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Feb. 29, 2008

THANKING GOD FOR VIOLENT DEATH

A Hamas leader is quoted in this story as thanking God for the death of his son in the struggle against Israel. To reduce terrorism, this kind of thinking will simply have to change. But how? What will it take to convince radical Islamists that suicide bombers and similar violence not only is morally wrong but also hurts their cause? Whoever is the next American president will need the world's best thinking about this.

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RELIGIOUSLY, WHAT DOES AMERICA LOOK LIKE?

I will give you a more comprehensive analysis in my column tomorrow, but on this Leap Day, I want to jump into some new religious statistics, ones I mentioned on the blog this past Tuesday.

PewEarlier this week, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It's a quite comprehensive look at the religious makeup of the nation. In fact, it contains so much information that the Pew folks have divided it into three reports. The first one, just released, focuses on religious affiliation. Two later reports -- the first one due out in late April -- will drill down into all of that.

Indeed, the first part of the whole work contains so much information that analysts will be looking at it for a long time. The religious dynamics of our nation are changing and I think it's vital that we understand what's happening so we can learn how to deal with it in constructive ways and not degenerate into the kind of sectarian strife and even violence that plagues other countries.

But one of the more memorable statistics to come out of this first report shows how dynamic religion in America is (minus Alaska and Hawaii, where no polling was done). For instance, the study found that 44 percent of all America adults (there are about 225 million such folks) have left the religion of their childhood either for a different branch of the same religion, a different religion altogether or no religion at all.

As for the latter "unaffiliated" category, the study found that though this category made up 16.1 percent of adult Americans, only about one-quarter of that group identified themselves as atheist or agnostic (a total that has stayed pretty steady over the years, despite all the recent publicity atheists are getting by writing best-selling books). The rest of the unaffiliated were religious or spiritual to varying degrees but simply unaffiliated now.

Similarly, as study leaders pointed out, they were studying belonging, not believing, so they were unable to tell how many people are affiliated with a religion but are not believers. I know some of those folks, as I'm sure you do, too.

The non-affiliated group is growing because the number of people joining it outnumber the quite significant number of people who leave it to join a religion.

Another finding is one I've written about previously, which is that Protestants, who as recently as the 1980s made up about two-thirds of the adult U.S. population, have dwindled to the point that they are barely a majority, 51 percent, of the American adult population. By previous estimates I thought that by now Protestants were, in fact, a minority (though a plurality) of adult Americans, but that's not quite what these figures show.

Well, dig around a little on the Pew site and see what you find interesting. As I say, there's much here to digest, and lots of us will be trying to do that in various ways over the next weeks and months.

Oh, and one of the top Southern Baptists in the country says the new Pew study should motivate evangelical Christians to get out and evangelize. Also: Some Jewish leaders say the Pew sample size wasn't big enough to tell much about Jews in America.

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P.S.: Speaking of religious research, a Canadian researcher at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Ontario is looking for people to participate in a survey about what it means to be Christian today. If you are Christian and you'd like to think about being part of that work, click here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'm sorry some of you have had trouble signing up to leave comments here. For help, go to "How to comment" under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (As I mentioned above, my column tomorrow will try to draw some important lessons out of all these religious statistics.)


Feb. 28, 2008

THE ETHICAL ISSUES OF 'BODIES'

As you may have seen in The Star yesterday, the Catholic bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese and the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas issued a statement saying the "Bodies Revealed" exhibition about to open at Union Station is inappropriate for Catholic school children. They advised schools not to schedule field trips so students could see it. The leaders pointed out that "Catholic moral teaching regards the body as a unity of soul and body, spirit and matter." They said that bodies deserve respect and dignity. I plan to see the exhibit and write about it later. But for now let me just say that I'm glad the bishops addressed this matter. Even if you disagree with them, it forces everyone to consider some of the moral and ethical contexts in which such things take place in our culture, and that's always a worthwhile endeavor. I'm afraid that many of us would never even think about such things if religious leaders didn't speak out.

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THE STATUS OF JEW-HATRED

Modern antisemitism first reared its ugly head in the 1800s, though theological anti-Judaism is nearly 2,000 years old, and it included some of what we think of as antisemitism.

AntisemitismA few days ago a columnist for the Jerusalem Post wrote about the current state of antisemitism based on a "Global Forum on Antisemitism" sponsored by a couple of branches of Israel's government.

It's worth a read, especially to get his sense of the way in which some radical elements of the Muslim world are selling some of the same vile prejudices against Jews that we saw coming from Adolf Hitler's Nazi government, which of course was responsible for the Holocaust in which about six million Jews died.

