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Contemplating the journey: 11-30-09

Twelve or 15 years ago, I met J.T. Knoll of Pittsburg, Kan., who, when he's not being a counselor, writes wonderful stories disguised as columns in the Morning Sun there.


We both were attending one of the annual conferences of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and we began to read each other's work.

Well, J.T. has a new book of these stories out. It's called Where the Pavement Ends: Retreats at Assumption Abbey and Other Contemplative Journeys. And it's a lovely book. My one-sentence review is found on the back cover: "J.T. does not walk sightless among the daily miracles."

J.T. approaches life from a Catholic sensibility. He is marinated in the faith, and his columns are infused with the language of faith in much the same way that Annie Dillard's language is. It's not overt stuff. Rather, this language flows out of the heart of who he is and who she is.

So today I'll share with you just a few sentences from a few of the columns in J.T.'s new book:

* As I drove I felt a surge of heartache thinking how, generation after generation, we keep going to the cemeteries until the day we step off the lip into the bottomless mystery of the grave and what precious little time is given here to savor a song, a laugh, a dance, a breeze or a morning parade.

* Anyway, it seems to me that the main function of a religion should be to provide a community of people who can support one another on their spiritual journey. A diverse community, some of whom can "keep the faith" when others in the community are struggling with theirs, and have the good sense to laugh when they take themselves too seriously.

* ASSUMPTION ABBEY -- At breakfast yesterday morning I visited with Brother Mike, a novice around my age. When I discovered he'd been a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam. I gave him a hug and said, "Welcome home." He went silent and moist-eyed, then said, "You're just the second person who's ever done that."

As I like to say, support your local columnist.

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In advance of tomorrow's World AIDS Day, Pope Benedict XVI has called for both prayer and action (which many would argue includes prayer) to relieve suffering. Good call. Now, can he also get more realistic about the role -- partial and fallible, yes -- that condoms can play in slowing the spread of AIDS?

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P.S.: For your holiday giving, don't be shy about buying my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. To read about it and find several ways of ordering it, click here. And remember, all the royalties go to Holocaust-related charities, so feel good about buying lots of copies.

New faith-based books: 11-28/29-09

Because of recent heavy publishing volume, I'm going to give you one more blog book column before the winter holidays in case you'd like time to get one or more of these for friends or family.

BookstacksAs I say, faith-based books seem to come out by the hundreds each week, so the ones I'll mention today do not constitute an exhaustive list of what's new out there. They're simply the ones I've had a chance to hold in my hand, read and think about.

But just so you know my personal (and possibly self-centered) hope: If you're looking for a gift book for someone, buy my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. All the royalties will go to Holocaust-related charities.

Now, for others:

* Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, by Judy Klitsner. This is insightful, top-cabin Jewish biblical scholarship. The author, a biblical scholar and exegete, unpacks surprising and revelatory meaning when she compares various biblical stories. And she goes deep enough in an almost rabbinic sense to help readers understand her methods and conclusions. Klitsner's work is evidence that words thousands of years old continue to hold new and deep meaning for people who arrive long after they were written.

* The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The modern quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for more than a century -- and what often happens is that the historians who go on this search often wind up finding the historian's Jesus. The helpful thing about this book is that after each of the five contributors writes a piece about his (why all males?) version of the quest, the other four offer a response. It's quite dynamic. But, in the end, it's clear that we've reached no consensus about the historical Jesus. But the fact that 2,000 years after Jesus lived on Earth people still are devoting their lives to reconstructing his life is a measure of that life's importance.


* Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, by Cheryl B. Anderson. This is serious exegetical guidance for serious biblical students, but it is not so dense that educated lay people can't benefit from it. Anderson, a seminary teacher, offers up ways for people who take scripture as authoritative to interpret it in non-literalistic ways that make it speak more clearly to our time and place. One need not agree with all her conclusions to recognize that she is moving people toward a hermeneutic that makes the Bible more meaningful for contemporary situations and issues. This is a good candidate for study groups.

