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Celebrating a pilgrim: 8-30/31-08

As the summer moves toward its embers, I wanted to return once more to a bit of religious history. So today we'll take note here that Sunday is the anniversary of the death in 1688 of John Bunyan (depicted here), the Puritan writer most famous for The Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678.

Bunyan had been born in November 1928, so he didn't quite make it to his 60th birthday.


Bunyan spent a fair amount of time in the 1660s and early '70s in prison -- apparently Baptists back then couldn't preach without a license in England -- and thus had plenty of free time to devote to writing. Another work that gained him fame was Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, published in 1666. Some think this book is a classic on a par with St. Augustine's Confessions.

Once Bunyan finally got out of prison, he became the pastor of the Baptist church in Bedford, England.

Of the various Web accounts of his life and influence, I especially like this one.

Just for the record: I find to evidence that John Bunyan was in any way related to the great Paul Bunyan. But who knows?

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The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog has done a pretty good hustle job unpacking what is known about Gov. Sarah Palin's religious affiliation. The Christian denomination in which she grew up is the Assemblies of God, and she gets high marks on many "social conservative" issues from people who would describe themselves as conservative Christians. But John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter notes that now Palin doesn't have a denominational home. Drawing extensively on stories in the Anchorage Daily News, the Religion Clause blog adds this about Sen. John McCain's newly chosen running mate. And here's an entry on this subject from the Boston Globe's Michael Paulson at his "Articles of Faith" blog. I would repeat this, however: Remember that our Constitution insists there be no religous test for office. And this: The only appropriate question about the religion of any candidate is how it might affect his or her views and actions on public policy. A million groups (minimum) with religious affiliations, of course, are responding to the Palin choice. I'll just give you links just to two as samples. First, the National Jewish Democratic Council. And, quite the opposite, the Christian Coalition of America.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the way people of faith live in harmony with their religious calendars.)

Kids write to terrorists: 8-29-2008

Leave it to kids to give us hope and insight. As a guy with six grandchildren -- the oldest of whom is six -- I know whereof I speak here.


What I want to point you to today, however, is not my collection of brilliant grandkids. Rather, I want to alert you to a series of books in which kids enter the fray against religious fanaticism by writing letters to imaginary terrorists.

Not long after 9/11, Kansas Citians John Shuchart and Steve Scearcy created a program called AFTER (it just means after 9/11; the letters don't stand for anything) to help youngsters cope with their fears. The result in 2003 was a book called Kids' Letters to Terrorists. The link I've just given you will lead you to a site that includes a CNN interview with Shuchart and two of the students whose letters are in the book.

Shuchart has followed that book with a new one called Israeli Kids' Letters to Terrorists.

I was at a fund-raising dinner the other night and met Shuchart, who had just received the first copy of that book hot off the press. He was excited not only about that but also about his plans to do a sequel called Palestinian Kids' Letters to Israelis Seeking Peace. He plans to go soon to Gaza and meet with Palestinian high school students to work with them on this project.

It's certainly true that the roots of terrorism are deep and complex and perhaps beyond the understanding of even the most brilliant analysts or scholars. But there is something helpful about being reminded of the simpler insights that children are able to bring to this discussion. They aren't usually childish insights, but oten child-like, and even Jesus said (I'm paraphrasing here) that unless you become child-like in your approach even to the most complicated of problems, you don't have a chance.

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Looking for a wrapup of how Democrats at their convention in Denver dealt with religion and related matters? Here's one worth a look. Both major parties have a lot to learn about how to connect with people of faith, if you ask me. Part of it is not assuming you know what someone believes or how that person will act or vote based on whatever label has been put on him or her -- including denominational labels.

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P.S.: Did you notice in Sen. Barack Obama's acceptance speech last night that he used the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" It was, of course, a question directly from the Bible. And it reinforced my contention -- and the contention of Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy -- that people need to be educated about religion and about the Bible so they understand what people are talking about. I wrote about all of this in a recent column.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is about living in harmony with religious calendars.)

Informal interfaith talks: 8-28-2008

As regular readers of this blog and my column know, I'm a proponent of realistic and authentic interfaith dialogue -- not so one person can try to convert another (though that may be something that happens as a result from time to time) but so that people can achieve the two primary goals of such talk: to know and to be known.


