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September 2008
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Notify next of pump-kin: 10-31-08


Well, look, it's that great religious holiday, Halloween, when people of faith teach their kids important lessons about such skills as extortion and deceit.

So I know you're too busy today to spend a lot of time here pondering scary things like the economy and its relation to faith or the election and its connection to religion.

Instead, I'll just give you a link or two to help you understand a little better how Halloween connects to religious practices of the past.

A link, for instance, like this one, which discussions Halloween's origins.

Or this one, which seeks to weed out fact from fiction.

Or this BBC entry, which, naturally, seeks to educate you in a proper way.

I have little or no objection to modern American Halloween customs, though I think they're mostly silly and now avoid any serious thinking about death. But death isn't what my six grandbabies (one of whom is seen with me here) want to hear about when they come trick-or-treating tonight. So I won't mention it either.

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A Jewish leader says Pope Benedict XVI may freeze consideration of designating Pope Pius XII a saint until all the Vatican archives can be open. If you ask me, that would be the fair thing to do, as I've indicated here before.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is about the way religion and politics have intersected in this election cycle.)

Is forgiveness mandatory?: 10-30-08

So, what about forgiveness and what religion teaches us about it?


Are there circumstances in which it would be a moral error to forgive someone?

This is an ancient subject, of course, but as timeless as today's newspaper, because, of course, the news is full of stories in which someone has wronged someone else. Which is why various publications, preachers and others regularly take up the issues of forgiveness. And why a friend of mine at our church runs discussion groups from time to time under the title "The Forgiveness Cafe."

The magazine In Character: A Journal of Everyday Virtues, has devoted its Fall 2008 issue to forgiveness. You're welcome to have a look at any of the pieces in this issue, to which I've linked you. But the one I hope you'll spend a little time with is this one, which asks various people whether we must forgive people who would seem to have done something unforgivable. And the section of that I found most fascinating was No. 6 by Marietta Jaeger Lane, founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and Journey of Hope... From Violence to Healing, both international organizations that oppose the death penalty.

As someone who long as opposed capital punishment, I'm encouraged to find articulate discussions of forgiveness and the difficult issues it often raises. And as a part of a family who has lost someone to murder (the 9/11 terrorist attacks), I'm challenged to figure out what part forgiveness plays in all of us moving forward.

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Ah, yes, controvery in Christianity. When did it not exist? A new round of debating inevitably will be kicked off by a new book from a Catholic priest in Australia who says Jesus wasn't God and Mary wasn't a virgin. Let the wrangling begin.

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

Visiting with Jefferts Schori: 10-29-08


Since Katharine Jefferts Schori (pictured here) became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006, she's had to try to lead a denomination in considerable turmoil.

It would be wrong and way too easy to simplify the description of that turmoil and say just that people angry about the election of a self-acknowledged gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 think the church has lost its theological way and want either to undo that decision or to separate themselves from the church. But the election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson certainly was a defining moment in this ecclesial confict.

At any rate, Jefferts Schori was in Kansas City the other day and I had the opportunity to talk with her for about half an hour (well, the audio clip here runs 26 minutes) at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral. Barry Howe, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri joined us. He's the other male voice you'll hear.

A few highlights from my conversation with Jefferts Schori:

* Anglicanism, she said, predates the 1534 start of the Church of England and is "not a way of being in the world that's going to disappear" no matter what happens to the also-in-turmoil worldwide Anglican Communion.

* Christians need to learn to live with paradox.

* For a win/win outcome to be possible in church conflicts, both sides must be willing partners. That's not always been the case in the Episcopal Church.

* The Episcopal Church is essentially a denomination of converts, not a church of cradle Episcopalians.

* Interfaith dialogue must happen at both the local level and at the top leadership level, but the first kind is often most effective.

* When will there be unity among Christians? Not until the Second Coming.

(By the way, when Jefferts Schori mentions "Lambeth," she's referring to an international gathering of Anglican leaders that happens every 10 years, including the summer of this year.)

