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The endless scourge of war: 11-29/30-08


But first: I just wanted you to know that the Web site for the Holocaust book I've been writing with a local rabbi, though still under some construction, is now up and running. The book, to be published next year by the University of Missouri Press, will be called They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. You can read more about it by clicking on the "Holocaust book project" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- You may be aware from paying attention in history class that the charter for the creation of the United Nations was signed at the War Memorial building here in San Francisco in 1945. To read the charter, click here.


I was in that building (pictured here) the other day and noticed the artwork seen here on a wall in the lobby. I paid special attention to the words on it, ". . .to save succeeding generations from the scourage of war. . ." In fact, when I saw those words I turned to my wife and my sisters and said, "Well, that worked out pretty well, huh?"

And, again, we have to wonder why.

Every religion and every non-religious system of ethics promotes peace and views war as a last resort measure of self-defense. And yet my own lifetime is not atypical of any lifetime in the last 5,000 years in that I was born in World War II and have lived through the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq -- and those were just the wars in which the United States somehow was or is involved (notice I haven't even mentioned such fighting as occurred in Bosnia and the role of NATO). A bazillion other wars have been fought without American involvement, too.

I'm curious about why you think this has happened. Is it because the leaders of the major religions don't take peacemaking seriously? Is it because our greed overwhelms our desire for peace? Do the economics of war require fighting? Why do you think we seem unable to give peace a chance?

And what, if anything, is your faith community doing to advance the cause of peace in the face of this disastrous history?

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A Vatican official correctly identifies the cause of a renewed discussion about God in Europe -- Muslims. Until the Muslim minority in Europe grew to a significant size, Christianity there had become essentially moribund and had ceded nearly all ground to secularism.

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P.S.: And along the same lines, I noted in my posting of Tuesday, Nov. 25, that Pope Benedict XVI recently said some interesting and controversial things about interfaith dialogue. John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter has done this column to shed some light on all that.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The terrorism in Mumbai, India, has revealed what many didn't know existed -- an affinity between Indians and Jews, this report says. Jews have been in India for a long time. For some background on that, click here.

Also: In issuing a strong statement of condemnation on Saturday for the terrorist actions in Mumbai, the Heartland Muslim Council aligned itself with these statements from other Muslims groups:


Supporting the creation: 11-28-08

Penguins (2)

SAN FRANCISCO -- The penguins seen here at the California Academy of Sciences grabbed our attention as much as any other part of the amazing collection of animals on display here. (Photo by Marcia Tammeus.)

One of them was especially frisky, diving into the water at our eye level and playfully bobbing up and down in front of the dozens of human eyes focused on the exhibit.

All of this took me to a passage in a book I've been reading, The Creation, by E.O. Wilson, in which he writes to a pastor to suggest that people of faith work together with secularists to save the planet. In it, he writes this:

"Today, most of humanity dwells in an artifactual world. The cradle and original home of our species has been largely forgotten. The ancestral instincts nevertheless still live within us. They are expressed in art, myth and religion, in gardens and parks, in the strange (when you think about it) sports of hunting and fishing. Americans spend more time in zoos than at professional sports events, and more time yet again in the increasingly crowded wildlands of national parks. . . To be a naturalist is not just an activity but an honorable state of mind."

Because we do not live in the wild the way our ancestors did, we go to places like the California Academy of Sciences to experience at least a taste of that. We are essentially cut off from nature so we seek to reconnect. But being cut off, we lose our appreciation for nature's subtle ways of being and our actions often impair the world that people of faith would say God created.

And we lose an appreciation for the astonishing variety of life in nature. So it was that on this visit I was reminded of the existence of orange and pinkish starfish, Borneo gliders, Borneo river toads, paradise flying snakes, scolopendra centipedes, leafcutter ants, Klemmer's yellow-headed day geckos, Madagascar rainbowfish and freshwater stingrays.

Living in tune with the creation should be our goal. And here's my guess: You won't find that in any of the crowded shopping malls today.

