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A realistic hope: 10-20-09

Last weekend in my book column here on the blog, I mentioned Donald Miller's new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

Million Today I want to return to that book to share with you some good thoughts about the futility of utopian thinking -- which has always and forever gotten humanity into trouble, though I don't for a moment want to dismiss the idealistic motives behind such thinking. In some ways, religion encourages utopian thinking, but such thinking makes sense only in an eternal perspective. Where people get off track is when they expect some kind of perfection in this life.

Miller, in chapter 29, is discussing his belief that "I simply don't believe utopia is going to happen. I don't believe we are going to be rescued. I don't believe an act of man will make things on earth perfect, and I don't believe God will intervene before I die, or for that matter before you die."

Then he considers what utopian thinking -- imagining some humanly perfected society or individually achieved perfect condition -- has wrought:

"If you think about it, an enormous amount of damage is created by the myth of utopia. There is an intrinsic feeling in nearly every person that your life could be perfect if only you had such-and-such a car or such-and-such a spouse or such-and-such a job. We believe we will be made whole by our accomplishments, our possessions, or our social status. It's written in the fabric of our DNA that life used to be beautiful and now it isn't, and if only this and if only that, it would be beautiful again."

Well, mostly I agree with that, but let's not limit our thinking to only human possibilities. Let's also consider divine possibilities. In the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, "life used to be beautiful and now it isn't," as Miller notes. The Garden of Eden story -- sacred myth, if you will -- describes that original perfection and then the fall from grace. But in Christian terms, there is an ultimate hope that, in the end, God will indeed make all things beautiful again -- not by what humanity does or achieves but, rather, by divine initiative.

And yet Miller is right that if we somehow think God is going to fix everything by a week from Tuesday, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment, loss of faith and unrealistic living. He writes:

"Growing up in church, we were taught that Jesus was the answer to all our problems. (Well, maybe Miller was taught that; I wasn't, not exactly.) We were taught that there was a circle-shaped hole in our heart and that we had tried to fill it with the square pegs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; but only the circle peg of Jesus could fill our hole. I became a Christian based, in part, on this premise, but the hole never really went away. To be sure, I like Jesus, and I still follow him, but the idea that Jesus will make everything better is a lie. It's basically biblical theology translated into the language of infomercials. The truth is, the apostles never really promise Jesus is going to make everything better here on earth. . . .What I love about the true gospel of Jesus, though, is that it offers hope."

That's what I love about it, too. Yes, it offers hope for this life but the hope is not that all problems will disappear but, rather, that we will not be alone as we go through our problems. Miller has figured out that difference. Good for him.

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A former Nobel literature prize winner says the Bible is a "handbook of bad morals" and humanity would be better off without it. Just because someone can write great literature doesn't mean he has a clue as to how to read and understand other great writing. 

Saving Curious George: 10-19-09

If your children and grandchildren are like mine, they have loved the stories of "Curious George," the little brown monkey who always seemed to be in some kind of trouble.


I had never paid much attention to the creators of this character, even though -- in good journalist style -- whenever I read a book to my grandchildren now I always begin with the author's name and I tell them, "Always read bylines."

At any rate, it turns out that the creators of Curious George, Margret and H.A. Rey, were Jews in France who managed to escape Paris in June 1940 as it was being invaded by the Germans.

Their story is told in the 2005 book, The Journey that Saved Curious George, by Louise Borden, and that book now is the basis of a new exhibit that will be on display in the Kansas City area starting Wednesday. It's being sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and will be at the Jewish Community Center Gallery at 5801 W. 115th St. in Overland Park, Kan.

The exhbit link I've given you about the exhibit also details a Nov. 4 talk by Louise Borden and a Nov. 17 celebrity reading panel. It also tells you how to make reservations.

When I was in Poland a couple of years ago doing interviews for my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I wrote this column about absence and what is missing because of the Holocaust. Children all over the world are grateful that one of the things not missing is Curious George.

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Newt Gingrich again is preaching the gospel of American exceptionalism -- the notion that the United States was, in effect, founded by God. Most of the founders of the U.S. were people of faith. No doubt of that. And many were motivated by religious reasoning. That's to be celebrated. But all of that is far different from claiming that America is God's chosen land, which essentially is the message from Gingrich. That's a dangerous message that, among other bad consequences, leads to worldwide antagonsim toward the U.S. We've got enough of that already, thank you.

Facing our frailties: 10-17/18-09

It's been rewarding to get comments about -- and reviews of -- my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-authored by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn.


