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New faith-related books: 1-30/31-10

It's time again to alert you to newly published books that deal with various aspects of religion and spirituality.


And, believe me, there are plenty of them. So many, in fact, that I can give you only a sample of what's newly available. I remind you that when I mention a book here it doesn't mean I agree with everything the author has to say. Rather, I just think it's worth you're knowing about the book so you can decide whether you want to read it.

* Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, by Bettye Collier Thomas. This is a huge -- and hugely important -- work that seeks to give us an accounting of how African American women have worked for centuries to overcome sexism and racism, relying on their faith. At times the way that Christian faith was practiced was part of the problem. As the author, who teaches history at Temple University, rightly notes, "Religion has served as both a source of black women's oppression and a resource for their struggles for gender equality and social justice." There are stories of individuals here and what they brought to the movement for freedom but, equally important, there is an intentional focus on the many organizations these women used to advance their cause, and that is history rarely remembered or understood even by people engaged in this liberating work or supportive of it from the outside. (In fact, there's a three-page list of the abbreviations just of these organizations.) No history of religion in America or the civil rights movement can be exhaustive without what this book provides.


* Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. The Jewish Publication Society has done the world of biblical scholarship the great favor of publishing this work -- which first appeared in 1995 -- in paperback. This is rich, nuanced, insightful and revelatory writing that unpacks even for lay readers some of what a cursory reading of Genesis is bound to miss. It's hard to imagine a book that has shaped the world's understanding of itself more than Genesis, and we need all the help we can get to save us from ruinous literalistic readings of it on the one hand and from flighty purely allegorical readings on the other. The author, daughter of a rabbinic family, helps us move past and through those destructive alternatives.

* Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, by Sara Miles. Don't let the 1960s-70s title of this book put you off. It's a lovely, well-written, engaging account of how a mid-life convert to Christianity figured out that Jesus was serious when he asked followers to feed the hungry, house the poor, visit the sick and love the unlovely. Sara Miles directs a food pantry at an Episcopal church in San Francisco, and this is an account of how that came to be and what she's learned from throwing herself into the work. What she has, in fact, learned, she says, is how to move from "piety to passion, from habit to risk, from law to love." And in the spirit of the gospel, she tells us to go and do likewise. 

* Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity, by Miriam Adeney. Christianity still has more adherents in the world than any other religion, which means that the way we North Americans Christians practice the faith is a minority expression of it. The author, who teaches global and urban ministries at Seattle Pacific University, gives us here a broad and yet personal sense about how Christians elsewhere in the world work and worship. Miriam Adeney is not writing an academic account here for scholarly consumption. Rather, she has evangelism and education in mind. But the end result is a good picture of global Christianity. For more faith-neutral studies of this subject, see Christianity: A Global History, by David Chidister, The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, and The New Shape of World Christianity, by Mark Noll.


* The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith, by Stephanie Saldana. In the midst of a lucious love story between the author and a French monk we learn a great deal about life in the Middle East in the midst of the Iraq war. The author goes to Syria to study how the Jesus she knows as a Christian is understood in Islam, and winds up with various crises of her soul -- all told in lovely, lilting words that bear with them a sense of timing that keeps the reader engaged to the end. Stephanie Saldana is a poet, and her prose shows it.

* Jewish Feminists: Complex Identities and Activist Lives, by Dina Pinsky. What forms our identities? Although the author focuses that question on the lives of Jewish feminists, her conclusions are universal and enlightening. She shows us that each of us is the product of a variety of influences and of many experiences, and no two people -- even if they share the same religious or ethnic label (say Jewish or Muslim) -- are identical or think identically. And, by the way, the author, who teaches sociology at Arcadia University, affirms that men can be feminists, too.