So I was pleased to read in a recent issue of the Christian Century this good story about Muslims, Christians and Jews in Seattle who seem to be engaging in exactly this kind of connection.

One interesting thing about the Seattle story is the idea that "grassroots efforts have sprung up in many places."

I spoke last Sunday to an adult education class at a large Protestant church in Kansas City about the importance of interfaith dialogue and I noted there that much of what is happening goes on off the radar screen. Yes, there are high-publicity interfaith gatherings, to be sure, and many of them are quite useful.

But there are, in addition, more and more informal connections -- people at work, say, having lunch together or people in an apartment building deciding to share their traditions with others who also live there.

It's impossible to keep track of all of these, of course. But I hope such interfaith efforts are much broader than I suspect they are.

I'd be interested in your own story of ways in which you have opportunities to talk about faith and other matters with people of other religious traditions. How did that start and what have been the results?

* * *


Well, well. What a shock. The superiors of that Italian priest who wanted to put on a beauty pageant for nuns didn't get the idea, so the priest has canceled the event. Therefore, I declare the nominee I put forward when I wrote about this on Tuesday to be the winner. Way to go, Sister Klara. Youda nun.

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P.S.: The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which is forced to claim me as one of its past presidents whether it wants to or not, has posted a piece I've done on tips for bloggers. So if the subject interests you, click on the link in the previous sentence and scroll down just a bit.

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ANOTHER P.S.: A few days ago, two really interesting Protestants (I've met both) engaged in what's called a "diavlog," or a conversation through the Web site. They are Brian McLaren, the most prominent voice in the so-called Emergent Church Movement, and Richard Land, one of the most prominent Southern Baptist leaders in the country. To watch and listen, click here. For a Baptist Press story on the conversation, click here.

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

God and your GPA: 8-27-2008


Perhaps you've heard about a new study from the University of Iowa suggesting that teen-agers who regularly attend religious services do better in school than those who don't.


In the study, researchers concluded that students who attend religious services once a week average earn a grand point average that's .144 higher than those who never attend services.


The study found four reasons:

* They have regular contact with adults who can act as role models

* Their parents are more likely to communicate with the parents of their friends

* They develop friendships with other students who have similar values

* They are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities

I suspect there may be other reasons as well.

Among them: A more finely honed sense of guilt that drives them not to embarrass themselves or their families; a sense of responsibility to God; a tendency to destroy fewer brain cells by drinking the night before worship.

I also suspect there are plenty of exceptions to this.

What do you suspect?

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It looks as if a Danish publisher may step in and distribute a controversial novel about one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. The book, The Jewel of Medina, was to have been issued by Random House, but that publisher backed out. If someone publishes a book that members of a particular religion find offensive, those adherents should have every right to protest -- as long as the protest does not encourage violence and as long as they recognize the right of the author and publisher to be free to write and publish within the libel laws. Sadly, however, history is full of examples of religious leaders seeking to censor books.

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P.S.: The invocation at the opening of the Democratic National Convention yesterday was given by the Rev. Cynthia Hale, a Disciples of Christ pastor from Decatur, Ga. I wish I could link you to a copy of her prayer or a video of it. If anyone finds that, please tell us. The reason I mention it is that I found the invocation to be an inappropriate piece of profound partisanship in which, in effect, God got enlisted in the Democratic Party in much the same way that people often complain about God getting enlisted in the Republican Party. It sounded as if the prayer were a campaign speech for Sen. Barack Obama. Let's not let prayer get seduced by politics like this. NOTE: Thanks to reader RichB for finding a link to the transcript of this prayer. See his comment below. 

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

Revisiting priest scandal: 8-26-08


You may have read this article in The Star late last week, outlining an agreement by the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to pay $10 million to victims of sexual abuse by priests here. It was followed on Saturday by this article with more details of the settlement.


And you may have read accounts of this statement of apology by Bishop Robert W. Finn. I urge you to read it in its entirety. And for a list of the non-monetary commitments of the diocese in this settlement, click here. The document is posted on the Web site of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

I think now that a little time has passed for contemplation, it's worth going back to all of that to see what larger lessons we can draw from this sad affair.