People have been kind and generous in their responses and I believe the book is helping to teach people important stories about this era and opening up possibilities for Jewish-Christian dialogue, especially for people who use the questions in the Readers' Guide at the end of the book.

I want to share with you today part of a response I received from a fascinating man who has been a prisoner in a Missouri penitentiary for about 30 years, having been convicted of murder. His criminal background adds poignancy to his response, which is why I include it here. I have never met him but we have been corresponding for several years and I have supported his thus-far unsuccessful efforts at parole. He has earned a Ph.D. in prison and calls himself "arguably the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." (I would argue that the parole system is failing in this case, but that's another story.)

At any rate, here's part of what he said in a recent letter to me in response to our book:

"I've always wondered, given similar circumstances, where my actions, faith and humanity would merge. Would I be seduced by the pomp and hysteria of the Big Lie or would I invest in the terror of never knowing from moment to moment if my regime-traitorous actions would be uncovered, reaping the whirlwind of this world's hate? The older I grow, the less certain I become. Moral ambiguity pervades my consciousness, and fear of my own frailties haunts my philosophy. It's much easier to sit in historical judgment than it is to act upon principles facing death with the wrong step for the right reason. . . .I write all this as preface to the true heroes chronicled in your book. These aare not the great men and women of history, but are the great examples of what we all can aspire to when faced with the choice of who we choose to be in the face of ultimate adversity."

What I especially like about his response is his honesty about not knowing just how he might respond if he were in a situation similar to the non-Jews in our book who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. "The older I grow," he wrote, "the less certain I become." That's because with age can come the wisdom to understand that we are unpredictable people. If we don't all fear our own frailties, as he writes, we are deceiving ourselves.

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Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace, told people that God channels ideas through him at night, which is why it was so hard for him to sleep. And he worried that if he weren't paying attention, God might give these ideas to Prince. Oh, my. Does super success require delusional thinking? Maybe not, but it somehow seems more prominent among stars who reach such heights of popularity.

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P.S.: A regular commenter here on the blog, Cole Morgan, has written the "Faith Walk" column in Saturday's Kansas City Star Faith section. To read it, click here.

Faith events not to miss: 10-16-09

I hope that by giving you this information now you'll have plenty of time to get it on your calendar.

This year's annual Festival of Faiths in Kansas City will feature Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. He's the author of Acts of Faith, which describes how important it is to give young people -- especially young Muslims -- a healthy alternative to radical religion.

Book_acts Patel will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at Congregation Beth Shalom, 9400 Wornall. After his talk I'll be moderating a Q&A session with him. The Festival link I've given you above will provide information about how to attend. Patel also will speak at 10 a.m. that day to students at Notre Dame de Sion High School.

And speaking of youth and interfaith activities, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council's annual Table of Faiths luncheon will start at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 12 at the Hyatt at Crown Center. Its theme will be "Celebrating Interfaith Youth." The Table link I've given you here will show you how to attend.

I've been following area youth this year as they have become active in interfaith activities through the new Interfaith Youth Alliance and am writing a piece about this for The Kansas City Star. It should run in early November.

Why is all this important? Because if our young people don't understand the importance of understanding religions other than their own (if any), they'll never be able to find ways to live harmoniously in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic in terms of religion.

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Give Pope Benedict XVI this: When it comes to Jewish-Christian relations, he keeps trying, even if sometimes his words or actions are awkward or not well thought through. The Vatican said this week that he would visit the major synagogue of Rome on Jan. 17, the annual day of dialogue and study between Catholics and Jews. Jan. 17 also happens to be the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Warsaw in World War II, and the pope might do well to take note of that and to take note of what happened to Poland's nearly 3.5 million Jews in the Holocaust. He need make no mention of the fact that I was born one day after Warsaw's liberation. Really. It's OK.

A question of justice: 10-15-09

Perhaps it's because of all the work I've done over the past four-plus years on my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Or perhaps it's because I'm half German, a descendant of great-grandparents who came to this country from Germany in the 1860s.

But I tend to be aware of historical dates that relate to World War II and the Holocaust. Today (and/or tomorrow, depending on which source one consults) is one.


On this date in 1946, Nazi official Hermann Goering (pictured here) committed suicide in his Nuremberg cell by swallowing a cyanide pill that had been smuggled to him. This occurred two hours before he was to be executed.

The next day (or, as I say, maybe the same day), 10 Nazi war criminals were hanged in Nuremberg as a result of their conviction at the Nuremberg trials.