* The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin, by Charles Foster. In the often-frustrating debate (well, not debate, usually, but shouting match) between Darwinist extremists such as Richard Dawkins and biblical literalists who call themselves the Creationists, not much useful emerges. Indeed, those of us who appreciate what Darwin has to say but also are people of faith often wonder where we are supposed to stand in all of this. The author, a tutor at the University of Oxford, gives us hope that there is considerable common ground that science and religion can share. This book is a careful articulation of why a rational conversation between the two is not just possible but also necessary.


*Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope, by Princess Kasune Zulu with Belinda Collins. Well, she's not truly a princess in the sense of being part of a royal family. Rather, Princess is simply the name she was given. And yet she has turned into a leader who is helping people all over the world, including in her native Zambia, to understand the HIV virus that infects her and the disease of AIDS that has swept across Africa, killing many members of her own family. She has become a speaker who travels the world, and this book is the story of her life so far.

* The Truth: About the Five Primary Religions (Book I of a Foundational Trilogy by the Oracle Institute), by Laura M. George. And The Love: Of the Fifth Spiritual Paradigm (Book II of a Foundational Trilogy by the Oracle Institute). It's hard to know exactly how to describe these books, which contain interesting material and some worthwhile approaches to understanding the center of various religions. I hesitate to call them New Age material, partly because the author describes how she once went to a New Age seminar and was so unimpressed that she demanded -- and got -- her money back. But, frankly, there are better places than these books to learn about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. But I was attracted to her list of seven characteristics of healthy religions. She was pretty on target there. And she's right about the centrality and importance of love, though that insight isn't unique.

* Forward in Hope: Saying Amen to Lay Ecclesial Ministry, by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. The Catholic Church, facing a growing shortage of priests, has turned to lay people to perform some of the non-sacramental tasks previously done mostly by priests. This has not been a break with history at all. Indeed, lay leaders have emerged in every generation to help do the work of the church. But among some ordained leaders there has been a fear that lay leaders can or might usurp priestly authority and function. Bishop Clark, who serves in Rochester, N.Y., where I used to work for the now-defunct afternoon newspaper, argues wisely here that lay ecclesial ministry is vital. Some of us -- whether Catholic or not -- hope this increasing use of lay ministers will eventually loosen up other strictures on the ordained priesthood. But at the moment that seems like an unrealistic dream.

* Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna, by Kenneth J. Howell. For many Christians, the history of Christianity is a black hole, meaning little is remembered before last week's sermon, if they even remember that. But it's perhaps impossible to understand the richness of the faith without knowing some of the details of its long history, including the people usually referred to as the Church Fathers. This small, quite readable book offers a good picture of two of those people who lived in the decades after the death of Jesus' Apostles. Ignatius and Polycarp still have much to teach Christians, and the author, who teaches Christian history at the university level, helps to make their lives and writings accessible.


* Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt. The word mala refers, essentially, to a rosary, or prayer beads, and this book is, in effect, a mala on paper. The editors have collected 108 sacred poems -- usually quite brief and in which the great Persian poet Rumi is heavily represented. These are lovely small lights poking holes in the dark nights of our souls.

* God on Campus: Sacred Causes & Global Effects, by Trent Sheppard. The author, promoting a movement of prayer on college campuses across the U.S. this year, offers here an abbreviated history of ways in which college students starting at Harvard in the 1600s have been engaged in religious movements. There are some intriguing stories from various eras -- stories with which I was not familiar -- about how Christian ministry happened on different campuses. And even if you're not interested in the current drive for prayer on campus, this history is worth knowing.

* Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, by William M. Struthers. In our culture, pornography -- hardcore and otherwise -- is pervasive. The author, who teaches psychology at Wheaton College, seeks here to help us understand not just why porn is everywhere but also how, in a scientific, technical sense, it distorts brains (mostly men's brains) and makes healthy sexual intimacy more difficult. Struthers' goal is to help readers regain a sense of the sacredness and dignity of each person -- values he derives from his Christian faith. To do that requires an honest look at the way porn seduces men and puts them on the road to unhealthy relationships.

