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November 2010

Meeting Teilhard de Chardin: 10-30/31-10

For the last several hundred years, theology has proved to be fertile ground for fertile minds. Indeed, in Christian terms, some of the best thinking and teaching has been done in the last 100 years by such giants as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Leonardo Boff, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jurgen Moltmann and, among many others, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured here).


(The link I've given you in the previous sentence will take you to an interesting biography of Teilhard in which you will get a sense of how he struggled under restrictions imposed on his work by the Vatican.)

As you might imagine, the popularity of some of these theologians comes and goes, depending on many variables. Teilhard, for instance, has lost some of his attraction since his death in 1955, but a new generation is beginning to discover his ground-breaking work that connects the world of science to spiritual matters.

Indeed, Santa Clara University in California is planning a four-day conference next month on Teilhard in hopes of introducing people to this important Jesuit thinker. I wish I could attend. I'm intrigued by Teilhard but am far from an expert in his thinking.

Teilhard has been influential particularly among scholars and religious thinkers who have sought to find ways to understand how Darwinian thinking about evolution can be accommodated within Christian theology. (The book to read is God After Darwin, by John F. Haught.) And people interested in Process Theology also have drawn on Teilhard's thinking.

My own Christian experience shows me that countless Christians seem uninterested in what the theologians of our era are saying. I never argue that to be a good Christian you have to have read many theologians and grasped the nuances of their arguments. But theologians of every faith wrestle with the eternal questions. And, in the end, what other questions are there?

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The bishop of the largest Lutheran denomination in the country, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has added a video to the many messages from leaders to gay teens that life will get easier for them in the years ahead and that they should not despair. It's exactly the right message. All faith communities should be finding ways to support young gay and lesbian people and to help them respect themselves. To watch the video from Bishop Mark Hanson and read other ELCA material on this subject, click here.

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P.S.: As you know, the terrorist explosive devices discovered and defanged Thursday and Friday were aimed at Chicago synagogues. In case you missed it, the rabbi at one of those synagogues was my friend Michael Zedek, rabbi emeritus of Temple B'nai Jehuda in Kansas City (now Overland Park). Michael is quoted in this Wall Street Journal piece.

Dating the world's demise: 10-29-10

Because today is a special date in our family (one of our kids is having a birthday), I'd like briefly to take up the topic of religious date setters.


I'm talking about those people who think they have figured out exactly when the world will end, when the Second Coming of Christ will occur and on and on.

One reason to think about this now is that we just passed a flip-side date -- Oct. 23, the date on which Irish Bishop James Ussher claimed the world began. Ussher undertook a literal reading of many of the dates (who begat whom) in the Bible and announced that the world had been created at 9 a.m. (Greenwich time) on Oct. 23, 4004 BCE.

And as we all know, God always operates on Greenwich time. I think.

Anyway, throughout history many folks have tried to convince others that the end of the world was coming on a particular date. So far all these date setters have been wrong, but that doesn't seem to prevent others from setting new dates and doesn't seem to prevent people from believing in those dates.

One of the latest date setters is Harold Camping, an 89-year-old preacher behind “worldwide Christian ministry” Family Radio, whose analysis of the Bible proposes that "Judgment Day" will be May 21, 2011 and that the end of the world will follow five months after Christ’s return, on October 21, 2011. The "Harold Camping" link I've given you in this paragraph will take you to a "Sightings" column from the Martin Marty Center by a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It describes the Camping phenomenon. And the Family Radio link offers its warning of the May 21 date. 

I think all of us understand the profoundly human desire to know what's coming at us, what the future will bring. But when we combine that with the hubris of imagining that we can read the mind of God we wind up as embarrassed date setters.

In some ways, the only truly important date is today, which is a gift to us. We devalue that gift by using part of it to set dates for what only God can know.

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GOD VS. SCIENCE, PART 73041279097

Pope Benedict XVI has told a Vatican gathering on the sciences that science can help humans understand God. Well, yes, but because many (not all by a long shot) scientists think there is no God or that one does not need God to explain the creation, the argument the pope made probably will convince no one who doesn't already agree with him. Still, the pope's argument deserves to be heard if only to buck up the spirits in the choir to whom he is preaching.

The Dalai Lama's journey: 10-28-10

T \he story of the 14th Dalai Lama, born Tenzin Gyatso, has fascinated me for a long time, especially because when he escaped from Tibet in 1959 he first came to Musoorie, India, which is where I went to boarding school for a time in 1956.