First, Finn is to be praised for issuing a real apology. Using the words "We apologize" at the very start of the statement was exactly the right thing to do, however slow these words of apology have been in coming. And, truth be told, they have been slow to come. Finn has been, until now, resistant to issuing a formal apology.

My guess is that he decided to use the proper terminology because now the legal issue finally is behind the diocese with this newly announced settlement and, beyond that, he concluded that it was the right thing to do. What we do know is that before he issued this good statement, he spent time in Australia when the pope visited there (and where the pope apologized for the abuse scandal) and, after that, Finn spent time on a retreat. Perhaps that gave him time and space to think his way through to the right answer.

Why is it so important that he used the phrase "We apologize" and, in his words to reporters, "I am here to apologize"? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the various victims involved essentially had been lied to by the priests involved. Those priests denied they had done anything wrong. So the victims had been wronged in several ways. But apology also is important because the victims need to know that their cries for justice finally are being heard and that they are being treated with respect -- something that in many cases of priestly abuse around the country has not happened.

So for sure Finn should get good marks for finally using the language of apology. But beyond that, he also was right to say in his statement that ". . .I do not wish to speak for the victims." He has no standing to speak for the victims and he was wise to acknowledge that. Only the victims can speak for the victims. The duty of the church -- a duty quite often ignored in this national scandal -- is to listen and respond with care, compassion and accuracy.

Another point for Finn: He was right to acknowledge the many priests -- innocent men -- who have been tarnished unfairly by this scandal. I know some of those priests, and their hearts have been broken by the actions of their fellow priests as well as, at times, by the actions of the church hierarchy that covered up the crimes and failed to respond to the aggrieved.

In many ways the global church's handling of this scandal has itself been a scandal. Which is why it was so refreshing finally to hear Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to the U.S earlier this year -- and later on his trip to Australia -- use the language of apology frankly and often. If the pope can apologize, surely local bishops can, too.

But, of course, an apology is not where this ends. And Finn knows and has acknowledged that. The diocese and the church everywhere now must commit itself to making sure, as Finn's statement said, that "there will never, ever be a repeat of the behaviors. . ." that brought about these cases. That will take daily oversight and care. And it will require an unwavering commitment to remember that children are precious in God's sight and must be protected.

Will this be the last scandal ever to strike the Catholic Church or any faith community (and, yes, sexual abuse and other sexual misconduct has happened in many faith groups)? Of course not. People are fallible. But scandals need not grow out of negligent oversight or an unwillingness to look truth in the eye and respond to it with compassion.

Let's all hope that Finn's humane and appropriate response, however slow and late in coming, will set a new path for how this diocese handles such matters in the future. The question for church officials always to ask is this: Are we on the side of the perpetrators or the victims?

* * *


In my list of books here on the blog over the weekend, I included a new one by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, Render Unto Caesar. In that blog entry I said the archbishop had been insistent that voters in 2004 choose George W. Bush over Sen. John Kerry for president because of Kerry's record on abortion. The source of that information was this New York Times story. However, the Denver archdiocese says that Chaput did not endorse Bush. It has released this transcript of the interview with The Times to support its point. I'm happy here to give you both the newspaper's story and the interview transcript from the archdiocese and let you draw your own conclusions.

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An Italian priest is holding a beauty contest for nuns. If this is the next TV reality show, I'm outta here.


But if I get to nominate a beautiful nun, I choose Sister Klara Jaroszynski of Poland (pictured here), who helped to save Jewish children in the Holocaust. That, to me, is an example of truly beautiful behavior.

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I interviewed her on her 96th birthday a year ago in Poland for our book (see "Holocaust book project" under "Check this out" on the right side of this page).

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P.S.: I didn't get to watch much of C-SPAN's coverage of the Interfaith Gathering Sunday at the Democratic National Convention, but I was glad there was such an event and I was especially impressed with the words from Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. I heard her speak at a seminar in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, and she's quite impressive. For a Fox News report on this that includes some information on the controversial nature of inviting Mattson, click here. (The C-SPAN link I've given you won't lead you to an online video but, rather, to a place where you can buy a video of the event.)

