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'Values' TV for kids: 9-30-08

As you may remember, the late Fred Rogers of the Mister Rogers TV show fame was a Presbyterian clergyman, and his show sometimes was thought of as a secular ministry carrying eternal values for children.


In some ways, that's what Laura Wellington has tried to create with her animated show "The Wumblers."

As she explains on the Web site in a welcome to parents, "Spiritually and globally conscious, The Wumblers devotes each and every episode to making the world a better place for ALL."

As a grandfather of six (the oldest of whom is six), I'm always on the lookout for wholesome books and other learning tools for little kids. I wasn't aware of The Wumblers until recently, though I now see that the weekly TV version of it is on the TBN channel on the Time Warner cable system to which I subscribe, though the timing isn't especially good -- 7:30 on Saturday mornings.

But maybe that's a perfect time for your kids or grandkids.

The Wumblers are make-believe characters who are designed to teach helpful lessons and values to kids. As the site says, "The particular timeliness and necessity for responsible adults to teach their children values that ensure a more peaceful and promising future for everyone is, unfortunately, obvious. The Wumblers helps to promote these values in an engaging and entertaining manner through a combination of brilliant storylines, original characters, and lighthearted play."

So have a look around the Wumblers' site and check out the TV show if you have a chance to see if you find it reinforces things you want young people to learn. And see if the fantasy aspects (kids born from watermelons, food falling from the sky) are helpful or distracting.

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When I wrote recently about the impending death of -- and new book by -- the Rev. Forrest Church, I did not expect that he would return to his pulpit in New York and preach again. But, as this New York Times report recounts, that's exactly what happened this past Sunday. Go, Forrest.

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

Today's religious holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Judaism); Navaratri (Hinduism)

Connecting body and spirit: 9-29-08


The connection between religion and health has been studied many times with different -- and sometimes contrasting -- results.

But now the Templeton Foundation Press has created a new Web site called Spirit-Health Connections that is designed to give health care providers, spiritual counselors, patients and others help in understanding the spiritual needs of people with illness and how to assist them.

It appears to hold promise, though I'm guessing it will develop more offerings and become more useful as time goes on.

So far it provides fairly basic information, including a section about the roles of chaplains and others, and it creates a place to ask experts questions.

Naturally, because it's sponsored by a book publisher it offers you a chance to look over some of its books in this field and buy them.

This may not be the be-all, end-all site on health and spirituality, but it seems like a good addition to the arena. Surf around the site and let us know what you think.

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When I read here that the Vatican was considering making Newman a saint, I thought that was pretty quick for Paul. But It's not Paul, it's Cardinal John Henry Newman. By the way, watch for a piece I've written for later this week in the FYI section of The Star about when Paul Newman lived with my family. Oh, he did, too.

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P.S.: When I wrote here about a decade to celebrate Martin Luther the other day, some of you wrote comments about some anti-Jewish and other things Luther wrote. Some of that is covered in my longish essay, "Anti-Judaism in Christian History," which you can read by clicking on it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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

Creating a moral world: 9-27/28-08


If you were to think through history's long list of religious leaders, which one would you describe as "the first creator of the moral world in which we live"?

I'll give you a hint or two (and if you recognize the symbol, shown here, of the religion associated with this leader, you already know). The author who wrote that in a new book said that the religion this man (yes, a man) was responsible for creating was the "first religion -- in this part of the world, at least (by which he meant the greater Middle East) -- to move beyond cult and totemism to address moral and philosophical problems with its theology, emphasizing personal choice and responsibility."

If you start looking for an answer alphabetically, it's going to take you a long time, for the answer is Zoroaster, and the author who wrote the things I quoted above is Michael Axworthy in his new book: A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, about which I wrote a little in my last blog book column.

Axworthy teaches at the University of Exeter in England. Prior to that, he was with the British Foreign Service.

Well, you might ask, when did Zoroaster do all this?