Have a listen (you may need to turn up the volume control on your computer) by clicking on audio graphic below:

If you have trouble getting connected using this graphic, try going to

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Sen. Joe Biden has been causing angst among some Catholics by suggesting that St. Augustine had a different view of abortion than the Vatican proffers today. Can he be right? This article, by an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests that Biden indeed is right. Whether Biden is right or wrong, the most interesting thing to me about the piece is the history of changes in official Catholic teaching about abortion over the centuries. Have a look.

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

Faith in cyberspace: 10-28-08

In this cyber age, lots of people are seeking ways to use the Internet to offer spiritual resources.


I just discovered a new site that falls into this category but that seems to offer some real potential for people trying to explore eternal questions in a deep way.

It's called and it offers thoughtful writing and a chance to think and talk about the way religious faith connects with such areas as entertainment, culture, politics, social justice, health, money and morality.

One of the interesting areas on the site is called "The Bridge," which tries to be a place where people engaged in service to others in cross-cultural contexts can share their stories.

Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, who run the “Christianity 101” site, created, hoping to tap into the growing home church and cyber church movements.

It's not yet clear to me whether, in the long term, faith communities can exist only in virtual reality, given the need people have for personal contact and relationship. But it's an intriguing movement to watch, and may help us understand better what works and what doesn't.

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There was a debate in Wisconsin the other evening about the historical accuracy of the Bible. You can read an account of the gathering when you click here. I'm all for open debate and discussion. But my guess is that such events merely serve to convince people of their own already drawn conclusions. Bible study that's serious and informed -- and is not done for devotion purposes but, rather, in an investigative, academic way -- requires a great deal of background information (about language, history, literary techniques, translation methods and on and on) before one even starts. And much of the time that kind of foundation is missing when people get together to argue about the Bible.

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P.S.: In a case of odd timing, the new issue of Guideposts magazine, a Christian devotional publication, features this cover-story interview with actress Jennifer Hudson, whose mother, brother and nephew all were murdered in Chicago a few days ago. In the piece, she says, "Our family’s what we call 'born into the church,' and I was no exception."

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

Rethinking St. Paul: 10-27-08

Christians as well as Jews have a lot riding on scholarship that's trying to gain a new understanding of the Apostle Paul.


For Christians there are many issues, including whether the Paul they think they've understood for years is an accurate reflection of the real Paul or a centuries-old misreading.

For Jews, the primary issue is whether Paul should be used -- as he's often been used -- as a warrant for anti-Judaism. (See my longish essay about this subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And for a real scholar's look at all of this see the work of Mark Nanos of Kansas City.)

Whatever people are searching for when looking at Paul, the reality is that the academic world has been up to its eyeballs in Pauline scholarship for several decades, now. But not much of what's going on there has been getting to folks in the pews, either in churches or synagogues.

An effort to fix some of that was made this past weekend at a seminar sponsored in part by the Nazarene Theological Seminary of Kansas City, Emergent Village and Jacob's Well, a Midtown Kansas City church that is part of the Emergent (sometimes Emerging) Church Movement.

I was able to attend only the opening night session at which the main speaker was Mike Gorman (pictured here), professor of sacred scripture at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. You can hear his remarks here. They run 40-some minutes and the sound is just a bit tinny, but you can make it out.

Apparently some of you are having trouble connecting to this link, though it seems to work for me. If it doesn't work for you, try going to 

Let me, however, give you just a few highlights from Gorman's talk:

* Paul either wrote or is somehow involved in most of the books of the New Testament, so it's impossible to be Christian without coming to terms with Paul.

* About 15 minutes into his talk, Gorman, from one of his books, gave a one-sentence description of Paul. Well, I say one sentence, but it was a Faulknerian sentence, and as Gorman himself noted when he had finished it, "I think that's longer than Philemon (one of the shorter books of the New Testament)" It might intrigue you to find that in the recording.

* As academics are rethinking Paul, folks in the Emergent Church Movement are rethinking church, so it's time this parallel activity crossed paths. Indeed, the modern study of Paul presents a great opportunity to reform itself.

