LENDING IOWANS A HAND
People of faith know they must respond to others in need, and our neighbors north of Kansas City in Iowa are in serious need right now because of serious flooding. For information on how to help folks in Cedar Rapids, put together by the staff of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, click here.
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RUSSERT KNEW WHAT TO ASK
One thing I especially liked about NBC's Tim Russert, who died Friday, was that he asked questions he knew regular folks on the street would want to ask. For an example, click here to see a video of Tim asking then-presidential-candidate Mitt Romney about discrimination against blacks in the Mormon church.
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NO WAVERING FROM THESE BISHOPS
Catholic bishops meeting in Florida again have spoken out against research involving early, or embryonic, stem cells. To read their statement, click here. You can disagree with them (and I do), but you have to say that they are consistent in their opposition and willing to take a public stand, no matter who is or isn't on their side. By the way, John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter is in Orlando covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting there. For his latest report, click here.
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A LOOK AT NEW BOOKS ABOUT FAITH
Keeping up with new books carrying religious themes is, frankly, both a joy and a pain because the task is impossible.
I love reading, and I especially love reading books having to do with theology and other faith matters. But in some ways it's like trying to get a drink of water from a full-on firehose.
So let's all admit that we'll never be able to read all the new books in this category. Still, I like to give you a decent sense of what's being published. So here's the latest list.
* 10 Books that Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, By Benjamin Wiker. From The Prince by Machiavelli to the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels to Mein Kampf by Hitler, Wiker argues that because ideas have consequences, the world would have been much better off without these and other such books. He's a fun writer, quite accessible, and the book is a good review of some important works. But I'm not sure he convinces me that the bad ideas advocated in these books would not have found a way into the public discourse in other ways and done as much damage. And as evil as some of the ideas in these books are -- and they are -- I'm uncomfortable labeling every word of each of them irredeemably evil, which, in essense, is what Wiker does. Still, if you want to be provoked to ponder evil, this is a great place to start. And I find his occasional over-the-topism sort of entertaining.
* The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible, and Authority Are Dividing the Faithful, by Frank G. Kirkpatrick. This religion professor here tackles one of the most complex and difficult crises in any faith community, and does it in a way that people on all sides of the issues should be able to appreciate. As he writes in the introduction, his focus is on the arguments being used in this dispute, not in the intense power struggle. He's interested in the basis and authority of the arguments, the competing visions of the church those imply and how those visions might be lived out. And that focus is the strength of the book. In some ways the 2003 election of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire has given the Episcopal Church a unique opportunity to figure out who it is and where it's going. This book, whose author reveals considerable empathy for Robinson and his supporters, should help a lot.
Next, three that are at least somewhat related in terms of subject matter:
* The Big Questions in Science and Religion, by Keith Ward. The author, an emeritus professor of divinity at the University of Oxford, an Anglican priest and a deep reader (though no expert) in science, offers here a well-organized and quite useful look at such questions as: Are the laws of nature absolute? Does the universe have a goal or purpose? How can evolution and creation be reconciled? If you are seeking end-the-arguments, definitive answers to these and similar questions, you may be disappointed. But if want an open discussion that is mindful of the ambiguities, Ward provides that.
* Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, by George E. Vaillant. The argument here, essentially, is that humans are hard-wired to be spiritual, which means to be moved by positive emotions, such as compassion, love and forgiveness. Each of the great religions, the author says, promotes those values, but what will make the world better is not more doctrinal religion but a universal consensus about the nature of human beings and their ability to live out constructive values. The author is a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard University. The book is worth a read, though I found his hope in the improving spiritual condition of humanity at least a little naive, especially given what humans have done in the last 100 years.
* Chance of Dance: An Evaluation of Design, by Jimmy H. Davis and Harry L. Poe. The authors, one a chemistry teacher, one a reigion teacher at Union University, are sympathetic to the Intelligent Design movement, though they are quite clear that -- at least so far -- it does not qualify as a science and should not be taught as such. They neither dismiss I.D. nor do they advocate it without qualification. Thus, they provide a helpful look at design, free of the polemic often found in its most virulent detractors.
* I Am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda, by Ronald J. Sider. The author, who teaches at Palmer Theological Seminary, is one of the most articulate and interesting voices among Christian evangelicals. His insistence that people deal with poverty, the environment and other social issues has had an unusual clarity for years. In this book, a collection of essays previously published in Prism magazine, Sider makes the case that Christians should be motivated not by social agendas as such but, rather, by a desire to live the way Jesus would want them to live. That, he says, would lead them to take the positions he takes.
* God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, by John Dominic Crossan. This book came out last year but I haven't had a chance to give it a look until recently. Crossan is a profoundly intriguing writer and thinker, though as a member of the Jesus Seminar he keeps some distance between himself and strict or traditional Christianity. But his idea that Jesus, in various ways, stood against the oppressions of the Roman Empire is quite right. (As is his insistence that Jesus and Paul must always first be located within Judaism and within the Roman Empire.) Indeed, the idea of empire in New Testament studies has been really hot the last few years, and it would be hard to feel you're really up to speed on all that without reading Crossan.
* Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ, by Stephen J. Nichols. From books to films to bling, Jesus shows up throughout the history of America's culture in various guises. Nichols offers a good view of all that. In recent decades, good scholarship by Christian evangelicals has flowered, and Nichols is part of that. I just wish he hadn't begun his book by writing that "Billy Sunday who, in addition to saving thousands of souls. . ." Why? Because, of all Christians, evangelicals surely know that nobody saves another's soul. Christian theology insists that that's God's work.
* Christ Walks Where Evil Reigned: Responding to the Rwandan Genocide, by Archbishop Emmanuel M. Kolini of Rwanda and Peter R. Holmes. In 100 days in 1994, Rwanda blew up in terrifying bloodshed in which some 1.2 million people died. Where was the Christian church before, during and after all this? This book offers some answers, and they include some harsh criticism of religious failure. This is a good book for discussion groups because each chapter has questions at the end to ponder.
Now two about peace:
* A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World, by the Rev. John Dear, S.J. For nearly 30 years now, Father Dear has been engaged in the pursuit of peace in countless ways, both in the U.S. and abroad. This is a personal story that starts with his drinking as a frat boy at Duke and carries him through to serious work for reconciliation, including at Ground Zero in New York after 9/11. If you want to know what inspires a peace activist, check out this one.
* Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas, by David Cortright. The author, who has studied peace movements and been active in them for years, presents a most helpful history going back for centuries, but focusing on the last two centuries. Anyone engaged in the important but often-frustrating business of peacemaking will have a better perspective on the work having read this book. Watch the prices, however. The Amazon link I've given you says it's $90 but available for $68.40 there. But the Cambridge University Press site has it for $29.99.
Now two about the pope:
* The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenna. The editors have selected key passages from Benedict's own words to give readers a clearer sense of who this man is and how his mind works. It may not tell you everything about his thinking but it gives quite a complete picture.
* Questions and Answers, by Pope Benedict XVI. From a variety of Q&A settings, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division has drawn together in this book the pope's responses to lots of questions. The questions come from children, teen-agers and even priests.
And, speaking of things Catholic, two new ones from the "Shepherd's Voice Series" by Basilica Press are What God Has Joined: A Catholic Teaching on Marriage, by Bishop Kevin W. Vann of the Diocese of Forth Worth, and God's Plan for You: Understanding Your Personal Vocation, by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
* Expect Greater Things: Fulfilling Your God-Given Potential as a Person of Faith, by John R. Myers. In the spirit of Robert H. Schuller, who wrote the foreword for this book, Myers offers a system for focusing on getting more out of life, at least in part by giving more. This one is for people who may be spiritually stuck and looking for deeper meaning in life.
* Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge, by Vic Mansfield. The author has noted the Dalai Lama's intense interest in science and has sought here to see where modern science and Buddhism can be in conversation in constructive ways. Although a deep knowledge of neither science nor Buddhism is required to read this, it helps to be on speaking terms with both.
* The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse. The author, who taught religion at New York University for several decades, wants to distinguish between belief that is hemmed in by sometimes-willful ignorance and an attitude of open exploration that recognizes humanity's limited ability to perceive broad -- especially divine -- truths. It's a call for humility.
* Choosing Your Faith: In a World of Spiritual Options, by Mark Mittelbereg. Count this book in the category of Christian apologetics for people who haven't quite decided whether to embrace any faith. It's clear where the author is going but he's quite hospitable along the way.
* Simple Ways: Towards the Sacred, by Gunilla Norris. This is a call to mindfulness. In brief bites, the author feeds readers with things we probably know but rarely thing about as she moves us toward a more intense spiritual sensitivity.
* The God Awful Truth About Heaven, by Jack Beam. This is a silly little book by a man who has rejected the Christianity of his childhood and, to replace it, has found what he calls evangelical agnosticism, which mostly means sarcasm. You won't learn a thing about serious biblical exegesis, but you may get some sense of how people think when they don't ever get what faith is really all about.
I usually don't list fiction here, but here are two that might interest you:
* Hidden, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This one introduces readers to the Amish as it tells the story of a young woman who turns to them to get out of an abusive relationship.
* The Four Givings: Unlock the Miracles Within, by Jeffrey Gillespie. If you're into religious fiction that seeks to be a self-help book, you might enjoy this one. The various characters in the plot learn about grace, forgiveness and other matters that help them redeem their lives.
And, finally, I want to mention again four books I've mentioned in columns in recent weeks, including my column this weekend:
*The Yellow Leaves, by Frederick Buechner. See my Saturday column.
* New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase, edited by Richard J. Callahan Jr. See my column from last weekend.
*Interfaith Heroes, by Daniel L. Buttry. I wrote about this in a column in May.
* What's the Shape of Narrative Preaching?, edited by Mike Graves and David J. Schlafer. I wrote about this tribute to the Rev. Eugene L. Lowry last month.
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P.S.: The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention and I have several things in almost-common. For instance, he's from Woodstock and so am I. But he's from Woodstock, Ga., whereas I grew up in Woodstock, Ill., which was named after Woodstock, Vt., near which my wife grew up. Also, Johnny Hunt, the new SBC president, is Indian -- Lumbee Indian, or Native American -- whereas I spent two years of my boyhood living with Indians, only the kind who live, as I did then, in India. Yes, and I used to say that Prince Charles and I went to different schools together, too.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend, written from Springfield, Vt., has to do with what faith teaches us about aging.)