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2009's religious headlines: 12-31-08


Before you go out partying tonight you might want to ponder what's ahead for 2009 -- assuming you have a Designated Arrestee and don't spend the next year in the slammer. That is, you might want to get into the prophecy game.

We could categorize upcoming 2009 events, of course, by looking at, say, politics, environmentalism, sports, education, economy and on and on. Well, mostly you'll have to find other sources to help you think about those areas.

I'm going to focus on what big religion stories you might expect for next year. And to do that, I'm going to hook you up with the list prepared for the Religion Newswriters Association on its site. For that list, click here.

It's a pretty thoughtful list, ranging from a religious response to the economic mess, to talk of the end times (back up to my Dec. 27-28 posting for some thoughts on that) to changes in the religious landscape, along with several topics in between.

One category it doesn't include, however, is what I might call "The Unexpected." For instance, if Pope Benedict XVI dies in 2009, it obviously will be a major religious story, along with the choice of the next pope.

Similarly, if Osama bin Laden gets captured or killed, it will have to be included among the top stories with a religious thread if only because bin Laden has insisted on couching his destructive political ideology in distorted Islamic religious terms. And what if James Dobson of "Focus on the Family" marries Pat Robertson? Talk about unexpected. Or what if George Carlin comes back from the dead to apologize for the way he criticized religion for so long. Or what if Bill Maher becomes a monk? Or Christopher Hitchens a nun?

See? You just never know with religion.

So be aware of the trends in religion by knowing religious history and how it is playing out now. And then make room for some unexpected developments in 2009. In fact, just for fun, why don't you give us your best prediction for a surprising 2009 religious story?

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Finally, let's end the year with another God mystery. Why would God save this little Jamaican 2-year-old but not other toddlers who died in 2008? Is it that the Lord works in mysterious ways or that maybe the child survived for reasons unrelated to God? Or can we even know the answer to that?

Be a healing presence: 12-30-08


Martin Luther thought the book of James in the New Testament was an "epistle of straw," at least in part because of its emphasis on good works as opposed to grace.

James, after all, is the one who wrote, "Be doers of the world, and not hearers only." And: "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?" And: ". . .faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

Well, Luther was right about some things and wrong about others. He was wrong about James. I've always believed that James was suggesting that if our faith does not produce good works, it's not really faith at all. In Christianity, people do good works not to earn God's favor but, rather, to show gratitude for what God already has done for us.

All of this came to mind the other evening when a friend called my wife and asked if she might be available on short notice to help serve a pre-holiday meal at the Rose Brooks center, a Kansas City domestic violence shelter for women and children.

It turned out that both of us were available -- or made ourselves available -- and went to help out.

Every such experience is a reminder that unless people of faith are finding ways to help those in need, their faith, as James would say, is dead. The work itself that evening wasn't hard. I followed careful directions to help prepare the next morning's meal while my wife and our friend served the evening meal with the help of two staffers. For me, that meant laying out strips of bacon on large trays to go under the broiler and then cracking 180 eggs into a large bucket. (Need a 180-egg omelet? I'm your guy.)

Simple work, even for a kitchen klutz like me. But the faces I saw in the dining hall -- the women, their many children -- told me that someone needs to be there when their lives disintegrate into violence. All those beautiful little kids had done nothing to deserve being in the midst of such trouble.

So as you think ahead to the new year, try to imagine ways that you and your faith community, if any, can be a healing presence for people in need. In the Christian tradition, we call that being Christ for one another. And it's not just a high calling, it's really our only calling.

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In response to the rising tide of terrorism in India, here's a Muslim speaking out and denouncing radicals who hide behind Islam to justify their violence. Good. And we need more such Muslim voices all over the world.

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P.S.: A rabbi about whom I've written here before, Richard Address, has created an intriguing Web site called "Jewish Sacred Aging." And I just wanted you to know about it so you could have a look and see what's there that might interest you.

Anti-literalism is ancient: 12-29-08


The other day, in an e-mail conversation with someone who calls himself an atheist, I told him that it amuses me that many atheists seem to be biblical literalists.

That is, in criticizing religion, they take the exact words of scripture and seek to hold Christianity or Judaism to those words, apparently not understanding that in most passages of scripture there is also deeper meaning. Call it metaphorical. Call it allegorical. Call it multi-layered. Whatever label you apply, the truth is that the Bible is rich with various levels of meaning. It doesn't limit itself to the literal words on the page.

This, by the way, is not just my idea. And it's certainly not an invention of what some might dismiss as the "modern liberal Protestant" church. Not at all.

