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Why fasting makes sense: 2-16-10

The only times I have intentionally fasted have been for medical reasons.

Fasting

And yet I know that people of many different religions have used the spiritual discipline of fasting for centuries and have reported many benefits from doing so.

So with the beginning of the Christian season of Lent tomorrow, as Ash Wednesday arrives, I was pleased to read a new book by Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice. Mruphy is director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine.

The book, published by Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, Ind., clearly assumes a Catholic audience, but I found many insights applicable to serious people of many faiths who want to understand fasting as a spiritual discipline that can help give them new eyes with which to see our interconnected world.

Early in the book, Murphy says his goal is to show fasting's "roots in scripture and tradition, and liberate it from legalisms that obscured its true meaning."

And I think he managed to do that in just 105 pages.

Fasting for religious reasons has almost nothing to do with fasting for diet purposes, though of course it may have dietary benefits.

Rather, Murphy quotes St. Thomas Aquinas on the purposes of fasting:

* "Fasting is the guardian of chastity."

* "Fasting helps our minds rise more freely to the heights of contemplation."

* "Fasting is a penitential practice by which we can make satisfaction for sin."

All that may be true, but I found Murphy later offering another reason for fasting that attracted me more than those: It can put us in solidarity with the hungry, the poor, the oppressed. In that way, it is what he calls "an act of humility before God." So, he says, "the ultimate motive and grounding of fasting is to move the heart toward compassion and social charity."

Murphy is careful not to suggest that all of us immediately go on a week-long fast without preparation. Indeed, he notes that there are total fasts and partial fasts, and one good way to start with fasting is what he calls the "Skip-a-Meal" program, in which you start by simply doing without one meal a week and then you take the money you'd have spent on that meal and use it for charitable purposes.

Well, there is much more, including some good history, in this short book. And if my discussion of it here makes you interested in trying the practice of fasting for Lent, good. I'm thinking about that, too.

* * *

CATHOLIC CLERICS WHO FAIL THE FAITHFUL

Once again, Catholic bishops have abused church members by protecting priests who abuse children. First it was in the U.S. Now it is in Ireland, and Irish bishops are meeting with Pope Benedict XVI this week to talk about the failure. Two Irish bishops already have resigned, but it's hard to see how the pope could not insist that other resignations follow. The most vulnerable members of any church -- and thus the people the church is most obligated to protect -- are children. The failure to do that simply must have profound consequences -- including changes that assure as far as possible that this never happens again. (For the National Catholic Reporter account of Monday's meeting with the pope, click here.)


Finding God in Genesis: 2-15-10

Creation 
In the last blog I did about new faith-related books, I talked a bit about an excellent book called Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, who reveals rich depths of meaning in the first book of the Bible.

Since then I've been part of a wonderfully insightful three-session study on Genesis at my church. It was led by our associate pastor, who has a great gift for helping people love and appreciate this complex and amazing book we call the Bible, which he loves deeply but not uncritically (meaning he is not a literalist).

And from both the Zornberg book and the church study, I've come away with a renewed sense of how little most Christians (probably most Jews, too) understand about the Bible.

Oh, there are lots of people who have memorized large portions of the Bible and who know the order of all the books in the Bible and so forth. But too often they read familiar old stories with unseeing eyes. They think they know what it says and they fail to grasp what's really being said or ways to understand it in a new context.

One reason is that they often don't understand how the Bible was put together. In Genesis, for instance, their are two creation stories, written hundreds of years apart, but entertwined eventually by editors. One is in chapter one, one in chapter two. And they cannot be made to mesh neatly. This does not mean that Genesis is not divinely inspired or what Christians often call the "authoritative word of God." But it does mean that Genesis is not a science book and not something that can be read as literal history. To do that is to abuse the text.

As my associate pastor who taught the three sessions likes to say, "We don't take the Bible literally but we take it seriously, and you can't do both at the same time."

Many Christians read the story of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel with a picture in their minds of an angry God who drives the first two humans out of the garden and who punishes Cain for murdering his brother by making him wander the world with a mark on him. Though that simplistic reading contains elements of truth, it fails to uncover what really can be found in Genesis -- an approachable God of grace and mercy who lets Cain live and who protects Cain.