Much of the current variety of hatred has roots in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, of course, but whatever its source, there simply is no excuse for the lies and vitriol that characterize this contemporary version of antisemitism.

That doesn't mean that it's antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel. To hold such a position would be ridiculous. Israel is a close American ally, but its government at times has done foolish things that deserve criticism.

However, the antisemitic nonsense spewed by some militant Islamists goes way, way beyond that and constitutes dangerous libel.

Even people (I include myself) who are relentlessly sympathetic to the desires of the Palestinian people for a homeland must speak out against the kind of antisemitism this columnist writes about. For one thing, in the end it works against the interests of Palestinians.

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


Feb. 27, 2008

DOES THIS RING TRUE?

A Pennsylvania man says he's found an image of Jesus Christ inside a tree trunk. Well, wooden you know.

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AN EMPEROR WITH NO CLOSE?

Are you celebrating today? You know, celebrating the birthday of the Emperor Constantine (depicted here)?

EmpconstantineWell, there may be Christian reasons to celebrate as well as Christian reasons not to celebrate. And there may be reasons from other religions not to celebrate, too.

But, in fact, today is considered the birthday of Constantine. Historians say he appeared on the globe in the year 280. Or possibly 285. Or maybe 272 or 273. Any of which is close enough for Roman government work.

Before Constantine, Christians often viewed Rome as the anti-Christ. The story of his reign is the story of a major transition away from that designation.

The first decades of the Fourth Century were a period of persecution of Christians. But the Emperor Diocletian was looking for a period of less conflict. He established a new form of administration that he hoped would keep various segments of the Roman army from fighting with each other at times of transition to a new emperor. It was called a Tetrarchy and established different rulers for four regions. It worked for awhile under him but later sort of fell apart.

One of these rulers, Constantine, eventually was declared by his troops to be the next Caesar, and after some time he wins the battle to be the sole emperor. This victory, he thought, was foretold in a vision he saw of him winning under the banner of "Chi Ro," which was taken to stand for Christ.

Eventually Constantine embraced Christianity, but scholars aren't sure he really understood what it was all about or what it meant. For him it was as much a political decision as anything. In fact, he didn't even seek to be baptized until he was on his death bed.

Well, there's much more about Constantine's relationship to Christianity, including the famous Council of Nicea, but you're not going to get all of that in a short blog entry. I just wanted you to know that some folks on Feb. 27 each year think of Constantine and how his life helped to shape the religious world. His influence seems to go on and on.

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


Feb. 26, 2008

STUDYING OUR RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE

I participated yesterday in a telephone press conference in which the Pew Center for Religion & Public Life released the first of three reports it is producing based on a wide-ranging survey of religion in America. This story will give you the basics. Then click here for access to the Pew site where you can find the first report. And click here for the Pew Center's own press release about the survey. I plan to talk a little more about this intriguing work on the blog this Friday and then deal with some of the implications of the findings in a column later. For today I just wanted you to be aware of the study and to begin think about what it means for us as a nation with our own particular religious history.

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THE IMPORTANT PLACE OF RITUAL

Over the years, I have come to appreciate more and more the role of ritual. When I was quite young, much of it seemed empty and meaningless to me. But part of that was the arrogance of youth -- back when I knew almost everything.

EngagementToday ritual has an important role to play in my life, and I don't mean only religious ritual, though surely that.

If you have a copy of my book, A Gift of Meaning, (and surely you own at least a dozen copies, don't you?) look on page 14 for a column I wrote about this subject way back in 1991. It says a lot of what I would say today.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as my family was gathering around one of our children to celebrate his engagement to a wonderful young woman. They're planning a September wedding, speaking of rituals, but our party was itself something of a ritualistic experience.

We collected various friends and family and shared food and drink as a way of giving our collective blessing to the mutual new life these young people are committed to putting together.

We didn't have to do this, of course. We could simply have sent them both an e-mail that said, "Way to go. Tell us when the wedding is." But, no. Ritual is a way of gathering our thoughts, of planting a flag in the ground at this point in our (and their) lives and saying, "Pay attention. Something important is happening here."

When religion is at its healthiest, it figures out how best to do ritual so that it can help people find the words and the feelings for special occasions. Religion doesn't always do that well, but when it does it's a gift to everyone involved.

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P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item. And while you're in the "Check this out" section, see my page about the upcoming AIDSWalk Kansas City.