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ANOTHER P.S.: For religious and other reasons I've long been opposed to the death penalty. The capital murder case in Missouri of Dennis J. Skillicorn should give all of us pause. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published this excellent editorial on the subject. Read it and weep -- and hope.  

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

Learning from funerals: 8-25-2008


Again and again here on the blog and in my column I have urged people to attend funerals whenever they can.


Well, first, of course, to honor the person who has died. But also because I believe that unless we understand our own death we'll never understand our own life, and nothing helps focus the mind on death more than funerals.


So the other day I attended the funeral of a wonderful man (pictured here; photo from who was the director of the Institute for Spirituality in Health at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in suburban Kansas City. Steven L. Jeffers died Aug. 14 at age 60 in a one-vehicle accident, leaving his family, friends and coworkers in shock.

Steve's death was a reminder that there are no guarantees about how long we will live. But I found, at his funeral, other lessons worth remembering. They came from Samuel H. Turner Sr., president and CEO of the medical center, who offered a marvelous eulogy to a marvelous man.

"Everything I asked him to do, he found a way of doing it," Sam said. I meet so many people who look for excuses not to do what needs to be done. Steve always looked for innovative ways to do things.

"Nothing that I asked him to do was too small for him," Sam said. That attitude connects me with the Benedictine virtue of humility. Are we too good to do menial tasks that need to be done? Get over it.

Oh, and have a sense of humor, too. The Rev. George W. Campbell, interim pastor of Park Hill Christian Church, where the funeral was held, said that once in a sermon he asked what state we're in if we need to be redeemed. And from the congregation came Steve's lone but clear voice: "Arkansas."

Which, oddly enough, was where I was a week-plus ago when I learned about Steve's death. It was a sad drive home.

* * *


A new survey finds that many Americans believe God can revive dying patients even if doctors have given up on them. In the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, where I locate myself, we would ascribe this possibility to the sovereignty, or glorious freedom, of God, though we also want to be realistic about whether and when to expect such miraculous intervention. What about in your faith tradition?

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

Books on faith matters: 8-23/24-2008


When Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Barack Obama's pick to be his running mate, was himself running for president last year, The Christian Science Monitor did this good piece about his faith and what it means for his public service. For more on this aspect of Biden, click here and read what the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life put together then about Biden.

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The nation's book stores (and warehouses for online distributors) continue to fill up with books that try to help us understand religion. I'm going to list quite a few new ones here, but please understand that this is just a small sample of these kinds of books. And sometimes I list them not as a recommendation but just to make you aware that they exist so you can argue with the authors.


* A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy. It may seem odd, in a list of books about religious themes, to begin with what looks, by its title, to be a history book of an interesting (if threatening) country. But, in fact, the author, who teaches at the University of Exeter in England, pays close attention to the endless number of religious threads that run through -- and, in many ways, tie together -- Iran's history. Is Iran more complicated than the theocratic thugs who hold religious power there today? Indeed it is. It's even more complicated than its off-balance president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others who have held power since the 1979 revolution. This book will help all of us grasp the nuances. I hope policy makers in Washington read this before running off to another war.

* An Introduction to World Anglicanism, by Bruce Kaye. The author, an Australian church official, spends a good deal of space on the history of the Church of England and its spread around the world. But he does engage some of the crises -- particularly matters of human sexuality -- that seem to be unraveling the worldwide Anglican Communion. Kaye appears to be put out -- "peeved" might be a good, refined word for his tone at times -- at members of the Episcopal Church in the United States who have forced the world structures of the church to deal with matters of ordaining gays and lesbians to ministry. But Kaye's is a calm and thoughtful voice, and he offers a helpful look at Anglicanism, which will continue to exist even if the Anglican Communion dissolves in chaos.

* The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle. One of the best observers of religion, Tickle here describes not just the so-called "Emergent Church Movement" but, beyond that, many changes in Christianity. These changes, she says, are leading to a theology that "will look far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative and more mystical than anything in the last 1,700 years or so." She takes the long view, both backward and forward, and in the process helps us understand where Christianity is today, even as it finds new expressions. The book is not due out until October from Baker Books, though at the Amazon link I've given you here you can sign up for an e-mail to be notified when it's available.

