MOVING THE POPE'S HEART
UPDATE: The pope on Saturday again spoke about the sexual abuse scandal, this time at a Mass in New York. Words from a pope don't solve everything but you can't move toward a resolution of this mess without them.
Some of the stories that victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church told Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to the U.S. are starting to emerge. Everything changes (or can) when you look people in the eye. I hope the pope has a much deeper understanding of what this scandal has done to damage so many lives, and I'm glad he was willing to open himself up to the possibility of learning more about that. Now the question is what difference the pope's meeting with victims will have on church policy and practice.
ALSO: For a text of Benedict's address Friday to the United Nations, click here. Yes, it begins in French, but keep going and eventually you'll find the English version. Notice two things in the speech: First, his emphasis on "the innate dignity of every man and woman." That idea is what author Glenn Tinder calls the "spiritual center of Western politics," and the pope is right to worry that we are losing it. But, second, notice after that remark his insistence that when it comes to violations of human rights around the globe, "it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage." Isn't that one of the primary lessons of the priest abuse scandal? How often did bishops and others show indifference and fail to intervene -- or worse, act in ways that would insure the abuse would continue?
AND: I was really glad to see Benedict visit a New York synagogue Friday. (For another version of the story, click here.) Maybe it will help smooth relations with Jews who were properly upset when the pope's recent revision of a Good Friday prayer did not go far enough but, instead, continued the long Christian tradition of devaluing Judaism. And click here for the text of the pope's brief remarks at the synagogue.
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FAITH-BASED BOOKS TO KEEP YOU IN THE KNOW
Yes, it's fascinating -- or can be -- to watch and read and listen via the media as events unfold. Heaven knows where we'd be without newspapers, TV, radio, the Web, magazines and such. But often the only way to take a step back and understand things in perspective is by reading books.
So in this blog book column, you'll find mention of several books that seek to do that with news developments that somehow touched the world of faith.
Let's start with three, each related to some news event:
* In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, by Bishop V. Gene Robinson. When Episcopalians in New Hampshire chose an openly gay man as their bishop in 2003, it created a white-hot debate within (and outside of) the church. Robinson now describes his work as bishop in this book, and makes the interesting point that he's quite theologically conservative despite his insistence (a point of view that matches mine) that the Bible does not condemn what we are starting to understand as homosexual orientation. He offers a solid, though not overly long, argument for that position. The book has a good foreward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says he's proud to count Robinson a leader in his community of faith. You'll have a much better understanding of Robinson through this book.
* When Answers Aren't Enough: Experiencing God as Good When Life Isn't, by Matt Rogers. Just a year ago, on April 16, 2007, 33 Virginia Tech students died in a campus massacre. The author had been co-pastor of a campus church for just a year when this catastrophe struck. In this book, he tries to sort through the old questions of theodicy -- why there is evil in the world if God is good. What recommends this book is that it doesn't go for easy answers. The section on whether God "allows" evil to happen is especially good in that regard.
* The Power of Forgiveness, by Kenneth Briggs, based on a film by Martin Doblmeier. This book is not about just the shootings of Amish girls at a school in Pennsylvania in 2006 and the astonishingly forgiving way the Amish reacted to that. But it includes a look at that as it offers various voices examining what forgiveness means and how it can make the world saner.
Now some other books you might want to consider:
* Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland, by Brennan Pursell. The author considers Pope Benedict XVI a "rare genius of a man," and tries to help readers understand the pope by knowing more about where he came from in Germany. It's a helpful book but at times gives the pope an easy pass for some of the controversy he's stirred up on occasion. For instance, Pursell essentially blames the hostile Muslim reaction to Benedict's 2006 speech in Regensburg on the media. That's way too simplistic an explanation of what happened. Still, you'll come away with a much better feel for Benedict's roots by reading this one.
* The Signs of the Times: Understanding the Church Since Vatican II, by Father Richard W. Gilsdorf, edited by Patrick F. Beno. Father Gilsdorf, who died in 2005, was a longtime parish priest in Wisconsin. This collection of his work reflects his deep loyalty to the Vatican and his discomfort with reforms that seem to him to be hurting the church. In an open letter to Catholic bishops, for instance, he asks "why. . .does the cult of liberal acclaim mesmerize so many of you?" Catholic Word, the consortium of publishers that includes the publisher of this book, says it publishes "only titles in line with the teachings of the Church."