Nearly every source I've consulted has the execution of the 10 occurring on Oct. 16, though one lists it as Oct. 15.

The point is not the day, however. Nor is the point the details of the trials, which are fascinating. Indeed, two of the Holocaust survivors in our new book, Felix Zandman and Anna Schiff, testified at those trials.

Rather, the point today is to think about justice. Religion promotes justice. In many traditions, God is described as a God of justice. (I never ask God for justice for me; I need mercy instead.)

And so I invite you to think about whether our human judicial systems really render justice. Is that what the Nuremberg trials produced? What, after all, does justice look like in the face of the murder of six million Jews? Is justice what our traffic courts produce? If not, what obligation do faith communities have to fix things? When you solve all of that, I'll have you tell me why there's evil in the world in the first place.

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Yes, from time to time I get asked to preach in this church or that, but I've never felt called to get ordained to become a Christian clergyman. That's not the case for former religion reporter Steve Scott, who now is preaching regularly -- and no doubt doing a few funerals -- in Wisconsin. I've always found that I can do what I do better without a "Rev." in front of my name.

The pursuit of happiness: 10-14-09



I have often thought that America first got into trouble when the words "pursuit of happiness" entered our national conscience in the Declaration of Independence.

That's because the hard truth is that happiness is not something we can intentionally pursue with any success. Rather, it is the byproduct of our attitudes and actions and accomplishments.

As the current interim pastor of my church said in a recent sermon, happiness comes in the back door if it comes in at all. I'm paraphrasing him here, but the pursuit of happiness is a fool's game.

Still, you find all kinds of people pursuing happiness and writing about why Americans are either happy or unhappy. A good recent example is this essay in, of all places, the online Playboy Forum. Before you go there, please know that the site has a few suggestive photos in the ads but nothing that reaches the level of pornography, at least in my view.

It has long seemed to me that Playboy magazine itself was started with the bad idea that it is possible for virile young men to pursue happiness by pursuing beautiful young women. That idea is just about as wrongheaded as it's possible to get about both happiness and relationships.

But in this essay on happiness, which I'm inviting you to read today, I don't find much acknowledgement that happiness is not the true goal of life. Oh, we all want happiness, and, as I say, it's a wonderful byproduct. But my own faith tradition teaches me not that we are here on earth to pursue happiness but, rather, to love others, love and enjoy God and to serve others in need.

Once you figure that out and begin to try to live that way, a lot of things that otherwise seem to be problems and barriers in life take care of themselves. Heck, you can even wind up happy.

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Yes, yes, this radical antisemite's Internet posting asking that God kill the Jews may well be protected by the Constitution, but my question has more to do with how this man, born a Jew, got so wildly and destructively off track. What attracted him to this twisted version of Islam and what drove him to hate his own relatives?

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P.S.: You have an opportunity to hear some fabulous sacred music the evening of Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City. A "Requiem of Peace" by Mario Pearson will be have its world premier at 7 p.m. that day. This is another in a series of joint services done by the Catholic cathedral and the neighboring Episcopal Cathedral, Grace & Holy Trinity.

Faithful words a-changing: 10-13-09

In many religions, words are central.


In Judaism and Christianity, for instance, God speaks the world into existence using words. In Christianity, Jesus is called the Word. In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, who is illiterate, receives the words of the Qur'an, which becomes the sacred text.

So words are, if not sacred, at least sacramental and the vehicles that carry eternal meaning.

It's thus not surprising to find a great deal of attention paid to the ways in which words are used in religious services.

The most obvious current example comes from the Roman Catholic Church, which is at work on changes in the words said in the Mass.

The English translation of a revised Roman Missal (pictured here) is almost done. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will vote on the final sections of the text next month. Then a Vatican office must approve the changes before they can be fully incorporated into Catholic worship services in the U.S.

The link I've given you above will take you to a page the bishops are using to help prepare Catholics for these changes. Change, as any member of any faith knows, can be difficult to get used to and live with, so preparation is necessary -- especially when it involves words people treasure.

For a story that explains why these changes are especially desired by traditionalists or those who might consider themselves liturgically conservative, click here.

But, as I say, this Catholic example is just one among many that shows how profoundly attached people of faith can (and, I would say, should) be to the power of words.

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Speaking of words and their importance, an English scholar now says the opening of Genesis has been mistranslated for a long, long time. It's not that God "created" the world but that God "spatially separated heaven and earth."

