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Opportunities to learn: 3-31-10

One of the great things about living in a large metropolitan area where people take religion seriously is that we have a lot of opportunities to hear some excellent scholars, authors and others who come to town for various appearances.

Some of them come to our several areas seminaries, some come on book tours and speak at events sponsored by Rainy Day Books and some come at the invitation of specific faith communities.

Today I want to tell you about two speakers who fit in the latter category and who will speak in the Kansas City area in the next several weeks.


First is Luke Timothy Johnson (pictured on the right), a top-cabin New Testament scholar who will speak April 16 and 17 at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

Johnson is the R.W. Woodruff professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the Candler School of Theology and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

Nearly all of the sharp disagreements between and among Christians have their roots in how we read scripture, and Johnson will talk about our individual and corporate responsibility to have a rational hermeneutics -- or system of interpretation.


Next, another cutting-edge theological mind, Stanley Hauerwas (pictured at the left), will speak May 20 at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission, Kan. His topic will be "Practicing Pentecost: Learning the Language of Peace." For a pdf flier about his appearance that you can copy and share, click on this link: Download Tocher001.

Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of theological ethics at the Duke Divinity School. I first became acquainted with his work some years ago when I read A Rereading of Romans, which, among other things, sought to understand Jewish-Christian relations in a different light.

Well, these are just two examples of the high-quality faith-focused speakers who come to Kansas City on a regular basis. You can keep up with others by checking the Faith Calendar in The Kansas City Star and by dropping in on the Web sites of the various seminaries in this area.

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CNN's Anderson Cooper is airing a series on violence within Scientology. One of the focuses is the group's Sea Organization, which became the subject of lawsuits filed recently. All of this goes to the heart of what it means to be a religion versus what it means to be something else. That's been a tricky question forever, and I'm not sure we're any closer to an answer now than we were decades ago.

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P.S.: To sponsor me for this year's AIDS Walk Kansas City, click here. And thanks.

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The Church Has AIDS: Essays on Sexuality, Sexual Orientation, Taboos, and the Black Church, by Minister Gerald Palmer. The author is an associate pastor at Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City and has been using his prophetic voice for several years to tell members of the black community and of historically black churches that anti-gay prejudice is wrong and that as Christians they must respond with compassion to people living with HIV/AIDS. The book is a collection of his messages about that. This is not beautifully polished writing. Rather, it is a reflection of a caring soul crying out to save people who mean the world to him. The link above will get you to the book's listing on, but it also is now available on both Amazon and

Creating religious ceremonies: 3-30-10

The start of Passover, or Pesach, with sundown last evening gives us a chance to think about religious ceremonies in general and how we adapt the commemoration of historic events and turn them into ritualistic re-enactments of that history, if only metaphorically.


For Jews, of course, Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, as my co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn writes in his first book, Accessible Judaism.

The term Passover refers to the biblical story of God passing over the homes of Jews when the first-born of Egyptians were being slain.

But today Jews celebrate Passover with the ritual Seder meal (the elements of which are pictured here) and with recitation of the tradtional narrative, called the Hadadah.

It's worth noting that Jews today don't put blood on their doors as the Jews in Egypt did in the biblical story. Rather, they have responded to the biblical story and mandate by creating a memory-enhancing set of rituals.

Which is what people of nearly every faith do when they celebrate some historically important aspect of their tradition. It's why Christians give gifts at Christmas, evoking the memory of the Magi, who brought gifts to the Christ child. And it's why Hindus splash colored water on each other to celebrate Holi. One of the underlying Holi stories has to do with Radha and Lord Krishna, who playfully applied color on Radha's cheek, because she was fairer than he was. For long years after I lived in India as a boy, I kept a T-shirt that was stained with Holi colors sprayed on me by Indian friends.

Our religious celebrations tend to be both traditional and fluid. That is, some are quite rooted in sacred writ and yet change with changing times. For many centuries, for instance, most Christians ignored Christmas, some even considering it something that should not be celebrated. But that has mostly changed in the last few centuries.

The point is that we humans are wonderfully adaptive creatures who create our rituals to meet our needs, drawing on history and on our understanding of the ways in which God asks us to remember certain events and things. And although it's important to retain the core story, the details of that commemoration can evolve some over time so that new ears can always hear old stories.

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A few days ago, I read -- and had the opportunity to pass along to my blog readers -- a harsh piece in the Washington Post by singer Sinead O'Connor that blasted the Catholic Church for various failures in the priest abuse scandal. I chose not to link you to that piece because I considered it needlessly inflammatory and a scream at the church by a woman who has been screaming and needlessly inflammatory before. Now I see that commenters George Weigel and the Rev. Jay Scott Newman have written this blistering piece accusing O'Connor of publishing falsehoods. They call into question the motives of the Washington Post for publishing her words at all. There is plenty of blame to go around for the abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church, and much remains to be done to clear it up and to make sure children are protected in the future. But I think it hurts the cause of those abused by priests when people like O'Connor promote wild conspiracy theories and make sweeping accusations that paint the whole church as evil and corrupt. As I've said before, the world needs a healthy Catholic Church. And the sooner the church can show that it has found solutions to this scandal the better. But pouring gasoline on this fire is not the way to extinguish it. AND: Today the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement expressing concern for victims of sexual abuse and thanking Pope Benedict XVI for his leadership in this area.

