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A Ten Commandments primer: 9-18-09

For some years now, the Ten Commandments have been at the center of controversy in our country -- not because most people think they're foolish. Not at all. Rather, it's because people who seem not to understand issues of separation of church and state continue to insist that the state promote them.


But what do we really know about those commandments -- their history, how they were understood when first promulgated, how we are to understand them today?

My hope is that a new series on ABC-TV's show "Nightline" will help us answer some of those questions. The series begins this coming Thursday night, Sept. 24.

It perhaps should not surprise us that the series launches with "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery," clearly the most racy of the commandments. Nor, perhaps, should it surprise us that ABC has chosen to use the old King James Version language instead of a more modern and understandable translation.

If ABC were to start with the most important of the commandments it would be the one saying we should have no other gods before God. My contention is that ultimately all sin boils down to idolatry, and idolatry is precisely what this first commandment stands against.

Still, wherever ABC starts, I'm glad the network at least seems to be trying to bring a bit of religious education to the public.

The Decalogue (as the Ten Commandments are called, from the Greek words deka logoi), is found in Exodus and Deuternomy in slightly different versions. And various translations wind up with small variations of which one is number what.

Scholars debate the origins of the Ten Commandments. The primary biblical story, of course, is that God gave them to Moses on Mount Sinai, but scholars have proposed later dates for them, including as recently as 750 BCE.

Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions offers this interesting note about the commandments: "The Ten Commandments had no particular importnace in Christian tradition until the 13th century, when they were incorporated into a manual of instruction for those coming to confess their sins."

I don't know about you, but I do my best not to break more than two or three commandments before noon each day.

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A distressing new study suggests that teen pregnancy rates are higher in areas of the country in which the population evidences higher than average rates of religious belief. Is this a result of the failure of preaching abstinence? I'm guessing that has something to do with it. What's your guess?

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P.S.: You have a chance the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27, to hear some wonderful sacred music and help out a good cause along the way. The William Baker Singers will join some members of the Kansas City Symphony at Colonial Presbyterian Church to raise funds for a ministry that assists needy people of Rwanda. The link will give you details. I've heard the Baker singers. They're wonderful.

Fundamentalism's future: 9-17-09

Is fundamentalism dying?

Harvey Cox says it is. And Harvey Cox is an intriguing enough scholar with a resume full of intriguing ideas to make him worth hearing. (Cox has been producing interesting books so long that I once heard him give a lecture in the late 1960s in Rochester, N.Y.)


In his new book, The Future of Faith, Cox, an emeritus professor of divinity at Harvard, writes this:

". . .fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying.

"Many observers mistakenly confuse th(e) resurgence of religion with 'fundamentalism,' but the two are not the same. Fundamentalism is dying. Arguments still rage about whether the Christian Right in America is fatally divided or sullenly quiescent. Debates boil about whether the dwindling support for radical movements in Islam is temporary or permanent. But as the twenty-first century unfolds, the larger picture is clear. Fundamentalisms, with their insistence on obligatory belief systems, their nostalgia for a mythical uncorrupted past, their claims to an exclusive grasp on truth, and -- sometimes -- their propensity for violence, are turning out to be rearguard attemtps to stem a more sweeping tidal change."

Later, in the book, Cox adds this:

"There is little to lament about the present decline of fundamentalism. The word itself was coined in the first decade of the twentieth century by Protestant Christians who compiled a list of theological beliefs on which there could be no compromise. . . .But now they are on the defensive. The old struggle continues, and their reduction of faith to beliefs persists. But since the emerging Age of the Spirit is more similar to the first Age of Faith than it is to the Age of Belief, the contest today goes on under different conditions."

Well, I'll be doing more of a review of Cox's book later, but for now I'd like to ask what we should make of his contentions?

Although I think he points to some real developments, I think his conclusions are too sweeping. Fundamentalism -- in several religions -- maintains a pretty strong hold even today, and no doubt will continue to do so as far into the future as one can see. And although I am no fundamentalist, I don't see fundamentalism's continued existence as all bad.

What the fundamentalists do is to help define for all of us the core doctrines that need either to be defended, changed or abandoned. Their view of what is important -- crucial, even -- in some sense sets the theological agenda so that those who are moving in new directions at least know where they started and in what direction they are moving.

Fundamentalism has been so appealing to so many because it offers clarity. It gives people simple answers to complex questions. And my experience is that people almost always demand such simple answers -- even when those answers are out of touch with reality and not just simple but simplistic, meaning misleading and fatally flawed.

So Cox correctly notes the challenges fundamentalisms (in, as I say, several religions) face today, but he's more convinced than I am that the demise of fundamentalism is at hand.

