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New books on faith: 1-31/2-1-09

The books about matters of faith just keep rolling off the presses. There is no way for any single human being to keep up with this onslaught, but I'm going to point you to a few new offerings this weekend.


I remind you that when I write a blog book column (my previous one was Nov. 22-23 last fall), I'm not agreeing with everything each of these authors writes. In some cases, I may vehemently disagree but think you should know of the existence of the book and of the arguments being made.

I also remind you that for every book I mention here, there may well be several dozen more covering similar subject matter that I haven't mentioned and don't have time to get to.

With all that in mind, let's see what's new:

* God in the White House: A History, by Randall Balmer. The author, who teaches religious history at Barnard College, begins with the faith views of John F. Kennedy and ends with those of George W. Bush. Which should give all of us a good foundation to understand how this field may change under Barack Obama. Balmer is fair and insightful. He's that rare combination of a scholar who can write readable prose. Plus, there are some good primary documents in the appendix.

* Opening the Qur'an Introducing Islam's Holy Book, by Water H. Wagner. Anyone -- especially non-Muslims -- who wants to gain a thorough and even nuanced understanding of the Qur'an would do well to start with this helpful new book. It is thorough, appreciative and full of the kinds of detailed facts that are necessary to grasping the significance of the world's second largest religion (Christianity is first). At more than 500 pages, this is not a book for summer beach reading. But the author, who teaches history and biblical studies at Moravian College and Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, helps non-Muslims (but also Muslims) grasp the influence of the Qur'an.

* Red, White, and Muslim: My Story of Belief, by Asma Gull Hasan. A previous version of this book had the title, Why I Am a Muslim. This version will be published Feb. 17. The author, a journalist and a lawyer, grew up in Colorado, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She offers here another much-needed voice from Islam, one that is clear, rational and profoundly American. I might suggest this book as good companion to an earlier one by another female Muslim American journalist, Asra Nomani, Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam.


* An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. The author, an Episcopal priest, seems to be simply incapable of writing a bad book or a bad anything. Oh, I'm sure she has some terrible sermons somewhere that she hopes never see the light of day again. But Taylor is a great gift to the Christian church. And this volume, which focuses on spiritual practices, simply adds to her growing reputation. She may not identify herself readily as in harmony with Celtic spirituality, but what else but that is this? ". . .there is no spiritual treaure to be foundapart from the bodily expeirences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physicial activities with the most exquisiteattention I can give them."

* Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief, by John Polkinghorne and Nicolas Beale. Anyone familiar with the insightful science-religion writing of Polkinghorne always looks forward to whatever he's got coming next. In this volume, Polkinghorne and his colleage Beale provide their own Christian answers to some of the most-asked questions about faith, from "Is atheism a form of faith?" to "What does it mean to be created 'in the image of God'?" to the old standard, "Where does evil come from?". By the way, did you know, as they write here, that "the sky is not blue on every planet"?

* The Great Awakening: Seven Ways to Change the World, by Jim Wallis. The author, the now-famous "progressive" evangelical writer, editor and speaker, has helped to shape the public discourse about faith and politics in our time. He's now convinced that we have entered a new era in which the so-called "Religious Right" (which means different things to different people) has lost its power, to say nothing of its way. Wallis says President Obama's election signals the end of "an age of narrow and divisive religion." Like most prophets, he tends to put into past tense things he hopes will happen as though they've already happened. But Wallis issues here a consistent call to action to care for souls who need caring. And, in the end, that's all of us.

* Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, by Matthew S. Stanford. This is an effort to understand mental illness from an evangelical Christian perspective. It has some useful insights but seems quite easily to slip into explanations for such illness that involve demonic possession and similar causes. However, the message about loving people with mental illnesses is good and wholesome.


* The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, by Christopher J. H. Wright. The author, an understudy of the famous Christian leader John R.W. Stott, has written a book that quite frankly acknowledges the difficulty of understanding God's motives and means. Wright's attempts at explanations are drawn from pretty traditional Christian theology, though the real value in the book is not the answers but, rather, a willingness to wrestle with the questions with an acknowledgement that satisfying answers are not always at hand.

* Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic, by Francis J. Beckwith. This rather well-known evangelical Protestant -- he was president of the Evangelical Theological Society -- describes here his decision to return to Catholicism after 30 years as a Protestant. The engaging thing about the book is that he makes clear that his story and decision will not -- and need not be -- everyone's story and decision.