The future of bioethics: 3-29-10

So, have you thought about the bioethical questions involved in what we human beings will face in a few years when we begin to integrate such external devices as phones, GPS systems and computer technology into our very bodies?


Dr. Glenn Edwards McGee (pictured here) has. Or is. And will some more.

McGee is the new holder of the John B. Francis Chair in Bioethics at the Center for Practical Bioethics, based in Kansas City. I had a chance a few days ago, ahead of the center's annual dinner on April 13, to sit down with him for an hour and pick his brain about the state of bioethics and what bioethical issues (you know, questions around stem cell research, end-of-life issues, those sorts of things) are looming on the horizon.

In some ways, McGee is following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Dan McGee, a theologian, teacher and ethicist who was at Baylor University for a long time, and is doing so despite the son's early desire never to go anywhere near his father's field.

And yet Glenn says that he still considers theologians "the strongest people ever to have written in this (bioethics) field."

In his new role, Glenn McGee intends to focus on the role that state governments play in bioethics, and the bi-state Kansas City area is an excellent place to do that, given that it's in the region where the Nancy Cruzan end-of-life case, played out. It's also in the center of controversy about stem cell and other life sciences research (think Stowers Institute of Medical Research), clinical research on human subjects, pain control of people who are ill and dying and many other matters that engage bioethicists.

"I've probably written more about the role of the states in bioethics than anybody," he told me. "This is an area that takes state stuff very seriously. It's also the home to more clinical research than just about anywhere in the United States."

Part of his work is to be editor of the prestigious American Journal of Bioethics, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes cutting-edge research in bioethics. But he's also called to advance role of the Center for Practical Bioethics as "a full-service, nationally prominent" institution.

McGee certainly has personal views about how life sciences research should proceed, but he insists that he's quite open to discussion and debate with people who disagree with him, and he cites as evidence his friendly and respectful personal and professional relationship with Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. I've heard Doerflinger speak in person and have interviewed him by phone several times over the years. In many ways he's become the American Catholic Church's official spokesman for the pro-life movement. He's a very bright mind and a force to be reckoned with in any discussion about abortion, early (or embryonic) stem cell research, end-of-life issues and more.

"One of the reasons I get along so well with Richard Doerflinger. . .is that he and I are very honest with each other," McGee says.

As for how all of this affects average Americans, McGee says he agrees with what President George W. Bush said in his August 2001 speech on stem cell research, which, McGee says, is that Americans should be talking about this issue over the supper table. And not just stem cell research but the ethical issues woven through questions about "longer life, the idea of retirement, the responsibility we have to our elders. . .what constitutes a full human life" and similar issues that affect many Americans, not just the more hot-button issues (like Dr. Jack Kevorkian-assisted death matters) that affect fewer people.

And people will need to start talking about issues that we'll soon face, he says: "I think the most important issue that faces us is the thoughtful integration of the devices that are now external -- devices and drugs -- devices like iPhones into our bodies and ourselves. (In addition), we're going to find genes for honesty. . .for criminal behavior, and now people just ask the question, 'Would you abort that baby?' In the future people are going to ask questions that are a whole lot more sophisticated, like how many people we need with van Gogh's psychological profile because artists were all miserable." And questions like whether, if some kind of "gay gene" is found, people should abort babies with it to avoid having gay children.

Kansas City is fortunate to be the home of the Center for Practical Bioethics, and all of us need to be much more engaged in finding solutions to the issues the center raises and studies. This can be tough stuff, but we need to talk with each other honestly about all of it.

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An interesting term emerges from a pastor quoted in this story about Palm Sunday in Jerusalem -- a "God-drenched city." Hmmm. Is it possible for one location to be any more God-drenched than any other location?

New books about faith: 3-27/28-10

Books with faith-based themes continue to flood the market, and nobody, including me, can keep up with them all.


But this weekend, here's a sampling of some of the new offerings in this field:

* God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours, by Regina Brett. First, a disclosure. I know the author, who, like me, used to be president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (she writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer). I not only know her, I admire her -- both for her elegant writing and for her courage. When she was NSNC president, she also was duking it out with breast cancer. The cancer lost. No surprise to me. Anyway, there's a fair amount of Regina's struggles with cancer in this book, but there's so much more, as she draws meaning and lessons out of what life throws and her and others. If you could manage to live by these 50 lessons, you'd be an amazing person. Heck, 10 would be an improvement for most of us.

* Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of LIfe, by John F. Haught. Of all the scholars who write about the crossroads of science and religion, Haught is my favorite. He is clear, insightful, fresh and unwilling to back away from controversy. Indeed, as this book shows, he invites controversy as a way of defanging what to many appears to be an enemy, evolution, but is, in fact, merely a way of describing how things are in the world. Then Haught connects the way things are with theology in ways that make sense and that challenge people's long-held views. If Christian theology could not stay the same after Galileo, so it also must revise itself after Darwin. And Haught helps us figure out how.


* Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, by J. Philip Newell. Another disclosure. I also know this author. Several times he and I have been teaching at the same time at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. He's got a great, analytic mind and a pastoral heart. He's one of the world's leading experts on Celtic spirituality, and in this book he draws on Celtic traditions to draw readers into new understandings of Christianity based on ancient wisdom and insights. In many ways, Newell is in harmony with much of the thinking coming from the Emergent Church Movement, though he starts from a different place and draws on different sources. It would be fascinating to see what kinds of effective ministry might emerge from a church that took seriously the Newell book, coupled with A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren, and The New Christians, by Tony Jones.

*Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements, by Christine Valters Paintner. This author, too, draws on the traditions of Celtic spirituality and its close connections with the physical world to invite readers into spiritual disciplines that honor the elements. A helpful aspect of this book is the list of questions in each chapter.

* Jesus: A Biography from a Believer, by Paul Johnson. I am a fan of Paul Johnson. His earlier A History of Christianity has been helpful to me in many ways over the years. And I like this new book, too, though it contains some puzzlements. One is his statement that there are 1.25 billion Christians in the world. That figure, by most authoritative estimates, is off by nearly 1 billion. There are, depending on how you count them, more like 2.13 billion Christians -- about one-third of the world population. Another oddity is Johnson's preferred use of the King James Version of the Bible. Yes, the poetry of the KJV can be soaring, but there are so many newer translations from better manuscripts that it's hard to justify reliance on the KJV for a book like this. Still, Johnson writes well and one can find interesting little facts about Jesus and the world in which he lived that seem fresh. But, of course, as Johnson himself notes in this book, there are today more than 100,000 printed biographies of Jesus in English alone.  So you have lots of choices.


* Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller. The author, religion editor of Newsweek magazine, has taken her journalistic curiosity and tried to unpack all the ideas about heaven people have believed and now believe. Whew. What a list. What visions. In the process, Miller also reveals a bit more about herself and her own views. I appreciated that openness. I think it may help me better evaluate her good work in Newsweek, to which I've long been a subscriber. The idea here is not to convince anyone that this or that idea of heaven is right or even credible. Rather, it's to explore the ideas so that each of us can think again about what we really believe about heaven, if anything. This would be a great book for a study group -- in or outside of a faith community. P.S.: At the timeI was going through Miller's book, I ran across this blog entry about the afterlife by a fellow whose blog I see fairly regularly, and it seemed to be in harmony with the seeking nature of this new book.

* Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, by Mary Pipher. For fans of Pipher's book, Reviving Ophelia (such as my wife and step-daughter), this book will come as a funny, poignant and profound gift. Mary Pipher is, in all the important ways, a writer. She has various connections -- if you need them -- to the University of Kansas and to Kansas City, though none of that is crucial to her memoir that, in many ways, is a memoir of all of us born in the 1940s. This is not your typical book about self-discovery, though for sure that, in the end, is the subject. Rather, it's a wild ride through the canyons of Pipher's sensitive and creative mind -- a mind that has suffered from depression, among other ailments -- and the ride will help each reader of all faiths (and no faith). A funny book at times, too. And how can you beat a funny book about depression and self discovery?

* Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, by Diogenes Allen. Back in 1991, a faculty member of Princeton Theological Seminary, Daniel Migliore, published a wonderful book for people trying to understand and deepen their commitment to Christianity, Faith Seeking Understanding. Now, almost 20 years later, comes an emeritus professor from Princeton with a book that has essentially the same purpose. And this one is excellent, too, if more personal in nature than Migliore's. Allen writes about complex matters in a simple conversational style that leads the reader to continue the exploration rather than give up in confusion. The reality is that every Christian in some way is a "troubled believer" if he or she takes the faith seriously. There always are questions that trouble us, and the task is to continue wrestling with answers, not satisfied with the answers we got in second grade or when we were sophomores in college.

* Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher. If the 2006 shooting of Amish children in a school -- and the forgiveness granted to the shooter by the Amish community -- astonished you, as it did many, you will want to unpack that story with this compelling book. But first you may want to see the movie drawn from the book, a movie I mentioned here on the blog recently. It will air Sunday night on Lifetime, as the link I just gave you will show. The authors of this book are college professors who have studied the Amish for years and who bring their good insights to this story.


