A reminder of the extraordinary fragility of our lives

Challenger

Thirty-seven years ago this weekend, Jan. 28, 1986, those of us watching live TV coverage of the launch of the space shuttle Challenger saw people die in a massive explosion (pictured above). One of the dead was a teacher named Christa McAuliffe.

I was watching a TV in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star, where I was an editorial page columnist at the time. Almost immediately David Zeeck, then a news editor, came over to me to ask if I'd write a front-page commentary for that afternoon's paper.

Cover-lle-hi-resI quickly put some words together that had something to do with life's uncertain length and with what national grief might look like, though my memory of the piece is that it wasn't very profound.

It was, however, something of a practice run for a similar front-page piece I had to write after the 9/11 terrorist attacks 15-plus years later. In the 9/11 case, it turned out that I was among those directly affected, given that the son of one of my sisters was on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center. You can find that story told in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

As Americans, we have been victims of many more deadly catastrophes since then, including mass shootings galore, and we have caused others to experience such catastrophes through our engagement in several wars.

But I'm not at all sure that we have absorbed the lesson about the fragility of life. Many of us, myself included, seem to live at times as if death were optional -- or at least something that couldn't possibly find us today or this week.

Maybe it is impossible truly to live flourishing lives if we are so focused on the possibility of our death today that we simply can't move forward in healthy ways. And yet we take so many foolish risks. We drive our cars at reckless (but not wreckless) speeds. We buy guns and leave them unsecured in our houses. We continue to add to the dangerous warming of the planet in ways that already are proving catastrophic and ways that imagine nature is under our control rather than acknowledging that we ourselves are part of nature. We fill our diets with a crop that made the slave trade both profitable and widespread -- sugar. (And by "we" in the preceding sentences, I include myself.)

Some days I think we'd all be wiser if we walked around with this message plainly displayed on our foreheads: "Life is fragile. Don't mistreat it." Or this: "Life requires taking risks -- just not stupid ones."

Maybe I'll get some tee shirts bearing such messages, but printed in a way I can read them properly in a mirror.

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A BILLION BUCKS TO MAKE JESUS MORE FAMOUS?

My late December Flatland column, found here, was about the national "He Gets Us" campaign that tries to introduce people to Jesus. The campaign funding comes through a donor-advisor company in Overland Park, Kan. Now this Religion News Service story reports that the campaign plans to spend not just the $100 million I mentioned in my column but more like $1 billion over the next three years. And among the people putting up the money is David Green, the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby. He and his family were also major supporters of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which I wrote about here in 2017 because of its Kansas City connections. If you had $1 billion to spend on a faith-based project of some kind, what would you do with it? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't sink a chunk of it into TV ads to be seen on the broadcast of the Super Bowl. But maybe that's just me.


Do visits to holy sites really make us any more holy?

Jordan-River-2

Over the decades of my life, I have managed to visit quite a few sites that have been described as holy, sacred or religious.

Beth-starThey include the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Taj Mahal in India, Buddhist temples in Japan and Thailand, the National Cathedral in Washington, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and several others.

Those several others include the spot on the Jordan River where tradition says Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist. As you may know, and as this BBC story describes, recently "Jordan announced an ambitious $100m (£83m) plan aimed at drawing a million Christians to (the Jordanian side of the site) in 2030, to commemorate what is seen as the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's baptism."

(The top photo above here shows that spot on the river as I viewed it there on a trip to Israel in 2012.)

There are good reasons to preserve historic sites -- reasons both historical and religious. And, on the whole, I'm in favor of the effort to mark the site of Jesus's baptism, no matter on which side of the river it happened.

Cana-1 However, I also know that many spots in the Holy Land are marked as if they stand on the exact spot of, say, the famous wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine (and where you'll find the sign seen at right) or the spot in the grotto (pictured above) of the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born or the site in Mecca where, as Wikipedia says, "According to Islamic history, the Kaaba was rebuilt several times throughout history, most famously by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), when he returned to the valley of Mecca several years after leaving his wife Hajar (Hagar) and Ismail there upon Allah's command."

I've even walked down the steps into what a guide swore to me was the actual tomb in which Lazarus lay before Jesus brought him back to life.

All that strikes me as geographical literalism, and I don't take it seriously. In fact, I think we need to be cautious about the details of history that such sites are meant to show and honor.

But beyond that, I have a larger question: Do people spend more time on pilgrimages to holy sites than they do on their efforts to live by the creeds represented by those sites? Related to that question is this one: If seeing such sites doesn't move visitors to reexamine their faith commitments and maybe pledge to do better with that, are they very useful?

It's sort of like those people who try to visit every Major League Baseball park in the U.S. and Canada but who, when they're at the games, miss a lot of what's happening on the field because, as my friend and former Kansas City Star colleague Lee Judge has written in various venues, they just don't appreciate how the game is really played.

That's why they ignorantly call out "Balk! Balk!" when an opposing pitcher fakes a throw to pick a runner off of second base.

Maybe there should be a rule that people who are theologically and scripturally illiterate about the faith tradition to which they claim to belong aren't allowed to visit holy sites until they fix that illiteracy. But, no, let's not do that. Making a pilgrimage to such holy sites just might open the door to that very literacy.