* Reason, Religion, Democracy, by Dennis C. Mueller. The author, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Vienna, offers here a detailed analysis of the ways in which religion -- especially in its radical expressions -- and liberal democracies tend to collide. If you you disagree with Mueller's conclusions you will recognize that he is raising important questions about whether and how it might be possible for religion and democracy to exist in harmony and what factors combine to thwart that. This will unsettle some of us who are people of faith and we may feel defensive. But the book is worth a read as a way of helping all of us understand what's finally at stake in all nations. 

* The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East, by David Aikman. No, of course it is not possible to understand everything about the Middle East, which journalist and Christian Aikman calls "a very complicated place," in fewer than 300 pages. And yet people who read this fascinating, historical, insightful account will be closer to an understanding than before they started. It's detailed and careful, and includes some original documents, including the Hamas charter and U.N. resolution 242. People arguing various sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict no doubt will continue to argue even after reading this, but at least their understandings should be clearer.


* It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic. In a time of growing religious diversity in America, we need tools that will help us live together in harmony. The author, a pastor and convert to Christianity, does interfaith work in New York and offers here some extraordinarily helpful ways to think about how to move toward that harmony. Although committed to his own faith, he is open -- and suggests we all be open -- to learning from other traditions on the theory that every religion has insights others can benefit from. This is the kind of book study groups from various faith traditions (and no faith tradition) will find useful as a guide. Despite the books' subtitle, the author is not proposing that we all merge into one syncretistic, mushy faith. Rather, he's suggesting that we be modest theologians.

* Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers, by Tom Krattenmaker. When you think about religion and athletics, what comes to mind? Inevitably, some guy behind home plate in a multi-colored wig holding a "John 3:16" sign. Well, that's not the half of it. And the author, a journalist, takes readers here on a trip through the various ways that people who would call themselves evangelical Christians use athletics to promote their brand of the faith. Krattenmaker is not against religion in athletics, but he wants us to know the forces behind it and to understand that what he calls the "crusader form" of Christianity, which he calls "rigid, militaristic, nationalistic" is what "prevails in the professional sports leagues. Too often, it's a form of faith that tends to separate us all into opposing sides and make unwelcome judgments about those on the 'wrong' side of the line." This is a remarkably interesting read.

* A Case for the Divinity of Jesus: Examining the Earliest Evidence, by Dean L. Overman. The author, a lawyer and Christian scholar, carefully reviews here the information behind the startling affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form. He digs into not just the Bible but also creeds, hymns and other written evidence to see what early followers of Jesus believed about him and whether those beliefs make any sense. His contention is that competing voices claiming something less for Jesus were second century "distortions of the core message, not independent traditions dating back to Jesus himself." Overman is far from the first writer to examine this matter, but because the question goes to the heart of the faith, it's worth re-examining the evidence from time to time.

* The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe, by Richard Smoley. As someone acknowledged to be an authority on mystical philosophy, Smoley is unafraid to attack the huge questions that have baffled humanity from the start: Is there a God? If so, why is there evil in the world? Which came first, the world or consciousness? This book is full of attempts to struggle with such weighty matters, and thus is worth a read. But I caution that Smoley seems to quote such theological giants as Dietrich Bonhoeffer to make his own point, not Bonhoeffer's. For instance, he quotes Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis, as asking what humans are to do if they finally can answer all their questions "without God." Then he accuses Bonhoeffer of failing to answer that, thus ignoring Bonhoeffer's own answer, found in his Letters and Papers from Prison: "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we do not know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved." It's a profound and insightful suggestion from Bonhoeffer and it leads to a rather different -- and, for me, much more satisfying -- place than the destination to which Smoley would take us.


* The Pope & the Snowman: A Christmas Tale, by Roger Coleman, illustrated by Richard Becker. The author, a Kansas City pastor, gave me the privilege some time ago of reading the manuscript for this imaginative and lovely little book. Yes, it's about a pope having a conversation with a snowman -- one that changes the pontiff profoundly and gives him a new vision of what he should be about. I'm guessing it will become a seasonal family favorite for many people.

* Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor. Fans of Sue Monk Kidd -- and they are justifiably legion -- will be delighted that she has teamed up with her daughter to write this engaging interior and exterior travelogue, set in Greece and France. The back and forth between mother and daughter is wonderfully revelatory, not only of them but also of us. People who love Sue Monk Kidd's earlier works might suggest that newcomers first retreat and read The Secret Life of Bees or The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, but I think this new book would be a lovely place to start.

* Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing and Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul, by Dr. Marcia McFee and the Rev. Karen Foster. In some ways, this is a theological book that argues against the false split so popular with the ancient Greeks -- the mind-body separation. Christian doctrine rejects that split, especially in its proclamation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and the authors of this book, in that spirit, celebrate the body-spirit connection by proposing that people who devote themselves to skiing or snowboarding or other in-the-snow activities can experience spiritually rewarding times because, as they write, "there is something sacred about these outdoor cathedrals of winter." Co-author McFee, by the way, is a graduate of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

* Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel. Sometimes the use of labels and categories simply adds to the confusion and misunderstanding. Surely that is the case with "Jihadism," which most Muslims will understand in a more personal and non-violent way than most non-Muslims will, though for sure violent extremist Muslims have used the term in the way Weigel uses it. Eventually one has to label what I would call radical and violent extremism done in the name of Islam, and Jihadism is the word Weigel chooses in this newly released paperback version (with a new afterward) of an earlier book. It's important that we understand what drove the 9/11 hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew, so we can protect ourselves against further outrages. The difficul task is to find ways to avoid describing all Muslims or Islam itself as somehow culpable for the horrors perpetrated by people who have chosen to use Islam for ideological purposes. Like historian Bernard Lewis, George Weigel hugs the line between helpful insight and prejudice against Islam. You'll have to judge for yourself whether he crosses that line at times. My own view is that there are more helpful ways to understand this radical element than by using terminology so open to misinterpretation.


* Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels, by Mary Gordon. What a lovely read. The author, a novelist who grew up Catholic but had never read all four gospels together, finally does. And she walks us through her experience, her insights, her questions. What I most admire about this book is that the author understands how to write in moving, insightful ways, understands the power (and even the ultimate inadequacy) of words. Through these well-crafted words, she brings us into the presence of the gospel words -- and, at times, even into the presence of Jesus.

* The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise, by Danielle Shroyer. From the Emergent Church Movement, the author, a pastor, seeks to describe God's movements among humanity as also emerging -- but, beyond emerging, as expanding into frontiers many of us can hardly imagine. This dynamic movement of God should encourage Christians to be open to new possibilities and new models not only of how to do church but how to do life. The Emergent Church Movement is producing some of the freshest theological thinking around today, and this book clearly fits that description.

* Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne and John M. Perkins. From deep in the trenches of discipleship, these Christian authors share with readers a book-length conversation between them about what drives them to seek to follow Jesus. They are decades apart in age but close in their belief that one must live out religious commitment among people in need, and together they invite readers to join them on the journey.

* Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives (Classic Edition), by Dan Millman. In 1980, Millman published this book (sort of an autobiographic novel), which became wildly popular. This is a special 30th anniversary edition with a new afterward. In the story, Dan meets a wise man he calls Socrates and a woman named Joy, from whom he learns a great deal about life. It's not exactly Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but it may call such mystical writing to your mind.

* Bridge Between Worlds: Extraordinary Experiences That Changed Lives, by Dan Millman and Doug Childers. This is a collection of uplifting stories about people who encountered some profound change in their lives for the better. They vary widely, from a drug dealer who goes straight to a Chinese woman who gets infused in some kind of cosmic energy and finally learns to use it for healing. There's something so bare-bones about these stories, however, that some of them strain credibility. Which is to say they could have used some more chapter and verse -- or at least footnotes with details.

* The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder's Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows, by Kent Nerburn. This is a sequel of sorts to a 2002 book, Neither Dog nor Wolf, and it takes readers into the heart of Indian, or Native American, spirituality. Kent Nerburn has managed in his books to give non-Indian readers an accurate sense of what this spirituality is all about. This latest book is a fictionalized account of a true story, and it's told the way an excellent storyteller would tell it.