Again, Axworthy: ". . .although Zoroastrian tradition places Zoroaster's birth t around 600 BC, most scholars now believe he lived earlier. It is still unclear just when, but it is reasonable to think it was around 1200 or 1000 BC (roughly the time of King David in Israel -- Tammeus parenthical comment), at the time of, or shortly after, the migration of Iranian cattle herders to the Iranian plateau."

What I find equally intriguing about Axworthy's account of this period is his description of "the relationship between Iranians and Jews," which he writes is "almost as old as the history of Iran itself."

Some scholars, Axworthy writes, "believe that Judaism changed significantly under (Iranian religious) influence in the period of the Babylonian exile."

That should not be surprising given that any culture into which a religion moves inevitably influences the shape of that religion. We've seen that happen to Christianity in the United States and we're seeing it happen now with Islam in the U.S. And we know Catholicism looks somewhat different in Asia than it looks in either Europe or in South America.

Well, Zoroaster doesn't get a lot of press in the U.S., so I just thought you'd like to know the way in which you may be indebted to him.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about the necessity of reconciliation)

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Religious freedom in Iran is deteriorating and in danger of extinction, the European Union says. No surprise. That's exactly what our State Department's 2008 Religious Freedom Report said, if only people would pay attention to it. Look, thugs run Iran. As Sen. John McCain correctly said in Friday night's presidential debate, "The Iranians have a lousy government." But that doesn't mean we need to attack them militarily. There are better answers.

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This report in the Times of India describes the spread of Hinduism in the United States, including in the city in which I began my newspaper career, Rochester, N.Y. I first became directly acquainted with Hinduism when I lived in India for two years in the 1950s. As a rule, I find Hindus to be gentle and loving people, though, of course, every religion has its fanatics.

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P.S.: As a follow-up to my posting the other day about getting to know more about Islam, I thought you might enjoy this recent column from the "Sightings" series at the Martin Marty Center about what happens to that part of Islam in America made up mostly of African-American converts given the recent death of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

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NOTE: Remember, please, comments may not exceed 300 words. Unless they are shorter than that or within a few words of that limit they won't be published. And you may post comments a maximum of five times a day here. Thanks. For more information, see the "How to comment" section under "Check this out" on the right side of this page. Bill.

Today's religious holiday: Laylat al Kadar (Islam; 27th)


Entering the 'Luther Decade': 9-26-08

Ah, those Lutherans. They really know how to celebrate.


How else to explain a whole decade devoted to Martin Luther (depicted here)? Yes, the Luther Decade got under way this week in Germany and will have ripple effects around the world. Or at least the Christian world. Or at least the Protestant part of that world.

It was 500 years ago that Luther, then an obedient German monk, showed up in Wittenberg. He was obedient but ultimately troubled. He couldn't figure out how he ever could be deserving of God's mercy and forgiveness. He tried and tried to be on his best behavior, but inevitably he'd falter.

Then, as the story goes, he was reading the book of Romans and came across a verse in the first chapter -- No. 17, taken in it context -- that showed him that God offers salvation as a gift of grace, not as a reward for good works.

Liberated by this insight, he began to look about the church and find various ways that he thought its practices were in error and out of step with the gospel of grace. Eventually, in 1517, he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, challenging the church, and eventually setting off the Protestant Reformation, though that wasn't his goal at first.

Is it possible to make the case that it's time to get beyond Protestantism and to find a way to reunite the splintered church? Indeed. And I say that as a Protestant. There are some efforts at that, but any global church under one umbrella still seems a long way off.

But maybe by the end of the Luther Decade, we'll be several steps closer. Any bets?

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A church near St. Louis encourages its members to use their cell phones to send text messages with questions to their pastor while he's preaching so he can answer them in the sermon, this report says. OMG. ROFL. IOOH.

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P.S.: What do you think of the effort by the Alliance Defense Fund to get preachers this Sunday to violate IRS rules and endorse political candidates from the pulpit? I think it's a terrible idea, though I think civil disobedience is a proper tool to use if needed to make social changes as long as the person committing it is willing to suffer the legal consequences. I hope these preachers are.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about the necessity of reconciliation.)

