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March 31, 2008


Peter Steinfels, who used to cover religion regularly for the New York Times and now writes a religion column for the paper, has produced this good commentary about the pope's upcoming visit and the silliness you might expect from some segments of the media. Steinfels, now co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, is right, I think, to suggest that all of us should not think we know ahead of time what Benedict XVI will say and do and think. Nor should the media pretend to be shocked by information about the church that's been true for decades.

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I'm going to use today's 377th anniversary of the death of the poet John Donne (depicted here) to talk a bit about religious poetry and to ask what role, if any, it plays today.

DonneDonne, as you may know, was born into an English Catholic family in 1572, when anti-Catholic sentiment ran high there. He eventually became a poet with both romantic and profoundly religious sensibilities, and was able to give poetic voice to various theological ideas, including the ultimate weakness of death ("Death be not proud" from Holy Sonnet X) and the importance of the idea that God built us for relationship ("No man is an island, entire of itself" from Meditation XVII).

Metaphysical poetry before and after Donne has played an important role. Among 20th century poets influenced by him were W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Eliot, as you may know, was a Missouri native who eventually made England his home and eventually became a Roman Catholic. Among my favorite Eliot poems is one about part of the Christmas story, "The Journey of the Magi."

Do you read religious or metaphysical poetry today beyond the lyrics of hymns or praise music? If so, who qualifies as a religious poet today (besides Bob Dylan) in your view? And what difference does religious poetry make? I'm told, by the way, that the most popular poet in America today is Rumi, a favorite among people who follow the mystic, or Sufi, tradition of Islam.

To end today, I'll share with you one in the series of poems I've written about people I have known who have died of AIDS:


The corrugated rattle of death --

that raspy, rhythmic gurgle

of life slipping away

I've learned to hate --

I heard first in your throat.

You wanted to be

several years younger,

when you could talk

above a pained whisper.

But time's rules are hard,

and when your noise stopped

you were gone and still.

Gone and, I hoped, singing.

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

March 29-30, 2008, weekend


In Texas there's a struggle over how to teach about the Bible in public schools starting next year, this report says. I'm convinced it's possible to teach this subject without violating constitutional standards and that some basic biblical literacy is important in our culture. But it's crucial to do it right so that it doesn't turn into a stealth evangelism effort at taxpayer expense.

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A new poll offers depressing evidence of the gullibility -- or appalling know-nothing ignorance -- of some Americans in showing that 10 percent of us think Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim. This must come as a special surprise to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Get a grip, people.

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It was 126 years ago Saturday that the Knights of Columbus was founded. The first chapter of this Roman Catholic lay fraternal society was chartered in New Haven, Conn. So the K of C has spent this past year celebrating its 125th anniversary.

KofcIf the K of C history and present interest you, you can surf around on the two links I've given to find out more about this 1.7-million-member organization, which has long been a promoter of the interests of the Catholic Church.

I want to use the anniversary of the founding of this group to raise the question of what role what I might call para-religious organizations play today. Well, para-religious may not be the right term. That term -- or para-church -- often is applied to independent religious groups such as Youth for Christ.

But nearly every Christian denomination and many other religions have created various organizations that wind up being, in effect, satellite groups.

In the Jewish tradition, for instance, there's Hadassah, which calls itself the women's Zionist organization of America. Similarly, an old Presbyterian group was known as the Mariners but today is called Presbyterian Families.

What's your experience with such groups? Do they serve a useful function or are they in some way competition for the time and energy of adherents of this or that religion?

My own guess is that these organizations tend to be positive -- not negative -- adjuncts to religions but may from time to time adopt positions or get into activities that are seen to be in tension with the religions that spawned them. An example might be Opus Dei, the Catholic group that got so much bad press because of the way Dan Brown portrayed it in his novel The DaVinci Code.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk in Kansas City to raise funds for local AIDS service organizations now is less than a month away. I'll be walking in it. If you'd like to help, click on the "AIDS Walk 2008" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and make a pledge. Lots of needy people will be grateful to you.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about marital infidelity and what religion has to say about it.)

March 28, 2008


The Vatican says it's interested in a proposal by the king of Saudi Arabia to hold interfaith discussions among Christians, Muslims and Jews. I talked about this proposal earlier this week. Hope everyone remembers that the primary purpose of such talks is not conversion.

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Anyone who wants to stay relatively current on developments in a particular field -- oh, say, religion -- needs multiple sources.

InterfaithIf you get all your news from one newspaper, magazine, Web site or broadcast outlet, you'll wind up not only ignorant but probably stuck with a biased sense of what's really happening in the world.

So today I'm happy to introduce you (if you haven't already met) to another publication that can help you understand what's happening in the faith world and how it affects your world and the cosmos. It's called Religion Watch, and is published six times a year. It recently has acquired a new publisher, the Religioscope Institute, the Web site of which is also helpful in keeping folks up to speed on the fast-changing world of faith.