Author and scholar Diana Butler Bass, about whom I wrote earlier this year in this post, makes exactly this point in a new book that will be published in March, A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

A good example is the ancient church father Origen (depicted here), who died around 251 C.E. Origen, she writes, "learned how to read biblical texts seriously but not literally; a way of reading that is deeply ingrained in Christian tradition."

Origen, Diana writes, "believed that literal reading, while acceptable for ordinary Christians, posed a problem for the church skeptics, and intellectuals would easily see the contradictions of scripture, thus causing them to reject the gospel or fall into heresy. Literalism, far from making Christ plainly visible, acted as an obstacle to Christian living by raising unnecessary questions about God's veracity. The problem with literalism began, according to Origen, in Genesis."

Origen sought to find the wisdom that lies "under the literal words," Diana writes. And reading scripture regularly "remained Origen's primary devotional practice. He directed his attention toward finding Christ in scripture, developing spiritual reading to a high art, eventually writing commentaries on numerous biblical books."

Well, all of this is to suggest that one need not be a literalist to take scripture seriously. Indeed, the literalists -- who now include many atheists, in my view -- miss much of what scripture has to say by limiting themselves to one level of meaning.

And, of course, Christians would say that for them to gather the deeper meanings of scripture, they must read it with the help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But that's a subject for another day.

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The religious makeup of the incoming Congress, this report shows, is more diverse than it was decades ago. Well, I would hope so. The country, after all, is much more religious diverse, and it would be good if Congress reflected that at least approximately.

Christ's 'Second Coming': 12-27/28-08


Christians who have just celebrated the coming of Jesus into the world also must find a way to understand what might be meant by the "Second Coming" of Christ. (The link I've given you here will offer a fairly literalistic view from people who almost certainly would describe themselves as evangelical or theologically conservative.)

I suspect that if you were to ask most traditional Christians, some would say they believe that the risen Christ will, without warning, show up on earth again to take charge. And they will quote various passages of the New Testament to support their view. Others would dismiss the idea altogether, perhaps even suggesting it's a tool of fear to keep people on the straight and narrow. Still others would take the idea seriously but would suggest that it means some kind of mysterious culimination of history that God has planned for humanity.

I have tended to gravitate toward the latter view, though I will acknowledge that I'm not a scholar of what the church calls the parousia, or Second Coming. (The link in the previous sentence will give you a Catholic view.)

But I was fascinated the other day to read a description of the views on this subject of one of the most noted Christian theologians of our era, Jurgen Moltmann. I'm part of a listserv of people who care about the work of Moltmann. And here's what one of the members wrote:

"These are critical issues, as they go to the heart of the Christian hope: its foundation, and the epistemological basis of Moltmann's theology.

"I would add just one or two comments.

"First, the so-called 'second' coming of Jesus must be understood in the light of his 'first' coming. There is actually no New Testament basis for the idea that the 'parousia' is a second coming. It is his coming, the coming of Jesus Christ. The question is, then, whether his expected return is another, or a second, coming, or is it to be understood as the outworking of his 'first' coming. I am sure Moltmann holds to the latter idea: the parousia envisaged by the New Testament is not another coming. It is the happening to histor(y) future of what has been revealed in histor(y) past, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

"In the Theology of Hope, Moltmann writes in these terms, on pages 212 to 224. The anticipated fulfillment of all things, in the 'final' coming of the Kingdom of God is described (following Barth) in terms of the unveiling of what is already the reality of the Christ event. Moltmann refers to the 'inner necessity' of that event, which is now running its course through human history, and the history of the world.

"What is vital here is the recognition that God does not live within time. All of history is present to God. Jesus has been raised into what is for us the future reality of God's reign. This is yet to be revealed to us, in the 'end' of time, when God will be all in all. It is in this sense that it is the same Jesus who will 'come again': he will be revealed to 'all flesh' and his kingdom will be without
end. This is not so much something that will happen to him as to us, to history. In another sense, it has already happened to history: but it has yet to work itself out in time. It is on this basis, then, that Moltmann argues in 'The Way of Jesus Christ' that apocalyptic becomes eschatology. (Another listserv member) is right to say that there has to be an apocalyptic 'end': this is Scriptural. Jesus himself taught this. But Moltmann's argument is that Jesus' suffering is apocalyptical.

"This is the apocalypse, through which the eschaton comes. Through cross to resurrection, God transforms the apocalypse into good news. This is the gospel the Evangelists proclaim. Finally: as I have wrestled to comprehend this, I have asked myself how he knows this. On what basis can such statements be made? He contends that 'verification' of this assertion (which I am saying is the very heart of the Gospel) is 'pending': in other words, this is something we will know as we live into it. Faith means discipleship: living into the reality of Christ's coming. 'The way of Jesus Christ' p.222 & 223."