And yet I was a little surprised to find his story told in Manga art in a new book. Indeed, at first glance I was hesitant to imagine that this could be anything like a serious treatment of this remarkable man's life.

But The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography, by Tetsu Saiwai, is fascinating.

Before reading it, I had never even heard of Manga. The link about Manga I've given you above will take you to a Wikipedia site (I generally am quite cautious about Wikipedia entries because of their reputation for inaccuracy) that describes this Japanese style of cartoon storytelling.

The art is intentionally overwrought. Emotions are exaggerated so half of the faces in this book seem to be screaming, with beads of sweat popping from their heads. It's a little like Pow!-Bam! Batman art.

The story of the Chinese invasion of Buddhist Tibet in 1950 and the brutality that continued -- indeed, that still continues today -- seems even more heartbreaking because of the way the Manga art renders the story. The same year that the uprising of Tiananmen Square happened, 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize. Like this year's prize to a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, it was a repudiation of the Communist regime's negation of basic human rights.

This new book may seem like it's designed for youthful readers, but I found it both informative and engaging and I think other adults will, too.

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Another Tea Party-backed candidate has stirred up controversy with the release of a 2009 video clip showing Ken Buck, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate from Colorado, saying he doesn't support the idea of separation of church and state. This report notes that this is the third time a Tea Party-connected candidate has kicked this hornet's nest. In some ways it may be a good thing that all this is on the public's radar screen. It reminds people that although the words "separation of church and state" aren't in the U.S. Constitution, case law has demonstrated that the concept is there. Plus, this gives people a chance to be reminded of what the First Amendment is all about.

Interfaith aid for Pakistan: 10-27-10

Sometimes people ask me what specifically they can do to engage in interfaith dialogue or contact or improve interfaith relations.


I usually mention getting involved with such groups as the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council or the Interfaith Youth Alliance or Habitat for Humanity.

But today I want to give you something even more specific -- interfaith efforts to help flooded Pakistan, which continues to suffer mightily.

From noon to 1 p.m. today, a physician who just returned from Pakistan will speak to a public luncheon sponsored by the Justice and Peace Committee of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. My friend Zulifqar Malik will introduce his friend Dr. Faheem Arain who recently returned form an 11-day trip to the flood relief camps in Pakistan.

Then this Friday evening, you have a chance to attend a Pakistani Flood Relief Dinner at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. My friend Ahmed El-Sherif will speak.

Finally, starting at 7 p.m. this Sunday, there will be a Pakistani Flood Relief Concert at the Ramada Inn, 7240 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Overland Park, Kan. For tickets, click here.

There are, of course, many other ways to respond to the flooding disaster in Pakistan. For instance, I have made a donation to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, an agency within my denomination that is helping.

But instead of just giving money, these three opportunities also give you a chance to meet people of several faiths who are responding, too.

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Pope Benedict XVI is seeking to be a voice of reason in the increasingly strident debate and immigration, suggesting that immigrants respect local custom and that nations welcome immigrants. The foundational issue here, which the pope didn't discuss, really is nationalism, a phenomenon that did not always exist and that grows less viable by the day, given the many ways in which people are connected across national borders in ways that make those borders irrelevant. But for the near future, nation states will continue to exist and the only way reasonable way to get along is to do what the pope suggests.

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P.S.: Speaking of interfaith matters, two free performances of the play "The Hindu and the Cowboy" will be presented at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Nov. 7 and 8, and each performance will be dedicated to the late Holocaust survivor Bronia Rowslawowski, who died earlier this year. If you haven't yet seen this wonderful play, do yourself a favor and go. For details on these upcoming performances and other events scheduled as part of this year's Festival of Faiths, click here.

Handling sexuality issues badly: 10-26-10

I noted here last week a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that showed that most people think faith communities don't handle issues of homosexuality well.


The concern here, among many other things, is that the negative messages coming from congregations may be contributing to suicide among young gays and lesbians.

I want to look more deeply into this study today and also to point you to this interesting blog posting that argues -- correctly, in my view -- that there can and must be no constitution prohibition to same-sex marriage if we are to take seriously the Constitution's promise to treat all citizens equally under the law.

One intriguing finding in the PRRI survey was this: "Of all religious groups, white evangelicals are most likely to give their own church high marks for handling the issue of homosexuality."

Why do you suppose that is?

My guess: They are happy to have their churches confirm their own prejudices against gays and lesbians. And that is exactly what many of their churches do by what I believe is a misreading of the biblical texts -- a misreading that does eisegesis instead of exegesis. In eisegesis, one brings one's own ideas to the text and then pretends to find them there as if they were there in the first place. In exegesis, one extracts from the text as close to the original meaning as it's possible to find.

