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A really meaty religion: 5-30/31-09

Name, if you can, one of the most popular religions in Kansas City. Well, yes, Christians no doubt make up a majority of this region's citizens, but I'm talking "religion" in the sense of "football is my religion."


It's barbecue, folks.

And last weekend, in my role as one who wants to get to know as many religions as possible, I went out to the Great American Barbecue Festival at Sandstone in Bonner Springs, Kan., at the invitation of one of the relatively new adherents of this religion, my stepson Dan, who in his other religious life is an officer in an Episcopal church. (The fact that the festival raises money for charity makes him feel better about having two religions.)

Barbecue worshipers from far and wide were there smoking up brisket and pork and chicken and sausage and heaven knows what else.

And just for the record, barbecue does not equal grilled meat over a charcoal flame. No, no. Barbecue is meat smoked slowly to perfection. And for the best barbecue novel ever, read my friend Doug Worgul's new book, Thin Blue Smoke, which is set in Kansas City, of course.

Anyone who knows doodley-squat about barbecue knows that its see is in Kansas City, just as the Catholic Church has its see at the Vatican. Oh, there are some barbecue pretenders out there -- a few of which produce things that taste halfway decent -- but when it comes to barbecue, KC is king and its true believers aren't about to be converted to, say, North Carolina pulled pork and its vinegar-based sauce. Lordy, lordy.


So Dan is learning the barbecue rituals, such as cutting up beef into burnt ends, as shown in this photo.

Normally these hands are doing dental work at his practice in Olathe, Kan., which may account for the protective gloves and certainly accounts for the sign hanging on the front of his tent at Sandstone, "Smokin' Smiles," seen in the photo below.

And I can tell you that if you have teeth (if you don't, you might want to see Dr. Dan) and eat meat, the smoked meat that comes out of his smoker is outstanding.


Naturally, just like in any religion, you have to make some small adjustments given the territory in which you operate. So on the slightly sloped grounds at Sandstone, a handy block of wood (no, Dan doesn't install wooden bridges in mouths) propped up the smoker to make it level.


Is this religion of barbecue on the level? Well, some of the fires it requires remind you of where you don't want to go when you die and some of what it offers the palate is heavenly.

So maybe.

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The pope says he's still not sure why God chose him for this job. Isn't it nice to hear some humility from a religious leader?

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NOTE: Until June 10, my access to the Internet will be intermittent. So it may take hours and hours -- perhaps even a day or more -- for me to get your comments posted here. I'll do my best, but I'll appreciate your patience.

Remembering Constantinople: 5-29-09


As I like to do from time to time, today I want to drop back a bit into history and take note of something that helped to shape the world we know today. It was on this date in 1453 that Constantinople, which had been the headquarters for Eastern Christianity since 324, was conquered by the Turks, who renamed it Istanbul and it became capital of the Ottoman Empire.

I regret that the only time I've been to Istanbul has been to change planes. Some day I'd love to spend time there and get a better sense of the ancient city's history, present and future.

The fall of Constantinople happened at a time of major global geographical discovery as well as scientific and medical discovery. One of the results of the city's fall was to push scholars and others westward. As time went on these scholars opened up ancient Greek writings, such as Virgil's, to new meanings, and helped to usher in the beginnings of the Enlightenment, with such precursors as Erasmus, who wanted to do biblical scholarship in the Bible's original languages of Greek and Hebrew.

Erasmus is a fascinating character who in many ways foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. He believed that the future vitality of Christianity depended on the laity, he emphasized an inner spirituality, thus de-emphasizing the functions of the institutional church and he argued that scripture should be made available to everyone.

At any rate, many historians now use 1453 as a date to mark the end of the Middle Ages.

The Islamic world then and for some time afterward was producing astonishingly beautiful architecture and in other ways adding much to civilization. I was privileged a few years ago to see some of that architecture in such places as Samarkand, Uzbekisan.

Today Istanbul continues to be the location of one of the bishops of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and in some ways he is considered first among equals, though the population of Turkey today is nearly 100 percent Muslim, mostly sunni. (For a Catholic take on Eastern Orthodoxy, click here.)