Well, if you are a Christian and have ever wondered how you are to understand a doctrine of the Second Coming, perhaps Moltmann here offers you new possibilities. But it seems to me that the important question about any such theological exploration is what, if anything, it has to do with the way we live here and now. If it makes no difference to that, you're wasting your time even thinking about it.

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What were the major religion stories of 2008 in the U.S.? Kevin Eckstrom, who leads Religion News Service, has the answers here, if you missed it in Saturday's Faith section. Would your list be different?

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A Gallup survey finds Americans think religion is losing its influence in our culture. There are so many thousands of ways to measure that, it makes me skeptical about any results purporting to show either an up or a down.

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P.S.: To raise funds for three foreign mission projects, Atonement Lutheran Church of Overland Park, Kan., is having a dinner Jan. 10. Tickets are $18. A speaker will be author Shant Kenderian, who has written 1001 Nights in Iraq. For more details, click here and scroll down to the "Upcoming" list.

Looking to '09 for churches: 12-26-08

I know you're probably too busy today doing your annual Christmas un-shopping to spend a lot of time here, so I'll be brief.


I just wanted to alert you to some new survey/study material about Christian churches that you may find helpful.

Group Publishing has released its "State of the Church: 2009" study and it's available online. Just click here.

It divides its results into children's, volunteer, youth and women's ministry areas, though that seems to me to leave a lot out. But as you surf around on the site you may find some useful thoughts that could help your own faith community.

And if not, you can always try to return the Web site for something that fits better or comes in a color you like.

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In his annual "To the City and to the World" address this week, Pope Benedict XVI called for peace and dialogue. Those are the right goals, but just calling for them won't assure they arrive. Action is needed. I hope B-16 is ready to plunge into some of it in 2009. Or if you're more interested in the Christmas message from Queen Elizabeth II of England, click here.

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Download 12-25-08

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P.S.: Have you checked out everything under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page? If not, you don't know what you're missing -- including some new material.

The light of the world: 12-25-08


When I saw this image from an infrared sky survey I thought of the Christmas star.

The science behind this sky survey is fascinating. And if you want to read about it, click here. But for the rest of you, just have a Merry Christmas (or whatever you're celebrating today).

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Remember the raid in Texas last April that removed lots of children from the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)? State officials have issued a new report defending their decision to take such action, saying it was about protecting children, not persecuting religion. For the Salt Lake Tribune version of this story, click here. I'm really divided about this case. I think the Texas Supreme Court probably was right to say the state overstepped its boundaries when it removed so many children from their parents, and yet I also believe underage children were in effect being abused for religious reasons. But the way authorities botched the Branch Davidian matter more than 15 years ago should give all authorities pause before again violating religious rights.

Today's religious holiday: Christmas (Christianity); Feast of the Nativity (Orthodox Christianity)

A Christmas reading: 12-24-08


Because it's Christmas Eve and I know you have too much on your mind to spend a lot of time here, I want to offer you just a short reading of a Christmas column I wrote a year ago.

To unwrap this small gift -- it runs about four and a half minutes -- just click on the highlighted note here:

Download Christmas column

And may your days be merry and bright.

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And for a Christian Science view of Christmas, click here.

Misunderstanding a sacrament: 12-23-08

The other day here on the blog, one of my readers left a comment that said she "didn't like the cannibalistic ritual of the Eucharist" and that Roman Catholics "really do think they are drinking blood, which I always thought particularly revolting!"


Well, not quite.

This will take a bit of explaining, but it's worth the effort so that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is not misunderstood in this way, leading to anti-Catholic prejudice.

First, it's important to know that the transubstantiation doctrine, which attempts to explain the "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is rooted in Aristotelian science. In oversimplified terms, that science saw the world as made up of "accidents" and "substance." The accidents are the touch, taste, feel and smell of something. Bread, for instance, may be light tan in color with a rough feel. The substance, by contrast, refers to the essential essence of something. In the case of bread, it refers to its "breadness," if you will -- that core reality that makes up whatever it is you're talking about.

Catholics say that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine change. But they aren't talking about a change in the appearance, or accidents. Rather, they are talking about a change in the substance. So, technically, the substance of the bread and the substance of the wine in the sacrament are changed to become the substance of the body and the substance of the blood -- not the physical body and blood that one could verify by looking for platelets and flesh. Thus, the ancient charge of cannibalism is not just misleading but wrong.

Now, one certainly can disagree with the church for using a scientific system that since has been overtaken first by Newtonian science, then Einsteinian science and now post-Einsteinian science. And I personally do have a disagreement with the Catholic church about that. But if one wants to criticize the doctrine of transubstantation, it's important to understand it and not misrepresent it.

