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February 2006

Jan. 19, 2006


An Arizona columnist writes about what he sees as a conflict between religion and Native American spirituality.

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Partly because of the recent time of Hajj in Islam (the pilgrimage to Mecca), I've been seeing some fascinating things in print having to do with the militant and radical strain of that religion -- a strain many Muslims would say is outside the boundaries of their faith.

Hajj_1One of the most interesting was a piece in the Wall Street Journal called "Right Islam vs. Wrong Islam," by Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. Wahid makes a stirring argument that the extremists in Islam are following a "virulent ideology that underlies fundamentalist terrorism and threatens the very foundations of moderan civilization."

When people ask where the voices of moderate Islam are, here's one.

Besides that piece, which I commend to you, I want to call your attention to the different way a few news organizations reported and commented on the annual Hajj sermon delivered recently by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh (you'll see various spellings of the name), a man I met and spoke with (along with other journalists) on a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2002.

The account by Arab News, an English-language daily that often publishes what passes for government criticism in Saudi Arabia, emphasized the mufti's call for moderation. It quoted only a line or two of the sermon before going on to describe the experiences of some of the pilgrims. Its lead said the mufti urged Muslims to "steer clear of fanaticism and extremism."

By rather stark contrast, the Associated Press report said in the lead that the mufti "declared the West was conducting a 'war against our creed.'" It quoted him this way: "Oh, Muslim nation, there is a war against our creed, against our culture under the pretext of fighting terrorism. We should stand firm and united in protecting our religion."

In response to that and other more complete reports of the sermon, the Daily Times of Pakistan, which describes itself as "A new voice for a new Pakistan," published a devastating critique of the sermon, suggesting Muslims themselves often are to blame for their sometimes-baleful condition.

The Times' editorial said the mufti should have asked political and other experts to vet the sermon, parts of which it described as "embarrassing in its reductionism to any educated person."

"The bleak picture presented at Arafat (location of the sermon)," the editorial said, "was bleak only because the clerical worldview behind it was not informed with knowledge the new generation Saudi Arabia has acquired in recent years."

All of this seems to indicate a level of intellectual fervor and engagement in the Muslim world that I find healthy and encouraging. Voices of dissent are being raised. Standard-issue sermons that give aid and comfort to radicals (surely the mufti would deny he was doing that) are being challenged. The non-Muslim world must continue to encourage the atmosphere of freedom in which such challenges can be offered without fear of reprisal.

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Wdt61aI mentioned yesterday that it was my birthday. One of the joys of the day was spending part of last night with all four of my grandchildren, all of whom live pretty close. Here they are with their grandpa. I'm wearing a shirt (only part of which you can read) given by friends that describes my life as a columnist. It says: "I Make Stuff Up."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 18, 2006


The mayor of New Orleans is catching some heat for saying Pat Robertson-like things. Good.

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If you're in the Kansas City area, you might be interested in a two-day (Jan. 31-Feb. 1) conference called "The Anatomy of Reconciliation: From Violence to Healing." It will be at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Kansas City, and one of the speakers will be Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking.

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Robert Schuller's son is taking over leadership of the Crystal Cathedral. Can you build a dynasty out of glass?

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What? You expect me to be here blogging away for you on my birthday?


The best you're going to get from me today are two pictures I've shot. One is from Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, where I'll be teaching a seminar again this summer. For details on that, see my Jan. 7 blog entry. The other is a picture I took that's on the cover of my book (as you know, because you own several copies, right?).

So just enjoy the summerish and winterish scenery today. I'll be busy because I have cake to eat before I sleep and cake to eat before I sleep. Or maybe just big birthday cookies.

Lakebookcover Grflowers_3

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Jan. 17, 2006


Some Muslims are demanding that Christian symbols be removed from the Russian flag. More proof that church-state battles are not unique to the U.S.

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The relationship between Christians and Jews, as regular readers of the blog know, is of keen interest to me. So much so that I have arranged to co-teach a weeklong seminar next summer with a rabbi on this subject. For details, scroll down to my Jan. 9 blog entry here.

Jewchris_5As I prepare for that class, I keep alert for pieces that may help us understand things better, and I thought this article in the Washington Post last week by Alan Cooperman was especially interesting. It describes a phenomenon known as "philo-Semitism," which is the opposite of anti-Semitism.