* The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage, by Eric Frattini. This fascinating account, previously published in Spain and France, now is out in English. And it's likely to rattle some of the Catholic faithful. It's the account of the Holy Alliance -- called The Entity since the 1930. The Entity is the Vatican's spy service, created in 1566 by Pope Pius V. In Frattini's introduction, he writes, "Kings have been killed, diplomats poisoned, and one or another among feuding factions supported, all as a norm of papal diplomacy. Blind eyes have been turned to catastrophes and holocausts. Terrorists have been financed, as have been South American dictators, while war criminals have been protected, Mafia money laundered, financial markets manipulated, bank failures provoked, and arms sold to combatants even as their wars have been condemned." And in the final chapter, he describes the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to continue The Entity, suggesting that the newest head of it, "whoever that may be, can expect that the German papacy of Benedict XVI will not be very different from the Polish years of John Paul II. . .He can expect. . .years of enormous activity for the espionage services of the Vatican state."


* Now two together: The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, by Shimon Gibson, and Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened, by Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright. The publication date for the first book here is not until March, though it can be preordered. It is written by an archaeologist and draws on his work in Jersusalem to offer new insights into the location of Jesus' crucifixion and Jesus' tomb. It's quite a compelling read for any Christian who likes to imagine the historical scenes depicted in the gospels. The second book is drawn from lectures by Craig Evans and Tom Wright, two noted Christian authors who have maintained orthodox (lower-case "o") theology. This volume is just over 100 pages and offers a compact, helpful and updated view of Jesus' trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

* Marpeck: A Life of Dissent and Conformity, by Walter Klaassen and William Klassen. The early years of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were often chaotic and full of turmoil and much dissent. It's hard to think of a group of whom that is more true than the Anabaptists, from whom the Mennonites and Amish trace their roots. This engaging book shines an important light on that period by focusing on an often-overlooked Anabaptist thinker of the period, Pilgram Marpeck, from Rattenberg, in what is now Austria. As the authors point out, Marpeck "was one of the first to advocate the separation of church and state. He offered articulate explanations of the theology of adult baptism (which is what Anabaptists believed in) and Christian commitment to nonviolence." Anyone interested in good Christian history will benefit from this book.

* Why Faith Matters, by David J. Wolpe. No, this is not a book about why you should read my blog. Rather, it's a lovely book by a prominent rabbi who has reasonable and well-considered things to say about the importance of faith. Wolpe is a fine story teller, and his stories matter. In the end, this is an argument from the heart against what he calls "the narrow certainties that lead to viciousness and violence" as well as "the smugness that often characterizes arguments against faith." In the conversation with the so-called New Atheists, this is a strong word of wisdom.

*Love God, Heal Earth, by the Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham. In recent years, people of all faiths -- and none -- have committed themselves to the work of environmentalism, saving the earth for (and from) ourselves. It's been quite a remarkable movement toward common ground. In a sense, this book provides the theological rationale and marching orders for this movement. Bingham has gathered together nearly two dozen voices from several religious traditions. The result is not a single voice but many distinctive voices singing from the same page.


* The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Campbell, who died in 1987, first published this book in 1949, and it became something of a classic. It helps all of us understand the "myths" by which we live -- no, the the falsehoods but the overarching stories, the narratives that help us grasp what the human condition is all about. As you may know, Bill Moyers some years ago featured Campbell in a series of interviews that sought to unpack what our religious and other myths have to say about us. In a time of much religious conflict, this book deserves a new audience.

* Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning, by Colette Livermore. There aren't many anti-Mother Teresa books in the world, and I'm not sure I'd count this one among them, though it does raise some criticisms of the way Mother Teresa's order was operated. Rather, this is more of a story about a crisis of faith that led a Catholic young woman to go from being part of Mother Teresa's order of nuns to being an agnostic (though she calls herself both an agnostic and a non-believer, which I believe are contradictory). Livermore, who today is a physician in Australia, is quite a good writer. But the story she tells makes me wish she had been much more mature and worldly when she committed herself to work with Mother Teresa when she was just 18. I think she'd have worked her way through her doubts and troubles the way Mother T herself did.

* Conflict & Reconciliation: The Contribution of Religions, by John W. Bowker, editor. In an era when religion gets blamed for many of the conflicts in the world, this important book offers some critical thinking -- meaning some sanity -- about the causes of those conflicts but, more to the point, the ways in which religion can and does contrbute to the solutions to those battles. Writers look at various religious traditions (including Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity) in some detail to give an account of what each brings to the peace table. Would-be peacemakers of any faith or of none would do well to digest what's in this book.