* How Jesus Became Christian, by Barrie Wilson. For people who have been following the original "New Perspective on Paul" work begun several decades ago and its more recent forms under such scholars as Mark D. Nanos, this work will seem like a repudiation of all of that. Or nearly so. Wilson's contention is that Paul hijacked the Jesus movement and turned it into something it was never meant to be. It's exactly this charge (and others) that Nanos and such Paul scholars as John Gager and Lloyd Gaston have been working to expose as a misreading. Wilson even charges Paul with antisemitism, and that, again, is precisely the center of the misreading of Paul that has been around for so long. Well, I guess to understand the important work of the other Pauline scholars, one should know what they're up against. Many of Wilson's conclusions are what they're up against.


* The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community, by Jesse Rice. If, like me, you are on Facebook, you sense that something almost cosmic is happening without quite understanding why and how. The author, whose musical roots are in the Presbyterian Church, here offers us new ways to think about what's going on -- but, more than that, he offers readers suggestions for ways to redeem Facebook and other social networking tools from the tedium of banality so they can become tools of ministry (in a very broad sense), help and even love. This past summer I taught a weeklong seminar at Ghost Ranch in which I tried to introduce people of faith to Facebook and other social networks in the hopes that they would use these networks as a means by which their own prophetic voices could be heard in the world. I wish this book had been out in time for me to use it. It would have added considerable richness to our conversation.

* Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, by Chris Castaldo. This intriguing book is designed to help former Catholics who now identify themselves as evangelical Protestants understand some of their conflicted feelings. It's both a personal story of the author's change and an advice book for people walking a similar path. Sometimes I think Castaldo overgeneralizes in his descriptions of what both Catholics and Protestants think and believe, but it's nonetheless an authentic account of an authentic faith journey.

* Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, by Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez. When a 16th century Christian convert reported encountering the Virgin Mary outside of what today is Mexico City, the long history of Our Lady of Guadelupe's connection with Hispanic culture began. It's quite an engaging story that has profound implications for how many Catholics today feel connected to the mother of Jesus and ultimately to God. No doubt this book is designed to appeal mostly to Catholics, but non-Catholics also may learn a lot about that tradition.

* Shift: What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today, by Brian Haynes. This pastor author makes a plea here for families to take more responsibility for the religious education of their children. It's a good and worthy goal. I just wish he would have expressed it without denigrating non-Christians needlessly. Early in the book he tells of taking his daughter to her first day of kindergarten. In that classroom, he writes, with no explanation at all, "Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, atheism, and secular humanism were present and accounted for and valued more highly than Christianity. My prayer life deepened dramatically that day as a dad trying to raise a Christ-follower in a world full of lies." As I say, he offers no hint why he thinks other religions represented in that classroom were valued more highly than Christianity, and then, at least by implication, he calls all other faiths lies. If that's your approach to religious education (it's not mine), this is the book for you.

* From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith: The Role of the Home in Renewing the Church, by David W. Anderson. If I had to pick between this book and the one listed just above it as a way to think about how families in their homes should be engaged in faith formation, I'd pick this one. It's well organized and grows out of some useful experience. Beyond that, it seems open to new ideas. It's clearly aimed just at Christians, but the message of how families help to shape faith is one that people of all religions would do well to understand more deeply.

* An Amish Christmas: December in Lancaster County, by Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller and Barbara Cameron. This is a collection of three charming novellas about life among Old Order Amish people, written by journalists who have taken the time to get to know that life. One thing they reveal is that human nature, hopes, wants, desires and goals are pretty much the same no matter what religious tradition people follow.


*A Classic Christmas: Spiritual Reflections, Timeless Literature, and Treasured Verse and Scripture, no editor listed by publisher HarperOne. This is a lovely little book that contains lots of contributions about Christmas from many sources -- from the Bible to Karl Barth, from Mark Twain to Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's just the sort of warm-hearted collection to keep handy during the holidays for those times when you want to remember what the point of the season really is.

* The Green Bible Devotional: A Book of Daily Readings, by Carla Barnhill. Sometimes a sequel comes along that makes almost more sense than the original. Thus, this devotional book takes the so-called Green Bible, published last year, and draws out the environmental and spiritual messages that were implicit but not always obvious in the Green Bible.

* Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction, by Cardinal Justin Rigali. Another in the "Shepherd's Voice" series, this book looks at how Catholics understand addiction and how they shape a response to it within the context of the gospel. Although its primary audience is Catholic, its principles may be useful for faith communities beyond the Catholic Church and even beyond Christianity.