* The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope, by Allan J. Hamilton, M.D. What do medicine and spirituality have to do with one another? (For part of an answer, see my blog entry for this coming Monday.) A lot, it turns out -- if the physicians offering the treatment are sensitive to the spiritual needs of their patients. In this lovely read by a doctor who, believe it or not, writes not only legibly but well, we are taken into many stories of ways in which the practice of medicine encounters the mystery of faith. Don't miss the story of the Gypsy queen named Bubbles. And don't miss the helpful list of 20 rules to live by at the end of the book.

* No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, by Michael Novak. The author, the 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize in religion, moves us away from the binary and falsely simplistic argument of faith versus atheism. The reality, Novak says, is that everyone doubts and struggles to know what to believe and how to live. This is a refreshing look at a debate that in other hands gets tiresome quickly.


* The Spiritual Journey of Charles Fillmore: Discovering the Power Within, by Neal Vahle. Whether you are a follower of Unity and the Unity School of Christianity or a critic (and there are many, especially among Christians who would consider themselves conservative), this is a book that will help you understand the man who, with his wife Myrtle, created Unity, which has its world headquarters in the Kansas City area. The author explores Fillmore's connection to Christian Science and other spiritualist or New Thought movements of the 19th Century and describes how he came to formulate what would become Unity. The story allows readers to see where Fillmore moved away from traditional Christian thinking (in such areas as reincarnation).

* Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses, by Donna Freitas. What is the culture like on college campuses these days -- at public, private, Catholic and evangelical schools? The author, who teaches religion at Boston University, spent time finding out, and writes an enlightening, if disturbing, book about the way students sometimes get swept up in a yes-to-sex (and sometimes a rigid no-to-sex) culture that can damage them spiritually and morally. If you have college students in your life, you should know what's in this book.

* Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy, by Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey. Back in the early 1980s, I read a book called Conversions, edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder. In it they told the story of a collection of famous people who had experienced some sort of religious change. It was fascinating, but the subject is even more relevant today when surveys tell us that 44 percent of Americans have changed religious affiliation in their lives. So the authors of this new book offer us a look inside the heads and hearts of people who have converted in some sense. They are quite careful in using the term historically, recognizing, for instance, that the early followers of Jesus "surely weren't yet converting to a new religion. . ." This is a helpful look at a religious dynamic that has taken on a peculiarly American character these days.

* Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World, by Vinoth Ramachandra. This is a book that will complicate your thinking, as all useful books should. The author, an Anglican lay theologian who lives in Sri Lanka, begins by looking at the so-called War on Terrorism, deconstructing it in a way that helps us see the gray as much as the black and white. Then he takes on religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science and post-colonialism. You may not always agree with his analysis but you will be educated and challenged.

* The Faith of Barack Obama, by Stephen Mansfield. The author, who also wrote The Faith of George W. Bush, offers here a relatively brief but surprisingly detailed account of the religious influences in Obama's life and an analysis of what that might mean if he's elected president in November. Mansfield thinks Obama, whom he admires, has the potential to integrate authentic faith into considerations of public policy in helpful ways.

* The Lord's Supper: Five views, edited by Gordon T. Smith. I wish I had had this book years ago when I moderated a wide-spread e-mail discussion group that focused on the meaning of Holy Communion. Writers present these five views of Eucharist -- Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and Pentecostal. After each description of what each of those traditions believes about Communion, the other four writers comment. In the end, it makes for an insightful look into a major sacrament that has divided Christianity for centuries. I'm just sorry Orthodox Christianity wasn't included in the book, no matter how close to the Catholic position Orthodoxy finds itself. This would be a great study book for church groups.

* Poets on the Psalms, edited by Lynn Domina. The book is the happy result of a lovely idea -- to have poets write engaging essays (14 in all) about the book in the Bible that gets read probably more than any other. Anyone who, like me, is profoundly moved by the beauty, power and mystery of the Psalms will find this volume a worthy addition to whatever other books on the Psalms already are on the shelf.

* Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs, by James A. Herrick. What is it about UFOs and a sharper awareness of the cosmos that leads us to modify -- or create new -- religious beliefs? The author, who teaches communication at Hope College in Holland, MIch., explores what an awareness of the possibility of aliens in our world is doing to our thinking about spiritual matters. It's quite a trip.


* A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith, by Doug Pagitt. The "Emergent (sometimes Emerging) Church Movement" has generated many books, news stories and analyses, and this volume adds to our understanding of what is going on here. The author is pastor of a Minneapolis church in this movement and says that though he is a Christian he doesn't believe in the kind of Christianity that has been around for a long time. He wants and needs a new model, and is willing to struggle to help create it.

* The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, by Tony Jones. From the same publisher (Jossey-Bass) as the previous book, this is another in a series about the Emergent Church Movement. The author is national coordinator of Emergent Village, and I especially like his analogy that people in this movement are a bit like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in that they are tired of the old ways of doing things and are seeking a new model. (You can thank me later for not saying paradigm.) Both of these are helpful looks at what is happening in this area of Christianity.

* Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, by Paula Fredriksen. Although this title won't be released until later this fall, I want you to know about it now and consider acquiring it when it's published. In Christian history, there's a long, shameful strain of anti-Judaism. (For my own take on this, see the longish essay I've posted here on the blog. Click on "Anti-Judaism in Christian History" under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.) The author, who teaches in the religion department of Boston University, has gone back through centuries of anti-Jeish history in Christianity and sought to understand how Augustine's thinking either contributed the problem or the solution. She tends to lean toward Augustine as someone whose thinking was, in the end, helpful to Jews as they sought to protect themselves from virulent anti-Jewish teachings of the church. I think she may give him too much credit, but she offers a fascinating study of the period and of Augustine's fresh thinking. Anyone who has an interest in Christian-Jewish relations today should give this book a read.

* Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, by Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver. The author has been in the thick of the debate over how much the church should be involved in politics. He was, for instance, insistent that Catholics in 2004 should vote for George W. Bush against Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, because of Kerry's views on such issues as abortion. With the next presidential election coming up soon, this book will give readers good insight into the thinking of Chaput and others who aren't hesitant to speak out on matters of politics.

* A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division, by Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley. In some ways, this helpful book comes from the flip side of the previously mentioned volume. Indeed, this book mentions Archbishop Chaput and not in an admiring way but, rather, as a representative of what the authors call the politics of division. There is, it turns out, truth in both books. You'll have to decide which one speaks more clearly to you and your values.

* A Well-Built Faith: A Catholic's Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe, by Joe Paprocki. Think of this made-up title: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Talking to Non-Catholics about Catholicism. That's essentially what the author offers here, complete with lots of illustrations and even some pretty good cartoons.

* The Last Secret of Fatima, by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, with a forward by Pope Benedict XVI. Early in the 20th century, three shepherd children in Portugal reported receiving a vision from the Virgin Mary. The final part of that vision was kept secret for decades, finally being revealed near the end of the papacy of John Paul II. This book is an account by the Vatican's secretary of state of the meaning of that vision.

* How to Really Love Your Grandchild, by D. Ross Campbell, M.D. The author, a clinical psychiatrist, follows his popular How to Really Love Your Child volume of some years ago with this sequel, which is written from a religion-friendly perspective. My wife and I have six grandkids, the oldest of whom is six. So we'll no doubt be returning to this helpful book for tips from time to time.


* Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back, by Ken Wilson. When I first read the title of this interesting book, I thought, "Jesus wants Judaism back?" That was, after all, his religion. Well, no. That's not what Wilson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, Mich., means. What he means is that much of the rigidly dogmatic kinds of Christianity that allow almost no questioning of anything have done Christianity harm and have prevented people from encountering the authentic Jesus. If you want to see what Christianity might look like with a deep focus on Jesus and not on the things that have built up in the church over the centuries, this volume can give you some ideas.

* Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, by Gary A. Haugen. The author is president and CEO of theInternational Justice Mission, and this book is a call to people of faith to get serious about helping those suffering injustice. In it, Haugen tries to undermine all the excuses people often use not to do that.