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What are we to make of the horrific terrorism attacks in India, a country in which I spend two years of my boyhood? This column has some good thoughts about why it happened. And this analysis helps to put the various sources of terrorism in perspective. What I do know is that civilized nations (India is one) must stand against this violence and do whatever is necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice. What I also know is that terrorism will continue until we grasp what causes it and do what we can to uproot those causes.

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P.S.: A year or two ago I heard a local Christian comedienne, Kelly Sisney, and found her both funny and insightful. She's going to be performing Dec. 9 at the John Knox Village Pavilion's Landmark Entertainment Series with a musical group called Letting Go. This link will get you the information you need to get tickets.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Catholic Charities, a really wonderful organization, has been named the nation's top social services provider. I suppose that's not a huge surprise, given that there are some 65 million or so Catholics in the U.S. Still, it's a nice honor.

A turkey-day treat: 11-27-08


BERKELEY, Calif. -- Because it's Thanksgiving, I have a really, really special treat for you.

When I was here a few days ago to celebrate my sister's birthday, her two amazing grandchildren, Miles (a kindergartner) and Natalie (a preschooler), sang for me "The Turkey Song." Better than that, I made them sing it again so I could record it and share it with you.


Download Turkey song

Now, wasn't that even better than the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV? Wasn't that better than turkey and stuffing? Well, look, it was better than the parade, but I won't go so far as to claim it was better than food.

Anyway, I'm thankful to have Miles and Natalie as relatives and to have you as readers. May your holiday season be bright.

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If you want to put God on your license plate in Indiana now, you can again. Well, fine, but for me this raises the question of what God's license plate might say. I'm thinking "ONE" but maybe you have another idea.

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P.S.: A year or two ago I heard a local Christian comedienne, Kelly Sisney, and found her both funny and insightful. She's going to be performing Dec. 9 at the John Knox Village Pavilion's Landmark Entertainment Series with a musical group called Letting Go. This link will get you the information you need to get tickets.

Remembering Schulz' theology: 11-26-08


Today is the 86th anniversary of the birth of Charles M. Schulz (pictured here), creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Schulz, who died in 2000, was a Christian whose work reflected two core values of the religion -- being realistic (about the human condition and death) and believing in both hope and redemption.

Charlie Brown certainly embodied all of that. He knew he was just an ordinary kid, but he also knew, or thought he knew, that one day the Great Pumpkin would visit him and one day he would really kick the football before Lucy yanked it away.

These were not delusions in the same sense that dedicated atheists accuse people of faith of holding. Rather, they were a little kid's dreams. And he held on to them, just as he held on to the hope that one day all of the losing his baseball team suffered would reverse itself.

As many of you know, a Presbyterian minister in 1965 wrote a popular book, The Gospel According to Peanuts, which explored the theology woven through the Peanuts comic strip. It's been a long time since I looked at it, but maybe it's time to find it again.

In some ways, then, the Peanuts strip presaged the animated TV show, "The Simpsons," one of the few regular television shows of our era to take religion seriously.

I still wish Schulz were alive and drawing Peanuts, but time moves on and so must we. Still, now and then we can take a look back at a wholesome part of our culture and celebrate it. So cheers today to the late Charles Schulz.

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The bad economy has caused the BBC to cancel plans to produce and broadcast a series of Bible stories, this report says. Bummer. The BBC does good work. Anyone here want to foot the bill?

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NOTE: For some reason this blog entry posted twice today. And when I deleted one of them I also inadvertently deleted the comments that already were posted with it. If those commenters would please repost your thoughts, I'll republish them. Sorry, and thanks. Bill.

From the homeless to dolls: 11-25-08


I have several things today I'd like to catch up on, so consider this posting a blogpourri, a word I just made up and in which I take almost no pride of authorship.

* First, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM) reports that single women with children are being hit hardest by these tough economic times. Homelessness is rising, and the AGRM executive director says homelessness may become a suburban issue, not just an urban one.