Now three that deal with the connection between religion and violence -- or at least zealotry:
* Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by Bruce Chilton. The author, both a professor of religion and an Episcopal priest, focuses on the biblical story (also told in the Qur'an, though with a different son) of God asking Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice. Chilton then uses that story as the lens through which to see religious violence today. The book has some useful insights but at times seems to rely too heavily on one story and sometimes is not nuanced enough in its observations. For instance, Chilton says that the "West has. . .moved almost seamlessly from an apocalyptic confrontation with Communism to an apocalyptic confrontation with Islam." Well, no, not with Islam. Rather with people who abuse Islam and hide behind it for violent and political reasons. Still, Chilton's heart is in the right place and he'll at least cause you to examine what you believe about religious causes of violence.
* Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal, by Robert Jewett. The violence that exploded on Sept. 11, 2001, is far from the first evidence of religious zealotry on American soil. The author, a professor of New Testament, describes the various kinds of radical religious movements and activities over hundreds of years in the U.S. Without understanding the developments Jewett describes, it's nearly impossible to have an accurate sense of religion in America today.
* When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, by Charles Kimball. This is an updated version of the book Kimball published in 2002. The author, who teaches comparative religion at Wake Forest University, explores these warning signs of religious trouble: Claims of absolute truth, blind obedience, establishing the 'ideal' time, the end justifying the means and declaring holy war. The book will help readers think about what makes religion healthy and what makes it toxic.
And now a collection of other books on various religious topics:
* Religion in American Politics: A Short History, by Frank Lambert. There are lots of books that cover some aspect of this subject, but this one offers a quite broad sweep and makes two essential arguments: First, that "religious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically a Christian civil religion." Secondly, it fleshes out the idea that any religious group's attempt to speak for the whole of the nation's religious heritage inevitably gets contested. And we're a healthier nation because of that. The author teaches hitory at Purdue University.
* Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, by Steven Waldman. The author, co-founder of Beliefnet.com, has written an excellent primer that helps to set the record straight about what the nation's Founding Fathers believed and what they didn't believe. The story of religious freedom in America is complicated and nuanced, and Waldman doesn't settle for simplistic answers that might satisfy culture warriors on various sides of today's issues.
* American Islam: The Strouble for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett. The author, a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, offers a revealing and often quite personal look at the widely varied lives of Muslims in America as they seek to find their place in a culture growing more religiously diverse by the day.
* Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine, by Raymon Cohen. A professor of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Cohen often walks by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He learned of the contentious relations among Christian sects in charge of various parts of the church and thought about documenting all of that in a book. But the tale he winds up telling in this book is much more about cooperation over the last five or six decades as the ancient church has been restored and rescued from decay. There still is work to be done and there still are hard feelings over this and that, but on the whole this is a story of peacemaking and hope.
* Two more now from "The Complete Idiot's Guide" series: The Catholic Catechism, by Mary DeTurris Poust, with David I. Fulton, and Rumi Meditations, by Yahiya Emerick. Several times in the past I have rolled my eyes in print at the sophomoric title of this series, but I inevitably find the books helpful and quite well done. These two are no exceptions, the first focused on essential Catholic teachings and the second on the great Muslim poet of the Middle Ages, Jalaluddin Rumi, still perhaps the top-selling poet in the U.S. today.
* Would Jesus Discriminate: The 21st Century Question, by the Rev. Cindi Love. This is the book, by the executive director of the Metropolitan Community Churches, that accompanies the national campaign to get Christians to rethink their hostility (if they haven't already) to people who are not heterosexual. She makes many of the now-familiar arguments (arguments I myself have made often) about why the Bible should not be used as a weapon against gays and lesbians and why the Christian church should welcome people of non-straight sexual orientation into the full life of the church, including ordained ministry, if they're otherwise qualified. If this is a subject you've never done more than skim past, this is a good book to give you a start. Another, which I've mentioned before, is Jack Rogers' Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church.
* The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self, by Bishop Carlton Pearson. Is there a hell? The author argues no. He attacks the idea of hell and many other notions that tend to divide and exclude. This one will challenge many beliefs held by fundamentalists.
* What's the Shape of Narrative Preaching?, edited by Mike Graves and David J. Schlafer. I may be coming back to this book later either here on the blog or in a column. It's been published as a way to honor the Rev. Eugene L. Lowry, an emeritus professor at Kansas City's St. Paul School of Theology, a pioneer in the field of narrative preaching. For anyone familiar with the Rev. Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of our time (who has an essay in this book), you'll appreciate the fact that Gene's work has built on Craddock's in moving modern preaching away from more formal theological explication to more storytelling and an engagement with the hearts of those in the congregation. Gene is not only a gifted preacher and teacher but also a fabulous jazz pianist and he's used all that in his ministry. Yes, this is a pretty specialized book, but there's lots in it for anyone who's ever heard a sermon.