That said, I don't plan to visit the Jesus baptism site ever again. If you go when and if it ever opens, send me photos and tell me whether it affected your religious beliefs or practices. I'll watch my email.

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'WE'RE SORRY, EXCEPT THAT WE'RE REALLY NOT'

Sometimes faith communities seem completely tone deaf. The latest example is the Church of England, which just apologized to LGBTQ+ people for its treatment of them but then, in the same statement, reaffirmed that such folks won't be allowed to get married in the church. How is that different from apologizing to women for the church's treatment of them but then not allowing them to be priests? (It took until the late 1970s for the Anglican version of the church in the U.S., the Episcopal Church, to ordain women as priests.) If it's worth issuing an apology, it's worth changing whatever action or policy caused the condition for which the church is apologizing.


Is Abe Lincoln's theology still useful in today's America?

In less than three weeks, on Feb. 7, President Joe Biden will deliver the annual "State of the Union" address to Congress.

And-lightI've been thinking about the uses and misuses of presidential speeches recently as I've just finished reading Jon Meacham's excellent new book, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.

Meacham, not surprisingly, spends a fair amount of time not just on Lincoln's public speeches but also on what he perceives to be the theology at the root of them.

Lincoln was, to put it plainly, a religiously complicated man. Many of his detractors viewed him as a skeptic about all religions and well outside the Christian family. In more recent years, some Christian leaders who would describe themselves as conservative or evangelical have sought to portray Lincoln as a born-again member of their theological family. The full truth almost certainly would be in neither of those camps.

The speech that Meacham delves into most deeply to explore its spiritual/theological aspects is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, given in March 1865, just a matter of weeks before his assassination. Let me first quote a relatively brief (the whole address was pretty brief, and you can read it by clicking on the link I've given you in this paragraph) section of it:

"Both (sides in the Civil War) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

"The prayers of both could not be answered -- that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.'

"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?

"Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Here's Meacham on Lincoln's understanding of divine matters:

"This was the essence of Lincoln's vision: God had revealed Himself in the history of Israel, given commandments, made promises. The business of humankind was to live in history, obey those commandments and one day avail itself of those promises. Faith was rewarded -- sometimes. The kind and the generous were rewarded -- sometimes. The upright and the loving were rewarded -- sometimes. Why not all the time? We do not know. All we could know was that our duty lay in seeking to do right as we understood it and hope for the best. It was not the neatest or most satisfactory of explanations, but it had the virtue of being rooted in experience."

Meacham also quotes a letter Lincoln wrote after giving the Second Inaugural Address. "Men," Lincoln wrote (in the typical gender-exclusive language of the time), "are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world."

I'm not at all sure that there is much of a place in the top reaches of our American politics today for someone as theologically interesting -- and complicated and public -- as Lincoln was. Lincoln, in that time, could assume he was speaking almost exclusively to a Christian audience, though one divided by the question of whether the Bible sanctioned slavery. In our era of increased secularization and religious pluralism, no president can -- or at least should -- make such an assumption.

But instead of bemoaning that fact, I think we should recognize that it gives a president today an opportunity to point to all the common spiritual ground on which Americans today stand -- ground that draws from many religious traditions and from none. Which is not to say that Lincoln's notions of theology have been proven wanting. It's just that the world into which such theological thoughts are sent by a president these days is quite different from Lincoln's time.

Still, when I compare Lincoln's religious thinking to the pro-slavery theology that was widespread at the time of the Civil War, it makes me cautious about what we might be getting equally and embarrassingly wrong today. And it makes me all the more grateful that Abe Lincoln somehow managed to get elected president at a time when, I think, any other choice would have doomed the union.

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RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION GROWS WORSE ACROSS THE GLOBE

Although some American Christians claim they are the victims of religious persecution because people disagree with them about abortion or because store clerks say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," the reality is that around the world there is actual persecution of many Christians, as this RNS story reports. In fact, it's getting worse. This Christianity Today story, for instance, offers this lead: "More than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith last year. More than 2,100 churches were attacked or closed. More than 124,000 Christians were forcibly displaced from their homes because of their faith, and almost 15,000 became refugees." This is no small problem with an easy solution. This is brutal stuff, and the U.S. government needs to spend more time and effort pointing out the problem (including persecution of people who follow faith traditions other than Christianity) and finding solutions. Religious freedom should be a basic right for all humans. When persecution happens to followers of one religion, it happens to all.


This is how to tell complicated religion stories carefully

Roman Catholicism is in a period of transition. Yes, I know. That sentence has been true of that religious tradition since its founding. But it seems to be in a time of change more noticeable and perhaps more important for its future than in most other periods of transition, including after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Catholicism-GreevyHaving just buried a pope emeritus, for instance, the church is beginning to see on the horizon a time when Pope Francis will vacate the position, either by resigning, as did Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, or by dying.

A new book that I haven't yet had a chance to read deals with this era of change in Catholicism in what appears to be a scholarly, careful and understandable way. Which is why I'm giving you a link to this thoughtful review of that book in the current issue of The Atlantic.

