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May 19, 2006


Forget about the movie, which opens today. We have more important stuff to worry about, says Pat Robertson. In cast you missed this news this week, Robertson says God told him the U.S. is in for it, uh, weather-wise. I'm going to let you make up your own punchline to this today. I'm Robertsoned out. I even sort of regret using an item about Robertson on the same page as an item about great theologians, but that's the way it breaks some days.

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A few weeks ago, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an interesting piece by the editor at large of The New Republic, Peter Beinhart.

Niebuhr_reinholdIn it, he suggested that we can learn how to improve our approach to foreign policy by listening to one of the great theologians of the 20th Century, Reinhold Niebuhr (pictured here), as well as one of the great 20th Century American statesmen, George F. Kennan, architect of the containment policy.

Niebuhr and Kennan, he wrote, "described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive.

"Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world."

What struck me especially about this is that it's exactly the same argument I made in several pieces published both on 9/11 (in a special edition of The Kansas City Star) and after the terrorist attacks of that day. I suggested that it was crucial to remember our core values as we seek justice against the fanatics who murdered so many people, and our core values include the idea that although we can and should fight for good and against evil, we ourselves are never purely good and our enemies are rarely purely evil. (I wish we had done better with that than we have.)

I certainly had read Kennan when I was in college and was familiar with some of Niebuhr's notions, but it came as a surprise to me reading this recent Times magazine piece that I had internalized their arguments well enough to articulate something like them in the hour and 15 minutes or so that, because of tight deadlines, I was given on 9/11 to write our lead commentary piece for that special edition we published.

So pay attention to the theologians you read. You may find yourself mouthing their positions.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about the role of meditation in various religions. And it will be found in the newly redesigned Faith section to be printed on our new presses. Take a look.)

P.S.: Oh, my. A Democratic candidate for attorney general in Alabama is a Holocaust denier, a national Jewish newspaper reports. What can these people be thinking? If you want to be part of a serious discussion of the Shoah, or Holocaust, and contemporary Jewish-Christian relations, I'll be co-teaching a weeklong seminar on the subject in August with a rabbi. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at beautiful Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. We'll have a chance that week to learn each other's story and even to have some fun. 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.

May 18, 2006


Even in Asia, some Christian leaders are all up in arms about the new movie, "The Da Vinci Code." It's hard to imagine how any movie's critics could give it more publicity than some Christians have given this one. No doubt in some ways PR equals PR -- public resistance equals public relations.

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All of us can toss around quotes about religion -- and sometimes we're even sure of the original source.

A year or two ago, for instance, I wrote a column mentioning the results of a national survey that showed the most well-known and commonly used quote from the Bible is this: "God helps those who help themselves." Well, as I pointed out in the column, not only is that not found in the Bible, but the theology behind it is essentially unbiblical.

QuotevWhere can we go to verify such quotes?

You've come to the right place today for an answer. You can go to the work of a guy I met in 1992 in Columbus, Ohio, where he was one of the speakers at the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His name is Ralph Keyes, and his new book is called The Quote Verifier.

Among other things, Keyes (whose last name, by the way, is pronounced Kize, not Keez) teaches writing to ministers, mostly Baptist, in a doctoral program. So when he decided to put together this book checking on the true sources of various quotes, he included some faith-based quotes.

For instance, here's his entry on "God helps those who help themselves": "Despite a widespread misconception that these words come straight from the Bible, Aesop wrote, five centuries before the birth of Christ, 'The gods help them that help themselves.' Two millennia later, James Howell included in a 1659 collection of proverbs, 'God helps him, who helps himself.' In 1698 this became 'God helps those who help themselves,' from the pen of British politician Algernon Sidney. Thirty-five years after that, Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard observed, 'God helps them that help themselves.' Verdict: Credit Aesop for recording an early version of this thought, which was probably commonplace even in his time."

You'll also find interesting entries on such phrases as "Religion is the opium of the people" and "The Lord works in mysterious ways."

As for the increasingly common phrase, "I read it on the Bill Tammeus blog," well, I may have been the first one to say that -- just to get it started.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, our Faith section in this Saturday's paper will be redesigned and printed on our snazzy new presses. Take a look.)

May 17, 2006


Britney Spears, singer, mother and, uh, theologian, says she's given up studying the Jewish mystic tradition Kabbalah because her baby now is her religion. Ah, yes, another good role model for young people. (I apologize for offering celebrity news, which usually makes me retch, but if I don't show you this junk once in awhile, you might think find it so often elsewhere that you'll think it's real news.)

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The process of Protestant atomization continues.

ChurchconflictA group of churches in California has announced that it is withdrawing from the American Baptist denomination and forming something it will call Transformation Ministries.