Although Religion Watch limits what non-subscribers can read on its Web site, there's still quite a bit there to give you a good sense of whether it's a publication to which you'd like to subscribe. And even if you don't subscribe, the information available under "Recent Issue" heading is pretty substantial.

I recommend you pay attention to Web site's internal search function called "Trendsetter." That can give you a decent sense of how the magazine covers whatever topic interests you.

In some ways, Religion Watch is like a briefing paper, with stories drawn from many sources. I have been aware of the publication but haven't ever read it much. News of its change from an independent newsletter to its new publisher, however, reminds me that I might want to sign up.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk in Kansas City to raise funds for local AIDS service organizations now is less than a month away. I'll be walking in it. If you'd like to help, click on the "AIDS Walk 2008" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and make a pledge. Lots of needy people will be grateful to you.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about marital infidelity and what religion has to say about it.)

March 27, 2008


That's the topical question columnist Robert Scheer asks in this piece. Poor God. The Almighty gets drafted into one army after another, gets enlisted on behalf of this or that political party, this or that football team, this or that social cause, this or that religion. Still, at least it must be nice to be wanted.

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I'm always a little wary of media watchdog groups that have as their purpose exposing "liberal bias" or "anti-religious bias" or any other kind of bias in the media.

AtheismThese groups tend to have their own biases and agendas. Still, they sometimes issue interesting studies and make all of us think.

An example is a new report from the Culture and Media Institute of the Media Research Center. The report, called "Apostles of Atheism," describes the group's effort to monitor coverage of atheism in various media forms.

The conclusion: Atheism gets promoted in the media in ways traditional religions don't. The first link I've given you in the first sentence of the previous paragraph will provide a secondary link to the full report. Or you can just click here to read that full report.

I'm not here to defend the media's coverage of religion or atheism. As regular readers of this blog know, I think the media generally do an inadequate job covering religion. The problem is many faceted. Newspapers and other media outlets don't devote enough resources to this coverage. Readers and views don't demand better. And there's lots of theological ingorance among media executives.

But I think there may be another aspect to the considerable coverage that atheism got last year besides any alleged pro-atheist bias in the media. And that has to do with the definition of news. News is what is out of the ordinary. So war and crime will always be news as long as war and crime are not the normal states of the human condition but, rather, aberrations (I know, that's getting debatable).

So when several books promoting atheism come along and start to sell well, that's a story, given that the normal state of affairs in the book world is that the Bible outsells everything. The new public attention to atheism is interesting, different, unusual. So it attracts media attention for those reasons, not necessarily because the media wants everybody to chuck religion and become atheists.

Well, read the study today if you like. And tell us what you think.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk in Kansas City to raise funds for local AIDS service organizations now is less than a month away. I'll be walking in it. If you'd like to help, click on the "AIDS Walk 2008" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and make a pledge. Lots of needy people will be grateful to you.

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

March 26, 2008


Some good news from Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah wants to invite representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths to a conference to talk about common ground and "ways to defend humanity." And the call has been picked up by the Saudi foreign minister. It may be hard to believe, but Abdullah, whom I met in 2002 when I was with a group of journalists who traveled to the Saudi kingdom, is in some ways a reformer. Yes, his House of Saud has run an oppressive regime since his father became the country's first king in the 1930s. But Abdullah, unlike some others in his large, rich family, seems to sense the need for some political, economic and maybe even religious reform. Whether this small interfaith dialogue gesture will turn into anything useful is uncertain, but it's clearly a slap in the face to radical Muslims (remember than 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis) who view Christians and Jews as evil infidels. But if it turns into Wahhabi leaders lecturing Christians and Jews, it will fail.

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Many regular readers of this blog know I've been working with a local rabbi on a book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust, or Shoah, with non-Jewish help. For more information about that project, click on the "Holocaust book project" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

PolandThe work took me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn to Poland last August to do a series of interviews, mostly with members of families who helped to save Jews. There weren't many Polish non-Jews who did this. In fact, more than 90 percent of Poland's nearly 3.5 million Jews perished in the Holocaust.

But while we were there we got at least some sense of the reality that a Jewish presence is returning to Poland today. The estimates for the size of the Jewish community there vary, but most guesses put the number of people who would identify themselves today as Jews in Poland at a few thousand -- between 5,000 and 30,000, say.

There is evidence of interest in Jewish life, for sure. There are Jewish restaurants and Jewish festivals, but most of this is created by non-Jews for non-Jews.

But Hadassah Magazine has done a good update on how the re-emergence of Jewish life in Poland is going this days. And it's worth a read, even if you have little interest in Poland or Judaism because it offers a sense of how new life is possible even in the aftermath of the most horrific history imaginable.