* 101 Exercises for the Soul, by Bernie S. Siegel. This well-known spiritual coach here offers various ways to improve your life. From developing an attitude of gratitude to eating a little chocolate now and then. Nothing much new here but it's all in one place in a quick read.

* Live Your Bliss: Practices that Produce Happiness and Prosperity, by Terry Cole-Whittaker. If you're into New Age-y thinking and advice that promises that "we really can be happy all the time" and that "the Golden Age is upon us," then this is your book. The author has been selling these ideas for a long time, though not to me. I find them too self-referential and almost unaware that happiness is a by-product of a life lived in service to others, not a pearl of great price to be bought with faddish devotion to the next new idea.

* Soul Currency: Investing Your Inner Wealth for Fulfillment & Abundance, by Ernest D. Chu. You have spiritual assets. The goal of this book is for you to know that, take an inventory of them and nurture them so you invest them wisely. In some ways, this is the Prosperity Gospel for non-Christians, particuarly New Age types. There's some wisdom here, but be careful not to think of your soul currency just in terms of financial advantage.

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The BBC has decided to drop the broadcast of part of a ballet that features a deformed pope raping nuns. You know, some days I'm glad my grandparents and parents aren't still around to read the news.

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P.S.: Follow me on Twitter at

Toward Jewish-Christian respect: 11-27-09

One of the best things to happen for Jewish-Christian relations in the Kansas City area in recent years has been the effort the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee has put into this area under Rabbi Alan L. Cohen, its director of interreligious affairs.


Alan has arranged several seminars for clergy on this topic, and they've been extraordinarily helpful at least in pointing out to religious leaders how to approach this sensitive area.

The most recent example occurred earlier this week when two experts in Christian-Jewish dialogue spoke to clergy gathered at Rockhurst University. They were Dr. Michael Trice (pictured on the left here), associate executive ecumenical and interreligious relations director for the Evangleical Lutheran Church in America, and Rabbi Gary Greenebaum (pictured on the right), U.S. director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.


Each spoke in several different segments throughout the morning and led those attending in small discussion groups. But I want to give you an audio clip of the opening remarks of each one. Although Trice and Greenebaum differed on some matters, they have become friends who have learned how to respect each other's faith commitments and each other's take on the issues that sometimes divide them.

First Greenebaum (click on this link):

Download Greenebaum

Now Trice (again, click on this link):

Download Trice

In Greenebaum's remarks, please note especially his eloquent lament that Jews often existed at the mercy of the church, but there never was much mercy. And his surprise at how brutally Christians also have treated other Christians across history.

In Trice's talk, take special note of his conclusion that Hitler could not have succeeded as much as he did in wiping out much of European Jewry in the Holocaust without the skids having been greased by century after century of anti-Judaism in Christian history. (For my own essay on this very subject, see my essay on this by looking under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Jewish-Christian relations have many implications for how we exist in the world and for various conflicts in the world. It's vital that we improve them and build relationships of trust and respect. That's what Trice and Greenebaum are trying to do.

(I would be remiss by not pointing out here that my new book at least indirectly touches on this. They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, describes examples of Jews saved from the German death machinery by non-Jews, mostly Catholics.)

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Someone just paid more than $15,000 for a Bible on eBay. Wonder if any of the royalties will go in some way to the Author.

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P.S.: For your holiday giving, don't be shy about buying my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. To read about it and find several ways of ordering it, click here. And remember, all the royalties go to Holocaust-related charities, so feel good about buying lots of copies.

Prosperity Gospel unmasked: 11-25-09

The foolish "Prosperity Gospel" is nothing new. Various Christian journalists and analysts have been complaining about it for years. But in the past few weeks, it has emerged again not just in the Christian press but also in the secular media.


Christianity Today, generally seen as an evangelical voice, has written this piece about the emergence of the Prosperity Gospel in Africa. It properly sets off alarms about how this misuse of the gospel is affecting poor areas of the world.

Then, in the current (December) issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin writes about whether the Prosperity Gospel can be blamed, at least in part, for the current economic recession in which the U.S. finds itself.