Well, it already is in some areas. For instance, are you aware of the existence of the Johnson County (Kansas) Interfaith Hospitality Network? It's been working for several years to help deal with the growing number of homeless families in one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

What's your faith community, if any, doing to help with this problem?

One answer might be that your congregation is part of Angel Food Ministries, which is working hard to gather food for hungry people facing a bleak holiday period. This is a national ministry, but there are lots of Kansas City area participant congregations. To see if yours is on the list, click here.

* How do children learn? One way, of course, is through play. And for centuries, little girls have loved to play with dolls.

Now a company, Doll Creation Station, is producing dolls specifically for Christian, Jewish and Muslim children.

The company says that dolls for Christians "come with a jeweled cross necklace set (for doll and owner), a Baptism dress, a Christmas dress, an Easter party dress, and a small book of Scriptures featuring The Lord's Prayer, Jesus' birth, and the Resurrection."

Dolls for Jews "come dressed in a Jewish themed shirt and matching skirt, a Star of David bracelet set and necklace set (for doll and owner), a 10-piece wooden toy Shabbat Kit, a Chanukah dress and historical Queen Esther dress."


Dolls for Muslims "come with a hijab (head scarf covering) and robe, a prayer bead bracelet set (for doll and owner), a doll size prayer rug, stick on henna tattoos (for the Eid celebration), and a fancy Eid (Holy Day) dress."


(As far as I can tell, there are no dolls for atheists yet.)


* In one more example of the way American Jews are leading the charge on a response to the genocide in Darfur, here's a statement by the director of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism. If anyone knows what genocide looks like, it's the Jewish people.


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Pope Benedict XVI has stirred up a good discussion about the nature of interfaith dialogue by suggesting that such talk be focused on concrete areas of working together and not on creeds that no religion is willing to abandon. Well, interfaith dialogue isn't meant to be negotations over doctrine. Rather, it's meant to help others understand the doctrine of another and where, given that reality, they might find common ground so they can coexist in some kind of harmony.


On Hindus, cowboys & faith: 11-24-08


But first:

BERKELEY, Calif. -- When I picked up my sister's copy of the San Francisco Chronicle from her front steps yesterday morning here I read this excellent piece by a Stanford journalism professor on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. It's on a subject I've written about here and in print several times. In it, he urges King Abdullah to pay attention to his own words. Have a look.

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See that empty stage? (Well, almost empty.)

That's where I saw nine actors and actresses play 26 characters the other night in a "Festival of Faiths" production of "The Hindu and the Cowboy: And Other Kansas City Stories," by Donna Woodard Ziegenhorn, who was in the audience.

The players turned that essentially blank stage at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in Midtown into a venue for sharing the many stories of faith it's possible to find in a metro area the size of Kansas City (roughly 2 million people).

The play has been staged quite a few times in recent years, but I never had had a chance to see it until now.

If you get an opportunity to watch it, I recommend it. It may open your eyes to the scope of the religious landscape that makes up a Midwestern town like ours.

What I especially appreciated about the show is that it's based on real stories of real people -- some of whom I know. For instance, I immediately recognized the story of a Muslim family because members of that family had told me that story. And I certainly knew the story of vandalism done at a Hindu temple in our area.

I didn't know exactly whose Holocaust story was represented by the character who played a Polish Jew, but because I've been working on a book on this subject (see the "Holocaust book project" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), the story seemed quite familiar in its pain.

The annual Festival of Faiths, still going on, is doing a wonderful service to our area by reminding us that we are a diverse religious community and that we can learn to live in harmony by understanding more fully the religious commitment of others.

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NOTE: It may be difficult for me to read and publish your comments here today. I hope to get to them but my Internet access will be quite limited. So if it takes awhile, it's not that I don't like what you said -- well, unless that's the case, too. Thanks. Bill.