* A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns, by Madeline Scherb. This book is just a kick. The author, a journalist, has included recipes (and stories) from the U.S., Belgium, France and Germany. I can't wait to see if I can con my bride into making "Brownies a al Mode with Trappistine Caramel Sauce." And I might also go for some "Veal Kidneys with Trappist Ale," though, for me, minus the veal kidneys.

* The New Enlightenment: A Search for Global Civilization, Peace, and Spiritual Growth in the 21st Century, by Grady E. Means. This author has thrown over his Catholic upbringing to issue a broad complaint against what he calls "doctrinal religion," that is, essentially any "organized religion." He thinks, rather, that we need a more inclusive and generous spirituality that doesn't by its very nature rely on large structures and exclusivist claims of rightness. His is a liberating but also a frustrating voice in that he seems to think that any organization of religious thought is not just unnecessary but dangerous. There can be danger in religious structures, to be sure, but eventually all spiritual movements must produce some kind of structure if they are to maintain themselves. A small puzzle here is why an American author chooses to spell "judgment" the British way, "judgement." Without an explanation it suggested amateurish editing.


* The Last Day of My Life, by Jim Moret. This is not an overtly (or even covertly) religious book. But it raises the ultimate question that all people of faith must face -- the question of our own mortality and of life's meaning. The author, a journalist and network TV show host, found himself in a season of despair and considered suicide as a way out. But he came through that shadowy valley and forced himself to think about -- and plan for -- what really matters in life. This is his compelling account of that journey to self-understanding.

* Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh. In the Myers-Briggs way of measuring personality types, I am an introvert. Part of what that means is that I do better either alone or without long contact with large crowds, which drain me of energy. The author has a similar personality and wrote this book to offer hope to introverts who have felt out of rhythm in church settings, which, like the culture generally, seem dominated by extroverts. McHugh, a Presbyterian pastor, writes here about the many gifts introverts have to offer the church and about how the church can accommodate those gifts. I can think of lots of potential church leaders who could benefit from this affirming book.

* Love & War: Finding the Marriage You've Dreamed Of, by John and Stasi Eldredge. What this book offers is honesty wrapped in an appreciation for what love can redeem. The authors have been married about 25 years and have figured out how to do the hard work necessary to hold a marriage together. They have acknowledged their own weaknesses and needs and have committed to give themselves to each other. Then they've shared here what they have learned and how it all fits in a marriage in which both partners are also committed to a relationship with God. What's here is not amazingly fresh insight but, rather, timely reminders of what's so easy to forget.

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I plan to say more about this here in a few days, but I was pleased that a jury took just 37 minutes on Friday to convict Scott Roeder of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider in Wichita. Roeder's actions show what can happen when one adopts an attitude of false certitude about religious beliefs. I'm not arguing here for or against abortion. Rather, I'm suggesting that violent extremism can be the end product of an approach to religion that suggests it is possible to know everything about God's will and to hold all the truth. That approach is a recipe for disaster, as the Roeder case proved once more. (Because Roeder shot Tiller in Tiller's Lutheran church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America put out this notice of Roeder's conviction. It has a link to the Web site of Tiller's church.)

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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14.

Can you say Swedenborgian? 1-29-10

Let's take a step back in history today to commemorate the birth on this date in 1688 of Emanuel Swedenborg (depicted here), the Swedish scientist and Christian mystic after whom the Swedenborgian Church, which still exists, is named.


While you're at the Swedenborgian Church site to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph, you might want to have a look at the section on church beliefs. You will find there this awkward and ungrammatical definition of the Holy Trinity: "The Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are aspects of God just as soul, body, and activities are aspects of each one of us."

I don't intend to get into a long explanation of the Trinity here today, but I would note that most well-educated traditional Christians would have a bit of trouble with the idea of Father, Son and Holy Spirit being "aspects" of God. Traditional Christianity would say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct eternally existing persons within the Godhead and that each is God, making for a total of one God. The Trinity, in orthodox (lower case "o") theology, reflects the internal, communal life of God. As I read the Swedenborgian explanation of the Trinity, it borders on -- if not becomes -- what theologians call "modalism," usually considered a heresy. If you think that's an unfair or distorted explanation of Swedenborgian theology, e-mail me your thoughts.

