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Interfaith work for teens: 4-30-09


The small group of teen-agers I was sitting with on the floor of the 3HO Kundalini Yoga Center in Midtown Kansas City included a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Christian and a Baha'i.

They had come to discover whether they wanted to help form a new Interfaith Youth Alliance, and they were talking about what approaches such an organization could take.

I found it immensely encouraging to know that young people are learning that they must get engaged in interfaith dialogue and understanding if our country is to find a way to live in harmony with a religiously pluralistic population.

When they arrived they heard members of the yoga center talk about their Sikh religion and why, as American converts, they had been attracted to it. But the teenagers in attendance weren't looking for religions to which to convert. Rather, they were trying to understand the faith commitments others make so they can be good neighbors to them and vice versa.

The adults who had gathered this group together, including Shannon Clark (she's the one in the photo whose face you can see), executive director of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, were trying to find ways that would engage more and more young people, so much of the Sunday afternoon session was devoted to brainstorming service projects and other types of activities that would draw in teens.

One of the national models for this is the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core led by Eboo Patel, who will be in Kansas City in November as part of this year's annual Festival of Faiths.

Are people in your faith community, if any, finding ways to learn about the faiths their neighbors and co-workers practice? If not, why not? Ignorance in this area is dangerous.

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More and more congregations are seeking to create greener worship spaces, this report says. If people of faith can't be leaders in caring for Earth, something is really wrong. I was glad four or five years ago to be able to do a piece for The Kansas City Star suggesting that among those now much more actively involved in what's called "creation care" are Christians who identify themselves as evangelicals.

'Old Testament,' Take 2: 4-29-09

You may recall a recent post in which I quoted a nationally known rabbi about his dislike for the term "Old Testament."


Rabbi James Rudin said,  "I abhor the term Old Testament." He explained that the term "old" implies, among other things, that it has become useless and should be discarded. He said it all smacks of a dismissive supersessionism despite the reality that Christianity has never made Judaism go away.

Well, as I said in that post, I tend to agree with Rudin. But I also think it's important for those of us who are Christian to understand that what is called the Old Testament has a different arrangement of its 39 books than does the Hebrew Bible.

In my previous post, I noted this:

Jews, by the way, often refer to their sacred text as the Tanakh, a name that is an acronym of Torah, Nebi'im and Ketuvim (meaning Law, Prophets and Writings). And that might be an even better term for Christian leaders to use in that it might encourage people to understand the text from a Jewish perspective in addition to their own Christian perspective.

Well, a few days ago I heard a nationally known Jewish scholar defend Christian use of the term "Old Testament." And I want to give Amy-Jill Levine equal time for that view here, even though I prefer Rudin's view.

Levine called "Old Testament" a "perfectly good term for Christians." She said that if Christians start using, say, "Hebrew Bible" or "Hebrew scriptures," it makes it seem as if it's exactly the same book, and it isn't. As I've already noted, the order of books within the Hebrew Bible is different from the way the Christian Old Testament has them. For instance, the Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi, a prophet who points to a coming messiah, which the New Testament then picks up. The Hebrew Bible, by contrast, ends with II Chronicles and the King of Persia telling Jews there to go home. Which is a message Jews try to understand for their context even today.

Beyond that, Levine said, when the term Old Testament is used in Christian worship, it acknowledges that Christians have adapted the Hebrew scriptures for their own purposes.

Besides that, she said, the term "old" can and should carry with it a sense of respect, a sense that what has survived as meaningful for all these years is worthy of our attention. The term Old Testament, she said, should not be changed to find "some mushy interfaith common ground." (I wouldn't use that term. Rather I would call it an effort to respect another's tradition.)

I did not audio tape all that Levine said about this to a group of clergy the other day, but I did catch a few minutes of it. So if you'd like to hear her on this subject (for less than two minutes), click on the link here:

Download AJLevine-1

Ah, religious debate. When it's done well it's enlightening for everyone.

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An Islamic group has objected to an online video game called "Faith Fighter," and wants it dropped. As I said above, religious debate is enlightening for everyone, but you have to speak clearly and respectfully to be heard. The company that created the game has removed it and issued this statement that tries to explain satire. (As someone who used to write satire for a living, I know that's an almost impossible task.)