* 365 Prescriptions for the Soul, by Dr. Bernie S. Siegel. This well-known physician and author has produced a volume of daily meditations designed to heal you with inspiration, hope and love. The idea is simple enough and easily could slip into daily sameness. Siegel avoids monotony, however, by drawing on a wide range of sources for the quotes that prompt his musings.

* Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, by Brad Warner. This is an engaging and personable argument for Buddhist practices even in the midst of personal crises of the kind Warner experienced in 2007, ranging from divorce to family death to job loss. It's an odd little book in that it's not what you might expect from a Zen teachers, but it's a fun read.

* Now two more together: Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved, tranlsations by Jonathan Star. And The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharoahs, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Both of these small volumes are part of the Tarcher Cornerstone Series from Tarcher/Penguin, which seeks to publish spiritual and philosophical classics. The first book contains some of the 13th century Persian poet's most famous works. (Jalaluddin Rumi, by the way, is the best-selling poet in America even today.)  The second book is a new translation of a late-Egyptian classic from which Western artists and writers have drawn inspiration.

* How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, by Clark Strand. This is another book that has a March publication date, but can be preordered now. This Buddhist teacher and former Buddhist monk has struggled mightily to make sense of the countless (many of them off-putting) images of God. Finally he has returned to the Bible to try to make some sense of how God is depicted there and whether it's possible to believe in such a God. The result is a book that offers neither traditional Buddhism nor traditional Christianity but, rather, some useful questions for seekers on any path.


* The Secret History of Dreaming, by Robert Moss. Did you ever wonder where the tune to the Beatles' great hit "Yesterday," came from? The author of this intriguing book reports that Paul McCartney dreamed it. The Bible, of course, is full of dreams, including those of Jesus' earthly father Joseph, who heeded what he had dreamed and fled with his family to Egypt to avoid losing his baby boy to Herod's blood thirst. And this volume reports on lots of other people and their dreams -- and how all of that changed history.

* The Unseen War: Winning the Fight for Life, by David K. Kortje. One of the oldest metaphors for understanding life and the troubles it brings is a military one. We are in a battle. We must fight. The struggle is against an enemy we sometimes cannot even name, much less see. The author, a physician and director and founder of Knight Vision Ministries, uses that motif to describe his understanding of the Christian life. There is plenty of Satan talk here, plenty of war language, plenty of admonishments to recognize that we're on a battlefield, whether we want to admit it or not. I've never found that kind of methaphor especially helpful to me, though I recognize it works for some people. If you're one, this book, written by a man from Benton, Kan., (that's northeast of Wichita) may be helpful to you on your spiritual journey.

* Atheists Can Get to 'Heaven', by W. Michael King. Yes, the author had a near-death experience. Yes, he felt himself surrounded by white light. Yes, he came back to write about it. And his conclusion? ". . .one's eternal essence of life being does not depend on deities, religion or faith. Nor must consciousness end upon the death of the body, as die-hard atheists would assert." Perhaps some day all of us we'll know if he's right.

* Soul Currency: Investing Your Inner Wealth for Fulfillment & Abundance, by Ernest D. Chu. This would be classified as a self-help book with spiritual underpinnings. The author is a pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living in Fort Lauderdale, which is part of the United Church or Religious Science. In the book he proposes that you take careful spiritual inventory and use what he calls your soul assets to achieve success and happiness.


* Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance, by R. Albert Mohler Jr. The author is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent voice among Christians who identify themselves as theologically conservative. So it's no surprise that he devotes several chapters here to providing a theological justification for condemning homosexuality. There is much to be said about the damage done to individuals and society when sexuality is less an expression of commitment than a means of satisfying base desires, but that message can get lost when so much attention is given to maintaining prejudice against gays and lesbians for reasons that I believe cannot, in the end, be biblically justified. But even if you don't agree with Mohler, he represents a widely held (though I believe dwindling) position and it's important to understand his thinking.