Lots of people -- including young people -- walk away from the church when they find that the understanding of the Bible they've been taught there radically conflicts with the world they come to know through experience and education. The problem is not that young people are learning science and sociology and history. The problem is that many of them have been taught a view of the Bible that cannot be reconciled with modern knowledge, so they give up the Bible. Or, sometimes, they compartmentalize their lives, giving teachers answers teachers want to hear and pastors answers pastors want to hear. In the end, that's a fool's game.

How sad. The Bible is rich with meaning and with a picture of a god who loves us and wants us to love both God and neighbor. But it's also full of complex stories and difficult passages that require us to use our brains to unpack. When, instead, we accept a strictly literal reading of the Bible we short-circuit its message of grace and turn it into something it was never meant to be. (And we confuse the devil out of our children.)

(The art here today is Michelangelo's depiction of creation.)

* * *

WHEN RELIGION DOESN'T COUNT

What will the upcoming 2010 Census tell us about the religions Americans practice? Zip. Zero. Zilch. And that's no doubt as it should be. It's really none of the government's business. Besides, we have other good tools for describing the religous landscape of the U.S., including the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe.


A ministry to prisoners: 2-13/14-10

Crossroads-1 
CAMERON, Mo. -- When I walked into the large meeting room filled with 65 prisoners and 17 Kairos Ministry volunteers, a man holding at guitar at the front of the room was asking, loudly, "Who is the church?"

The response, like a litany, was, "WE are the church."

Crossroads-2

This was the annual half-day retreat for men here at the Crossroads Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison, who have participated in Kairos, a Christian-based ministry that invites inmates of all 10 faiths recognized by the Missouri Department of Corrections to hear the simple message that God loves them and that this love can change their lives.

All faiths? Yes. An example: I was sitting in a corner of the room next to Larry D. Denney, the Crossroads warden, and he pointed out to me a man in a stocking cap with a beard.

"An active Muslim," Denney said. "But a regular Kairos participant."

Dave Fulton, who leads the volunteers who run the Kairos Ministry in Cameron, says it's not about denominationalism or doctrine. It simply about making sure that any prisoner who participates gets the message that he is a child of a loving God. ("Kairos" is a Greek word often translated to mean God's special time.)

There is, however, a distinctly Christian flavor to the ministry and to what I observed last Saturday. All volunteers must be Christian, for instance. And Fulton is always looking for more volunteers. Anyone interested in helping out should contact Bryan Barner at bbarner@kc.rr.com. Or go to the Kairos of Missouri Web site and click on "Get Involved" for details about how to participate.

The afternoon I was at the prison, Barner gave a brief talk about how important it is to strive to know the truth, after which volunteers at each table helped lead the inmates in a discussion of this question: "How do I strive to think and know the truth?"

Although I was allowed to observe the room full of participants I was not allowed to interview individual inmates (including the man who had asked me to come), nor was I allowed to sit in at any particular table to record the discussion. But at the table nearest me, it was clear that most of the inmates were engaged in wrestling with what it means to know the truth.

The Kairos Ministry program at Crossroads includes two four-day weekend events, one in May and one in November, in addition to this annual retreat and weekly evening meetings of participants.

Fulton told me that inmates tell him that after five or six days of regular prison live, "I need a shot of love," and that, he says, is what Kairos gives them.

From the perspective of the warden, the program has had many benefits.

"It's had a very positive impact on the population," Denney told me. Although many other factors may be involved in statistics about inmate-on-inmate violence or discipline problems in which inmates confront prison staff members, Denney said that prison statistics show that such incidents have decreased significantly since Kairos began at Crossroads in 2006. So far in Missouri, Kairos operates only at Crossroads, but a program is expected to begin later this year at the Missouri Department of Corrections facility in Potosi, Mo., southwest of St. Louis.

So far 186 Crossroads prisoners have participated in the Kairos Ministry program (the facility now houses 1,470 inmates).

But, again, it takes volunteers to do all this.

"Volunteers are a tremendous asset," Denney said. Indeed, Crossroads had to eliminate its GED education program because of budget cuts but the GED now is being offered on a much smaller scale thanks only to volunteers.

And Kairos runs just with volunteers, though with the cooperation of the Crossroads chaplain, David Mansingh. The program clearly means a lot to the prisoner who invited me to come observe it, and my guess is it means a lot to many other prisoners, too.

