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December 2006

Nov. 30, 2006


Instead of just reading about Pope Benedict XVI's current trip to Turkey, we'd all do well to read the pope's actual words as he spoke them. Click here for his remarks in meeting with the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate (and notice the hyperlinks in the text). And click here for his remarks to the diplomatic corps assigned to Turkey. Again, pay attention to the hyperlinks. And to follow the pope's visit through the eyes of the astute John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, click here.

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Artistic expressions of many kinds have been part of religious tradition almost forever.

Mary_2From statues to paintings to icons, from music to dance, artists have tried to offer their special visions of what they understand religion to mean.

Next month, PBS viewers in many cities, including Kansas City, will have an opportunity to watch a program that will explore the many ways the Virgin Mary has been depicted over the centuries. The show, called "Picturing Mary," will air at 10 p.m. on Christmas night on KCPT-TV in Kansas City.

The program is a joint production of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Catholic Communication Campaign" and PBS station WNET.

This will be a companion to the 2001 program, "The Face of Jesus in Art."

There is a "Picturing Mary" Web site, but so far it's just a single page of photos, which I've borrowed for an illustration today.

My talent when it comes to drawing and painting and such all went to someone else. But occasionally I am struck by works of art that speak to me in profound ways -- especially religious art. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was wandering through the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and was really drawn to a painting of a suffering Christ, bleeding and red-eyed. I don't recall the artist, but it was hard not to be moved by the face.

So maybe seeing the kind of art that "Picturing Mary" offers will be a good way to wrap up a Christmas Day this year.

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

Nov. 29, 2006


You can find other sources for breaking news about Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Turkey, so I thought that here you might want to see some different commentary and analysis. Click here for a piece about how Turkey has been moving toward a more Islamic identity. For Catholic commentator Maggie Gallagher's take on the trip, click here. For an interesting editorial about the trip from a Lebanese perspective, click here. And for a CBS News reporter's notebook about the journey, click here.

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This past weekend, my bride and I went for a wedding anniversary getaway to Weston, Mo., just north of Kansas City.

Weston1We both grew up in small towns (Weston's population is about 4,000) and now and then like to spend time in them.

Because it was the post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend, the little shops downtown were filled with customers and an amazing amount of stuff. And I began to ponder how a small town Christmas shopping experience is any different from going to a mega-mall. I also began to think about what either experience has to do with the birth of Jesus.

I know that it's probably easier on my brain just to enjoy wandering through the shops and looking at the candles and ornaments, jewelry and junk. But my brain has a mind of its own and often goes wandering into uncharted territory without my permission.

Anyway, if I have to go Christmas shopping, I prefer not to do it at a mall. So right off the bat Weston or any small town beats any mall.

Weston4Instead of a cloned Santa Claus, for instance, in Weston you get Father Christmas wandering the streets, as he's done there for about 20 years in the employ of local merchants through the Chamber of Commerce and visitors bureau. He'll even stop to have his picture taken with journalists.

If you press Father Christmas, as I did a little, you discover his real name is Tom Hooper, and he really does enjoy this seasonal work.

But if we're talking about what Christmas really is -- or should be -- about, how is buying a locally made work of art in a small town, say, different from buying a big-screen TV at a mall? Yes, I'd rather support a local artist than a foreign TV-making company, but that would be true completely aside from the Christmas season and completely aside from enjoying the fact that Gravy the cat lives in and wanders around in downtown Weston pretty much at will.

Weston12What happens, whether at a mall or in a small town, is that we begin to mix and merge our secular customs with our religious ones, and the result is, I think, a dimunition of religious meaning.

What can it possibly mean to have a Santa Claus statue painted with the words "Peace on Earth"? Isn't that like having a stuffed Easter Bunny wearing a T-shirt that says, "He is risen"?

Weston11I'm really not trying to be Scrooge here. I love Christmas. I love watching my children and grandchildren give and get gifts.

But those of us who are Christian, I think, get swept along by a culture, and thus we continue to move farther away from celebrating the incarnation. And if Christmas for Christians isn't about the incarnation, why celebrate it at all?