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P.S.: Follow me on Twitter at

'Have a Little Faith': 10-12-09

In my list of new faith-related books here on the blog over the weekend, I included Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom (pictured here), a Detroit columnist whose best-known previous book is Tuesdays with Morrie.


Because the newst book promises to be quite popular, I want to talk more about it today. And I want to alert you that Albom will speak in Kansas City at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. His appearance is being sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee.

I found much to like about Mitch's book, including his willingness to share with readers the ways in which his relationships with a rabbi and a Christian pastor affected his own understanding of faith.

Mitch is asked, early in the book, to commit to giving the eulogy for the man who was his rabbi when he grew up. He finds it a jarring assignment that he reluctantly accepts, and then commits to spending a lot of time with the rabbi to try to understand him better so when the time comes he can say something worthwhile (which he does).

The book is replete with accounts of what Mitch and the rabbi talked about as the old man ages and eventually dies. And it's good stuff.

But it surprised me that the rabbi's pretty standard answers (for a trained theologian) to the eternally difficult questions (especially why there is evil in the world) should come as revelations to Mitch. It's as though Mitch has never thought about all this stuff -- the role of suffering, the redemptive power of forgiveness, etc.


I found it hard to believe that a newspaperman who has spent years writing about the sometimes-ruined lives of so many people would find common theological insights into suffering and evil and life in general so amazing. And yet I guess it was a good reminder to me that many people's theological education and development never gets past about sixth grade Sunday school or heart-to-heart discussions about religion among college sophomores.

Indeed, we seem to live in a land of arrested theological development. I'm speaking here mostly of Christians and Jews, but perhaps it's true of Americans in other traditions as well.

I also found the second story told in the book -- about an inner city pastor with a drugged-up and thoroughly messed-up past -- engaging and useful.

But I sometimes wondered why Mitch combined the two stories in one book. There clearly are some common themes, but the stories are different enough that linking them struck me as a bit odd. The marriage didn't quite fit.

Still, Mitch Albom's following is large enough now that it's likely this new book will lead people into some useful theological reflection that can make a positive difference in how they live. And who can be against that?

(The photo of Albom here today is from

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A new poll by an organization that tracks religious trends finds a growing majority of Americans now favor civil unions for same-sex couples. My own previously stated position on all this is that both same-sex and heterosexual couples who want to live together in a legally recognized committed relationship first should be required to have the state marry (or join) them. Then, couples who want to go to a faith community to have the union blessed may do so. That allows faith communities the freedom to say yes or no to blessing such unions but it provides all couples with equal rights under the law.

Some faithful reading: 10-10/11-09

Looking for some new faith-based books? Oh, my. Your selections will have to be made from a list of thousands and thousands.


What you see here today is only a sample.

A reminder that when I include a book on my periodic book blog columns, it doesn't mean I agree with everything the author says. Rather, it means I think you should be aware of the book's existence.

* Christian America and the Kingdom of God, by Richard T. Hughes. Here, finally, is a much-needed and careful corrective to the misleading idea that America is a "Christian nation." The author, a religion professor at Messiah College, shows us clearly what the Bible means by the "kingdom of God" and how in so many ways that is in tension and conflict with American history. This is not a bash-America book. This is, rather, a sober analysis of the idea that America is God's chosen nation that has not done and cannot do wrong. To confuse a religious commitment with patriotism inevitably causes trouble. Hughes shows us why and how. What a different and better nation this would be if faith communities left, right, center and on the fringes created study groups to read this together. 

* Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, by Jim Belcher. The so-called emerging or emergent church movement has sought to challenge traditional church structures and practices, and has been having some success, though not without some pushback from traditionalists. In this book, which confines this debate essentially to churches that would consider themselves evangelical, the author, pastor of a church, seeks to provide a roadmap for another way to be church. His is not the first try at such a "third way," but he does offer useful critiques of other approaches without degenerating into name-calling and factionalism, which often mark the debate. Anyone pondering the future of the Christian church would do well to have a look at this volume.

* Racing Toward Armageddon: The Three Great Religons and the Plot to End the World, by Michael Baigent. Zealous, fringe-fundamentalist followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, writes this author, are working to push the world toward a final apocalyptic battle -- and are having more success than most people imagine. This book unpacks their views and what they are doing to further their scary aims. For instance, do you know about efforts to create a red heifer? A what? Well, some fundamentalists -- both Jewish and Christian -- believe that a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem requires the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, an animal that doesn't even exist today. So various breeding programs are under way. Really. It's good to know all this stuff to beware of it. What's less clear to me is how seriously to take the people seeking to move us toward Armageddon.

* Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom. I'm going to write more about this book later in a separate posting, but for now just know that Albom, well-known Detroit columnist and author of Tuesdays with Morrie, has written a fascinating story about his old rabbi as well as a story about a black preacher whose life was redeemed from the pit. And he has connected these engaging stories. The best thing about the book is that Albom shares his own fears, vulnerabilities and changes and he ponders the role faith plays in our lives.


* Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long. The traditional Christian funeral in America is giving way to something else that is not quite Christian but, rather, reflective of a culture that values status, wealth and antiseptic practices that do not honor the body in the way that Christian (and Jewish) theology honors it. The author, to battle that distressing change, here offers a clear account of how the Christian funeral (not a memorial service but a funeral with a body present) developed and why Christians should insist on understanding the ritual as profoundly connected to the sacrament of baptism and to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Bodyless memorial services in an ultramodern funeral home with canned music and a few poems are not what the church has had in mind. And for good reason. Long's book can help all Christians regain an important tradition.

* A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned Editing My Life, by Donald Miller. Ah, what an engaging and lovely read. Here's a man who has understood the power of stories and who also understood that much of his own story, for much of his life, was kind of a mess. He struggles to come to terms with what it means to find meaning -- eternal meaning -- in life, and, at the end, he's ready to sit down with God and tell God his story. Miller is funny and poignant and worth reading even if, to get it done, it takes you a million miles in a thousand years. But how in the world did an editor let Miller get away with misspelling Hemingway? It's one "m." One "m." Donald Miller, commit this to memory: One "m." (If some doofus editor changed it to be wrong, I forgive you, Don. But not if you read the final page proofs.)

* The New Religions, by Jacob Neeleman. Back in 1970, the author, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, wrote a study of new religious movements in America. It was an early and useful look at the ways in which particularly Eastern religious thought was beginning to make major inroads into the spiritual lives of Americans. This is a reissue of that excellent study, but with a new introduction. And it's still worth a read.


* The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, by Cathleen Falsani. I've met this author and have admired her work for some time. She's the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. In this book she helps readers understand the cinematic work of Joel and Ethan Coen, who have made such movies as "Raising Arizona," "Fargo," "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "No Country for Old Men." She delves into the brothers' moral vision and tries to show readers the eternal questions that they raise. I haven't seen many Coen movies but Falsani's enlightening book makes me want to go see more. To read her blog, which, by the way, is also called "The Dude Abides," click here.

* Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, by Robert J. Wicks. The author teaches psychological counseling at Loyola University in Maryland and draws on his background in that area to help people of any faith and none to face the issues that are causing them stress. Particularly useful in our culture today is his proposal that we all develop a "listening spirit." This doesn't mean agreeing with everything we hear but it does mean developing the Benedictine virtue of humility and the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness so we don't imagine that we have nothing new to learn -- especially about ourselves.

* An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It, by Bruce Sheiman. As has been evident among commenters here on this blog for several years, the battle between rigid atheists and rigid religionists, or theists, always reaches an impasse. Neither side is ever convinced and eventually the discussion degenerates into name-calling. The author, himself an atheist, wants to take a step back and suggest that even if he doesn't believe in God, he thinks religion has value and there can be merit to belief in God. It's a nice change from the polemic that often tries to pass for reasoned argument and debate. It would be fascinating if the zealous atheists and theists who leave comments on this blog would read this book together and see if they can find any common ground.

* A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism, by Gregory E. Ganssle. Here is a calm and reasoned voice in the ongoing argument with and about the so-called New Atheists. The author, who teaches at Yale University, does a careful and fair analysis of what people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been saying. In the end, he concludes that their positions, though interesting and passionately held, are not persuasive for people who already believe in God or even for people considering whether God exists. There is, he insists, plenty of intellectually honest space left for belief in what he calls a "reasonable God." Even reasonable New Atheists, I bet, will have to conclude that he presents their views fairly.

* One Soul, One Love, One Heart: The Sacred Path to Healing All Relationships, by John E. Welshons. The author, a spiritual teacher, draws on a number of sources, but particularly concepts found in Eastern religions, to help readers reconcile their broken relationships. The key -- no surprise -- is love. But if that is no mystery, at least Welshons provides some practical ideas for understanding what love in action looks like and how it can help reconstruct relationships that have gone south.