* Finally, three novels (I don't read much fiction, religious or otherwise) but these seemed interesting enough to mention and to give you links to check them out further: Eve: A Novel of the First Woman, by Elissa Elliott. This begins with Cain murdering his brother as told through Eve's fascinating voice. Angel of Wrath, by Bill Myers. This has cops and satanic practices and all kinds of strange goings-on. Mark's Story, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Yes, the authors of the "Left Behind" series are back with a fictitious account of the end of Jesus' life. Just so you know: I thought the theology behind the "Left Behind" series was misguided. But if you're a big LaHaye-Jenkins fan, here you go.

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A couple of times here in the last week or so (check the archives) I've written about Pope Benedict XVI rehabilitating a Holocaust-denying bishop. I thought you'd be interested in the views of two rabbis, who suggest the pope should reconfirm the welcome stand Vatican II took to repudiate the church's historic anti-Judaism. For a relatively thorough accounting of that history, see the link to my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. AND: For an analysis of this whole controversy from John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, click here.

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P.S.: If you enjoyed "The Note" on the Hallmark Channel in 2007, you will want to see its sequel, "Taking a Chance on Love," on the same channel at 8 p.m. (CST) Saturday.

Saving Jews in Poland: 1-30-09


As some of you know, I (and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn) have a new book coming out this year from the University of Missouri Press about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help. (For details see the link about the book under "Check this out" on the right side of this page.)

One of the agencies that helped us locate survivors was the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which is based in New York City. In addition to its educational programs, JFR, an excellent organization, currently provides financial support to some 1,100 people, mostly in Europe, who risked their lives to help Jews survive.

At the annual meeting this week of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, the woman who directs JFR, Stanlee Joyce Stahl, spoke about rescue in Poland, making many of the points that we'll be making in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. (We don't yet have a specific publication date for the book but we'll keep you posted about that on the book's Web site and here on the blog. The illustration here is from our book's Web site.)

Stahl noted that when the Germans occupied a country, they instituted a four-step program directed at Jews: 1. Identification (this included making Jews wear distinctive markings) 2. expropriation of property owned by Jews and removal of Jews from work locations and schools 3. Isolation (this included placing them in ghettos) 4. Annihilation (for this murderous work, the Germans set up six death camps in Poland).

She also noted that Polish Jews were the least assimilated of any Jews in Europe and were often easily identifiable by their dress and language. Thus, she said, for the most part Polish Jews and Polish non-Jews felt like strangers in each other's worlds.

That made rescue more difficult and problematic, though so far the agency in Israel that recognizes non-Jews for this work, Yad Vashem, has honored more than 6,000 Polish non-Jews for saving Jews.

Stahl also noted that although individual nuns and priests have been honored for saving Jews, the institutional Catholic Church in Poland (Poland is predominantly Catholic) did little or nothing to save Jews.

In the end, she asked a question that we think our book will pose: What would you do if you were faced with a murderous regime that wanted you dead and what would you do to save people whom such a regime targeted?

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Enough seriousness for a bit. How about a little satirical piece about God and football, with the Super Bowl fast approaching? I always wondered what God thought about this. Now I know. Maybe.

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P.S.: War inevitably produces widely and sometimes wildly varied versions of what happened. And often there is truth in all such versions. The recent fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas offers an example. Click here for a version told by an Israeli soldier. Then click here for a tale told by a Gaza resident who felt misused by the Israeli military. And then, if you can, pray for peace.

Our presidents and faith: 1-29-09


If you missed Newsweek editor Jon Meacham speaking in Kansas City this week at the conclusion of the annual Festival of Faiths, you really missed a wonderful evening of conversation and insight from one of the brightest young minds in the country.

You need to promise yourself to keep the Festival of Faiths bookmarked and to make plans for the third annual version later this year.


I was honored to be asked to introduce Jon to the audience at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College and to moderate the Q&A after he spoke. The photo here of us proves that we both showed up for the event.

If you want just a two-minute excerpt from Jon's talk, which focused on the presidents and their approach to religious matters, click on the link below. In it, he's speaking about Thomas Jefferson and other founders and their decision that freedom of religion would be vital to the future stability of the new nation --  a freedom Meacham called a "rickety but enduring" structure.

Download Jon Meacham

A few highlights from Jon's talk:

* Our Founding Fathers purposefully did not use much overtly Christian language in the founding documents. Knowing the recent European history of sectarian strife, they sought to avoid that.

* "We're not a Christian nation. It's a theological impossibility." And a constitutional impossibility.

* Reinhold Niebuhr is the theologian feels most in tune with.

* "Literalism is for the insecure."

* The presidents who were our best theologians were Jefferson and Lincoln.

