Does the Museum of the Bible help or hinder scriptural understanding?

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Several months before the Museum of the Bible opened in 2017 in Washington, D.C., I wrote this Flatland column describing how Kansas City metal craft workers were creating the stunning front doors through which visitors would enter.

As I described it then (the photo above shows it), the "40-foot-tall bronze doors — a replica of the bed of Johannes Gutenberg’s press from which he printed the first mass-produced Bible in the world in the 1450s — are being milled and brought to life by skilled artisans at the A. Zahner Company near Ninth Street and The Paseo."

Five years later, that museum has traveled a difficult road with various kinds of troubles. In March of 2020, I wrote this blog post about some of those difficulties that have -- or should have -- embarrassed the museum's private owners.

Now comes a new book in which two scholars, Jill Hicks-Keeton, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and Cavan Concannon, a professor at the University of Southern California, call into question the foundational motives for building the museum in the first place. As this RNS story reports, Hicks-Keeton and Concannon examine "the museum’s exhibits, theatrical experiences, publications, funding and partnerships. The book, Does Scripture Speak for Itself?: The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation, argues that the museum is part of a larger 100-year-old project of white evangelical institution-building."

In other words, the authors conclude that the new museum isn't presenting a historically fair and unbiased view of the Bible and its history but is, rather, trying to "bolster a white evangelical identity by producing a Bible that is benevolent, reliable and divinely inspired; a Bible that resists critique and has universal appeal."

The authors contend that the museum's wealthy founders "have not just created a museum, but a kind of parachurch organization intended to hold up the Bible as central to American public life." The RNS story about this, which includes an interview with the authors, adds this:

"In a statement responding to questions from RNS, the museum said it disagreed with the book’s premise and claims. 'We recognize that the Bible’s story is global and that its impact on different communities is historically varied and complex. As such, the museum strives to ensure our exhibitions are accurate and have historical nuance, which has been consistently confirmed by positive visitor feedback.'”

The interview with the authors includes this section:

You point out that the museum presents a white evangelical Bible. Why is the racial component important?

CONCANNON: Not all evangelicals are white. We’re talking about a sect shaped by whiteness. It’s less a demographic descriptor and more as a description of the institutional makeup. It’s a culture of whiteness. Some people in that orbit are not demographically white.

HICKS-KEETON: People think of white evangelicalism as an accusation. But we mean it as a description. We are not saying, "Hey look. They get the Bible wrong." Instead we’re pointing to the museum as an institution founded and funded within white evangelicalism and then asking, "What is the Bible they are producing?"

Well, I haven't yet read the book so I'm in no position to draw conclusions about whether it's fair.

But I do think it's fair to recognize that different branches of both Christianity and Judaism have different ways of reading the Bible -- ranging from considering it the literal, inerrant word of God to a collection of spiritual-based stories -- including a lot that can't be taken as historical -- that can be helpful in figuring out how we're meant to live today. Beyond that, some people unattached to any faith consider the Bible and other sacred writings to be little more than fairy tales.

To take our religious traditions seriously, we must have a grasp of how to understand and interpret sacred scripture. That's true for any institutional religion. But in my experience there is so much biblical illiteracy among both Christians and Jews that there's a lot of misunderstanding about how to read and interpret the Bible as well as a lack of knowledge about who wrote it, when and for what purpose.

So my guess is that a lot of people visiting the Museum of the Bible don't have the tools to evaluate whether it's of true museum quality and reliable or whether it's simply another product of white evangelicalism, such as many Christian radio and TV broadcasts.

In the end, the important point is that to understand any tradition's scripture, you need to know something about when it was written, to whom, in what language, for what purpose -- to say nothing of the editing, translation and transmission process that has brought it to the volume in your hands. Sadly, there seem to be fewer people in the pews willing to devote the time to take the Bible seriously. And taking it seriously means not taking it literally (though there are passages that contain actual history).

A Bible museum should add to this process. I'm still not sure the Museum of the Bible does much -- or at least enough -- of that. But I've promised myself that the next time I'm in Washington I will experience it for myself.

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ANOTHER PROBLEM WITH STATE-APPROVED RELIGIONS

No doubt because I grew up in the United States (except for two years in India), I've always been skeptical of countries that have an established religion, meaning one that has a government stamp-of-approval. Such as the Church of England. That very church's establishment credentials are being called into question increasingly with the news that now fewer than half the citizens of the United Kingdom identify as Christian, as this opinion piece from The Guardian reports. The author of the articles persuasively argues this: "The case for dismantling the Church of England’s relationship with the state is now overwhelming. The church cannot retain the monarch as its governor 'by the grace of God'. It should retire from its prominence in state and civic ceremonies, remembrance days, judicial oaths, the BBC and the daily service. The church cannot justify its privileged access to state schools and its reserved seats in parliament, the latter perk shared only with Tory party donors."

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P.S.: If you want to give my latest book as a holiday gift, I still have a few autographed copies of Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, both in paperback and hardback. Email me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how to get one.