New books on faith: 11-22/23-08

But first: You may recall that in my final Faith section column for The Kansas City Star last Saturday, Nov. 15, I criticized the media's coverage of religion in this presidential election. Now the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellent in Journalism has released a study that does much the same thing. Have a look. I think the study makes some good points.

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OK, all you book readers (I hope there still are a few of you left), I have a list of newly published faith-related books for you this weekend, just in time for you to snap up a few of them for your holiday giving list or for yourself because you expect no one to give you anything this year.

Let me say again: It's impossible to keep up with the enormous number of books with religious themes coming from publishers these days. What I'm giving you is just a sample -- the ones that happened to cross my desk and that I thought might interest some of you. By including them in this list I am not suggesting I agree with everything the authors say.


* How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, by James L. Kugel. The author, who taught Hebrew at Harvard for 20 years until 2003, focuses here on the Hebrew Scriptures, and brings to bear his long and insightful career in studying biblical texts. This is a paperback edition of a volume first published last year, and should belong to every serious biblical scholar, lay or professional. Also by Kugel from the same publisher: The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations. Here Kugel overcomes his notion that "the whole idea of biblical 'poetry' is a bit off" and chooses a small collection of poetic texts to unpack.

* The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins. The Penn State professor who wrote the insightful book The Next Christendom offers here a fascinating history of the ways Christianity blossomed and sometimes perished in the part of the world in which it began. Anyone who wants to understand this faith today will need to know this history. Particularly helpful is Jenkins' section on how to explain what he calls "the ruin of Christianity in a particular region. . ."

* Christianity: The Illustrated History, general editor Hans J. Hillerbrand. This is quite a lavishly illustrated coffee table book not meant to sit around unread. It is not a work of deep and fresh scholarship but, rather, a recounting of the basics of the faith. As such, it misses some nuances but is a good introduction for newcomers and a good reminder for long-time adherents.

* Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing, by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. The authors are founding codirectors of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, and offer here a clear, theologically based understanding of what reconciliation means and how it differs from either conflict resolution or personal salvation. Reconciliation has become a growing movement in Christianity. In fact, I wrote about one of the leaders in this movement in October in this post. It's not a new concept. (In fact, it was the central theme in the Confession of 1967, which is part of the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA.) But it is getting a fresh new look through the work of such people as Katongole and Rice. This and the next book here are part of the "Resources for Reconciliation" series from IVP Books.

* Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Hauerwas is an eminent scholar and author from Duke Divinity School, who has teamed here with the founder of L'Arche (if you don't know about L'Arche, click on the link I've given you here). Several years ago I heard someone talk about a "disabled God." It was a way of emphasizing the Christian idea that God came to humanity in weakness and saves humanity through the weakness of Jesus on the cross. That's some of the idea behind this book, which suggests that the very brokenness of Christians is the center out of which they can do ministry to a wounded world.

* What's So Great About Christianity? by Dinesh D'Souza. This is a paperback version of a book that came out late last year. It's another voice of Christian apologetics in the ongoing debate with the New Atheists. But it takes science seriously and is long enough and detailed enough to offer more than quick, pat answers.


* Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life, by Caroline Pigozzi.The author spent a number of years covering the pope for Paris Match magazine, and offers here an insider's view of this remarkable man's life. Especially interesting are some of the details of his almost-endless travels around the world.

* Catholics in the Public Square, by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, and Brothers and Sisters in Christ: A Catholic Teaching on the Issue of Immigration, by Bishop Nicolas DeMarzio. Each of these volumes is part of "The Shepherd's Voice Series," which offers teachings by Catholic bishops and cardinals. They're done in Q&A format.

* The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics, by Greg Forster. Do you remember the New Testament story in which Jesus is given a coin bearing an image of Caesar and asked whether people should pay taxes? Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, he replies. This might be thought of as the beginning of church-state relations. But the author of this book argues that understanding today's church-state relations requires a grasp of a lot more than that story. Rather, it requires that we know how Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke, Augustine and Socrates and others helped to shape Christian thinking today about how religion and politics intersect. This is the foundational book to read before you leap into today's church-state arguments.