* * *

SMACK HIM, LITERALLY

A man in New Zealand, accused of violence against his son, said the Bible told him it was OK. A pretty good rule of thumb is that if holy scripture is urging you to do things that are violent and hateful, you might want to ask for some interpretation help. Sheesh.


Reforming church liturgy: 2-12-10

The Roman Catholic Church is about to finish a revised version of the liturgy contained in the book the church uses for the Mass in English.

Missal

And, as might be expected when you make changes in something people are used to, it is causing some consternation amidst the hope.

The international committee of bishops created to advise the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on the translation of the Roman Missal into English met in Rome in late January. After you read the story to which I've linked you in the previous sentence, pay attention to some of the comments left after the story. They reflect the angst some Catholics are feeling about this upcoming English translation, which is said to be close to a literal translation of the Latin.

I wrote about all of this twice last October, and don't want to repeat all that here. So have a look here and here for those previous posts.

What I do want to do today, however, is to suggest that the pope's chief liturgist has it right when he says the church would do well to continue reforming its liturgy.

In the Reformed Tradition of Christianity, in which Presbyterians (I am one) locate themselves, there is a saying that the church is "reformed and always reforming." By that we mean that we try to be open to finding ways to offer the gospel message of the church in new ways so people will be able to hear it in understandable language. The words that may have made sense when the King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611 may seem like gibberish to someone in 2010. So the church looks for new language to deliver the old story.

The task, however, is to do that in a way that doesn't jar the listener who is used to certain language and that doesn't do violence to the central message. That is no easy task, as the Catholic Church is finding out even before this new English liturgy starts being used in late 2011 (the current guess).

But not to try to reform liturgical language would be a bigger mistake than getting some of its tone a little off key.

* * *

NOT 'NO, NO, NO,' BUT 'GRACE, GRACE, GRACE'

Pope Benedict XVI also wants to reform the way people view the church. He told Scottish bishops this week that the Catholic faith must not be perceived as a series of prohibitions, of no, no, no. Rather, he said, the church must be understood to be preaching "God’s infinite, transforming and ennobling love for all of us." A good question for leaders of any faith community is when the prohibitions start to overwhelm the message of grace. I suspect it happens a lot, especially with children.


A new way to find Jesus: 2-11-10

Here's a short New Testament quiz for you: Which of the four gospels is the only one to claim to be rooted in first-hand experience and eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus?

Jesus

And: Which of the four gospels is the one almost inevitably left out of studies by scholars who are engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus?

In both cases the answer is the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John. If that seems odd to you, it is beginning also to seem odd to some New Testament scholars who are pushing historical Jesus questers to start using John in their work.

There are several recent examples of this trend, but in next month's issue of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Professor James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary, will have an article suggesting that it's not wise to ignore John in Jesus studies. The common approach since the 19th century has been to do just that -- ignore John (Charlesworth will cite several examples of influential scholars who have done that). But Charlesworth will call for a major shift in Jesus studies, making use of all ancient sources in the quest for Jesus, including John. The idea, of course, is that John has not just theological value but also historical value.

(The idea of John's historical value sort of flies in the face of the work done by the Jesus Seminar, whose members pretty much believe that Jesus never said that almost anything Jesus is quoted as saying in John.)

A scholar from George Fox University, Paul N. Anderson, has been pushing Jesus scholars to use John, and published this article last year outlining reasons for his interest in this. Anderson also has a new book out about this subject, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel.

(NOTE: When I first published this blog entry, Anderson's latest article describing this work wasn't yet available on the "Bible and Interpretation" Web site. It is there now. To read it, click here.)

I find all this intriguing but I continue to worry about what I've long worried about in the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. And that is that what historians often end up finding is not the historical Jesus but the historian's Jesus -- someone who looks and thinks a lot like they do. So even if scholars now are going to use the Gospel of John a lot more in this work, that still is a concern. In addition, I want them to help people in the pews understand why any of this matters.

By the way, for the Society of Biblical Literature's online site having to do with John, Jesus and history, click here. And for the "Bible and Interpretation" online site, which deals with this issue and much more, click here.


* * *

WHAT THE. . .OH, HELL

Oh, brother. "Dante's Inferno" now is a video game, and this review in USA Today says it's pretty bad. I wrote about hell and Dante's Divine Comedy in my last post of 2009. Read it and weep -- and save yourself some dough by ignoring this new adventure thing.