* Gandhi & Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence, by Terrence J. Rynne. Rather than being a devotional or primarily inspirational book, this is a serious, almost academic, look at what nonviolence meant to Jesus and what it came to mean to Gandhi. Then it offers some fresh thinking about what all of this means for the idea of salvation in Christianity.

* The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption from Asbury Park to Magic, by Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz. If you're a fan of The Boss, you'll find this exploration of the theological meaning of his music and life a helpful perspective. The author is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts.

* Atheism Remix: A Chistian Confronts the New Atheists, by Albert Mohler. Given all the people taking shots at the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it would be surprising not to find Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent Christian conservative voice, joining in. In this book, Mohler takes on not just the "new atheists," but some of their other critics (like John F. Haught) for suggesting that the new atheists are wrong for having "made the error of reading Christianity through the lens of conservative believers."

* The Everyday Visionary: Focus Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, by Jesse Duplantis. This televangelist focuses on succeeding, reaping benefits, getting blessings. If you want to follow this approach to Chritianity, he can guide you.

* A Dog Named Christmas, by Greg Kincaid. I like to feature writing by local authors, and Kincaid is a lawyer who lives in Olathe, Kan., a Kansas City suburb. This is a short work of inspirational fiction about a developmentally disabled young man and his efforts to get his community to find temporary homes for dogs from a local animal shelter. It won't officially be published until the fall, but you can preorder now.


* My Guardian Angel is so Real, by Stacy Terrell Dennis. If you believe in demons and angels, you'll be right at home with this account. And if you don't, well, maybe the author's stories about them will convince you.

* Islam: The Religion and the People, by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. Lewis is not my favorite author about Islam, though he's quite well known and has an international reputation. But I find his sometimes-facile use of such terms as "Islamofacism" can and does provide fodder for people who wrongly see the problem as Islam itself and not radical or militant Islam, a distinction Lewis is generally careful to make. But even Muslims who distrust Lewis would do well to read him carefully so they respond not to rumors of what he's said but to his actual words. This book is due out next month.

The 10 Commandments of Common Sense: Wisdom from the Scriptures for People of All Beliefs, by Hal Urban. The author is a driving force behind the "Character Education" movement, and, relying on what he calls just plain common sense, provides here some (well, 10) rules by which to live useful, productive and happy lives.

* Understanding Evangelical Media: The CHanging Face of Christian Communication, edited by Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, is publishing some high quality books these days (including several on the list this weekend), and this is another of them. The goal here, in a series of essays by scholars, is to help all of us understand the way the Christian message is getting communicated today. There are insights here for people of all faiths, though clearly it will be of most interest to evangelicals -- no matter how that word gets defined.

* Twice Loved, by Lori Copeland. As regular readers of these blog book columns know, I rarely mention books of fiction. But this new one crossed my desk recently and I thought some of you might find some value in a story set in Texas right at the end of the American Civil War. The main character struggles to discern God's will for her life. This is the first book in a "Belles of Timber Creek" series.

* And if I almost never mention fiction, I even more rarely mention music. But "Bound to Go," by Andrew Calhoun & Campground, a collection of 35 (yes, 35) folk songs and spirituals in the African-American tradition, is a lovely work that will put you in touch with a religious history in ways that words on a page can't.

Finally, another mention of two books I've written about recently:

* The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet. For my recent column about this, click here.

* Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann. For a recent blog entry about this, click here.

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As the Beijing Olympics wrap up, it's worth remembering, a commentator says, what happened to Chinese Christians while all the sport was going on. And as I've said before, it will be intriguing to see what kind of follow-up the media do on the many issues of religion in the country after the games end.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend talks about the influence of the Gutenberg Bible and printing.)

A religious freedom anniversary: 8-22-08


In the interest of making information widely available (hey, that's what journalim is about), I'm going to plug you into a journalism site today that will help you get a better understanding of where the United States has traveled over the last 10 years when it comes to the issue of standing up for religious freedom around the world.


The Religion Newswriters Association operates a service called, and has just put together this backgrounder on the 10th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act. (For what President Bush had to say about this recently, click here.)

