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Saudi Arabia's future: 2-28-11

On the blog here over the weekend, I linked you to a Washington Post column that suggested Saudi Arabia, where Islam began, may be next in line to experience the tumultuous wave of protests and liberation sweeping through northern Africa and the Middle East.

Saudiflag As I mentioned then, I was in Saudi Arabia in 2002 aspart of a journey through Islamic countries after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I wrote longish pieces then for The Kansas City Star about Islam from Riyadh and about the future of Saudi Arabia from Jeddah.

Today I want to share the latter of those two articles because, even though it's 8-plus years old, I think it offers some still-useful insight in the House of Saud's kingdom and why it may be on the verge of something like a revolution.

I remember that when I left Saudi Arabia in 2002, some of the journalists I was with talked about how long it might be until the House of Saud implodes. The guesses were between 5 and 10 years, with most of us thinking the monarchy, with some reforms, could last more like 10 at least, but not much longer. Well, indeed there have been some reforms under King Abdullah, who was crown prince when we met with him. But it's now unclear whether they have been enough. My gut says no. At any rate, here's the piece I wrote in 2002 (with a few links added):

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- It's 12:23 p.m. on a recent Monday in the old marketplace of this historic port city on the Red Sea. A sonorous male voice over loudspeakers is filling the warm, humid air with the call to noon-hour prayers.

    The cloth merchant whose small shop is just in front of me drags a large blue covering over his wares. Around the corner the Seiko watch shop shuts down. And nearby the Citizen watch dealer also closes so that Muslims (in this country, that means everyone but foreign nationals who work on contract and a few visitors) may engage in one of their five required daily prayers.

    No doubt people in the capital of Riyadh are stopping work at the Saudi American Clinic, at Pepsi distributorships, at Starbucks, McDonald's, Toys R Us and Baskin Robbins so they, too, may pray. ("Americans built this country," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh. "Saudis paid for it.")

    Here in the Jeddah market this noon, I see no mutawwa'in, the religious police, but they aren't far away, and they are authorized to make sure people behave in acceptable Islamic ways - or, at least ways approved by the Saudi government. Saudiflag

    "Islam is our way of life," says Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed, Saudi minister of education. "It's not just worshiping."

    Adds Foad al Farsy, information minister: "It's not easy to understand the way of life in Saudi Arabia. Religion is a very dominant factor."

    The profoundly conservative variety of Islam known as Wahhabism, in fact, is the very air Saudis breathe.

    And that is part of the tension Saudi Arabia faces as it confronts modernity - the relationship between a strict form of Islam and a high-tech, warp-speed world of commerce, entertainment and sociological change. Beyond that, it is trying to work through all this with an unelected government led by a royal family that is directly accountable to no one - however much it must curry favor with its subjects.

    "It's a complicated society," says an American businessman with long experience here, "very complicated."

    The Arab civilization is ancient, and Islam itself is nearly 1,400 years old. But Saudi Arabia is just 70 years old. Its constitution is the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, which Muslims believe God dictated to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century through the angel Gabriel. King Fahd (one of the almost four dozen sons of the country's founder, King Abdul Aziz) now holds the title of custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam, in Mecca and Medina.

    Church and state here are one. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs appoints - and, when they stray from orthodoxy, removes - the imams in the country's 40,000 mosques. But how long can this puritanical version of Islam survive in a society that's growing too fast for its own good (the capitol of Riyadh, for instance, has ballooned from about 100,000 people 50 years ago to 4.5 million today)? Can austere religion escape unchanged in a nation struggling to find jobs for a population with a median age of 17?

    Saudiflag And can the Saudi government - led by an anachronistic if well-meaning monarchy that tolerates and even encourages nepotism where it desperately needs meritocracy - persist or will it be swept into history's large pile of failed rulers?

    These questions cannot be answered definitively yet. The Saudi leadership - political, religious and economic - says both the Saudi form of Islam and the government can and will make it. But there are many reasons to be skeptical about such optimism.

    How questions about the future of the faith and the government are answered will have an enormous effect on the United States. Despite a series of disagreements and the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - perpetrated mostly by disaffected Saudis - Saudi Arabia has had a long, fruitful relationship with the United States. It supplies much of the oil we import and is of key strategic importance in the volatile Middle East, as evidenced by the American troops still stationed here to keep a watchful eye on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

    Saudis and the Americans who work here all want the United States and Saudi Arabia to have a long, friendly, profitable relationship. But Sept. 11 has made that more difficult.