If you've been to Istanbul, tell us of your experiences there. (The photo here today is from

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Is Scientology a religion or a business? French prosecutors say it's the latter and, worse, one that commits fraud. Well, we'll have to let the French decide for themselves, but it long has seemed to me that the way Scientology operates leaves itself open to this question. And, yes, some other religious operations do, too.

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P.S.: Odyssey Networks will present a United Church of Christ documentary called "Troubled Water" at 6 a.m. CDT this Sunday on the Hallmark Channel. It's about the worldwide water crisis and what faith has to say about it.

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ANOTHER P.S.: In this recent blog book column, I mentioned a book by Esther de Waal, who has written a lot about the Rule of Benedict. She'll be speaking from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, at the Sophia Center at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kan., on "The Benedictine Rule as a 
Guide for Living Your Baptismal Call in a World of Crisis." A $10 donation is requested and interested 
persons should reserve space by contacting or by calling 913-360-5173.

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NOTE: Until June 10, my access to the Internet will be intermittent. So it may take hours and hours -- perhaps even a day or more -- for me to get your comments posted here. I'll do my best, but I'll appreciate your patience.

Divisions within religions: 5-28-09

About 20 years ago, I attended a seminar at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary where I heard a church historian describe the many splits and recombinations in Presbyterian history in the United States. The list became so long and complicated -- well, finally, ridiculous -- that the audience moved from chuckling to outright guffawing at ourselves.


I mention this today because it was on this date in 1958 that the Presbyterian Church in the United States merged with the Presbyterian Church of North America, forming the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. I remember this happening. I was 13 years old at the time. But I didn't notice that it made any kind of difference in what went on in my local church.

Later, in 1983, that UPC in the USA church, known as the northern branch of the Presbyterian Church, merged with what was known as the southern branch of the Presbyterian Church (or the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.) to become the Presbyterian Church (USA), which still exists today under that name.

The Presbyterians are far from alone in dividing and recombining, then redividing and recombining. Most Protestant denominations have gone through this, and its seeds may have been sown in 1529 at the Colloquy of Marburg, when the early Reformers, including Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, agreed on many things but broke apart over their different understandings of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

And Christianity is not the only religion in which such divisions are found. Most major faiths have various branches that have resulted from disagreements and splits. (Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Islam: Sunni, Shia. Buddhism: Theraveda, Mahayana, Tibetan. Like that.)

All of which is to say that religions seem to be not much different from secular organizations that struggle with internal disagreements. All of which should make people of faith humble. But it rarely seems to. 

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Starting in July, this report says, Vatican Radio will carry advertising. I'd buy some for sure if I were in charge of advertising for the St. Louis Cardinals.

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P.S.: Some folks who oppose the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., and his rabidly homophobic antics plan something they call the "Million Fag March" this Saturday. If you want to add your voice against the Phelps brand of religious hate, click here for details.

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NOTE: Until June 10, my access to the Internet will be intermittent. So it may take hours and hours -- perhaps even a day or more -- for me to get your comments posted here. I'll do my best, but I'll appreciate your patience.

A bit of faith-based humor: 5-27-09

We haven't taken a humor break here in too long, so set your serious theology and ethics questions aside for 24 hours and giggle a little.


And if you don't giggle any, send me better jokes than these, none of which is original with me. Some come from and some appear miraculously, as if an occult hand had dropped them into a computer file on my hard drive.

1. After the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Denis sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, Denis replied, “That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

2. A British man visited the vicarage and asked to see the vicar's wife, who was well known for her charity. He said in a voice breaking with emotion, "I'd like to draw your attention to the terrible plight of a poor family in this district. The father is dead, the mother is too ill to work, and the nine children are starving. They are about to be turned out into the cold streets unless someone pays their £400 rent arrears."

"How frightful!" exclaimed the vicar's wife. "May I ask who you are?"

The visitor wiped his eyes with his handkerchief and wailed, "I'm their landlord."


3. A little girl asked her mother, "How did the human race first appear?"

The mother answered, "God made Adam and Eve and they had children and that's how all mankind was made."

Two days later the girl asked her father the same question.

The father answered, "Many years ago there were monkeys, from which the human race evolved."