Toward understanding Muslims: 9-25-08

As I've traveled around the country since 9/11, I've heard all kinds of anger at Islam and lots of prejudice against American Muslims -- along with some legitimate criticism of Muslim leaders here and around the world.


In all of this, I get the sense that most Americans don't know any Muslims. Thus, they base their opinions on the goofball hate mongers on talk radio or other unreliable sources.

Starting yesterday, there's a new and better online source for people to use to become more familiar with Muslims around the country and their individual stories. It's called, and, as a press release from the sponsoring organization, Intersections, described it, will "feature video interviews of U.S. Muslims from around the country, discussion guides for religious leaders on how to hold interfaith dialogues, as well as various educational tools to be used in classrooms across the country."

Because I was unable until yesterday afternoon to access the new Web site for this project, I'm not able to give you a good review of its effectiveness. But from what I saw yesterday, there's lots of interesting material available. You should be able to surf around on it today and decide for yourself whether it will be useful to you and your faith community, if any. I think it will be.

I also invite you to familiarize yourself with the Intersections group at its site I've linked you to above. I didn't know much about the group until I learned about the launch of this new site, but it clearly has an active and ambitious agenda.

Prejudice often grows out of fear, which grows out of ignorance (though sometimes legitimate fear grows out of knowledge). The more we can know about others the more likely we are not to misjudge them. This new site should help with that task.

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A federal judge has ordered that the Army grant an honorable discharge to an Iraq war veteran who says he became a conscientious objector while there. I'm glad that C.O. status is legitimate and available but, given the aggression in the world, I'm glad not all Americans want C.O. status.

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P.S.: Yet another reminder about leaving comments here: You may post no more than five times a day with a maximum of 300 words each. Sometimes I give you a bit of slack on the 300-word count but not on the five times a day count. Thanks. Bill.

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

Are there more atheists? 9-24-08


Last week, when Baylor University released its religion survey called "What Americans Really Believe," I linked you to some information about it but I didn't have time then to get into it then.

Today I want to dig into one part of that study because I think it's widely misunderstood. And that is the alleged popularity of atheism in America. As you know, partly because of some best-selling books in recent years, there's a widespread opinion that atheism is growing in the U.S., and maybe even growing quickly. You know. Atheists. The folks who believe there is nothing above us (although they do believe in clouds above us, such as these I photographed last year on my way to California).

The newly released Baylor study confrms that the percentage of atheists in the population is not growing at all. A Baylor news release about the study put it this way:

"During the past 63 years, several polls show the percentage of atheists has not changed at all, holding steady at only 4 percent of Americans who say they do not believe in God. Not only is atheism not growing in the United States, the majority of Europeans are not atheists (Ch. 14, 'Atheism: The Godless Revolution That Never Happened'). Russia now claims 96 percent of its population believes in God, while a recent poll of China showed that atheists are outnumbered by those who believe in Gods).

"In both the 2005 and 2007 Baylor Religion Surveys, researchers found than 11 percent of the national sample reported they had 'no religion.' Although nearly a third of the 'no religion' group are atheists who reject 'anything beyond the physical world,' the Baylor Religion Survey found that two-thirds of the 'no religion' group expressed some belief in God and many of those are not 'irreligious' but are merely 'unchurched' (Ch. 17, 'The Irreligious: Simply Unchurched-Not Atheists'). Delving into the actual religiousness of those who report having no religion, the Baylor Survey found that a majority of Americans who claim to be irreligious pray (and 32 percent pray often), around a third of them profess belief in Satan, hell and demons, and around half believe in angels and ghosts."

Well, does that surprise you? It doesn't me. It reminds me of a friend who once told me he tried to be an atheist for awhile but kept having lapses of disbelief.