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Cuba has decided to allow prisoners there the opportunity to participate in Catholic or Protestant worship services -- and eventually may extend worship privileges to prisoners of faiths, too, this report says. Isn't it astonishing how frightened some Communist countries have been and still are when it comes to religion? Speaking of fundamentalists, as I was above, they often strike me as atheistic fundamentalists.

He fed the hungry: 9-16-09

Norman Borlaug (pictured here) made a huge difference in the world by doing something all religions tell their adherents to do -- feed the hungry.


Borlaug, recognized as the founder of the Green Revolution that helped developing countries feed their own population, died Saturday at age 95.

He was one of the early trustees of the organization called Bread for the World.

That group's president, the Rev. David Beckmann, issued this statement: "No single person has contributed more to relieving world hunger than our friend, the late Norman Borlaug. Norman was truly the man who fed the world, saving up to a billion people from hunger and starvation."

The Green Revolution is particularly close to my heart because my father played a small part in it by being part of a University of Illinois ag team that worked in India. My family was there in 1956 and 1957 and Dad helped create extension services that moved agricultural progress being made at colleges and universities out into the farm fields of India.

So farewell to a man who did more than simply urge people to do the right thing. Norman Borlaug helped easy hunger among millions of people.

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Uh, whose national anthem is "God Bless America"? Not ours. And yet three teens were ejected from a minor league baseball stadium recently for not standing up while the song was playing. They're suing. I don't blame them for wanting to protect their rights. But lawsuits get tiresome in cases that should be settled without the help of the legal system. Perhaps they had no choice in that the guy who tossed them may be unrepentant and simply foolish. But these are the kind of cases that clog the courts and delay justice in other cases that truly cannot be settled in any other way.

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P.S.: A Catholic priest has written a letter to Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph that is quite critical of his leadership. The National Catholic Reporter posted it on this site yesterday. I have found Bishop Finn to be an affable and sincere man but one who has ruffled many feathers in the diocese because of what many perceive as his failures of leadership and his rigidly conservative theology. Many good things are happening in the diocese, including the 100th anniversary celebration of Visitation Church (for which I wrote the centennial book) but it's also true, at least in my experience, that the diocese is fairly sharply divided between supporters of Finn's approach and opponents of it. The latter particularly miss the former bishop, Raymond Boland, who seemed to them much more pastoral.

Recovering Jewish history: 9-15-09

One of the joys of working on my new book (They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust) was getting to spend time with remarkable people and learning things I never knew.

I had known Jack Mandelbaum of Kansas City before Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I started work on this book, but I got to know Jack better when he served as our translator for several interviews we did in Poland.

Jack grew up near Gdansk and survived being a prisoner in several concentration camps while his father was in the deadly Stutthof concentration center in that area.


When I say near Gdansk, I really mean that he grew up in Gdynia. In fact, part of his boyhood was spent in the building you see here in a photo I took in 2007 when Jack took us to see it at the time we visited Poland to do interviews for our book.

Not long ago, Jack was kind enough to give me a copy of a book he had something to do with getting published. It's called Lost in the Whirlwind of War: The Jewish Community in Gdynia, Poland.

It covers the pre-war history of Jews in that area of northern Poland and is the first full accounting of the Gdynia community, essentially wiped out in the Holocaust.

I've linked you above to a Polish Web site about it from the publisher. The book received funding also from the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. Click here for a link to information about that and other books on the Taube site.

Gdynia book

You can't find the book on Amazon, say, but if you're interested in obtaining a copy you may write to the publisher at this address: Oficyna Verbi Causa, ul. Ruchu Oporu 11, 81-474 Gdynia, Poland. The phone number in Poland is 501-025-450. The book's ISBN number is 836049418-5

What I find so engaging about the book is its detail and its use of individual names and the years they were born or died or were part of this or that group. It's a reconstruction process. The book is essentially the doctoral thesis of it author, Jaroslaw Drozd, done at the Historical Institute of Gdansk University.

And it is full of photographs of buildings and people and cemeteries and Jewish life, especially in the 1930s before World War II began.

Remarkably enough, among the individuals mentioned in the book is Rabbi Cukierkorn's great-grandfather, Jankiel Cukierkorn, who is listed with six other Cukierkorn family members as passengers on a ship that left Gdynia on Aug. 11, 1939, just a few weeks before the Germans invaded Poland. It was the final transport organized by an organization called Polsko-Brytyjskie Towarzystwo Okretow. Jacques' grandfather had come to South America 10 years earlier.

Near the end of the book you'll find biographies of various members of Gdynia's Jewish community, including Jack Mandelbaum's father, Majloch Mandelbaum, who was born in 1903 and who perished Oct. 28, 1944, in the Stuttof camp. Plus there's more about his life and Jack's birth and early life.