So what is the gospel of health and wealth on demand? Just that. It's the message that God wants you to be prosperous and, indeed, that God gives prosperity to favored people. It's a radical perversion of the traditional gospel but because it has within it a kernel of truth, it has been used by all kinds of unscrupulous preachers to line their own pockets.

People sometimes seem desperate to think that God approves their lusts, whether physical or material, and the Prosperity Gospel preachers are only too happy to accommodate them.

I'm glad a good part of the Christian press continues to warn people against this perverted gospel, and it's also nice to see the secular media bringing the matter to the attention of a wider audience. Will people still fall for it? Of course. But at least they can't say they haven't been warned.

(The art here today is from

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Scientists, it turns out, are no less religious -- and perhaps more so -- than they were a century ago, it's reported. It's further evidence that it's quite possible to be committed to the scientific method all the while making room for metaphysical questions that science can never answer. I've never imagined that a commitment to science and a commitment to faith are mutually exclusive.

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

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NOTE: The online catalog containing information about the writing class I'll teach next July at Ghost Ranch now is available. For the page about my class in that catalog, click here. For more information about the class, look for the Ghost Ranch link under the "Check this out" headline on the ride side of this page.

FBI's continued popularity: 11-24-09

When former President George W. Bush elected to create what he called his faith-based initiative (or FBI, as I call it), I had mixed feelings.

I'm all for groups rooted in religion being part of the solution to our many social problems. Most of them bring a lot of positive things to the table.

But I worried then -- and expressed such worries in columns and editorials I wrote for The Kansas City Star -- about the possibility that constitutional lines would be crossed, providing money that in effect would promote one religion or another. I don't worry so much about religious groups trying to influence government. Indeed, they have every right to do that. Rather, I worry about government compromising religion.

Given President Barack Obama's commitment to faith, I was not shocked to learn that he would continue -- in an adapted way -- the faith-based initiative that Bush had created. But, yes, I still think we must be vigilant about not providing taxpayer money to fund religion. (For a report on what Obama's program has been up to since its creation, click here.)

What intrigues me about the Obama approach is that it's not been quite as prominent as the program was under Bush. Still, a new survey has found that it remains quite popular with the public.

The survey, done for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe, finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor allowing religious groups to apply for government money to run social service programs. Well, you can read the rest of the findings at the link I've given you in the previous paragraph. I'm just wondering what you think about the continuation of the faith-based initiative under Obama.

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For another example of how distressing it would be to live in a country that did not protect religious liberty, today let's ponder Iran, which just ordered a newspaper shut down because it published a photo of a Baha'i temple. Iran has been denigrating and limiting Baha'ism for a long time. What a country.

Taking faith to the streets: 11-23-09

Perhaps you read some of The Kansas City Star's coverage of this past weekend's National Catholic Youth Conference held in Downtown Kansas City.


It attracted more than 20,000 young people from around the country.

I was there Friday morning when this amazing collection of people marched four or five blocks down 14th Street from the Sprint Center to Bartle Hall. That's what you're seeing in the photos here today. (By the way, that's Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in the photo on the left.)

What struck me as I merged into the moving mass (Mass?) of humanity was simply that here was a group of people giving public notice that their faith is important and that along with all the secular things that happen on the streets of a major city's downtown, perhaps it is worth remember that religion also has a voice in the public square.

At times on Friday morning, that voice was represented by a small group within the large group -- a small group singing "Amazing Grace" as its members walked along.


Religious traditions enrich our society in countless ways, and sometimes a good way to remind people of that is simply to arrange to fill the streets with human beings who want people to know that their faith is vital to them. Oh, I know, these were kids, and some of them perhaps were just along for the fun of getting out of their cities. And no doubt a few of them got into various kinds of trouble while they were here. Hey, they're human.

Nonetheless, they were willing to join together in a way that could not be missed, a way that put everyone on notice that the voice of faith has something to add to the public discourse.

And good for them.


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Speaking of things Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI and the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, met briefly at the Vatican this past weekend. The purpose was so Williams could complain a bit to the pope about the Vatican's recent announcement that it was setting up certain church structures to allow disaffected Anglicans to become Catholic, all the while keeping their Anglican rituals. It was a surprise announcement to Williams, and he made sure the pontiff knew he wasn't pleased. This strikes me as one more example of this pope not having a good grasp of how his actions and/or words will be taken before he does or says them.