The book is Catholicism: A Global History From the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevy, who is provost of -- and teaches history at -- the University of Notre Dame.

Paul Elie, who reviewed the book for The Atlantic, writes that a couple of recent episodes "point up an incongruous recent development: the Catholic Church’s assertive presence in public life even as Catholic faith and practice recede in families, schools and neighborhoods in America and across Europe."

Elie writes that on the one hand, "signs that the Church has lost vitality are abundant. Europe has seen parish closures, shrinking numbers of priests, dwindling attendance at weekly Mass and steady departures from the faith. In the U.S., more than a third of people raised Catholic 'no longer identify as such.' The clerical sexual-abuse scandals have ravaged the Church’s credibility, cost it billions of dollars and put some of its leaders under criminal investigation."

And yet. And yet. Elie adds this: "At the same time, a rich variety of evidence suggests that Catholicism isn’t on the wane; it’s just changing. In recent decades, the pope — first John Paul II, then Benedict and now Francis — has become a ubiquitous global figure, made so through jet travel, mass media and a cult of personality. The view of 'human dignity' framed in the 1930s by the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain — and enshrined in a United Nations declaration in 1948 — has become a benchmark for international law and human-rights efforts.

"Africa, once seen as 'pagan' missionary territory, is now home to a sixth of the world’s Catholics — 230 million people — and 'high birth rates and high rates of adult conversion,' McGreevy writes, 'mean that African influence within the global church will continue to grow.' In the U.S., the recent arch-Catholic remaking of the high court is likely to shape public policy for decades."

One of the points to take away from this is to remember that any oversimplification of almost any trend story is sure to be misleading. Is religion declining in the U.S.? By many measures, yes. But there is no straight-line story here, whether we're talking about Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam or any other tradition.

The, uh, devil is in the details. As are the angels.

My wife recently bought McGreevy's book (so I've held it in my hands and flipped through it briefly) to give to a good friend. But even without having read much of it, I know that the author's approach to the story of Catholicism he tells -- an approach of seeing the details, the conflicting trends, the complicated nature of the story -- is one that we should keep in mind as we are tempted to pronounce sweeping conclusions about religion (or anything else) that can't bear up under scrutiny.

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ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS ABOUT RELIGION IN AMERICA

Here's another bit of good news about religion in America. Even though religious affiliation has been declining for decades and even though the Covid pandemic has hurt such affiliation further, this Atlantic magazine piece says some things are looking up on the religious front: "(R)ather than asking how many people went to church last Sunday morning, we should ask, 'Where are Americans finding meaning in their lives? How are they marking the passing of sacred time? Where are they building pockets of vibrant communities? And what are they doing to answer the prophetic call, however it is that they hear it?' There have never been more ways to answer these questions, even if fewer and fewer people are stepping into a sanctuary." It's a good read. Have a look.


Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.'s KC connections

There's no doubt that the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now belongs to the world, to history and even, in some ways, to legend.

Mlk-jrBut this year for King Day, which is Monday, I want to describe a bit about King's history in Kansas City, which, in King's time, was (and in many ways still is) a profoundly segregated city.

Let's begin several years after King gained fame in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the mid-1950s, a direct action that he helped to lead and that was, in many ways, the opening of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

In 1961, King came to Kansas City to participate in the annual convention of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., which then was the largest black Baptist denomination in the U.S. King and others were determined to oust the incumbent NBC president, J. H. Jackson, and elect, instead, Gardner C. Taylor. The primary issue had to do with differences over the direction of the Civil Rights Movement.

The result was a wild time on the convention floor and, eventually, the creation of a separate denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), which King joined and which became a primary foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. You can find the PNBC's description of its own history here.

What do I mean by "wild time" at the NBC convention? As this site notes, "In 1961, a near riot broke out at the NBC meeting in Kansas City, with Jackson supporters 'out-shouting, out-shoving the King forces supporting his civil rights platform.' The Jackson camp managed to secure the podium before the arrival of the police, but in the struggle for control, A. G. Wright of Detroit was knocked from the stage and killed.

"Despite this violent outcome, Jackson won a lopsided victory and remained as president of the NBC. Following the meeting, he denounced the nonviolent civil rights movement, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. He also removed King from the vice-presidency of the Baptist Training Union and Sunday School Congress."

Any church convention in which someone gets knocked off the stage and dies is one for the ages.

In Taylor Branch's magnificent Pulitzer-Prize-winning trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement, he notes that "King's heart was with Taylor, and for the rest of his life he would mourn the failure to acquire this institutional base (the NBC) for the civil rights movement. . ."

And as for the physical struggle that broke out on the convention floor, Branch writes this: ". . .with as much surprise as possible, the Taylorites tucked Gardner Taylor into a 'flying wedge' of several hundred preachers and stormed through the entrance to the convention floor. . .as they headed for the podium in a thundering mass. King remained outside."

As for the person who died of head injuries, A. G. Wright, Branch has a detailed account of how he got injured and what it took to get him to the hospital.