* God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, by Dean Nelson. One reason I found this book so engaging is that, like me, the author is a journalist. In fact, he teaches journalism. Sometimes that doesn't tell you anything about one's ability to observe and write, but in this case it's clear that Nelson can do both well. In fact, it's his ability to observe what's in front of him that is the basis of this book. He sees and draws meaning out of what he sees. And what he decides is that even though there are simple coincidences in life, there also are many times when God gives us signs of encouragement -- signs, as Nelson says, that tell us that God has been here before we got here and that things are under control. I can see this book being used by a church study group as a way of sharing with one another observations about how God has touched their own lives.

* Go to Joseph, by Father Richard W. Gilsdorf. This is a small (135 pages) devotional book for Catholics about Mary's husband, Joseph. It's really quite charming and provides all readers with new insights into Joseph's role in the Jesus story. It's helpful for Protestants like me to read this approach to theology because it raises questions that many of us rarely ask.

* Eternal LIfe: A New Vision, by John Shelby Spong. I sometimes say, only half seriously, that I love Spong because the church needs its heretics. In truth, I'm not in the business of deciding which Christians are heretics and which are not. Rather, I'm in the business of pointing readers to fascinating minds with interesting ideas -- even if those ideas challenge conventional wisdom and established doctrine. The ideas of Spong, whom I've met and enjoyed listening to (though not without some discomfort), surely do all of that. In this book, which he thinks will be his last, he pushes the theological envelope even further than usual and suggests ways of viewing religion and Jesus that even he would have found surprising and challenging just a few decades ago. Look, this is not the book to use to teach high school students basic Christian doctrine. But it is a book that can require theologically literate adults to rethink and justify what they believe and why they believe it. And that's the sense in which I think the church needs its heretics (as well as its John Shelby Spongs).

* The Future of Faith, by Harvey Cox. I wrote about this book here on the blog recently, focusing particularly on Cox's theory that fundamentalism is dying. I found he had interesting things to say about that but I disagreed with him to some extent. The thrust of the book, however, is about his belief that we are well into what he calls the "Age of the Spirit," in which rigid religious practices and doctrines are giving way to a fresh sensitivity to movements of the spirit. In Christian terms this would be the Holy Spirit. Cox has been a fascinating thinker for decades, and this book is sure to challenge some conventional thinking, though sometimes I think he and other Ivy League academics and theologians would do well and broaden their vision by sampling religious life in places like the Midwest and South. 

* International Religious Freedom Advocacy: A Guide to Organizations, Law, and NGOs, by H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple and Amy Rowe. Thanks to such organizations as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the issue of religious oppression around the world has gained lots of attention in recent years. What's been lacking has been a practical guide to help people know the players on the world stage and how to advocate for religious freedom in effective ways. That's what this book provides. It's a well-documented reference work that should be useful for years to come.


The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate, by Andrew Parker. Imagine a respected and well-known scientist (Parker is both) suggesting that the person or people who wrote the book of Genesis got it pretty much scientifically correct. Well, you no longer have to imagine such a thing. You can read this book and recognize that reality. And a fascinating reality it is, too. Oh, Parker isn't a biblical literalist or creationist. Rather, he's a careful student both of evolutionary science and of what Genesis was trying to tell us about God and creation. It's quite a remarkable and bold effort that is sure to draw condemnation from rigid religionists as well as from atheistic scientists. For all such people this book can be seen as, well, an inconvenient truth. Parker here opens up fresh and deep meaning in the biblical text as he seeks to reconcile it with the Big Bang and evolution.

* Twelve Stones: Notes on a Miraculous Journey, by Barbara Carole. This is the remarkable story of a woman who searched the world for truth but found, instead, God's gift of love. A secular Jew who had little use for religion, she finds her way to Christianity. True to the book's title, it's a rocky road, and she writes about it with unblinking honesty.

* Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, by Mitch Horowitz. If the various fringe elements of spirituality -- in their American form -- have always fascinated you, this is the book to read. You'll find here descriptions of psychics, mystics, spiritualists and even Freemasonry. His theory is that all of this stuff and more helped to create the America we know and love as its ideas have worked their way into mainstream thinking.

* What's Right with the Church: A Manifesto of Hope, by Elmer L. Towns. You'll pretty much already have to a Christian who considers yourself conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical to resonate with this book by the man who cofounded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell and who once said people should pray that Barack Obama will convert to Christianity. Probably a Mainliner or a Catholic, say, would write a quite different book that could, nonetheless, point out lots of things that are right with the church. For one thing, such an author might be more historically accurate and religiously sensitive than to describe the Judaism (more accurately, the Judaisms) of Jesus' day as "dead."