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

Nov. 28, 2006


Some bad ideas just refuse to die. A Hitler wanna-be was just arrested for vandalizing a Jewish school in Austria.

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Click here for a story about the pope's first day in Turkey.


Today marks the start of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to predominantly Muslim Turkey.

Pope_4And I thought it would be helpful to link you to some stories and other resources that will help all of us understand what's at stake on this historic trip.

First, click here for a story about what Benedict's visit to the Haghia Sophia might mean. The varied history of this structure provides an opportunity for the pope to mess up big time. My guess is he won't.

How warm will the welcome be for the pope? For one clue, click here for a story about 25,000 people in Ankara protesting his visit.

The Turkish man who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II is calling Benedict XVI a "Nazi remnant," another strange echo of dischord as this visit is about to unfold.

Turkey's prime minister has agreed to meet the pope when he arrives. This would seem to be a routine bit of diplomacy, but I'm not sure there's any such thing in regard to this trip.

The Vatican is worried enough about Benedict's security that it has ruled out use of the popemobile, it's reported.

Catholics in Turkey are preparing for the pope's visit. There aren't many of them, but there are some.

This visit raises the question of how much religion freedom there is in Turkey. Click here for one answer.

And for heaven's sake, let's not forget that the pope is to meet with the head of the Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Click here for some resources on that from the Orthodox Church. The church split asunder, East from West, in 1054 in what is called the Great Schism, or Great Divorce. Efforts continue to repair this broken family.

Finally, if you want to re-read the speech Benedict gave in September in Germany that made Muslims angry, click here.

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

PS: Special thanks to all readers who left comments yesterday. A particularly enlightening, helpful, engaging batch.

Today's religious holiday: Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha (Baha'i)

Nov. 27, 2006


Does God create but then not control the world? That's what a lot of people in India think, it's reported. The country where I spent two years of my boyhood is endlessly fascinating when it comes to religion. But who knew that so many folks there seem to be essentially deists?

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Maybe you can help me out today.

OjI'm having trouble understanding some questions of ethics. I've thought about this for some days now but I still just don't get it.

The first is the O.J. Simpson story. After a huge outcry about a book and interview in which Simpson said he'd describe how he would have killed his wife and Ron Goldman "if I did it," News Corp. pulled the plug on both projects.

In doing so, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch said this: "I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project. We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."

Pardon my skepticism, but it seems to me the only reason Murdoch now considers this an ill-considered project is that the public was outraged and he was facing a rebellion among Fox television affiliates who normally would have been expected to carry the interview.

After all, anyone with a lick of ethical sense should have known that this was a terrible idea on so many levels: It would wound the families of the victims again; give a public voice to a manipulative and dangerous man; make yet another mockery of our criminal justice system; be a financial transaction soaked in innocent blood. And on and on. All of this was obvious when the idea first surfaced.

Murdoch and his "senior management" clearly have the morals of a vacuum cleaner. Otherwise they'd have seen that and smashed down this bad project idea immediately. My question: Was it simply money that drove ethical thinking out of the park? Did Murdoch and his corporate sycophants really think the American public would buy anything so gross? (Yes, the public has bought a lot of grossness, but even our entertainment-besotted culture has its limits.)

I don't get it, as I say.

The same day the Simpson story was on the front page of The Kansas City Star last week, there were two other stories inside that left me almost equally puzzled about the lack of ethics and morals and simple good sense.

One was about comedian Michael Richards' apologizing for a clearly racist rant at people who were heckling his stand-up comedy routine. I've seen the video (to which I am decidedly not linking you), and his language far surpassed even Mel Gibson's recent anti-Semitic rantings, though Richards' words were aimed at African-Americans. Later, on David Letterman's show, Richards said, "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this."

People who aren't racists simply don't say the stuff Richards said -- under any circumstances, drunk or sober, provoked or not. If he didn't mean what he said, why did he say it? And if he meant it, why apologize? I don't get it.

Another story that day was about an artist in Ohio who created gingerbread Nazis that the owner of a hardware store displayed in his store's front window. How did the store owner, who removed the display and then criticized it, allow this kind of tasteless ethical violation to occur in the first place? Why not think all this through before doing it? What seems to be blocking our ability to recognize how monstrously offensive words and displays will be taken?