And the Association of Religion Data Archives reports this about the event: "After a dangerous fistfight broke out at the denomination's annual convention in Kansas City in September 1961, King quietly withdrew from the NBC. That November, 33 ministers formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), which King, Abernathy and Taylor joined (and Taylor would later become President in 1967). The PNBC remained a stalwart of the civil rights movement and its members were well-represented in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

That may have been King's most dramatic appearance in Kansas City, but it wasn't his only one, as this Jackson County Historical Society account describes.

The author of that article, Brian Burnes, my former Kansas City Star colleague, reports that between 1957 and his death in 1968, King made at least six visits to KC.

There's an old saying in the journalism business that all news is local news. Like most famous sayings, it's too broad and too simplistic, but it does remind us that some national and international stories have local connections about which we should know.

If you are reading this on Facebook and have a story to tell about King in Kansas City, I invite you to leave a comment. As for me, I never met King, though I did once meet his father, Martin Luther King Sr., known to many as Daddy King. That was when I was a newspaper reporter in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s. But the story of either King in Rochester is best left for someone else to tell.

(P.S.: As many of you know, King learned a lot about nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi in India. My friend Markandey Katju, a retired India Supreme Court justice, has written this commentary about where India is now in its relations with Pakistan and how majority Hindus in India get along with minority Muslims there. Katju is issuing a plea, in harmony with both Gandhi and King, to end religious hatred.)

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STOP STREAMING WORSHIP SERVICES LIVE?

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, every house of worship has had to adjust and decide whether, where and how to hold worship services. This opinion piece makes an interesting argument, from a Christian perspective, that faith communities should stop streaming their worship services live now. Rather, the author argues, they should do video recordings of the service and email a link to those recordings to anyone who could not be physically present. I think the idea has some merit. What do you think?


A path forward for American churches experiencing decline

If current trends continue for several more decades, Christians may well discover that they no longer make up a majority of Americans, a recent Pew Research study says.

Root bookAnd at the moment there's no good reason to suspect that won't happen, given that the downward membership trend has been going on for decades.

That has sent scholars and church leaders scrambling to figure out what to do. It won't surprise you, if you know much about Christianity in the U.S., that this scrambling has produced a lot of ideas that so far haven't worked too well. Andrew Root, author of Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, thinks he knows why.

Church leaders, he insists, are focusing on finding more resources to do more programming, on quick ideas based on "innovation and entrepreneurship" to draw in new members and on calling pastors who don't really grasp either the foundational problem or the solution.

Root, a professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., says churches are adopting modern business and related commercial practices and, thus, failing to understand that their primary job is to proclaim "a living God who speaks and moves in the world," a loving God who intends to redeem the world.

A primary task of the church, therefore, is to help people learn how to discern that reality in a culture that largely rejects -- and thus is closed off from -- ideas about transcendency. Focusing on that task, in turn, provides opportunities for real, generative and memorable life to happen with and to church members and to the people and systems outside the church to which and to whom those members connect.

The book is rooted in an exploration of the pastoral experience of Karl Barth, the great 20th Century Swiss theologian known more for his exploration and explanations of theology than for his pastoral insights.

But it's from those insights that Root draws a series of compelling ideas that American pastors and their congregants can adopt -- ideas rooted in the paradoxical, dialectical world of a living God who dies on a cross, a God who connects time with eternity, the mortal with the immortal.

This is the God who calls the creation "good" and "very good" but who then sends the great Noahic flood. This is the sovereign of the universe who comes to humanity as a helpless baby in a backwater nation under the rule of a despotic empire. Humanity's response, often, is not to live comfortably in this both/and world with this paradoxical God but to demand an answer to this question: So which is it, God? Pick one or the other, not both. We seem to be put off and, well, mystified by mystery. We prefer, it seems, a Jack Webb just-the-facts, ma'am, world, meaning we erase the poetry from life.

This complicated God of love and judgment, Root insists (with Barth and others), is wholly other and, thus, unknowable. And yet, in this paradoxical, dialectic mode, this unknowable God is revealed to humanity in the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. The church, he says, must take both realities seriously even if they seem to conflict with one another. Root writes that because modernity rejects the supernatural, Barth "chooses to start with incoherence. Pastor Barth is wagering that the only way toward a coherence that attends to God's action is to embrace incoherence."

It was, in other words, Barth's way of challenging modernity's ridiculous but boldly confident claim that eventually it could -- through science and other disciplines -- explain everything, from the vastness of the cosmos to the mysteries of the subatomic world.

Barth, thus, didn't want people to explain God. He wanted them, instead, to experience God's presence and actions in the world. By pointing people to that experience today's church can find hope, Root insists. His assertion, he writes, is that the modern world "cannot keep out this wild God of Israel who acts in history and speaks directly to persons." The church, in other words, should proclaim the reality of that God and help people discern how to experience the divine presence for the good and ultimately for the redemption of the world.

Barth gained fame after World War I for his commentary on the book of Romans. In it, he rejected both "pietism" and "liberal" theology and returned to something like orthodoxy in light of what the war revealed about humanity. Pietism suggested God was fully available to anyone who kept certain rules and acted in certain ways. Liberal theology suggested that humankind was, in the end, perfectible. (Ha.)

