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April 29-30, 2006, weekend


A Vatican official is suggesting people boycott the forthcoming movie, "The DaVinci Code." Don't film critics at least have to see movies before they give them no stars?

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Serbia's president has signed a new law that effectively makes some religions more equal there than others. You'd think that in an area of the world that has suffered so much because of religious violence, leaders would get something like this right now.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I felt fortunate to be here at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum the day before the recent opening of a new exhibit on the fraudulent "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a vicious piece of anti-Semitism.

The photo you see here is one I took that shows a news story from the 1920s.  It reported, once again, that the "Protocols" book had been proven to be a phony.

ProtocolsDanny Greene of the musuem staff gave us a preview of the exhibit, and I was struck again by how hard it is to undo a lie.

As the Holocaust Museum itself reports about the "Protocols," it is the most widely distributed and notorious anti-Semitic publication of modern time. It still is available in many parts of the world (and on the Internet) and often is sold as if it were a legitimate document showing how certain Jewish leaders once plotted to capture power in the world.

The "Protocols" have been around for more than 100 years and the publication was written as a piece of hate propaganda to blame Jews for all kinds of the world's ills. Hitler certainly knew about the publication and, especially in his early years, relied on it. Later, some Nazi officials acknowledged it was a fake though said that the thrust of what it said was true, nonetheless.

Modern anti-Semites distribute the document and encourage people to imagine that the Jews (about 16 million people out of a world population of more than 6 billion) somehow are to blame for nearly everything that's gone wrong in the world, especially in the Middle East.

You wouldn't think it would be necessary for one group after another, decade after decade, to denounce the "Protocols" as a phony bit of trash. But there always are young people who don't know the history of the document and people who, even though they may know that history, are willing to use the document as a propaganda tool.

If you get a chance to visit the museum here in the nation's capitol, please take time to see this new exhibit.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about a Muslim woman and how she overcame her anger at Islam.)

Today's religious holiday: St. James the Great Day (Orthodox Christian, 30th).

April 28, 2006

ADELPHI, MD. -- The debate over whether the Intelligent Design movement is about science or religion or both surfaced again here at a recent seminar I attended on religion in America. And, quite frankly, the whole subject seems a little tedious to me. (That's why I'm showing you a picture I took of the Washington Monument, which engaged me more than the I.D. debate.)

WashmonWe listened to two speakers, neither of whom was especially enlightening on the subject, at least to those of us who have followed this debate for some time and written about it.

One was the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The other was Casey Luskin, whose title is "program officer in public policy and legal affairs" for the Discovery Institute, which is the group in Seattle that has been promoting Intelligent Design. He mostly wanted to make sure journalists didn't misidentify I.D., so he gave this definition:

"Intelligent Design is a scientific theory that says some aspects of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause because they are identical to objects we commonly know were designed by human intelligence."

To which Lynn retorted that I.D. is not a scientific theory at all but "an intellectually bankrupt construct." He noted that a federal court ruled as much recently in a Pennsylvania case, though Luskin insisted the judge in that case simply ignored the evidence.

And on and on.

I'm sure I should be more interested in these points and counterpoints, but it also seems to me the debate hasn't gone much of anywhere for a year or two. Maybe there will be some fascinating new development soon. Until then, I'll focus on other faith matters.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will tell the story of a Muslim woman who once was angry at Islam but now is simply angry at other Muslims for not speaking out against aspects of how the religion is practiced -- aspects she thinks need to be changed.)

April 27, 2006


To the surprise of some, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke yesterday to the students and faculty of Liberty University, at the invitation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. For a text of Yoffie's remarks, click here. Let's hope this is just one of a series of such contacts between Jews and Christians. There is much to discuss. In fact, I'll be co-teaching a weeklong seminar with a rabbi in August on Jewish-Christian relations. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at beautiful Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. If you're Christian, bring a Jewish friend. If you're Jewish, bring a Christian friend. If you're an adherent of another religion, come and join the conversation.

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COLLEGE PARK, MD. -- As regular readers of this blog know, one of my ongoing concerns is interfaith dialogue, and within that concern is a special focus on Christian-Jewish relations.

LarueOne of the reasons for that is the long and shameful strain of anti-Judaism found within Christianity.

The other evening at a seminar on religion in America I've been attending here, Cleo LaRue (pictured here), a black Baptist preachng professor from Princeton Theological Seminary spoke to us and I asked him how that anti-Judaism has been seen in the black church.

"This side of the Holocaust," LaRue said, "for us to read Scripture the same way -- you can't preach that now. It's impossible.

"This is where the historical critical methodology is very helpful and very important. You go behind (the text). You get at the heart of the matter -- what Matthew was dealing with or what John was trying to deal with -- and you talk about that.