By the way, Meacham's latest book, which I haven't yet had a chance to read, is about Andrew Jackson. You'd think all us Jackson Countians would want to give it a read, right?

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Yes, there's lots of connection between religion and our presidents, but also religion and the Super Bowl, that profoundly spiritual event taking place this weekend in a huge temple, as this report makes clear. Is sports a religion in this country? To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha.

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NOTE: I tried to add a search function here last week that would let you search my blog but I couldn't get it to work right. So I've killed that one and added one that does work -- or seems to. Check it out on the right side of this page just above the Google ads. Bill.

Pondering nature's patterns: 1-28-09


What are we to make of the patterns we see throughout creation?

I'm not talking about what some folks say is evidence for the "Intelligent Design" movement, though they raise interesting points.

Rather, I'm just talking about the nature's patterns and cycles that are obvious to anyone whose eyes work and whose brain can process the idea of time passing. And I'm talking about what those patterns and cycles say about us and our place in the comos.

The other day my wife and a I spent some time with friends at a small lake in eastern Kansas, where I took this photo of birds flying in formation. How do they know to do that? Where does the information come from that moves them to create this quite marvelous V in the sky? Did the first birds in history get there by trial and error and then send their babies to flying school? Are their tiny brains divinely imprinted with some ancient pattern that prevents them from flying in any other group pattern?

Such patterns and rhythms are everwhere in nature -- from the cycles of the four seasons to the emergence of the 17-year-locusts, from the phases of the moon to the attraction of magnets. They don't call it the menstrual cycle for nothing.

I'm perfectly happy granting that there are natural explanations for this stuff. But ultimately we have to explain nature itself and its origins. Ultimately we have to take account of the reality that this is not a static universe but one in motion and that we are moving into a future that, in its physical elements, is both unknown and unknowable except for the patterns that we learn from watching what is here now.

And I am unsatisfied with those who want simply to say "God created it just like this" and those who want simply to say, "There's no God. Everything can be explained by natural processes." Does either of those answers finally satisfy you?

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I thought it was a wise move for President Obama to grant an early and extensive interview with an Arab TV network as a way of reaching out to Muslims and speaking realistically to them. And I was especially encouraged by Obama's instructions to his newly appointed Middle East envoy George Mitchell: "start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating." By the way, click here for the Arab News version of this story.

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P.S.: As a follow-up to recent information here about Pope Benedict XVI lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, click here for the Web site of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by the French cleric, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The rehabilitated priests were followers of Lefebvre. And the leader of the Pius X society issued this statement about Richard Williamson, the Holocaust denier. In it, he said, "The affirmations of Bishop Williamson do not reflect in any sense the position of our Fraternity. For this reason I have prohibited him, pending any new orders, from taking any public positions on political or historical questions." Gagging him probably is a necessary move, but let's remember that you haven't convinced someone just because you've silenced him.

Celebrating Mozart: 1-27-09

As regular readers of my blog know, from time to time I like to dip into history to remind us of some event or person who helped to shape faith in some important way.


Which is why today I want to commemorate the birth on this date in 1756 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (depicted here), whose music has filled churches for centuries.

The Roman Catholic Church can claim Mozart as a lifelong member, but among his 600-some musical compositions are many that churches of lots of denominations have used.

Mozart, in effect, preached the gospel through the gift of music.

I've found a site that offers, for free, a wide sampling of Mozart's music. For that, click here.

It's clear that church music has changed and that today many churches have turned away from the standard European composers of several centuries ago and are using much more modern music. I have no problem with that except that I wish they would not abandon these masters completely while they search for sounds that appeal to today's congregations. There is simply too much genius in the Mozarts and others of his ilk.

At any rate, raise a toast to Mozart today. And let your computer play a bit of his extraordinary music for you before the day is out.

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I mentioned here yesterday that Pope Benedict XVI had lifted the excommunication of a bishop who is a Holocaust denier. Richard Williamson was affiliated with the movement started by French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, and as John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter notes in this piece, Lefebvre's movement has long had an anti-Jewish bias. As this article notes, in quoting a theologian, to deny a crime is to commit it a second time. If you wish to read the papal decree that lifted the excommunication against Williamson and others, click here. Pope John Paul II seemed to have good reasons for his 1988 excommunication of Williamson and others. I think B-16 has no good reason to lift that excommunication -- at least not until Williamson repents of his know-nothing revisionist history.