How 'Pharisees' came to stand for all Jewish people

The term "Pharisee," found nearly 100 times in the New Testament, has come to refer to self-righteous hypocrites. But worse than that, in much of the history of Christian theology, the term has come to stand for all Jewish people.

PhariseesIn the 2021 book The Pharisees, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Joseph Sievers -- a book I've not had a chance to read until quite recently -- various scholars explore how the term Pharisee came to be used in that antisemitic and anti-Jewish way and what we can do about it.

It's about time.

"Christianity's judgment of the Pharisees formulated over the centuries. . .is the child of an anti-Jewish theology," scholars Sievers and Massimo Grilli write in one of the final essays in the book.

Levine herself is equally direct in her essay: "Despite historical and exegetical advances, preaching and teaching throughout the Christian world continue to depict Pharisees as xenophobic, self-righteous, elitist, legalistic, money-loving, judgmental, unseeing hypocrites. Because 'Pharisee' has, to the present day, been generally understood to refer to 'all Jews,' anti-Pharisaic characterizations consequently extend to Jews across the centuries and throughout the globe."

The problem is exacerbated because of this reality: Today there is only one way to read what any Pharisee wrote and that is to read the New Testament chapters written by the Apostle Paul, who described himself as one. We have no other records written by any self-identified Pharisees. Not one. (Imagine if 2,000 years from now the only way people could know about your family would be for them to read the writings of just one member of your family whose views you may not have liked.)

This is not a book for summer beach reading. It is, rather, serious scholarship by people who write in great detail about theology, historical research and other areas requiring specialized knowledge and insight.

So your casual book club isn't likely to take up this volume. But the book does describe a serious theological and social problem. Then it explores how that came about and makes some suggestions for how, after all this time, we might begin to fix things. In other words, the book can give even theologically and biblically illiterate people in the pews of Christian churches (there are many such folks) a profound appreciation for the detailed research that scholarship requires.

The problem, as the editors write in their preface, is that "while historical-critical research on the depiction of the Pharisees in the gospels has provided some correction to these toxic stereotypes, the skewed image -- drawn from select New Testament passages and exacerbated by anti-Jewish theologies -- continues to infect not only Christian sermons and Bible studies but also popular culture. Because Pharisees, in the Christian imagination, represent an ossified, degenerate Jewish culture that both Jesus and Paul sought to correct and are the forebears of Rabbinic Judaism, negative descriptions of Pharisees bleed over into antisemitic discourse."

And although I'd like to report that antisemitism is on the decline here in the U.S. and around the world, the reality is that it's resurgent. (My essay on the Christian roots of anti-Judaism and antisemitism can be found here. And here you can read the essay "Jews Are Guilty: Christian Antisemitism in Contemporary America" by Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. Plus, here is an interview with Rosenfeld about what to do to try to stop antisemitism now. Finally, here's a good piece by a rabbi about how to talk to children about Jew-hatred.)

One of the issues giving rise to the misuse of the term Pharisee is that it's difficult to know exactly when they arose as an identified group and, as scholar Eric M. Meyers argues in his essay in this book, "purity practices" were not the focus of the Pharisees alone but "were widespread in the first century and touched all groups."

To which scholar Steve Mason adds this: "For most Christian scholars before the Second World War, who grounded their views in New Testament polemic and sought confirmation through distant impressions of rabbinic literature, Pharisees were part of the dark background against which Jesus and Paul stood out in relief," especially as contrasted to what Mason calls "codification of laws to a finally pointless and barren legalism."

Mason does note that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John "all present the Pharisees as lethally opposed to Jesus." By contrast, he writes, the author of Luke (and Acts) "gives a strikingly different picture. . .Luke's Jesus considers them righteous or just, faulting them chiefly for exclusiveness and hypocrisy, as they in turn are scandalized by Jesus's bad company."

When it comes to ideas for how Christian preachers, particularly, can confront all of this, Levine herself offers the most and best ideas in her essay, noting that "most Christians who give homilies, sermons and Bible studies do not intend to propagate, let alone convey, Jew-hatred; and most would be appalled to know that they are doing precisely that."

She also acknowledges this: "There is no easy fix for texts that have, over two millennia, led to Jew-hatred. Texts, especially texts considered sacred, can be dangerous. But interpretations can change. Once we diagnose the sources of the problem, we can then begin the process of detoxification and reconstruction."

Christian leaders have considerable work to do in this area. This book can help them do that necessary work. If you are part of a Christian congregation, give a copy of this book to your pastor for Christmas.

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EASIEST COLUMN EVER WRITTEN?

As Donald Trump seems to be marching himself into a deeper and more isolated political hole by hanging around antisemites and Holocaust deniers, a rabbi, in this RNS column, makes this plea to fellow Jews who may still be in Trump's camp: Drop him. It's hard to imagine why this column even needs to be written.