I don't get it.

If you get it, tell me.

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

Nov. 25-26, 2006, weekend


My former Kansas City Star colleague Matt Scofield reports from Turkey that Muslims there aren't especially hopeful about the pope's upcoming visit. Should they be?

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Uzbekistan says it should not be on an official U.S. list of countries that are intolerant of religious freedom. Well, maybe, but I'm thinking the U.S. is right in this case. When I was in Uzbekistan in 2002, Western diplomatic sources told me and other journalists that the country had about 6,500 people in prison primarily for being too religious -- that is, giving public expression to conservative religious (mostly Islamic) traditions. Some of those 6,500 were, of course, simply bad guys, terrorists who are part of the fanatic Islamic movement. But a Human Rights Watch worker told us that most of them are imprisoned wrongly. At the same time, however, we discovered Christian missionaries from Korea at work in Uzbekistan seeking converts.

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The Buddhists tell us to be mindful.

Blog19_3It's wonderful advice, but it's hard to practice all the time.

We forget to look around us, forget to taste what we're eating, to notice the texture of the world around us.

We just live, just survive.

So from time to time, I like to wander around my yard and my neighborhood and simply notice things, simply practice being mindful. Every religious tradition urges adherents to pay attention to -- and care for -- the creation.

But that's not easy to do if you aren't mindful of what's in the creation.

Blog21So today, I simply give you some photos of what I was mindful of as I took a walk the other day, and I urge you to be mindful of the beauty all around you, even as we move toward a season of death, a season of slowing down and renewing ourselves for what the new year and its spring will offer to us.

Blog22Blog15TBlog2Blog4o read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today''s religious holidays: Christ the King (Christian, 26th); Day of the Covenant (Baha'i, 26th)

Nov. 24, 2006


Does God bless murderers for their deeds? A Jordanian who killed a British tourists says yes, it's reported. Under what circumstances, if any, would God bless killing someone else?

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As a Christian interested in the broad sweep of world religions, I am always encouraged when I see members of one faith trying to understand and live in harmony with members of another faith.

ElcacoverSo today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America deserves praise for its new efforts in this regard with Judaism and Islam.

The ELCA has created new online resources called "Windows for Understanding: Jewish-Muslim-Lutheran Relations." The material is designed to help Lutherans understand Judaism and Islam and to offer suggestions on how Lutherans can create healthy relationships with Jews and Muslims.

I paid particular attention to an essay on Jewish-Christian relations because I'm working with a rabbi on a book that touches on that subject. And liked much of what was written. It is difficult, however, to write about all of this from one perspective without saying something that will feel wrong to someone from another tradition.

Before I tell you what I found historically distressing about the ELCA essay on Judaism, you can read the two ELCA essays on Christian relations with Jews and Muslims. Just click here.

Early in the essay on Judaism, one finds this sentence: "Judaism and Christianity developed over the centuries as sibling religions, always in relationship to each other and too often in opposition."

Later in the essay, it's clear that the writer didn't really mean that, but that sentence looks to me as if it was written by someone who doesn't grasp the fact that Judaism predates Christianity by nearly 2,000 years. So the two religions haven't "always" been in relationship and they did not develop as sibling religions.

In fact, Christianity did not decisively separate itself from Judaism for decades after the life of Christ. And the early followers of Jesus always thought they were Jews who remained under the umbrella of Judaism even if not everyone agreed with them that the Messiah had come. Those Jews included the Apostle Paul, who, no matter what you read, did not reject Judaism and did not set out to found Christianity.

Perhaps I'm making a big fuss here about not much in an otherwise fine ELCA report. But if Christians really are going to be in honest and productive dialogue with people of other faiths, they simply have to get the history right. And that means avoiding sentences such as the one I quoted.

I'm happy to report that the ELCA essay on Islam takes quick and proper note of the fact that Islam is monotheistic but by no means monolithic -- a point I've tried to make in many ways over the years. There are many variations of Islam, and Muslims do not speak with one voice. The ELCA material recognizes that.