The act created both the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom as well as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Some critics have seen the latter agency as a tool of Christians who would identify themselves as conservatives and who mostly want to call attention to the persecution of Christians around the world. I think that's an unfair criticism because USCIRF has been much broader than that in its work (and besides, persecution of Christians is a real issue in parts of the world), although some of its members have come from among those conservative Christians with that major concern.

I'm not giving you direct links here to those agencies because the Religionlink site to which I've directed you provides all those links as well as many more.

Religious liberty is one of the most cherished values of Americans, and on the whole I think the religious freedom act that became law 10 years ago has helped our nation further that cause. I do think we Americans must be careful not to shove our particular ways of living down the throats of others in other countries, but religious freedom is not just an American value. Rather, it's a fundamental human right, and we should be defending it both here and abroad.

So have a look at the helpful Religionlink site today as a way of understanding more clearly what the religious freedom law has done over the past decade.

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A new survey suggests that many Americans, especially people who would call themselves conservative Christians, are becoming less eager to have their faith communities taking stands on political or public policy issues. Congregations and denominations that avoid the issues politics raise aren't very useful, if you ask me, though I always want to know whose position is being represented and I want to know that constitutional boundaries are being respected. But, heck, life is politics in many ways. Any faith community must help its members think through where to stand. How can you avoid it?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about the influence of the Gutenberg Bible and printing.)

Feeding the hungry: 8-21-2008


Every major religion asks its adherents to care for the needy. Which, among many other things, means feeding the hungry.


Faith communities in the Kansas City area do that in many ways. And now a national anti-hunger organization, the Society of St. Andrew, has set up an office in this area to help. The society will have an office at the facilities of Harvesters, the Community Food Network at 3801 Topping.

Deacon Allen Ohlstein, director of the Episcopal Hunger Relief Network, tells me that his agency, which now serves more than three-quarters of a million meals a year, is entering into a relationship with the new Society of St. Andrew office here.

The agency Ohlstein leads plans to work with the St. Andrew efforts called the Gleaning Network and the Potato Project. You can read about them at the Web site of the Society of St. Andrew to which I've linked you above.

It's hard to imagine how hunger can remain such a problem in a country as wealthy as ours, but the need for hunger relief continues unabated, and even grows worse when the economy slows down, like now. If you're interested in some additional information about the extent of the hunger problems in the United States, click here for a 2006 study on hunger. And click here for some reports on hunger from National Public Radio. Finally, click here for the Web site of America's Second Harvest: The Nation's Food Bank Network.

And then find out what your own faith community is doing about this problem.

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A documentary about religious hate responses afer 9/11 is being screened nationwide soon as a way of fostering a conversation about race and religion. I hope it helps. There's still lots of prejudice and misunderstanding to undo.

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P.S.: In this presidential race, both sides will be digging deep into the records of the opposing candidate to find areas to criticize. Already we see evidence of that from elements of the press with religious ties. Click here, for instance, for a Baptist Press story on Sen. Barack Obama's positions on abortion.

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

Teaching hope? 8-20-2008


In many ways, religious faith is about hope, though each religion almost certainly would define hope in different ways.


In Christianity, hope finds its center in the resurrection of Jesus, and certainly no other faith makes that claim.

But hope also can and does have other definitions, sometimes relatively (or completely) unconnected to any particular faith community's beliefs.

Recently, for instance, some researchers at Ohio State University conducted a study in which they found that hope can help people battle depression.

I was especially intrigued by the definition of hope that one of the researchers came up with: “If you feel you know how to get what you want out of life, and you have that desire to make that happen, then you have hope.”

Using that idea of hope, they have determined that hope can be taught.

Well, as I say, anybody can define hope in any way, pretty much, but in my experience hope doesn't really surface until one has hit bottom and cannot see a way out. The best book I've ever read about this kind of hope is by the French Reformed Protestant author, Jacques Ellul, and called Hope in Time of Abandonment. It's several decades old but still a wonderful work.

I wonder if the Ohio State folks would have come up with their definition of hope had they read Ellul. And I also wonder what your definition of hope is.

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China is experiencing an increase of interest in religion, this CBN report says. It will be intriguing to see whether the world media -- and especially outlets with religious ties, such as CBN -- will keep track of all this after the Olympics are over.

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