Cooperman reports that philo-Semitism is "a burgeoning phenomenon in evangelical Christian churches across the country." The question is whether Jews are right to be a little skeptical and even nervous about some of the motives behind all of this.

Take a look at Cooperman's piece and tell me what you think. I'll also be interested to hear about the current trip to Israel of a group of more than 100 Jewish and Christian Kansas Citians (including some conservative Christians). Wonder who will learn what and whose mind might be changed about what.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Blessing of the Animals (Hispanic Catholic).

Jan. 16, 2006


In Malaysia, an interesting dispute about religious conversion is making the news.

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I have zero talent drawing things. But I admire good, provocative political cartoonists such as Lee Judge, who draws for my newspaer, The Kansas City Star. (The cartoon shown here is by Thomas Nast, one of the pioneers in this field.)

Nast75_1Today I'll be brief so I can link you to a blog about the relationship between edgy political cartoons and religion. Daryl Cagle of runs the Newsletter, and his Jan. 7 blog entry (you may have to scroll down to find it) discussed the way in which some Muslims have reacted to cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad or other matters related to their faith.

I suppose blasphemy is in the eye of the beholder and I'm sure it's easy to offend people who believe the cartoonist is showing disrepect or even hatred of something or someone they consider sacred. But I also sometimes wonder whether people of faith aren't sometimes too sensitive about fair comment and criticism. I know that's true among some folks in my faith community, Protestant Christianity.

Anyway, take a look at what Cagle has to say and tell me where you think the line of taste should be drawn. And to help you think about it from a Muslim perspective, here's an Arab News piece about Muslim anger over cartoons published by a Norwegian magazine.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 14-15, 2006, weekend


A controversial new Gospel of Judas (Judas? Yes, Judas) is about to be published. The theological questions this will raise are almost countless.

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In honor of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the anniversary of whose birth we are celebrating, I have for you what I think will be a special treat -- several really fine pieces about King and his theology from the archives of Theology Today.


Well, I had hoped to link you directly to four different articles, but the Theology Today archives won't allow me to do that. However, I'll give you some directions below to get you to the pieces.

I have mentioned here before that I've been a subscriber to that quarterly for a long time. In fact, as you can see, the past volumes I've kept take up a whole shelf in my home office. Over the years I have read lots of excellent pieces (along with some that I found impenetrable). Among those that have stuck in my memory are several about King.

Thanks to the foresight of Ellen T. Charry, one of the quarterly's editors (now no longer in that position), Theology Today has created a large archive of its past issues. It's a marvelous service. Poke around in it some day.

Mlk2_1But, as I say, I can't link you to the pieces directly. Rather, I have to give you some directions for how to find what I'd like you to see. First, click here and you'll be taken to the quarterly's search function. Once there, type in "Martin and King" but without the quotes in the key words box. Then click on "Search Archives."

You will get a list of pieces. The four there I'd like to highlight are, in this order, the sixth one down, about King as a public theologian.

Next go to the top of the list for a review of a book by James H. Cone, Malcom & Martin & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.

Right below that is an article by Cone about King and the black church.

And just below that is a piece by Michael Dyson says King's death was the death of his own innocence.

I hope when you look for those that they come up in that order. If not, have fun hunting around and tell me what other treasures you found.

I never met King, though twice I heard his father speak, once in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s and once at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden. But as Jimmy Carter used to say, King freed lots of white folks, too. Carter and I count ourselves among them.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holidays: Mahayana Buddhist New Year (14th); Makar Sankranti (Hindu, 14th); World Religion Day (Baha'i, 15th).

Jan. 13, 2006


Here's a good compilation of the religious issues that are likely to be contentious in the courts in 2006.

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Pat Robertson does something he seems to do a lot of -- apologize.

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On the first Saturday of each month, an American Baptist church not far from us offers a Taize (pronounced tie-ZAY) service -- and this past Saturday I finally had a chance to go to one. It was at Prairie Baptist Church at 75th and Roe in Prairie Village, Kan.