Well, you can read this material and judge for yourself what you like and don't like. For me, its mere existence is a good sign. And I wish other Christian denominations as well as branches of Islam and Judaism would do as much as the ELCA folks have done in trying to educate their members about other faith traditions.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will look at the Ted Haggard scandal and ask why hardly anyone has suggested what may be the only way for him to be healed.)

Today's religious holiday: Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahdur (Sikh)

Nov. 23, 2006


When you've had it up to here with family and football today, you might want to take a break and read the transcript of an interesting panel discussion on religious voters in the recent midterm election, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public LIfe.

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Yes, yes, I know you're all too busy celebrating my oldest sister's birthday today with turkey and all the fixings to read blogs, so I'll let you off the hook today.

ThanksWell, sort of.

How about if we all just fill out the alphabet by listing things for which we're especially thankful today.

I'll grab a few letters to start by giving thanks for:

* K -- my sister Karin, whose birth my sisters Barbara and Mary and I are celebrating today. And, yes, that's how Karin spells her name because, like me, she's half German and half Swedish.


* O -- Oboe music. (And my granddaughter Olivia).

* C -- My grandson Cole.

* J -- My grandson Jacob.

* L -- My granddaughter Lucy.

That leave's y'all 21 letters to fill in. Try for no leftovers.

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

PS: If you're looking for some free -- and high quality -- Christmas seasonal music in the Kansas City area, try the 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, choral "Chrismas Candlelight Concert" at Faith Lutheran Church, 67th and Roe, in Prairie Village.

Nov. 22, 2006


Pope Benedict XVI has written his first book as pontiff. No, it will be called Jesus of Nazareth, not Really, Some of My Best Friends Are Muslims. It's due out in the spring and is meant to be the first of two volumes on Christ. Will you buy it?

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OK, here's another example of why theological debates sometimes are so fascinating to me.

Elca_2The Evangelical Luthern Church in America's Church Council (in effect, the denomination's board of directors and legislative body) just adopted a "Lutheran-Orthodox Common Statement on Faith in the Holy Trinity." For the full joint statement, click here.

What we have here is a 21st century development in an argument that finally goes back to the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., but more to the point, to an idea pushed by Ambrose, a 4th century bishop who was one of the great theologians of the Western church.

Ambrose looked at the Nicene Creed's affirmation that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father," and suggested that the creed should say the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." The phrase "and the Son" was labeled the "Filioque," using a Latin term.

Well, the Western church went along with Ambrose, though it took time for the additional phrase to become the common way of saying the creed. In his book, Reclaiming Our Roots, Mark Ellingsen says the "alteration of the creed probably. . .was brought during the reign of Charlemagne (742-814) to France. . .When some Frankish monks visited the East and recited the amended version of the creed, it touched off a huge controversy."

The Eastern church thought the addition to the creed was heretical. It tended to deny the equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, they said, and tended to give the Son more power. (I personally think the Eastern argument makes a lot of sense.)

But the Western church wanted it in to help combat the late 8th Century controversy about whether Jesus was the "adopted" Son of God. Ellingsen puts it this way: "If the Spirit proceeded from the Son, the Son must not have been adopted but rather had been God in eternity."

Well, in 1054, East and West broke apart into the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church, and each took with it its version of the Nicene Creed. Indeed, one of the major points of division was the Filioque.

For some years now, there's been a Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue. Out of those discussions came a 1998 statement in which Lutherans, who use the Filioque phrase, said it was "appropriate" to say the Nicene Creed without it. In other words, Lutherans were saying that the Orthodox churches were doing nothing wrong or heretical by leaving out the Filioque.

So a controversy that has been stirring for nearly 1,700 years -- or at least more than 1,000, depending on how you date things -- has found a partial resolution between two major players.

All of which tells me that maybe a few hundreds years down the road the Protestant-Catholic split or the Catholic-Orthodox split (which the pope will talk about in Turkey later this month with the top Orthodox leader) eventually can be healed.

Perhaps this spirit of harmony might even proceed from the Father and the Son. Or not.

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

P.S.: How will many American Muslims be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow? Click here for one answer.