* Left Behind: Answered Verse by Verse, by David A. Reed. Using various passages of scripture, the author seeks to undermine the theological notions behind the "Left Behind" series of books that were so popular a few years ago. It's a worthy effort, but for my money, The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing, which appeared in 2004, does a better job.
* The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord, by Phyllis Tickle. This popular writer and speaker on religious subjects has organized the biblical words of Jesus by category. In commentary that leads into the sayings, Tickle eloquently makes it clear why it's necessary -- and life changing -- for Christians to take these words prayerfully, thoughtfully and seriously. She's a lovely writer.
* Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual LIfe, by Jeremy Langford. This is really a small self-help book. It has a Jesuit sensibility to it and, laced with some good personal stories, some good exercises to help you establish some spiritual disciplines.
* The Strait Key: Decoding the Mystery of One's Destiny, by Robert Mayhawk. I like to encourage local authors, and Mayhawk lives in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kan. He describes here what he calls his spiritual depletion, which hit in the early 1980s in New York, and he draws on Christian resources to find his spiritual balance.
* To Be Chosen, a novel by Michael Travis Jasper. This is another local author. He lives in Kansas City. It's the fantastical story of a demonic invasion of Earth and how an unlikely collection of people are called to combat it. The idea is that each of us is called to help humanity and improve the world, no matter our backgrounds.
* Eve"s Bible: A Woman's Guide to the Old Testament, by Sarah S. Forth. Although called a guide for women, this exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures should help men understand more about their meaning and intent, too. The author wants to reinterpret some familiar passages without throwing out all questions about scriptural authority. This looks like a fascinating book for study groups.
* How Jesus Became Christian, by Barrie Wilson. Well, what a non-surprise to find yet another book suggesting that the Apostle Paul hijacked a Jewish Jesus to start a new religion. Wilson seems to reject the persuasive scholarship known as the "New Perspective on Paul," arguing instead that Paul's "Christ Movement" differed radically from the "Jesus Movement" of the apostles and that Paul sought to create "a separate religion from Judaism." The New Perspective folks beg to differ. Those of you who follow these arguments about the origins of Christianity will have to read this one to see where it fits in the ongoing debate. I lean toward the non-Wilson side of the argument.
* Glimpses of Heaven: True Stories of Hope & Peace at the End of Life's Journey, by Trudy Harris. The author is a former hospice nurse, and she draws on that experience to describe the various comforting ways people near their deaths see a future afterlife opening up to them.
* Central Casting: The Lord's Table at the Heart of Faith, by Glenn Thomas Carson.The author, a former Kansas Citian who now is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, offers here a brief meditation on -- and explanation of -- the Christian sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist. It's only 75 small pages but will give readers a clear look at Holy Communion from this Protestant perspective.
* The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time, by Tom Sine. Anyone familiar with Sine's book Wild Hope, as I am (Sine spoke at my church some years ago) will want to read this one. It focuses on new ways Christians are incarnating the gospel in various places around the world as they move into a future that will demand the best of them.
* Sinister Among Us, a novel by William B. Bradshaw. The author holds a Ph.D. from St. Andrews, Scotland, in the field of demonology. Drawing on that, he creates a story in which the main character confronts satanic forces. People intrigued by questions of personified evil will be drawn to this one.
* For Pete's Sake, a novel by Linda Windsor. I usually don't mention novels in blog book columns but because I've already broken that rule here, let me point you to this story of unlikely love. It's No. 2 in "The Pope Cove Chronicles," and raises the question of whether God and faith can move people toward a love that will be fulfilling instead of a love that simply seems appropriate at first.
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P.S.: For some more good books, ones recommended by a friend at her blog, click here and then scroll down to her April 11 entry.
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ANOTHER P.S.: I'll be walking in the AIDSWalk Kansas City fundraiser next Saturday, April 26. If you want to contribute to this great cause, click on the AIDS walk headline under the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page. And thanks for whatever you can do.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column this weekend is about remembering the religious lessons of the April 19, 1993, Waco fire at the home of the Branch Davidians.)
Today's religious holidays: Passover begins (Judaism, 20th); Lazarus Saturday (Orthodox Christianity, 19th); Hanuman Jayanti (Hinduism, 20th); Palm Sunday (Orthodox Christianity, 20th); Start of Theravadin New Year (Buddhism, 20th).