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P.S.: The Good Faith Network in Johnson County, Kansas, (I wrote about GFN here recently) is sponsoring a public prayer rally tomorrow to pressure public officials to do more about homelessness there. You can read what you need to know to attend here: Download Prayer Rally for Ending Homelessness Press Advisory


Some trouble in the Jesuit world -- including in KC

It's hard to think of a faith community that doesn't at some point struggle with internal dissension. Sometimes, in fact, those disagreements result in schism. Indeed, the United Methodist Church is the current prime example of that in American Protestant Christianity.

Jesuit-loogPerhaps you’ve seen the cartoon of a man being rescued from a desert island. It shows his rescuers asking the man about two structures on the small island.

“Oh,” he says, pointing to one building, “this is my church.”

“And,” he continues, a little sheepishly, “the other is the church I used to attend.”

So even in a one-member church there can be divisions.

When we're talking about larger traditions, we find that Christianity is divided into such categories as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox; Judaism's divisions include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist; Islam's divisions include Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi. And on and on. (Here, by the way, is a story about internal religious division that once was declared to be the funniest faith-based joke in the world.)

So when I report to you that there are disagreements about what's going on in the world of the Jesuits within Catholicism, it should come as no surprise.

But any divisions within religious traditions can be painful and can test the core of the faith of followers. In some ways, that's a bit of what seems to be happening among the Jesuits, a Catholic order known for its commitment to education. (Its symbol is displayed here). Indeed, Rockhurst University in Kansas City is among many Jesuit institutions of higher education across the country.

One sign of internal trouble in the Jesuit world is this opinion piece at TheCatholicThing.org by Francis X. Maier. Its title tells you quickly that Maier thinks things have gone terribly off track: "The Jesuits: What Went Wrong?" Maier, by the way, has long been among Catholic leaders who have identified as theologically conservative and who have been resistant to the reforms authorized by the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II.

In his article, Maier asserts that "enough prominent Jesuits have said enough strange things lately to invite concern." And then lists several examples.

He then shares answers from unidentified sources, people whom he asked to respond to the question of what's going wrong with the Jesuits.

The anonymity he grants to the sources of the quotes tends to make me ask why he uses their words that way instead of requiring that they be open about their questions. In other words, it seems like a way to let people take potshots at the Jesuits without accountability, a criticism sometimes aimed at practices in the traditional media.

So there's that. Another reason for me to bring up the Jesuits at all is that there is considerable pain among some Kansas City area Catholics at the recently announced news that the Jesuits are leaving St. Francis Xavier (SFX) Catholic Church, located right across Troost Avenue from Rockhurst University. Members of the congregation tell me that they're heartbroken about this news.

It's worth quoting a letter from the SFX pastor, the Rev. Jim Caime, and the parish administrator, Ann Sheridan, sent to parishioners earlier this fall:

St-Francis-Xavier-Catholic-Church-ichthys"In January of this year, Fr. Jim Caime, S.J., Pastor, and Ann Sheridan, Pastoral Administrator, were asked by Fr. Tom Greene, S.J., Provincial of the Jesuit Central and Southern Province, to prepare a presentation about our parish. His request came within the context of the Jesuits’ 10-year plan published in 2020. In that plan, the number of parishes the Jesuits intend to mission with Jesuit priests is slated to decrease from fourteen parishes to seven.

"For the presentation, we were asked to provide demographic and financial information about St. Francis Xavier, along with a description of our response to the Universal Apostolic Preferences. We were asked to describe the impact of our Jesuit parish in the wider community. We also recorded a video talk by our local bishop James V. Johnston in support of continuing the Jesuit leadership at St. Francis Xavier Parish. Fr. Tom Curran, S.J, then President of Rockhurst University, and others also weighed in heavily on the importance of SFX for the community as a Jesuit parish.

"Fr. Jim and Ann made a presentation to Fr. Greene and members of the Central and Southern Province Commission on Ministries in St. Louis in late April.  As we have previously reported to you, with your help, we felt the presentation accurately represented the dynamics of our parish. We were informed that a decision whether St. Francis Xavier parish would continue to be missioned by Jesuit priests would be made in Fall 2022.

"On Tuesday, September 13, Fr. Jim and Ann learned in a call with Fr. Tom Greene that the Jesuits will not continue to be missioned to St. Francis Xavier Parish. The responsibility for staffing parish priests will transfer back to the Diocese effective July 31, 2024.

. . .

"St. Francis Xavier Parish will carry on as we always do -- offering sacramental development and faith formation programs; sponsoring committees and events focused on eradicating the scourges of racism and poverty; building a parish community that is warm, loving, and supportive; making a difference in our community and beyond; and living the Apostolic Preferences. Diocesan leadership has affirmed their commitment to provide priests and other forms of support to help foster the life of our parish.

"This is hard. We are deeply saddened. We are asking everyone to pray and discern how to accept this information knowing that our faith and trust in God will carry us through."