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As Ramadan moves toward its end, the Vatican has declared that Christians and Muslims should recognize the family values they share and work together to support them. Clearly the Catholic Church is making an effort to repair the damage Pope Benedict XVI did in his 2006 speech in Germany that angered so many Muslims.

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

The life of meaning: 9-23-2008

I mentioned here the other day that I was in Columbia, Mo., recently moderating a panel as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of my alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism.


One of the people who spoke that day was Bob Abernathy (pictured here), who spent 40-plus years with NBC news and who now hosts Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS. In fact, the organizer of the panel borrowed the title of the seminar from a book that Bob co-edited, The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

The book came out last year and I remember giving it a look, but the truth is I forgot I had it on my bookshelf, and only after the panel and having the chance to have a meal and a beer with Bob did I get it back off my shelf and have a closer look.

It's worth your time. It's a collection of interview answers and thoughts from people who have appeared on Bob's PBS show. And the list is quite impressive -- from Marianne Robson and John Polkinghorne to Barbara Brown Taylor, Francis Collins, Desmond Tutu and Studs Terkel. From Harold Kushner to Martin Marty, from Richard Land to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and from Diana Eck to Jimmy Carter, not even to mention Anne Lamott and William Sloane Coffin.

The interviews are wide-ranging, thoughtful and full of spirit. So if ths book is sitting on your shelf being ignored, as it was on mine, get it down. If it's not there at all, get it.

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Here's a shocker: Some people who are worried about the financial crisis on Wall Street are turning to religion, this report says. Yes, but if they join a congregation for silly reasons they're likely to leave for equally silly reasons.

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P.S.: If you're interested in what the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas order of nuns thinks about this presidential election, you can read the group's new blog. Just click here.

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

Commemorating witch trials: 9-22-08


If we look back through religion's checkered past, we find all kinds of dates that live in infamy, and today is among them.

Why? Because on this date in 1692, the final eight of 20 women and men condemned as witches were hanged in Salem, Mass. In all, 13 women and seven men were executed there that year.

In Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity, he writes that "church leadership was discredited by the witchcraft mania at Salem in 1692, and weakened by the powerful backlash of public remorse which followed it."

The Puritans were having a hard time of things just then. The Church of England, to the dismay of the Puritans, had made inroads in Boston. And, to the Puritans, bad times (which included wars with native Americans) were a sign that God was angry at them, so they looked for culprits. Thus, the Salem witch trials. Witch hunts (of which the Salem one was the third and last outbreak) went after the most vulnerable and outcast in society.

Call it Puritan extremism.

In the link I've given you above to information about the Salem witchcraft trials, I especially liked this list of causes, which unabashedly begins with religious concepts. But I do think it's unfair to conclude that each of these concepts automatically lead to abuses, such as the trials. For instance, lots of people have a "strong belief that Satan is acting in the world" and do not, as a result, advocate hunting down women, labeling them witches and killing them.

But I do think it's worth being aware of how some religious beliefs can lead to abuse. That's why we study this kind of history.

(The painting shown here is "Examination of a Witch by T.H. Matteson, done in 1853, and on display at the Peabody Essex Muesum.)

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It's official: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is now a religion teacher at Yale. I'd enjoy hearing him lecture about his faith but if I really wanted to study religion, I'd prefer a scholar who has prepared academically to teach the subject.

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P.S.: How brave and bold and counter-cultural is your faith community compared with how brave and bold and counter-cultural it's called to be? Here's a story about a North Carolina church that seems to measure up in this regard.

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ANOTHER P.S.: A group called "Clergy for Obama" has formed. Clergy members, as individuals -- not representatives of their faith communities -- are asked to join up. (If there's a "Clergy for McCain" group, I'm not aware of it.) My question is this: Should clergy do this? What are the advantages? What are the drawbacks?

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


Living with death: 9-20/21-2008

A time or two in the past I have mentioned the Rev. Forrest Church (pictured here), whom I've come to know at least a little. He's dying of cancer and he spent much of the early part of this year pushing himself hard to finish a book he wanted to write, a book that has a title -- unlike the title of some books -- that really describes what's inside, Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow.