By reading one's own prejudices into the text, it's possible to use the Bible to justify condemnation of homosexuality, to justify slavery, to justify oppression of women and to justify lots of other stuff that should be condemned.

I don't want to take up more space here today talking about what the Bible really says about homosexuality, but if you want to read my thoughts on that subject, look for them under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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The just-ended Synod of Middle East Bishops has called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's the only solution that makes sense and that has a chance of being fair and equitable to all. But the bishops' position has been undermined by anti-Jewish remarks from one of their number -- remarks I wrote about here yesterday. Which means that the call for a two-state solution will have less impact and influence than it would have had that archbishop kept his mouth shut.

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More Glimpses of Heaven: Inspiring True Stories of Hope and Peace at the End of Life's Journey, by Trudy Harris. Increasingly, people with terminal illnesses are making use of hospice services, whether in their homes on in stand-alone facilities. And the medical staffs that care for such people wind up with amazing stories of healing and peace. The author of this book has been a hospice nurse for a long time and in this and a previous book has gathered together compelling stories of how people have faced their deaths with courage and hope. Two brief additions: 1) At 6:15 p.m. tomorrow at Second Presbyterian Church, a hospice chaplain and I will wind up a four-week series on end-of-life issues by talking about the legacies we wish to leave. 2) Full disclosure: I serve as a board member of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, a non-profit agency. My board service is uncompensated.

The creative power of words: 10-25-10

have been doing a more careful read of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas' autobiography, Hannah's Child, than I had a chance to when I first told you about the book in this blog entry. I published that entry not long after I heard Hauerwas deliver a lecture at a Kansas City area church. (Hauerwas is pictured here.)


And in an odd coincidence of timing last week I ran across Hauerwas' comments about how he writes just when I had spoken to author Bruce Feiler about the power of words in the Q&A after Bruce's keynote speech to this year's Kansas City Festival of Faiths.

In Bruce's book, The Council of Dads, he had noted that for God to bring order out of chaos at the creation, God used words. I told Bruce that the only way I myself can bring order out of the chaotic word is to write about the chaos. Indeed, I said, that's about the only way I know what I think about something. And Bruce reaffirmed the creative power of words.

Which is exactly the point Hauerwas makes in his book.

"I discovered," he writes, "that I had to write to explore (my) convictions. I continue to do so. My writing is exploratory because I have no idea what I believe until I force myself to say it. For me, writing turns out to be my way of believing."

Yes, yes. It takes the discipline of shaping my thoughts with words before I can affirm doctrine, before I can see patterns, before I can erect anything like a rational framework around religious ideas. I'm not suggesting that mystical experiences aren't true experiences or that silence cannot speak to us. Indeed, sometimes silence is the only thing that makes sense.

But for me, little about faith experiences make sense without words that help me shape those experiences. And yet I must always remember that all words -- even those in sacred writ -- are always metaphor and, thus, always inadequate, when speaking of eternal things.

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Oh, my. Now we've got a Catholic archbishop preaching radical supersessionism -- the idea that Christianity has irrevocably replaced Judaism and thus made Judaism obsolete and irrelevant. It's the ultimate anti-Jewish libel, the kind of trash-talk that was so prevalent in the Middle Ages (look under the "Check this out" headline for my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history). The offending cleric, Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, made the remark after a meeting of Middle East Catholic bishops, a meeting chaired by Pope Benedict XVI. The gathering was supposed to focus on the increasing persecution of Christians in the Middlle East, but it obviously turned into an Israel-bashing session -- and, worse, a Judaism-bashing opportunity for Bustros, archbishop of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Boston. The pope needs to speak out against this theological whipping.

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P.S.: Speaking of words, as I was above, how about handwritten words? That's what scribe and illustrator James Pepper of Dallas has used to produce his unique Pepper Bible. I wrote about this some years ago for The KC Star when I also wrote about the Saint John's Bible. Now Pepper has arranged for part of his Bible -- the Gospel of Luke -- to be available on iPad. For details, click here. While you're on Pepper's site, take time to view the YouTube video about his remarkable work.

Faith-based books for giving: 10-23/24-10

The newly published books about religion, spirituality and ethics have been piling up on my desk, so I thought I'd give you a chance this weekend to browse through some of them that you may want to buy as gifts for others in this upcoming holiday season.