Swedenborg did not start a church himself and, in fact, was buried in the Swedish Church. Later, in 1908, his body was removed to Uppsala Cathedral. But after his death, Swedenborg societies formed to study his thinking, and eventually they created the New Jerusalem Church in London in 1787.

Religious history is full of such fascinating characters as Swedenborg, and we impoverish ourselves when we ignore or never know about them.

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A man arrested in Colorado (not a Swedenborgian, as far as I know) says marijuana is part of his religion. This is the kind of thing you're likely to say when you make marijuana part of your religion.

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NOTICE: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, will visit Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., on Sunday. First he will celebrate the noon Mass in St. Benedict’s Abbey Church there. Then he will offer a lecture, "Pope Benedict, Regensburg, and the Controversy of Creation and Evolution," at 2:30 p.m. in the College’s O’Malley-McAllister Auditorium. For details, click here.

Keeping up with faith news: 1-28-10

Things have been stacking up in my inbox, so today I'm going to unload, briefly, several subjects on you.


* First, some of the Christian evangelicals (a term they use to describe themselves) who are driven to social activism have formed a new national group called "The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good" (NEP). Its president is Rich Cizek. He's a really bright man who was for many years the Washington face of the National Association of Evangelicals. But he's had some policy difference with NAE and now is head of this new group, which first is focusing on debt relief for third-world nations, especially Haiti. Surf around on the NEP site and you'll get a better sense of who these folks are and what their priorities are. One of the signers of the group's petition on debt relief for Haiti is the well-known Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners.

* Next, Tablet Magazine has done a remarkably detailed (with lots of links) history of the history of Iran's nuclear program. I've been more worried about Iran for longer than I've been worried about Iraq, and I see nothing to reduce that concern. Iran is led by a cabal of theological thugs and a Holocaust-denying elected president I consider nearly deranged. There's plenty to learn by reading Tablet's account. (And see my Auschwitz note below.) 

* Religion -- well, healthy religion -- is profoundly interested in the worth of individuals and the protection of human rights. The Nation publication recently did this intriguing piece about the opening of a new museum in Chile dedicated to remembering the human rights abuses suffered by the people of Chile under the rule of former president Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Ah, the ability of power to corrupt when it becomes an idol.

* Reports of antisemitic activity were up dramatically in 2009, a new report shows. The report covers the world, but makes note that the uptick in antisemitic incidents was especially high in western Europe. That's really troubling given that that's where the Holocaust started. Much antisemitic rhetoric and encouragement today, however, is coming from radical wings of Islam.


* My bride and I finally saw "Avatar" the other night, and it engendered a good discussion about what "moral fiction" is. Years ago I wrote a piece about moral fiction for New Letters Review of Books -- a piece I can't find now but in which I remember using Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a good example of moral fiction. Anyway, when I was thinking about this subject I ran across this interesting 2005 Atlantic Monthly piece about moral fiction. Enjoy.

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World leaders yesterday marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and Israel's prime minister used the occasion to warn people that Iran must not be allowed to create the means of a nuclear holocaust. Iran's leaders are dangerous people who must be watched hourly and stopped if they appear on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. The people of Iran deserve much better government than they've had for years. But force must be the last resort. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007 while Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were in Poland doing interviews for our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. You can't visit Auschwitz without being changed.

Talking faith or culture? 1-27-10

Which is more important -- interfaith (sometimes called interreligious) dialogue or intercultural conversation?

Interfaith dialogue focuses on understanding the differences in theological doctrines. Intercultural dialogue focuses more broadly on the ways those doctrines, once internalized, cause us to live in society.

