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A bogus Christianity: 7-20-10

Kenda Creasy Dean has written an important book. It's so important, in fact, that in some ways the future of Christian churches in America -- especially Mainline churches -- may hinge on whether the leaders of those churches understand what this Princeton Theological Seminary teacher is saying.


Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church is about more than what teens believe and how churches can get them back in the pews. (Pews? Must all churches have pews?) Oh, it's about that, all right. But more, it's about the watered-down, non-missional version of Christianity that has in some ways become dominant in the lives of many young people because it has become dominant in the lives of many adults.

This kind of Christianity (giving it the name Christian is really a stretch) is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It asks people to be nice, it wants God to be a cosmic bellboy and it wants people who adhere to MTD to feel good about themselves. You know, self-esteem and all that.

Yikes. If you're asking what that has to do with the high demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ and ministering to a wounded world with love, the answer is precious little. But, Dean insists, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the kind of religion teens are often learning in church nowadays. That's what she concludes by analyzing a recent National Study of Youth and Religion.

MTD, Dean writes, "has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm's length."

Is MTD, at its core, what Christianity is really about?


As Luke Timothy Johnson says in his book The Real Jesus, "Christianity in its classic form has not based itself on the ministry of Jesus but on the resurrection of Jesus, the claim that after his crucifixion and burial Jesus entered into the powerful life of God, and shares that life (whose symbol is the Holy Spirit) with those who can receive it."

The "real Jesus," Johnson argues, is not the Jesus being reconstructed by historians but the living Christ who moves followers to self-sacrificial acts of love as they minister to a world in need.

And it is that sacrificial nature of the faith that MTD seems to miss altogether.

Dean says, correctly, that the benign whatever-ism of MTD encourages little more than niceness, but "what niceness masks, however, is our tendency to reduce others to replicas of ourselves, which contradicts the nature of Christian discipleship. Following Jesus requires not the avoidance of particularity but radical particularity, which -- along with genuine openness to the other -- is made possible only by taking part in God's particularity and openness through Jesus Christ."

I am doing the author a disservice by picking out a few points here to mention. Almost Christian needs to be taken as a whole with its disturbing message that churches often are teaching their young people not Christianity with all its difficult demands to love unloveable neighbors but, rather, something else -- and the kids seem to be learning this something else so well that they no longer understand Christianity.

If you are a Christian, make sure your pastor, youth leader and others read this book -- and insist that they do some honest and serious reflection on whether they're really teaching young people MTD or Christianity.

(Oh, Emergent Church Movement guru Tony Jones has written several entries about this book on his blog. To read them, click here.)

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I have made the point here before that some of the more aggressive atheists nowadays seem to be biblical literalists in a way that almost outdoes fundamentalist Christians. This interesting essay, based on a new book, makes that and other observations about these evangelical atheists. Notice the tons of response to the piece.

Death's stark reality: 7-19-10

ESPANOLA, N.M. -- In this death-denying culture of ours, it's hard not to understand the reality of mortality when standing in front of a crematory's oven (the proper term is retort) that is using 1,675 degrees of heat to turn the body of a man to ashes.

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I brought my Ghost Ranch writing class to the DeVargas funeral home and crematory here the other day to give a kind of reality check about death, which is the subject about which they were spending the week writing.

The DeVargas staff was wonderful and willing to answer any and all questions as we viewed the chapel, the dressing room, the enbalming room, the "selection" room (that's where you pick out a casket), the room containing a refrigeration unit for waiting bodies and then the crematory itself.

No matter your religion (even if none), I recommend that you arrange some time to tour a funeral home. It's a way to getting you reconnected with the reality of what will happen to all of us some day, and it reminds us of the many ways in which various religions show respect for human bodies.

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Jim Salazar, the DeVargas employee who showed us around, says he talks to families about the reality that their loved ones have moved on "to their next assignment." Then, in the special brand that constitutes funeral home humor, he suggests that for some people  the next assignment is a promotion and for some a demotion.

(In the photo on the right, a DeVargas employee shows us a stainless steel identification tag that goes through the cremation process with the body and then is included in the ashes in an urn in case there's later any natural disaster that displaces the urn from its resting place, requiring someone to identify the cremains, as they're called.)

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Now Spanish lawmakers are going to debate whether to ban the full covering dress worn by some Muslim women. I don't get this. Why are laws being passed to regulate dress that is particular to a religion? Would they also ban bishops' hats? Jewish skull caps? Pastors' robes? Come on.