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, "Mom, how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?"

The mother answered, "Well, dear, it is very simple. I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his."


4. A Hindu devotee asked God, represented by the multi-armed Lord Narayana, this question. "My dear Lord," he said, "I understand that you have innumerable inconceivable potencies. But out of all of them the energy of light seems to be the most amazing. Light pervades the spiritual world, it illuminates the material universes, and life is impossible without it." He continued, "I would like to know how you make it work."

"Oh, that's easy," was the reply. "Many hands make light work."

* * *


On a much more serious note, given President Obama's nomination yesterday of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, I wanted to give you some information about her and religion. For an analysis by the Institute of Public Affairs of her previous rulings about religion, click here. For David Gibson's blog on asking whether Sotomayor is Catholic, click here. For David Brody's blog on the CBN News Channel that says she's a practicing Catholic who already is upsetting people who identify themselves as politically conservative, click here. Steve Waldman of ponders here whether Sotomayor is "an abortion centrist." The "On Faith" blog of The Washington Post says she doesn't have a very extensive record in cases involving religion. This National Catholic Reporter piece describes Sotomayor as "a moderate." The Religion Newswriters Association offers this page of information about Sotomayor, some of which repeats what I've already given you. And for a more general bio piece from The Washington Post about her, click here. Well, the coming days will see much more -- and much more detailed -- looks at all of this. And surely all of us can expect her to take some hits from hither and yon through the confirmation process. And that's fine. After all, this is a hugely important appointment that potentially will affect all of us for decades. So the Senate should be careful and thorough but civil.

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P.S.: Late in March I wrote this book column here in which I mentioned a book that was not yet in print. I should have waited. It was officially published yesterday. Here's what I said then: 

* 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.

ANOTHER P.S.: My latest column in The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it and earlier Outlook columns, look for the link to them under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Serving the world from KC: 5-26-09

Several weeks ago here I mentioned an agency called the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging because it is the driving force behind a documentary film now in production.


Although the agency was founded in 1981 by Catholic lay people and is based here in Kansas City, I was mostly unfamiliar with it.

So the other day, at CFCA's invitation, I visited its offices, which are in a large, old converted warehouse just off Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City, Kan., just slightly west of the Missouri-Kansas state line. I joined them for their daily simple lunch prepared for staff on the site -- mash potatoes, green beans and salad that day.

And I was surprised and moved to see such a large global ministry operating here without much notice. CFCA serves more than 311,000 people in a couple of dozen countries, from Central and South America to Africa to the Caribbean to the Philippines to India.

It's quite a remarkable organization that grounds itself in Catholic social teaching and the Christian mandate to love and serve poor people. The Kansas City headquarters now employs more than 130 people.

(By the way, the CFCA staffers in the photo here are, from left, Francis (Paco) Wertin, CEO; Paul Pearce, director of International Programs; Loretta Shea Kline, director of Communications, and Judy-Anne Goldman, Public Relations manager.)


The idea is to find sponsors willing to provide financial support for poor children and elderly people who then are served by various educational and other support services in their local areas.

As Wertin told me, the structure of those local programs varies from country to country depending on the situation on the ground. But one of the exciting new models, found in India, is for a core group of mothers of the children being served who come together as decision makers for how the sponsorship money is spent.

The average monthly amount given by sponsors is just under $30, and CFCA says 94.6 percent of that money goes for program support, with 2.9 percent for administration and 2.5 percent for fundraising. Perhaps most important for keeping sponsors on board is that they correspond with -- and follow the progress of -- the individuals they are helping to support. Some of the sponsors even travel to meet the people they're helping.


One way CFCA keeps costs down is to rely on volunteers at the KCK headquarters. The day I was there volunteers were helping to organize and prepare lots of mail to go out, a little of which is seen here in the photo on the right.

CFCA also sponsors a youth movement called Walk with the Poor, which helps support and connect students in many countries.

Well, look. There are many charitable agencies operating in our community and it's not possible to highlight all of them. But at the same time it's easy to overlook all the good work being done by people of faith, so today let CFCA represent that work.