But the bloody horror of the war shook those theologies to their core. Indeed, after the war the poet Ezra Pound put this radical disillusionment this way: "There died a myriad, And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization. . ." Similarly, Root puts it this way: "The Great War revealed that modernity could not produce its own salvation. . .By dismissing transcendence, modernity was unable to give hope."

Out of all of that has come an approach to theology and to ecclesiology (how the church works) that is rooted in the idea that the story the church must tell is not about itself but about God and the world God loves. When churches lose that idea and, instead, make themselves the star of their story, Root says, decline is inevitable. Root reminds everyone that "God seeks salvation for the world, not for the church."

Well, there is much more in this book that can help thoughtful pastors and other Christian leaders. Just know that it is not an easy read. That's true first because modern churches may experience the pain of recognition in what Root says they're getting wrong. But, second, it's true because the book is needlessly repetitive and uses too much specialty language that one often finds in academic writing. What I've called the "modern world" in this review, for instance, Root insists on calling the "immanent frame." And that's just a small example.

That said, the story that Root tells of a church he makes up for purposes of this book is quite engaging and revealing. So this book contains much of value and can help churches today rethink who they are and what their real purpose is. Churches searching for new pastors would do well to give this book a careful read before they decide who should lead them next.

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THE UNITED METHODISTS CONTINUE TO DIVIDE

Now there's more evidence that the slow schism in the United Methodist Church denomination is continuing. South Carolina’s largest United Methodist church is moving toward leaving the large Mainline Protestant denomination, this RNS story reports. The issue -- as it has been in similar breakups in other denominations -- has its roots in what the Bible says, if anything, about LGBTQ+ folks. The South Carolina church is coming down on the side of those who would use religion not to liberate people but to oppress them. My essay (find it here) about what the Bible says about homosexuality explains why that's the wrong use of scripture.

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P.S.: I had a note a few days ago from a British writer named Rachael Kearney, who alerted me to her daily reflections about God. Check out her site here. I especially liked one on the seasons under the headline "Winter."


Wherever you look there's news that somehow involves religion

There were lots of news stories in 2022 that had various religious lines running through them, from the continued diminishment of American Christianity to resurgent antisemitism and Christian nationalism to the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI -- and more.

RNSAnd 2023 promises another barrel full of faith-based news stories. But what might they be?

Religion News Service, the stories of which I use here on the blog quite a bit, asked its own reporters to describe what they'll be looking for in this new year. And, in this story, they responded.

It's an interesting list, containing both expected themes and some that were surprising to me. In the latter category was a prediction from RNS reporter Kathryn Post that she'll be keeping an eye "on clinical trials exploring the mystical side of psychedelic experiences, how new and historic houses of worship are using psychedelics as a sacrament and how people unconnected to religious groups may be turning to these substances in underground settings to enrich their spiritual lives."

So we're going to take another swing through the 1960s? Hmmm.

The reality is that it's difficult to name a news story that doesn't somehow have a thread of religion or spirituality running through it. The job of journalists who cover religion is to find those threads and explore how they're affecting the life of the nation and the world.

The problem is that in many communities, including Kansas City, there aren't enough journalists covering this area despite the fact that religion, even though participation in it has slipped in recent decades, remains a vital factor in the lives of many citizens. Just imagine if newspapers or broadcast outlets devoted as many resources to covering religion as they do to covering sports. (This past week, of course, they covered both of those fields in all the responses, including prayers for healing, to the collapse of the Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin and then prayers expressing joy at what appears to be encouraging movement toward his healing.)

If you have ideas about stories or opinion pieces about religion that you'd like to see covered in 2023, I'd like to hear them. I'll think about what I might say about them in this venue as well as in other venues, including the monthly column I write for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine. Just email me at wtammeus@gmail.com. Thanks. And thanks for being a reader of my work, which I write because faith matters.

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RELIGION'S CONNECTIONS TO THE INSURRECTION

Yesterday's second anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection was another chance to think about the role religion played in that catastrophic event. This RNS story mentions some of that, including a brief note that the Jan. 6 select committee's recent report mentions Christian nationalism only once. I found that lack of attention to that discouraging, given how many of the insurrectionists seemed to be in harmony with that misguided approach to faith. I also found it distressing that two years after the rioters tried to shut down the work of Congress, some 20 Republican members of Congress who have refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House managed to shut down the House for most of a week until McCarthy finally squeaked through Friday night. Imagine that.


Commemorating the start of a vital Holocaust education source

The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education is celebrating the 30th year of its founding in this new year. As one of the agency's newest volunteer board members, I want to encourage all of you to know about MCHE and to support it financially and in any other way you can because of the important work it does.

MCHE-logoIn this era of resurgent antisemitism, MCHE is more important than ever. (This renewed antisemitism has produced, here and there, ideas for how to work against it. You'll find some of those ideas in this article from the Huffington Post.)

First, here is MCHE's own account on its website of its history:

"The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) was founded in 1993 by Holocaust survivors Isak Federman and Jack Mandelbaum. We teach the history of the Holocaust, applying its lessons to counter indifference, intolerance, and genocide. MCHE’s first executive director was Jean G. Zeldin who served from 1993 until her retirement in December 2019. Located at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park, MCHE reaches thousands of youths and adults each year through school and community outreach programs, often offered in cooperation with other not-for-profits. More than 400 individuals are current members of MCHE. An operating endowment totaling over $2 million is prudently invested to ensure the future operations of the organization."