The issue? No surprise. Homosexuality again.

The move came less than two weeks after delegates from the churches of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest voted 1,125 to 209 to recommend that the board break ties. There are about 300 churches in that group, though it's not yet clear whether all of them will leave the American Baptist Churches, USA. Each church must decide that.

For the American Baptist reaction to the delegates' vote, click here.

The American Baptist denomination certainly would consider itself more theologically liberal than the much larger Southern Baptist Convention, but, even so, it's not a church that has agreed to ordain people who identify themselves as homosexual. But these fights more often are about perceptions and tone and even attitude.

I wrote about denominational infighting in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in my May 5 blog entry, and about the effort to find a way to hold that denomination (which is mine) together. But the history of Protestantism since its beginning (the 1529 gathering of the early Reformers at Marburg is a good example) is that Protestants are unable to live under the same roof for very long. What a sad witness to the world.

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

May 16, 2006


In any controversy, it's always good to hear from all stakeholders. So what does the Catholic organization Opus Dei have to say about the upcoming film version of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code? For an answer, click here. And if you want to visit the section of Brown's own Web site devoted to the book, click here. (Just for the record, I found the book a little tedious and the writing formulaic. Which would have been my only complaint had not Brown said in the introduction that all the history in the book was true. Clearly that's an overstatement -- and so unnecessary.)

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Last week, Rick Ufford-Chase (pictured here), the high-energy young moderator (which means the highest elected officer) of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), spoke at my church and really challenged people to rethink how they live their Christian lives.

Rickuc3Rick, who is in his 40s, is an elder from a church in Tucson and has been active for 20 years doing border ministry primarily with Mexican immigrants -- both documented and undocumented. His two-year term as moderator will end in June. But when he spoke in our sanctuary, he said that people older than him primarily have been devoted to the institutional church. Which is to say they are happy coming to worship on Sunday, singing in the choir, being on committees, teaching Sunday school and so forth.

"Maintaining the institution of church is not going to cut it for people my age," he said. "What young adults want to know is how will being a member of this church help me live my life more faithfully in the world."

His conclusion: "We have to disciple people again."

Like most Mainline churches, the Presbyterian denomination has been steadily losing members. And Rick thinks part of the reason is that we don't understand how to mentor and give responsibility to young adults.

"Our churches," he says, "are not invested in change at this point."

Clearly there is much about church that those of us who have been long-time members want to keep. But the question is whether we're wise enough to do that while at the same time moving toward new models of church that will meet the needs and desires of young people.

I don't think you throw out the core of what the church is to get there. But surely we can ask some hard questions about the need to maintain what has been in place for a long time. Why do we still do things that way? Is there a faithful and authentic way to do things differently?

I'm not sure what the future is for Mainline churches. But I'm glad people like Rick are deeply invested in that future and challenging not just Presbyterians but all people of faith to rethink the way we try to live out our faith.

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

Today's religious holiday: Lag B'Omer (Judaism).

May 15, 2006


A well-known Israeli author has apologized to people who took offense at his recent remarks about whether Judaism or Israel itself could insure the future of the Jewish people. His opinion is that Israel is more important than Judaism. Jews of the Diaspora no doubt would have felt devalued by his words. And my guess is they will feel no better about his non-apology apology. Any Jewish readers want to offer an opinion about this?

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I've been reading  new book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. (Tom) Wright, bishop of Durham. Wright, as you may know, has been an orthodox Christian counter voice to the Jesus Seminar, and particularly Marcus Borg, with whom he's written at least one book and whom he has debated in various forums.

Cross_2I'm not far enough into the book yet to know whether I agree with the back-cover blurb by Anne Rice, who opines this: "This will become a classic." But I have found something intriguing that I wanted to pass along to you to see what you can make of it.

Wright, in discussing people's profound spiritual hunger that ultimately cannot be denied, desribes how, in 1969, "the world-famous biologist Sir Alister Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit (now known as the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre Archive)." To get to the group's Web site, click here.

Wright reports that Hardy "broadcast an appeal for people to write in with stories of their own experience, intending to collect and classify the results in much the same way as nineteenth-century biologists and naturalists had collected and clalssified data aboaut the myriad forms of life on our planet. The project has grown, and has collected over time a significant archive of materia, which now can be accessed via the World Wide Web."

Well, yes and no. If you go to the Web site and have my experience, you will find some descriptions of what's in the archive but it appears that access to the actual material must come through requests to the staff in various ways. I hope one of you will poke around long enough there to see what you find and let me know.

Anyway, this is what Wright says about the collection: "Anyone who supposes that religious experience is a minority interest, or that it has been steadily dying out as people in the modern world become more sophisticated, should look at the material and think again."