* The Third Basic Instinct: How Religion Doesn't Get You, by Alex S. Key. This is sort of a first cousin to the many books by the so-called New Atheists. Key argues that belief systems are important but that people who cling to historic faiths are in tension with the basic human instinct that propels us to understand our world in a rational way.

* Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton, edited by Morgan C. Atkinson. This is a companion volume to an upcoming (it will air Dec. 14) PBS documentary about Merton, the monk, poet, author and critic. Long-time Merton fans will be enlightened by the many voices speaking about him here while newcomers to this fascinating man will have a chance to be drawn into his engaging, if complex, thinking.

* Church as a Safe Place: A Handbook, by Peter R. Holmes and Susan B. Williams. The authors have counseled many people who have felt abused in and by the church, and they offer wise advice about how to create congregations where abuse doesn't happen. And they're not talking just about sexual abuse, but also verbal, emotional, physical and spiritual abuse.

* Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence, by Anne O. Weatherholt. The author is an Episcopal priest who offers here some practical advice about what constitutes domestic violence, how to recognize it and how to combat it. Clergy who do counseling would especially benefit from this one, particularly for the list of resources at the end.


* Prayers & Rituals at a Time of Illness & Dying: The Practices of Five World Religions, by Pat Fosarelli. Every hospital, hospice and nursing home should have a copy of this for use by the chaplains in the increasingly diverse religious environment in the United States. It covers Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

* What God Can Do for Your Now: For Seekers Who Want to Believe, by Robert N. Levine. This prominent rabbi presents a realistic view of God instead of the view offered by dreamers or by people who reject the divine. I especially liked his idea that atheists and fundamentalists "should be soulmates. They share a lot more than either would care to admit, as both present a remarkably similar portrait of who God is and how God operates in the world."

* Sins & Sorrow, by Jerry Rawicki. My mention here of this book requires a bit of explanation. As I was working on an upcoming book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help (see the Holocaust book project link on the right side of this page), one of the survivors we made contact with was Jerry Rawicki, who lives in Florida. However, we did not get to Florida to interview him. But when I sent a notice of publication approval for the book to various people, Jerry responded with a suggestion that I might want to read his novel. Well, I have (all 600-plus pages of it), and although it took me a bit to get into the story, once I did I found it really engaging. What I especially liked about it is that one of the main characters is a Polish Holocaust survivor (as is Jerry, of course), and that character's descriptions of what he went through are quite remarkable and revealing. There are lots of twists and turns in this book, but the fiction serves as a good vehicle for educating people about one aspect of the Holocaust and about modern antisemitism.

* Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, by Edgar M. Bronfman (and Beth Zasloff). Bronfman, the noted philanthropist and businessman, issues a call here for Jews to dedicate themselves to learning and leadership so they may, indeed, be a light to the nations and help to repair the world.

* Einstein's Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul, by Michael M. Cohen. The author, a rabbi himself, has created a fictional account of conversations with a character identified as Einstein's rabbi, and in the process has opened up a fresh exploration not just of Albert Einstein's astonishing mind but also many of the questions of religion and science that Einstein's work inevitably raises. It's an imaginative, lovely small book, and, although it's fiction, every quote from Einstein is something he really said or wrote.

* Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, by Peter Manseau. This is a wide-ranging novel (I generally don't write here much about fiction, but this is two in a row) about an old Yiddish poet and the young man who meets him and becomes entwined in his life. The author is founder of the Webzine, Have a look at that site. Manseau is a compelling writer.


* Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, by Candace Chellew-Hodge. Nearly everyone knows that traditional Christianity has condemned homosexuality. Many of us would argue this has happened for bogus reasons related to a misreading of scripture. But clearly many gays and lesbians have felt themselves to be the target of hate and disgust. The author, a pastor in the United Church of Christ (one of the few denominations that will ordain gays and lesbians as clergy), offers ideas here that will help gay and lesbian Christians remain faithful and to stand their ground against this destructive prejudice.