Jesus in a Jewish context: 4-28-09

I hope you had a chance over the weekend to hear Prof. Amy-Jill Levine (pictured here) in Kansas City talk about how to understand Jesus in his Jewish context. For her full Vanderbilt bio, click here. She's a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament studies to Christian ministerial students.


At 6:30 tonight I'll be leading a follow-up discussion to her appearance here at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Even if you missed Levine's talks here I hope you can join us.

Briefly here today I will summarize a few points that she made, most of which grow out of her new (well, relatively new) book, The Misunderstood Jews: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

* Christian seminaries generally do not teach students how to understand Jesus in the context of the various kinds of first century Judaisms in which he lived. The result is that many preachers continue to pass along, often without meaning to, anti-Jewish sentiments because they simply don't know how to understand the New Testament in a Jewish context. "Jesus was a Jew. This should not be news."

* If Christians often don't understand either first century Judaism or Judaism today, it's also true that "for the most part Jews have no clue about the diversity in Christianity."

* Some of the early leaders of the Liberation Theology movement expressed anti-Jewish thoughts that have continued even today among some followers of that approach.

* The World Council of Churches has produced many publications of the last 25 years that contain "shockingly anti-Jewish statements." Although the WCC at first denied and then defended these publications, Levine said, it recently has asked for help in fixing the problem.

* Anti-Jewish sentiments drawn from the New Testament come from many unexpected places, including former President Jimmy Carter's Bible studies, available online. Levine said she has found him, for instance, comparing early Judaism to the Taliban.

* Christian preachers, often without malice, wind up passing along anti-Jewish views because they have not been taught to understand how to read the New Testament in its Jewish context. For instance, they sometimes will say or insinuate that all Jews at the time of Jesus wanted and expected a militant Messiah. Well, Levine said, some did. But most did not. So it's inaccurate and reflects badly on Judaism to suggest that Jesus' peaceful approach was somehow out of character with Jewish tradition. It was not. Similarly, the idea that Jesus introduced a radical new idea by calling God "Father," or, in Aramaic, "Abba," flies in the face of much evidence that Jews before, during and after Jesus' time often called God "Father."

* It's important to understand the wide variety of followers of Judaism and of who considers himself or herself a Jew today: "The definition of a Jew cannot be Holocaust plus no Christmas tree."

* The Lord's Prayer is a perfectly good Jewish prayer. Indeed, at the end of the Friday evening gathering (which attracted Christians, Jews and no doubt others), one of the associate pastors of Village Church led the audience in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. It was quite lovely.

Well, there was much more -- and will be more tonight as we ponder what she told us over the weekend and what difference it might make to Jewish-Christian relations today.

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I participated in a conference call yesterday for journalists about the next religion study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and will have a more detailed posting about that in a few days (after I deal with a few other subjects). But to get you thinking about the study on why Americans seem to change their religious affiliations so much, I'm offering here today several stories about the study. For a Washington Post piece, click here. For the Associated Press story, click here. And for the USA Today version, click here. Despite all the churning in religious life in the United States, the people who did the study say it would be incorrect to call Americans mindless religion shoppers. For this new survey, called "Faith in Flux," click here. For previous Pew surveys on the religious landscape in the U.S., click here.

Teaching the Holocaust: 4-27-09

Each year, to its credit, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education sponsors an essay contest for junior high and high school students. The object is to teach these young people about some aspect of the Holocaust by getting them to research a topic and write about it.


I've been one of the judges for several years of the White Rose essay contest, and a few days ago I completed my part of the task again for this year. In fact, the names of the finalists in the various categories already are posted here. Winners will be announced May 12.

To learn about the White Rose Society and its history, click here.

I'll be brief here today because my point is simple and direct: Children need to understand history -- their own history and the world's history, which, of course, is their own. And it's especially important that they get a grasp of the major defining events of the modern era -- not just what happened but also the antecedants to what happened.

Thus, I would contend that a thorough grasp of the roots of the Holocaust would have to include an understanding of the century after century anti-Judaism in Christian history (I'll have more to say about that this week here on the blog). But in that regard, I encourage you to read my essay on that subject that you'll find under the "Check this out" section on the right side of this page.