(That membership figure of 400-plus is way too low -- partly, perhaps, because a lot of people seem not to know that MCHE is a membership organization. Which is why the board and staff, under the guidance of Jessica Rockhold, executive director, have set a goal of doubling it this year. You can join here.)

TWJP-coverMy own connection with MCHE goes back to 2007-08, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were working on our book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, which was published in 2009 by the University of Missouri Press. The MCHE staff worked with us to make sure that what we wrote reflected history properly. And, by the way, one of the co-founders of MCHE, Jack Mandelbaum, assisted Jacques and me in Poland by helping to translate from Polish to English some of the interviews we did there for the book.

After I retired from The Kansas City Star I eventually became a member of MCHE's Board of Advocates and then, some months ago, a member of the board.

I've also been a volunteer judge for the annual White Rose student research essay contest. It's an important way for MCHE to teach young people about the history of the Shoah and what we must learn from what happened then. It's one more way to stand against delusional Holocaust deniers. (If you have children or grandchildren in junior high or high school and the school is not participating in this essay contest, I hope you'll ask school leaders to look into it.)

Many people became aware of MCHE last year when it co-sponsored the amazing exhibit, "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away" at Union Station in Kansas City. Indeed, more than 300,000 people saw the exhibit. Many also participated in the related speakers' series. You can read the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit's opening here.

The role of MCHE isn't simply to describe to anyone who will listen the horrific story of how the Nazi regime in Germany in World War II systematically murdered six million Jews, plus millions of others. Rather, MCHE exists to be a strong voice against hatred of any kind. Yes, the MCHE focus is modern antisemitism, which has deep roots in century after century of Christian anti-Judaism (my essay on that subject is here). But the larger story is that whenever we dehumanize people, which is what Hitler's regime did to Jews, whenever, in other words, we don't recognize them as worthy of respect and dignity, we move down a path that can lead, at its worst, to the kind of genocide we witnessed in the Holocaust.

Jessica Rockhold puts it this way: "With the rise of antisemitism, hate speech and racial tensions, the lessons of the Holocaust are more relevant than ever. It is critical that MCHE continue to teach about the consequences of unchallenged bigotry in the face of inaction, complacency and apathy."

She also notes that "MCHE has announced the Herman Family Initiative has offered a challenge grant supported by MCHE benefactors Karen and Mike Herman. It will match the first $50,000 in new memberships through 2023."

So let's give thanks that three decades ago some wise people in the Kansas City area created this vital resource. I'm honored to serve on MCHE's board and I invite you to join in MCHE's work in whatever way you can.

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ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF 9-1-1 PRAYER

Bills-prayingNo doubt many of you noticed the Buffalo Bills kneeling in prayer on the football field Monday night when one of their players, Damar Hamlin, collapsed after a play and needed on-field CPR to get his heart started again. The group prayer was a beautiful gesture that reminded the players -- and everyone who was watching -- that there are times when we are simply helpless.

I sometimes call such emergency pleas 9-1-1 prayers. And I want to suggest that not only is there nothing wrong with such prayers, they may be among the most sincere ways that human beings have of expressing their need for a loving power beyond themselves. I'm betting that in that crowd of players there were a few individuals who identify as agnostic, atheist or simply religiously unaffiliated but who, in the spirit of coming together as a team, didn't make any stand-offish objection to team prayer and unity. Indeed, that approach is reflective of good theology. Did -- or will -- those prayers make any difference in whether and how Hamlin recovers? That remains to be seen. But such prayer is a deeply human response to crises and we all should remember that it's a hopeful act to which any of us can turn in a time of catastrophe, no matter what our faith or lack of it. Perhaps there are no atheists on NFL football fields. Or, in the end, anywhere.

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THE BOOK CORNER

HtW_front_cover

Healing the World: Gustavo Parajón, Public Health and Peacemaking Pioneer, by Daniel Buttry and Damáris Albuquerque. Gustavo Parajón, born in late 1935 in Nicaragua, contracted polio when he was four and a half years old. He survived, though it left him with a life-long limp. But it also left him with an unquenchable desire to help heal others afflicted with any of the thousands of diseases that plague humanity. And that's what he did as both a physician and a pastor, as this new book (to be published Jan. 24, but available for order now) describes in much detail.

The list of Parajón's accomplishments is long and impressive and a testimony to his Christian faith (he was a Baptist in predominantly Catholic Central America). So reading about all of that is inspiring. But Parajón's life (he died in 2011) can serve as a reminder to many of us citizens of the U.S. that there's a bigger world beyond our borders and that throughout that world we can find amazing people doing amazing things.

Although I've been in roughly 35 different countries in my life and have lived overseas for two years of my boyhood, my experience with Central and South America has been almost completely missing. Here's the best I can come up with: two brief trips to Tijuana, Mexico. So the world south of the U.S. border is mostly a mystery to me. That's what reading this book told me over and over, as I waded into political upheaval, earthquakes and desperate needs for physicians in Nicaragua and nearby areas of Central America. And that's who Parajón was until his death.