"And you say, 'Now, we cannot say these kinds of things on this side of the Holocaust. We just cannot.

"As for blacks and Jews, they were wonderful together in the civil rights movements. Many of (Martin Luther) King's close support, much was Jewish support. Now that has waned some."

LaRue said he regretted what he called "somewhat of a divide" now because "King was very careful to have much Jewish support. Some say it was because of similarity in substance. Here were two people who had been in bondage and who had known suffering. So we worked together in the civil rights movement. And now there is a separation. I hope that can be amended."

In his preaching classes, LaRue said, he sometimes gets students who want to use the Bible to say derogatory things about Jews: "They'll say, 'Well, it says right here that the Jews. . .' But I say we have to go behind that and find out what was going on. Because we cannot preach that now because it's anti-Semitic and it seeps into the congregation, it seeps into the people.

"And we have to say no to that. Any people who've known oppression must stand against it wherever it rears its ugly head."

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

April 26, 2006


Florida legislators yesterday passed a bill that would make "In God We Trust" the state's official motto. So, again, I ask why people of faith should be happy about this silliness? Which God? The God of civic religion? That's no particular God. Any God the state endorses can't be a particular God. So what's the point? Looks to me as if people of faith don't have a dog in this fight.

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ADELPHI, MD. -- On the Saturday before Easter, The Star ran a long interview I did recently with John L. Allen Jr., Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. We spent most of the time together over breakfast talking about the first year of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

Marty3At a recent seminar here on religion, I was intrigued to find Martin Marty (pictured here), a hugely prolific Lutheran scholar and clergyman, coming to many of the same conclusions John reached.

"I was truly ready to blast away (at) him," Marty said. "I did not like Ratzinger (Benedict XVI was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time of his election) and any Catholic I knew was beset by Ratzinger, the Grand Inquisitor. So when he was elected I was in despair with everyone else."

In Marty's view, there are two Benedicts: "One is a fine theologian with a pastoral heart. And the other had the assignment to crack the whip and he seemed to enjoy it.

"But his first moves haven't been (representative of the second Benedict). He's done well with the Jews. He's done well with most Protestants. He hasn't cracked the whip a lot. (A recent) New Republic had an article about how the conservative Catholic leadership (in America) are really, really angry with him because he's not coming out hard enough on gays. He's appointing moderates to San Francisco. And so on."

Benedict's role now, Marty said, as pastor to more than a billion people "calls forth a very different thing. I'm not saying Benedict is never going to be crack the whip or use the (shepherd's) crook, but his first year's image is much more open than anybody thought and I think that's a really interesting dynamic."

What can't yet be known, of course, is whether the first year has set the pattern for the whole of the Benedict papacy or whether he'll turn to a harsher image as he seeks to hold this varied and global church together.

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

April 25, 2006


After the Shoah, or Holocaust, most of the world said, "Never again." But, of course, genocide has happened several times since then and is happening now in Darfur. For a news story about what's happening there, click here. It should be no surprise that American Jews are a leading voice against the violence in that section of Sudan and are prime movers behind an April 30 rally on this issue on the national mall in Washington, D.C. For background on the issue from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, click here. For information on the rally itself, click here.

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ADELPHI, MD. -- When Dean Tom Kunkel of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism here at the University of Maryland spoke to our seminar for journalists the other evening, he got it right: "We're all religion reporters now."

Religion_life_titleHe was talking about the reality that the media finally has begun to wake up to the fact that religion is a thread in almost every news story. If you are a journalist who covers religion, you also cover crime, politics, economics, social change. By the same token, if you're a crime reporter, you're also a religion reporter. Same goes for political reporters, medical reporters and on and on.

"Religion," Tom said, "is in the very bones of our culture and the media is just catching up to that reality now."

In fact, the media catch up too slowly. I think my own newspaper, The Kansas City Star, does as well or better than most papers covering religion, but it's not adequate. Only two of us, plus one editor who spends only part of his time on religion, are assigned to the task. Occasionally reporters from other areas write stories about religious matters and we certainly use wire stories to cover national and international things.

But compare how important religion is to the shape of the world versus sports. We have a great sports section in our paper and I don't for a minute want to suggest we do any less there. But in papers all over the country, there needs to be more resources devoted to religious coverage. One of the problems is that readers don't complain much about how little they get in this area from the mainstream media.

But instead of simply telling editors, "We want more coverage of religion," it helps to say, "Here's a religion story I wish you cover," and give details. Or, "Why haven't I read about (blank) in your paper?"

But Tom Kunkel is right that the press is doing better. Thank heavens (or someone).

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

Today's religious holiday: Yom HaSho'ah (Judaism).

