Previous month:
February 2009
Next month:
April 2009

A pro-secular Saudi voice: 3-31-09

When I was in Saudi Arabia in 2002, I met the editor of the Arab News, Khaled Almaeena, an intriguing man with quite a non-parochial view of the world.


His newspaper just ran this piece quoting a speech he made about India, a country in which I spent two years of my boyhood. I was intrigued by Khaled's view that "secularism" must be India's future if it is avoid the kind of religious extremism that has stained Saudi Arabia. (That's my paraphrase of his remarks.)

When Khaled talks about a secular polity in India, I think he means that the country must avoid turning governing power over to leaders of any particular religion to rule on the basis of their religious beliefs. India is predominantly Hindu (just over 80 percent), with Muslims making up about 12 percent and with Christians and Sikhs each accounting for about 2 percent.


In such a country -- and I would include the United States among such countries -- it's crucial to maintain peace among the followers of various religious traditions. So when Khaled uses the term secularism, I think he means a system of governance that does not -- unlike Saudi Arabia -- give preference to any particular religion.

It's fascinating to hear this argument coming from an influential Saudi. I may be reading too much into this, but I take Khaled's remarks as something of a criticism of the Saudi polity. In Saudi Arabia, the Qur'an is considered the Constitution. And the only religion anyone is allowed to practice there publicly is Islam.

So I see Khaled Almaeena as another voice for reform in the kingdom. And, for sure, it needs more such voices.

* * *


I mentioned here the other day the U.N. resolution on defamation of religion and why it's a bad idea. But I think this commentary sums it up pretty well. Anyone see it differently?

* * *

P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. For that plus earlier Outlook columns, click here.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: If you want to sponsor me in the AIDSWalk KC 2009 edition to raise funds for the AIDS Service Foundation, click here. I do this as part of the AIDS Ministry at my church. And thanks.

How the New Testament ends: 3-30-09

Have you read the book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse) lately?


As I say in my book,A Gift of Meaning, "Such great minds as Martin Luther and John Calvin found only puzzles in the New Testament's last book." Also there I quote M. Eugene Boring, a biblical scholar, this way: "Although every biblical book is subject to misinterpretation, no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations."

I thought of all that when I got a press release the other day that said an "international ministry describes Revelation as a heretical book written by a bogus prophet who invented speeches of a fictitious Christ."

The release provided a link to this Web sitewhere, supposedly, Chaplain C. G. Weakley, president of the international Christian Community ministry, reveals why Revelation is a bunch of hooey.

At the bottom of the multi-colored, hard-to-read page, there's a link that takes you to a page about Weakley himself. There he describes himself as "world wide Internet Chaplain to all people of every religious system." I hope Chaplain Weakley won't mind if I voluntarily remove myself from his list of "all people" whom he serves as chaplain.

My point in raising this with you today is to remind all of us that anyone can claim to be a religious expert and anyone can say almost anything about the Bible, the Qur'an or any other sacred text or religious idea. So our task is to be discerning about who is saying what and how that might fit in with who has said what in the past about whatever the subject is. That is, it might be a good idea to study the work of well-trained theologians who have devoted their lifetimes to trying to understand Revelation. In the end, we may reject their conclusions but they are the place to start -- and not with the Internet chaplain to all people of every religion.

And yet let's also be open to the possibility that people outside the usual and well-credentialed sources may have insights that can be helpful to us. For instance, some day I would love to take what Weakley says about Revelation and ask someone like David M. May, a teacher at Central Baptist Theological Seminary who has studied and written about about Revelation, to tell me the best idea he finds in Weakley's work. David is a really bright guy with a good grasp of Revelation, and yet I bet Weakley says something in his critique of the book that David may find intriguing -- no matter how bizarre most of Weakley's views may be.

Maybe in the future publisher of Bibles should put this label at the start of Revelation: "Handle with care."

* * *


Should a Catholic university (oh, say, Notre Dame) invite a pro-choice politician (oh, say, Barack Obama) to be a commencement speaker? Well, Notre Dame has invited Obama and it's stirring up a storm. Some years ago, I was invited to be the commencement speaker at the University of St. Maryin Leavenworth, Kan. Then, as a protest over The Kansas City Star's series of articles (which I didn't write) about AIDS in the priesthood, that invitation was rescinded. I argued in a column that the decision was foolish on many levels. And I would argue that Notre Dame's invitation to Obama should be seen as an opportunity for Catholics and Obama to talk in detail about how they view the abortion issue. Cutting off dialogue helps nothing.