One of the leaders of the Reform community in Poland told us that he really needs at least half a dozen more rabbis to locate in Polish urban centers so that everyone with an interest in Judaism can have the chance to explore what that life might mean. But so far it's difficult to get such people to come to Poland and there's not much of an educational system yet designed to produce rabbis.

By the way, one of the people mentioned in the Hadassah piece will be featured in our book, the Rev. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, born a Jew, but reared by a Catholic family and now a Catholic priest and teacher. We interviewed him in Lublin.

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

Today's religious holiday: Khordad Sal (Birth of Prophet Zaranhushtra; Zoroastrianism)

March 25, 2008


The other day, the leader of Libya, Col. Gaddafi (why has he never risen above the rank of colonel?), suggested the Bible was forged because it didn't mention the Prophet Muhammad. Now Christian leaders in Uganda are suggesting he be forgiven for such anachronistic stupidity. Ah, if only everyone were so charitable.

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This past Good Friday evening, I was sitting with my wife and some friends in the sanctuary of Community Christian Church of Kansas City, which is near Main and 47th (or Cleaver II Boulevard) streets on the east edge of the Country Club Plaza shopping district. (The photo here shows the front of the sanctuary there.)

Stour8We were about to hear a presentation of Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ," an event at which I have been a speaker in the past.

There was a low murmur from the crowd as we waited for the music and meditations to begin. But over that sound I suddenly became aware of loud muffler noise from a large truck moving down the Main Street hill outside.

And I was struck again by the sometimes-difficult truth that religion that focuses so completely on interior things, on personal needs, on inward spirituality and has nothing to say to the truck drivers going by is, in the end, pretty useless.

Twice later in the midst of this lovely event I heard sirens outside -- police, perhaps, or an ambulance or fire truck, screaming toward some emergency somewhere that had put someone or someones in jeopardy.

And I wondered what words Christ would say to whoever was in trouble. More, I wondered what he would do for them. Even more, I wondered what all of us sitting comfortably in the sanctuary listening to stirring music and challenging words would say or do for them. And isn't that, finally, one of the most important questions of religion?

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

Today's religious holiday: Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (Christianity)

March 24, 2008


As we have just marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, it seems appropriate to ponder the strength of radical Islam. This commentary from The New York Times does just that -- and with pretty clear eyes, I think. I'm not quite as pessimistic as this writer, but close.

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I mentioned here recently that if you want to follow preparations for Pope Benedict XVI's April visit to the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is offering this Web site.

PopebenedictxviBut because a papal visit is both rare and potentially important for many reasons, I thought you also might enjoy this preparation piece about the trip by the best Vatican analyst around, John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter.

John calls it a one-stop guide to the trip, and, indeed, it is long and comprehensive. When you combine it with the bishops' site, I think you'll pretty much be up to speed on what you need to know.

Because I'm not Catholic, some of the pope's trip will interest me only for journalistic reasons, not for reasons that might apply to adherents. But other parts of the trip should engage all of us, especially the pope's address to the United Nations.

There, as John Allen notes, he'll be speaking to the entire world, and in some sense his job, given the bully pulpit he'll have, will be to represent all people of faith and to speak a clear and forceful word on behalf of faith and the universal values the great religions share.

Given this pope's occasional tone-deafness about how his words will be perceived by others outside the church, I hope someone with international sensitivities is vetting his speech so later he doesn't have to give either an apology or a "what I really meant was" response.

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

March 22-23, 2008


Just in time for Easter, a new book, which I have not yet read, suggests that Jesus would be angry at what has been created in his name. This review, however, leaves me wondering if one more scholar has misread and misunderstood the role of Paul. If so, the author may have everything else out of line, too. Is this the sort of book you eagerly acquire or the sort you avoid, rolling your eyes at another debunking of Jesus?

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Muslims in Afghanistan again are protesting those Danish cartoons. Fine, but doesn't it make more sense to protest the poverty, war and political corruption rampant there?

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On this Easter weekend, when those of us who are Christian (except for the Orthodox, who will celebrate April 27) are celebrating the most sacred time on the church calendar, I'm not going to fill up your time reading lots of my words.

Easter2007But I have found some interesting Web sites that offer lots of information about Easter, not just in its religious meaning but also in its non-Christian sources, which is to say its connections to stories and customs that predated the first Easter, when we believe Jesus was raised from the dead.

For instance, this holiday site has, on the left side of its opening page, a list of almost two dozen topics related to Easter you might find interesting. Tell me if you learn anything there.

For similar information in more narrative form, click here.

The Religious Tolerance site offers this collection of Easter information.

Finally, if you want to read one or more of a stack of Easter sermons from ancient and modern times, click here.

Easter and/or Purim and/or something else blessings to all of you.

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P.S.: Saturday is the three and a half year anniversary of the blog. Not sure what the appropriate way to celebrate is. Maybe e-mail myself congratulations. Or something.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend explores the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.)