Christians attacking Islam: 1-26-09

Mbts chapel

I am always a little surprised at the harshness of the criticism of Islam that sometimes comes from Christians who would identify themselves as fundamentalists or conservatives.

Indeed, at times this criticism has degenerated into simple hatred. And I'm not at all sure why they feel the need to adopt such counterproductive tactics. I suspect it arises from a theology that asserts everyone is condemned to hell except certain Christians -- a position that I believe proscribes God's glorious freedom to decide the ultimate fate of individuals.

At any rate, all of this came to mind again the other day when I was reading The Midwestern, the quarterly magazine published by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, North. The seminary is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The publication is not available on the seminary's Web site, though at my request someone there is trying to see if it's possible to post a pdf file of the article. But so far that hasn't happened.

In the Winter edition of the magazine there's a fairly long piece describing what was billed as an "Inter-Faith Workshop on Islam" held at the seminary in the fall. I was intrigued by the title because generally Southern Baptists aren't much interested in interfaith activities. But from what I can tell, that description didn't mean any kind of dialogue between and among people of different faiths. No Muslims were invited to speak. Rather, there were presentations mostly by people representing groups trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

"All the workshop leaders agreed that the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only real hope for change in the lives of Muslims," the article said.

The workshop speakers were Jay Smith of London, described as an "Islam expert;" Patrick Sookhdeo of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity (ISIC); Sasan Tavasolli of the Outreach Foundation; Samuel Shahid of Good News for the Crescent World, and R. Philip Roberts, seminary president.

(You can read about these groups on their Web sites, though the link to the ISIC will take you to a Wikipedia page where there's a link to the group's official Web site, but that site appears to be under construction.)

It's clear to me that these organizations are much less interested in a dialogue with Islam than they are in seeking to eliminate Islam by having all Muslims convert to Christianity: "We have a belief that the only thing we must be doing is converting," the magazine article quotes Smith as saying. (In traditional Christian doctrine, by the way, individuals -- contrary to Smith's language -- don't convert others; rather, the Holy Spirit does the converting.) It also said Smith held up a copy of the Qur'an and, referring to Muslims, said, "This is what destroys them. This book makes them do what they do."

From what the magazine piece said about the workshop, I concluded that the speakers think the way to convert Muslims is to belittle Islam and criticize it for its theology.

I understand that Christians are mandated to share their faith. But, of course, there are many ways to do that. Perhaps the least effective way is to attack someone else's religion.

If I were to tell Christians how to share their faith, I would suggest that -- once they have earned the right to speak with others about such things -- they simply describe the joy they experience by being disciples of Jesus. No faith needs to promote itself by denigrating the beliefs of others. That's a sure way to get others to shut you out. But the folks who spoke at this seminary workshop must feel Christianity (the world's largest religion) is so threatened that they have to come to its rescue by attacking Islam. It strikes me as a losing approach, completely out of sync with what Jesus lived and taught.

(And by the way, no, I'm not naive about the reality that some people in the world who identify themselves as Muslims want to destroy Americans. As many of you know, such misguided people murdered my own nephew, a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on 9/11.)

(The photo here today is from the seminary's Web site.)

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Pope Benedict XVI has rescinded the excommunication of a bishop who is a Holocaust denier, and some Jews are expressing outrage. Christians and others should do the same. For another version of this story, click here. And for a version that quotes even Vatican insiders as saying the pope's action is divisive, click here. In what I've read so far I have seen no papal justification for the move that makes any sense -- nor can I even imagine such a justification. If B-16 wanted to improve relations with followers of a breakaway bishop, there is no way that motive should have led to rehabilitating someone who denies that Jews were murdered in gas chambers in World War II. B-16 by this act is undoing much of the goodwill that Pope John Paul II created between Christians and Jews in his papacy. How sad and unnecessary. Once again this pope demonstrates his not-infrequent tone-deafness.

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P.S.: Don't forget that Newsweek editor Jon Meacham will be speaking at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College tonight. It will be the keynote address of the annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths. I'll be introducing him and moderating the Q&A session when he's done speaking. There still are a few good seats left, but hurry. The link I've given you tells you how to get tickets. 

Planting a new church: 1-24/25-09


An Episcopal priest I know has been asked by his diocese to create a new church in a suburban area, so he called me the other day to ask if I'd help him think through how one gets the word out about such things these days.