New books about faith: 3-28/29-09

Newspapers may be in trouble but clearly the printed word is not -- at least judging by the number of books that continue to be produced.


That's especially true in the religion field. My, oh, my.

I can't possibly read or point you to every book in this area but I want to give you some information about some newly published books. By including a book in this list, I'm not endosing everything the writer says. In some cases I may have serious disagreements with the authors but want you to be aware of the book's existence.

(A few of these books aren't yet officially in print but can be preordered now.)

I'll begin with a Holocaust-related book, partly because my own new Holocaust-related book will be out this summer. For details, click here.

* Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946, by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt. This volume won't be officially published until next month, but you can order it now. And if you have any interest in a more complete view of the Holocaust, you should order it. It's a well-documented, quite engaging read that tells the often heartbreaking stories of Jews who did their best to escape Hitler's Germany and extended Third Reich. What makes this book so compelling is that the authors have done what Saul Friedlander did in his prize-winning two-volume history, Nazi Germany and the Jews: They rely not just on impersonal government documents but also on personal letters, diary entries and other sources that describe how Germany's efforts to wipe out European Jewry affected specific individuals. The book also includes photos, many of which I've never seen before.

* 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. This is a marvelous collection of more than 1,100 pages covering nearly every imaginable subject in 140 separate essays. It's the kind of volume you'd expect from the Jewish Publication Society. And this is not just for scholars. It's for anyone who wants to get in tune with modern shape of Judaism and Jewish thinking. This is an important collection. I especially found helpful an essay called "Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism," by Hyam Maccoby.


* Saving Creation: Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston III, by Christopher J. Preston. Holmes Rolston, an environmental pioneer among people of faith, won the Templeton Prize a few years ago. It recognizes people who help to connect science and religion, which Rolston surely has. Indeed, as much as almost any other current scholar, Rolston has found persuasive ways to help us see the connections between faith and science. In this book, the author, who teaches philosophy at the University of Montana, helps us understand the evolution of Rolston's thinking -- and, ultimately, of our own.

* My Hope for Peace, by Jehan Sadat. The widow of Anwar Sadat, assassinated president of Egypt, has become a voice for peace in the Middle East. In this book, she offers her unique perspective from having watched her husband make formal peace between Egypt and Israel and then having watched as extremists in Egypt murdered him. No one will agree with all Jehan Sadat says here but she does an intriguing analysis of Islam and its radical fringe and she proposes some possibilities for ways forward in the Middle East -- beginning with an attitude that peace is possible and not just a pipe dream. She writes that peace is not only essential but also imperative.

* Breakthrough: The Return of Hope to the Middle East, by Tom Doyle. This book takes a rather dramatically different approach to the subject than Jehan Sadat's book. The author is a Christian minister who directs a church-planting ministry and who wants to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. And the book contains some stories of such conversions. Some of his comments seem odd, however, such as his observation that "Muslims in the Middle East, and throughout the rest of the Muslim world, are eager to hear about Jesus." This might leave readers with the impression that Jesus plays no role in Islam, whereas in fact he is regarded as one of the religion's most important prophets, though Muslims -- unlike Christians -- do not consider him divine. But it's worth knowing how Christians who share Doyle's approach to theology think about the Middle East.

* Radical Forgiveness, by Antoinette Bosco. Who better to write about forgiveness than a woman whose son (and his wife) were murdered? Toni Bosco describes this awful crime in a previous book, Choosing Mercy. This new volume expands on her understanding of the need for forgiveness because, as she writes, "My life has forced me to confront the work of evil in our lives and in our world. . ." The author is a Catholic journalist who has found ways to move beyond a need for revenge and hate. She is a clear, strong writer with a compelling Christian message.


* SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman. What a kicky little book, full of whim and insight. The author a neuroscientist, imagines the various possible details of life after death and comes up with some real hoots, all the while suggesting in subtle ways that we would do well to take life -- and death -- more seriously than we often do. In a little more than 100 pages, Eagleman implants in our craniums dozens of strangely attractive (and a few repulsive) ideas that will stay in your brain for a long time.

*Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective, by Bruce T. Murray. Anyone searching for a clear, well-documented primer on religious freedom in this country, with special attention to current case law, can find it here. Murray, a journalist, writes with clarity and, though the book is only a bit over 200 pages, draws on enough original documents to create a compelling and helpful book. A series of useful sidebars within the chapters helps to flesh out the nuances of this subject, of which there are plenty. This hardback book is not cheap. It lists for $80. But it's practically a must for any comprehensive public library that wants to be taken seriously.

* Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought, by Willem van 't Spijker. Because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the famous Protestant reformer, you will find many new books exploring what he has meant to Christianity. This small (197 pages) volume is an excellent place to start for people who are curious about him. The author, a theology professor in the Netherlands, does a good job of combining information about Calvin's fascinating life with information about his theology. A few hours of reading will give readers the context of Calvin's life along with a good bit of Calvin himself.

* Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single World of the Bible, by David Plotz. You're never going to have so much fun reading the Hebrew Scriptures. The author, editor of, retells the Bible's stories but with a wonderfully whimsical eye. This is not irreverence. Rather, this is profound reverence for a profoundly human story about God, who is nothing if not mysterious. A flavor from his recounting of the book of I Samuel: "It's no wonder priests, ministers, and rabbis have spent so mch time, during the last two millennia, discouraging regular folks from reading the Bible on their own. The Good Book makes most of its clerics look like sleazeballs. The first high priest was Aaron, the Fredo Corleone of the Sinai." Like that. Wonderful stuff.

* Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The author is the religion correspondent for National Public Radio, and she uses her journalistic background and skills to find a series of fascinating stories about the way people experience God and the role our own body chemistry and makeup plays in that. She leaves a good deal of room for mystery and is not at all ready to chalk up spiritual experiences solely to physical or material explanations. Rather, she seeks to be open to hear the often-extraordinary experiences of others. The book officially won't be published for several more weeks but can be pre-ordered now.


* Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality, by Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation. Amids all the heat from this topic, these two Mennonite scholars offer some much-needed light. One argues for the church to take an inclusive approach to welcoming gays and lesbians into all aspects of Chrsitian church life. The other argues for a welcoming approach coupled with restrictions on the roles gays and lesbians should be allowd to play. Each provides carefully thought-through reasons for their differing positions. But readers may find most helpful, however, is that both authors seem to have taken seriously this proposal from Grimsrud: "Perhaps our biggest challenge is to make the effort to understand one another before launching into our critique." Good advice.

* A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, by Thomas Cahill. The author of How the Irish Saved Civilization (and several other books) takes a devastating look at capital punishment here by recounting the disturbing and profoundly sad case of a young man executed by the state of Texas in 2004 after years on Death Row there. The death penalty is a radically immoral means of attempting to do justice and must be ended. It's hard to imagine how anyone reading this moving account could think otherwise.

*  Four Ordinary Women: A Glorious Friendship of Circumstance, by Pat Antonopoulos, Patti Dickinson, Shawna Samuel and Jo Ann Stanley. Some months ago I was asked to read through the manuscript for this book, and as I did I found that it drew me in. It's not strictly a book about faith or religion or ethics. But it is about relationship and understanding our humanity at its deepest level. And, in the end, that's a big part of what faith is about, too. These four Kansas City area women share their experiences, their hopes and their fears with one another, and are uplifted in the process. For the Seven Locks Press publishing house site, click here.

* The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling. First published about 100 years ago, this made-up account of how Jesus spent his time between ags 12 and 30 (unaccounted for in the gospels) has been reissued as a Tarcher Cornerstone Edition. It is being published in connection with an upcoming film, "The Secret," based on it. Yes, well, it's sort of intriguing to find Jesus taking a boat to Greece and teaching the philosophers a thing or two and Jesus coming to Egypt to spend time with people who once taught his mother. All fun fiction. But I'm not sure where all this gets us in the end. Maybe the movie will answer that. Or not.


* Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots, edited by Rebecca Kratz Mays. I've been waiting for a book like this for years. It's a collection of essays by people who really understand what interreligious conversation is supposed to be and who know how to make it happen. It's the perfect study guide for any group beginning to explore ways to be in conversation with people of other faiths -- exactly the kind of serious talk we need today in our increasingly pluralistic society. Chapters include helpful questions for reflection and suggestions for action. I'd love to see churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other communities of faith latch onto this book and begin to explore commonalities and differences in useful ways.