* After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, by N.T. Wright. Who among Christian scholars is more prolific than the bishop of Durham in England, Tom Wright? Well, OK, Martin E. Marty and Walter Brueggemann, but Wright's output is astonishing and of high quality. And this book is no exception to that description. Wright here is concerned about Christian character, and how to develop it. He insists that it's nowhere near enough simply to declare yourself a Christian and then go on living without a transformation. In older theological terms, this was referred to as the difference between justification ("I believe") and sanctification ("Now what? Oh, I must change my life."). Wright's words are clear and helpful, and this is a good follow to his earlier book, Simply Christian.

* Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden. This is not exactly an attempt to unpack the nuances of the theology of the Apostle Paul in the tradition (now a tradition) of the "New Perspective on Paul" scholars of recent decades. Rather, it's an attempt to understand his language in the Greek and Roman and Jewish context in which Paul wrote. And in many ways it's a defense of Paul against the old charges that he's anti-woman and anti-Law. Particularly interesting is the author's take on how Paul viewed homosexual acts and his proper rejection not of what we're beginning to understand as homosexual oriention today but, rather, of the prominent and abhorrent practice of pederasty at the time Paul wrote.

* Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars, by Jay Wexler. I mentioned this book some weeks ago when the author made an appearance in Kansas City -- one I was unable to attend. The author, who teaches law at Boston University, takes readers on a roadtrip to some of the sites where church-state battles have been and are being fought. Church-state disputes continue to change case law and practice, and it's hard to keep up with all that. But even those who do try to keep up sometimes forget that the cases are about real people in real locations. What this book does in a wonderfully readable way is to humanize the church-state separation story.

* Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has seen all kinds of evil in the world and has done his best to help alleviate the results -- including serving as head of his nation's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This and a long life of service has taught him -- and now his daughter, also an Anglican priest -- that humans are not called to be perfect but, rather, out of gratitude to strive to be good. Their argument is that God made us for goodness. So they help teach us here how to be compassionate people in the midst of a world full of pain and sorrow.

* Yehuda Halevi, by Hillel Halkin. I confess that until Halkin's excellent book, I had barely heard of Yehuda Halevi, a wonderful Jewish poet who lived and wrote in Spain in the middle ages. He was born in the 1070s, about a generation before the first Christian Crusade, and his life ended up being affected by that tumultuous period. So this book takes us back to a fascinating period of history as it recreates in modern English the engaging work of this Hebrew poet.

* Making Space for the Spirit: 100 Simple Ways to Nurture Your Soul, by Kathleen Long Bostrom. The author, former president of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, has expanded part of an earlier book to give readers brief spirit-boosting ideas coupled with a Bible passage, a good quote and a related piece of interesting information to create this book. It's the sort of small volume that would be good to keep close at hand for those times when we're trudging through dark valleys.


* Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, by Candace Chellew-Hodge. It should not have been necessary to write this book. But it was, and that is the shame of those branches of Christianity that refuse to include gays and lesbians fully in all aspects of church life (and, yes, that so far still includes my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).) The author is a pastor who also is a lesbian and who has had to find ways to struggle against the hatred of people with her sexual orientation. What she has developed, she writes, is bulletproof faith that can withstand withering fire. She offers here what she knows about that. For my own take on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

* Jesus Wept: When Faith & Depression Meet, by Barbara C. Crafton. This is a book of profound honesty by an Episcopal priest who has suffered the ravages of depression and has decided her experience can help other people of faith. She is unflinching in describing the pain of clinical depression and how it differs from common sadness. And she doesn't make getting through it sounds easy as pie. It's not. But, in the end, this is a book of hope for people whose misguided approach to faith often has been a hindrance to healing the serious disease of depression.

* How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. The premise of this book is pretty simple -- the more you think about God, the more the neural circuitry of your brain changes in good ways. So, in the end, this is not a book about theology or faith but about engaging in spiritual disciplines that will lead to a calmer, more peaceful, happier you. In fact, they don't really care what your image of God is as long as you have one and spend time pondering God. The authors draw on their work at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University Pennsylvania.

* Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God, by Fil Anderson. Oh, how much damage has been done to people by religions that are all about rules and devoid of grace. That's the kind of Christianity that Fil Anderson grew up with. This is the story of how this author, speaker and conference leader learned that, in the end, he couldn't be a perfect rule follower and that he needed a God of love more than a God of harsh judgment.

* The Eternity Principle: Finding God in This World and in the Next, by Glenn Thomas Carson. What Jesus meant when he spoke of the kingdom of God being at hand is, I think, what Glenn Carson means when he speaks of the eternity principle. That is, in both cases what is pointed to is the possibility of living today with the power of the divine driving your life and with eternal values guiding your decisions. Carson is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, but writes from a wide ecumenical view in this small book, which would make a good choice for a study group.Absence

* In the Absence of God, by Sam Keen. The author, formerly an editor at Psychology Today, thinks institutional religion has blocked people's understanding of and appreciation of the sacred. He wants to reintroduce people to a sense of awe. He wants, he says, to "re-enchant" people. Truly there is a lot about institutional religion that gets in the way of our being in the presence of the divine. But, at least in my experience, it's the theology promoted by institutional religion that gives us the framework for understanding our experiences of the sacred -- or at least acknowledging that we can't fully understand them. So you'll have to decide when reading this whether Keen has thrown the baby out with the holy water. 

