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Aug. 31, 2007

CHANGES FOR SAUDI RELIGIOUS COPS?

The religious police in Saudi Arabia have, until now, had a lot of power. So much, in fact, that, as I learned when I was there in 2002, a lot of citizens resent them. But now this report suggests the populace is beginning to rebel against their rigid and arrogant ways. About time.

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CELEBRATING THE PRESERVATION OF SACRED STRUCTURES

A wonderful Kansas City area organization -- which may have counterparts in other parts of the country -- is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

FossFriends of Sacred Structures, founded in 1992, has been helping to preserve and improve more than 100 houses of worship since its inception. FOSS makes its home at Westport Presbyterian Church in Midtown Kansas City.

FOSS will celebrate its anniversary with a dinner on Oct. 16 at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. For information or reservations, call 816-561-3717 or e-mail foss-kc@swbell.net.

FOSS got started when White Oak Chapel, the only remnant of an old African-American community, was threatened by redevelopment. Since then it has worked with many faith communities to help make sure that historic structures are preserved and improved so houses of worship will always be part of the social fabric of the greater Kansas City area.

(Speaking of that concept, I point you to my column in The Star tomorrow. It's about a planned community in Poland that the Soviets built after World War II -- without a single house of worship. The consequences were fascinating.)

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


Aug. 30, 2007

A CHALLENGE TO SOME GOD WORDS

A lawsuit seeks to remove "under God" from the Texas pledge of allegiance. Do you suppose our nation will ever settle all these church-state disputes? Probably if we did, it would mean either we've become a state where religion is outlawed or a theocracy. No thanks. I'd rather fight over these things.

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THE MOVE TO ORTHODOXY

I'll be brief today so you'll have plenty of time (I hope) to read a really interesting piece in The New Republic about evangelical Christians who are moving to the Orthodox branch of Christianity.

Stour37The story is centered in Wheaton, Ill., one of the nation's evangelical capitals.

I'd be interested, once you've read the story, about your own experiences of coming into contact with or being a member of an Orthodox church.

What do you think have been Orthodoxy's primary contributions to the faith? And do you think there's a realistic chance that the Eastern-Western split that occurred way back in 1054 can be healed? There have been, of course, Catholic-Orthodox discussions about that but so far the rift remains.

If evangelicals, as reported, are leaving that branch of the faith for Orthodoxy, where, in the reverse flow, are people coming to evanglicalism from? Are Mainline churches losing members to evangelical bodies or simply losing members who are becoming, in effect, secular?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here


Aug. 29, 2007

RELIGION'S PLACE IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS

A foreign policy expert tells an audience in Pakistan that religion is foundational to America's own foreign policy. Do you agree with Walter Russell Mead? It's a little hard to tell, for me, from this cryptic Pakistani journalism report, but to say religion is the "basic component" of American foreign policy strikes me as over the top.

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THOUGHTS ON 'PROPER CHURCHES'

Just briefly today, I want to return to a recent controversial statement issued by the Vatican in which Rome said that non-Catholic churches are not churches in the proper sense. (And if you haven't read the whole statement, just click on the link above.)

VaticanA Catholic priest in London, Andrew Byrne, has written an interesting commentary about that statement, and I want to offer it to you today as a way of thinking more deeply about the nature of the church and whether one part of Christianity can really be -- or claim to be -- the only proper expression of the faith.

In some ways, especially to non-Christians, I'm sure all of this sounds like an internal battle of meaningless proportions.

But I think it does cause us to think about how the church was created in the first place and whether the many branches of Christianity today in any way reflect what Jesus may have had in mind. As we think about this, I think it's helpful to remember that followers of Jesus, after his death and resurrection, did not immediately separate themselves from Judaism. Rather, they saw themselves as part of Judaism, but that part that believed the Messiah had come.

It took decades -- and in some places much longer -- for Christianity to emerge as a distinct religion apart from Judaism.

At any rate, give Father Byrne's commentary a read today -- along with the comments you'll find below it, and tell us what you think.

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


Aug. 28, 2007

LANDSLIDE FOR OBAMA

Religious scholars -- well, some of them, anyway, in this man's survey -- say the presidential candidate they'd most like to sit down and talk with is Sen. Barack Obama. Which one would you like to talk with about faith matters? I'd still like to know how deep Hillary Clinton's Methodism goes.

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ON READING AND FAITH

You almost certainly saw the recent story about the poll showing that more than a quarter of Americans say they never read books -- or at least read none in the past year.