* Paul is less a systematic theologian than someone trying to be pastoral and form communities.

* Increasingly scholars are appreciating the fact that Paul's gospel is not just about justification by faith alone but also about the inseparability of faith and love.

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Pope Benedict XVI has announced he will be making his first trip to Africa next year. That news caught me a little by surprise. It's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have been to that continent yet as pope, given thehistory of the religion there and how Christianity has been sweeping across Africa in recent years. Of course, in a world with more than a billion Catholics, the pope can't be with all of them everywhere.

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P.S.: It's not much of a surprise, but Sen. Barack Obama seems to be gaining among Jewish voters and appears to be within striking distance of gaining the votes of 80 percent of them. Anyone know the Hebrew word for landslide?

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

Living with the questions: 10-25/26-08

Several months ago, a clergy friend asked me if I'd yet read a best-selling novel (Christian fiction) by William Paul Young, The Shack. I told him I'd heard of it but hadn't had a chance to give it a read yet.


Well, my bride picked up a copy of the book recently and -- as we do when we travel together long distances by car -- she read it aloud to me. Well, almost all. I finished it when we got home the other day.

My clergy friend's question about the book was how I thought it would be received by people who considered themselves conservative or fundamentalist in their theology.

Well, I'm not at all sure I can answer that question any better having read the book than I could before I read it, though I suspect some people in that category might have objections to some of the theology woven through the book and to the way the Trinity is portrayed.

And yet the book is a fascinating read, most of the time. And it raises profound questions about faith that in one way or another engage all of us, Christian or not.

Clearly, however, the book is written from a Christian faith stance.

The plot has to do with a man named Mack. He and his wife Nan have several children, but one of them gets kidnapped and murdered in an old shack in the woods. Some time later Mack finds a written invitation in his mailbox to return to the shack and talk to "Papa," which is Nan's favorite word for God. Reluctantly, Mack goes -- and encounters the Trinity in mostly human form. God the creator is an African-American woman, Jesus is a carpenter of Middle Eastern origin and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu.

They work to heal him, not only of his grief over the death of his daughter Missy but also his sense of estrangement from God.

Portraying God in human terms is always risky, and no doubt the author has taken some odd leaps in this book that readers will struggle to grasp or will dismiss as silliness. But there is, running through the book, a strong call to a faith commitment despite the inevitably unanswered questions one has. Indeed, that's what it means to have faith -- not having all the answers but being willing to live with the questions.

And in reaffirming that, I think the book succeeds, despite an ending I wish had been tackled in a different way.

If you've read it, tell us what you think.

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It's no big secret that historically many Catholics have had little personal exposure to Bible reading. Indeed, before Vatican II, about the only words from the Bible many Catholics ever heard were the weekly lectionary readings at Mass. But that has been changing, and a synod of bishops that just finished meeting in Rome wants it to change more. Every Catholic family, the synod just announced, should have a Bible and read it. Because Protestants placed the Bible more at the center of their theology than Catholics, many Protestants have been much more biblically literate than most Catholics. But even in Protestant churches, in my experience, the level of biblical and theological illiteracy is alarming. I hope this new Catholic synod push helps improve things in that branch of Christianity.

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Fear and suspicion of Muslims is being used in this presidential race for political purposes, this columnist says -- correctly. Some of what is being said and done is, in fact, shameful and on a level with the worst racist attitudes still around.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about gospel music and the way it can speak to us.)

Why weddings matter: 10-24-08

AVISTON, Ill. -- As regular readers of my blog and column know, I often urge people to attend funerals. Lots of reasons. Mostly I think you can't understand your life if you don't understand your death, and funerals really tend to focus your mind on the latter.


But I also think it's really a wise thing to go to as many weddings as you can. And not just for the cake and champagne (which I can't drink because of allergies).

Rather, weddings help all of us remember the relationship commitments we have made and they can renew our sense of purpose in those relationships. They also can give us new ways to think about relationships. And, as we say in my own Christian tradition, God built us for relationship.