At a recent dinner honoring Kansas City gem Alvin L. Brooks, I happened to run into Bishop Johnston and asked him about the SFX situation. He said he still had a least a little hope that Jesuit provincial leaders would change their minds and keep Jesuit leaders at the church. But he acknowledged that eventually he may be required to appoint a diocesan priest to lead that congregation.

I told him that I understood there was much disappointment and angst among SFX congregants and that if the Jesuits really left, Johnston would need to keep in mind the congregation's disappointment and to find someone to lead who would be sensitive to that. And Johnston indicated to me that he's well aware of that.

So we don't yet know what finally will happen with SFX, but it's clear that this congregation is not the only area of controversy within the Jesuit world.

Beyond that, of course, it's far from the only controversy across the wide range of religious traditions around the world. Perhaps one day people of faith can be consistent models for how to live in peace and harmony. But today isn't that day. Sigh.

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A PLACE TO BEGIN: 'WE'RE SORRY.'

Many faith communities -- from Methodists to Presbyterians to Quakers and more (plus the federal government) -- were part of the indefensible boarding school system that sought to take Indigenous children from their communities and turn them into white children. I wrote about the recent federal report on this outrage here earlier this year. Now this RNS report raises the good question of what healing from this scandal might look like. It's a good question, and here's one answer suggested in the article: "The first step is an apology." Apologies are not opportunities for the current generation to take responsibility for what previous generations did. But they do provide a chance to acknowledge what happened and to begin working to fix the consequences that extend to the present time. There is much to regret in the history of how white European invaders disrupted Indigenous life in this land and destroyed countless lives and cultures. Knowing that history also provides the opportunity to begin to recognize how many Indigenous people (millions in nearly 600 federally recognized tribes) still exist today and to offer to be an ally when that would be helpful.

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P.S.: The terrific redlining exhibit at the Johnson County Museum closes Feb. 7. So you still have time to see it. Here's a link to the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit several months ago.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland now is online here. It's about how shrinking, huge old churches are trying to create new futures for themselves.


Signs of renewed talk about ordaining female Catholic priests

The question of whether women can or should be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church has been around pretty much since the beginning.

Clergy-collar-femaleAnd although officially the church declines to ordain women to be priests or deacons, the issue hasn't died. Indeed, an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests exists outside the Rome-based church and lobbies for the church to change its rules.

As this recent article in The National Catholic Reporter notes, there is new evidence that there may be some new Vatican flexibility on the matter. Writer Kate McElwee notes that a recent report from the Vatican doesn't simply dismiss the idea of female priests.

Rather, she writes, it "weaves narratives from around the world throughout the document, noting the tensions women experience within the church they love, their baptismal equality, and the reality of structures and systems that prevent their full participation in the life of the church."

More than that, it "acknowledges a 'diversity of opinions' on women's priestly ordination, noting some national reports called for it, while others consider it a 'closed issue.'"

Just that acknowledgment of disagreement on the issue, McElwee writes, is significant. And I agree with her, though I do not expect to see the Catholic church change its policy on ordaining women in my lifetime.

Back in 2010, when I was still writing a regular column for The National Catholic Reporter, I wrote this one about what people in the pews miss when they don't have female clergy.

"I wonder," I wrote, "if Catholics know what they’re missing by not having female priests. Yes, Catholics get a sense of ministry by women through the often remarkable work of women religious. But even that is different from authorizing women to engage in the full range of ministry, including administering the sacraments."

Then I shared some of my experiences of being in a church with female pastors.

McElwee seems more hopeful about there being female priests and deacons in the Catholic church than I think the evidence now warrants. But she's right when she says this: "The Vatican's admittance that the teaching on women's ordination is not a consistently held belief among Catholics reveals a spirit of openness and accountability to the people of God. The very fact that those challenging voices — many of which were filtered out at the local level — broke through means this call is strong and clear."

That "spirit of openness and accountability" is to be celebrated.

So I hope she's right about the possibility of female pastoral leadership in the Catholic church. I have family members who are members of the Catholic church, and I hope that some day they can experience being ministered to and ministering with women who are deacons and priests. But that will require a significant change in Catholic polity and doctrine -- two areas that are way outside of my area of ecclesial responsibility.

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A DEEP SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO THE BUFFALO

A deep sense of spirituality accompanies the effort by Indigenous people to restore herds of bison to Oklahoma and other lands where they once roamed in huge numbers, this AP story reports. "The Cherokee Nation," it says, "is part of a nationwide resurgence of Indigenous people seeking to reconnect with the humpbacked, shaggy-haired animals that occupy a crucial place in centuries-old tradition and belief." If you want a deeper sense of the terrific and appalling damage that white pioneers in the 1800s -- aided and abetted by the U.S. government -- did to American Indians on the Great Plains, find a copy of a book I'm reading now, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, by Kerry A. Trask. Oh, my.

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P.S.: Artists-in-residence weekend at Congregation B'nai Jehudah in suburban Kansas City is coming up Dec. 2-4. You can find details here. This is being presented in connection with the terrific Michael Klein Collection of Judaica that I wrote about in this 2020 Flatland column.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The terrific redlining exhibit at the Johnson County Museum closes Feb. 7. So you still have time to see it. Here's a link to the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit several months ago.