By publishing this list two months before Christmas, I am giving you no excuses for not knowing about them in time to snare one or several. Several, I hope. There are some wonderful books here -- and quite a variety, too. Let's begin with some books about the Christmas season itself:


* Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, by Donald Heinz. If you're a Christian, my guess is that you think you have a pretty good grasp on the annual celebration of Christ's birth. My further guess is that you think that it's sad how in many ways this religious holiday has been co-opted by commercial interests. Before we become too sure of ourselves in this regard, we'd do well to spend some time with this new book, which restores to Christmas -- all of it, from the New Testament birth stories to the most outrageous Santa in the poshest department store -- its original luster, its connection to the idea and fact of incarnation, the fabulous gift of Christmas that set loose in the world a force that mere humans cannot control. Heinz, an excellent writer who teaches religion at California State University and is ordained as clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, comes at Christmas from many angles. The result is that, in the end, the reader not only has a much deeper appreciation of the season and its meanings but also can't wait to experience it all over again.

* The Christmas Chronicles, by Jeff Guinn. Well, this fat book is just for fun. It contains Guinn's three novels about Santa -- The Autobiography of Santa Claus, How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas and The Great Santa Search. It is, of course, all silliness, but it's good silliness. For in the midst of made-up stories, the author manages to convey some real history -- or at least historical context. Nothing wrong with that.


* Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life, by Judith Dupré. What a gorgeous, well-edited, well-written book. Full of photos and paintings and other artistic depictions, it seeks to unpack the oft-told story of the Virgin Mary in countless ways. Much of this, naturally, is a book about the first Christmas and the role played in it by a young teen-ager from Nazareth. But it's more than just the standard Mary story. The author raises the hard questions of faith and moves readers to a new understanding of how Mary has been seen across the centuries. This is a book not just for Catholics who honor Mary in special ways but for all who would try to grasp the power of the incarnational story and the role God asked sweet Mary to play in it.

* The Unsheltered Heart: An At-Home Advent Retreat, by Ronald Patrick Raab. The author is a Catholic priest who has spent considerable time ministering to poor people in Portland, Ore. In this book, he sets out a daily five-step individual retreat to carry people through the four weeks of the Advent season on the Christian calendar. For each day he offers brief but wise meditations on how we can hear prophetic voices and respond to them.

* Advent and Christmas: Bridges to Comtemplative Living with Thomas Merton, edited by Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth. Fans of the late monk Thomas Merton (there are millions of them, including me) will be happy to know that the "Bridges" series from Ave Maria Press now includes this new volume, which is to be used for devotional study through the Advent season. It draws on words from Merton to guide readers into the heart of the pre-Christmas season. For all the rest of the "Bridges" series, which is being updated, click here.


* The Pope's Maestro, by Sir Gilbert Levine. The author tells here the remarkable and engaging story of how he, a Jew, made music for and at the request of Pope John Paul II. If you know anything about the late pontiff, you know he was born in Poland and grew up with many Jewish friends. He worked hard at the Vatican to improve relations between Jews and Christians -- and between Muslims and Christians, as well. Indeed, JP II has been called the best pope the Jews ever had. In 1987, when Poland still was under Communist control, Levine, born in Brooklyn, was asked to be artistic director and conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic. Krakow, of course, was where JP II, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, had served prior to his election as pope. Through that Krakow connection, Levine and the pope met and collaborated on various concerts for peace over the years. This volume describes that history, about which I was essentially ignorant before. It's both a great Jewish and a great Catholic story. And it comes with plenty of photos and with a DVD of a pope-Levine concert presented in 2000 in a church in Krakow.

* American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings, edited by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. This is a fascinating collection of writings that, for some, are divinely inspired scripture texts and for others are, as the editor acknowledges, "the work of madmen and cranks." Maffly-Kipp has culled through a wide collection of such texts and given us samples of, for instance, Thomas Jefferson's own version of the Bible, in which he essentially cut out any reference to the divinity of Christ; the Book of Mormon; writings from Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, and many others written between 1794 and 1907. Put all in one place, these writings raise the question of how sacred writ comes to be thought of as that and the question of why all branches of Christianity have never quite been able to agree on what books should be in the Bible. Yes, you'll find lots of religious thinking here but you'll also find a mirror held up to America.

* Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges, by James Emery White. The author is a Christian pastor and theology teacher who identifies himself as an evangelical -- but a worried evangelical. He acknowledges that the traditional evangelicalism represented by, say, Billy Graham, has withered in many ways and he's worried about how this tradition can find a renewed sense of itself in not just a post-modern world but in what is clearly becoming a post-Christian world. Oddly enough, however, his recipe seems to be more of the same -- proclamation of biblical inerrancy, an emphasis on personal salvation so people don't go to hell, those sorts of approaches. If he knows much about the Emergent Church Movement, which has its roots among evangelicals, he seems unwilling to acknowledge it or to explore what that movement might be getting right. To get much out of this book you pretty much have to be in the same evangelical camp with White, who is well aware of the pop culture all around him and its sometimes-destructive values. It's just that I don't see him reaching much beyond evangelicalism to find ways to stand against that destruction. Too bad. There's lots of common ground on which Christians of all branches can stand together against the worst in the culture, even if we disagree about some of it. There's no need for evangelicals to think they have to take all this on alone.


* My Spiritual Journey, by the Dalai Lama, with Sofia Stril-Rever. This book is a bit unexpected in its presentation and format. Instead of long chapters detailing the boyhood of the Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) in Tibet, his time as a Buddhist monk and his time as Dalai Lama (starting in the 1950s), the chapters are short and are almost meditations on some aspect of those three periods in his life. As non-Buddhists read his words, they will get a better feel for such difficult-to-understand concepts as reincarnation and other matters Buddhism teaches. The Dalai Lama has been a voice for peace and interfaith conversation for a long time, and in this new volume his voice remains consistent. There is interesting information here about what happened in Tibet under the Chinese Communists and why the Dalai Lama fled, but for a fuller account of that pain and the continuing trauma in Tibet, I recommend Surviving the Dragon, which I wrote about in this entry in August.

* Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, by Brad Warner. Well. What to make of this strange book? It's vulgar, profane and in-your-face in ways that seem unnecessary to make the point. And yet it's also funny and bears truth. The author is a Soto Zen priest who also does lots of other alternative-culture things. This is Buddhism and sexuality sort of the way "Saturday Night Live" might do it, only on a back-channel cable station with no rules about what words you can't say.

* A Sorrow Shared, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Readers who love the late Henri Nouwen (who doesn't, save those who've never read him?) will be delighted that there is now a combined edition of his In Memoriam and his A Letter of Consolation, both written about the death of his mother. Better yet, there's a lovely forward by Barbara Brown Taylor, also a gifted writer and thinker.


* Rumi: The Big Red Book, translations by Coleman Barks. Not long ago the old Persian poet Rumi was (and may still be) the best-selling poet in America. This some 800 years after his birth. In this volume of nearly 500 pages, an expert in Rumi (born Jelaluddin Rumi), Coleman Barks, offers his translations of many of this mystical poet's poems and quatrains. This is a wonderful collection of words that move the heart and soul, and they are contained within a disciplined setting that helps readers grasp their meaning.

* Walking Gently on the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter and More, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff. In the end, this book, by a mother and daughter team, is a call to think. Think about what we eat. Think about how we grow food. Think about what fuels we use to propel ourselves from here to there. And more. The authors want us to ponder how all of that fits in to our faith commitments and what religion tells us about how to live gently on our planet. They argue that even baby steps toward wiser choices can help all of us. They're right about that, although, of course, there are some matters of environmental degradation that have systemic causes and will require larger, systemic answers.

* Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, by Wangari Maathai. It is hard to be engaged in work that seeks to repair the world without at some point reflecting on how that work is informed by one's religious or spiritual values. This book, by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya, seeks to explore the connection between her efforts to plant millions of trees in Africa and the eternal values of religious faith. She acknowledges that when she began the GBM work in 1977, it was not for religious reasons. But as the work has continued and gained worldwide attention and praise, Maathai has seen spiritual connections to what she's doing and she implores us to do the same in our work, whatever it may be.

Hating god

* Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, by Bernard Schweizer. Do you know what a misotheist is? It's different from an atheist, it turns out. An atheist doesn't believe there is a god. A misotheist is just so angry at God that the author, a college English teacher and author, concludes that the result is hatred of God. In this intriguing volume, Schweizer finds evidence of misotheism in lots of literature and helps us unmask it. Why does it need to be unmasked? Because, he contends, authors often hide it or play it down so that most readers will pay attention to the larger literary plot or substance of the writing but not get all distracted by the author's virulent dislike of God. In the midst of today's harsh arguments between the aggressive new atheists and the defensive old theists, Schweizer gives us a new category (with several subcategories) to think about. And it's worth the effort.

* Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way, by David Robinson. This Presbyterian pastor has discovered the rewards of Benedictine spirituality, an approach to the Christian faith that goes back 1,500 years. And he carefully walks readers through the process of understanding how a commitment to that tradition can help shape them as generous, disciplined and loving Christians. As the book makes clear, Benedictine spirituality need not be limited to Catholics. Rather, it's a spiritual path for many people who want to learn to simplify life and be guided by the virtue of humility. If you've never explored the Benedictine path, this is a good place to start. 

* Paths to Prayer: A Field Guide to Ten Catholic Traditions, by Pat Fosarelli. If you've ever wondered how Catholic spirituality traditions differ and what they have in common, this small book will be a treasure full of clear answers. The author, a theologian and teacher, helps us understand these spiritualities: Augustinian, Benedictine, Cistercian, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, Ignatian, Salesian, lay and mystical. Did you, like the author when she was young, simply assume that there was one Catholic approach? Well, guess again. In fact, now you don't have to guess.


* Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, by Ken Howard. This is an important book for all of us Christians of every branch of the faith. It seeks to describe the current divisions in the church and then to point to a way forward that will respect our differences but unite us because of the common ground we share. Howard is an Episcopal priest who begins, appropriately, with the harsh splits in his own denomination. But then he moves out to the broader church and tries to set the currently unsettled nature of the church in a historical context. He is well in tune with the Emergent Church Movement (indeed, ECM guru Brian McLaren has written the foreward) and thus able to help readers see what that movement brings to the question of the future of the church. In the end, Howard says, "we will have to become more comfortable with the discomfort of paradox -- engaging the tension between truths that to us seem irreconcilable -- while recognizing that to God, reconciling the irreconcilable is all in a day's work (if that long)." Thus his name Paradoxy for how the church can move forward. My only serious complaint about this book is that, especially at the beginning, Howard also falls into the trap of imagining that there are just two sides, "liberals" and "conservatives," without reminding us that labels hide much more than they reveal and that the world is more complicated than that. That's too bad, because what Howard is seeking to do is to find a middle way forward between the extremes that takes account of nuance.

* Shopping, by Michelle A. Gonzalez, and Playing, by James H. Evans Jr., both part of a Fortress Press series called "Christian Explorations of Daily Living." Although the titles of these books may make them seem trivial, they are anything but. They are serious efforts to understand the everyday experiences of shopping and playing in terms of Christian theology. The shopping book's author comes at this by drawing extensively on Catholic social teaching, while the playing book's author teaches systematic theology at a seminary. The series editor, David H. Jensen, teaches theology at a seminary, too. If our faith is to instruct us in all areas of our lives, shopping and playing must be included. These thin books will give you much to think about.

* A Year with Aslan: Daily Reflections from The Chronicles of Narnia, edited by Julia L. Roller. For fans of C.S. Lewis, any excuse to dive back into Narnia will be welcomed. And here's a year-long chance to do just that. The editor has selected a Lewis reading for each day of the year and then has drafted a question to get the reader to think more deeply about what Lewis meant or at least about what something in the daily passage might mean to us. This is a lovely daily devotional idea.

* God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God, by Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub. The authors are Christian counselors who approach the faith from within what I'm sure they would call the evangelical or conservative branch of Christianity. They tell interesting stories here about how they came to understand their faith more clearly through various experiences of trauma, and they draw on their experience as counselors to explore what it means to be drawn toward God. But in the end I found not much fresh here and I found the authors drawing firm conclusions without either offering much evidence or without acknowledging that other Christians have come to different conclusions. A small example is the conclusion that "the death of Christ was always God's plan. . ." They authors here might have mentioned that such theologians as Alfred North Whitehead answer the question of whether that "was always God's plan" with much more nuance and, thus, much more interestingly.


* The Friends We Keep: Unleasting Christianity's Compassion for Animals, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. This is an overdue book. Using her prophetic voice, the author calls Christians to account for how they have treated animals and calls them to an ethic that makes room for a healthy and loving relationship with animals. The Bible, of course, is full of animals, from Noah's Ark to the Holy Spirit as a dove, with the animals at Jesus' birth in between. But as Hobgood-Oster points out, somehow over time Christians have lost sight of their responsibility to live in harmony with animals, even ones who provide some of our food. In addition to a renewed call to the ethical treatment of animals, the book contains lots of interesting history as well as disturbing stories of horse racing, dog fighting and lions eating Christians.

* Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time, by Jane Knuth. Ah, a well-written book with a realistic view of what it means to help poor people. This is a collection of stories about people who use a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store but who, in turn, teach the volunteer clerks there a great deal about what it means to be fully human. There is no romanticizing of poverty here, just true tales of real people who will change your life, as they changed Jane Knuth's.