In fact, religious books are rolling off the press impossibly faster than anyone can keep up with them. It's a rare day when a new one or more doesn't cross my desk. The spirituality dam has broken and the flood is upon us.

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

P.S.: Within the first week or two of starting my blog in late 2004, I did an item about a group called Beyond the 11th, started by widows whose husbands had died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The widow of my late nephew (he was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center) was an early supporter of the group, which seeks to raise money to help women in Afghanistan. The Associated Press recently reported on a visit to that country by one of the founders of Beyond the 11th, Patti Quigley. The story ran on the back page of our A section on Sunday. The link above to the organization will guide you to ways to contribute -- or even participate in a fund-raising bike event coming in September.

May 13-14, 2006, weekend


An Iranian prayer leader says the letter the president of Iran wrote recently to President Bush was divinely inspired. What would you say the criteria should be to reach that conclusion for any writing, including the Bible, the Qur'an or other writing religions consider sacred?

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Early last month I wrote a Page 1 story for The Kansas City Star about atheist Michael Newdow and his efforts to get the federal courts to rule that "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional and should be removed. This coming Friday, Newdow is scheduled to argue a similar case in federal court in California that seeks to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. money. If you were a judge, how would you rule and why?

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As various faith communities struggle over the issue of homosexuality -- how to understand it, how to treat gays and lesbians, whether to ordain them to be clergy -- sometimes the science gets lost. And sometimes the science is confusing or inconclusive.

HomosexualityScience & Theology News, a monthly, international publication, recently did an interesting piece about all of this, paying special attention to the difficult question of whether what is called reorientation, repairative or conversion therapy can really allow people to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight.

This question has fired up emotions on all sides, of course. Some people believe homosexuality is a choice and that therapy can help people choose heterosexuality. Others say that's nonsense and that such therapy can be harmful psychologically.

The Science & Theology piece considers all of this from Christian, Jewish and Islamic perspectives and has lots of helpful links for further reading.

I'd be interested not so much in your off-the-cuff opinions about this but about any experience you may have with friends who may have thought about or even gone through such therapy or any experience you may have working in a ministry that seeks to move people from gay to straight.

I think there are many difficult questions with this, but my inclination (yes, here is my off-the-cuff opinion) is to think that such therapy usually is at best a waste of time and at worst dangerous.

I base this opinion on several things, including the fact that of the dozens and dozens of people I know and have known who identify themselves as homosexual, not even one has ever said he or she had a choice about it. And I know that it would do zero good to try, by therapy, to make me something other than heterosexual. (And, yes, I recognize that even sexuality and sexual orientation has gradations.)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, I hope you've had a chance to read my column today on the misuse of religious labels and the lead Faith section piece I did about the faith connections of some Kansas City area hospitals.)

Today's religious holiday: Buddha Day, or Visakha Puja (Buddhism)

May 12, 2006


Every day for the last several weeks, my e-mail has been bombarded with pleas from public relations people who want me to interview someone else about the upcoming movie, "The Da Vinci Code." Seems the whole world has an opinion -- including, it turns, out, the Greek Orthodox Church, which has prepared leaflets to tell is members the film is sacrilegious. Do you plan to see it? Why or why not?

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The Roman Catholic Church consistently has taught that artificial birth control is out of bounds. The idea is that nothing should interfere with the God-given natural processes for procreation.

HivBut the global HIV/AIDS pandemic now has the Vatican thinking about whether condoms might have an acceptable role in helping to protect people against this deadly plague. (The human immunodeficiency virus is pictured here.)

This openness to reconsidering such a thing has produced editorial comment here and there, especially in the United States, where many faithful Catholics simply ignore church teaching on birth control. For instance, click here for a recent editorial by the St. Petersburg Times. It also has produced analysis pieces trying to make sense of it. Here's one from Scotland.

When news of the Vatican study first broke, it appeared to be of wider significance than it turned out to be. Later stories revealed that the consideration of condom use would be limited to Catholic couples when one of the spouses is infected with the HIV virus.

In some ways, the moral dilemma in this matter is similar to that found in the church's objection to research on early, or embryonic, stem cells. That is, should one allow something considered morally out of bounds if it has the possibility of doing great good or preventing a worse harm?

These are the kinds of issues that should disabuse people of the idea that life is simple, that all answers can be black and white. I'm not suggesting anything like what used to be called situational ethics. But I do think we often find ourselves on the horns of moral dilemmas, and I'm not sure our religious congregations help us think them through as thoroughly as they should. Is that your experience, too?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will be about the dangers of labels in religion. I'll also have a piece about the faith connections of some Kansas City area hospitals.)