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A FINAL P.S.: In light of Qatar's recent banning of alcohol at World Cup games there, the Associated Press has published this interesting explanation of what Islam teaches about alcohol.


The number of secular voters is growing in the U.S.

In some ways, the recent midterm elections were at least a bit of relief in that the election deniers didn't do nearly as well as the increasingly unreliable poll numbers suggested they might do.

Faith-politicsThat doesn't mean we're done with the Big Lie and its many sycophantic voices, of course. But it does make me wonder how the future electorate will look.

One answer seems to have become clearer recently, as this article from The Conversation (written just before the midterms) suggests, and that is that atheists and agnostics are playing an ever-larger role in determining election results in the U.S.

Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, writes that "in 2008, almost 8% of the entire U.S. population claimed to be atheist or agnostic. . .By 2021, that share had risen to just about 12%. But atheists and agnostics are often left-leaning in their political persuasion, and their rapid ascendance in the American religious landscape is proving much more consequential to the Democratic Party than (to) the GOP."

Well, that's a significant rise, but it's still quite a small percentage of the total electorate. The key, however, may well have to do with voter turnout. And as The Kansas City Star reported right after the Nov.  8 midterm elections, "Voter turnout in Johnson County (Kansas) appears to have been about 55%, according to Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman. He said the figure could inch up to 56 or 57% as mail ballots arrive and provisional ballots are counted."

Think of that. That means that roughly 45 percent of registered voters spat on their civic obligation, though some small number of them may have had some legitimate emergency reason that kept them from the polls.

Still, the 55 number is appalling, given that people died so that all registered voters could cast ballots.

If slightly more than half of the registered voters are going to bother to show up at the polls, that gives small subgroups like atheists and agnostics considerably more sway if they show up in large numbers. And if most of those non-religious voters favor one party -- as they do, the Democrats -- then Democrats are likely to do what they can to appeal specifically to voters in that category.

Indeed, as Burge writes, "Democratic candidates have shown increasing awareness that they are becoming more dependent on secular voters."

It's taken awhile for people who analyze elections and party affiliation to pay much attention to avowedly secular voters in the U.S., but the fact that they're beginning to do that is an indication of the shifting religious landscape in the U.S.

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THE RISE OF NON-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCHES

And speaking of changes in the religious landscape of the U.S., according to new decennial data released by the U.S. Religion Census, nondenominational churches now make up the largest segment (about 30 percent) of American Protestants. This Christianity Today story reports that "the number of nondenominational churches has surged by about 9,000 congregations over the course of a decade." And this: "There are now five times more nondenominational churches than there are Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations. There are six times more nondenominational churches than there are Episcopal. And there are 3.4 million more people in nondenominational churches than there are in Southern Baptist ones." This Religion Unplugged story says Americans now have entered the "post-denominational" era. This story is more detailed than the first story to which I've linked you, but together both stories provide some interesting information about an important trend.

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P.S.: An interesting new book asserts that Judaism, as we know it now, may be much younger than everyone thinks it is. As this story from the Smithsonian Magazine reports, the book "argues that standard Jewish practices, from ritual bathing to avoiding representational images of humans and animals, didn’t come into widespread use until around 100 B.C.E." This sounds like a difficult case to make, but we'll let the scholars and historians sort it out.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently elected a new president, Archbishop Timothy Brogio. This National Catholic Reporter column by Michael Sean Winters bemoans the reality that the new leader stands against most of what Pope Francis stands for. "It is difficult to overstate what a repudiation of Pope Francis the selection of Broglio to lead the conference is," Winters writes. With other good choices for president available, it's hard to understand why the USCCB would vote this way.


You can help a Catholic Worker house continue its ministry

CB Website Banner

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote this column about Cherith Brook Catholic Worker house in Kansas City for The National Catholic Reporter. In it, I noted that although it's connected to the Catholic Worker model of the late activist Dorothy Day, it is overseen by a Presbyterian pastor and his wife, the Rev. Eric and Jodi Garbison.

Cherith Brook, which describes itself as offering "a life of hospitality, communal living, activism, homesteading and prayer," now is 16 years old and is continuing to minister homeless, troubled and destitute people in the northeast part of the city from its location at 3308 E. 12th St.

But to continue the work in that 120-year-old building, the leaders of Cherith Brook know that, as a flier says, "the front of our building is in desperate need of renovation." So in various ways, they're working to raise about $150,000 to put in storefront windows, improve energy efficiency, create an entrance accessible to all, build a canopy over the entrances, restore brick on the building's face and reinforce the whole structure.

Eric told me recently that they've raised about $91,000 of what's needed for this work and are working hard to raise the rest.

I admire the work Cherith Brook does and, through my church, try to help where and when I can. Which is why I was there on a Sunday a few weeks ago helping to bring some order to the food shelves in the kitchen, while others from our congregation did other tasks.