* * *

P.S.: Religious leaders and some members of Congress yesterday launched a renewed drive for immigration reform. To read about it from the group Faith in Public Life, click here. At that site you can listen to yesterday's media conference call to which I was invited but in which I was unable to participate. To read a USA Today blog version of this story, click here. For the story from Atlantic online, click here. And for the National Catholic Reporter's version, click here.


A new Bible study tool: 2-10-10

Bibles 
There are, of course, many ways to read and study the Bible. But the kind of study in which I'm most interested takes the Bible seriously as God's authoritative word to humanity but also understands that the Bible cannot be read literally if it is to make any sense.

To read it literally is to adopt a very low view of Scripture. Rather, one must understand the original audience for whom it was intended as well as the historical setting in which that first audience found itself. One also must try to figure out the author, the date, the political and religious environment in which the words first appeared. One must grasp the meaning of words as they would have been understood by that original audience. So one must do word studies to try to unpack as many of the possible meanings and shades of meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew words.

So I'm always interested in finding new tools to help both scholars and lay readers dig into all that and more.

One such new tool that has just been launched online is called Wordbloom. And if you are serious about digging deeper into what the words in the Bible mean, it's a tool that I think can be helpful to you. It's not free -- though you can try it out for free. But it's not crazy expensive, either, as are some of the more niche academic publications.

At the Wordbloom opening page, you'll find a tutorial that will walk you through the intricate and amazingly detailed word studies and searches you can do with this tool. I am not a trained biblical scholar. So I'd love to hear from some of you who teach in this area to see what you think of Wordbloom.

I'm not going to repeat all the user instructions here. Rather, I will simply point you to Wordbloom and let you figure out whether it's something that will help you in your effort to understand the richness of the collection of books we call the Bible.

One current disappointment for me is that Wordbloom so far uses only three translations, the King James Version, the New American Standard Version and the New Century Version. I asked about this from someone representing Wordbloom and received this response:

"In our initial development, we approached NIV (New International Version) and discussions are ongoing to incorporate their version. We are constantly evolving the product and are currently taking suggestions and pursuing other versions to integrate into version 2.0, which will allow users to choose three translations for their personal applet. NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) has been suggested, so we are hoping to make that happen with version 2.0."

So there's hope that eventually some of the more widely used modern translations, including at least one from the Jewish Publication Society, will be incorporated into Wordbloom. I hope that happens.

In the meantime, have a look. You can try out a couple of word searches without having to sign up and pay for the full program.

* * *

LOHAN AS A CROSS DRESSER?

Lohan

Once again I confess that I simply don't understand much of pop culture. Lindsay Lohan, of whom I've barely heard, is making a splash by posing as Jesus (sort of) on a fashion magazine. So is this sacrilegious? Is it simply bad taste? Is it just stupid? Is it all of the above? I hardly know what to say except that if it had been, say, Tom Cruise instead of Lohan, by now the entertainment blogs and tabloids would have invented the word Cruisefied.


Fighting Polish antisemitism: 2-9-10

When my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I were in Poland in 2007 doing interviews for our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we heard about the popularity of an antisemitic broadcast outlet called Radio Maryja.

Anti-sem

The station was run by a renegade Catholic priest whom the Vatican and other Catholic authorities seemed unable to reign in or shut down. And the message of anti-Jewish hate, we learned, was quite popular in some segments of society.

Just recently, I read this fascinating update on Radio Maryja and the city of Torun, in which it's located. The piece appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and also tells the tale of Radio Maryja's opposite, also located in Torun, the Higher School of Hebrew Philology founded by a Franciscan monk.

The school is busy teaching Polish students about the history and importance of Jewish culture in Poland, and is portrayed in the NCR piece as a counterveiling force against Radio Maryja.

In our book, we mention Radio Maryja in the chapter on survivor Feliks Karpman, quoting him as wondering why such antisemitic forces keep coming back in Poland.

We also had another experience with Radio Maryja. After we interviewed one particular rescuer in Poland, got his permission to tell his story and wrote the chapter, we were told by people who helped set up that interview that the man had become enchanted by the antisemitic message of Radio Maryja and had changed his mind about whether his family's action to save Jews was a good thing. How sad.