BiblesAnd we wonder why the culture has been dumbed down.

But inside of that study there was some interesting information about the type of books that attract people who do read. Religious books -- especially the Bible -- ranked pretty high.

And yet, as we all know, the country is packed with people I would call biblically illterate, the kind of people who think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

I also found it intriguing that people who never attend religious services report reading many more books than do people who attend frequently.

Are our faith communities not doing enough to stir up interest in and respect for the written word? That's probably a fair indictment, though, of course, there are many exceptions, including faith-based book clubs and study groups.

But it raises the question of whether your congregation has a library and what shape it's in. My own church has a pretty good, if small, library, that includes a special section for kids. But I'm sure it could be more used than it is.

A Christian question about this might be phrased this way: If we don't love the written word, will it diminish our love and appreciation for The Word?

P.S.: For a look at how Baptist Press reported on yesterday's resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, click here. I'm always intrigued by how different media outlets cover the same event.

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

Today's religious holiday: Lailat al Bara'ah (Islam); Raksha Bandhan (Hinduism); Paryushana begins (Jainism)


Aug. 27, 2007

AGAINST THIS NEW FAITH

Just for fun, here's a word against fitness as the new religion. Go, John Daly, it says here. Hmmm.

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REMEMBERING MOTHER TERESA

Before the summer expires (I usually date its death on Labor Day), I want to do one more in my occasional summer series on historical figures in religion.

MothertWhy? Because today is the anniversary of the birth of Mother Teresa (pictured here). (If you missed the item on my blog over the weekend about her crisis of faith, scroll down to it.) She was born Agnes Bojoxhiu in Yugoslavia of Albanian parents in 1910, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and died on Sept. 5, 1997, as one of the most well-known and revered figures of her era. For a more extensive biography, click here.

Saying anything critical about this diminutive nun always strikes people as heretical, if not evil. And I certainly admired her willingness to minister to some of the poorest and neediest people in India.

But I do think it's worth noting that while she was caring for individuals one by one by one, she left it to others to seek more structural solutions to the problems that resulted in such people landing at the doorstep of the mission she ran in Calcutta.

That's not a criticism of her, just a way of noting that one cannot do everything. Some people must take care of immediate needs. But that task will be endless unless others are trying to address the systemic problems that create those needs. Even then, as Jesus noted, we'll always have the poor with us (though his point at the time was, as I read it, an ironic comment on the honesty of Judas and not a prediction about the shape of poverty forever and ever).

So cheers for Mother Teresa and her legacy. But cheers also for people who understand that the causes of poverty are complex and can't be fixed simply by feeding one hungry person after another.

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


Aug. 25-26, 2007

THE VALLEY OF DOUBT

Mother Teresa, it's reported, at times was tormented about what she felt was her lack of faith. Seems like a common experience. Has it not happened to you? Speaking of Mother Teresa, watch this space on Monday.

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REFLECTIONS ON 'GOD'S WARRIORS'

I have waited until this weekend to react here to this past week's TV series, "God's Warriors," on CNN, which sought to help us understand religious fanaticism in our era. That's because I wanted some time to absorb what was offered and to let it all settle a little.

InterfaithIf you missed the three parts, I hope you'll click on the link above and review at least what's offered online.

Some thoughts:

* The topic itself is among the most important of our day. Religious fanaticism has set many parts of the globe aflame with hatred and violence, and we simply must understand its roots so that we can, at minimum, defend against it but, even more, seek to limit it. So cheers to CNN for making a good-faith attempt at educating us.

* That said, I found that the effort CNN made to be fair and balanced resulted in giving the impression that today extremism in the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is somehow equal. That's a silly notion. Yes, each religion has produced wild-eyed fanatics who believe they have a direct pipeline to God and that God sometimes wants them to murder others.

But to pretend that fanaticism in Judaism (with only 15 million or so Jews in the world) today is somehow commensurate with fanaticism in Christianity (with about 2 billion adherents) or Islam (with more than 1 billion followers) is delusional. And to suggest that radical Christians today are causing the level of violence through terrorism that radical Islamists are causing is irresponsible.

CNN did not directly equate the level of violence and upheaval created by "God's Warriors" in each of the three religions, but by reserving one night for each faith, it gave the impression that each faith was producing an equal amount of damage. Perhaps viewers would have been better served by a thematic organization rather than a by-religion account.