March 21, 2008


An actress says she's given up her Mormon religion because she got "too lazy" to practice it. Sound like someone missed way too many Good Friday sermons.

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Perhaps regular readers of this blog and my column are tired of me urging people to attend funerals, but I attended another one a few days ago and discovered yet another good reason to go to them.

ReligpolThis one was for a wonderful man in my church who was 85 years old at his death. He was a banker with as much moral integrity as I've ever known in anyone. He was active in many ways in our congregation as well as in the community in many civic and charitable endeavors.

I won't say he was a close friend, but I liked him and he liked me and now and then we'd have more than a passing conversation.

But in the nearly 30 years that I knew him, I don't think either of us had ever discussed politics in any depth with each other. So it was with some surprise that one of the people who eulogized this man at his funeral mentioned the time he said that so-and-so would be good for the position (a position that, as I recall, may have been son-in-law) "as long as he's not a Democrat."

Everyone laughed, knowing that the man had said it in a humorous way, and yet this man felt a rather deep connection to the Republican Party. So it wasn't meant entirely as a joke.

As a result of the comment, I began to think about my congregation in political terms, and I found it quite difficult to do. Oh, for sure there are some people who would identify themselves as liberal Democrats and there are some who would call themselves conservative Republicans -- and my guess is the former have been increasing in number in recent years while the latter have been dwindling at least a little. But that's just a guess.

The reality is that we don't spend a lot of time as a congregation delving into partisan politics. Rather, we spend time figuring out how to be faithful to the gospel, how to be useful to our society, how to make a difference for good in the lives of people with many needs and how to integrate whatever our political beliefs are into our call to love God and love our neighbor.

Which means the man whose funeral I attended and I could be partners in many ways even if we might have political disgreements (no, I'm not announcing I'm a Democrat; rather, as a journalist, I'm politically independent and non-partisan, but I do hold personal political opinions).

So going to his funeral gave me another reason to appreciate being a member of a congregation in which a wide variety of people can coexist -- and not just coexist but actually engage in ministry together that essentially has nothing to do with any partisan political positions.

Isn't that how people of faith are meant to work together?

P.S.: And if you missed my extra column in yesterday's paper about the Obama-Wright controversy, click here.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will use the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit in Kansas City as an occasion to talk about the Christian idea of the resurrection of the body and its connection to Easter.)

Today's religious holidays: Good Friday (Christianity); Purim (Judaism); Norous (Zoroastrianism New Year); Naw Ruz (Baha'i New Year); Magha Puja (Buddhism)

March 20, 2008


Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to improve the Vatican's relations with the Chinese government as well as with Catholic churches in China that have been operating with independence from Vatican oversight. So he was slow to respond publicly to the crisis in Tibet. But Wednesday he spoke out. Geo-political-religious relations always seem to require some compromise. But that's because the world is complicated and doesn't operate in only black and white, as lots of folks seem to wish.

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Over the years there's been lots of debate about whether the United States is now or ever was a "Christian nation" and about what the religious beliefs and intentions of the nation's founders were.

Waldman_2Among the good recent books about this subject, I recommend Forrest Church's So Help Me God. (I mentioned Forrest the other day here on the blog.) But Steven Waldman, the founder of, has just come out with one I haven't yet read but that looks good -- and, it has the added advantage of being tied to a whole new archive of material on a Beliefnet site by and about the founders that you can reach by clicking here.

The archive is not exhaustive but it appears to be extensive enough to give you a good feel for what lots of different people said on different topics. And you can search either by author or by topic.

Click on Thomas Jefferson, for instance, and you'll get 23 entries. Or click on John Adams and you'll turn up 18 results.

Two things bother me about many discussions having to do with the founders and religion. One is that many people want to dismiss the importance of religion to them. A second is that many people don't want to acknowledge that the nation has evolved through various laws, constitutional amendments and case law to be different in many ways from the country the Pilgrims thought they were starting to create.

At any rate, Waldman's collection should give all of us some help when trying to nail down what various members of our nation's founders thought about religious matters.

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P.S.: I've written a special extra column today examining the controversy over Barack Obama's former pastor.

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Former Kansas City Star reporter Karen Blakeman and others who teach journalism at the University of Kansas are doing a survey of people who read blogs connected to newspapers. If you participate, which I hope you will, you'll even have a chance to win $50. To read about it and do the survey, click here. The idea is to help scholars understand the way poeple use blogs connected to newspapers, and there's been precious little academic research into that subject. So, if you can, lend these KU J-School folks a hand -- even if, like me, you're a Missouri grad.

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

Today's religious holidays: Maundy Thursday (Christianity); Mawlid an Nabi (Islam); Ostara (Wicca; Northern Hemisphere); Mabon (Wicca; Southern Hemisphere).