By the way, the CFCA Web site is pretty comprehensive. Have a look and do a bit of surfing around on it to see in more detail what this organization does to respond the needs that all people of faith are called to respond to. I think you'll be especially interested in the agency's history and its founding by three brothers. One of those brothers, Bob Hentzen, is CFCA president today and, in his mid-70s, is about the undertake a walk from Guatemala to Kansas City, the reverse of a walk he did in 1996.

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More sectarian violence -- this time among Sikhs in the Punjab section of India -- brings more bad press for religion. They were reacting to the murder of a Sikh guru in Austria. The riots prove again that every religion is at risk for extremist actions. This is especially sad because Sikhism in India has a long, proud history of constructive leadership.

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P.S.: My latest column in The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it and earlier Outlook columns, look for the link to them under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Why we remember: 5-25-09


For Memorial Day this year I just briefly want to tell you about a memorial event I attended the other evening at the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City -- and to suggest that such events are vital to our own mental and spiritual health.


It was the annual "Circle of Lights," sponsored by Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care. (Disclosure: I'm a board member of this non-profit organization.)

Each year this is a way for people who have experienced a death in their family -- particularly one that required the services of a hospice -- to gather and recognize that they are not alone in their grief. Indeed, several hundred people came together that beautiful spring evening as a cool breeze ruffled the trees and sharp notes from a plaintiff bagpipe cut through the air.

"Listen for the voice of your loved one speaking in your heart," advised the Rev. Robert Lee Hill, a fellow KCH board member who is senior minister of Community Christian Church, just across the street from where the event took place.


We lit candles in the insistent breeze and then lit the candles inside the luminaries lining the sidewalks of the park. The one you see in the photo on the right here bears the name of my late mother-in-law. Last year one of the luminaries bore the name of my bride's late father, who was served by a hospice in Vermont before his 2002 death.

Remembering is an act of creation, a call to wholeness, an honorable act that seeks to keep alive a sense of the essence of the person who has died. If we don't remember, we shrivel into ourselves and cut ourselves off from past and future.

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There's an effort under way in Congress to name 2010 "The Year of the Bible." Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, whom I've interviewed in person a couple of times, is a fresh thinker who suggests that idea is both good and bad. I think Hirshfield is on target, even though I wish members of Congress would focus on our problems and forget all these side issues. What do you think?

More Holocaust denial: 5-23-/24-09

There's new evidence that antisemitism and Holocaust denying are growing problems in the Middle East. It's fueled not only by on-going political differences related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also by a pernicious anti-Jewish bias that has been promoted among some leaders of Islam for decades.


The latest distressing numbers come from a study done by a faculty member at the University of Haifa in Israel. It found in recent polling that 40.5 percent of Arab Israelis say they believe the Holocaust never happened. This is compared with 28 percent who responded that way in 2006, leading the study leader to suggest that perhaps some part of this is simply political protest, not deeply held belief. The protest would be against some Israeli policies and actions, some of which deserve to be criticized. And criticism of Israeli policy is not, in and of itself, antisemitism. (For more news stories about this study, click here.)

Still, the 40.5 percent figure is staggering. Even 1 percent would be too high.

Some of this Holocaust-denial phenomenon can be explained by the fact that some of the more radical leaders of Islam in the Middle East promote this garbage. Indeed, it is pretty easy to walk into book stores in the area and purchase a copy of the fraudulent book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, not displayed as a historic curiosity because of its antisemitic and false content but as literal history.

Some Muslim leaders in the area are following in the footsteps of the late mufti of Jerusalem, Haf Amin al-Husseini, who spent much of his life churning up violence against Jews. He's the subject of a relatively new book I've mentioned here before, Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman.

Large segments of Christianity, as I've said here before (see my essay on this subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), have a long history of promoting anti-Judaism, which helped to create modern antisemitism. And now parts of Islam are adding fuel to the antisemitic fires. It's more proof that bad ideas are dangerous and can lead to death and destruction.

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In the class I'll be teaching this summer at Ghost Ranch (for details, see the link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page) we'll be talking some about using such social networking tools as Facebook as a means of having the prophetic voice of people of faith heard today. Turns out that Pope Benedict XVI is all over this now. Good for him. Wonder whether it will make a difference.