If all this seems like arguing about angels dancing on the heads of pins, it's much deeper than that and worthy of much more study than that.

By the way, here is the way the Handbook for Today's Catholics, explains the meaning of the Eucharist: "At Mass, we offer Christ, our passover sacrifice, to God, and we offer ourselves along with him. We then receive the risen Lord, our bread of life, in holy Communion. In so doing, we enter into the very core of the paschal mystery of our salvation -- the death and resurrection of Christ."

It's hard to think of a religious doctrine less understood than transubstantiation -- unless, perhaps, it's predestination. And I ain't going there today.

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It's the time of year when people sometimes find that blending cultures and traditions can be difficult, this report says. Even within Christianity, that's true. My bride, though now a Presbyterian, still loves the Episcopal liturgy. But on my street are two Jewish-Christian couples with children. And I'm often in awe of how they manage to hold all of that together.

The exhibit on JPII and Jews: 12-22-08

I mentioned here in early November the important exhibit about Pope John Paul II (pictured here) and the Jews coming to Kansas City's Union Station starting Feb. 3. It's under the guidance of Avila University.


I want to expand a bit on that today to tell you about the events on the opening evening as well as some other opportunities that will be available in connection with "A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People."

The exhibit opening will feature a lecture by exhibit co-creator James Buchanan called “Responding to Globalization: The New Challenges for Interfaith Dialogue in the 21st Century.” Also that evening, Michael J. Devine, director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, will discuss the importance of Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel.

On March 1, religious leaders from across our community will gather for an interfaith dialogue day. And on March 3 clergy will gather to talk about relations among the faiths.

Throughout March, Avila University and Theatre for Young America will co-produce the play “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

All of this information and more is on the "Blessing" Web site to which I've linked you above. I hope you'll make plans to attend at some point.

As you may know, this subject particularly interests me because of the several years worth of work I've done with a local rabbi to produce our upcoming new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

On the right side of this page, under the "Check this out" headline, you will find a link to my longish essay about anti-Judaism in Christian history and the role it played leading up to the Holocaust.

Christian-Jewish relations, especially in the United States, are in better shape generally than they've been for centuries. But they are far from perfect, and misunderstandings continue. This kind of exhibit offers all of us a chance to explore this subject in some depth and become part of the solution. So cheers to Avila and Union Station for making it possible.

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So in Amsterdam, for the gay-themed "Pink Christmas" event, there was a Nativity Scene tableau featuring a man in drag playing Mary. I suppose that as long as people feel like outsiders in any faith community they will do provocative things. I'm not attracted to this kind of demonstration, but I find it much less troublesome than the way the Christian church traditionally has treated -- and mostly still treats -- gays and lesbians as second-class citizens.

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P.S.: I've added a new page to the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. It's "Where's Bill speaking?" It lists places I'll be giving public talks.

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Today's religious holiday: Start of Hanukkah (Judaism)

How congregations change: 12-20/21-08

But first: The little town of Bethlehem seems finally to be having a good Christmas tourism season this year. I was there on Christmas Eve 51 years ago. But probably whatever my family spent then has been long since dissolved into the economy and disappeared. Maybe it's time to return.

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A new study of religious congregations in the United States confirms what many of us who are part of them can observe:


* Worship is growing less formal.

* The average age of congregation members and clergy is going up.

* Congregations are more racially diverse than before.

* And they're using technology much more frequently.

This is the second National Congregations Study, and it was conducted in 2006 and 2007. A lead researcher was Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University.

Chaves says the biggest change in congregations over the last 10 years has been their use of computer technology.

That's certainly been true in my congregation of just under 1,000 members. Not only does everyone in our church office work on a computer, but we now get regular e-mail newsletters and updates to complement the printed newsletter, which I'm guessing will die out eventually.

For many more details about the study, click here.

How has your congregation changed in the past decade? And have you supported or fought those changes?

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The U.N. General Assembly, in a split decision, has adopted a resolution that condemns defamation of religion. Most Western countries voted against it, saying it threatens freedom of speech. Most Islamic countries supported it. This is another instance of countries that want to put the force of government behind protection of religion in ways that make religion seem weak and unable to defend itself. Beyond that, this kind of resolution encourages oppressive regimes (think Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan) to punish religious dissenters.

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P.S.: I've told you about the Web site, overseen by David Crumm, former religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Through this weekend, the site will feature a piece that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I have written about the work we did on our upcoming book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. I invite you to have a look.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Catherine of Siena Institute will be offering a "Called & Gifted" workshop Jan. 9 and 10 at St. Therese Catholic Church in Parkville, Mo. The idea is to help Catholics understand and use their spiritual gifts. Click here for a Siena Institute link describing these workshops. 

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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.