May 11, 2006


In a world full of many religions, how should Christians be at once good neighbors and yet faithful to their duty to share their faith and seek converts to Christianity? It's not a new problem, but a solution has become more urgent on a planet aflame with religious violence. Now the Vatican and the World Council of Churches plan to work on a code of conduct that will spell out how such efforts at conversion should take place. There may be no easy solution to this, but perhaps just talking about it will help defuse this difficult area. What would you write into such a code? Or would you have one at all?

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The final paper (No. 6 in a series) I've written for the Christian history class I've been auditing at a Kansas City area seminary is back from the professor (he liked it) and now is available to you.

Grflowers_4For a copy, just send an e-mail to and ask for it.

As regular readers of this blog know, the papers have focused on the long and shameful strain of anti-Judaism that has infected Christianity for almost 2000 years.

The current paper moves us to the Shoah, or Holocaust, and tries to describe some of its Christian antecedants, though, as I note in the work, it's impossible to draw a straight line from the first time someone called a Jew "Christ killer" to the first Jew to die at the hands of Hitler's Nazis. History is more complicated than straight lines.

But this final paper gives me another chance to invite you to be part of a weeklong seminar in August in New Mexico that will be a conversation on Jewish-Christian relations.

I'll be co-teaching the seminar with a rabbi. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at beautiful Ghost Ranch (pictured here) in northern New Mexico. We'll have a chance that week to learn each other's story and even to have some fun. 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.

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

P.S.: What am I missing here? Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China selected to be members of the U.N. Human Rights Council? Must be there are no rules about members having to protect the human rights -- including religious freedom -- of their own citizens.

May 10, 2006


Martin Schram, who writes for Scripps Howard, has done a column about the new book by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that I mentioned in yesterday's posting (scroll down). See if you agree with him.

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Last July, I wrote a lengthy Kansas City Star story about the fact that Christian evangelicals were becoming more engaged in environmentalism.

BlackwelderThis was well before a group of evangelicals earlier this year issued a statement about the need to deal with all kinds of environmental problems.

The reality is, however, that American evangelicals are divided about this matter. Many say their faith calls them to care for the Earth as good stewards of God's creation. Others would not describe themselves as in any sense pro-pollution, but they would say there are many more important issues ahead of the environment and that there's much disagreement about what should be done anyway.

For one report about this, from the Weekly Standard, click here.

But the other day the president of Friends of the Earth, Brent Blackwelder (pictured here), met with my newspaper's editorial board and I had a chance to sit in. He said that because evangelicals are more engaged in environmental matters now, "there is a new dimension in the politics of energy." Blackwelder was advocating wind power as an alternative fuel to reduce our use of coal to produce electricity, suggesting that western Kansas "is the Saudi Arabia of wind."

When I asked him what difference it would make politically to have evangelicals on the side of environmentalists, Blackwelder said this: "What it does is it starts shifting the base of the Republican leadership to start doing something about pollution." He noted that because of encouragement from evangelicals, candidates for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania recently were forced to debate the issue.

As I say, evangelicals are divided, but there's enough interest among them to keep the issue hot, and I suspect the environment will get a lot more political attention because of it.

By the way, one of the most interesting environmental groups with support from evangelicals is the Ausable Institute of Environmental Studies. To take a look, click here. A driving force behind the group has been Calvin B. DeWitt.

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

May 9, 2006


Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been making the talk show rounds recently promoting her new book. But click here for an interview with her in which she talks about religious violence in the world.

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In yesterday's posting, I offered to you one of the last two papers I've written for the seminary class in Christian history I've been auditing. Today, you get to be a student in that class taking our last pop quiz of the semester.

Pop_quiz_2But I'll give you a break. Instead of throwing at you all 10 questions given to us in the class, I'll only give you five. These focus on the last few hundred years.

The answers are at the bottom of today's posting, but if you look there first, a lightning bolt almost certainly will zap you. I think.

1. Which of the following groups took an anti-revivalist, anti-conversionist position, holding that human nature is essentially good and that salvation is achieved by developing the good that is already in people?

A. New Haven School

B. Methodism

C. Congregationalism

D. Unitarianism

2. Richard Allen sought:

A. To plant Baptist churches in America

B. Dignity and advancement for African Americans

C. To reform the Church of England

D. Wider use of biblical criticism

3. David Livingstone was appalled by:

A. The Enlightenment

B. Poverty in Calcutta

C. The slave trade

D. The Boxer Rebellion

4. At its heart, colonialism was:

A. An economic system

B. A product of industrialism's need for cheap raw materials

C. A response to the need for industrial countries to expand markets

D. All of the above.

5. Oscar Romero preached in the spirit of:

A. Confessionalism

B. Pietism

C. Mysticism

D. Liberation Theology

Answers: 1--D; 2--B; 3--C; 4--D; 5--D

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