I also encourage you to find out if the schools your children or grandchildren are attending participate in the annual White Rose essay contest and to find out more generally what kind of Holocaust education children in those schools are receiving.

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I mentioned here over the weekend that voters in Berlin were to decide whether to approve teaching about religion in schools along with classes on ethics. Well, the proposal was defeated on Sunday. But if Berlin's school children don't learn about religion in school, I hope they learn about somewhere -- not to they will be members of this or that religion but, rather, so they understand it as a cultural and historical force.

A faith-based military? 4-25/26-09

Last year journalist Jeff Sharlet took a disturbing look at religion and politics in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.


It was an important book about a loose and stealthy organization that has a lot of influence in the highest levels of American government and business. I wrote a column about it.

Now Sharlet has done the cover piece for the May issue of Harper's Magazine in which he looks at the efforts by certain Christians to use the American military as a center of power. The piece is called "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military." The link I've given you in this paragraph will get you to the start of the piece, but to read it all online you have to be a Harper's subscriber.

If you're not, I suggest you buy a copy of the magazine.

Sharlet's concern is not with what he calls "the majority of military personnel, professionals who regardless of their faith or lack thereof simply want to get their jobs done." Rather, he writes, it's with "a small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps."

These soldiers, he writes, "have fomented. . .a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military's once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who confuse God with country."

In the process, he says, the constitutional rights of many military personnel are being abused.

Some of the changes in the military's approach to religious matters have occurred in the ranks of the chaplains, Sharlet says. The chaplaincy used to reflect approximately the religious makeup of the soldiers and the country. Today, however, he writes, "more than two-thirds of the military's 2,900 active-duty chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations."

Sharlet concludes: "The most zealous among the new generation of fundamentalist chaplains didn't join to serve the military; they came to save its soul."

I sometimes quibble with Sharlet's terminology both in this piece and in other things he's written. For instance, to refer to "fundamentalist chaplains" as seeming to include Pentecostals is not to understand the theological differences between fundamentalists and Pentecostals.

Nonetheless, his report is well worth reading -- especially by our representatives in Washington who are charged with overseeing the military.

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It's sort of reassuring to read that people in other countries also struggle with the role of education about religion and values in schools. Citizens of Berlin are to vote Sunday on whether children should have a choice of classes on religion or ethics. No matter where they get it, I think it's important for children to be required to wrestle with ethical and moral issues and to understand the various religious and ethical systems from which various approaches emerge.

A 'minor' Saudi reform: 4-24-09

From time to time here on the blog I have written about efforts toward reform in Saudi Arabia because I think the Saudi kingdom is one of the keys not only to peace in the Middle East but also to reducing international terrorism.


After all, as we all know, 16 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis.

So I try to stay alert to even the slimmest bits of evidence that Saudi Arabia, which I visited in 2002, is moving toward such foundational ideas as religious freedom and toward other reforms that will make it a less oppressive society.

The latest teeny example comes from the kingdom's National Society for Human Rights (NSHR, but it had a slightly different name when it was created), which itself was evidence of reformation when it was created just a few years ago. it doesn't have much power and it seems willing to push only for small steps, but it's better than nothing.

The NSHR now has issued what Arab News calls a cancellation of the death penalty for minors convicted of capital crimes. To those of us opposed to the death penalty, that seems like a good and humane move. But it's not exactly cancellation, as I read it. Rather, it's postponement, due to the requirements of Sharia law.

As Arab News reports, "under Shariah the state cannot abrogate the rights of victims or their families to demand blood money or death for the crimes of rape or murder." Indeed, Arab News, which I consider something of a voice for reform, calls this "one of the problems." I take that as at least a small challenge to what some of us non-Muslims believe are the excesses of Sharia law.

So the NSHR now is suggesting that the death penalty not be administered to minors when they are convicted. Rather, it says the state should wait until they are 18 to execute them if that's what the victim's family wants.

You see what I mean by teeny steps toward reform?