* Across the Threshold, Into the Questions: Discovering Jesus, Finding Self, by Caren Goldman and Ted Voorhees, with a foreword by Amy-Jill Levine, who will speak in the Kansas City area the weekend of April 24 (after which I'll lead a follow-up discussion). In a sense, this is a lovely follow-up to the previously mentioned book here. The authors are husband and wife. She is Jewish, he's an Episcopal priest. Their goal is to help all of us -- of whatever faith -- think anew about someone impossible to ignore in this or almost any culture, Jesus. Their reflections are deeply personal and quite engaging, and they move readers into their own reflections about how to understand this Nazarene Jew who changed the world.

* The Spanking Room: A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah's Witnesses, by William Coburn. This is an insider's painful story of the physical abuse he experienced at the hands of his mother after she joined the Watchtower Society. It's a sorrowful tale of misshapen religion and reminds me of a book I wrote about here recently by a woman who grew up in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

* The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose. The author is a Brown University student who takes a semester off to attend Liberty University in Lynchberg, Va., the school the late Jerry Falwell ran. His goal is to get inside and understand people who call themselves theologically conservative. Roose has a nice sense of humor and writes well. He's also generally respectful, not given to slamming people who are different from him. He provides something of a model for how to get inside the head and heart of others.

* In the Footsteps of Paul: Experience the Journey that Changed the World, by Ken Duncan. The Apostle Paul's missionary journeys helped to create the Christian church -- in its Pauline essence -- we know today. This beautiful book of photos takes us on those journeys and shows us what one can see today. Ken Duncan has a remarkable eye.

* Daily Dose of Knowledge: Bible, from West Side Publishing. I thought this would be just another little devotional book to get you through the Bible one day at a time for a year. Instead, it's a helpful book of informative entries that help readers grasp what this amazing book (collection of books, really) is all about. It's done by several theologians. Here and there the book anachronistically refers to the early followers of Jesus as "Christians," though there was no Christianity yet and the use of that term in the New Testament is largely derogatory as a way of referring to a sect of Judaism that thought Jesus was the Messiah. And it uses the term "conversion" with respect to the Apostle Paul, as if he converted from Judaism to Christianity. But there is much to learn in this small book, especially for Christians who feel themselves biblically illiterate.


* Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, by Dallas Willard. This popular Christian writer argues here that what the faith teaches should not be relegated to the category of personal opinion or something less than actual knowledge. Rather, it should be thought of as a vital and insightful collection of truths that can stand -- and has stood -- up to scrutiny. If religious doctrines are just blind beliefs or a kind of emotional response to our own needs, he argues, they don't deserve much respect. But they are much more than that, he says.

* Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, by Lesley Hazleton. What do you know about Jezebel? Probably that she was a hussy, an evil woman. Why, that's what the word means in our culture. But what of the original Jezebel, the one included in the books of I and II Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures? Well, the author, a journalist, has done some important homework about the woman and concludes that she was far from the raging sexpot of reputation. She was not perfectly innocent, Hazleton concludes, but she was a strong and fascinating woman, as this imaginative look at her makes clear.

* 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith, by Jason T. Berggren. A former pastor, Berggren runs through his list of things about the faith that drive him crazy, including other Christians. And he describes how he has come to embrace them. It's an honest view about the often-difficult realities of a life of faith.

* Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. This Tibetan Buddhist master offers here a new -- and quite personal -- look at life's anxieties and how Buddhism offers a way of dealing with them. Buddhism postulates that suffering is what throws us off in life but that it can be overcome. This book offers a modern restatement about how that might be possible.

* Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, by Marc Lesser. You may wonder how anyone with this last name could write any other book, but the truth is Lesser is a Zen teacher with some good, practical advice about simplifying our lives to make them more joyful -- and even useful. Particularly useful is his advice about what to do with and how to think about fear.

* Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What's Holding You Back, by Brooks Palmer. Well, look, this really isn't a book about religion at all. Rather, it's about something religion tries to teach us -- often without success: Focus on what's really important and quit making our material possessions our God. It fits nicely with the previously mentioned book about doing with less.