A Celtic view of death: 7-17/18-10

ABIQUIU, N.M. -- The sky here at Ghost Ranch the other night was plastered with stars that looked touchable through the clear air of the high desert.


My wife and I were sitting on a veranda with J. Philip Newell  (pictured here) and his wife, Ali, catching up on our far-flung lives but also talking about death.

Philip is a pastor (as is Ali), an author and something of an international expert on Celtic spirituality. So I wanted to share some of Celtic  spirituality's insights about death with the writing class I've been teaching this week, a class I call "Death and Its Mysteries: Writing About the Journey."

Philip's own teaching time and mine conflicted, so I couldn't arrange for him to come in person to my class to talk about this. I did the next best thing -- I taped a bit of our conversation. In fact, now I think that was the best thing to do because I can share what he had to say with you, too.

To hear Philip and Ali talk about death, click on this link: Download JPNewell The clip is just under 13 minutes and begins with a few meaningless words of chitchat before my first question to him.

Philip is a wonderful and challenging thinker. At times my first instinct is to disagree with him on some point, but as often as not when I think it through I find he's onto something that I hadn't considered.

But just so you know, these are the kinds of serious conversations that -- along with lots of fun -- go on all the time at Ghost Ranch and at other faith-based retreat and conference centers. If you haven't been here or to another such center, don't cheat yourself out of the experience.

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Speaking of death, that's all that seems to result from revenge exacted by violent groups who describe themselves as motivated by religious purposes. The latest example in Iran shows nearly 30 more people dead. How is this helping anything? What does such violence prove, other than the perpetrators seem not to understand the first thing about what religion -- in this case Islam -- is really all about? How sad.

A theology of place: 7-16-10

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ABIQUIU, N.M. -- We are tethered to the earth in countless ways. Yes, of course, by gravity, a force it took an Einstein even to begin to understand. But also in mystical, spiritual ways, ways that connect the heart to eternity.

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I feel that acutely when I'm here at Ghost Ranch, where I'm spending this week teaching a writing seminar I have called "Death and Its Mysteries: Writing About the Journey."

All around us is the high desert country of northern New Mexico. This is the starkly beautiful red rock hill country that artist Georgia O'Keeffe made famous in her painting.

When I was out here a few months ago, I went with a staff paleontologist out to where a dinosaur dig is under way. Ancient bones -- about 14 million years in age -- are being unearthed, but even they have become part of the earth, which the theology in all major religions says is the handiwork of God.

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Well, whether you want to see it as that or as something else, it's hard to argue that this is striking land that engages all the senses.

So today, just enjoy a few photos from this part of the planet -- and think about making a journey here some time.

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You may recall that just a few years ago, the nuclear states of India and Pakistan nearly came to blows again, and the threat of nuclear war was severe. The news today is a bit better, though the predominantly Hindu state of India and the mostly Muslim state of Pakistan still have serious trust issues between them, some of those issues religious in nature. This is one more hot spot that needs the attention of all people of faith who value peace.

Religion's 'dirty side': 7-15-10

BLOOMINGTON, IND. -- Last fall, when Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, was in Kansas City as the keynote speaker for the annual Festival of Faiths, he said he thought it was wrong to attach the name of a religion to anyone who acts wildly outside the bounds of that religion.


For instance, he said we should quit calling people Islamic terrorists or Jewish extremists or Christian bombers.

"The extremists of all traditions belong to one tradition, the tradition of extremism," he said.

I think there is much to be said for this approach, but I want to acknowledge that people of good will can disagree about this.

For example, the other day, as part of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference here, I was part of a two-person panel to talk about various aspects of religion and its coverage by the media.

My conversation partner was Prof. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who heads up the Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. (You see both of us pictured here.)

I quoted Patel to Rosenfeld and asked him if he agrees or disagrees with him on this labeling issue.

"No, I don't agree with him whatsoever," Rosenfeld said. "I think he's trying to clean up the dirty side of religion. All religions do have dirty sides. When a doctor is murdered in an American abortion clinic in the name of Christianity, then his assassin is to be condemned specifically not just as a usual assassin but also because he's using his own religion to sanction what he has done."

Rosenfeld added that the same is true of Jews or Muslims who commit atrocities, and he offered a few examples.

"The only way we can understand so much of today's terrorism is to see it as the people who are the agents of that terrorism see it -- as a manifestation of radical Islam. It is, in fact, occurring in radical Islam. . .It is not all of Islam, but radical, politcal Islam."