TaizeI won't repeat here what I wrote about Taize last year in a column. (But in my Aug. 17, 2005, blog, I lnked you to a story about the murder of Brother Roger, who founded the Taize community in France.) Rather, I just wanted to suggest that the Christians among you who haven't experience this style of worship should give yourself the opportunity to do that.

I'm not sure whether other religious traditions have alternative worship that in some ways parallels Taize in Christianity, but, if so, they might be a nice chance of pace, too.

Taize relies on brief scripture readings and repetitive, short songs to create a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere. We were seated in chairs in a circle around a table containing about 20 lit candles as well as a Nativity Scene. Most of the light in the room came from the candles. Songs were led by a man with a guitar, though I've been to Taize services that use piano. Some of the songs are quite lovely, even haunting.

It's easy to get in such a worship routine that we never let new ideas in. Taize is like a little splash of water in the face of those of us to whom that has happened. But it's warm, soothing water.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Maghi (Sikh)

Jan. 12, 2006


Hundreds of Hajj pilgrims in Mecca die in a stampede. This seems to happen with sickening regularity. Can't the Saudis do better at handling crowds?

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A Catholic bishop reveals he was abused by a priest 60 years ago, the Washington Post reports. Clearly this isn't a new problem.

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I can barely keep up with your demand for religious jokes. But today I've got a few for you.

Laughinlucy_4As regular readers of this blog know, these aren't original with me. Many of them come from, one of the better spiritual Web sites out there.

If you'd like to pass along one you'd like me to consider, just e-mail me. I'm especially on the lookout for humor from traditions other than Christianity. (See if you think these are as funny as my young friend pictured here did.)

1. The pope lands at an airport just in time to get to an important meeting. His limo driver speedily takes off, but the pope needs him to go faster in order to get to his meeting on time. The pope asks the driver to switch places so the pope can drive.

They speedily take off again, but the car is stopped by a cop. The police officer takes one look at the situation and radios in to police headquarters. He tells the chief that he's got a pretty important person on his hands.

The police chief asked, "Is he more important than the mayor?" The cop said, "Yes."

Then the chief asked, "Is he more important than the governor?"

The cop said, "Yes."

Then the chief asked, "Is he more important than the President?"

The cop said, "Yes."

Finally, the chief asked, "How important can he be?"

The cop said, "I don't know, but he's got the pope for a driver."

2. "Is it proper for a man to profit from the mistakes of another?" a parishioner asked his minister.

"Definitely not," was the preacher's answer.

"Are you absolutely certain?"

"Yes, my son, absolutely."

"Okay. In that case, I wonder if you'd mind returning that $75 I gave you after my wedding last year."

3. There was an old priest who got sick of all the people in his parish who kept confessing to adultery. One Sunday, in the pulpit, he said, "If I hear one more person confess to adultery, I'll quit!" Everyone liked him, so they came up with a code word. Someone who had committed adultery would say instead that they had "fallen."

This seemed to satisfy the old priest and things went well until the priest passed away at a ripe, old age.

A few days after the new priest arrived, he visited the mayor of the town and seemed very concerned.

"Mayor, you have to do something about the sidewalks in town. When people come into the confessional, they keep telling me they've fallen."

The mayor started to laugh, realizing that no one had told the new priest about the code word. But, before he could explain, the priest shook an accusing finger at him and shouted, "I don't know what you're laughing about because your wife has already fallen three times this week!"

4. After the church service a little boy told the pastor, "When I grow up, I'm going to give you some money."

"Well, thank you," the pastor replied, "but why?"

"Because my daddy says you're one of the poorest preachers we've ever had."

5. David, a Jewish boy, and Ali, a Muslim boy, are having a conversation.

Ali: “I'm getting operated on tomorrow.”

David: “Oh? What are they going to do?”

Ali: “Circumcise me.”

David: “I had that done when I was just a few days old.”

Ali: “Did it hurt?”

David: “I couldn't walk for a year.”

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And an unrelated P.S.just because I'm curious:

If someone sounds nasally when speaking, is the cause called a sinus inflection?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 11, 2006


A Jerusalem Post story shows Pat Robertson isn't the only one pondering the role of God in Ariel Sharon's illness.