* Running on Faith: The Principles, Passion, and Pursuit of a Winning Life, by Jason Lester, with Tim Vandehey. If stories of people overcoming barriers inspire you, this will light your fire. The author is a Christian athlete who has pushed himself to and past the limit to accomplish quite amazing things. Lester, badly injured as a 12-year-old, has relied on his faith not just to survive but to excel. True, at times here Lester seems to want to universalize his story to all of us. Such as when he writes: "When you say yes to the opportunities that frighten or intimidate you, God will always do two things. He will give you gifts, and he will humble you." It is, of course, a little presumptuous to tell others what God will "always" do. Still, it's hard not to admire what Lester has accomplished and to be inspired by it.

* Life Without Limits: Inspiration for a Ridiculously Good Life, by Nick Vujicic. If you want to be doubly inspired by people who have overcome physical disabilities with the help of their faith, read this book after you read the book just above here. The author, in his late 20s, was born in Australia of Serbian immigrants, but born without either arms or legs, a condition known as phocamelia. But this clearly hasn't deterred Vujicic (pronounced Voy-a-chich) from leading a happy and productive life. To get a sense of his spirit, click here for a YouTube presentation of him talking to children and then describing for others moving from hopelessness to resolve. He has devoted his life to encouraging people to overcome whatever they face.

Also: I haven't had a chance to check out American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but religious scholar Martin E. Marty reviews the book here.

Finally, two books I have something to do with:


* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. The book came out just over a year ago. All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.


* Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by lots of Kansas Citians, including me. This gorgeous book describes lots of people buried in this historic cemetery on the city's east side. I wrote the chapter on clergy buried there.

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Will Pope Benedict XVI be a guest on Conan O'Brien's new TBS show? Maybe, this report says. Hmmm. What do you think? Would it be a good way to appeal to Conan viewers or just the trivialization of religion as entertainment? My vote: 20 percent the former, 80 the latter.

Learning to talk about faith: 10-22-10


This year's Festival of Faiths of Kansas City is off and running. Author Bruce Feiler, the keynoter, engaged a sanctuary full of folks at Village Presbyterian Church with his remarks Tuesday evening and by the responses to the questions I asked him after he spoke. (The picture above shows us in the Q&A session.)

The next day, Feiler spoke (shown in the photo on the left) to a gymnasium full of Christian, Jewish and Muslim students gathered at Notre Dame de Sion High School. In both venues, though he told different stories and approached the subject in different ways, his message was the same:


Interfaith dialogue is "the most important conversation of the 21st Century." We simply must learn to live in religious harmony, he said, and we do that not by giving up our own commitment to our own faith tradition but, rather, by learning about the faith commitments others make and respecting their freedom to make such choices.

I taped his primary address at Notre Dame de Sion -- which focused on the importance of interfaith dialogue much more than did his talk at Village -- and you can listen to it by clicking on this link: Download Feiler-NDS. It runs about 14 minutes and is a bit tinny because of the echo in that large space. But I think it should give you a sense of this bright young writer and thinker. After he spoke, the Rev. Brian Ellison served as moderator for the Q&A, and the students had lots of good questions.

In our Tuesday night conversation we spoke about people who bind themselves to an exclusivist interpretation of their faith tradition. Yes, Feiler said, you can find that exclusivism in all three Abrahamic faiths (and probably others) but you also can find an interpretation that is much more inclusive and welcoming in each faith. The issue is which one you choose.

And when he spoke to the students at Notre Dame, he said it's an error to get discouraged because a certain percentage of people want no part of interreligious contact or understanding. Instead, he said, remember that the majority of people are willing for such dialogue. They simply need to be asked and encouraged to participate. That, he told the students, is your job. Indeed, that's exactly the purpose of the new Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance.

A couple of other points from Feiler that I liked: When you begin to talk about religion with someone else, use "I," not "we." Using "we" may put you in the position of having to defends some things about your religion that may be indefensible. Also, he said, before you say something critical about someone else's religion, say something critical about your own.

I've said over and over again here and in other venues that interfaith harmony is the call of the 21st Century. And I'm glad I live in a city in which people are trying to live that out. We all simply need to invite more people into the conversation -- and then the conversation must lead to constructive action. Feiler's two appearances for the Festival of Faiths were good reminders to all of us of exactly that.

(Other Festival of Faiths events are coming. The link I gave you in the first paragraph above will take you to a page that will tell you about them.)