* Faith & Doubt, by John Ortberg. People who understand the nature of faith know that it is impossible, in the end, to make a faith commitment unless you get to that point by walking through the valley of doubt -- and by regularly returning to that valley. The author, a pastor, understands that, too, and describes this odd but symbiotic relationship between faith and doubt in ways that are easy to understand. This would make a good book for study groups in churches.

* Linking Arms, Linking Lives: How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities, by Ronald J. Sider and others. Sider is one of the most articulate and thoughtful leaders of what he would call evangelical Christians. Here he and three other Christian leaders suggest ways to enhance urban ministry by forming workable partnerships with suburban congregations. The books represents a collection of lots of years of experience.

* The Treasury of American Prayer, by James P. Moore Jr. The author has included prayers written by Americans from a variety of faith perspectives and for many occasions and situations, including some prayers as hymns. And it's no small sample but nearly 350 pages worth of praying.

* The Purpose of Christmas, by Rick Warren. This famous pastor has written a warm little book that will mostly, I'm guessing, appeal to people already committed to Christianity. It's not a deep book of apologetics nor a nuanced theological discussion of the incarnation. Rather, it's a way of reorienting Christians to what Christmas, at its core, means.

* The Mission Minded Family, by Ann Dunagan. This book is for Christians who seek to move from self-focus to focus on ways they can help achieve God's goals in the world. Our culture emphasizes self-fulfillment so consistently that often people forget they should be working on God's purposes, the author argues.

* The Wisdom of His Compassion: Meditations on the Words and Actions of Jesus, by Joseph F. Girzone. One fascinating thing about the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministry is that there are almost endless layers that can be unpacked, even all these centuries later. The author, who wrote the Joshua series, looks here at common sayings of -- and stories about -- Jesus and offers fresh insight into their possible meaning for adherents today. Note: This book's publication date isn't until February.

God stories

* God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine, by Jennifer Skiff. This former CNN correspondent decided to ask people all over the world for their experiences of God's presence in their lives. The result is a book full of short (sometimes less than a page) stories from people who describe what happened to them when they felt the hand of God. Skeptics will find much to dismiss. Believers will find much to affirm. The merely curious will find much to ponder.

* Postcards from Heaven: Messages of Love from the Other Side, by Dan Gordon. This small book describes what many people would dismiss as coincidences, but what the author, a screenwriter, insists are indications that something eternal is communicating with the finite. I especially liked the story of how he buried his brother and how another person who knew nothing about those circumstances described them to him later. Like the previously mentioned book here, skeptics will find much to dismiss. But that's no surprise.

* Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, by Deepak Chopra. This promoter of Eastern religious thought has written a novel that speculates on the many years of Jesus life that the gospel accounts leave out. Christians will note quickly that this is not a story in harmony with tradition and orthodoxy, though they may find some interesting insights about Jesus.

* Why Walk When You Can Fly, by Isha. The author is a spiritual teacher who created the Isha Foundation Educating for Peace, and offers here advice on how to love yourself so you can live more fully.

* It's Your Call!: 7 Sure Ways to Fulfill Your Life's Purpose, by Lawrence Powell. This pastor offers methods and motivations for overcoming your past and moving into a promising future with confidence. This is help for Christians who feel stuck and can't see much of an eternal destiny.

* Riding into Your Mythic Life: Transformational Adventures with the Horse, by Patricia Broersma. The author is a certified therapeutic riding instructor who suggests that people can learn much about their own inner selves from horses. The work she has done with children who have disabilities is especially interesting.

* Once An Arafat Man: The True Story of How a PLO Sniper Found a New Life, by Tass Saada with Dean Merrill. Tass Saada grew up hating Jews, he writes, but in March 1993, in the home of a friend in North Kansas City, Mo., he left Islam and embraced Christianity. This tells how all of that happened and what its lessons are for others.


