is silent about whether they went home after a day of misunderstanding Jesus, or just hung out together or went to Promise Keepers rallies. For many people, it is surely tempting to think of them journaling with their spouses and bonding with their children at the chariot races, but we're left guessing. Not a single reference.

Q: With the FBI and the IRS and the credit card companies stashing away all kinds of evidence about us, some of it maybe embarrassing, will it actually be possible anymore for anyone to become a saint in a country like this?

A: You may be thinking that the incident where the store manager caught you swiping a pack of M&Ms when you were eight years old will somehow doom your chances. Not so, if the past is any indication. To gain the heavenly crown, you needn't have a spotless record. St. Paul beat up on the Christians before he became one. St. Augustine wasn't always saintly, if we're to believe his accounts of carousing and womanizing before he saw the light. Saintliness can start at any time.

So don't worry too much about that old tax scam or drug conviction. It's a new day. And an opportune one, too. John Paul II has inducted more saints than any pope in a century, and he's probably not finished yet.

Q: What is incense and why is it used in religious rituals?

A: It's the smoke that rises from burning certain kinds of gums and wood, and it's used mostly in churches that participate in highly formalized services, and in meditations of many Asian religions. The pungent fragrance wafting upward symbolizes prayer, the sweetness that reaches the nostrils of God. One practical intention is to involve smell as a means of engaging all the senses in worship.

So far as historians can tell, incense wasn't used until at least 500 A.D. After that, it was used only in the highest, sung Masses. In 1969, Roman Catholics began allowing it at any Mass. Some churches have overdone a good thing, of course, fogging the sanctuary with a thick blanket of cloying odor. But mostly it adds elegance and, we can assume, deepens worship. And thanks to the advent of adjustable head showers and high power deodorants, it no longer has to serve a social function.

Q: Let's say that Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama and Louis Farrakhan had lunch. Would they all try to convert each other?

A: In the words of the sage, yes and no. First of all, there is the matter of faith. Minister Farrakhan's branch of Islam has shown no interest in recruiting anyone other than African Americans, even though his faith bows to none in its desire to rally the world to the ways of Muhammed. The Dalai Lama, who doesn't believe in a personal God--let alone one that is "selling" anything--lacks a motive to convert. That leaves Billy Graham, who has retained the converting impulse but is also a dignified gentleman who would no doubt refrain from any breach of courtesy--unless, of course, one of the others asked him a leading question.

That's not the end of it, however. There's more than one kind of conversion. Farrakhan might grab the opportunity to try winning over his lunch mates to his version of history--including racial separatism and inflammatory notions about Jews. The mild-mannered Dalai Lama could jump at the chance to persuade his fellows of the urgency of Tibet's cause against China. And can we imagine Graham seeking support for his favorite Presidential candidate?

The real issue is who would pick up the check--or would they split it?

Send your questions to Kenneth Briggs at columnists@staff.beliefnet.com.

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