A recent Cherith Brook newsletter said this: "We have tended this mustard seed and watched God grow it into a ministry of presence, a small sanctuary of peace in a hostile world."

On the Cherith Brook blog page, to which I linked you in the first paragraph above here, you'll find a fundraising flier that will tell you how you can help keep this ministry going by contributing financially. (Or you can download a pdf of that flier here: Download Cherith Brook Flier. Lots of homeless people who get to take showers there regularly will be among those grateful for your generosity.

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DID COVID REALLY INJURE RELIGION IN THE U.S. BADLY?

As many of you know, there have been numerous reports that because of the Covid pandemic in the U.S., participation in institutional religion (like worship) declined. Many congregations, in fact, had to close for a time and go virtual. But as this RNS story reports, there are indications that surveys showing a decline in participation don't give an accurate picture of what happened because the pollsters changed how they gather information. One expert quoted in the story says that while organized religion in the United States is likely to continue to decline, much of the decline is among so-called Christians and Easter Christians, who only occasionally attend services. So, yes, religion on the whole is experiencing a decline in the U.S., but it's a complicated picture.

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P.S.: Speaking of things in northeast Kansas City, as I was in the opening piece here today, I want to alert you to the recently refurbished Independence Plaza Park in that old neighborhood at 649 Brooklyn Ave. and to tell you that the park now includes three stunning glass sculptures by Hasna Sal, about whom I wrote this Flatland column almost a year ago. Her new installation is called "Live in the Light." As a press release about the work says, "The glass panels share themes of the celebration of childhood and children. However, they also continue on the theme of advocacy and justice for those in need." I hope you'll visit the park and have a look. Hasna is one of the few artists whose work will be on display at the new Kansas City International Airport when it opens.


The benefits of doubt get another boost

Several years ago, I wrote a book called The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.

Cover-Value of DoubtIt argued that the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude. Doubt, in fact, can be a path that leads you to a faith that can sustain you in good times and bad.

The idea is not that we never come to at least some provisional conclusions about eternal matters but that we hold our conclusions with the understanding that we may have to adjust them when we learn more or have better revelations.

If this sounds like something that would come only from someone from a faith tradition that might be called progressive or liberal, well, today I'd like to disabuse you of that notion.

Here is a Religion News Service column by a pastor of an evangelical Christian church in Texas. In it, he writes this: "Doubt often gets a bad reputation, especially within Christian settings, but doubt can be hugely productive. It can paralyze us, yes, but it can also propel us to seek truth. Nearly every person of faith (including me) has experienced a season of doubt, a process that often takes one deeper into an exploration of God. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, 'Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.'” 

Unless you are in a faith community that allows you to ask the hard questions of religion, it's doubtful that you'll ever develop a sustaining faith. Perhaps the hardest question is about why there's evil and suffering in the world if God is both all good and all powerful. Theologians refer to it as the question of theodicy, and, truth be told, no one has ever come up with an answer that is completely satisfying to everyone.

But if you aren't free even to ask such questions in your congregation, your spiritual growth will be stunted.

The author of the RNS column, the Rev. Bruce B. Miller, adds this: "We must not suppress doubt but unfold it. The process of questioning and exploring faith has the power to open minds, give rise to new ideas, reveal new horizons and change our lives. Even as an evangelical Christian pastor, I know that times of deep doubt and intense questioning have helped me to grow, intellectually and spiritually."

So ask your hard questions. And if you're in a congregation that doesn't want to hear such questioning, find one that does.

In the end, there will be fewer people dead certain about things that defy such certainty. And that will be a good thing.

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ARE YOU PICTURED HERE?

A little something different for a second item today: This collection from The Guardian of terrific photos and a few words from someone who says that "street photography is my religion." Enjoy the moving and strange photos of some of God's children.

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P.S.: The slowly splitting-up United Methodist Church finally, after several delays, has set a 2024 date on which to vote on a schism plan. Covid and Covid-related delays have prevented this vote for several years, though as the RNS story to which I've linked you notes, "In the meantime, the denomination — one of the largest in the United States — has begun to splinter, with some churches choosing to leave the United Methodist Church for the (more conservative) Global Methodist Church or to become independent." It's been a sad story, and it's time for folks to choose sides and move on.

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ANOTHER P.S.: There are two events and/or offerings coming up at the Jewish Community Center that may interest many of you. First, the "Jewish Nutcrackers" will be performed Dec. 4 and 11 at the White Theatre. Details here. Next, the Jewish Chaplaincy program, under the auspices of Jewish Family Services, is offering a pre-Hanukkah Service of Spiritual Renewal at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4, in the Social Hall of Village Shalom, 5500 W. 123rd St., in Overland Park. Details here.


Can some good come out of the trend toward secularization?

The running story about Christianity in the United States for at least the last half century has been about decline in church membership coupled with a growing segment of the population that identifies as religiously unaffiliated. In short, the American religious landscape has changed quite noticeably for many reasons.