    "We had 60 years of friendship with the United States that blew up in flames, in smoke," says Khaled Al-Maeena, editor of the English language newspaper Arab News ( To be sure, it has been pragmatic, self-interested friendship on both sides but that's often what passes for friendship in geopolitics.

    Now, however, the number of Saudi tourists and college students coming to America has dropped dramatically because they feel unwelcome. And Saudis almost universally express frustration about being blamed for the Sept. 11 hijackings and about seeing that blame extended to all of Islam. They say it's like blaming average Americans for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City terrorist, though that analogy falls apart on many levels.

    "To demonize Islam, to make us look like aliens, that is something that I cannot stand," says Al-Maeena. (A Western diplomat here has this wise suggestion: "Don't treat friends like enemies or they will become enemies.")

    "Even before the whole world knows about (terrorism) we started fighting it," Crown Prince Abdullah told our visiting group of American journalists in the opulent green and gold reception hall of his palace. "We were one of the first nations to suffer from terrorism."

    However, even if you discount the disruptive aftermath of Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia faces a future that could turn ugly before it improves. If the country stays engaged with the rest of the world - as it must to sell oil - the pressures to modify social restrictions rooted in its conservative religion may become overwhelming.

    Saudiflag Some of these restrictions aren't really religious but, rather, cultural. The Qur'an, for instance, naturally says nothing about forbidding women to drive cars. But Saudi Arabia forbids it. Few women work outside the home, though some are well-educated. Indeed, I met intelligent, thoughtful women who hold well-informed opinions on many subjects.

    Still, many Saudi women feel trapped. In private moments, health-care workers confide that lots of women are almost certainly clinically depressed, though diagnosing that is hard because doctors don't get to talk to women alone. Beyond that, they say, lots of young Saudi women try to commit suicide. Even if these stories are exaggerated, the cultural pressure such conditions represent cannot be contained forever.

    "It's difficult to talk human rights issues in this country," says a Western diplomat in Riyadh. "You easily have Saudis getting very defensive."

    Modernity - never entirely kept out - is increasingly breaking through the Saudi veil. Satellite TV dishes are everywhere, though they were legalized only a year and a half ago. The Internet, cell phones and other accouterments of cultures-in-a-hurry are here, too.

    "Saudi law," says an American working here, "doesn't change as quickly as Saudi society does."

    It's not clear how high-tech advances and other changes will - or can - be fully accommodated in a culture resistant to change, but some people are willing to guess.

    "I don't think it will affect society," says Information Minister al Farsy. "I lived in America for seven years, and I never missed one prayer. Never."

    More credible is a Western diplomat's assessment of the Saudi government's control of change: "They'll continue to muddle on because they're sitting on this ocean of oil." That oil allows the royal Saud family, if necessary, to redirect resources to areas of social or cultural discontent and, thus, keep domestic peace.

    Saudia Arabia, in fact, is blessed with the largest known oil reserves in the world, and Petroleum Ministry officials say they'll be quite content if world oil prices stay at roughly current levels. Oil represents most of both the Saudi economy and government revenues.

    Pressure to use that money to mollify citizens is likely to grow. Many young people now are jobless, and the median income of Saudis has fallen in recent years. So young people entering the job market will discover they must work harder than their parents did just to make less money.

    A Western diplomat in Riyadh calls this a "demographic time bomb."

    More worrisome for Americans is that fewer Saudis are coming to the United States for college. The number of American-educated government officials here is simply overwhelming. Education Minister Rasheed is typical. He has degrees from Indiana University (as do a number of his aides) and the University of Oklahoma and has taught at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Two of his seven children were born in the United States. Another example is Abdulrahman H. Al-Saeed, a close advisor to the crown prince. Al-Saeed taught for several years in the 1970s at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

    Saudiflag But Saudi Arabia now has built its own universities. That development, coupled with the current Saudi sense of being unwelcome in the United States after Sept. 11, means the next generation of Saudis will not have the same deep personal experience of America or, perhaps, the same good feelings toward us.