At any rate, I'm grateful for Fr. Maksymin Tandek, founder of the Hebrew school, who believes, as the NCR story reports, that "bigotry is often bred by ignorance." Indeed it is. But sometimes even education and good experience seem unable to overcome such bigotry, especially when it is fed by hateful radio -- as many Americans surely know from being familiar with talk radio in this country.

AND: For a review of historian Robert Wistrich's great new book on antisemitism since World War II, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, click here. To read my own essay on the long history of anti-Judaism in Christian history, look for it under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

* * *

DUMP THE NATIONAL PRAYER BREAKFAST, HE SAYS

James Carroll, whose best-known book is Constantine's Sword, writes a column for the Boston Globe. In his most recent offering, he rips apart the National Prayer Breakfast, held last week. Frankly, it's an annual tradition that needs a little ripping apart.

* * *

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. For more places I'll be speaking or teaching, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page for the list of speaking engagements.


Olympics' religious roots: 2-8-10

You probably won't be able to tell it by tuning in to the start of the Olympic Games in Vancouver in a few days, but both the ancient original games and the start of the modern games were marinated in religion. (And, of course, the Super Bowl yesterday was another playing out of the greatest civil religion ceremony in America.)

Olympics

When the Greeks began their games centuries ago, it was thought that their god Zeus was overseeing things and perhaps even cheering on winners.

Zeus doesn't get a lot of ink these days, though I must say I do like the order of the last three letters of his name. It's a good way to end a name. For a good BBC story detailing some of the religious history of the original Olympics, click here.

When the modern games were started in the late 19th century, some priests were involved and without them it's not clear that the games would have gotten off the ground. For an account of the role of a Dominican and an Anglican priest in the revival of the Olympics, click here.

And for a general piece detailing the intertwining of the Olympics and religion -- a piece written just before the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City -- click here.

Nowadays you may have an athlete in an interview giving thanks to God for victory or describing the importance of faith in her or his life, but mostly the Olympics today are about selling ads on TV and athletes winning so they can attract commercial sponsors. Religion has been moved off stage.

By the way, the Religion Newswriters Association put together this resource page for journalists wanting to report on the connection between sports and religion -- and did so before yesterday's Super Bowl. It's worth a look.

* * *

POPE MAY HAVE TO HEAL HURT FEELINGS, TOO

Pope Benedict XVI is planning to visit England and Scotland later this year, but words he is saying ahead of the trip aren't going down too well with some folks in the U.K., this column suggests. I haven't yet figured out whether this is another example of B-16's tone-deafness or whether this is Brits being overly defensive. In either case, it's probably not a good way to prepare for this visit.

* * *

P.S.: If you aren't going to take my essay writing class through Communiversity on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 18, I suggest you go hear Jay Wexler, the author of Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars. He will be speaking at 7 p.m. at Unity on the Plaza and the Rainy Day Books site to which I've linked you hear will tell you what you need to know. But if you've been meaning to sign up for my class and haven't, look for details in the "Where's Bill speaking" page under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: I learned yesterday that one of the former regular commenters here on the blog who used the i.d. Red Biddy has been quite ill and still is in the hospital. I understand she's improving but still has a hard road ahead of her. If you're a person of faith I'd ask you to keep her in your prayers. If you're not, I'd ask you simply to keep her in your thoughts and wish her a speedy return to health. Thanks.


Life and death questions: 2-6/7-10

One of the things about my newest book that pleases me most is that my co-author and I decided to add a "Reader's Guide" at the end to help people wrestle with the many questions raised by the stories in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

TWJP-cover-JPG

These are difficult, perplexing questions that go to the core of what it means to be human and what we might be willing to risk for others.

I think the questions are so important -- and can be so live-shaping -- that I've decided to do a weekend retreat at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania to grapple with them with people who want to take on the task. Well, I would say both the questions and the lessons, but the questions in some ways lead to the lessons that this work taught Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me as we did the interviews and then wrote the book. Rabbi Jacques won't be with us in person that weekend but I expect him to join us by phone several times. And I hope you'll join us in person.

The weekend gathering will happen Nov. 12-14. Details about the class and how to get signed up for it will be available later on the Kirkridge Web site to which I've linked you above, but if you want to reserve a space now, you might contact the registrar, and I'm sure she can make those arrangements for you.