Nov. 21, 2006


Rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs says he owes all his success to God. Do you think celebrity endorsements of religion really influence anyone? Or -- I'm thinking of Elton John's recent smack upside the head of all religion -- disendorsements?

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I'm always grateful for writers or speakers who help me see familiar things in new ways.

LevinebookOne of the fomer associate pastors at my church was really good at that. Perhaps the best example was his sermon on the parable of the prodigal son in which he made the point that sometimes God punishes us simply by giving us our own way.

My most recent experience of seeing something new in something profoundly familiar came in Amy-Jill Levine's new book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

She tries at one point to describe the ways in which the Lord's Prayer is deeply Jewish, and focuses on the various phrases that make up what Catholics often call the "Our Father."

She points out that "Give us this day our daily bread" seems to be redundant. Saying "Give us our daily bread" or "Give us this day our bread" would suffice. But she notes that use of an unusual Greek word in the phrase is responsible for the redundancy and that a better translation would be "Give us tomorrow's bread today."

That, she says, is the translation that makes the most sense in a first-century Jewish context because Jewish texts "speak of the olam ha-bah, the world to come, as a glorious banquet." There is, in other words, a profound sense of anticipation embedded in the phrase "Give us this day our daily bread." It's not simply asking to be fed today, Levine maintains.

Rather, she says, the phrase means "Bring about your rule, when we can eat at the messianic banquet." This, she writes, "is the prophetic hope, the prophetic vision."

"Tomorrow's bread" is meant to stand for the messianic future that both Judaism and Christianity await with anticipation. To pray to be given this bread today is to pray for God's in-breaking presence to bring about the culmination of history and the fullness of the realm, or reign, of God.

I never fully saw that before. And now I'll never pray the Lord's Prayer without a new sense of what it well may mean.

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

P.S: Yes, lots of the readers of this blog come, naturally, from the Kansas City area. But in the last day or two you local folks have been joined by readers from Japan, South Africa, Belgium, Chile, England, Israel and, well, Auburn, Maine. Howdy to all.

AND ANOTHER P.S.: Baptist Press reports on a theologian who gives George W. Bush very high marks for his presidency. Do you agree with him?

Nov. 20, 2006


Over the weekend here, I pointed readers to a story suggesting religion was making a rebound on campuses in England. Well, it also appears to be making a rebound among Jews in Israel, who increasingly say they believe in God, it's reported. Sort of makes you wonder who God's Karl Rove is and why he's doing better than the president's.

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In September, Baylor University released its latest religion survey, called "American Piety in the 21st Century."

BaylorAs you will see, if you click the link in the previous sentence and look at the study, it runs 74 pages. Which means that sometimes it takes scholars and other analysts time to digest everything that's there.

One of the findings that is becoming clearer as people look over the data is that American evangelical Christians are a pretty varied lot. It's one reason religious scholar Martin Marty argues against using the term evangelical to lump together everyone who is even vaguely conservative theologically.

The Baylor findings show that even though evangelicals tend to hold so-called conservative views on such social issues as abortion, gay marriage and prayer in public schools, they often hold more liberal positions on protecting the environment and distributing wealth more equitably.

It's another example of something I've said in print a hundredyskillion times -- labels usually hide more than they reveal. Labels can be helpful short-hand ways of referring to groups of people but we must always recognize that the people we're labeling won't always speak with one voice.

The Baylor survey found, for instance, that 40 percent of evangelical supporters of President Bush believe that the government should do more to achieve economic justice for people at the lower end of the income scale. Most scholars would label that a liberal view.

On the other hand, some evangelical positions tend to fit the stereotype. For instance, the Baylor survey found that 39 percent of them think the government should "advocate" Christian values while 52 percent said it should "protect" Christian values. And 64 percent said the government should allow prayer in public schools. (Well, such prayer already is allowed -- just not the organized variety, and presumably that's what folks responding the survey want.)

So when thinking about any faith community, remember the nuances, the variations. It will remind us of all the grays in a world we often see as black and white.

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

P.S.: Thanks again to the commenters on this blog who help us, well, ketchup on various things, as many of them might have said over the weekend.