John L. Allen Jr., the best Vatican observer around, writes in this intriguing piece that Pope Benedict XVI seems to be emphasizing the need to move to intercultural dialogue versus interfaith dialogue, especially between Christians and Jews.

On the whole, I think the pope is right. I might word it a bit differently to suggest that it's important at least to understand first our theological differences so that we can move more honestly and openly into intercultural dialogue.

If, for instance, Jews and Christians in dialogue aren't at first open and honest about their differences over who Jesus Christ is, then there's not much hope for open and honest discussion beyond that.

The trick in all conversation among and between people of different faiths is not to get stuck at the theological level but to be able to move beyond that to find common ground on which we can work together as neighbors and friends.

This is true even in ecumenical dialogue -- that is between, say, Catholics and Protestants or between Sunni and Shia Muslims or between Reform and Orthodox Jews. Each group must know what drives the other theologically but once that is known the door to broader conversation is open. This is especially true, perhaps, with dialogue between people of faith and atheists or agnostics.

(By the way, for a good commentary on Jewish-Catholic relations by a rabbi deeply involved in that process, click here. And for an interesting commentary by someone who thinks journalists covering the pope's recent visit to the synagogue in Rome got it mostly wrong, click here. AND: For John Allen's follow-up piece to his original column to which I linked you above, click here.)

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In response to my latest column in The Presbyterian Outlook, I heard yesterday from a Presbyterian pastor, Heidi McGinnis, who is director of outreach for Christian Solidarity International, a Christian human rights organization. In that role she has spent time in tumultuous Sudan, and she passed along to me this YouTube link about the work she and others have been doing there to free slaves. (When you view this Part 1 video, notice that Part 2 is available on the right side of the page.) I'm always amazed at how many people of faith are working around the world to better the lives of others, including the work of organizations I've never heard of before. Perhaps this is an agency you'd like to support.

What religion does: 1-26-10

So on a recent Sunday morning, my co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I preached at both services at St. John's United Methodist Church in Kansas City and spoke at the education hour between those services.


Our topic was rooted in our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. And we had some books available for people to purchase.

In four instances, people told us they wanted a book but didn't have enough money with them and no checks.

Jacques decided the right thing to do was to give them a book with his business card and trust them to mail him a check.

It was a way not just of satisfying the desire for a book but also an opportunity to show that we trusted people and an opportunity for them to show they were responsible and trustworthy.

The next day was a holiday with no mail service. So the earliest any of them could have put a check in the mail was Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jacques called me to announce that all four checks had arrived.

He was impressed. But beyond that he said that in the end religion for him is not this nuanced doctrine versus that nuanced doctrine but much more about how we treat each other. He believes that one day God will ask him what he did in life to increase trust among people. And he will be able to tell God about this experience.

In turn, my take was that I would expect nothing less from Methodists.

But I agree that if our religions don't transform us and make us trustworthy people of integrity, they either aren't much good or we aren't paying enough attention.

AND JUST FYI: I'll be speaking twice at events this weekend. At 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30, I'll be speaking to the Kansas City Freethinkers group at the Black Dog Cafe, 12815 W. 87th St. Parkway, Lenexa, Kan. The subject will be what the Bible really says about homosexuality. And at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 31, I'll be speaking to the Witherspoon Class of Second Presbyterian Church on "The Christian Funeral: How We Get It Wrong." For a complete list of where I'll be speaking, click on the "Where's Bill Speaking?" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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Last summer at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico I taught a class in which I tried to encourage people of faith to use the new social networking tools as channels for their prophetic voices. Even Pope Benedict XVI seems to have gotten the message. He's just urged Catholic priests to use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other tools to communicate with the world. Good idea.

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14.

What's the law say? 1-25-10

Over the years the debate about how much public expression of religion is to be allowed in various settings often has produced more heat than light.


The problem is that many people -- including authorities who should know better -- are ignorant of what the Constitution and current case law allows in this area. So I sometimes hear people saying that public school teachers aren't even allowed to mention that some people believe in God. Oh, puh-leeze.