April 24, 2006


Pentecostalism, specifically the Azusa Street Revival, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The fascinating thing about Azusa is that it was largely led by African-Americans and was fully integrated. Later, to its shame, Pentecostalism -- now one of the fastest growing segments of Christianity -- developed segregationist tendencies, which took time to defeat. Are they fully defeated today? Probably more completely than in some Mainline Christian denominations.

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ADELPHI, MD. -- I spent last week here in the Washington, D.C., area attending a seminar on religion in America. (The seminar was sponsored by the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.)

ArdalogoI'll be writing more about what I learned both in print and on this blog later, but for now I wanted to pass along to you a fascinating Web site full of great statistical and survey information about religion. It's offered by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Penn State University, spoke to us about the demographics of religion in this country and recommended the ARDA Web site as a really useful resource.

But it's full of data not just about America but about many countries around the world. Click on "National Profiles" at the site and take a look. It's also got a bunch of maps showing concentrations of various adherents of this or that religion or denomination.

So I'll be brief today. Just poke around on the site and see what you learn. And if you learn something astonishing, tell me.

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

April 22-23, 2006, weekend


Faith, writes Memphis columnist David Waters, doesn't make us immune from such disasters as tornadoes. Rather, it prepares us for it. Well put, I say. What do you say?

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As you almost certainly know, Queen Elizabeth II of England is also the titular head of the Church of England. So on her 80th birthday on Thursday, the bishop of Oxford paid tribute to her. And since you now have a link to that part of the church's site, click here for the Web site's opening page. You might want to poke around to see what you can learn about that institution, which, as a separate institution, dates to 1534, when Henry VIII split the church in England from Roman Catholicism. In fact, for the church's own brief online history of itself, click here.

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I've just picked up a new (to me) and wonderful idea for how to proceed with interfaith dialogue.

InterfaithTheology Today, a quarterly I've read for years, reports that when Iain R. Torrance became the president of Princeton Theological Seminary last year, a symposium was held called "Faith in the Third Millennium: Reading Scripture Together."

It featured Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The practice of reading scripture together apparently has been going on for some time even before last year's symposium.

"Thisis no search for the lowest common denominator or for inoffensive consensus," James F. Kay, the quarterly's editor wrote. "Rather, what emerges repeatedly out of these shared times of reading is a new awareness of the differences, a renewed deepening of each one's own faith and a forging of new ties of friendship."

I've said this here before but it bears repeating. The object of interfaith dialogue is not to convince others that they have it all wrong and you have it all right. Rather, the goal is to know and to be known -- and then see where that takes you.

Only be removing ignorance and the fear that ignorance breeds can we even hope to avoid the kind of religious fanaticism that issued in the 9/11 terrorist attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew.

Reading scripture together sounds like a useful tool in this educational process.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my Saturday column this weekend is about prayer, including some of the goofy scientific studies done on prayer.)

Today's religious holidays: Easter/Pascha (Orthodox Christian, 23rd); St. George's Day (Christian, 23rd).


Speaking of interfaith dialogue, I'll be co-teaching a weeklong seminar with a rabbi in August on Jewish-Christian relations. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at beautiful Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. If you're Christian, bring a Jewish friend. If you're Jewish, bring a Christian friend. If you're an adherent of another religion, come and join the conversation.

April 21, 2006


Georgia's new legislation will allow teaching the Bible in public schools. There are constitutional ways to do this. Do you think Georgia's approach will meet that test? Or is this just one more effort to preach to kids at taxpayer expense?

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Back in 1989, less than 10 years after the virus that causes AIDS was identified, my church created an AIDS ministry.

AidswalkTomorrow, members of that ministry, me included, will join hundreds -- probably thousands -- of people from the Kansas City area for the annual AIDS Walk. We've been collecting money for the walk, which is to raise funds for various AIDS service organizations in our community.

If you live in the Kansas City area, you can join us if you want at 47th and Oak for the 10 a.m. start, though that's not why I'm writing about this today.

Rather, I want to remind all of us that almost no matter what our faith commitment is, it requires us to do what we can to relieve the suffering of others. This mandate gets explained in various ways by various religions, but in the end it means that we are to stand with the most vulnerable in our society.

When AIDS first was identified in 1981, just about the only voice coming from the religious community was a voice of condemnation. But other voices -- including that of our own AIDS Ministry -- have been added to the mix to suggest that ministry means serving people in need.

So think about the way your own faith community calls you to service. It may not be walking with us in the AIDS Walk tomorrow, but it will require something. Are you responding?

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

Today's religious holidays: Holy Friday (Orthodox Christian); First Day of Ridvan (Baha'i).