    Because Saudi Arabia has been unable (and unwilling) to train and educate a fully integrated male-female work force from among its own citizens, it has brought in 6 million foreign nationals to work in various jobs. For instance, at the medical facility in Riyadh that serves the military, I met a nurse from Germany, a nurse from South Africa and a physician from Canada, all of whom work on contract.

    Now, however, the government has adopted a policy of "Saudization" of the work force. It wants the percentage of Saudi employees in most fields to grow by 5 percent a year. The goal this year is 35.

    "If you ask the private sector," says one Saudi businessman, "many are not so gung-ho for Saudization." But they understand the long-term need for it and support it, he says, despite the inefficiencies and disruptions it may cause initially.

    Saudi Arabia, despite its enormous cultural differences with the United States and despite such severe disputes as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, has long been a useful American ally. Saudis think America has adopted an unjust bias toward Israel and against the Palestinians and are distressed that a country often in favor of oppressed people has not done right by the Palestinians. But they hope America will recognize the value of an honest and practical relationship with Saudi Arabia.

    The Saudi minister of Islamic Affairs, Shaikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al Ashaikh, says he doesn't like the oft-used metaphor that Americans and Saudis are on different sides of a "clash of civilizations."

    "We prefer dialogue," says the man in charge of making sure people in the Jeddah market get called to prayer each day. Dialogue, in fact, is the only answer in the long run. But dialogue requires that we understand the Saudis and Islam as well as they understand Americans. So far, that's a test most Americans fail.

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Lebanon, as you may know, has a government organized along religious lines. That means the president is to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. But now Lebanese people are demanding an end to that system. It's one more country in turmoil in the Middle East and northern Africa, and heaven only knows when, if ever, some kind of peace will return to the region. My guess? Not soon.

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P.S.: The Greater Kansas City Spiritual Leadership Summit will take place June 4 at New Vision Christian Church (a Disciples of Christ congregation) at 9101 Blue Ridge Blvd., Kansas City. Looks like a day of excellent speakers and workshops, and not just for folks in DOC congregations but any Christian tradition. For a pdf with details -- and to download to pass along to others -- click on this link: Download LeadershipSummitBrochure2011.

Renewing Mainline churches: 2-26/27-11

Rumors of the death of Mainline Christian churches (you know, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, etc.) are exaggerated.

Greenhouses-of-Hope Yes, of course, there has been decline. And worry. And solemn pronouncements about notifying next-of-kin and so forth.

But, as we learned a few years ago from Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, there are all kinds of examples of vibrant Mainline churches that have figured out how to do ministry and grow in this post-modern era.

There's now an excellent new book that I consider something of a helpful follow-up to Diana's book. It's Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World, edited (and partly written) by Dori Grinenko Baker.

Through a series of essays by interesting writers who know what they're talking about, the book offers a vision of a brighter future for the church generally, though I think perhaps the Mainline churches may benefit the most because of their need, especially if they are open to new ideas. Indeed, the book is primarily intended for struggling Mainliners.

The book came about as a result of work done by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), which seeks to identify and support new church leaders. Baker, a United Methodist elder, joined FTE three years ago after teaching at seminaries for 10 years.

There are exciting and effective ways for the church to be the church in the 21st Century, but it requires a willingness to do what my own pastor calls "community exegesis," which means listening to -- and thus discovering -- the needs of the people around you before you decide what ministries to create to meet those needs. And most of the "the people around you" aren't sitting next to you in church. They're outside of church and yet they're spiritually hungry and searching for meaning in their lives.

Baker writes that the churches she calls "Greenhouses of Hope" are "learning from the Emergent Church Movement that if you want to start a new church, you go hang out at the local coffee shop to hear what people care about."

The authors of this book offer various possibilities for reaching out to such people and sharing with them the revolution of love and grace contained in the Gospel, but sharing it in a way that makes sense for this time and place. This is a book for church study groups to read together -- and then figure out how to put the ideas here into action.

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As turmoil continues in the Middle East and northern Africa, the question of the future of Saudi Arabia, which is Islam's ground zero, has come to the table. This good analysis suggests the Saudi government may not be able to withstand the liberation tide. I suspect the author is right. In fact, I was in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and wrote a longish piece for The Kansas City Star analyzing that very question then. I'm going to share that piece with you here on the blog Monday. The piece is 8-plus years old but even I'm (immodestly) impressed with how relevant it seems to be to what's happening today. I think it will help you understand what's happening now in Saudi Arabia.