Last weekend, my bride and I went to this small town east of St. Louis to attend the wedding of the daughter of one of my first cousins. As part of their ceremony, Karli and Dan (pictured here after cutting their cake) -- two young people clearly committed to care of the earth -- symbolized their union by planting two seeds in soil and then watering them, using a blue glass bowl with two pouring spouts that had been made by the wife of Karli's cousin.

As the minister -- Karli's uncle -- declared, these two people were giving themselves roots from which to grow a new life together.

Another thing weddings do -- especially if they involve members of your immediate or extended family (like the wedding of my stepson and his bride a month ago) -- is to give you a renewed sense of what family can and should mean.

At this wedding in Aviston, I got to spend some time with the only member of my father's generation still left -- my Uncle Lawrence (my father's brother) and his wife, my Aunt Velma (both pictured here). They started growing new life as married couple more than 60 years ago, and now they've got three children and grandchildren galore. My dad, who died in 1992 at age 82, was 13 years older than Lawrence.


Lawrence, now 86, finally retired from farming this year, though he gets out every day on his farm (which a friend now farms for him) and keeps busy doing something or other that needs doing. That's how I want to be when I'm 86.

So, yes, attend funerals. But get to weddings, too, whether they occur in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or somewhere else. Weddings help you gain the perspective you need to appreciate funerals, which give you the perspective you need to grasp what life is all about.

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As you probably know, there's been controversy regarding efforts by the Vatican to beatify Pope Pius XII. The sticking point, especially for Jews, is whether Pius did enough during the Holocaust to protect Jews. Now the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has weighed in with a reasonable statement suggesting that it's time for all the Vatican archives dealing with the Holocaust to be opened to public scrutiny. Exactly. It's hard to know how to make any conclusive judgment about Pius and the Holocaust without those records. And, besides, knowing the truth shall make us all free.

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

Toward better ethics: 10-23-08


A Nashville university associated with the Churches of Christ (not the United Church of Christ) is starting a new institute aimed at studying and improving corporate ethics.

Good idea. How can that hurt in a time when the phrase business ethics often sounds like an oxymoron?

The College of Business at Lipscomb University is launching the Dean Institute for Corporate Governance and Integrity. The idea is to see if it might be possible to reintroduce the idea that it's possible to run businesses with ethical integrity.

The university's president, L. Randolph Lowry, put it this way: “We developed the Institute for Corporate Governance and Integrity with the understanding that, beyond legal and governmental requirements, corporate leaders have a responsibility to their employees, shareholders, consumers and society as a whole to act honorably and justly.”

The institute's first event will be a "Virtual Town Hall Meeting" after the presidential election to talk about integrity in business.

This new institute again raises the question I tried to get at a little in this recent post about whether people of faith must inevitably be defenders of capitalism. I think lots of people haven't given this area much thought. Given the turmoil in our economy and the profound questions now being raised about our economic system, it's a topic that simply must rise to the surface among adherents of any and all religions.

By the way, you have to drill down a bit to find this detailed history of Lipscomb, but I think it's an intriguing read, especially for those of you unfamiliar with the Churches of Christ.

And after I published this blog entry this morning, a friend who is a church historian in the Disciples of Christ denomination sent me a note that said, among other things, "Churches of Christ are part of the Stone-Campbell movement, which also includes Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the latter with about 90 congregations in the Greater KC area.  To learn more about the history of this movement visit"

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The complete writings of Pope Benedict XVI -- more than 50 years worth -- is being published, this report says. I've been a professional journalist more than 40 years, and I can't imagine what such a collection of mine would look like. I know only that not even I would want to read it all. I trust editors will be at least a little more selective than the word "complete" might lead us to believe they will be.

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P.S.: My friend and colleague Aaron Barnhart, TV critic for The Kansas City Star, has posted this fascinating blog entry about Colin Powell and Muslims. Have a look.

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

Why religious propaganda?: 10-22-08

A month or so ago, I received a call from a distressed reader who told me about receiving a DVD called "Obsession," which was stuffed as an advertising insert to the New York Times, to which she subscribes.