I have collected many books related to the Holocaust in the course of writing our new book with my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. But this Gdynia book will be among the best treasures because it reminds us of the importance of memory in making sure that the story of what happened to Poland's Jews is neither lost nor denied.

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As regular readers here know, every couple of months or so I do a book column with notice of new books with religious themes. But today I want to take note of such a book separately and to give you this link to a story about it and interview with Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God. I suspect the story is right that this book will get a fair amount of attention -- plus and minus.

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P.S.: You have a chance the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27, to hear some wonderful sacred music and help out a good cause along the way. The William Baker Singers will join some members of the Kansas City Symphony at Colonial Presbyterian Church to raise funds for a ministry that assists needy people of Rwanda. The link will give you details. I've heard the Baker singers. They're wonderful.

The choices we make: 9-14-09


Take a good look at the four people in the front row of this photo.

From left to right they are Maria Devinki of Kansas City, Felicia Graber of St. Louis, Zygie Allweiss of Detroit and Jerry Koenig of St. Louis.

This photo would have been impossible had each of these Jews not had non-Jewish help to survive the Holocaust. Because each one of them survived in Poland, non-Jews basically meant Catholic Christians, who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews.

We invited Maria, Felicia, Zygie and Jerry to join us this past weekend for several launch events for the new book Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (he's in the back row with me) and I have written, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Although all of them could not be with us all weekend, each of them spoke this past Thursday evening at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library, when some 600 people showed up to hear about the book and hear their stories. In events Thursday, Friday and Sunday, a total of nearly 1,000 people showed up.

What a gratifying evening -- and weekend -- it was for us.

They are remarkable people. But what I invite you to think about is how the decisions made by their non-Jewish rescuers have affected the world. Maria has great-grandchildren. Felicia, a mother, spent a career teaching children. Zygie has grandchildren, as does Jerry. And there is so much more to their post-war stories.

The Talmud says that to save one life is to save the whole world.

We may never be asked to risk our lives to save the lives of others. But each hour of each day we can choose to behave in ways that repair the world. That's really what our new book is about.

(By the way, if you're on Facebook, search on "They Were Just People" and join our book's FB page, where some good conversation will take place over the upcoming months.)

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Religion reporting is in a recession, this report says. Well, my take is that it's always been in a recession and now is moving toward a great depression -- just when it's needed most. But it won't get better unless the news-consuming public demands better. Have you complained about how little in the way of resources news organizations put into religion? If not, why not?

Muslims still targets: 9-12/13-09

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened eight years ago, it was sad but not surprising to see a lot of hatred expressed toward Muslims.


After all, the 19 hijackers had claimed to be operating in defense of Islam -- a claim wildly at odds with any reasonable understanding of the religion and its history.

A new survey suggests that some of the problems of discrimination and prejudice that Muslims felt eight years ago still are around. The national survey was done by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

You can read the details of the survey at the link I've given you. Instead of going over all the findings, I want to highlight this one:

"Almost half of Americans (45%) say they personally know someone who is Muslim. Also, slim majorities of the public are able to correctly answer questions about the name Muslims use to refer to God (53%) and the name of Islam's sacred text (52%), with four-in-ten (41%) correctly answering both 'Allah' and 'the Koran.'"

With several million Muslims living in this country and with eight years of focus on Islam, I find it astonishing that only 41 percent of Americans can correctly identify the Arabic name for God and the name of Islam's holy book.

And yet I would bet that a much larger percentage of Americans than 41 can tell you for whom they voted on the "American Idol" show. How can we be proud of such ignorance? Especially when ignorance leads to fear and fear can lead to discrimination and even violence.

It's one more reason our students should be learning about religion in our schools.

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Speaking of Muslims and 9/11, I liked this commentary by a Muslim mother about explaining 9/11 to her child. But just as she had to explain that, so we of other faiths should be explaining to our children and grandchildren both the disasters and the glories of events in the histories of our own religions.

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P.S.: Please join my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and me for our final launch event for our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. It will happen at 1 p.m. Sunday at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City. You'll hear not just us but also some of the people whose stories we tell in the book. And also feel invited to join our book's page on Facebook. Just search on "They Were Just People."

Why we remember: 9-11-09


This is a day to remember.

I will be remembering Karleton D. B. Fyfe, my nephew, who perished on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center eight years ago today.


It was a malevolent day on which religious fanatics murdered nearly 3,000 people. And for what? To advance a radical ideological cause that will never, ever succeed.

Christianity owes its allegiance to memory to Judaism, which places an extraordinarily high value on memory. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the people of Israel are told over and over the stories of the role God has played in their lives.

In Christianity, we center the sacrament of Holy Communion on Jesus' command to do this in memory of him.

Memory must be an intentional thing. We must be active about remembering, even when what we are remembering is painful, as 9/11 surely is.