Parajón clearly left a remarkable legacy, winning many awards. Former President Jimmy Carter even once nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And his story can encourage others to devote their lives to being a healing presence in the world, whether or not they are physicians. The authors even note that "Gustavo's legacy ripples out and influences the lives of his younger surviving family," including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to say nothing of thousands of people outside his family.

There's even a Kansas City connection to this book. Author Buttry's late brother Steve and I worked for The Kansas City Star for several years at the same time. And author Albuquerque attended high school for a time in the Kansas City area when her father was a student at Central Baptist Theological Seminary here. But even without those connections, this is a story that needed to be told, and one that can help shape young lives today.


What if we fought only about what's crucial in faith traditions?

Vatican-ii

As we move to a new year this weekend, I first want to back up a bit and take note that this fall we passed the 60th anniversary of the start of the hugely influential (and, in some corners, controversial) Second Vatican Council in 1962.

A traditional way of describing what this important gathering of Catholicism's leaders did is that it opened the windows of the church to let in some much-needed fresh air. At least that's the description used by people who favored the council's results, which included allowing the Mass to be said in languages beyond Latin and having priests face the people when they led Mass instead of turning their back on the congregation. And much more.

Fr. Thomas Reese, in this column written for Religion News Service, acknowledges that all these years later Catholics remain divided about whether Vatican II was a life-saver or a serious error.

"The distance from the council," he writes, "has allowed for different interpretations of the event.

"The far right asserts that the council was a mistake; it destroyed the church by abandoning dogma and putting the Mass into the vernacular. They argue that the church should demand strict observance of its moral teaching (although they, too, ignore the demands of the church’s social teaching).

"The left argues that the council did not go far enough in its stated purpose: updating the church for the modern world. The council was a good beginning, these critics say, but more needs to be done — allowing women priests, for example, and allowing all priests to marry. They also prioritize the church’s social teaching over the church’s teaching about sex."

The labels "far right" and "left" hide much more than they reveal. Still, it's fair to say that a primary goal of Pope Francis has been -- and continues to be -- lifting up and solidifying or revivifying the changes brought about by Vatican II and then seeing what else needs to change.

Pope-Our-book-2Perhaps it's why he has gained energetic supporters as well as energetic critics. And why he has attracted considerable attention and support from the Protestant world, as my co-author Paul Rock and I noted in our 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and the Pope Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

(In this photo, you see Pope Francis looking at our book after Paul Rock's wife, Stacey, handed him a copy when they met him in 2022.)

Reese, by the way, concludes that Vatican II "was a revolution that opened our eyes to what the church could be if we dared."

What those of us who aren't Catholic can take away from the history of the council is that within any religious tradition change is inevitable. The key question is what one is willing to change and what one is committed to holding onto no matter what.

The problem is that in so many traditions lots of people major in the minors, meaning they fight about things that should be open to change, things that are, in the end, negotiable. And that sucks energy away from the task of understanding what isn't negotiable and why it must be forever part of the tradition.

The youth leader at my congregation has created a list of beliefs and asked young people in confirmation classes the question of what's the least you can believe on that list and still call yourself a Christian. It's a helpful exercise in that it not only draws teens to what the core of the faith is but also points out some matters that they almost certainly don't need to fight over.

Perhaps each of us who is committed to a faith tradition could promise ourselves that in this new year we'll figure out what's negotiable in our tradition and what isn't -- and then quit fighting about what can, and maybe needs to, change.

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THE, UH, GROWTH OF THE MINICHURCH

Here's an interesting development in American Christianity: RNS reports that the "minichurch" is the latest trend. Probably nobody started out to create a minichurch, but with the continued diminishment of Christianity in the U.S., it's no doubt a good idea to look for the benefits found in small congregations. After all, didn't Jesus say that where two or three people are gathered in his name, he'd be there?

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P.S.: When the health of retired Pope Benedict XVI took a downward turn a few days ago, Religion News Service raised -- and, in this article, tried to answer -- the question of how the Vatican prepares a funeral for a pope emeritus. Be glad you probably will never have to plan such an event. Note: We learned Saturday morning that B-16's has died. As the AP story to which I've just linked you notes, "A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni on Saturday morning said that: 'With sorrow I inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican.'”


Can we really know who the Apostle Paul was? Maybe.

No one in the first century of the Common Era was more important in drawing people to become followers of Jesus of Nazareth than the man Christians call the Apostle Paul, or St. Paul.

Paul-found-lettersAnd it's hard to think of anyone in Christian history who has been more misunderstood over the centuries, especially by Christians (and Jews, for that matter), than Paul.

But starting in 1963, with the publication of an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Krister Stendahl, bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden, Paul has been coming into a clearer focus in countless ways. In recent times, in fact, a Kansas City scholar, Mark D. Nanos, has been at the forefront of this Pauline scholarship. One of the essays you can find on Mark's website is "Paul -- Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective." You can read it here.

