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April 30, 2008


The president of Afghanistan correctly notes that Islam has "an enemy within." Hamid Karzai is right to suggest that Muslims themselves must fight against this extremism. It can only help when voices such as Karzai's are added to those calling for Muslims to stand against the radicals in their midst.

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Are you familiar with Brian McLaren (pictured here) and the Emerging (some say Emergent) Church Movement?

Mclaren4One of his latest book is Everything Must Change, and he was talking about that and related matters in Kansas City last week when I had a chance to listen in at a leadership conference he was leading at Jacob's Well Church in Midtown.

McLaren and others in the movement are trying to figure out what Christianity should look like today and how it should be both adapting to new times and clinging to its core theology.

Naturally, that openness to change and some of his answers upset some folks, and McLaren has encountered some suspicions and even hostility from some Christians who would identify themselves as theologically conservative because he's been critical of branches of Christianity that focus on how to get individuals to heaven more than on how to get the kingdom of heaven to Earth.

After McLaren the other morning had identified the major problems facing humans today as the planet (meaning the crisis of over-consumption), poverty and peace, I asked him how the Christian answers to them might differ from answers of other faiths and whether he sees common ground for people of different faiths to work together on these issues.

I thought his response was quite cogent, and I want to quote some of it to you here:

"Our religions -- you would expect them to be mobilizing people for constuctive action in regard to these problems. But. . .instead of mobilizing people to constructively address these three problems, most often we (the major religions) are distracting people from these three problems and often we're making these problems worse -- by creating eschatologies that legitimize mass consumption, by inflaming fear of other religions and nations, which makes it a whole lot easier to imagine bombing them and wiping them out.

"I think every religion is facing this challenge to somehow disentangle itself from these sort of cycles or systems and to then insert some of their own message of hope and transformation. The best answer as to how the Christian religion differs on this is that unfortunately it doesn't if we're speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. When you start saying what we wish it would do, what I wish Christians would do is. . .I wish that we would regain an understanding of Jesus' message of the kingdom of God as being at the center of our faith and then that we would really seek to understand the message not as an evacuation gospel -- how to go to the kingdom of heaven, meaning life after death, as soon as possible, but rather how can the kingdom of God come to Earth, how can God's will be done on Earth as it is in heaven."

McLaren added that he saw some evidence that people in various religions are understanding the need to focus on the problems of the planet, poverty and peace: "The encouraging thing is that in each religion. . .there are signs of people making a difference."

Because roughly nine out of 10 people on the planet have some kind of connection with religion, it seems to me vital that religion more adequately address the problems that McLaren has identified, finding ways to work together on solutions despite our different theological approaches -- and without giving up our differences just so we don't offend others.

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

Today's religious holiday: St. James the Great Day (Orthodox Christianity)

April 29, 2008


Why does religion exist at all? A London anthropologist says it's just a product of the human imagination. So, do you think we just dreamed up all this? And does that make all of us citizens of an imagi nation?

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When I was a full-time staff member of The Kansas City Star I'd occasionally enter a writing contest sponsored by the Amy Foundation.

Amy_2The foundation sought to encourage media members to include and comment on words from the Bible in what we wrote. I never won, partly, I think, because my take on things did not often reflect what I came to understand was the Amy Foundation's theologically conservative bent. That may be an unfair characterization, and because labels hide more than they reveal, I dislike slapping them on other people. I will say, though, that there are ways in which I would describe myself as theologically conservative, though I'm guessing people who use that label proudly would not call me that.

The puzzling thing to me about the Amy Foundation awards over the years was that sometimes they were given to some really excellent writing while at other times they gave awards to stuff I thought was quite amateurish and not very thoughtful.

At any rate, the Amy Foundation has created a Web site at which various columns and commentaries are available to read. I even know a few of the writers -- not well, but a little. I've not read everything at the site, but what I see seems to be in harmony with a theological view that leads one to adopt what I might social conservatism. There's some stuff I like there and some stuff I disagree with and some stuff I don't much like at all. But I think it's helpful to read a wide variety of writers who hold a wide variety of theological stances.

So have a look and tell me what you like and don't like in the Amy collection.

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

Today's religious holiday: Ninth day of Ridvan (Baha'ism)

April 28, 2008


China continues to attack the Dalai Lama. Whoever is advising China's leaders might want to take a basic course in public relations. You don't gain anything by attacking motherhood, Mother Teresa or other things, concepts or people with 99.9 percent approval ratings.

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I love being surprised by developments or by new things I learn in this field of religion and ethics.