Well, there's additional help now available for ignorant people (and we all fall into that category in various ways on this subject).

A new document should help. It's called "Religious Expression in American Public Life: A Joint Statement of Current Law." We'd all do well to read it and download a copy to refer to from time to time.

It was produced by a wide-ranging committee representing groups all over the religious map -- groups that often don't agree on what the law should say. But this document isn't about the law should say. It's about what the law now says. And it's easy to read. It poses -- and answers -- 35 questions about this area.

Charles C. Haynes, a member of the group that produced the document and an excellent writer about this area of the law, has written this column describing the work and how it was produced. I commend it to you.

The question of what current law says about public expression of religion is always changing. So it would be a good idea if this group were to update this document each year or two.

By the way, you might advance the public's knowledge if you'd make a copy of this new document and give it to any public school administrators you know.

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Maybe all of you are tired of hearing about the Rev. Pat Robertson's stupefyingly fatuous theology, most recently on display in his comment that the earthquake in Haiti was punishment from God for a pact with the devil that Haitians supposedly made 200 years ago. But I thought this commentary pretty well summed up what is so objectionable about Robertson's view of God. The reality, of course, is that no one can prove or disprove what Robertson said in this case or in previous cases when his mouth ran way ahead of his brain. But I will say as a Christian that the God whom Robertson's theology describes does not reflect the God I have come to know most fully in Jesus Christ.

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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14.

Was Lincoln a Christian? 1-23/24-10

I know that Abe Lincoln's birthday isn't until February, but I'm writing here this weekend about Lincoln and his religious views because I want to give you a heads-up about a speaker coming to the Kansas City area next month to talk about this very subject.


If you're calendar is like mine, you need notices about such things well in advance to get them on your schedule.

Ronald C. White, Jr., a Lincoln scholar, will speak about Lincoln and his faith starting at 7 p.m. on Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 15, at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth. The link I've given you in this paragraph should provide all the information you need to be able to attend. White's latest Lincoln book is A. Lincoln: A Biography, just published this month.

Lincoln, as you may well know, was steeped in the Bible and employed lots of biblical language in his speeches. He also, while in Washington, fairly regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, though he was not a member there. But there has been considerable debate about whether he was really a Christian or just a spiritual man.

Mark Noll, perhaps the best evangelical (he would identify himself that way) scholar of our day, has written an essay called "The Ambiguous Religion of President Abraham Lincoln," which you'll find in this this entry on the Web site. By the way, the i.d. of Noll at the bottom of the essay says he's at Wheaton College. Well, he used to be. But he teaches now at Notre Dame.

And the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, a televangelist, was quite intrigued by Lincoln and his religion. In this essay, Kennedy asserts that, in the end, Lincoln really was a Christian.

Well, I'm guessing Lincoln's religion -- and his use of spiritual teachings -- will be debated for a long time. And I'm guessing White's talk will be well worth a trip to Leavenworth. So now you know about it.

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I'm not sure this is a "leading economic indicator," but the Vatican on Friday reported that its financial picture is improving. All such reports from religious headquarters raise the question of whether the underlying structures of religions consume too many resources and whether religion in general would be better off without having to support such structures. A study group I'm part of got into a good discussion about this the other evening without reaching any permanent solution, except to say that religious movements eventually needs some kind of structure to maintain themselves, and such structures often come at the expense of some of the passion of the original movement.

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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14.

What The Pill has wrought: 1-22-10

This spring The Pill will turn 50. The Pill -- that little contraceptive device that contributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond got FDA approval on May 9, 1960.


Birth control, as surely all of you know, is a subject replete with religious significance. And different faith traditions have taken various -- and often competing -- stances on the issue.

So first today I want to link you to this account of the history of The Pill. I found the piece on MercatorNet, which has a theologically right-leaning tilt. The article traces the development of The Pill over the decades leading up to its FDA approval and then raises some moral and ethical questions.