* The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church, by Andrew Farley. You're going to have to decide about this one for yourself. The author's catch phrase, "Jesus Plus Nothing," is one that has become associated with a radical, politically motivated approach to Christianity described the Jeff Sharlet in his book The Family. I'm not suggesting that Farley has any connections to all that. But "Jesus Plus Nothing" has always struck me as simplistic and not respectful of the Jewish roots of Christianity. In his chapter on "the Law," Farley is careful not to dismiss Judaism and its reliance on the Law, but I found there a sense in which Farley says none of that is supposed to matter anymore. Well, yes, Christians would say they're saved by grace alone but minimizing the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and our own sacred history is part of what has created the long, shameful arc of anti-Judaism in Christian history. (For my essay on that, look under the "Check this out" headline on the rights side of this page.) If all Farley is trying to say is that Christians should understand and focus more on Jesus, fine. But his language leaves open these other, more disturbing possibilties.


* The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice. What a wonderful thing that Janet Soskice has rescued this story, just as the twin sisters about whom she writes found and rescued one of the earliest versions of the four Gospels. It's a fascinating tale set in Cambridge, England, and in the Middle East, and it has the advantage of being all true. The book is complete with intriguing photos and is written not in stilted academic style but in the style of a good storyteller, which Soskice, who teaches theology at Cambridge, surely is.

* A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ, by Michael Card. With an initial discussion about the nature of slavery -- and an acknowledgement that slavery still is a present evil in the world today -- the author, an award-winning musician, seeks to unpack what it means to Christians to be slaves of Christ. This is at once a devotional book and a book about how deep meaning can be found in paradoxes. This book is a good candidate for church-based study groups.

* Choices and Challenges: Lessons in Faith, Hope and Love, by Alan G. Greer. Once this lawyer and political activist quit yelling at God and giving God instructions, he learned to listen and to pay attention to the divine presence in his life. This book is about what he learned, including the understanding that "Why me?" is almost always the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking how God interacts with us and what difference that makes. Greer understands a profound lesson of faith -- it's not about us, it's about God.

* Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities, by Frank Viola. This book will be most useful to Christians who are engaged in church planting or who are seeking to transform their current congregation into something more vibrant. Viola looks at biblical precedents for how faith communities are organized and at what gives them life and effectiveness and then seeks to adapt those lessons so they can be implemented today. There's even a chapter about how to sing together.

* Hope: Lessons from a Hummingbird, by William M. Cuccia. Struggling from years of depression, this pastor and his wife found a wounded hummingbird they spent a week nursing back to health. It changed their lives, and this book is the story of that transformation. It's not an elegantly written book by a master wordsmith but it does point us toward realistic hope, and there's never anything wrong with that.

* Patron Saints for Postmoderns, by Chris R. Armstrong. I used to enjoy reading this author's commentaries in Christian History magazine, and I see that he has used that interest in historical things to write about 10 persons who can inspire us today. Probably everyone would pick a different 10 people from faith history to emulate, and Armstrong's choices include some people of whom you may never have heard, such as Amanda Berry Smith and John Amos Comenius. But whatever names one picks, Armstrong is right to suggest that we shortchange ourselves and the church when we aren't in tune with church history and the people who lived it and created, in a sense, our own past.


* Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross. This author is right that most Christians pay precious little attention to the liturgical year. Oh, Catholics and Anglicans are better about it than most Protestants, in my experience, but hardly anyone really lives day by day conscious of where we are in the church's calendar. This book can help Christians do exactly that -- and with good explanations about what each of the liturgical seasons means and how they came to be, too. Anyone looking to commit himself to a bit more spiritual discipline could do well by starting with observance of the liturgical seasons.

* Guardians of Being, words by Eckhart Tolle, art by Patrick McDonnell. This is one of those charming little gift books that make people say, "Ohhh" and "Ahhh." McDonnell is a cartoonist who draws "MUTTS," and Tolle is an author and spiritual teacher. Tolle's words about being in the moment and being mindful are accompanied by McDonnell's drawings, mostly of cats and dogs. It's pretty ancient wisdom but it's presented in a fresh way. It'll take you 10 minutes to read. But you'll probably keep it on a table in the TV room and pick it up again and again.

