Previous month:
May 2007
Next month:
July 2007

June 19, 2007


A United Nations official has wrapped up a look at anti-terrorism laws in Britain and concluded that they overreach in some cases and simply target Muslims in general. This is the kind of bind terrorists put democratic countries in as they try to balance freedom and security. But better to be open to such criticism -- and respond appropriately to it -- than to have a society governed by autocrats who make up the rules to suit themselves.

* * *


People who study the Bible in a systematic and serious way always are looking for new and better resources to help them grasp the meaning of scripture.

BiblesNow the American Bible Society is helping by opening to the general public its online Bible Resource Center, which previously was available only to scholars.

Anyone now can access the BRC day and night and looking Bible study guides, interactive maps of locations in the Bible and help on choosing a translation, among other things.

The ABS president, Paul Irwin, said this in announcing the BRC opening: "Mixing the Bible with technology produces the most amazing results."

The ABS promises to continue to add resources to the site, including additional books, some quite rare. So look around the BRC site when you have a chance and let me know what useful things you find there.

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

P.S.: If you haven't visited my "Check this out" link over on the right here about the Holocaust book project I'm working on, give it a look today.

June 18, 2007


A new poll shows most New Zealand citizens don't want to make Christianity their country's official religion. It's good to see that what's historically known as the liberal democratic tradition seems to be holding there, though not by as much as I might hope.

* * *


The ashes of our friend Eleanor were in a brownish ceramic jar, and we had come to return them to the earth -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as we Christians say on Ash Wednesday.

2ndpres3Although the ashes of several of my old friends had been interred on our church lawn (pictured here), I had never been present to witness the ceremony until the day last week when we buried Eleanor's cremains. I think this is the way it should be done.

The church staff had dug a small hole on the front yard of the church, being careful to lift off a still-intact section of grass and soil so it could be replaced without anyone noticing it had been removed at all.

The hole was only about a foot or so deep. Edward Thompson, our pastor, after appropriate words and prayers, emptied the ashes into the hole in the earth, and the earth received back that which had made up some of the physical reality of Eleanor. It was ashes touching dark brown soil. We did not bury a little box with her ashes still in it. Rather, the ashes simply returned to the soil.

Then, one by one, we picked up a little of the dug-out soil and put it back in the hole.

We are made up of the atoms and molecules loaned to us by the universe in a divinely miraculous way. What makes us up once made up someone else somewhere else in some other time. We are crafted together from pieces of exploded stars and from the spare parts of the universe.

It makes sense to return what we have borrowed to the earth's lending library.

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

June 16-17, 2007, weekend


If you want to find God, get arrested and thrown in jail, British columnist Alexander Chancellor writes. After all, it has worked for countless people, most recently Paris Hilton. Is Chancellor on to something?

* * *


Speaking of books, as I will below, a man in a Tennessee motel room has been arrested for starting a fire by using pages from the Bible as kindling. I'm guessing no newscaster in the country could resist telling this story without using the term "holy smoke."

* * *


The publishing industry continues to churn out all kinds of books that deal with all kinds of subjects relating to religion.

BooksThis weekend I want to highlight a few more for you.

* Like Trees Walking: In the Second Half of Life, by Jane Sigloh. This retired Episcopalian priest writes engagingly and honestly about what it means to approach the final years of one's life. This is one to read before you hit retirement.

* Mother Benedict: Foundress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, by Antoinette Bosco. This prolific and excellent Catholic writer offers a thorough and engaging profile of a Benedictine nun who was a real pioneer, from her time in France to her move to America and the founding of this abbey.

* Believe the Believable: Faith in the Face of Diversity, by Virgil L. Brady. The author is a retired United Methodist minister who lives in Lawrence, Kan. This volume is a plain-spoken explanation of basic Christian doctrine as he has come to understand it.

* Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, by Joerg Rieger. For several years now, biblical scholars have been concerned with the influence the Roman Empire played not only on the life and times of Jesus but also on the New Testament. This volume is a helpful summation of much of that work along with new insights.

* Engaging the Bible: Critical Readings from Contemporary Women, edited by Choi Hee An and Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. This volume contains several helpful essays that offer new perspectives on the way feminine sensitivity can help us see the Bible in fresh ways.

* The Jesus Dynasty, by James D. Tabor. If you're into imaginative reconstructions of the life of Jesus, you might try this one. Christians who believe in a literal physical resurrection of Jesus will find much with which to disagree.

* The Legacy Study Bible, by Hank Hanegraaff, general editor. Hanegraaff is host of a Christian radio show called "The Bible Answer Man," and can articulate clearly what I believe he would describe as a quite conservative -- he might use the word orthodox -- view of scripture. He heads the Christian Research Institute. There are better study Bibles in print, but if you want one reflecting the perspective of a conservative scholar, this will do. Another new book out by Hanegraaff is called The Apocalypse Code, and is his view of the end times.