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


Feb. 25, 2008

A NATIONAL RELIGIOUS CENSOR

Pakistan has ordered Internet service providers there to block YouTube because it contains "blasphemous" depictions offensive to Muslims, this report says. Is it the task of government to protect the religious sensitivities of its citizens? Apparently the answer is yes in some countries that have poor records of religious freedom.

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ALL DEATH ALL THE TIME

Some folks in Germany have, without knowing it, implemented an idea I've had and talked about among friends for years.

Death_tvThey've created a television station devoted to the subject of death. It's called Etos TV, and on it you can watch obits, specials on various aspects of death and other things. What it seems as if they don't do, however, is what I would do if I were to create such a channel -- cover funerals. (The second link in this paragraph is just for those of you who read German, which I don't, even though I'm half German.)

Every week in this country and abroad there are amazing funerals and memorial services of both the rich and famous and the poor and unknown. And instead of the 15-second sound bite we get from the funeral of a local murder victim or a congressman, the channel would cover the whole service.

Why?

Because if we don't understand death we'll never understand life. And one of the best ways of helping us understand death is to attend funerals, as regular readers of this blog have heard me say many times.

Naturally, Etos TV had to figure out a way to make its product financially sustainable, so it is selling time to folks who want to air video obits of their loved ones. And I'm sure that if the network is already doing it eventually it will sell commercial time to casket makets, funeral homes, flower shops, monument companies -- all the sectors of the death industry. I even know there are some members of the clergy who sort of rent themselves out to conduct funerals for people not otherwise connected to faith communities. Maybe those folks will be airing commercials, too.

The major religions all insist that we understand how death is related to life, and I think this German death channel can be a great tool to help with that.

But what will really impress me is the next step -- TV coverage of the afterlife that includes live interviews with folks already there.

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P.S.: I'll be teaching a two-hour Communiversity class on writing essays the evening of Thursday, April 17. Details about the class are in this section of the Communiversity catalog. Scroll down to page 14. Then call 816-235-1448 to sign up or e-mail commu@umkc.edu. Don't call or e-mail me to register. The Communiversity staff handles that. I'm also teaching a week-long seminar in July in New Mexico on writing your own spiritual autobiography. See the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page and click on the Ghost Ranch class item. And while you're in the "Check this out" section, see my page about the upcoming AIDSWalk Kansas City.

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


Feb. 23-24, 2008, weekend

WILL POPE SEE CUBA? MAYBE SI

With Fidel Castro on retirement, will Pope Benedict XVI make a trip to Cuba? This report suggests it might happen. Castro didn't treat religion well, as I noted here the other day on the blog, but he couldn't destroy it.

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THE BRITS GOING GODLESS?

A new report from the United Nations suggests that two-thirds of British citizens claims no allegiance to any religion and, thus, the Church of English should be disestablished. Well, I'd disestablish any religion in any country if I were monarch of the world and give no direct state support to any religion. But the two-thirds figure is sort of surprising. Wonder if other studies will confirm that.

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THE METHODISTS AND THE JEWS

As a Presbyterian I certainly know that relations between various Christian denominations and the various branches that make up the American Jewish community can at times be difficult.

Israeli_palestinianThe Presbyterian Church (USA) needlessly angered many Jews a couple of years ago when its national government body decided, without consultation with Jews, to consider divesting of its stock in companies that were profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many ways, that issue still is unresolved.

But now a part of the United Methodist Church, which also has considered a divestment program, is running into serious criticism from some Jewish groups and leaders who are dismayed by a United Methodist "Mission Study" publication on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published last year. The link here will not get you the whole study but, rather, a description of it and a way to order it. The study has been published by the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the church.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) says in this report that the author of the study, a Methodist clergyman named Stephen Goldstein, concludes that Jews are too paranoid and psychologically scarred by the Holocaust to be trusted with self-determination.

Well, you can read the CAMERA report for yourself and look over the outline of the church's study guide. You also can click here to read a statement from the General Board of Global Ministries defending the study guide. For a quite different view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from that offered by critics of the UMC study, you can go to such organizations as the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

But what I think is important to remember here is that faith communities, even when they think they may be talking only to themselves, never are isolated completely from other faith communities. So what Presbyterians or Methodists say about Jews inevitably will be read and interpreted by Jews. What Jews say about Muslims inevitably will be read and interpreted by Muslims. What the Muslims say about Christians . . . well, you get the idea.

That recognition does not require us to change our minds about out beliefs but it does require us to imagine how others will hear what we're saying and to decide whether we can say it in a way that more accurately reflects what we mean and that can be heard by others.