Next, I want to link you to this column from the Baltimore Sun. It's more personal in nature, but it gives some background about the Roman Catholic man credited with inventing The Pill.

For some countervailing weight to those two links, click here for what Planned Parenthood has to say about The Pill, and as you do, note the section on possible disadvantages to taking it.

Perhaps no document did more to define -- and in many ways ignite -- the religious debate over birth control since the start of The Pill era than the 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae. (The book to read is Sexuality and Catholicism, by Thomas C. Fox.) The encyclical by Pope Paul VI stunned many people inside and outside the Catholic Church. Among those taken aback by its reaffirmation of the rhythm method of birth control were some priests and theologians, including Father Andrew Greeley, who wrote, as Fox reports, that church leaders were "both arrogant and ignorant" and what they did and said was done and said "by men who had no personal involvement in the experiences about which they were making judgments."

Well, since the availability of The Pill, various surveys have shown that American Catholic women use birth control in overwhelming percentages. This PBS report, for instance, says that in the 1980s, "almost 80% of American Catholic women use contraceptives, and only 29% of American priests believe it is intrinsically immoral."

What I always wonder about in such matters is the long-term effect. And even though it's been 50 years, I would say that we still don't know. Oh, lots has changed and can be quantified. But we don't know what, long-term, The Pill has done to the health of American women. We don't know, long-term, how the availability of The Pill has affected our society's thinking about the value of human life and our requirement to protect it. And we don't know, long-term, how the freedom to manage more directly what previously was left to nature and chance has affected our view of our place in the natural world.

Maybe, once we know all that, it will all turn out to be for the good. Maybe. But it won't surprise me if it doesn't.

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A new survey shows Americans are more prejudiced against Islam than against any other religion. No surprise there. Why? Because as the survey also shows, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have little or no knowledge about Islam (a stunning figure, 8-plus years after 9/11), and ignorance breeds prejudice and fear. Indeed, by now I would say that adult Americans who don't know the basics about Islam are willfully, purposefully ignorant. There are plenty of books and other sources of fair information about Islam from which to learn. Whatever you do, don't learn about Islam (or any other subject) from such radio talk show hosts as Michael Savage. Here are three books I'd recommend: The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr; Understanding Islam: An Introduction, by C.T.R. Hewer, and American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett.

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P.S.: Just for the record, there is not one word -- not one -- of truth in what was said about me in the comment someone left at the Secular Parent blog this week. In speculating about why I shut down comments on this blog starting this past Monday, someone identified as "Just Wondering" wrote this: "Here is what happened, AS I UNDERSTAND IT…SOMEONE did not like that Jimmy Hoffa remark. They saw it as a threat. They called Helen Gray, editor of the religion page. APPARENTLY she called higher ups. The Star does not need that kind of trouble, so I THINK they called the blog owner and told him that if he wanted to have his blog advertised on the religon page, ditch the comments. Draw your own conclusions, but that is what I have been told." The reference to the Jimmy Hoffa remark was in a comment left on my blog. Again, just for the record, no one at The Star asked me to cut off comments. No one. I personally made the decision to cut off comments largely because ridiculous comments like the one I just quoted were being left there. I got tired of it and did not want to provide one more platform for uncivil discourse and lies in our society. Any notion that I was threatened in any way or even asked nicely to stop comments is false. Period.

Clicking with Bible stories: 1-21-10

Finding a way to teach children the essentials of a religious tradition has been a long and evolving quest for many parents and faith communities.


So it was no surprise a few years ago when I began to see Web sites and computer games designed to attract young people and interest them in this or that religion.

But I frankly haven't paid lots of attention to the quality and approach of this higher-tech effort until the other day when someone who represents the maker of such games, Inspired Media Entertainment, asked me to look at a game aimed at early elementary students, ages 6-8.