Kirkridge, a Christian-based center, opened in 1942 and is locataed on the Kittatinny Ridge of eastern Pennsylvania near the Delaware Water Gap and the Pocono Mountains region. I have not had the chance to be at Kirkridge yet, but my friend Jean Richardson, the current director of the center, is the former program director at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico where I teach each summer.

I would love to have a good gathering of Christians, Jews and others to spend the weekend talking together about the questions we raise in our book and the life lessons to be learned there. I think it will be a rich, rewarding time that none of us will ever forget.

Please think about joining us. And e-mail me at wtammeus@kc.rr.com if you have specific questions.

AND: Speaking of opportunities for interfaith understanding, Avila University -- in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, Conception Abbey and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph -- is sponsoring an event at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21, called “Faith and Culture: Understanding the Roots of Religious Differences in Violent Times.” You can learn what you need to know to attend by clicking on the link in this paragraph.

ANOTHER AND: For the best review of our new book, They Were Just People, that we could have hoped for, click here. The review was just published online on Friday by a widely followed book blogger.

* * *

BOOT HIM, THEY SAY

Some Catholics are asking President Obama to seek the resignation of Harry Knox, one of his religious advisors, for things Knox has said about Pope Benedict XVI. People opposing Knox have put together this list of his alleged offenses. If you're going to have anything to do with religion and government, you're going to have to think-think-think before you speak.

* * *

P.S.: I'll be participating again this year in the annual AIDSWalk Kansas City even to raise funds to the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater Kansas City. The walk is Saturday, April 24, but you can contribute today safely online by clicking here. The AIDS service agencies in KC do a wonderful job and I hope you can help with a contribution. Thanks. Bill.


Faith influencing culture: 2-5-10

When I was in Uzbekistan in 2002, I discovered that in that predominantly Muslim country there were Christian missionaries from South Korea at work.

Christians-in-India

And it got me to wondering (so far I still don't know) how the culture of Uzbekistan would affect those missionaries and how, in turn, aspects of the Korean culture might get introduced to the people of that beautiful central Asian nation.

I saw some aspects of something similar when, as a boy, I lived for two years (1956-'57) in India. My parents were not missionaries (Dad was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team) but we lived around plenty of Christian missionaries and got to know them pretty well.

But I never had quite put together the ways in which early missionaries to India would have helped to introduce Western ideas and culture to that nation. Then the other day, in a book I've been reading slowly for several years, I ran across a good explanation of that very phenomenon.

In The Oxford History of India, by Vincent A. Smith, the point is made that two major influences were "unofficial westernizing agents" in India. The first was the press, the second Christian missionaries.

"Christian missionaries had worked in India from the time of St. Frances Xavier in the sixteenth century. . .," Smith reports. "But the effort died away in the eighteenth century. . .The (British East India) Company (Tammeus note: which basically ran India) would not give missionaries licences to reside for fear of the effect of their preaching on the feelings of the people."

But by 1813, missionaries were pretty free to live and work throughout India, and "the number of Christian bodies at work in India began to multiply, to be reinforced in time by many Americans and some Germans. From preaching the missionaries soon passed on to teaching, helped by the new demand for English."

Smith says that by about 1930, Christians made up about 2 percent of India's population. (That figure still is pretty accurate today.) But beside the issue of conversion, he writes, "on the practical side it presented the Christian ethics in action and on the intellectual side it influenced by implication even more than by precept. Most missionaries presented the gospel in its western dress and they were therefore apostles of the West as well as of the pure spirit of Christ. By manners and conduct, by their very existence, they were influences in favour of the western outlook."

The result was that "Christian missionaries of all kinds exercised a profound influence. . .on the development of the new India."

Perhaps the lesson to remember is that when people of faith share their faith -- no matter where they do it -- they also share their culture. And it's wise to know whether and how that culture might be changing the culture already in place.

* * *

SEEING GOD IN ENEMY EYES

I liked President Obama's speech yesterday to the National Prayer Breakfast, even if I have deep reservations about the people who have sponsored that event for a long time. For details about "The Family," as it is known, see Jeff Sharlet's book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. One of Obama's best lines -- offered in his plea for more civility -- was about Abraham Lincoln: "Even in the eyes of Confederate soldiers, he saw the face of God."

* * *

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. For more places I'll be speaking or teaching, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page for the list of speaking engagements.