PRRI_Jul_2021_Religion_1Many people bemoan all of this, including, often, me.

But we need to remember that we're dealing with a wide range of faith communities. And as the author of this article suggests, perhaps there are things to celebrate about this otherwise distressing story of diminishment. And he's not entirely wrong.

As Tom Krattenmaker writes, "there needs to be some specificity and disaggregation before I can say whether I am saddened or gladdened by the shrinkage of congregations and other religious communities in this country."

Krattenmaker, who identifies as a humanist, says, "If you tell me membership is plummeting at a right-wing evangelical church in your town that has led crusades against vaccines and spread lies about the 2020 presidential election, I’ll take it as welcome news. On the other hand, if I learn that a progressive church in your city — one that affirms LGBTQ people and sends parishioners to protect-the-climate rallies — I’ll be saddened to learn that budget problems have forced it to close."

In other words, he judges churches by how their theology informs how their members live in and relate to the world around them. Which can quickly become political. In fact, the Christian church really can't be Christian unless it is in some way political. Not partisan, but political, which is to say engaged in broad discussion and action that affects whether people are treated with equity and justice.

As I've said before, the very first statement of faith of the early Christian church was directly political. It said this: "Jesus is Lord." What that meant, of course, was that Caesar is not lord -- and Caesar knew that's what it meant.

The problem with Krattenmaker's standard of judging churches, however, is that it seems to pay little attention to the often-personal deeply spiritual needs of people and to the details of what it means that faith communities are the only organizations in society that offer structured worship. Humans, after all, have proven that they will worship something. Institutional religion tries its best to make sure that such worship is directed at the divine, not at power, wealth or status.

So even the kinds of churches that Krattenmaker (and others of us) won't miss if they close still offer something that people need. Even Krattenmaker.

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ANTISEMITISM JUST WON'T GO AWAY

A new survey by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee in the Kansas City area reveals some resurgence in antisemitism among students in schools, mirroring the experience elsewhere in society. Here are the two key findings:

  • Only 25% of students said antisemitism was “not a problem at all” in their school. 

  • 35% of students said antisemitism in schools has increased over the past two years. 41% of students said antisemitism had “stayed the same,” and 8% said it had decreased.

Christians should be particularly concerned about this because many of the roots of antisemitism and anti-Judaism are found in Christianity, from its beginning, as I show in this essay, located elsewhere on this blog.

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P.S.: Just for the record, this is my 5,000th blog post since I started this weblog in 2004. Maybe you have missed a few posts along the way. But fear not. Every single one of them still can be found in the "Archives," located in the far-right column (that's a location, not a political position) of the blog's opening page. At least you can find the Archives there when you open the blog on a desktop or laptop computer. When you open it on a phone, say, that far-right column seems to disappear. So today's post begins the second 5,000. Maybe.


New ways for faith leaders to help with elections

The midterm elections Tuesday have motivated various faith communities and leaders to become more active in the political process -- not to tell people how to vote but to help encourage them to do their civic duty and to maintain the peace while they're doing it.

Divided-flagAs this RNS story reports, "Two years of disinformation and agitation over the 2020 election results have heightened fears of violence and mischief at voting sites this year. Poll watchers from both ends of the political spectrum have vowed to be out in force. . .

"The rising tension has prompted clergy groups to mobilize for the midterms with new approaches and broader coalitions. They are supplementing long-standing initiatives for voter registration, education and mobilization with voter protection and expanding efforts such as Sojourners’ 'Lawyers and Collars' program, which teamed poll chaplains with lawyers and advisers who could be called to answer questions and defuse tempers."

Many houses of worship, of course, open their doors and become polling places on election day. That's been true of my church over the years. And because my wife and I sold our house and moved a couple of miles north last year, we now vote at a church that's next-door to our apartment building.

Of course, there's no one from that church inside the building telling us how to vote, nor should there be. But using houses of worship as polling places is a reminder of how faith communities are part of the social fabric.

I'm not aware of Kansas City area faith groups organizing in the way described in the RNS story, though that may be just because I've missed that news. (And also because local media outlets tend not to cover much religion news. Sigh.)

But each person of faith certainly can be an advocate for full participation in our electoral system, remembering that voting itself is the very end of the process. If you aren't happy with the candidates, you need to ask yourself what you did ahead of the election date to make sure good candidates you could support were in the race. If the answer is nothing, you're looking at the problem in the mirror.

I was glad to read this in the RNS story: "Christian clergy who have long worked to get their congregants to polling places are also expanding their reach by including more non-Christian clergy in get-out-the-vote efforts."

Christians may make up a majority of American citizens, but the percentage has been shrinking for decades. That, in turn, means coalition building among other faith traditions is vital to help people be good citizens.

So vote on Tuesday if you haven't already voted early. And if you vote in a house of worship, you might take time to thank the leaders of that congregation for participating in our electoral process. (Well, thank them unless they're blatantly violating Internal Revenue Service rules about endorsing specific candidates or issues from the pulpit, as this story describes happening in various places.)