I hadn't heard about this film until then, so I did a bit of investigating and mentioned my findings a time or two here on the blog.

Since then, "Obsession" has become a major national controversy because of its willingness to portray Islam as a essentially a religion that encourages terrorism. The film itself says the problem is not Islam itself but, rather, the religious extremists who support violence and who are Muslim -- and that, in fact, is the right position to take, as far as I'm concerned. So in no way do I want to minimize the danger posed by radicals who misuse Islam to justify terrorism. Those zeolots already have murdered my own nephew, a passenger on the first 9/11 plane to hit the World Trade Center. But clearly this film is not a balanced portrayal of Islam and was made, I believe, for propaganda purposes to influence the presidential election in the United States.

So today I want to link you to this essay by a Ph.D. student in Jewish history at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In it, the author explains why the DVD is so problematic and why all of us who are voters have a responsibility not to be influenced by such propaganda -- or at least to check out from many other sources whether what the DVD says makes sense and is fair.

As a Christian, I find it revolting that in our efforts to learn about other religious traditions we are bombarded (as I often am via e-mail) with twisted portrayals of people of other faiths, particularly Islam. I can only imagine how all of this must feel to Muslims in America.

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Speaking of Islam, eventually, it seems to me, leaders of that religion are going to have to understand that when government authorities arrest poets for insulting Islam, as Jordanian officials just did, it makes Islam look weak, at least to those of us in countries that cherish and enforce freedom of expression. Why does Islam need government law enforcement officials to defend it? That's the question such arrests make us ask. And an obvious implication of the question is that somehow Islam's religious leaders are not able to defend the religion well enough without such help. I understand that true Islam draws no distinction between religion and government because all aspects of life are to be governed by a religious understanding. That's a perfectly legitimate approach and in many ways quite admirable. But when the result is the appearance that Islam cannot defend itself without such foolish arrests I think the faith is made to appear sapped of internal strength.

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NOTE FROM BILL: I don't want to be a censor and I don't want to edit comments for content, but I am not going to publish comments that I judge to be personal attacks, especially on other readers of this blog, and are completely unrelated to the topics for the day. Thanks.

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

Is 'CO' status expanding?: 10-21-08

Is there a religion anywhere -- at least in its traditional and healthiest forms -- that doesn't advocate for peace?

Peace Symbol

Well, there may be a few scattered strange religious movements here and there that don't, but othewise the first sentence here is a rhetorical question.

Thus, room traditionally is made for religious objections to war and for someone to be designated a "conscientious objector" (CO).

But what about in other areas of life beyond war and peace? Should there be room for the CO status to be given to people who, say, disagree with a law and don't want to participate in its implementation or at least the consequences of its existence? Often the term "civil disobedience" is applied to such situations, but I'm finding the CO term more widely applied now than it's ever been, and I'm not sure it's the right one.

For instance, the author of this piece assumes there should be CO status for health care officials who do not want to allow or participate in legal abortions. One thing that makes me question this designation is the misuse of another term in this article. It refers to "pro-abortion advocates." No one I know is pro-abortion. Even people who are strong in their position that abortion must remain legal almost universally recognize that it's a procedure that inevitably produces pain and long-term consequences. So to call someone pro-abortion is simply misleading in nearly all cases. Pro-legalization of abortion, yes, but pro-abortion, no.

But what about CO status in such cases? Under what circumstances should such a designation be in order? When would using the term be a misuse? Do your congregations have anything helpful to say about all of this?

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Was the Bible meant to be read as a history book? Well, it certainly contains some historical information. But what happens if you use the Bible to decide that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old? Well, you wind up having to (or refusing to) explain evidence to the contrary. Which this report says it what faces an Indiana farmer who believes in the 6,000-year figure but on whose land scientists have dug up a tool they say is 10,400 years old. The great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once offered wonderful advice to avoid being painted into a corner by a "God of the gaps" approach: Look for God not in what we don't know but in what we do know.

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