* Horses with a Mission: Extraordinary True Stories of Equine Service, by Allen and Linda Anderson. When I was a child I was fascinated by the love for horses the cowboy heroes showed -- like Roy Rogers' horse Trigger. Indeed, Trigger at times seemed almost human. This book celebrates horses that have helped people heal in various ways and that have become special servants to people in need. Horses clearly can have therapeutic uses, and the collection of stories here captures some of the more remarkable examples.

* Soul of a Dog: Reflections on the Spirits of the Animals of Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz. This book is a treat for animal lovers. It's full of warm-hearted but truthful stories about ways in which animals and humans interact and ways in which humans seek to understand the essence of being an animal other than the human kind. The question of whether animals have souls gets answered here for people who have space in their hearts -- not necessarily their heads -- for an affirmative response. Katz, who lives on a farm, has written lots of books about animals and knows his subject well.

* The Buddha's Wish for the World, by Monshu Koshin Ohtani. The author is the head of Japan's largest Buddhist denomination, but he writes in a personal, clear and helpful way -- not just for Buddhists but for everyone. He draws life lessons from Buddhism, tells illustrative stories about those lessons and asks readers to think about how such lessons can make a positive difference in their lives. This is a gentle book of wisdom.

* Karmic Management: What Goes Around Comes Around in Your Business and Your Life, by Geshe Michael Roach, Lama Christie McNally and Michael Gordon. This is a personal and business self-help book that draws on Buddhist wisdom. Hmmm. Does it work? One is tempted to ask how successful a businessman the Buddha was. On the other hand, doing business and managing one's personal life by relying on Buddhist wisdom has to be a better approach than that used by the high-flying folks who crashed our economy last year. Maybe all of them should get copies of this book. In the same vein, there's now a 10th anniversary edition out of The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally.

* The Spirituality of Sex, by J. Harold Ellens. What is life all about? In simple terms, it's a search for meaning. The author, a retired pastor and university professor, contends that our search for meaning happens in both the spiritual and the sexual realms of our living. In fact, he contends the two are intertwined in countless ways. The book is an exploration of that connectedness, and it includes some quite engaging stories of how people go about figuring all that out.

* The Magician's Way: What It Really Takes to Find Your Treasure, by William Whitecloud. I don't include many works of fiction in my lists of faith-related books, but you might find this one worth your time as a tale that kind of doubles as a self-help book, though that may not be a fair description of it. What's at the center here are some lessons about the human heart and our need to pay attention to what's important in life, because what we pay attention to becomes, in the end, what our life is about. Well, that plus it starts out with a pretty good snake story.

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The people cry peace, peace, but there is no peace -- even when someone wins a prize for peace. And who among those who know history can be surprised?

Bishops get it right: 10-9-09

As many of you know, Jewish-Christian relations for century after century were marked by virulent anti-Judaism by Christian officials and, inevitably, by Christian lay people. (See my essay on this subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)


Although one still can find both anti-Judaism and modern antisemitism (which is racial, not religious, in its essential nature), in recent decades there has been a marked improvement in relations between the two traditions, especially in the United States.

Still, speed bumps remain. So it was reassuring to see Catholic bishops recently remove some of those speed bumps -- which were of their own making.

This past June, two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been pretty actively engaged in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, issued a public statement that many Jewish leaders found contained offensive language. In effect, the language said to Jews that they were being invited into interfaith dialogue so the Catholics could convert them to Christianity.

That is not the basis on which authentic interfaith conversation can ever take place.

Several bishops recognized this reality and responded properly by excising the offending passages.

These bishops also issued a “Statement of Principles for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” that affirms that God has never revoked the covenant with the Jews. It says this: “Jewish covenantal life endures till the present day as a vital witness to God’s saving will for his people Israel and for all of humanity.”

Christians are obligated to share their faith with others and to describe the joy that their relationship with Christ brings them. But that obligation cannot be seen as the basis on which they will enter into discussions or work with people of other faiths. Indeed, many Christians understand that for their witness to be received at all they must earn the right to talk about all of that with people of other (or no) faith. Evangelism, in other words, cannot be a precondition for interfaith dialogue -- though sometimes evangelism eventually can happen in such settings.

And these bishops got it right by responding to the legitimate concern of Jewish leaders.

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If you're keeping track -- and who isn't these days? -- a new survey says there now are 2.25 billion Christians in the world and 1.57 billion Muslims. The recent rule-of-thumb numbers were closer to 2 billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims. Within those numbers, of course, is a wide range of people with a wide range of commitment to their faiths. In fact, such numbers often hide more than they reveal.