Among the major themes of this new perspective on Paul are that he always thought of himself as a Jew, that he never converted to Christianity because, in his lifetime, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism didn't exist and that Paul didn't ever say a lot of what people have long thought he said. Beyond that, this misunderstood and, thus, mischaracterized Paul has been among the roots of almost 2,000 years of anti-Jewish teachings in Christianity.

One reason many people don't know about this newer view of Paul is that the considerable scholarly work that's been done rarely seems to find its way into the pulpits of churches even if the scholarship is read and grasped by the people who deliver weekly sermons. In some ways, that's understandable, given that explaining to a congregation that although the scripture passages being used as the basis of the sermon is attributed to Paul, someone else actually wrote it in Paul's name -- and sometimes, thus, it misrepresented what Paul said or would have said on that subject. By then, half the sermon time is gone and half the congregation is yawning.

However, retired Episcopal priest George H. Martin has written a new book -- Paul Found in His Letters -- in which he does his best to equip preachers to make it much clearer to those who hear their sermons who Paul really was and what he really said and thought.

It's helpful, insightful and rooted in Martin's own long experience as a preacher. And if Christian pastors preaching sermons would just read it and take its message to heart, a lot of the controversy caused by what people think Paul said might disappear or at least diminish.

Paul is credited with writing 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament. However, scholars consider only seven of them indisputably authored by Paul. So Martin limits his effort to find the real Paul to those seven. And he notes quite carefully and thoroughly how the Paul he finds in Paul's authentic epistles differs -- sometimes starkly -- from the Paul who appears in other books, especially in the Acts of the Apostles.

For example, writes Martin, "Paul's way of telling the story of being called to be an apostle is quite different from the account in Acts. . .(W)hen we let Paul have the last word on what happened, we will see a different Paul. . ." Among other things, we will be more likely to say that the risen Christ "called" Paul to be an apostle, not that Paul had a conversion experience. The latter always sounds as if he converted from Judaism to Christianity. Instead, he became part of the rather small segment of Jews at the time who were convinced that Jesus is the Messiah for whom Jews had waited so long. And far from leaving a Jewish life, Paul spent his apostleship calling others "to live Jewishly," Martin writes.

The book of Acts, Martin writes, "has played such a significant role in planting the image of Paul in our minds. More often than not all that is reported in it has been accepted as fact, not fiction. But it seems likely that it contains both fact and fiction."

So he suggests always checking Acts against what Paul really said in his authentic letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians and Philippians. There is general consensus (though with some dispute) that II Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians were not written by Paul, but there is even more solid scholarly consensus that Paul did not write I and II Timothy and Titus. And as Martin notes, it's from those three so-called "pastoral epistles" that come "most of the most troubling statements attributed to Paul." By contrast, it's in the so-called "Letter of Tears" (II Corinthians chapters 10 through 13) where we find "the greatest amount of autobiographical material from any of the undisputed letters."

Martin acknowledges that neither he nor anyone else, using the New Testament as the sole source, can "present an organized biographical story regarding Paul," mostly because "we actually don't know much." But by using the undisputed epistles, Martin believes he can get closer to that. And much more important for the church today, he can get closer to Paul's theological thinking about such hot-button topics as slavery and the role of women in both the church and marriage. In this way, Paul's thinking turns out to be much more nuanced and even liberated than it might seem to be when we read the epistles he didn't really write.

As Martin notes, "what will surprise some about this Paul is that he cannot be categorized as a misogynistic patriarchal male who distrusted women." Indeed, in many ways, by the standards of his day, Martin says, Paul could be called an "unmanly man," meaning he was comfortable with his feminine side.

The picture of Paul that emerges from Martin's study is of a poor man who gave up any privilege he had as a Pharisee with, perhaps, Roman citizenship so that he could not just identify with the poor and outcast on whom Jesus focused his ministry but actually become poor and outcast himself. And yet it was all worth it to Paul, who, Martin writes, may have traveled more than 10,000 miles in his ministry for the sake of being "in Christ."

As Martin writes, "Paul knew, from firsthand experience, the world of the urban poor, who lived (in the words of II Corinthians 11:27) "in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked."

Even after reading Martin and other books on Paul, we still see the apostle "through a mirror, dimly," to use words found in his famous chapter on love in I Corinthians. Still, what we can discern quite clearly in the authentic Pauline letters is that, as Martin writes, "his wasn't a gospel for some kind of inner spiritual renewal, but it was actually a bold political vision, a direct challenge to those claiming to rule the world."

That's the Paul people in the pews of Christian churches can and should hear and hear about. This book can help make that happen.

My only negative surprise about this book was that the publisher, Claremont Press, the official imprint of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif., has done the author no favors by allowing too many typographical and punctuational errors and misspellings into the final text. In the end, it doesn't affect meaning but careful readers will find it needlessly annoying.

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ONE WAY TO HELP RIGHT A LONG-TIME WRONG

To combat the historic practice of redlining (making it difficult, if not impossible, for people of color to buy homes in certain parts of metro areas), a church in California's Bay Area has created a Black Wealth Builders Fund to help first-time home buyers get the down payment money they need, this RNS story reports. It's a good example of people of faith responding to injustice in a way that can change the future for at least some of those who have been wronged. I hope this idea spreads.