The game is called Charlie Church Mouse, and it contains six Bible stories/games on a disk, from "Daniel and the Lion's Den" to "The Pearl of Great Price."

When I looked at the Inspired Media site, I was a bit concerned about what kind of theology I was likely to find presented in this game. After all, games for older children from this company are inspired by -- if not designed around -- the "Left Behind" series of books that promotes a reading of Revelation that is profoundly out of sync with Mainline Protestants' reading. That "Left Behind" interpretation for me as a Presbyterian is simply untenable. The book to read is The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by Barbara R. Rossing, who teaches New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

But I found the theology in the Charlie Church Mouse game quite tame, quite unobtrusive and quite bland. It was kind of feel-good theology lite, not inappropriate for children of that age of almost any faith.

Well, I'm pretty far past the age 6-8 category, so I didn't trust my own reaction to the games, which was that they were simplistic, they had lame animation and the interaction part was repetitious with darn little blblical teaching content. Beyond that, I found the voices chosen to narrate the stories a little weak, whiny and annoying. Also, I couldn't figure out why the games engaged in anachronisms, such as in the David and Goliath story having David use his cell phone to order pizza for his soldiers. Really.

Thus, I enlisted the critical eye and mouse-clicking hand of my 7-year-old granddaughter, Olivia, perhaps the world's smartest 7-year-old. She played three or four of the games and would have played the rest if her parents hadn't had to leave. And, overall, she liked them.

Pressed about what she liked, it was the games more than the stories. At least she mentioned liking the games before she mentioned liking the stories. Olivia did find the Pac-Man-like game in the Ruth story sort of tiring and she eventually asked me to help her get through that part of it.

So trust a 7-year-old's opinion more than mine on this, but I found Charlie Church Mouse unoriginal, a little amateurish and pretty shallow, though some of the games probably will help kids with some basic math and money functions.

But unless you're comfortable with premillennial dispensationalist theology, I'd be really careful about what games to look at from Inspired Media aimed at older children. And, of course, parents should check out any and all games purporting to teach faith before they let their kids play them.

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Part of the job of being the pope in recent years has been to deal with the sad priest abuse scandal -- first in the U.S. and, most recently, in Ireland. Pope Benedict XVI, it's reported, will meet next month with some Irish bishops to discuss in more detail a report revealing how badly the church there handled accusations of child abuse. Many parts of the church are guilty in this scandal, mostly in an effort to protect the church when church officials should have been protecting children.

Sacred music's ministry: 1-20-10

Sometimes when the sad news of the world (Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, local crime and on and on) gets to be almost too much to bear, a little sacred music can offer some balm.


So the other evening the 50-plus member Chamber Chorale from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., offered a concert in the sanctuary of my church. It was part of a concert tour the group was doing.

Wow. What a huge and marvelous sound filled the room. And afterward, three of the first sopranos were overnight guests at our house. Here they are in this photo ready to leave in the morning for the bus ride back to Illinois. Wonderful young women.

(From left to right in the picture you see Amanda Saul, Jessica Golden and Liz Guidone.)

The chorale is conducted by Guy Forbes, and the group sang a lovely piece he had written called "Come Back to Me, My Love."

It was quite an international concert in that they sang songs in Latin, Russian, English and Irish. Our church's choir director, Cory Ganschow, once sang in the Millikin choir.

My experience is that sacred music can both ruffle the spirit and soothe the soul. In a time of temporal turmoil, it offers an eternal perspective that can let us catch our breath, steady ourselves and find our way forward.

I hope the chorale members understand the importance of the ministry they offer.

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Now here's an odd story. A Michigan defense contractor that makes combat rifle sights stamps them with references to Bible verses. Is this just a doesn't-matter company preference or does it offer more ammunition to the Taliban that American soldiers in Afghanistan are on a Christian crusade? To prevent the latter, I'd quit stamping verses on the sights if I were the contractor and would insist on that if I were the Defense Department. No reason to give religious fanatics more fuel for their fires.