And yet I think it's important that the United States take appreciative note of even such small moves as a way of encouraging the Saudis to create a just society that won't be producing radicals who want to murder Americans.

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And speaking of reforms in the Muslim world, Malaysia has decided to ban the forced conversion of minors to Islam. Who would force a minor to convert? (It's not really conversion but what about parents of reluctant Christian confirmation class students? Anyone want to say a pro or con word about them?)

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

A world full of helpers: 4-23-09

The other evening at a musical event benefit for the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and CRES, I saw a trailer for an upcoming documentary being produced by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA).


It looks fascinating, and the hope is that it will be released later this year, though I'm not quite sure when or where.

You can see the trailer by clicking here. It's called "Zamboanga: Poverty/War/Music," and a Kansas City musician, Barclay Martin (pictured here), has been in the Philippines several times with the documentary producers to create a concert to celebrate the people of the area called Zamboanga, featured in the film, and to work on the music for the film.

Martin and his ensemble played the other night and performed the premier of a three-part suite written especially for the evening. It was commissioned by CRES to recognize the wisdom of the world's various faith traditions.

I had not been very aware of CFCA before I saw the documentary trailer the other evening, but it's an agency I'll be paying closer attention to now. Sometimes it astonishes me how many non-profit groups are out there in the world trying to make a difference. I could write about a different one every day here for years and not get to them all. And yet there's still so much poverty and pain in the world. I guess the right view is to imagine how much worse it would be without CFCA and the countless other agencies trying to make a difference. Do you have a favorite among them?

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Good for a West Virginia school district, which has decided to offer an elective course about the Bible. No, not teaching the Bible or teaching one religion, but teaching about the Bible and why it has been so foundational to the culture. Biblical and religious illiteracy is simply rampant and should be countered with these kinds of classes -- as long as they don't slop over into efforts to evangelize people. The best recent book to help all of us with our religious illiteracy is Stephen Prothero's Religious Illiteracy.

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P.S.: A free event called the Story of the Arts of the Holocaust is coming up at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28, in the Student Center of the Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods. Click here for detailed information. I wish I could be there but at that same time I'm leading a follow-up discussion of the Friday and Saturday talks here by Prof. Amy-Jill Levine at Village Presbyterian Church. Click here for those details.

Treasures from ancient Islam: 4-22-09

The other evening we took some friends visiting us from Denver to see the current exhibit at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, called "From the Land of the Taj Mahal."


I highly recommend the experience as a way of getting a sense of what the Islamic world produced in the way of stunning art some 400 to 500 years ago.

The exhibit focuses on art from India done at the time of the Mughal Empire. The Mughals were part of an Islamic dynasty that ruled most of India from 1526 to 1858, although in the final years their domination was challenged and eventually defeated by the British Empire, which controlled India until 1947.

What most people find so engaging about this exhibit is the tiny detail found in the paintings and calligraphy. Indeed, visitors going through the exhibit are encouraged to pick up a magnifying glass so they can pay attention to the delicate brush strokes, such as the hair and beards of the people in the paintings. It is quite remarkable.

But I was intrigued also by some paintings that showed Christian exposure and influence. For instance, there was a piece called "Madonna and Child" from about 1650 that showed Mary, the Christ child and Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Jesus. The inspiration for this art, we were told, was some Christian illustrations available at the Mughal court.

It turns out that the ruler Akbar the Great had invited some Jesuit priests to come to the court at Fatehpur Sikri in 1580 so he could learn about Christianity. Jesuit outreach to Muslims goes back even further than that, to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who went to Jerusalem in 1523 to preach to Muslims before he founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. The Franciscan brothers who already were in Jesuralem thought Ignatius was kind of a loose cannon, and he was forced to go back home.

Some later Jesuits went to India, too, but this brought something of a crisis to the order when they adopted the lifestyle of Hindu Brahmins, thus raising the question of whether they were becoming too much part of the culture.

At any rate, the exhibit at the Nelson touches on some of this fascinating history of religious connections.

It also includes some of the marvelous calligraphy of Mir Ali, who worked mostly in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, which I visited in 2002. The Islamic architecture from roughly this same period there and in Samarkand is simply breath-taking.