* Holy Adventure, by Bruce G. Epperly. In a sense, this is a Christian self-help book, but its motif is to see all of life as a thrilling adventure to be entered into in partnership with God. It's full of prayers and challenges and reflections on how to conceive of life that way. It's structured to lead you through 41 days of thinking and acting with help from this pastor-author.

* Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir, by Susan E. Isaacs. Any book by a self-confessed "Lutheran slut" can't be all bad. And this one is fun. And full of pain. And engaging. And full of all the impertinent questions all of us ask God -- or want to. In some ways, Isaacs takes on the role of a modern-day Job, except that she knows that -- unlike Job -- she is not an completely righteous person. Still, she wants to drag God into the picture and get some answers, damn it.

And, finally:


* Thin Blue Smoke, By Doug Worgul. Doug is a former Kansas City Star colleague whose novel was one of the rare ones chosen by the Macmillan New Writers group for publication. It's set at an imaginary barbecue joint near The Star in downtown Kansas City and is, finally, a story of redemption, including for an Episcopal priest. I had the privilege of reading some of the early drafts of this as Doug blogged it some years ago. This final form is a wonderful read. And if you're from Kansas City, you'll have extra reason to pick it up. For one thing, you may learn something about barbecue, for Doug is a serious authority on that subject.

* * *


The Human Rights Council of the United Nations has approved a proposal to protect religions from criticism. It's mostly backed by countries with predominantly Muslim populations and, well, it's a bad idea. So is ridiculing someone else's religion. But legislating this can put a serious chill on free speech. For a statement about this from the American Jewish Congress, click here. For an (unnecessarily critical) editorial about it in the Washington Times, click here. For a news story about this with a bit more historical perspective, click here. For the Web site of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which pushed for the U.N. action, click here.

A Gitmo guard turns Muslim: 3-27-09

The current issue of Newsweek has this engaging story of a guard at Guantanamo who eventually embraced Islam.


He seems to be the only guard to do so, but other stories may emerge as the full story of what has happened at Gitmo over the last several years finally gets told, albeit in in pieces.

What I concluded after reading the story of guard Terry Holdbrooks is that there isn't much to conclude from it. That is, I don't see it as in any way a conversion story with universal implications. Rather, Holdbrooks comes across as someone with a rocky youth who was, in many ways, drifting and searching for something that made sense for him. I suspect that, had the prisoners to whom he was speaking as he guarded them, been, say, Jehovah's Witnesses or Branch Davidians or Hindus or Buddhists, he might well have been drawn to one of those faiths. (The photo here of Holdbrooks was taken by Matt Slaby-Luceo for Newsweek.)

I'm not suggesting that he found nothing unique or helpful to him in Islam. Clearly he did. But the circumstances were so different from those of most people who embrace a religion for the first time or convert to a new one that I'm not at all sure Islam can view this as a great victory.

I suppose in some ways conversion is always highly individualistic -- except when one is swept up in a larger historical movement, such as when the Emperor Constantine moved to make Christianity to official religion of the Roman Empire. And certainly in the Holdbrooks case, it was one man making a decision for himself.

Do you have a conversion story? Can you describe it to us here briefly?

* * *



In New Bedford, Mass., folks are trying to figure out who is responsible for a depiction of Jesus on the side of a video store. This doesn't seem to be one of those odd images of Jesus some people can see on a taco. Rather, this is real art work done in the middle of the night -- and Jesus is covering his eyes. Which is often my response to videos I find in video stores.

The 'original Christian'?: 3-26-09

I love to read letters to the editor in almost any publication. It's a personality disorder, I guess. But almost  always find wonderfully bizarre things in them.


Earlier this week, for instance, in The Kansas City Star, there appeared a letter about people who call President Barack Obama "the new savior." The writer wondered whether such people "are any kin to those who mocked and derided the original Chrsitian on a fateful day millennia ago. . ."

The original Christian? No doubt at all that the writer meant Jesus of Nazareth. But how could Jesus logically be described as "the original Christian"? Well, he can't be, of course.