Books_2* Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community, by Anson Shupe. The priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is far from the only example of clergy misconduct in faith communities. The author discusses details and ramifications of all this sorrow.

* A History of Sin: Its Evolution to Today and Beyond, by John Portmann. Surprisingly, this runs to fewer than 250 pages. I'd have imagined a book with such a title would be so large as to be unliftable. His conclusion: "Alas, sinfulness is the best we can do." Hmmm.

* The Complete Idiot's Guide to Evangelical Christianity, by David Cobia. I've complained about the trivial nature of the title of this series before, so enough of that. But if you want an understandable book on this subject that won't put you to sleep with high-falutin' academic wording, this is for you.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend praises the interfaith effort going into a Habitat for Humanity house in Kansas City.)

Today's religious holiday: Guru Arjan Dev martyrdom (Sikh)

June 15, 2007


The U.S. Department of Justice, it's reported, has moved its focuse from enforcement of traditional civil rights violations toward more cases involving religious discrimination. My view is that some of this shift was needed because many religious expression cases were ignored or downplayed in the past. But if this means people can more easily get away with racial and ethnic discrimination, that's a high price to pay, probably too high.

* * *


The Washington National Cathedral perhaps comes closer than any other structure to being America's sanctuary -- even for people outside not just the Episcopal tradition but even outside of Christianity.

WashingtoncathedralMany major national prayer and worship services have taken place there.

I love to visit the cathedral, though I haven't made it there in several years. Years ago my family and I attended a Evensong service there late one Sunday afternoon and, because the crowd was small, we all sat in the choir lofts toward the front of the church. What a wonderful experience.

At any rate, the cathedral is entering a celebration of its 100th year, and is planning many events, lectures, seminars and other programs. The cathedral's cornerstone was laid in 1907 (Teddy Roosevelt was there), and essentially the building has been under some sort of construction for most of the time since then. For a good online history of the cathedral, click here.

And click here for information about some of what's coming up to celebrate a century of service.

If you're heading to Washington on other business over the next year or so, make it a point to check in to see what is happening with the cathedral and its centennial celebration.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about interfaith cooperation to build a Habitat for Humanity house.)

P.S.: If you, like me, love cello and harpsichord music, a week from today, at 12:10 p.m., show up at Kansas City's Westport Presbyterian Church for a free concert in the church's brown bag series. My friend Marian Thomas will play the harpsichord. And there will even be some flute music. I would love to be there but have to be in Philadelphia for a conference. So show up at 210 Westport Road and tell me about it.

ANOTHER P.S.: In view of the death yesterday of Ruth Graham, longtime wife of the Rev. Billy Graham, I thought you might want to read a good biography of Graham that includes information about her. It's from the Billy Graham Center archives at Wheaton College. And if you're interested in a book about her, try this one.

June 14, 2007


Billy Graham's wife Ruth, the long love of his life, died this afternoon. She was 87. A sad day in the Graham family.

* * *


A college professor says there seems to be a link between marital fidelity and religious belief. So, then, was King David the exception that proves the rule?

* * *


A bit over a month ago, I wrote again here on the blog (in a P.S.) about a subject I've dealt with several times -- the role Pope Pius XII (pictured here) played (or didn't play) in the Holocaust to save Jews.

Pope_pius_xiiThe issue has surfaced most recently because of the move to have the Vatican declare Pius XII a saint. Some think that should happen yesterday. Others say that decision should wait until the Vatican archives finally releases all documents pertinent to the question, and that hasn't happened yet. I find myself in sympathy with the latter group.

So I was a little surprised to read this account and commentary by a man whose work I greatly respect, John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. John thinks Pius should be granted sainthood almost immediately as a way of removing a matter of considerable contention in the church and between the church and many Jews and Jewish organizations.

The value of John's piece, I think, lies more in its recounting of the various arguments for and against Pius in this case and less in John's opinion (weak, in my view) that making him a saint will reduce tension.

John may well be right that what remains to be uncovered in the Vatican archives will not shed a great deal more light on this difficult subject, but instead of guessing about that, let's wait to find out. The on-going discussion of the role of the church and its leadership in the Holocaust is one well worth having and not cutting short.

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

P.S.: I have added a new little "Check this out" feature on the right side of the page here. Check it out.

June 13, 2007


Billy Graham's wife Ruth is in a coma and close to death, reports say. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone close knows the pain Billy is in now. Keep the family in your thoughts and prayers, please.

* * *


Books deemed to be radically religious are being removed from the shelves of prisons around the country, it's reported. Although it's true that people in penal institutions don't have the same rights as free people, the courts will have to find some reasonable solution. Prisoners should have access to reading material, but who will decide when certain books cross the line and, in effect, turn prison libraries into schools for terrorism?