April 20, 2006


Yesterday was the first anniversary of the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. For a Los Angeles Times review of that year, click here.

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As millions of people have said after whoever said it first said it, if we don't know our history, we're doomed to repeat it.

ChurchhistoryWell, I've been waiting since the year I was born for history to repeat itself and the Chicago Cubs get into a World Series, though they lost in 1945 and in that sense I suppose repeating it would be a dooming sort of thing.

But when talking about faith matters, the serious reality is that if we don't know and understand religious history, we may well repeat some of the doofus things done in the name of religion. Heaven forbid.

So I thought today I'd throw a few questions at you from the study guide for the final exam of the Christian history class I've been auditing at a local seminary.

See what you'd be able to answer about this stuff. If I were the professor, I'd grade on the curve if you aren't Christian, but that's just me.

(Before you begin, you might want to check out this Christian history timeline.

* Describe the Pietist Movement. Explain its origins, the role of Philip Spener and August Francke in the movement, and Pietism's general impact. Why did Pietism decline so quickly?

* Describe the origins of English Methodism. Identify its major leaders, describe its organizational structure and explain why it was important to English and American history.

* What theological and philosophical systems converged to produce 19th Century theological liberalism. What were liberalism's principle tenets? Identify three of its major proponents.

* Discuss the significant factors that helped shape Christianity in America between 1650 and 1860. What major challneges did Christians in North America face during this period? In what ways did they respond to those challenges? What were the results? What qualities do you consider to be unique about Christianity in America?

* Describe the Pentecostal Movement in America. What antecedents contributed to its origin? When and where did it come into being? Who were its founding figures?

* Discuss the major trends of Christian theological thought in the 20th Century. List and discuss at least five major theological movements, indicate the basic tenets of each and give at least on theologian representative of each system.

* Describe the origins and development of the Ecumenical Movement between 1900 and the present. What factors brought the movement into being? What three major bodies were produced to give structure to the movement?

And as you take this test, do not do what Woody Allen said he once did on a philosophy test -- he cheated by looking deep into the soul of the student next to him.

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

A P.S. TODAY: It looks as if Germany finally may open some previously secret Holocaust records. More than 60 years after the Shoah, there still are many untold stories and much hidden information. That has to end.

April 19, 2006


It looks as if Hollywood is about to unload a bunch of religious-themed films on us. I'm tempted to say, "Let us pray."

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Yes, yes, I know. We've been far too serious in this space for too many weeks, although, to be fair, lots of serious stuff has been going on in the world of faith.

Bigmouth_2But I agree it's time to take a break and indulge in a little religious humor. As regular readers of this blog know, I pass along unoriginal jokes from time to time. Well, they no doubt were original with someone, but I am not that someone. I collect them from you and others and from such places as

So see if you think any of these are worth a laugh:

1. Rabbi 1: We've got to do something. Many of the young people in our synagogue are converting to the Quaker faith.

Rabbi 2: I've noticed that too. In fact, some of my best Jews are Friends!

2. An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps. "Where would you like to sit?" he asked politely.

"The front row please." she answered.

"You really don't want to do that", the usher said. "The pastor is really boring."

"Do you happen to know who I am?" the woman inquired.

"No." he said.

"I'm the pastor's mother," she replied indignantly.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked.

"No." she said.

"Good," he answered.

3. John Smith was the only Protestant to move into a large Catholic neighborhood. On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill.

Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This went on each Friday of Lent. On the last Friday of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something had to be done about John. He was tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent, and they couldn't take it anymore.

They decided to try and convert John to Catholicism.

They went over and talked to him. John decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic, which made them all very happy.They took him to church, and the priest sprinkled some water over him, and said, "You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, and now you are a Catholic."

The men were so relieved, now their biggest Lenten temptation was resolved.

The next year's Lenten season rolled around. The first Friday of Lent came, and, just at supper time, when the neighborhood was settling down to their cold tuna fish dinner, the smell of steak cooking on a grill came wafting into their homes. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! WHAT WAS GOING ON?

They called each other up and decided to meet over in John's yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was sprinkling some water over his steak on the grill, saying, "You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish."

4. Muldoon lived alone in the Irish countryside with only a pet dog for company. One day, the dog died, and Muldoon went to the parish priest and said, "Father, my dog is dead. Could ya' be sayin' a mass for the poor creature?"

Patrick replied, "I'm afraid not. We cannot have services for an animal in the church. But there is a new denomination down the lane, and there's no tellin' what they believe. Maybe they'll do something for the creature.

"Muldoon said, "I'll go right away Father. Do ya' think $5,000 is enough to donate for the service?"

Patrick exclaimed, "Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus! Why didn't ya' tell me the dog was Catholic?"

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