First, Jesus was a Jew. From birth to death, a Jew. The religion that we have come to call Christianity, based on the life and teachings of Jesus, emerged from Judaism, but it took time. There was not just one parting but a series of partings. I recently heard a rabbi argue, in fact, that the final parting did not occur until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., or C.E. That was the gathering of church leaders that produced the Nicene Creed, which in a formal way affirmed what followers of Jesus had maintained since his death and resurrection -- that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine and "of one substance" with God the creator. (This picture of Jesus, by the way, is part of the "Faces of Jesus" collection at the Broadway Church in Kansas City. I wrote about that in this posting.)

Yes, the New Testament reports that within the first few decades after Jesus' life the term "Christian" occasionally got applied to people who identified themselves as part of the Jesus movement. But even then it was generally a term of derision and was not meant to identify a completely separate religion. Rather, it was applied to Jews (and later to gentiles) who believed that the messiah for which Jews had been waiting had come as Jesus.

If you define a Christian as someone who believes in Jesus as lord and savior and seeks to be his disciple, the logic of calling Jesus himself the original Christian simply crumbles.

This all may seem like a silly game of semantics, but it has long-term and important consequences. If we don't understand the Jewishness of Jesus, we get a lot else wrong. For one thing, we botch up history and the slow way what became the Christian church emerged from the Judaisms (there were several) of the first century. This simplistic thinking can lead us to buy into the kind of anti-Jewish thinking that has stained the church for centuries. (For my essay on this subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Well, in a country in which you find a presidential candidate (Howard Dean) saying that his favorite book in the New Testament is Job, I suppose it's not suprising to find people identifying Jesus as the original Christian. But this is the kind of religious illiteracy that Stephen Prothero wrote his book -- Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't -- to combat. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

* * *


Parents of public school children in St. Augustine, Fla., have filed suit because their children were required to learn a song called "In God We Still Trust." Although there are some legitimate questions about the location of the church-state separation rules, some things seem painfully obvious to me, such as not promoting one religion over another in such ways in public schools.

We got your religulous here: 3-25-09

As my old eighth-grade English teacher Ruth Wilson used to say when frustrated with the way things were going, "People, people."


People, people, we've been serious here too long. It's time for a small humor break. And as a reminder: These jokes are not original with me. Some are ones you've sent me, maybe. Some I swipe from Some arrive here on the blog unbidden, as if an occult hand had dropped them into my cyberspace.

In any case, you have my midweek permission to enjoy them:

1. Little Johnny's new baby brother was screaming up a storm. Johnny asked his mom, “Where’d he come from?”

“He came from heaven, Johnny.”

“Wow! I can see why they threw him out!”

2. A rabbi said to a precocious six-year-old boy, “So your mother says your prayers for you each night? That's very commendable. What does she say?”

The little boy replied, “Thank God he's in bed.”

3. The Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot's wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.

Little Jason interrupted and announced, "My mommy looked back once while she was driving and she turned into a telephone pole!'

4. A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan. She asked the class, “If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?”

A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, “I think I'd  throw up.”

* * *


This disturbing report in the Christian Science Monitor says the FBI and American Muslims are increasingly at odds over various issues. This is a case in which the new Obama administration would do well to try to resolve -- and soon. We want government agencies we can trust. And we don't want any segment of society -- each of which we also want to trust -- to feel like an outsider or to feel shunned by the rest of society.

Holocaust aftermath endless: 3-24-09


The ripple effects of the Holocaust no doubt will go on forever. Certainly just 64-plus years after the end of World War II, we are not close to seeing even much of a diminishment of those effects.

An example is the ongoing work of an organization known as the Claims Conference, which is officially the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It has been the agency to negotiate some payments from Germany to the families of Holocaust victims and survivors. (For more details about the work of the Claims Conference, click here.)

Recently the Claims Conference has negotiated the availability of $42 million for up to 13,000 needy Nazi victims in 36 countries. The new agreement will allow people once turned down for payments under Germany's rules to reapply to the so-called Hardship Fund.

Since 1951, the Claims Conference has been at work helping to gain compensation for Nazi victims of the Holocaust. In this case, the term victim is not limited to one of the six million Jews murdered by Hitler's Nazi regime. It also includes survivors who lost property and were in other ways damaged by what the German government did.