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A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows Americans give faith communities low marks when it comes to handling issues of homosexuality. No surprise. So many religious groups seem to treat gays and lesbians as subhuman. It's appalling. I plan to delve into this survey in more depth here next week. But if you want to read the survey itself now, click here.

Returning stolen Jewish art: 10-21-10

Last month in this blog entry, I wrote about efforts to return to Jews the property and art looted from them by the Nazis in and just before World War II.


There's been a new development in this field from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference. It reports that "Nazi records and photographs of the looting of more than 20,000 individual art objects from Jews in France and Belgium are now online in a searchable database."

The Claims Conference says that museums, art dealers, and auction houses should consult this new listing, which is searchable by item, artist, owner and whether items have been returned, to determine whether they hold any Nazi-looted art. Families seeking valuable heirlooms also should be looking at this online collection.

The searches can be conducted through this site. The primary focus is on objects looted by what was called the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a “Special Task Force” that plundered art from French Jewish and a number of Belgian Jewish collections from 1940 to 1944.

As for the photo here today, here's what the ERR site says about it: "ERR depot of Neuschwanstein, Germany—Worker carrying crate of looted cultural property on his shoulders for loading onto a truck headed for the ERR art repository codenamed “Lager Peter” in the salt mines about Altaussee, Austria, 12 June 1944."

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The question of what the First Amendment to the Constitution says or doesn't say suddently came up this week in the Delaware race for a U.S. Senate seat, and the GOP candidate, Christine O’Donnell, has been taking heat for seeming not to know what the First Amendment says. One of those criticizing her is Stephen Prothero, whose book Religious Literacy I much admire. Click here to read what he has to say about all this. My guess, however, is that as goofy as O'Donnell sounded on this issue, she was mostly trying to repeat the old news that the actual phrase "separation of church and state" is not found in the Constitution. Which is true. But the concept is there and case law based on the Constitution has established the principle firmly in American jurisprudence. What many people don't seem to get, however, is that the concept of separation of church and state is meant to keep the government out of religion, not religious people from offering their ideas in the public square.

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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read "Coming back to a sustainable pace of life," click here.

Training faithful minds: 10-20-10

Like it or not, each of us is a theologian -- even people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or even misotheists.


That's because each of us ultimately comes to some conclusion about whether God exists and, if so, what the nature of God is.

So the question is not whether we'll be theologians. The question is what kind of theologians we'll be. For many people of faith, sadly, the answer is: uneducated, careless or sometimes know-it-all. Instead, I think we're called to be thoughtful, educated and modest theologians, recognizing that our finite minds cannot, in the end, fully grasp the infinite.

But to reach that point we need help. And one of the best new books to help Christians in this endeavor today is The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind, by Alister McGrath.

McGrath holds the chair of theology, ministry and education and heads up the Centre for Theology, Religion & Culture at King's College in London. Prior to that he taught at Oxford. He's an excellent writer and a wise thinker.

McGrath doesn't want us to throw away the ways in which faith can and does affect us emotionally and even mystically. Rather, while holding on to that, Christians, he says, should "appreciate that there remains an intellectual core to the Christian faith. We cnanot love God without wanted to understand more about him."

Indeed, that's precisely why I've spent most of the last 50 years of my life, starting as a teenager, reading mostly theology. I have a hunger to understand more deeply why I believe what I believe and why it moves me to act in certain ways and not in others. I've always thought that, in the end, the eternal questions are the only questions.

McGrath here encourages this pursuit, suggesting that not only is it not crazy but it's necessary if we're to hold on to a faith that makes sense, that's somehow coherent as well as transformative.

If you've been longing to dive a little deeper into Christian thought and life, this new book would be an excellent place to start.

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When people of faith dive off the deep end and use their religion to justify terrorism and other forms of violence, at what point are the rest of us obligated to invite them into rational conversation? In some ways that's the issue now in Afghanistan. This intriguing piece makes the case for sitting down and talking seriously with the Taliban now. What may prevent that very thing is the failure to distinguish between and among elements of radicals who use Islam to justify their ways. Clearly there's no use talking to the Osama bin Ladens of the world. Instead, he and his al-Qaida thugs need to be captured and imprisoned for life. But there appear to be elements within or attached to the Taliban who may be open to reason. May. It's not yet clear. I think the Kabul government and its U.S. and allied backers must move with extreme caution as they consider a negotiation session with Taliban representatives. But to refuse such a possibility outright is to paint all radicals with the same brush and thus to engage in the very binary thinking that plagues so many of the radicals.

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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read "Coming back to a sustainable pace of life," click here.