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When I was in college, I was, for a year or so, the movie critic for the campus newspaper, The Maneater, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Yes, goofy paper name, but when your teams are named Tigers you do goofy things.

NarniaAnyway, I discovered anew what I already knew about myself, which is that I think most pop culture offerings are wastes of time and energy. I would go to a movie thinking that when it's over I'll be two hours closer to my death, and wondering if it was worth spending the time that way.

So I either bashed stupid movies being played in the main theaters or I went to the one artsy movie house in town and watched something that at least engaged the intellect a little.

All of which is a long way of preparing you for my blog movie review here of "The Chronicles of Narnia," based on the work of the great 20th century Christian writer C.S. Lewis, of whom I'm a fan. Here's my review, set in terms once used on Dick Clark's American Bandstand: I'd give it an 85 but I wouldn't dance to it.

Some tales are best left with words and the occasional illustration. You know how it is. Every time someone turns part of the Bible into a movie, we think that Moses or Jesus or Pilate or whoever really didn't look like that because the actor doesn't match the picture in our skulls.

Seeing the Narnia movie is not a complete waste of time. It has its moments, and the little girl who plays Lucy is quite endearing. Also, the technical tricks are quite stunning. But give me a book almost any day.

This is why I never became a movie reviewer. And if I had to be a TV critic, I'd run screaming from the newspaper office. (And yet my column this Saturday will be about a TV show. Go figure.)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 10, 2006


A retired journalist, wandering about Europe, asks whether God is dead there. It reminds me of this question: Is your end of the boat sinking?

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In many ways, I came to faith through words -- written, spoken, recited, felt.

WordsImages about words (even the notion of Jesus Christ as the Word of God) permeate many religions, all of which get transmitted at least in some way through the use of words.

So because I've spent my career wallowing in words, now and then I enjoy spending a little time sharing what I've learned with people who are interested in essay writing.

So in April, I'll be teaching a one-time, two-hour class on essay writing for Communiversity, the community-based university rooted at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But I've had to change the date of the course offering a week, from Thursday, April 20, to Thursday, April 27, because I now have plans to be out of town on April 20. But the arts section of the catalog for Communiversity lists the class on April 20.

If you're in the Kansas City area and want to take part, go online to register or just call 816-235-1448 and you can get signed up. I don't get paid for teaching the class, but to cover the costs of running Communiversity, there's a $9 class fee.

Come on April 27 and let's talk about words.

To read my latest Kansas City Star words, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Eid al-Adha (Islam).

Jan. 9, 2006


When I was a boy my family lived in Allahabad, India, for two years while my father (see my blog from this past weekend) worked with a University of Illinois agriculture team. The High Court there in Allahabad has just issued an interesting ruling about religion that shows other countries besides the U.S. struggle with church-state issues. One of my closest Indian friends was, until a year or so ago, the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, and this ruling would have come under his leadership. But my friend, with whom I still correspond, now is chief justice of the high court of another state.

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So what are you doing in August?

Gr05a_1If you are Jewish or Christian, I hope you'll spend the week of Aug. 7 at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, attending a seminar I'll be co-teaching with a rabbi on Jewish Christian relations. I've mentioned this before on the blog, but now the online catalog is ready and you can actually sign up for the class. To get a registration form, click here.

My partner will be Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple of Kansas City. I think we'll make a good team.

In 2004, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), voted at its General Assembly to consider divesting from companies that profit from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- a move that angered many American Jews and a move I criticized in a column because we Presbyterians seemed completely unprepared for the way Jews would view this action.

I started thinking then that it would help to move the conversation to a small, grassroots level. Which is what we plan to do in August in the beautiful red rock hills of northern New Mexico. But we're not going to focus primarily on the divestment issue or on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, participants will talk (and write) in depth about how Jews and Christians see the world after the Shoah, or Holocaust. We'll be looking for common ground on which to stand but we certainly won't avoid finding and acknowledging those places where we'll have to agree to go our separate ways.

I've taught at Ghost Ranch for more than a decade, and can tell you it's a marvelous experience. The class will contain no more than 20 people, giving us the opportunity for some deep sharing. Our hope is to attract an approximately equal number of Christians and Jews. If you can't be there with us, please pass along this information to someone you think might be interested.

I can't wait for August.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.