TwochurchesAnd here's something I just learned: There's an organization in the U.S. dedicated to "interchurch" couples. What does that mean? Each spouse belongs to a different Christian denomination, and they want to keep it that way. That is, one doesn't want to join the other's church. Beyond that, they don't want to leave both denominations and join a third. And they don't want to leave church altogether. Rather, they want to live in harmony going to two different churches.

The organization is called the American Association of Interchurch Families, and it is planning a biennial conference from June 27 to June 29 in Louisville, Ky., at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Lots of speakers and seminars are planned.

One reason I like the idea behind this group is that when I was remarried in 1996, my wife and I were an interchurch couple for a couple of years. We found it difficult to do, and eventually she joined my church. She jokingly refers to herself as an Episcoterian now.

But I do know some interchurch couples who make it work. I even know interfaith couples who make it work. But there are plenty of issues to work through.

So if you're part of an interchurch couple, you might want to check into the Louisville conference. If you go, tell me about it afterward.

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

April 26-27, 2008, weekend


One of the more thoughtful and articulate observers of religion, Peter Steinfels, offers this commentary in The New York Times on Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit. I thought you might enjoy it in light of the space I devoted here yesterday to an analysis of the pope's visit.

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When people -- non-Muslim and Muslim alike -- worry about radical Muslims becoming more prominent in North America, the kind of people they have in mind is like the one featured in this story from Canada. He's clearly unsophisticated, uncontrolled in terms of temper, badly educated, if at all, and dangerous, even if he claims he meant no harm to anyone when he suggested beheading and killing people. If Islam is to win control of its heart and soul and not cave in to this kind of extremism, it must find a way to turn around young people like Naeem Muhammad Khan of Toronto. And countries like Canada and the U.S., which cherish freedom of speech and religious liberty, must protect themselves from such people even while not violating their commitment to individual freedoms.

AND: Speaking of this subject, the U.S. government isn't too good about understanding Islam, but it is slow. Still, sometimes it makes a little progress, as this story indicates. The government finally is telling its employees that the term "jihandist" is inappropriate.

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American Jews who want to do all they can to defend and promote Israel have faced a difficult choice in recent years: Should they become allies with evangelical Christians who also seem to be pro-Israel, even if their motives may be mixed?

ChristianjewishIn the current issue of The Jerusalem Report, a Jewish columnist writes a thoughtful piece about how to approach this troubling dilemma. (The link I've given you offers a little less than half the column. You have to subscribe to the print edition to read the rest. But this abstract is enough to point to the foundational issue, which is how Jews understand evangelical Christians.)

The columnist, Bob Horenstein, who is the community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, notes that one of the things that gives Jews pause in allying themselves with evangelicals is "the widespread belief among Jews that evangelical support for Israel is entirely predicated on 'self-serving' theological considerations, i.e., the acceleration of the Second Coming of Jesus. . ." He notes that the premillenial dispensationalists among evangelicals believe the Second Coming "will happen only when all the Jews are in Israel and accept Jesus as the Messiah."

But wait. Horenstein points out that only about 10 percent of the tens of millions of American evangelicals are "hardcore premillenial dispensationalists. More over, most evangelicals support Israel because they see it as an important ally in the war against radical Islam and because Israelis share their democratic values."

I think he's right about that, but many Jews -- as well as many Christians, especially Mainliners -- don't get that because they don't recognize the broad scope of America's evangelical Christians. Those evanelicals are quite a diverse lot.

When Jews ask me about all of this, I usually try to indicate the broad spectrum that makes up evangelical Christianity, but I also suggest they keep their eyes wide open and understand the motives of people who say they want to befriend them and befriend Israel. The people Horenstein identifies as hardcore premillenal dispensationalists tend to devalue Judaism and believe that all Jews will disappear in the end times, either because they've converted to Christianity or because they haven't and thus face a much warmer eternity. It's helpful for Jews wanting to protect Israel to understand this motivation.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the nature of ministry and draws on my experience doing AIDS ministry.)

Today's religious holiday: Easter (Orthodox Christianity; 27th)

April 25, 2008


Several times in recent days and weeks I've written here critically about media coverage of religion. That's why this Thursday entry from intrigued me. It offers another view of how the media sometimes miss or ignore a religious aspect to the news -- in this case the Clinton-over-Obama victory in this week's primary in Pennsylvania.

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I've purposefully let a little time pass between the end of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. and an attempt at assessing it. Sometimes I think it's helpful just to let it all soak in before trying to suggest what it means in a broader context. (For a pretty good news story wrapping up the visit, written just after Benedict returned to Rome, click here.)

PopebenedictxviOn the whole, Benedict's visit was a success. It gave the American church a chance to see in person a man who long has had a reputation as a hardliner -- and he turned out to be more accessible and human in person.