Organ-izing worship: 5-22-09


A few days after the pipe organ at my church had been removed and hauled off on a huge truck back and taken east for a major renovation, I spoke to a banquet of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

And all of that has me thinking about the place of music in worship.

Well, in my Protestant tradition, the place of music is, if not central, quite important, and in churches such as mine, a pipe organ plays a vital role in creating that music.

As I told the guild of organists here, I'm the wrong Tammeus kid to be talking about this. My oldest sister, Karin, is a Juilliard pipe organ graduate and she plays and teaches in the Bay Area. But she doesn't write this blog and she wasn't the one invited to speak to the organists' guild, so I'll say a few words about all of that and she can read it if she wants to.

First, I want to tell you what you already can see from this photo (by Marsha Kirsch of our church office staff) of the sanctuary at my church when the pipes were being un-installed for shipping: Holy cow. What a complex instrument a pipe organ is. When disassembled, it fills a church. When assembled, it can fill a church with astonishing sounds.

I suggested to the organists that they remember that most of the people hearing their music are musically untrained. But the ignorance of an audience does not mean organists should lower their standards, only that they must be aware of the way what they produce is often received.

The lesson, I told the organists, is to remember that musical art is art only if it somehow speaks to the silence that lies at the epicenter of our souls, the silence that snuffs out words as inadequate intruders on truth.

Indeed, music is one of the best arguments I know that humans are not just physical beings but also have an equally real spiritual dimension. Wholly consummated music finds the cycles humming deep inside our vulnerability and resonates with the essence of our beings. It can give us new spiritual eyes and let us see new possibilities or, at least, renew old, moribund possibilities.

And for me, the pipe organ is a central source of such music. While my church's organ is gone, we're using both a piano and a synthesizer. They're fine temporarily. But I can't wait for our refurbished organ to return to us by the Christmas season.

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Several years ago I heard journalist Asra Nomani speak to a small group of journalists in Washington, D.C., and then I read her book, Standing Alone in Mecca. She's a fascinating and refreshing Muslim voice who is seeking to bring change to Islam. The "On Faith" blog of the Washington Post is featuring this interview with Nomani in preparation for an upcoming documentary. Give a listen.

Why Calvin matters: 5-21-09

The great Protestant reformer John Calvin (depicted here) was born 500 years ago, on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France. So why should we give a hoot today? My partial answer here today is a follow up to yesterday's posting about 500-year cycles of change in Christianity.


Well, in many ways Calvin shaped the religious world in which we live today. He grew up in a devoutly Roman Catholic home but he is credited -- with Martin Luther and others -- of creating the Protestant Reformation that so profoundly changed Christianity, including the Catholic Church. (For a Catholic take on Calvin, click here.)

And some of his ideas -- especially those distorted by zealous followers -- are very much with us today. Many of those ideas remain good and healthy, while others have led to some regrettable results.

One of the regrettable results, at least to me, has been the atomization of Protestantism. And as Joseph D. Small, director of theology, worship and education for the Presbyterian Church (USA) has written, Calvin was actually a champion of church unity: "His strong censure of the Catholic Church was pervasive, but the purpose of his critique was always reform, not separation. . . Calvin understood that the restored unity of the church was a gospel imperative."

Unity, of course, does not mean uniformity. What is regrettable is that the unity among followers of Jesus that Jesus prayed for in John 17 has disintegrated as countless splits have happened. But if Protestantism is divided, so is Catholicism. Indeed, there are many Christianities today.

Did Calvin get everything right? My, no. He's been roundly criticized, for instance, for allowing the execution of MIchael Servetus, convicted of heresy. And his ideas about predestination have caused not just people in the Reformed Tradition of Christianity to scramble around for a thorough explanation but have been rejected by lots of other Christians.

Still, Calvinism, though it has taken different forms over the centuries, has been enormously influential both theologically and culturally. Sometimes Calvinism is thought to be the philosophical parents of the Protestant Work Ethic and its disgruntled cousin, which I think of as the Wealth Shows God Approves of Me idea. But, as I say, some of this is an outgrowth of some of Calvin's more zealous followers and less an outgrowth of what Calvin himself said.