He hopes his new church will be extraordinarily child friendly, with lots of attention paid to the needs of children. So, naturally, he needs to make young families -- and young couples thinking about having children -- aware of what's happening.

As a longtime newspaperman, I of course told him about how best to communicate not just with The Kansas City Star but also with other smaller newspapers in his area. But I certainly acknowledged that newspapers, though still serving an important function, are in many ways "old media." And, as he and I both know, many young people with whom he wants to communicate don't read newspapers.

I suggested that he needs to be thinking about communicating with people in cyberspace not just by creating a great church Web site but by using such social networking sites as, which are highly popular with the people he's hoping to attract to the congregation -- one that so far does not have either a name or a location.

We also talked about using blogs and cell phone texting methods of keeping people up to speed on the church as it creates itself.

But I suggested that he need not reinvent the wheel if he can take advantage of communication methods already in existence. For instance, I told him that if I were in his shoes, I'd go to the public library and ask for space in which he could lead a discussion of the "Faith" chapter of The Audacity of Hope, President Barack Obama's book. Maybe a weekly session for three weeks. (I wrote about that chapter here on the blog the other day. Click here for that.)

In that case, I said, he could avail himself of the library's own communication system -- its e-mails, newsletters, Web site announcements etc. -- to spread the word about the study group. And from that group there might arise a few people interested in the new church.

Well, we spoke about other matters, too, and I gave him some names of other people to talk with. But I'm wondering if you'd give some thought to how you would communicate today with people (mostly unchurched people) whom you'd like to invite to get in on the ground floor of a new congregation -- of any faith. Either by e-mail or by leaving a comment here, give me your best ideas.

(The new church the Episcopal priest in question is to help build is not the one pictured here, which I found just for illustrative purposes at

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Pope Benedict XVI now has his own YouTube channel, this report says. That link will give you a link to the site. Once I got there I asked for the English version but it mostly still appeared to be in Italian. In my March column for The Presbyterian Outlook (see the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page) I plan to talk about the way faith communities use modern means of communications. Looks like the Vatican is getting up to speed.

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P.S.: Don't forget that Newsweek editor Jon Meacham will be speaking at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College this Monday evening. It will be the keynote address of the annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths. I'll be introducing him and moderating the Q&A session when he's done speaking. There still are a few good seats left, but hurry. The link I've given you tells you how to get tickets. 

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NOTE: From mid-Saturday afternoon until late Sunday afternoon I most likely will have no Internet access and will be unable to post your comments. I'll get to them when I can. Thanks. Bill.

Interfaith youth training: 1-23-09

Inspired by Eboo Patel's book Acts of Faith, some folks in my church have been working with others on creating opportunities for youth to participate in the kind of interfaith work done by Patel's Interfaith Youth Core.


I attended a meeting earlier this week at which people representing various faith traditions -- Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), Islam, Judaism, Universalist-Unitarian and "none" -- came together to talk about how to move forward on that goal.

Jon Willis, a member of my congregation, has been the driving force behind all of this and he hopes to be able to bring Patel here as a speaker, perhaps in May. Patel, a Muslim, is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago.

At the moment, two events are on the agenda:

* A Feb. 8 service project for 9th to 12th graders at Grace United Church, 8th and Benton in Kansas City.

* A Feb. 28 youth training workshop at my church, Second Presbyterian, 55th and Brookside in Kansas City.

For details about all of this, contact Jon at [email protected]. A bit more information is available on this page of my church's Web site. Just scroll down to find it.

At our gathering the other evening I was struck by comments from a 16-year-old member of our congregation who said she really wanted more opportunities just to talk with and to get to know young people of other faiths. In response, Shannon Clark, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, said she has a religiously diverse group of a dozen young people active with the council. And it looks as if Shannon now will be connecting those youth to this effort.

Patel argues that it's vital for people of faith to influence young people in good and healthy ways before they turn to radicalism. It's also vital that young people get accurate and reliable information about their own religious tradition as well as those of others so they can know what they're talking about when faith enters the discussion, as it seems to increasingly these days.

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In a time of rising religious diversity in the United States, it looks as if President Barack Obama is in tune with that and will approach matters of faith differently from the way former President George W. Bush did. For a pretty good analysis of all that, click here for a piece in the Christian Science Monitor.

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P.S.: As you might expect the folks at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture are thrilled (as they should be) by President Obama's executive order banning the use of torture. For the NRCAT statement, click here.