Some of what I've read in this Methodist study would, were I Jewish, make me dismayed, too. And now I think its up to the United Methodist Church to be in consultation with Jewish leaders to begin a conversation to see if each can understand the other better.

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P.S.: The OnFaith blog of the Washington Post has been doing a series of celebrity faith video interviews. The most recent one is with evangelist Rick Warren. Click here to view it.

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NOTICE: For the comments section here on the blog, I'm going to try something new -- required registration with a legitimate e-mail address. When you seek to leave a comment now you will be required to give the Typepad system such an address. In addition, no comments will be published until I have read and approved them. That's the only way now I know to stop further abuse and spamming. Registration is free and not very complicated. Because my schedule is varied and busy, it sometimes may take a long time before your comments are published. Other times it may happen quickly. I'm not making these changes to eliminate discussion but, rather, because I don't want to provide a forum for the kind of ugly incivility that plagues our culture. Again, my goal is not to censor messages for content but to keep commenters to five posts a day with a maximum of 300 words each and with no profanity.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend talks about why people of faith sometimes just talk the talk instead of walking the walk.)


Feb. 22, 2008

IVY LEAGUE MEETS THE MORMONS

Maybe it's something of a post-Romney effect, but whatever the cause, Harvard University is going to offer a course on Mormonism. The religion is attracting more religious studies scholars than ever. Given a choice of religions to study at the university level, would you pick Mormonism?

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TAKING TIME TO LEARN

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- One of the great benefits of living in Kansas City is the wide variety of cultural and educational events offered by the many colleges, universities and other institutions in our area, from Kansas State University here in Manhattan to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, to the many schools in Kansas City and east to the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Browning2The other evening, for instance, my bookwriting partner (see "Holocaust Book Project" under "Check this out" on the right side of this page) came here to Kansas State University to hear Prof. Christopher Browning (pictured here) of the University of North Carolina speak about his upcoming Holocaust-related book.

Browning is best known for his riveting book Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. His upcoming book, due out next year, will be about Jewish slave labor camps in Poland.

He spent an hour describing his work on the new project and taking questions and was quite well received by an auditorium nearly full of people, mostly students, many of whom no doubt had been assigned to go hear him deliver this year's Eisenhower lecture.

The Holocaust naturally interests me because of the book I'm working on, but it should interest all of us because of what it can teach us about the human capacity of evil and for what we can do in our time and place to create an atmosphere of understanding and compassion. So I encourage people of all faiths, not just Jews and Christians, to learn about this horrific history and find ways to teach it to our children.

Another upcoming opportunity to do just that in the Kansas City area will be March 11. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education will be presenting a program called "Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS." The link I've given you will provide the details you need to attend.

It's required of us that we remember our history, including history in which our religions have played important roles.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about religion's reliance on ancient words.)


Feb. 21, 2008

DEBATING THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST

In the list of new faith-related books I mentioned on the blog this past weekend I included Bart Ehrman's God's Problem about why we suffer and why he thinks the Bible doesn't help to explain that. Some of you know that Ehrman is going to be at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City on Feb. 28 to debate Christian apologist Mike R. Licona on the question of whether the resurrection of Christ is provable. At any rate, National Public Radio has done an interview with Ehrman and provided an excerpt from his new book at this site. So you can read his approach and then click here to read Licona's approach if you want to prepare to attend this debate.

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WHEN SHOULD CONSCIENCE RULE?

I want to move outside a tight focus on religious matters today to talk about a matter of ethics and how individuals and nations decide what is moral and ethical.

Olympics_2To do that, I first note that Steven Spielberg recently resigned as artistic director for the Beijing Olympic Committee about half a year before the games there are to begin. He said his conscience would not allow him to continue, and he clearly had in mind the many ways in which China's human rights record is simply abysmal and the way China is increasingly involved in an unhelpful way in Africa.

This commentary suggests that others, including athletes, follow Spielberg's example and do the right thing. I think the author -- who writes under a false name -- raises some excellent points. And I certainly know from having read, for instance, the most recent annual report on China from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (scroll down in the report to page 120), that China has a terrible record in this area and that those of us who cherish religious freedom as a foundational human right must protest what has been happening there.

At the same time, I have enormous sympathy for amateur (don't laugh) athletes who spend years training to compete at the Olympic level. Should they become pawns in an international chess game of geopolitics?