We remember not for revenge. Rather, we remember to honor those we have lost to religious zealotry. And we remember so we can think about ways to stop such fanaticism.

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Here's a really good idea: The pope plans to meet with artists in November to reignite interest in artistic expressions of religious truths. Several times here on the blog I've written about the importance of religious art, and it's nice to see someone important offering a similar message.

What Father Divine taught: 9-10-09

How many of you remember Father Divine (pictured here)?


He's worth remembering, and this is a good day to do it. He died on this date in 1965.

He considered himself God incarnate. Some people thought he was insane. Some thought he was God incarnate. Some thought he was a fascinating man who was right about some things about wrong about others. I put myself in the last category.

What I think we can learn from Father Divine is that we must take great care about to whom we pledge our religious allegiance. In the New Testament, one of the John epistles says we should test the spirits to see whether they are of God.

As you can read in the biography of Divine to which I've linked you, he never wanted to talk much about his earthly existence or history, so we've had to guess that he was born George Baker in the 1880s in Savannah, Ga.

But just because he was right to stress peace, for instance, doesn't mean he was right about everything. And his followers would have done well to be more discerning about that.

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The White House is not the only source of messages to schools and pupils. The Vatican just issued this letter about religious education. It's sort of interesting to compare this to President Obama's speech to students the other day. A fair amount of common ground.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two upcoming (tonight and this Sunday) events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book. 

Learning kindness: 9-9-09


DELAVAN, Ill. -- Faith communities shape the memories of many of us -- sometimes for good, sometimes not.

One of my good memories rooted in faith happened in the sanctuary you see here, which I visited this past Sunday.

This is the Methodist church my Tammeus grandparents attended and the church my uncle and aunt (he's my late father's brother) still attend. Thus, it's the church where the funerals of my grandparents were held -- Grandma's in 1953, Grandpa's in 1960.


I was eight when Grandma died. And I remember sitting with my maternal grandparents, who lived about 100 miles away in Streator, Ill.

When the service ended, Grandma Tammeus' casket was taken to the back of the sanctuary and opened for people leaving to see. My maternal grandmother, with me at her side, walked up and patted Grandma Tammeus' hands. "Farewell, Kate," she said.

It surprised me. Even shocked me. I didn't know you could or should touch dead people in their caskets. But it was such a sweet thing that I've never forgotten it. It was kindness personified, a sort of kindness that was part of who my maternal grandmother was, but a kindness I always associated with a biblical phrase, "loving kindness."

My maternal grandparents were given weekly lessons about the need for such kindess at their Presbyterian church in Streator. And they lived out those lessons -- so much so that an 8-year-old has never forgotten.

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A fragment of an ancient Bible text has been discovered by accident in Egypt. It's always fascinating to see how few change in the texts there are in such ancient versions. On the whole, the care taken by scribes and translators over the centuries has been remarkable.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two upcoming (this Thursday and this Sunday) events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book. 

Scripture and the gay issue: 9-8-09

You may remember that I wrote here recently about the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to find a way to ordain otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to the clergy.


I hailed it as an important and proper step -- and I wish my own Presbyterian denomination would reach the same conclusion.

As usual, I got questions about how anyone could ignore what they believe is the clear condemnation of homosexuality in scripture -- a condemnation that means gays and lesbians should never hold positions of leadership in the church.

Well, I have a speech on this subject that I have given a number of times in various venues. In it, I argue that when one reads scripture carefully and does good exegetical work, one finds that nothing in the Bible should be used as a weapon against homosexuality and that nothing in the Bible should be read as prohibiting otherwise-qualified homosexuals from serving the church in all ways. (If you want, e-mail me and I'll send you a copy of that talk -- unless your mind is already closed on the subject.)

But in the wake of the ELCA decision, a friend shared this excellent commentary about how that denomination's decision can be justified scripturally. It's a fine piece of work written by Timothy Wengert, a professor of Reformation history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and I commend it to you. What I especially like is that it takes seriously the reservations about all of this that others have based on their reading of scripture. That is, it doesn't just run roughshod over people who disagree. Rather, it seeks to respect their position because they, too, believe they are taking scripture seriously. Taking such views seriously is what I try to do, too, even though I disagree with them.

So if this subject interests you, today I invite you to get inside the head a bit of those of us who believe it's a perfectly justifiable scriptural position to advocate ordination of gays and lesbians to ministry.

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Here's another example of why many people, especially in the West, think Islam is always and everywhere a bad influence when it comes to personal freedom. It's hard to understand why the religious hardliners in places such as Afghanistan don't understand that besides twisting the true teachings of Islam they are doing their religion considerable harm in the eyes of the world by punishing people simply for raising legitimate questions.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two upcoming (Sept. 10 and Sept. 13) events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book.