* I also found problematic the label "God's Warriors" as somehow equally befitting all radicals of each faith. But perhaps that's just the danger that headline writers always face. Some so-called "warriors" are a clear and present danger to themselves and everyone while others are simply intellectual kooks. Still others who might willingly accept the label of being a warrior for God are rational people of deep religious commitment who do much more good than harm.

* Much of what was presented was simply history. I found that especially true in the opening segment, which focused so heavily on how things in the Middle East got to this point. It was a good primer, perhaps, for young people who have not lived through the last several decades, but I frankly didn't learn much from it. But re-running history was also a heavy emphasis in the segment devoted to Islamists. And the Christian segment devoted a great deal of time to the history of such movements as the Moral Majority. Again, it seemed like a rehash.

* And yet I was pleased to see CNN pay attention to Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian about whom I wrote this in 2002: he "probably deserves to be called the primary thinker behind the radical version of Islam to which Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other fanatics have pledged allegiance."

* LIttle things about the series bothered me. One example: The chief correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, at one point said, "the Jewish Bible, the Torah. . ." Well, the Jewish Bible is bigger than the Torah. Strictly speaking, the Torah is composed of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Levitucus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. To have the whole Jewish Bible one must add the Prophets (Nebiim) and the Writings (Ketubim). Sometimes Torah is used informally to refer to the whole Jewish Bible, but Amapour should have made clear that she understood the difference. As I say, it's a small matter, perhaps, but if you don't get the details right, viewers have a perfect right to wonder if they can believe your larger conclusions.

* Another little thing: In the Islam segment there was much talk of "martyrdom" without ever giving a good definition of it. Martyrdom in radical Islam has wrongly become synonymous with suicide, and they're quite different matters, as CNN should have pointed out. And speaking of word use, in the third segment she often used the term "Christian conservatives" without giving us much of a definition, and she described San Francisco as "perhaps the most liberal city in America," without telling us what she meant by that. Such labels, as I've often said, hide much more than they reveal.

* OK, one more little thing: Amanpour in the second segment said she "discovered" the Shia belief in the hidden, or 12th, imam. Oh, please. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes reading about Islam, especially Shia Islam, knows about that. If she didn't know about it until she started working on this series, it shows how remarkably ignorant she was. And I grew tired of her seeming to be shocked that Muslim women might choose to wear the hijab, or head scarf, without it meaning they were oppressed.

* In the first segment, Amanpour seemed to express astonishment that some Jews wore "Tefilin," sometimes spelled tefillin. It is, however, a common practice, especially among Hasidic adherents. And, in fact, Jewish law demands that all Jewish men older than 13 wear these square leather boxes and strips of leather, though for sure not all do.

* After acknowleding that the phrase "occupied territories" was controversial when referring to land Israel has controlled since the 1967 war, Amanpour nonetheless adopted the phrase as normative.

* And what I found missing from the series were enough calm, reflective, scholarly voices. But I suppose it's hard to make that seem interesting to people who think television somehow is calm, reflective and scholarly by nature.

* Amanpour and the CNN staff did a good job of finding people important to the story -- and getting them to talk on camera. But haven't we all by now seen and heard enough from the late Jerry Falwell and even from over-quoted scholar Karen Armstrong? At least she was a reflective voice, but I wanted a fresher voice.

* But another thing I found missing was a strong acknowledgement that religion can and does also play an extraordinarly positive role in the world. Without such an acknowledgement, the series played into the simplistic idea that I criticized in a recent column that "religion causes violence," and thus can be dismissed as destructive and unhealthy. It would be possible to emerge from the CNN series with the impression that all religion is pretty much just mindless zealotry.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about some impressions I drew from my recent trip to Poland.)


Aug. 24, 2007

NO WAY? YES, WAY -- IN NORWAY

Christians and Muslims in Norway have created a joint declaration on religious freedom. Why can't this be a model for others?

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HANDING DOWN RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS

At sundown this evening, Jews around the world will mark the beginning of the sabbath, or shabbat, by lighting candles.

Shabbat_candlesWhich raises the question that I invite you to think about today: In your faith tradition, if any, how do you learn about its practices? Who passes along the traditions -- the shabbat candles, the Christmas trees, the rules for the Ramadan fast?

In my Protestant experience, churches don't do a great job of this. Oh, some make an excellent effort to make sure everyone knows traditional hymns, prayers and so forth. And each branch of the faith has its special ways of observing various holidays and sacred moments. But often these traditions get passed along sort of haphazardly.