As you may know, my new Holocaust-related book will be out soon from the University of Missouri Press. For details click here. As my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I did the research for this book, I found myself regularly overwhelmed by the many ways in which the aftermath of the Holocaust still is with us. In Poland, for instance, where we focus the work in our book, the sense of absence is palpable. (You can read my column about that absence at the site I've linked you to in this paragraph.) More than 90 percent of the roughly 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland when the war broke out in !939 were murdered by the German regime.

The continuing work of the Claims Conference is just one more piece of evidence that Hitler's murderous scheme to wipe out all the Jews of Europe (he achieved two-thirds of that goal) has consequences for the world today -- and no doubt always will. The number of people who are Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, but the consequences of the Holocaust will outlast them by centuries.

The anti-Judaism in Christian history (see my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page) that helped to create modern antisemitism (without which the Holocaust is inconceivable) set off a chain reaction that is nowhere near an end. In that way, it resembles the train tracks seen in the photo here that I took at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.

* * *


Setting aside for a minute the controversial remarks about condom use and AIDS that Pope Benedict XVI made at the start of his now-ended trip to Africa, the reality is that in several ways he offered exactly the kind of counter-cultural message the church should be offering. In his final remarks in Angola, for instance, he was telling the authoritarian leaders there and in Cameroon to quit hogging all their country's wealth and to make sure the poor and needy get a fair shake. Has that general message not been an important part of Christianity -- and many religions -- for centuries? And just because many leaders fail to heed it is no reason to stop delivering it.

* * *

P.S.: A national faith group called Faithful America has launched a petition drive to remind Congress that social service agencies that operate food banks for the poor may need some bailout help, too.

An oddly picky God: 3-23-09


The other day my bride and I were taking a walk through a cemetery (not the one in this picture, which I took in Pennsylvania) not far from us when we happened upon a section in which are buried dozens of infants and small children.

It's always sad and sobering to see such a place, though it serves as a reminder of the fragility of life.

But what struck me was a message on a headstone that said, roughly, this: "God broke our hearts to prove he takes only the best."

Oh, my.

Why, oh, why don't clergy or other professionals help people at such times so they won't express such awful theology?

Popular theology is often troublesome. I've seen surveys, for instance, that show that one of the most popular biblical sayings of Americans is "God helps those who help themselves." The trouble is that this bad theology isn't in the Bible. And for good reason. It expresses a view in considerable tension with the biblical idea of a God who cares for those who cannot care for or help themselves.

As for the saying we saw in the cemetery, it's hard to know where to begin to deconstruct it. But let me just say first that the parents who put it there naturally thought of their baby as "the best," and for that they have nothing to apologize for. To them, he or she was the best. But the sentiment is like a husband telling his wife, "You're the best wife in the world." It's not meant to say anything about other wives, only his.

But putting "the best" sentiment on a public sign raises distressing questions that affect others. Among them: Does that mean God thinks the children left alive are somehow defective or at least less than the best? Also: Does God go around purposefully breaking hearts so people can learn problematic theology? And: What would be the point of God taking only the best? After all, eventually, in this line of thinking, God takes everyone, best, worst and indifferent.

My point is to encourage us to think theologically -- both when we are in distress, such as at the death of a child, and when we're wandering through the world looking at what's around us, including inscriptions on headstones in cemeteries.

* * *


Several years ago I was privileged to attend the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah of a couple of adult friends. Adults? Isn't this ceremony just for Jewish teens? Well, yes and no. It turns out that when my friends were of traditional age for this, they had not had it for various reasons, and now they felt something was missing from their lives. So they and quite a few others went through this as adults. It was a wonderful ceremony. I thought about that yesterday when I read this New York Times piece about women in or near their 90s in a Cleveland suburb going to their own bat mitzvahs. Sometimes our religious ceremonies speak to us in profound ways, no matter what age we are.

KC-based ministries galore: 3-21/22-09

People often are surprised at how many religious or at least faith-based organizations make their home in the Kansas City area.


As you may know, this is the home of the international headquarters of the Church of the Nazarene, Unity and the Community of Christ. And we have seminaries hither and yon, including but not limited to St. Paul School of Theology to Central Baptist Theological Seminary to Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to the Nazarene Theological Seminary and beyond. To say nothing of many Bible colleges.

And some people just realized recently that our area also is the home of the Society of St. Piux X, a traditionalist Catholic movement that has been in the news because Pope Benedict XVI recently rescinded the excommunication of four of its members, including a Holocaust denier.