* * *


Conventional Christian wisdom says the doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to explain, unconnected to the daily lives of adherents and mostly an academic exercise.

TrinityWrong, wrong and wrong. (Well, sort of wrong, wrong and wrong.)

And as a Christian who is deeply attached to the idea of the Trinity, I was pleased to find it the topic of a helpful essay in the current issue of Theology Today, a quarterly connected to the Princeton Theological Seminary. Although I can link you to the publication's Web site, you will be able to find there only an abstract of the Trinity piece by Sally A. Brown, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Princeton.

In brief, Brown argues that Trinitarian doctrine can and should have profound consequences for the way congregations form themselves and operate. That's partly because, she says, the Trinity gives us models for the way power within a congregation should be shared.

". . .spiritual life in North America today is marked by individualism and voluntarism," she says. But if we understand what Trinitarian doctrine is trying to teach us about how to relate to one another, she writes, we would know that "being Christian is a communal matter before it is a private one -- an idea foreign to the consciousness of many North Americans."

In most congregations, Brown says, "power and influence are deployed according to patterns that mirror dominant cultural models beyond the church walls." But Trinitarian doctrine, she writes, should lead us to "more diverse models of power sharing."

And, she writes, most congregations in North America do not reflect the wide diversity of the population. Instead, "unity is achieved at th expense of distinction and difference." Trinitarian doctrine should lead us to models of witness and worship that more accurately reflect God's own "unity-across-difference," she says.

The problem, of course, is that historically the Trinity has been explained in many different ways, none of which exhaust its depth and breadth and not many of which emphasize the profound monotheism that lies at the Trinity's foundation.

"Developing the kind of trinitarian imagination in a congregation that can alter long-established patterns in congregational life," Brown writes, "will depend not so much on explaining the Trinity in our sermons as evoking its wonders."

All of this may seem like inside-baseball for Christians, but it also has an important role to play in the ways in which Christians relate to people of other faiths, particularly Muslims and Jews, whose monotheism finds Trinitarian doctrine deeply problematic, to say the least. That is one reason it behooves Christians to have an articulate grasp of Trinitarian doctrine and especially its monotheistic foundation.

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

June 12, 2007


Paris Hilton, famous for being well known, says God has given her another chance. If so, it's a hopeful sign for all of humanity. Either that or God is the sort of pushover many rebellious teen-agers wish they had. What do you think?

* * *


Most of us who pay attention to international news have been hearing for several years about the re-emergence of antisemitism in Europe, where the history of this hatred is long and horrific, having culminated in the Shoah, or Holocaust.

AntisemBut now a new report is giving us a better sense of the scope of the problem. And antisemitism certainly isn't limited to Europe, this report makes clear. It also remains a problem in North America, though I have heard some Jewish leaders in the United States say that antisemitism is not part of the experience of most American Jews today.

The full report by a group called Human Rights First can be read by clicking here. I particularly call your attention to a section called "Antisemitism as public policy" and one called "Resurgent Antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe."

As many of you know, I'm working with a rabbi on a book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help, and one of the chapters will discuss the long history of anti-Judaism in Christian history, which helped to create modern antisemitism. It's a breathtaking and shameful history, and many American Christians today seem completely ignorant of it. And, by the way, if you want to know how you can help with this book project, e-mail me at

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

June 11, 2007


I've always liked Terry Mattingly's commentaries on religious matters. Click here for his take on the recent report from Media Matters that said the press gives way too much emphasis to conservative religious voices. I wrote about that study recently here on the blog.

* * *


I think Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek magazine (pictured here) is among the best and brightest international commentators around.

ZakariaThis native of India has impressed me over and over again since the 9/11 terrorist attacks with his insight, his clarity of thought and his fresh thinking.

In the issue of Newsweek I received last week, he has done it again. Click here to read his cover piece, an analysis of how America can regain its confidence. It's long but well worth the time.

In his writing, Zakaria shows evidence that he pays close attention to the religious realities of the world. In the piece to which I've linked you, he makes a point similar to one I tried to make in my column this past Saturday, which is that traditional Islam is not the enemy. Rather, the people against whom we must defend ourselves are the radical, violent, murderous Islamists. Not drawing a distinction between the two groups is, in my view, silly and, worse, prejudicial and completely unhelpful.

Zakaria puts it this way: "We are repeating one of the central errors of the early cold war -- putting together all our potential adversaries rather than dividing them." Later he writes this about Muslims in America: "If leaders begin insinuating that the entire Muslim population be viewed with suspicion, that will change the community's relationship to the United States." Precisely. And for the worse.