* They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We can Do It, by Brigitte Gabriel. Although nearly everyone agrees that radicals who misuse Islam to justify their violence and destructive ideology must be stopped before they kill again, it's important not to throw labels around that fail to draw clear distinctions between the fanatics and those Muslims who oppose them. I found this book to be shrill and not especially careful in the way it drew those distinctions. For instance, it seems to condemn the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and to suggest that today's radicals are merely trying to live out what he taught. Many Muslims would disagree with that interpretation and call it simplistic and wrong. Still, if we're going to understand the range of feelings about the people who would follow the world's Osama bin Ladens, we have to read these kinds of presentations.

* Searching for a Better God, by Wade Bradshaw. This Christian pastor and former veterinarian has noticed that lots of people think God is not measuring up. That is, God's sense of morality, to them, is lacking. God seems to them at times to care little or nothing for humanity and its precarious condition. So people are in search of a more acceptable deity. Bradshaw here tries to explain why the problem isn't God but, rather, us and our failure to grasp anything close to the magnitude of God's mercy and love.

* Pure Gold: Embracing God's Grace, by Pam Davis. This one is for Christians who may not grasp the idea of God's grace, which, in fact, is no easy concept and can never fully be understood. The author mines the scriptures in search of nuggets of gold that reveal grace.

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AND: Although my next book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, won't be out until next year, I invite you to give my first book, A Gift of Meaning, as a holiday gift this year. It contains a collection of columns that I think stand the test of time. To order the book directly from the University of Missouri Press, click here. Missouri Press has the book on sale this fall, but the sales price is not reflected on the page to which I've linked you. So to make sure you get that lower price, you might want to call the order department at 800-828-1894. To order from Amazon, click here.

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NOTE: It may be difficult for me to read and publish your comments here today through Monday. I hope to get to them but my Internet access will be quite limited. So if it takes awhile, it's not that I don't like what you said -- well, unless that's the case, too. Thanks. Bill.


Bridging faith differences: 11-21-08

I have said here and elsewhere before that Christianity's many divisions are a scandal and a terrible model for the world. As a Christian, I say that these divisions must break the sacred heart of Jesus.


So I'm always pleased to find news of various branches working to overcome some of this distressing picture.

Today I want to look at several recent developments involving the largest single branch of Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and its relations with other branches.

First, the Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue, as it's called, met last month again and this time issued a joint statement on the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, the statement was about the subject of atonement, for which there really is no exhaustive explanation or theory.

Catholic and evangelical (yes, there is some crossover between the groups bearing those labels) scholars still have disagreements, but it's reassuring to find them able to come to some consensus about one of the core areas of Christian doctrine.

Next, Catholics and representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been talking over varioius points of theology for decades. In their most recent gathering (the sixth meeting in Round XI, if you can believe it), they added to their discussion list a study of the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. That link will get you to the Catholic explanation of the news. Click here for the Lutheran explanation.

Catholics and Protestants have been at odds over the Eucharist nearly since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation almost 500 years ago. So I doubt we'll see any resolution of these differences soon, but it's a good sign that the subject is on the (Communion) table. It would be like Sunni and Shia Muslims agreeing to talk seriously about the issue of leadership succession that first divided them soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Finally, the Catholics and representatives of the Orthodox branch of Christianity in North America continue to talk over differences and common ground. Most recently they've been discussing what it means to be a sacramental church. At the end of the page to which I've linked you here you'll find links to the 22 statements of agreement that this Catholic-Orthodox consultation has produced since it was created in 1965.

Which I guess is proof that these ecumenical discussions haven't always resulted in irreconcilable differences.

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The tomb of King Herod the Great may have been found near Jerusalem, this report says. From what I understand, however, he's still dead.

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NOTE: It may be difficult for me to read and publish your comments here today through Monday. I hope to get to them but my Internet access will be quite limited. So if it takes awhile, it's not that I don't like what you said -- well, unless that's the case, too. Thanks. Bill.