And yet don't individual athletes also have an obligation to examine the conditions in which they are asked to compete and then to examine their own consciences to see whether they can do that without violating their own ethical and moral standards? And should they not earlier have put pressure on Olympic officials who decided to pick China as the location of the next Olympics, knowing that China wanted to use this opportunity to deflect criticism of its state policies?

So there are countless questions here, but, in the end, I think everyone -- from people like Spielberg to athletes to corporate sponsors to TV viewers -- must decide what is ethical behavior. And I applaud Spielberg for highlighting this issue by his action.

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


Feb. 20, 2008

A GRANT TO STUDY RELIGIOUS ATTRACTION

Some folks at Oxford University plan to spend some John Templeton Foundation money to study why humans worship God. Why does this seem to me just a way for researchers to tap into grant money? Maybe I shouldn't be so skeptical, but I'm going to have to see the results of this one to convince me it's worthwhile.

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THE CALL FOR REFORM IN ISLAM

One of the questions often asked by non-Muslims about Islam is whether Islam can have or is ready for a reformation.

IslamcrescentIn some ways this is an odd and inappropriate question -- not because change is unthinkable but because the term reformation is by now so closely associated with Christianity and the Protestant Reformation that began in the 16th Century that it's almost impossible to transfer the term to another religion in a very different time and have it mean much.

Still, there is talk about reform both inside and outside of Islam, and if we can find a respectful way to think about it -- which means, in part, hearing what Muslims themselves think about it, it's a subject worthy of all our attention.

That's why I was interested in reading this interview with Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a Muslim who has a fascinating personal history and who has paid careful attention to how changes might occur within Islam -- changes that might begin, for example, with better exegetical work on the Qur'an so that more than one interpretation can be offered as legitimate.

For instance, in the interview to which I've linked you, pay special attention to how three passages from the Qur'an which have been the subject of literalistic and thus violent interpretations can have quite a different meaning when properly understood. And it's clear that Dr. Hamid believes the violent interpretation of these verses is badly misguided.

As I've said before, the battle for the heart and soul of Islam is one that Muslims themselves will have to fight. Non-Muslims, like me, can't do that for them, though there are ways in which we can encourage supporters of traditional Islam.

But I think it's helpful to know that voices such as Tawfik Hamid's are out there and trying to make a difference in this struggle.

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P.S.: With the resignation yesterday of Fidel Castro, I thought you might be interested in the state of religious freedom under this guy. Yikes. For last year's annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Relations, click here, then scroll down to page 255. And for the U.S. State Department's report on religious freedom in Cuba, click here. And for a bit more historical background, click here.

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NOTICE: I regret to report that my good-faith experiment of leaving open the comments section on previous postings has failed. They, too, became the targets of abuse and spam. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, in the space of 10 or 15 minutes I had to delete half a dozen posts that contained profanity or in other ways violated the posting rules (five posts max a day, 300 words max each). And this was after I made an out-of-town trip late yesterday afternoon and evening and found upon checking things this morning that I had to delete other comments. So the comments section will be open now only when I can monitor comments and only on the day I posted the entry. I really am sorry it has come to this, but I just don't have time for any other approach.

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


Feb. 19, 2008

THE DRAW OF MILITANT ISLAM

If you missed this New York Times piece this week about the growing influence of religion in the Middle East, it's well worth a read. When I was last in Egypt in 2002, there was plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, and the failures of governments in the region since then have added to the attraction of radical versions of Islam as an answer (a bad answer) to problems.

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COMMEMORATING A BIBLE TRANSLATOR

Now and then, as regular readers of this blog know, I like to take note of religious history by commemorating some event. And today it's the death on this date in 1568 of Miles Coverdale (depicted here).

CoverdaleWho?

Miles Coverdale -- you know, the translator and publisher of the first complete Bible to be printed in English. That happened in 1535, in the early stages of the Protestant Reformation. (Yes, William Tyndale translated the Greek New Testament into English in 1525, but not the whole Bible.)

Coverdale also edited what was called the Great Bible, published in 1539. Life in Britain at that time was pretty unpredictable, as the monarchy moved back and forth between Catholic and Protestant allegiance until Henry VIII created the Church of England in 1534. So Coverdale spent much of his life outside England to escape heresy charges.

The remarkable and wonderful thing to me about all of this is the hunger people felt for sacred writ in a language that was their own. In an upcoming column, I'll say more about our attraction to ancient words, but the reality is that words that are 2,000 or 3,000 years old in many faith traditions continue to speak to us today. And guys like Coverdale were an important link in that chain.

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