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

June 9-10, 2007, weekend


When President Bush met with the pope on Saturday, he described Benedict XVI as a "very smart, loving man" and said he was "in awe" of him. Political leaders have learned the uselessness of the arrogant, dismissive question attributed to Stalin: "The pope? How many divisions does he have?"

* * *


In Harold Bloom's review of a book about Hebrew poetry in medieval Spain, he makes a good point about how many Jewish diasporas there have been. Often in Christian tradition, emphasis has been put on the dispersion that occurred starting in 70 CE, or AD, when Jerusalem was destroyed. This led to the specious argument that the Jews then were being punished for not recognizing Jesus as their Messiah. For a worthy discussion of this point, see Jules Isaac's 1964 book, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism.

* * *


This weekend I want to return to a traumatic national event and give some more thought to the religious lessons it might teach us.

ChoI'm talking about the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16 in which more than 30 people died. I come back to that horrific day because I've been reading theological reflections about it in a really fine ecumenical newsletter called Vital Theology. Ths link to it here will give you some examples of the kind of pieces the publication does, but you won't be able to read the current issue, which focuses on Virginia Tech. You have to buy a copy or subscribe to do that.

One of the questions Vital Theology raises has to do with grace. To whom, and when, is grace available? One answer: "Even that person who commits such a horrendous deed is already enveloped by God's grace." This idea comes from Miroslav Volf, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. What can he mean by that? And what can grace mean in such an instance?

My own inadequate definition of grace is this: The pure, unmerited favor that God grants to people. In this sense, it is the opposite of "works righteousness," which is to say doing good works to earn God's love. But I also believe human beings are channels of God's grace. And perhaps the best recent example of that was found in the response of the Amish community to the schoolhouse shooting last October in Pennsylvania. The link I'm giving you here contains another link about the Amish people forgiving the shooter in that case -- forgiveness that many people found simply amazing.

In fact, one of the theologians quoted in the Vital Theology piece says that scapegoating occurs when a perpetrator is deemed to have influence greater than what is merited. This, says S. Mark Heim of Andover Newton School of Theology, is what the Amish avoided by expressing sympathy and concern for the killer and his family.

So how should we think not just about the victims of the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho (pictured here), but also about Cho himself in a way that is theologically coherent and that honors the God of grace?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about why the new American enemy should not be traditional Islam.)

Today's religious holiday: St. Columba of Iona (Catholic Christian, 9th)

P.S.: Starting Monday night, PBS will start broadcasting at series on atheism called "A Brief History of Disbelief." In Kansas City, KCPT-TV will air it at 10 p.m., and it looks as though the second and third parts will air on the next two Mondays. I think it's really important for people of faith to understand people who choose not to believe -- and vice versa.

June 8, 2007


I have long argued that biblical illiteracy is a problem not just for Christians and Jews but for the whole of American society because so many references in our everyday language (like "go the extra mile" and being "my brother's keeper") come directly from the Bible. So shouldn't it be possible to give students an introduction to the Bible that would not try to convert anyone to anything? A new effort toward that end is being made in South Carolina. It remains to be seen whether it will truly be non-sectarian or just a way to sneak some religious teaching into public school classrooms in a constitutionally inappropriate way.

* * *


The relationship between science and religion has interested me for a long time. In fact, through my church I've been part of a group that has sought to promote a healthy dialogue between the two fields.

ScienceBut too often, at least in this country, the discussion is limited to science and Christianity. There is much to be learned about how other faiths relate to science. And Discover Magazine, to its credit, has devoted important space in its July issue to the relationship between science and Islam.

Although I have linked you to the magazine's Web site, the Islam-science piece is available only in the printed edition. But it's worth a read.

Writer Todd Pitock has done a good job, it seems to me, with reporting the nuances of this story. Which is to say that although it acknowledges the many contributions Muslims historically have made in science, it also quotes people who call into question the commitment of some Islamic leaders today to allow full academic freedom and inquiry in scientific areas. Sometimes, the piece reports, Muslim scientists first seek out what the Qur'an says about things and then seek to prove that scientifically so as not to run afoul of religious authorities.

Which sounds very much like the position of Christian creationists. Indeed, the piece says that "Islam is in many ways more tolerant of scientific study than is Christian fundamentalism. It does not, for example, argue that the world is only 6,000 years old." Well, neither does any of Christian fundamentalism. Some, but not all, Christian fundamentalists, argue that Earth -- not the whole world, or universe -- is about 6,000 years old. Which is why you have to read even good reporting with a discerning eye.

One of the more interesting sidebars in the Discover piece is a brief interview with Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University, the really excellent state school in Kirksville, Mo. He grew up in Turkey and is the author of a new book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.

So pick up Discover if you have a chance. And tell me how you think science and religion should be relating.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about why the new American enemy should not be traditional Islam.)