* In the Heart of the World, by Mother Teresa, edited by Becky Benenate. The fascinating, if sometimes mysterious, Mother Teresa no doubt will be the subject of many more books, but this one has collected her own words to inspire readers to acts of charity and compassion. In the process, readers will discover a little more about the heart of Mother Teresa herself and what I've always thought of as her aggressive compassion.

* Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor. The author clearly is a seeker, and has been since the 1960s, when he looked around his surroundings outside of London in his native England and decided something was missing in his life. Before long he left for India and became a Buddhist monk. But his years of studying Buddhism left him, not suprisingly, unsatisfied with that path. So he began to deconstruct Buddhism, as evidenced in an earlier book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and now this one. It's intriguing to see the parallels between Batchelor and people in other faith traditions who have rejected orthodoxy in favor of their own approaches. People who follow any faith would do well to pay attention to such rebels for their occasional insights, and I suspect committed Buddhists will be challenged by this book even as they, in response, make some adjustments in their own understanding of the tradition.

* Pocket Peace: Effective Practices for Enlightened LIving, by Allan Lokos. In the tradition of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, the author here offers, along with some interesting personal stories, recommendations for practices that can relieve stress and bring peace. Some seem a bit surprising but worth trying. For instance, "Don't speak about anyone who is not physically present."

* Laughter, Tears, Silence: Expressive Meditations to Calm Your Mind and Open Your Heart, by Pragito Dove. When you think of the practice of meditation, what quickly comes to mind? Right, your mind to which the thought just came. And, indeed, much of traditional spiritual meditation has to do with what goes on -- or doesn't go on -- in the mind. But this author wants people to practice meditation with much more attention paid to the body, and she shows readers how to do that. One of the practices has a lot to do with laughter, and what could be wrong with that?

* The Ultimate Christian Living: Faith and Fellowship Celebrated Through Stories and Photos, by Todd Outcalt. The author, a United Methodist pastor in Indiana, has collected here brief stories written by people who have experienced faith in some new ways. Sometimes these are just small stories of inspiriation, and sometimes they are life-changing stories. But in all cases, what makes them effective is that they are authentic stories told by the people who had the experience.


* Love's Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition, translataed by David and Sabrineh Fideler. Almost every religion has a mystic tradition, and in Islam, that is Sufism. The most famous Sufi poet is Rumi, some of whose work is included in this volume. But its original translations from the Persian also includes many other voices. Most of these poems are quite brief, but all the more powerful because of that. This is the paperback version of the hardback published in 2006.

* Journey into Reality, by Joann Nesser. This small book is an edited collection of talks the author has given at spiritual retreats for people seeking new ways to know and experience God. It's a guide from a woman who has experienced life's ups and downs and who shares her insights in helpful ways.

* Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy, by Douglas A. Hicks. In a world in which economics has gone slightly crazy (well, more than slightly) in recent years, the author, a Presbyterian pastor and teacher, here offers ways for Christians to live faithfully while treating money not as an idol but, rather, as a necessary tool that, when used right, can do some good. This is a wise book that requires readers to engage the concept of "enough," and that seeks to move them away from the culturally approved greed that has driven so much of the American -- and the world -- economy for so long.

* The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, by Fritz Kling. Across the globe, Christian missionary organizations have been at work for a long, long time and have had to adapt to new conditions over time. That adaptation continues today, and this book by a man who has been part of what he calls the global church recounts the various forces that are working to change the shape of mission work around the world. It's not just technological changes that allow instant communications, but that's certainly part of what's facing workers in the global church. It's hard to imagine how anyone could function well in this global church without knowing what Kling reports here.

* The Animal Manifesto:Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, by Marc Bekoff. This is not a bleeding-heart book that suggests animals are just about on an intelligence level with humans. Rather, it's a plea for a more moral and compassionate approach to the non-human animals that human animals encounter daily -- and it will help you see animals in a much more appreciative light. Our sacred writ is full of animals, and it's up to us to learn how to live in harmony with them even as some of them, for many of us, become our food. This book can help us make that transition.


* Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, edited by Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers. All over the world, the Christian church is struggling to find fresh ways of telling its ancient story. In the United States that effort has come to be called the Emergent Church Movement. In the United Kingdom, the term "fresh expressions" is often used to speak of the same work being done to create a church that can speak to a post-modern world. This book reflects the Church of England's work to be part of that new movement and to permeate the movement with its sacramental approach to worship and, indeed, all of life. Can the old dog church learn new tricks? Yes, of course, but they won't be of any use if they are simply tricks unattached to what's been best in the past, and that's part of the message of this book.

* Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to Your Body's Wisdom, by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. In many spiritual traditions, the body is either central to theology or, alternatively, it is radically de-emphasized. This author wants people to develop techniques so they are fully aware of their bodies and how they are connecting with the energy of the world around them. In some ways, this "full body presence" may be necessary for adherents of both traditions, those that emphasize the body and those that don't. In any case, the author wants us to understand the context of our bodies in the world.

* Patched Together: A Story of My Story, by Brennan Manning. Fans of this former priest know he's a good story teller and that his focus is God's amazing grace toward fierce people. This is something of a summing up of how Manning sees God's perfection working its wonders among imperfect people.

* Salomé, a novel, by Patti Rutka. I rarely include novels in these blog book columns, but this one is about Salomé who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, and it has some fascinating twists and turns that have to do with who wrote one of the New Testament gospels. Besides, the author knows how to use words well.

NOTE: For many reasons, I've decided that in the future I won't save up a stack of books and pile them all into one blog book column, like this one. Instead, you will find brief reviews of new books from time to time as part of my daily blog entries.

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A former priest who became a geneticist and biologist has won this year's prestigious Temple Prize in religion. Good. I'm glad the Templeton Foundation continues to honor people who seek common ground between religion and science.

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P.S.: To sponsor me for this year's AIDS Walk Kansas City, click here. And thanks.

Entertaining new ideas: 3-26-10

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- What I most like about college towns like Lawrence is that so many people in them seem to be curious, seem to be explorers, seem to be willing to entertain new ideas, all the while honoring tried and true ideas.


I felt that again this week when I spoke at the University Forum at the Ecumenical Christian Ministries here on the campus of the University of Kansas.

My topic was "The Interfaith Imperative in a Chaotic World," and what I most enjoyed were the thoughtful questions after my prepared remarks.

We got into discussions about the lack of civil discourse in the U.S., about Palestinian-Israeli relations, about issues of sexuality and how faith communities deal with all that and more.

The pastor and friend who invited me to speak told me that many of the people who regularly attend these weekly forums are retired KU faculty members, which I suppose accounts for their openness to discussion and debate, for what else is an academic community if not the center of exactly that?

I'm not suggesting that only in college towns can you find such discourse. Not at all. But college towns seem to attract people who are especially willing to discuss difficult issues and to do so in reasoned ways. Maybe faith communities could learn something from them.

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Things are getting increasingly dicey for Pope Benedict XVI, who now has been accused of failing to take action on an abusive priest. B-16 needs to take a lesson from people who have figured out how to handle such difficult matters, which is to say he needs to be absolutely up front and open about what happened and what he knew and when he knew it. And he needs to do that immediately. By the way, click here for the pages of resources on this subject put together by the Religion Newswriters Association for religion reporters. AND: Here's an editorial from the National Catholic Reporter insisting that the pope answer questions about all this directly.

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P.S.: To sponsor me for this year's AIDS Walk Kansas City, click here. And thanks.

An eternal perspective: 3-25-10

My friend Lois was born a year before my father, meaning she landed on the planet in November 1908. Lois, it turned out, outlived my dad, who died in 1992, by nearly a generation. We just had her funeral at my church on Tuesday of this week after her death at age 101. (Oddly enough, Lois's funeral happened just a week after the funeral for my friend Jack, who was within a few weeks of turning 100 when he died.)

Time As I sat in the sanctuary this week listening to our associate pastor tell stories of Lois's fascinating life, I thought about what it means to have an eternal perspective.

The length of Lois's life was not an eternity, of course, but it was long enough so as to give us a tiny taste of what an eternal perspective might entail.

She was born just weeks after my Chicago Cubs won their last World Series, making 2010 our 102nd year of rebuilding.

Lois was born less than 100 years after Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt was president when Lois was born. She lived under both Roosevelts, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama.

There was no income tax when she was born, darn few automobiles or phones or airplanes. Indeed, the first person ever to die in an airplane crash lost his life just two months before Lois's birth. No TV, no radio, no computers. There were no veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War or the Iraq War because none of them had yet been fought at her birth. And only earlier in the year of her birth were the Boy Scouts created. Not only that, but the first major commercial oil discovery in the Middle East happened just a few months before Lois was born.

The Ottoman Empire still existed in 1908 and China still had an emperor. Edward R. Murrow was just seven months older than Lois; Milton Berle just four months older. And Imogene Coca was three days younger.

Within a few weeks of her death, Lois asked our associate pastor why she was still alive. She said she felt of no use to anyone. The pastor said he had no good answer for why she was still living but said that when she came to church (and she still did regularly, the last time being about three weeks before her death) she was an inspiration to all of us. Indeed, she was. And so was her husband of 72-plus years, who died in 2003.