Rosenfeld said that the Obama administration's approach of avoiding terms that specifically point to radical Islam "is not only phony, it's harmful because it keeps us from understanding the nature of the threat against us."

Rosenfeld did agree with me that when people claiming to act in the name of a particular faith commit atrocities, it's members of the faith cited that have the most responsibility to condemn the act.

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This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has it right. A University of Illinois teacher, whose job it was to describe Catholic doctrine to his students, should not have been let go, even if some students (and I would be included among them if I were there) disagree with what official Catholic teaching says about homosexuality. Academic freedom must mean something in this case or it means hardly anything at all.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column is now online. It's about "holy hatred," speaking of antisemitism. To read it, click here.

The Buddhists of Indiana: 7-14-10

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BLOOMINGTON, IND. -- The other day, when I posted a notice on Facebook that I was visiting the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center here at the edge of Bloomington, my friend and co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, replied with this note:

"Nothing says Tibetan like Indiana! Good choice."

Ah, if only he knew how right he was.

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For the reality is that this Buddhist center has become an important representation of Tibet in the U.S. and a prime example of the many ways in which faiths other than Christianity and Judaism have found a home in this country.

My visit was part of the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and we talked with the center's leader, Arjia Lobsang Tubden (pictured above), known as Arjia Rinpoche, who described how the center was founded by the late brother of the Dalai Lama.

That brother, Prof. Thubten Jigme Norbu, known as Tagtser Rinpoche, taught for many years at Indiana University here in Bloomington, and wanted a center that would help people in the Midwest understand Buddhism better.

The Dalai Lama, indeed, has visited the center about half a dozen times over the years since the center was established in 1979, most recently in May.

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Arjia Rinpoche, by the way, spoke to us about his new book, Surviving the Dragon, about his years in Tibet under Communist rule before he escaped. I'm reading it now and hope to report more fully on it later.

Well, there are Buddhists in Indiana, a Baha'i center near Chicago, an Islamic center in Abiquiu, N.M., which is also the location of Ghost Ranch, where I'm teaching this week. And so the landscape of American religion is changing, and sometimes nothing says Tibetan like Indiana.

So just enjoy the photos of the Indiana center today and promise yourself you'll visit a center of another faith one of these days.

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For some time now there's been a debate about whether the people who committed the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and others of that ilk) should be identified as "Islamic terrorists." I'll have more to say about this here tomorrow, but one of Mahatma Gandhi's grandson's argues that we should not be using such terms and that President Obama is right to try to curtail such use. What do you think? 

Remembering Father Flanagan: 7-13-10

When I was growing up, I heard a fair amount about Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., and especially of the Catholic priest, Fr. Edward Flanagan (pictured here), who started it (originally as the Home for Homeless Boys and later, in 1922, as Boys Town).


Perhaps it helped that seven years before I was born Spencer Tracy starred in the movie "Boys Town," and it was still popular when I was a kid.

When I was in Omaha covering a national governors' meeting in the early 1970s, I drove by Boys Town but didn't get a chance to stop in to look at the place. And I've not been back long enough since then to do that. But, as you can see from the link I gave you in the first paragraph here, Boys Town still exists and still serves needy children, both boys and girls now.

So why am I thinking about Boys Town today? Well, Father Flanagan was born on this date in 1886 in Roscommon, Ireland. When he was about 18 he came to the U.S. to get an education and was ordained a priest in 1912.

And Boys town is just one small but example of a good result of religious teaching. All the great religions urge us to care for our neighbor, which means anyone in need. And it was homeless boys whose plight especially struck Flanagan.

The country is dotted with children's homes, hospitals, schools and many other altruistic institutions that find their roots in the religious impulse. And today, Flanagan's birthday is a good time to remember and honor that -- even if we are people with no faith attachment whatever.

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Religion writer Gustav Niebuhr raises some good questions about religion and behavior in connection with the latest scandal involving Mel Gibson. I'm close to concluding that Gibson is simply without shame and unwilling to see his actions as out of the mainstream. So sad. But all of us should continue to condemn his racist and antisemitic rantings.

A New York faith riot: 7-12-10

So perhaps you think that faith-based rioting has been confined to places like Northern Ireland or the Indian-Pakistan border.


No, no.

On this date in 1871, in New York City, what became known as the Orange Riots occurred, pitting Irish Catholics against Irish Protestants.