It was officially released just a few days ago, and I want to share a few passages from it with you this weekend as a way to honor Forrest and also a way to suggest that you and the people you know who are going to die (that's everyone, unless I miss my guess) might benefit from reading the book.

Forrest spent many years as senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church of New York City. Because he's a Unitarian-Universalist and I'm a Presbyterian, we hold somewhat different theologies. But that doesn't mean that I can't learn from his experience and his careful attention to what he's going through.

For instance, I love this advice to those facing death soon:


"Take those who love you, one at a time, and sit down and ask them how they're feeling about your death. Then shut your mouth and listen. . . . Letting people grieve is simply another way to let them love you. It's not your fault that you are dying. Don't make it their fault that they are grieving. . . . Bless their tears. Tell them they mean the world to you. And before you know it, you will be crying, too, for them, for you, for the whole aching world."

I also like this:

" The peace of extinction is different from the peace of fulfillment, of course. Yet, whether to fulfillment or extinction, when God carries us home, it will be to a place of eternal rest. No promise is more comforting and none, for me, more certain."

Well, as regular readers of my blog and my column know, I write about death a lot because I agree with Forrest that none of us can understand our life if we don't somehow make sense of our death, nor can we understand our death if we fail to grasp the gift that our lives are.

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Pope Benedict XVI says that Pope Pius XII "spared no effort" to save Jews in the Holocaust, and, thus, should be moved toward sainthood. That's a profoundly debatable proposition. And I would have felt much better about such a conclusion had it come from Pope John Paul II, the best pope the Jews ever had. For a view of Pius XII and the Holocaust from the Jewish Virtual Library, click here.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about religious conversion -- and some people paying scholarly attention to the phenomenon.)

A new interfaith effort: 9-19-2008

As I've said before, the Kansas City area historically has done better than most cities when it comes to interfaith relations. No one region of the country, obviously, is doing enough, but over the last 20 or 30 years, lots of different efforts in KC have produced good results in this important area.

Alan Cohen

And now there's a new effort. The Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee recently announced the appointment of Rabbi Alan L. Cohen (pictured here) as director of Interreligious Affairs for the Bureau's new Enhanced Interfaith Project.

When I spoke with Alan about all this the other day, he clearly was anxious to get moving on one of his first projects, which is the creation of an interfaith clergy council.

The council, he said, "will help the clergy come together and focus on issues and concerns and needs that are part of our common heritage."

In some ways, interfaith dialogue in this area (and no doubt nationally) has been stunted because it often has failed (for many reasons) to include representatives of faith traditions that would describe themselves as fundamentalist or conservative.

In some cases, those representatives don't see any value in such connections unless it provides them an opportunity to try to convert people to their faith. And that's certainly not the purpose of interfaith dialogue, though sometimes conversion can happen as a result. But it's also true that sometimes people of faith who would describe themselves as moderates or liberals haven't reached out to people on the other end of the theological spectrum because they either don't know them or don't trust them.

Alan told me that in his years as a pulpit rabbi (he was for many years senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom) he got to know people of many different religious traditions, including evangelicals and fundamentalists, and hopes to be able to draw them into the work of the council.

One of the goals of the council will be to provide educational opportunities for people in many congregations of different faiths and to find ways that clergy from various religions can speak in harmony (not necessarily unanimity) on issues that affect all of their congregants.

I've known Alan for some years and believe he's well suited to this new task. But it won't be easy, so I hope clergy from many faith traditions will at minimum give him a hearing.

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The latest Baylor Religion Survey came out Thursday. For details, click here. I'll deal with it in more depth later, after a weekend devoted to a wedding in our family. But I wanted you to have some access to it now. For a newspaper story about the survey, click here.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about religious conversion -- and some people paying scholarly attention to the phenomenon.)