(Finally, here's a disturbing story about how Christian nationalism in politics is spreading around the world. Sigh.)

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STOP IT. JUST STOP IT.

The reaction of some Christians to the recent brutal attack on the husband of Speaker of the House Nany Pelosi has been both astonishing and putrid. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today, calls out such people and rebukes them strongly in this article. "This," Moore writes of one such response, "is not an isolated incident from one sad, angry, and 'extremely online' guy. It reflects an increasing trend among some Christians." One of the answers to the question "What would Jesus do?" in response to the attack would never be "praise it." Can we at least agree on that much?

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P.S.: You may be interested in a virtual interfaith panel on the death penalty taking place at 2 p.m. (Central) on Monday. It will be hosted by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’ Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social justice organization. The Zoom link to register for it is here


Who will be the first atheist to be U.S. president?

With midterm elections less than a week away, here's a religious/political question: Why are so many Americans reluctant to elect atheists to public office?

AtheismThat's exactly the question raised in this article from The Conversation.

"There appear to be two primary reasons atheism remains the kiss of death for aspiring politicians in the U.S.," writes Phil Zuckerman, who teaches sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, " -- one is rooted in a reaction to historical and political events, while the other is rooted in baseless bigotry."

For the first explanation, Zuckerman notes this: "Some of the most murderous dictatorships of the 20th century – including Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia – were explicitly atheistic. Bulldozing human rights and persecuting religious believers were fundamental to their oppressive agendas. Talk about a branding problem for atheists."

And for the second, this: "The second reason atheists find it hard to get elected in America, however, is the result of an irrational linkage in many people’s minds between atheism and immoralitySome assume that because atheists don’t believe in a deity watching and judging their every move, they must be more likely to murder, steal, lie and cheat." However, he also adds this obvious truth: "Such bigoted associations between atheism and immorality do not align with reality. There is simply no empirical evidence that most people who lack a belief in God are immoral."

What we know, of course, is that all people -- religious or not -- act immorally at some point (or many points) in their lives.

I suspect another reason for voters' lack of enthusiasm for electing non-believers is that many people still think of the U.S. as a religious nation -- and, comparatively, it is. In fact, as I've written more than once, today's virulent Christian nationalism invents a false history about the nation's founding and then seeks to extend that alleged story into the present and future.

Let's also remember that there is not to be any religious test for holding public office. Which means that one of the few legitimate questions about religion to ask any candidate is this: How will your religious beliefs affect the shape of the public policies that you will advocate?

As Zuckerman is right to note, the religious landscape of the U.S. has been changing in recent years to the point that now more than a quarter of American adults identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Given that, he writes, "it shouldn’t be a surprise if one day a self-identified atheist makes it to the White House. Will that day come sooner rather than later? God only knows. Or rather, only time will tell." Well, unless you believe time is a hoax perpetuated on humanity by greedy clockmakers.

The document here shows the willingness of various groups, over time, to vote for a party's "well-qualified" candidate for president who identifies as Black, Catholic, atheist and so on:

 
  1958 Sep 10-15 1983 Apr 29-May 2 2007 Feb 9-11 2015 Jun 2-7 2020 Jan 16-29
  % % % % %
Black 38 77 94 92 96
Catholic 67 92 95 93 95
Hispanic -- -- 87 91 94
Jewish 63 88 92 91 93
Woman 54 80 88 92 93
Evangelical Christian -- -- -- 73 80
Gay/Lesbian -- 29 55 74 78
Under 40 -- -- -- - 70
Over 70 -- -- 57^ -- 69
Muslim -- -- -- 60 66
Atheist 18 42 45 58 60
Socialist -- -- -- 47 45
 
GALLUP

(This chart came from here.)

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THE FALWELL COLLAPSE IN LURID DETAIL

If you're not disgusted enough with some types of religious leaders, a new Hulu documentary about Jerry Falwell Jr. may finally satisfy your appetite for religious horror stories. As the Guardian piece to which I've linked you reports, the details shown in the documentary, God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty are simply appalling. No wonder people leave institutional religion that overlooks rank immorality and that sucks up to twisted politics.

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P.S.: I thought you might enjoy a piece about what Halloween looked like to my friend from India, Markandey Katju, who is visiting his daughter in California and saw this ghoulish holiday through Indian eyes. You can read his essay here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My blog-hosting company was down for several days earlier this week, which prevented me from adding to my weekend post a link to my latest Flatland column. The column, which is here, is about how and why public libraries spend tax dollars on books about religion and spirituality.

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AND A FINAL P.S.: Some hateful vandals recently trashed the offices of the Dialogue Institute in KCK, painting swastikas and other horrid things on the walls. Here is a story about that, with video, from The Kansas City Star. The institute has Turkish and Muslim roots and does a lot of good interfaith work in the KC area. To read the institute's statement about what happened, see this pdf: Download Hate Crime News Release updated