Ignoring revelation: 11-21/22-09

I am always amused -- and, at times, astonished -- by the way people outside of faith traditions seek to describe religion and the religious impulse.

What so often happens, it seems to me, is that they often overlook or intentionally ignore religion's own explanation of itself.

I found a good example of this in a Nov. 6 piece in Science magazine called "On the Origin of Religion." Someone shared a pdf copy of the piece with me, and I now share it with you. To read it, click on this link: Download Origin_of_Religion[1]

As you will see in the article, the author discusses quite a few scholarly approaches to the origin of religion. But nowhere is there even an acknowledgement of what at least the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would cite as the origin: divine revelation.

I am not suggesting that scientists need to abandon all other studies of religions' origins or that they somehow must buy into religion's own explanation, revelation. Indeed, science has no way of verifying or even studying divine revelation. But not even to acknowledge that religion has its own answer to this question is to short-circuit the discussion and, in the end, not to take religion on its own terms.

In the piece to which I've linked you, for example, the author writes this: "If they had to name one time and one place when the gods were born. . ."

The clear assumption there is that there is no other explanation than that humans dreamed up their gods. Again, I am not asking scientists who study all this to believe that God is eternal -- no beginning and no end -- or that God has revealed the divine self to humanity in various ways. Or even that there is a God. What I'm asking them to do is simply acknowledge that people of faith have an explanation having to do with divine revelation.

Now, there has been a lot of writing about just what is meant by revelation, how we perceive it, what it means, how it happens. I point you to the indices of two helpful books: Systematic Theology: The Triune God, by Robert W. Jenson, and Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Volume I, by Donald G. Bloesch. I also like the succinct definition of revelation found in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. For that, click here.

And clearly there are differences among people of faith about how to understand the concept of revelation. But the concept exists. And whoever writes about the origin of religions fails to offer a complete account if revelation is left out of the picture.

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No doubt you're aware of the effort to get the United Nations to adopt a treaty calling for an end to the mockery of religion -- sort of an anti-blasphemy move. It is, of course, a ridiculous measure that has the backing of some predominantly Muslim countries with bad human rights records. It that would limit free speech, and this editorial by a journalist I used to read regularly when he covered Washington gets it right.

Writing for the pope: 11-20-09

Several years ago I did a longish piece for The Kansas City Star about the fascinating and important work on the Apostle Paul being done by scholar and author Mark D. Nanos, who teaches at Rockhurst University.


Mark is one of the rare Jewish scholars whose work focuses on the towering New Testament figure of Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul.

Recently he was given the honor of being asked to contribute an essay on Paul and Judaism for a special book created specifically for Pope Benedict XVI. It's called the Codex Pauli, and has just been published. It contains quite a number of essays on Paul from various experts. Mark's essay, found on pages 54-55, is one of the few written in English.

Mark has posted a copy of this essay on his own Web site. To read it, click here.

One of the major points that Mark has been making in academic circles with his work is that Paul has often been misunderstood. Paul did not create Christianity, as is often said. Rather, Paul always saw himself as a Torah-observant Jew. He became, however, convinced that the long-awaited Jewish messiah had come in Jesus of Nazareth and his task was to preach this word to the gentiles.

But when Paul was traveling and preaching and writing many of the texts that now make up the New Testament, there was no Christianity, Mark would say. There was, rather, a Jesus movement within the Judaisms (plural) of the day. Only later -- sometimes and in some places much later -- did what we now know as Christianity formally separate itself from Judaism.

Paul often has been used as a warrant for theological anti-Judaism (see my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), but Mark insists that this is a gross misuse of Paul.

Have a look at his new for-the-pope essay and see if you can get a better grasp of this new perspective on Paul.

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Atheist groups in Northern Ireland have stirred up controversy by posting provocative billboards. I find it sad when people choose to define themselves almost exclusively by what they're against or by what they don't believe rather than by what they're for and what they do believe. Another example was the recent list of "blasphemy" awards given out by the Center for Inquiry. That strikes me as remarkably sophomoric. I think it makes much more sense to seek to understand people of different beliefs than to mock them.