Which is why I was intrigued to discover a woman who has found ways to pass along Jewish traditions in a systematic way using books and the Internet.

She's Meredith Jacobs, and Beliefnet.com features some of her work at this link. Take a look, and then tell me whether there's anything comparable available in whatever your faith tradition is. Another question, of course, is whether the way Meredith Jacobs is passing along traditions is the way it should be done. What do you think?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow, written from Poland, tries to describe the poignant sense I felt there about what -- and who -- is missing from the country today.)


Aug. 23, 2007

HOW'S THE CNN SERIES ON RELIGION?

Are you watching the CNN series, "God's Warriors"? The final segment airs tonight. I'm saving most of my comments about this look at religious fanaticism for my blog this weekend rather than giving you a quick-hit commentary each day that I may want to rethink later. But here's a Chicago Tribune review that seems to me to be about right.

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INCREASING OUR KNOWLEDGE OF HISTORY

Several times this summer, just for a bit of a change, I've been offering a little religious history for your amusement and enjoyment.

IncreasematherIn that spirit today, I'd like to take note of the fact that on this date in 1723, the American colonial clergyman Increase Mather (pictured here), father of Cotton Mather, died. He lived a long and productive life, having been born in 1639. For another brief bio on Increase Mather, click here.

Ordained to the ministry while still a teen-ager, Increase Mather was pastor of the North Church of Boston from 1664 until his death -- nearly 60 years. Whew.

He also was president of Harvard College. And he received the first Doctor of Divinity diploma granted in what would become the United States.

The most famous of his almost 100 books, Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft, was instrumental in bringing an end executions for the crime of witchcraft in New England.

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


Aug. 22, 2007

ROAMIN' CATHOLICS

The Vatican plans to offer low-cost tourist flights for pilgrims visiting religious sites. My disappointment is that the airline that will provide the planes is called Mistral, not Wing & A Prayer.

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A NEW PROGRAM TO MENTOR CHILDREN

In so many ways, children are a primary focus of religion.

BreakthroughAs a Christian, for instance, I immediately think of Jesus telling his reluctant disciples to let the little children come to him for they are the essence of the kingdom of heaven. And, he said, unless you become childlike (not childish), you won't understand what that kingdom is about at all and, thus, you won't enter it.

So when I find faith-based agencies investing resources into helping needy children, I'm encouraged. Today I want to let you know of a new example of exactly that in the Kansas City area.

Presbyterian Children's Services has joined with Operation Breakthrough to train and provide mentors for at-risk school children. Operation Breakthrough is a wonderful local agency that helps hundreds of children.

This is not a new program for PCS. It's been used elsewhere, and Rich Maxwell, regional development director for the agency, says it's been a great success. (By the way, if you want to find out more about the partnership between PCS and Operation Breakthrough, write to Rich at RichardMaxwell@care4kids.org or call him at 913-523-4789. You might be just the mentor some child needs. And the mentors will be hired part-time by PCS.

So far five Kansas City area mentors have been trained are are working with children in Operation Breakthrough programming.

I know there are many faith-based groups in our area doing wonderful work, and that this new effort is just one of them. But by highlighting this one, maybe I'll encourage you to think about how you might be involved in helping children have brighter futures.

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


Aug. 21, 2007

VOLUNTEERS IN GOD'S ARMY?

The CNN special, "God's Warriors," which starts tonight, is getting rave reviews by critics who have had a chance to see it before it airs. I'm looking forward to seeing as much of it as I can because I know for sure that the subject is immensely important. Plus, I admire the work of Christiane Amanpour. But the series is also getting some knocks, as you'll see if you click here.

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ON SPEAKING SOFTLY

It's going to take me awhile to catch up on life here now that I'm back from Poland.

DebateBut while I do that, I thought this commentary worth passing along. It's from the Baptist Press and is a plea for more civil discourse -- in blogs and everywhere else.

It sets its foundation on scripture, which is what one might expect Baptists to do. And I agree with its essential point that it should be possible to disagree with one another without lowering ourselves to nasty words that would shame our parents or whoever reared us.

I've tried to make a plea for such civil discourse here on my blog and feel I've been about 80 percent successful. But the 20 percent pains me to read.

I'd be curious what your own faith tradition might teach about this and how it differs from what is said in this Baptist commentary.

And, by the way, speaking clearly but courteously to one another does not require us to water down what we believe. Indeed, it's my belief that people can hear us better when we're civil.

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