Imagine 101 years of life. And yet think of what it might mean to view life from an eternal perspective, in which 101 years is like the blink of an eye. Adopting such a perspective might lead us toward the Benedictine virtue of humility. And what could that hurt?

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The longer Pope Benedict XVI maintains silence about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in his native Germany, the more upset Germans seem to get. Seems like more bad public relations advice to the pontiff. Instead, he should be urged to tackle such big issues immediately.

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P.S.: My latest column for the National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read it, click here.

Just individual salvation? 3-24-10

Although I will offer a brief review of J. Philip Newell's new book, Christ of the Celts, in a blog book column this weekend, today I want to highlight a chapter in the book that raises good questions about how Christians view salvation.


In countless churches, the message essentially is this: Confess in public that Jesus is your lord and savior and you will go to heaven.

In effect, this is a doctrine of individual salvation and, as a Newell points out, it runs counter to much that is biblical and much that Celtic spirituality has to teach us about the oneness of the universe.

"It gives the impression that one part can be complete when the other parts are broken," Newell writes. In this view, he is in harmony with the ubuntu theology of Archbishops Desmond Tutu. That theology insists that no individual can be whole if other individuals in the same community are broken, and no community can be whole and healthy if any of its members aren't whole and healthy.

Newell, who often teaches at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico when I do (that's where I took this photo of him), continues: "It would be like my saying that I can be well when my child is suffering or that any of us can be complete when our nation is being false to itself or that we as a human race can be healthy when the body of the earth is infected. It runs counter to everything we now know about the body of reality. Wholeness does not come in isolation. It comes in relationship to the whole."

In Christianity, there always has been a creative tension between individual faith and membership in the covenant community. And the church is at its healthiest when it retains that tension and doesn't either seek to resolve it or choose one over the other.

But theology that is almost exclusively about individual salvation -- such as the evacuation theology of the rapture, promoted by the "Left Behind" series of books -- is out of sync with the wholeness to which God calls the creation and out of sync with God's intention to redeem all of creation, not just this person or that.

Phil Newell is a bright and gifted writer and teacher, and this book will challenge Christians where we most need to be challenged.

(By the way, I'll be teaching a weeklong seminar at Ghost Ranch in July, called "Death and Its Mysteries: Writing About the Journey." For information, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

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An extraordinarily rich man in England says he made a "pact with God" years ago to give away lots of whatever he earned in return for some divine help and favor. Now he's making good on the pledge. Well, that's nice. But I'm afraid it just feeds into the idea of the "Prosperity Gospel," which preaches the unbiblical message that God wants you to be rich. Well, I hope the man's money will do a lot of good for a long time after he's eventually gone, but let's give out of generosity and not out of deal-making with God.

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P.S.: A new national survey released yesterday shows that people of faith want comprehensive immigration reform and want members of the clergy to speak out about that issue. No doubt these results will drive Glenn Beck to distraction, but I don't mind.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest column for the National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read it, click here.

A Catholic-Anglican anniversary: 3-23-10

The Catholic Church in England split from Rome in 1534 and became the Church of England, which since has morphed into the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the U.S.


It took until this date iin 1966 for the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury to sit down for a face-to-face meeting.

What a terrible model for the rest of the world -- hundreds of years before you even talk to try to achieve reconciliation, something all Christians are called to do in all aspects of their lives.

Well, the Anglicans and Catholics still today are two peoples separated by a common religion, in the same way that the Americans and the British are two people separated by a common language.

Some months ago the current archbishop of Canterbury and the current pope met again, only this time it was in part so that the archbishop could complain to the pope about Catholic efforts to invite disaffected Anglicans to become part of the Catholic Church.

Yes, there have been lots of efforts to find common ground between Catholics and Anglicans, including the possibility of a reunion. The history here to which I've linked you, however, strikes me as an exercise in insincerity and, eventually, futility. There seems to be so much at stake for each side that neither is willing to do what reunion  might entail.

And if you think that's the sade story of Catholics and Anglicans, it's even worse among my Protestants. No wonder people look at Christianity sometimes and shake their heads at our divisions.

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Tiger Woods says he's now wearing a Buddhist bracelet and will wear one forever to help him remember how to live his life in a healthy way. It might help. I wear a small cross inside my shirt, and no one sees it but I know it's there and it serves as a reminder of the one I try to follow.

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P.S.: The "Belief Beat" blog at has rounded up some reaction from faith communities to passage of the national health care reform bill. Click here for a look.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here. Heck, even Tiger Woods is in this column.

Models of humility: 3-22-10

Is there anything more rare in our culture of self-centeredness than humility -- despite the reality that the major religions teach humility as a primary virtue?


And yet there are people seeking to model humility and to teach it to the rest of us, as this intriguing piece from In Character magazine reveals. In it, the author visits cloistered nuns near Washington, D.C., to figure out what they can teach us about humility.