* * *


Even before Pope Benedict XVI goes to the Middle East next month, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are asking that he apologize for his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, that upset Muslims around the world. Oh, please. He's already done that. He knows by now he erred in his handling of that. This demand for an apology strikes me as just a political effort to stir up hard feelings.

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P.S.: I hope you already have reserved tickets for the lectures to be given in Kansas City this weekend, Friday and Saturday, by Professor Amy-Jill Levine about her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Then I hope you will come back to Village Presbyterian Church the evening of Tuesday, April 28, when I'll lead a discussion about Levine's lectures. (The link I've given you in this paragraph tells about that event, too.) Levine was interviewed the other morning on "Up to Date" on KCUR-FM, and I called in with a question for her. To hear that hour-long show, click on the link here:

Download Up-to-Date  

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ANOTHER P.S.: This event happens Saturday. So, 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.

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ALSO: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is available online. To get there, go to the Outlook page under "Check this out" on the right side of this page.


A hymn to remember: 4-21-09


When I was a boy, as some of you know, I lived for two years in India. For part of my first year I attended school in the foothills of the Himalayas at Woodstock School. (The picture here shows me with my mother, in the rear, three sisters and the Woodstock School Principal in 1956, Canon Samuel Burgoyne.)

Each morning we had a chapel service (most of the students then -- unlike me -- were children of Christian missionaries; today it's much more of an international school). And one of the hymns the orchestra almost always played was "When Morning Guilds the Skies."

It imprinted itself pretty deeply in my brain, and it's a rare day when I don't have that song running through my head some time in the morning.

This is a good day to think about that because the German-to-English translator of the text of that wonderful hymn, Robert S. Bridges, died on this date in 1930. (He also did a German-to-English translation of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring".)

Back in the 1980s, I was on a committee at my church that was asked to produce a supplemental hymnal containing songs not in our regular hymn book. Each of us told stories about what hymns mattered to us, and I told the story of hearing "When Morning Guilds the Skies" each morning at Woodstock School.

After that, one of the women on this committee would be sure to catch my eye in a knowing way each time our congregation sang that song because she was touched by the story of why it was meaningful to me.

All of which is to say that a lot of theology, at least among Christians, gets transmitted via hymns. Some of the wording of some hymns offers some sort of shaky theology, so it's worth paying attention to. Do you have any particular sacred songs that mean a lot to you?

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Even the mindless, meaningless pop culture uses religious language when such language might draw in readers, such as this story about Madonna dropping Jesus for Moses. Sigh.

A vital papal trip: 4-20-09

I have said more than once that John L. Allen Jr., who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, is the best observer of Catholicism, the Vatican and the pope around. NCR often gets criticized for being "liberal," whatever that may mean, but John, whom I've met a few times, is widely respected, no matter where along the left-right Catholic spectrum one locates one's self.

Pope in hat

John has written this excellent advance piece on the upcoming Middle East trip of Pope Benedict XVI (pictured here), and I don't want to take a lot of time and space here today so you may be encouraged to go read his words.

I think John correctly identifies this is a hugely important trip. Indeed he says it may be "one of the most important news stories of 2009." Well, we'll see about that, but it certainly has the potential for that, if the pope is able to strike the right notes. And the world will be a safer, saner place if he can do that, so I'm praying for his success.

I'm also worrying because of this pope's penchant for tone-deafness, for saying things before he -- or his staff -- has thought through how they will be taken. We've seen this several times, and it's hard to imagine how, in a high-tech age of instant communication, this kind of obtuseness can continue. I hope it doesn't.

Notice, too, that John's story starts out talking about the pope's recent 82nd birthday, an event I noted here the other day with a question about ageism. I was intrigued to read that John says Benedict is in great physical shape and may be with us a long time.

So give a read to his piece and tell us what you think.

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Somalia, a nation in deep trouble, has adopted Sharia in an effort to counter radical insurgents. This gives me a chance to wonder aloud why I've heard so few of our leaders propose that the way to combat Somalian piracy on a long-term basis is to understand and change the conditions in the country that are leading young men to become pirates. I have no idea if Sharia law will help there but something needs to be done to stop Somalia from being an on-going source of world trouble.