Benedict on this trip was nothing if not pastoral. That is, he did his best -- especially in his frequent references to the priest sexual abuse scandal -- to speak a word of compassion and hope. The proof, of course, on that and other matters will be what happens now that he's back in Rome. But by meeting with victims of sexual abuse, he set a pattern for what bishops all over the country should be doing to minister to the needs of people so malovently violated by representatives of the church.

Even in his speech to the United Nations, he was pastoral in the sense that he spoke an important word for the foundational values of human dignity and human rights. Focus on getting all of that right, he said, and the world will solve many of its problems.

Even in the matter of whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be allowed to take Communion, he did not prevent several from doing so, thus moving away from some bishops and archbishops in the U.S. who previously had said such people should not be served the sacrament. To read John Allen's report on this matter, click here.

Yes, all the speeches, homilies, prayers and pretty much everything else were carefully scripted. But the man's humanity managed to shine through all of that preparation.

Worldwide, Catholicism is much, much more than the American church. Indeed, Catholics number more than a billion people around the globe, of whom only about 64 million live in the U.S. So the American church makes up a comparatively small part (about 6 percent) of the flock. But it's an important enough part for any pope to pay attention to.

If this trip showed a negative, it was again the very nature of the papacy -- an office so often held by elderly men. Benedict turned 81 while he was in the U.S. If the church wants to find a way to be a more vigorous presence in the world, it needs younger, more vibrant leadership -- including females. But I say that as a Presbyterian who has no voice in whether the church will ever allow female priests, bishops, archbishops or popes.

Still, if I were grading the pope on this trip, I'd be debating between a B-plus and an A-minus.

AND: For John Allen's take on why so much of the pope's trip focused on the sexual abuse scandal, click here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The annual AIDSWalk Kansas City fundraiser is this Saturday, and I haven't yet met my online fundraising goal to help area AIDS service organizations. 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 tomorrow will be about the nature of ministry and draw on my experience doing AIDS ministry.)

April 24, 2008


Individualism as a religion is problematic, as a Catholic priest notes in this nicely written piece. And yet religions like "Sheilaism" may be symptomatic of the failure of structured religious bodies to feed the spiritual hunger that permeates our culture. Are you an adherent of some version of Sheilaism?

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I'll be brief today so you can spend a bit of time reading a distressing report about violations of religious freedom in both China and North Korea.

North_koreaIn view of the upcoming Beijing Olympics and the recent turmoil in Tibet, I think it's useful to remind ourselves about the historically appalling nature of religious freedom in China. If anything, things are worse in North Korea, and the report I've linked you to, done by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, discusses the terrible things that happen to some North Korean refugees who have fled to China but who get repatriated.

For a press advisory about the report and its release, click here.

By the way, a group called Open Doors USA, which does advocacy work for persecuted Christians around the world, and other members of the North Korea Freedom Coalition are sponsoring North Korea Freedom Week starting this Saturday.

Persecution of any community of faith anywhere for any reason must be opposed. But the record of human rights abuses in China, North Korea and several other countries is so dismal that it's hard to know where to begin.

AND: Related to all this, Baptist Press reports the arrest of a Chinese man for publishing Bibles and other Christian literature.

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P.S.: N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman (if you don't know who they are, you will by clicking on the link I'm about to give you) are having kind of an intriguing online debate about suffering and God at Have a look, unless, of course, you've already sorted out all the sticky issues of theodicy.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The annual AIDSWalk Kansas City fundraiser is this Saturday, and I haven't yet met my online fundraising goal to help area AIDS service organizations. 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.

April 23, 2008


There's a movement in the United Kingdom to create a "Western" Islam. Every religion over time has found itself needing to adapt to different circumstances, so it's no surprise that this is true for Islam, too. Whether such movements as described in this story will undermine extremist elements in the religion is uncertain, but we all can hope so.

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Several months ago I had the opportunity to moderate a Muslim-Jewish dialogue as part of Kansas City's first Festival of Faiths. For my blog entries about that, click here and here.

Pearlahmed2_2The Jewish participant was Judea Pearl, whose son Daniel, a journalist, was murdered by Muslim extremists in Pakistan several years ago. The Muslim participant was Akbar Ahmed, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. (That's Pearl on the right and Akbar on the left in this photo.)

Pearl now has written this piece for, and I think it's well worth a read because it goes to the heart of why real interfaith dialogue is -- or can be -- so difficult.

Pearl notes that the wording of invitations to such a dialogue can foreshadow the positions likely to be taken, and it's important to pay close attention to all of that. Pearl writes in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but, in fact, his observations about pre-dialogue assumptions and presumptions are worth thinking about for any kind of interfaith dialogue.