I liked the comment in the piece that humility, in a religious sense, means submission to God. That's exactly what the word Islam means. And, as I say, it's what nearly all, if not all, religions teach. And I'm grateful to have such communities as these nuns modeling humility for us so we can have something of a purer example of what it looks like.

Cloistered communities are almost never found in Protestant traditions. Mostly it's the Catholics who have keep this practice alive. And that may have been the reason that a member of my own Protestant church told me recently about her discomfort in visiting a monastery.

She said she simply couldn't figure out what what the people in the monastery did all day but attend worship services and pray.

"Don't they DO anything for anyone?" she wanted to know.

Well, yes, they do. They show us what community can look like. They pray for us. They model humility for us. They give us a counter-cultural example that isn't seeking self-glorification. Isn't that enough?

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This excellent column in The Boston Globe, the paper that broke the priest abuse scandal story in 2002, makes the point that the secular world also has some responsibility for how church officials' conduct is treated in such cases. I wrote here over the weekend about what I thought the church needs to do recover from this disaster. The ideas in the Globe column are a good addition to what I suggested. 

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P.S.: I mentioned more than a month ago that a former regular commenter here on the blog, Red Biddy, was in the hospital and quite ill. Good news. I heard from her this weekend and she's home and healing.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.

Fixing the Catholic scandal: 3-20/21-10

Toward the end of the life of Pope John Paul II, there was talk in some circles about when it might be appropriate, if ever, for a pope to resign.


As you may recall, JP II was suffering from Parkinson's disease and, though stalwart, was nowhere near as vigorous as he had been earlier in his papacy. That raised the question of whether the church would be better served with a healthier, more active pope.

Well, as we all know, he didn't resign. Rather, he died in office in early April 2005 and was succeeded by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who took the name Pope Benedict XVI (pictured here).

Now, in the midst of more sexual abuse scandals in the church -- not just in the United States, but in Ireland and the pope's native Germany -- some journalists and others are asking experts about the possibility that B-16 eventually may feel it necessary to resign.

No chance, is the answer now given by the best Vatican observor I know, John L. Allen Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter. To read John's recent posting about all this, click here.

And I suspect that Allen is right -- barring some astonishing and disgusting revelation about the pope, which I don't expect.

But setting resignation possibilities aside, are there some things this pope might do to restore confidence among Catholics that the church has figured out how to begin to redeem itself from this awful scandal?


The pope essentially can admit that something has gone seriously wrong and then throw everything on the table. Let's look at all possibilities of what might be contributing to this, he can say. Let's look at celibacy. Let's look at the all-male priesthood. Let's look at our whole system of attracting potential priests and training them. Let's acknowledge that a substantial percentage of our priests are gay. Let's understand pedophilia in all its complexity, acknowledging that homosexuality and pedophilia are very different things. Let's look at the system in place that should keep bishops accountable because some bishops have hidden this problem in many places. In other words, let's look at it all -- and not just with insiders who have a vested interest in the outcome. Rather, let's call in some outside experts with international reputations to help us.

Yes, sending a letter to the Irish church calling for "repentance, healing and renewal," as he's doing, can't hurt. But that's a tiny step toward restoring the faith of members that the church is getting its approach to this scandal right. For the text of that papal letter to the Irish, click here.

The world badly needs the Catholic Church. But it needs that church to be healthy and to be modeling the right kinds of love, compassion, openness and reconciliation. At the moment, this scandal means the church is not healthy.

Yes, there is, in fact, sexual misconduct in almost every religion -- and each should adopt a similarly broad approach to solving the problem. This is not just a Catholic problem, though clearly the Catholics have a major issue on their hands and it's the Catholic problem that has received the most attention.

Without this kind of start-over, call-in-help approach, I have my doubts that the Catholic Church ever will recover from this scandal -- or that it should. Theologian and author Hans Kung, who is harsher on Benedict XVI than I am, also argues for a thorough re-examination of the causes of the scandal in this piece, written for the National Catholic Reporter.

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I mentioned here the other day the death of Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, whom some people considered to be the "pope of Sunni Islam." President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has just named a replacement -- Ahmed el-Tayeb. He's described as a moderate who has criticized radical Islamists. But before we make judgments about him, let's wait for the experts who follow such things to do a careful look at his past statements and positions. And let's also remember that, in effect, he works for Mubarak, who essentially runs Egypt like a police state. And yet we can hope that el-Tayeb will be a good influence on Islam and a rational spokesperson for a religion that doesn't really have anything close to a "pope."

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P.S.: At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center Campus in Overland Park, Kan., to introduce a four-part series we'll lead on subsequent Friday mornings called "They Were Just People: Holocaust Lessions for Today." The series will focus on lessons we learned writing our new book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with non-Jewish help. The Friday sessions -- April 23, April 30, May 7 and May 14 -- will run from 9:30 to 11 a.m. For details on how to sign up for this series, click here and scroll down to the "They Were Just People" headline.