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P.S: Normally at this point I'd tell you what my Kansas City Star column tomorrow is about. But my final Star column was published last Saturday. The column was canceled for economic reasons. If you missed my explanation of all that, click here.

Understanding the Pilgrims: 11-20-08

My wife and I have an arrangement when we travel serious distances by car. I drive and she reads aloud to me from some book both of us want to get through.


Last year on some trip or other one of the books she read was Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrook. It was a wonderful read that helped me get a better grasp of the faith of the Pilgrims and how all of that played out in the New World.

I still recommend the book.

But I've just learned about another book about the Pilgrims that I also can highly recommend. It's called, simply, Thanksgiving, by Glenn Alan Cheney. It was published last year.

It's a nonfiction account of who the Pilgrims were, with an important description of the religious background out of which they came. Cheney writes with clarity and grace. It's both an insightful and a pleasurable read.

What is especially striking about Cheney's book is that he documents the ways in which the Europeans and the people they met in the New World generally respected each other and developed good relations. It's a story you don't hear very often.

I'll be listing lots of new faith-related books on the blog this weekend, but I thought some of you might want to order the Cheney book in time for Thanksgiving a week from today, so I decided to highlight it here today.

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I don't know what the vanity license plate on the Mayflower would have said (maybe "1st PLYMOUTH"?), but I just read this story about a woman in Indiana whose "BE GODS" license plate has been declared out of bounds by the state, although she's had it for years. Sometimes I think bureaucracy spends too much time being bureaucracy.

Some Protestant unity: 11-19-08


One of the realities of Protestantism is that it is simply atomized. That is, the result today of the Protestant Reformation, which began nearly 500 years ago, is a hundredyskillion different denominations, it seems.

Yes, there have been many efforts to bring some harmony and even unity to the Protestant world, but mostly it remains awkwardly divided, though these days that usually doesn't mean bullets are flying between churches.

So I find it encouraging when I see efforts to undo some of the separation that has marked Protestantism almost from the beginning.

The most recent example is happening in the part of the Protestant world in which I locate myself -- in the Reformed Tradition, which traces its roots to such people as John Calvin and John Knox.

The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) is joining with the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) to become the World Communion of Reformed Churches. At a meeting recently in Utrecht, Netherlands, the two groups held their first joint session of their governing bodies.

The union meeting is scheduled for next June in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Ecumenical News International reported recently that about two-thirds of the 41 members of the REC already are members of WARC, which is made up of 214 churches.

"At its core, Reformed history is a history of separation," REC's president, Peter Borgdorff, told ENI. This move is designed to reverse some of that history.

The meeting in Utrecht, by the way, was hosted by what is now known as the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, which has 2.5 million members if 2,700 congregations.

(Note: Nearly every day I notice that one of my blog readers checks in here from Utrecht. I wonder if that person works for the Protestant Church. If that person reads this, perhaps he or she would send me an e-mail telling me if I'm right.)

At any rate, this new merger won't change Protestantism, but I find it's a good example that perhaps others can follow to bring more harmony to Christianity.

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As President-elect Barack Obama moves throught this transition period, one of the issues he'll have to deal with is his relationship to various faith communities, including the Catholic Church. There are, after all, more than 60 million Catholics in the U.S. This Time Magazine piece, for instance, raises the question of how Obama and Pope Benedict XVI might clash on abortion. But this won't be the only issue and not the only faith community whose views Obama will need to consider, given the growing diversity of the American religious landscape.

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P.S.: If you saw or read about the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit earlier this year at Kansas City's Union Station, you know that there was plenty of controversy about whether the bodies in the exhibit were obtained in ethical ways. Now a free day-long conference about all of this will be held at the Downtown branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Friday, Dec. 5. For details, click here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The excellent PBS show, "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," is scheduling what looks like an especially interesting show this weekend on the way the Internet is affecting religion and how faith communities are adapting to the online world. Check local listings, but in Kansas City, the show airs at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.