As this fascinating 1905 piece in The New York Times explains, the root of it may have been religious in nature and a carryover from the Old World, but it was a newspaper reporter and his editor who stirred things up. Indeed, they seem to have created this turmoil for to sell papers and to give the reporter a raise. I know, I know. Hard to believe.

As The Times' piece notes, some 110 people lost their lives that awful day 139 years ago -- most of them innocent women and children.

Can people be stirred up today to take violent action against people of other faiths? Of course. Have you listened to some of the virulent anti-Islam junk on some of the talk radio shows?

Perhaps the 1871 history will help us know how NOT to respond to such goading.

(I found this drawing of the Orange Riots at

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Although I haven't had time to read the full report in detail because I've been on the road, I was pleased to learn that the national governing body of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), modified in good ways what I have called a problematic report on peace in the Middle East. The General Assembly passed the revised report overwhelmingly a few days ago, and the committee that brought it to the floor of the G.A. had passed it unanimously, which is close to a Presbyterian miracle. I hope everyone who cares about peace in the Middle East will read the report and think about ways forward. I'll try to get back to this subject in the next week or so with links to the report itself and to related material.

Christianity's global look: 7-10/11-10

In the last few years, thanks to scholarly work by such people as Philip Jenkins and Mark Noll, the world has come to understand a major change in the demographics of Christianity that has happened in just the last 50 or 60 years. Christianity, in short, is booming in the Southern Hemisphere, Africa and Asia, while it has become a dwindling voice elsewhere -- especially in Western Europe.


But it's still hard to picture, region by region, what has happened.

A new book from a man who teaches at Pepperdine University in California provides exactly that clear picture in a highly readable and helpful form.

The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion, by Dyron B. Daughrity, is a great follow-up to the work by Jenkins, Noll and others.

One of the useful thing this book does is to straighten out all the people who believe that Islam is now and will be forever the largest religion in the world. Indeed, about 33 percent of the world's population now is Christian versus about 21 percent who are Muslim. And, Daughrity notes, because of birth rates and other factors, that isn't likely to change significantly for the next several decades at least.

When I give talks about the religions of the world I often ask people which religion has the most adherents and inevitably someone will say Islam. I hope all those folks will read this book.

One thing I especially like about this book is that it breaks the world into various regions and considers the current religious makeup of each -- with maps and tables -- to help us see things more clearly.

This is a comprehensive view of not just Christianity but also how Christianity fits into the picture of all the world's religions. And it helps us understand how the tiny band of early followers of Jesus planted the seeds that have resulted in one-third of the globe's population today identifying themselves as followers, too.

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The old question of whether Pope Pius XII did enough to save Jews from the Holocaust will get another look no doubt after an academic going through Vatican archives asserts he may have helped save 200,000 Jews. I hope this question is settled finally one way or another in the near future. It's way past time for questions about what he did or didn't do to be answered.

Celebrating religious art: 7-9-10

As I like to do from time to time in the summer months, today I want to introduce you to a figure in religious history of whom you may never have heard -- Jan Van (or, variously, van) Eyck, a Flemish painter who died on this date in 1441.

For religious art, Van Eyck perhaps is best remembered for his "Ghent Altarpiece," (seen above) dedicated in 1432. As the piece to which I've linked you notes, it was started by Hubert van Eyck, Jan's brother. But Hubert died in 1426, and Jan then finished the work.

As this biographical sketch of Jan Van Eyck indicates, at first Hubert was considered the better artist, but that judgment has been ringingly reversed.

You can read about Jan and Hubert and the so-called early Netherlands school of art, but today I want to invite you to think about the art that may be part of your own faith tradition. In my church, for instance, you will find stunning stained glass windows on either side of our sanctuary. On one side they represent parts of the Hebrew Scriptures; on the other, parts of the New Testament. We also have other stained glass, wood carvings, banners, artistic seat cushions and on and on. All of it is there simply to speak religious truths to the right side of our brains, I think.

In Christianity, perhaps no one does art more intriguingly than the iconography of the Orthodox tradition. Icons are seen not as idols but, rather, as windows into the divine. I think Jan Van Eyck's work pictured here today can be seen that way -- art to contemplate, to meditate upon.

Is there danger of idolatry in art? Yes, and Islam is among the first to warn about that. But there also can be opportunity for getting closer to the eternal, and I think that's what good religious art does.

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On the theory that you should never waste a good crisis, religious people who are concerned about the environment are making hay while the oil gushes (or something like that). And who can blame them? If the Gulf disaster doesn't knock us upside the head about how we're treating the Earth, what will?