Even today, 500 years later, it's not uncommon to see Calvin appealed to as a seer because of what he understood about human nature and especially human sinfulness. For a good example, click here.

And speaking of human sinfulness, Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook (for which I write a monthly column), wrote this about Calvin several months ago: "Neither business leaders in a laissez-faire economic system nor government officials in a governmentally controlled system are immunized from the corrputing effects of unchecked power. Calvin would tell us to elect leaders who will submit to the checks-and-balances that restrain their worst inclinations. Speaking of economics, Calvin would not allow the general population to scapegoat leaders for the economic woes they also have caused. He would shake his head in disbelief over how we have misappropriated the prosperity with which we have been blessed."

For a list of biographies about Calvin, click here.

And, finally, for several articles from The Presbyterian Outlook about Calvin and his importance, click here.

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A newly released, distressing report shows that for decades some children in Ireland under the care of various Catholic agencies suffered abuse. Worse, the report says church leaders knew abuse was endemic but failed to stop it. For some reaction to the report, click here. And for a summary of other sexual abuse scandals in the church, click here. The church is supposed to be protecting children, not arranging for their denigration. I believe things are better now in churches in the U.S. since the priest abuse scandal broke several years ago, but the Catholic Church (which also means members in the pews who must call leaders to account) is going to have to be sharply vigilant to keep this from happening again. And, yes, I know that abuse has happened in other faith communities.

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P.S.: Earlier this week I wrote here about prayer studies and mentioned a piece from Christianity Today that was not yet online. Well, now that article now is online. If you'd like to read it, click here.

A changing Christianity: 5-20-09

Today and tomorrow I want to take a 500-year (or so) view of Christianity, kind of a look from 30,000 feet, if you will.


First, I want to reintroduce you to The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle, a book I mentioned last August in a blog book column, as I link you to this thoughtful analysis of the book by my friend Tom Roberts, editor at large at the National Catholic Reporter.

Then tomorrow I want to reintroduce you to the great reformer John Calvin, the 500th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this year.

But first Roberts' piece on Tickle's book.

Tom suggests, drawing on Tickle's work, that "we are squarely in the midst of a grand shakeup that regularly occurs on a bi-millennial basis to institutionalized Christianity." I think both Tickle and Roberts are right, but you sort of have to get up to the 30,000-foot level to see it all.

There are lots of forces at work inside Christianity that are pushing and pulling it in competing directions. The faith is sweeping across Africa and is growing mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. What is growing there is mostly a kind of theologically conservative Christianity that may be quite different in the end from what most people think of when they think about conservative Christianity in the United States now, where it is characterized by theological fundamentalism, or scriptural literalism, and/or by its adoption of a socially conservative agenda on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and so on.

I think the faith moving across Africa and Asia is more focused on reliance on a God who provides for the poor and needy in all situations. Imagine taking Celtic Christianity's emphasis on the presence of God in the ordinary things of our lives and translating it into African or Asian culture. There's not a lot of time or need in those cultures now for nuanced theological debates, given the fragility of life. Rather, there is more need for joyful worship of a God who cares about even "the least of these," to quote the New Testament.

At the same time, what we might call a more liberal impulse is moving through Christianity. That includes the efforts to ordain gays and lesbians to ministry as well as to give women and lay people in general more influence in church life. And it includes an openness to interfaith dialogue that is not built on a need to try to convert people as a starting point.

It's not yet possible to see just what this 500-year flood will drown and what it simply will nourish. But as the globe shrinks and mobility increases, the old-time religion of 19th and 20th Century America inevitably will give way to new forms influenced by Christianities from around the world and new movements (such as the Emergent Church) in this country.

It's really an exciting time for those of us who are Christian. My hope is that we can hold on to the core of our faith even while being open to experiencing new ways of living it out. We'll see.

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This ABC News story about the U.S. military either distributing or destroying Bibles in Afghanistan seemed to raise the same kind of concerns I wrote about recently in discussing Jeff Sharlet's recent article in Harper's Magazine about efforts to create a Christian power center in the U.S. military. No branch of -- or agency representing -- our government should be out promoting one religion over another. Why is that concept so difficult for some people?