One KC-based religious organization that I've discovered not many people know about was founded in Topeka in 1892 as the Gospel Missionary Union, and today is known as Avant Ministries. Its founder, George S. Fisher, died 89 years ago on Sunday, March 22, 1920. Fisher, a Minnesota native, became secretary of the YMCA in Kansas in 1890.

The anniversary of Fisher's death is a good time to acquaint you with this ministry, which has a global reach. So I invite you to surf around on the Avant Web site to see what's there. You'll discover, among other things, that Avant describes itself as "one of the oldest missionary sending agencies in the United States."

Missionary work has changed in many ways from that depicted by author Barbara Kingsolver in her novel, The Poisonwood Bible. And thank goodness.

* * *


John Calvin, theological father of the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, in which I find my home as a Presbyterian, is making something of a comeback in this, the year of the 500th anniversary of his birth in France. As my friend Cathy Lee Grossman of USA Today notes in her blog, he is the thinker behind several books that just won awards. A note about Calvin: He surely didn't get everything right. And some of what he said his followers distorted almost beyond recognition, though Calvin himself gets blamed for that thinking. Still, he possessed a marvelous mind. By the way, for a complete list of this year's book winners from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, click here.

* * *

P.S.: The Hallmark Channel will air another Odyssey Networks production at 6 a.m. this Sunday morning, this one called "Finding Hope in Recovery: Families Living with Addiction." As you may know, Odyssey is a coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith groups dedicated to media production and distribution. Yes, its documentaries air at a ridiculous time but that's why people have the capability of taping shows to watch later.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: A few days ago in this blog entry, I wrote about -- and criticized -- Pope Benedict XVI saying that condoms not only don't help solve the spreading of AIDS in Africa but actually may contribute to the problem. I wanted you to read another point of view today -- someone who says the pope got it right. For that, click here.

A changing faith landscape: 3-20-09

I want to return today to a subject I have mentioned twice recently (here and here) -- the newly released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). To read the entire survey, click here.


First, I want to link you to the Washington Post-Newsweek "On Faith" blog that takes up this survey and has several different people discussing its meaning.

As you might expect, there is lots of room for interpretation of the survey's findings, and the writers on that blog tend to be all over the place in their assessments.

One thing is clear: The American population still is quite religious. As the ARIS reports, 70 percent of Americans in 2008 believed in a personal God, about 12 percent are atheists or agnostics and another 12 percent are deistic, meaning they believe in a higher power but not in a personal God.

And yet this picture -- with a growing non-religious segment and a slowly shrinking Christian segment -- is different from even 20 or 30 years ago. We are becoming a more religiously pluralistic society and we must figure out how to live together in such a culture without degenerating into the kind of sectarian strife that has characterized some other nations.

So I repeat what I've said several times already here and elsewhere: One of the major callings of our time is to find ways to respect the religious choices of others so we may live in harmony. To do that requires not only that we be able to understand and articulate our own faith commitments clearly but also that we gain an understanding of the religious commitments others make.

The best way to do that, by the way, is not to listen to the voices of anger on talk radio. Rather, it is to find opportunities to share information with people of other faiths in non-threatening ways and on a long-term basis. Again, the goal is not to give up your faith but to know and to be known.

If the ARIS work and previous surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe show us anything, it is that the country's religious landscape has changed and continues to change. A nation that used to be a landslide for Protestantism now has an increasingly diverse population when it comes to religion. This is not a threat to the nation unless we let it be. Rather, it's an opportunity to be a model for the world of people with strong religious convictions (and none) who are able to live together in peace.

* * *


This analysis of Pope Benedict XVI's current trip to Africa is in harmony with my feeling -- expressed more than once here -- that the pontiff seems to cause unnecessary trouble for himself and the church by not being aware of how his words (and sometimes his actions) will be taken by others. We've seen this tone-deafness over and over with this pope, and it's distressing because it detracts from the good work he's trying to do and it makes him seem doddering and out of touch with reality. It seems silly even to have to suggest it, but perhaps the church would do well to make it a rule that any future potential pope must pass a technology test, such as knowing what Facebook and Twitter are -- and being able to use them. AND: For John L. Allen Jr.'s story about one of the pope's talks in Cameroon yesterday, click here. And for a second story from John, click here.