It may be, for instance, that one group in such discussions may want to use them to convince other groups to convert.  Or perhaps one group sees dialogue as a way to devalue the faith or political positions of another. The true purpose of such dialogue, in my view, is different. It's to know and to be known.

It's important to know about stealth agendas before one agrees to dialogue so as to prepare and not be blindsided. Still, in my view, dialogue is better than no contact whatever. Isolation tends to breed fear and hatred, after all.

But take a look at Pearl's piece and see if there aren't some lessons for you.

P.S.: At least tangentially related to interfaith dialogue, I offer you this column by the Rev. Martin E. Marty, as a follow-up to recent posts and comments here about opposing radicals in Islam, not the whole of Islam. The commentary ponders what the world would look like if Islam had never appeared.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The annual AIDSWalk Kansas City fundraiser is this Saturday, and I haven't yet met my online fundraising goal to help area AIDS service organizations. 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.

April 22, 2008


A survey in England shows lots of people think religion is a social evil. Well, I would argue that it's not religion per se. Rather, it's false and arrogant certitude -- which can be found in religion but also in many other fields, including politics. I've even found false and arrogant certitude among some atheists.

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I know that I may sound sort of old-fashioned when I stick up for the institution of marriage, but I like the institution so much that I think its benefits and responsibilities should be available even to same-sex couples, even if we don't call that marriage.

DivorcecakeAt any rate, marriage has a great deal to recommend it. And our growing casualness about marriage and protecting individual marriages from dissolution cost all of us a lot. How much? Well, this report suggests that divorce and having babies out of wedlock costs American society $112 billion a year.

Well, I'm not sure how researchers come up with such precise figures, and I suppose the exact amount really doesn't matter. What matters is that the problem exists and solutions are needed.

Four groups did the study as a way to convince the government to take more actions to protect marriages. Well, certainly government policy can have an effect on such social and sacred institutions as marriage, but I'm thinking that faith communities have more responsibility than government to try to help people have strong and lasting marital unions.

And as I've noted here before, the record of such communities in this area is pretty spotty. Pre-marital counseling sometimes doesn't amount to much and often churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith gatherings don't offer much in the way of help when marital troubles first appear, nor do many of them seem to do a lot to keep such troubles from showing up in the first place.

So maybe those of us who belong to congregations should commit ourselves to improving the ways our communities of faith help support marriages -- along with working to create government policies that don't help to undermine marriages.

By the way, if you missed it, Newsweek magazine recently did a cover story on divorce. You can read it by clicking here.

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

April 21, 2008


I was glad that Pope Benedict XVI went to ground zero in New York yesterday to offer prayer -- not just because I'm from a 9/11 family (my nephew was on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center) and I want people never to forget what happened that malevolent day, but also because it gave us all a chance to remember that the enemy is not Islam (recent remarks left in the comments section of this blog notwithstanding). Rather, the enemy -- and, yes, there is one -- is that group of people who twist Islam to use it for their own violent, ideological purposes. I tried to make that point in an entry here a few days ago, but apparently one can't say often enough that it's outrageous to denounce a whole religion for the extremist views of some of its followers. ALSO: For a text of the pope's message given at Yankee Stadium yesterday, click here.

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We've just seen the media focus lots of attention on a story about religion (and other matters) -- the visit to the U.S. of Pope Benedict XVI.

Media_monkeysBut how are the media doing more generally in covering matters of faith? Regular readers of this blog know that I have been a rather consistent critic of media coverage of religion. I don't think we do it well enough and I don't think readers, viewers and listeners demand enough, especially from the traditional media.

A new study out, done for the Ford Foundation by Douglas Gould & Co., looks at media coverage of religion and draws some important, if sometimes disturbing, conclusions:

* The biggest publications spend more resources on religion coverage than smaller ones. In fact, many of the latter ones have decreased religion coverage in the last year or so.

* Religion is becoming more of a news issue and less of a feature story.

* Atheism got lots of press attention in the period looked at in the study (December 2006 to October 2007).

* There's been a trend toward more commentary suggesting religion can be a popular force to help create harmony in a pluralistic society.

* Islam still gets lots of coverage -- as it has since 9/11 -- but Christianity coverage has increased due mostly to evangelical involvement in politics.

* Males are three times more likely to be quoted than females as spokespeople for a faith.

* Males are disproportionately the religion reporters.

* The war in Iraq and other factors have led to lots of coverage of Islam and Muslim militancy in international stories.

So take a look at the study and tell us what your sense is about media coverage of religion and how it should be improved.

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

April 19-20, 2008, weekend


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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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:

Book_sale* 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:

Books* 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, 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.

Bibles* 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.

Bookstacks* 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).