Worship as suicide prevention: 1-22-09


Now here's an interesting study that may need more (or maybe less) study:

Researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada have found what they think is a link between attendance at religious services and a decrease in the desire to commit suicide.

That is, people who regularly attend worship services seem less inclined to kill themselves. They note that this lower risk seems not to be prevalent in people who describe themselves as "spiritual" but who don't attend services.

Daniel Rasic, the primary author of the study, indicates that it's not possible to tell from the research he and his colleagues have done why worship attendance would lower the risk of suicide.

Well, I can't prove what I'm about to say is true, but I can hazzard a reasonable guess or two about the research findings.

Regular worship attendance puts people into a community. And faith communities tend to be (tend to be, not always are) supportive of their members. That is, people who are part of such communities often feel valued and cared for. I personally find it impossible to get through a Sunday morning at my church without people inquiring about how I'm doing and how my kids and grandkids are doing and what I'm up to and whether my wife and I are going to be attending this or that church event.

So I'm guessing that it's harder for people to get utterly despondent to the point of suicide if they know that others support them and value them. Suicide still happens among regular worship attenders, of course, because sometimes mental illness occurs and cannot be overcome in this way.

But I'm so sure that being part of a supportive faith community is a large part of the "why" of this new study that I think it would be a waste of money to offer a grant to university researchers to come to the same conclusion.

* * *


Especially after all the campaign nonsense about Barack Obama being a Muslim, I was pleased that in his inauguration address he called for a new way forward in relations with Muslims and predominantly Muslim countries around the world. This analysis finds Muslims quite willing to get engaged in that new way, though after eight years of Bush administration policies they naturally want to see action more than they want to hear words. As it happened, I was with a few Muslim friends the evening of the inauguration and they were quite thrilled that the U.S. was entering a new presidential era.

A faithful body of evidence: 1-21-09


I had my annual physical exam this week (the early verdict is that I'm not yet ready for my family to call the undertaker) and was pondering the marvels of the human body and what religion says about that. (I took the photo here at the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City last year.)

Psalm 139 has it right when it says that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made." This does not deny or negate the role of science or the natural processes by which human bodies come into being. But it does acknowledge an ultimate source, or guarantor, of those processes and of the loving and creative mind and heart that ultimate source possesses.

Indeed, the more we know about the human body, the more in awe we are of its intricacies and the way in which its parts work together.

Later, Christians were to describe the body as the "temple of the Holy Spirit," drawing on the sixth chapter of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. As that temple, we are instructed to preserve, protect and defend that body -- to use presidential inauguration language still ringing in our ears. This understanding of the body should lead us not only to respect our own bodies but also to respect the bodies of all other people. Would that it more often did that.

In Islam there's a fascinating passage in the 23rd chapter, or surah, that describes how God "created the human being from an extraction of clay; then We made him into seminal fluid in a stopping place, secure,then We created a clot from seminal fluids, then We created tissue from the clot, then We created bones from tissue, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We caused another creation to grow." (I've given you a link above that has three different translations of the Qur'an. The translation I used here today is The Sublime Quran, translated by Laleh Bakhtiar.)

There's even this Web site that expounds on Islam's understanding of God's creation of the body drawn from this chapter.

I'm not a Muslim, but as I read this account, what I believe it is affirming is the divine intention to create humanity and to live in relationship with that creation.

I was playing outdoors the other day with one of my grandsons, hitting a ball back and forth with paddles. And I was watching closely as he was learning to coordinate the so-far untrained muscles of his body to be able to put paddle to ball at just the right instant. His brain was guiding his muscles, which were creating muscle memory. Marvelous.

If you've already broken your New Year's resolution to treat your own body with more respect this year, perhaps it will help to remember how important bodies are in theology. Indeed, in Christian theology, we affirm the ultimate "resurrection of the body," which is a far different idea from the old Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. But that's a subject for another day.

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After yesterday's inauguration of President Barack Obama, I participated in a panel discussion at St. Paul School of Theology about what the new presidency may mean for public theology and the relationship between church and state. One of my fellow panelists was Wallace Hartsfield II, pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church and professor of Hebrew Bible at St. Paul. I thought you might want to hear (about 10-plus minutes) his remarks about the need to rethink respect, reconciliation and righteousness through the use of commitment, compassion and cooperation. So click on the link below. (And just ignore the applause at the start of the tape. It wasn't for me.)

Download Hartsfield