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NOTE: I recently blocked a commenter who had spread untrue information about me on another site, including that The Kansas City Star "canned" me. (How do you can someone who is retired?) People who defame me in that way are not welcome to comment here. The blocked person -- or his/her representative -- then tried to post a note here yesterday containing this despicable threat and false allegation: "The word is, you are getting paid by the Freethinking crowd and there has to be something to that. The word will spread, Bill. Your abyssmal (sic) hypocrisy will be exposed." If any of you sees such lies posted elsewhere, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know. The only money I get from doing this blog comes from Google ads, and so far that's proved to be just slightly more than the annual cost of renting Typepad space. I do this blog because I want to do it and because I believe it's a public service. No one pays me anything, and I deeply resent my character being impugned in this way. Bill.

Our stark nuclear future: 11-19-09

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- We now are more than 64 years since the first testing and first use of the atomic bomb, created by scientists secretly at work here on the Manhattan Project.


And the question before us is this: Can nuclear science (which includes nuclear energy, nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons) be used in the service of humanity? Or will we get it wrong and use nuclear science for destructive purposes?

That at least was the question considered here last week at a "God and the Bomb" retreat, and addressed specifically by Dr. Larry Rasmussen (pictured here), the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor emeritus of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Larry serves on the board of Ghost Ranch with my wife. While that board was meeting at the ranch in nearby Abiquiu, Larry slipped away to give this talk in Los Alamos and I drove over to hear him speak at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

He was not optimistic about humanity's ability to use nuclear science only for good: "I have grave doubts about human beings being able to handle these powers well in the service of society." He rooted that view to a large extent in theologian H. Reinhold Niebuhr's thinking about the nature of power.

Before I get to some of Niebuhr's thoughts and why they have influenced Rasmussen, let me tell you that when Larry looked at the exploitive and destructive way humanity has treated nature since the start of the industrial revolution, he placed part of the blame on religion, particularly the Christian church:

"The churches," he said, "didn't ask what God's creation needs for life beyond service to humans." That is, religious leaders often were so caught up in a theology that encouraged humans to have dominion over nature that they failed to ask what damage this dominion was doing to nature's ability to sustain itself.

This, he said, has produced disaster because "planetary health is primary. Human health is derivative," meaning that human health finally is dependent on the health of the Earth. The problem, he said, is that when humans seek first and foremost to dominate nature, they simultaneously destroy it.

This power of domination raises profound questions about humanity's ability to sustain itself over the long haul, questions associated with some of Niebuhr's concerns.

Niebuhr, for instance, asserted that once power is inordinate, no ethical force has the power to stop it. And evil and injustice flow from such an imbalance of power, he believed.

Worse, said Niebuhr, the institutionalized power of privilege is often more covert than overt, making it appear to be nonviolent. One way to challenge power is through democracy, he said, but votes mean little of they can be bought. Rather, true and effective democracy must be based on the values of freedom, equality and community. The human capacity for justice, Niebuhr concluded, makes democracy possible, but humanity's bent toward injustice makes it necessary.

It was also Niebuhr's conclusion, Larry said, that powerful democratic nations often suffer from naiveté and self-delusion. Sometimes religion can provide a check against such results, but not when religious pride fosters extremism and absolutism, Niebuhr believed.

And Niebuhr concluded that all human knowledge is ideologically tainted because it's always partial.

Given all of Niebuhr's cautions about power, Larry Rasmussen is not especially hopeful that human beings can, in the long run, harness nuclear science to serve humanity instead of doing it great harm or even destroying it.

I'd like to think he's wrong, but my instincts and my theological understanding of human nature tell me he's right.

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Pope Benedict XVI, noting new and horrifying statistics about world hunger, says the problem is so bad that displays of opulence no longer are acceptable. Indeed, things seem out of balance in this regard, especially in our culture, where you find lavishly decorated huge homes not far from where homeless people starve. But perhaps the pope's message would have been heard more clearly had he acknowledged the widespread perception that the Vatican itself is a display of unnecessary opulence. Oh, and click here to read a response to the new hunger statistics from the director of the world hunger program for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.