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P.S.: Even though the annual AIDSWalk Kansas City event is some weeks away (April 30), you can beat the pledge rush by going to my Firstgiving Web site today to make a pledge that will benefit the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater KC. Thanks for your help. It's a cause to which I've devoted my heart for more than 20 years.

Are U.S. prisoners tortured? 2-25-11

I have written before (here, for instance) on the blog about prisons and torture.

Prison2 And I think it's well worth the while of people of faith to ask whether the government and the prison systems they support with their tax dollars engage in torture, a practice (despite the admission of former President George W. Bush that he approved its use) that goes against almost every fiber of religion.

That's why I've highlighted the work of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Today I want to bring the question of the use of torture closer to home and share with you this piece, which suggests that the super-max security prisons in the U.S. regularly use torture, especially in the form of long solitary confinements.

America seems to have gone prison crazy. For more -- and more recent -- details from the Department of Justice, click here.

I guess that somehow we imagine it will make all of us safer if we lock up anyone who has violated any part of the law. It's a foolish approach that in some ways results in more clever criminals, who sometimes learn in prison how to commit crimes better.

I can't vouch for everything said in the super-max prison piece to which I've linked you. But there's enough there to make all of us raise questions about this.

And if we're not doing at least that much, we may be complicit in what is going on behind bars.

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What have religious leaders been saying and doing about the protests in Wisconsin (now spreading elsewhere)? Click here for a pretty good round-up that at least partly answers that question. Some people get upset when faith communities issue statements or take actions relative to political matters or some time of hot current event. But I don't see how they can be faithful to their values by remaining silent when something needs to be said.

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AfterShock After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken, by Kent Annan. I like this book a lot, mostly because it doesn't try to let God off the hook. The author has worked in Haiti for a number of years and, in this volume, describes the devastation of the country in the murderous January 2010 earthquake and the way in which such a disaster tested his faith -- and can test ours. Early in the book he gets it right: "People who claimed definitive answers on faith, doubt and suffering can't be trusted." In response to what happened to Haiti and several other crises, Annan says, ". . .I've been in a cold war with God, setting up a demilitarized zone between God and me. . ." The stories of Haiti are compelling, but even more compelling is the way Annan seeks to ask the hard questions of faith and not accept simple answers. Indeed, the questions of theodicy -- that is, the old questions about why there's evil in the world if God is good -- are the open wound of religion. And, ultimately, all theodicies that seek to answer that question fail. Annan, though a committed Christian, acknowledges that sometimes these hard questions turn him into an agnostic. But through it all he's learned that it's only when faith is tested in this way that one can truly own it and, in the end, rely on it when one's world comes crashing down.

Perspective on upheavals: 2-24-11

In a time of religious and political unrest, which is surely the case now in northern Africa and the Middle East, it may be helpful to gain some perspective by remembering that the world has seen such turmoil before.

Charles5 Today, in fact, is a good day to remember that because it's the anniversary of the birth in 1500 of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (depicted here), who was born in Ghent in Flanders.

Charles (whose grandparents were the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain) was born right into the upheaval that became known as the Protestant Reformation and eventually the Wars of Religion.

Indeed, it was Charles V who condemned Martin Luther as a heretic after Luther refused to recant his views.

Truth be told, Charles V was sort of a reluctant foe of Luther. Indeed, he had wanted the church to concern itself with some of the reforms that Luther was proposing, but the fact is that the church waited too long to deal with Protestantism, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was said that the sun never set on the territory under Charles' reign, so vast was it. And with its vastness came an enormous amount of political and religious upheaval. This site offers a pretty good sense of what Charles faced. At the death of Luther in 1546, religious warfare broke out, which meant that Charles was dealing with all of that for the rest of his life, which ended in 1558. (The so-called Wars of Religion generally are dated from 1562, a few years after Charles V died.)

So, yes, the political-religious tensions in the world today are legion, but they are not unprecedented.

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Thank goodness for U.S. courts. They can help sort out difficult situations. For instance, a new lawsuit just filed against the FBI contends that one of its informants spied on members of a California mosque simply because they are Muslims. If that's really what the FBI did, the practice must be exposed and stopped. But can one trust an FBI informant to tell the truth in court? And was the FBI simply doing its job of trying to find terrorists before they strike? As I say, thank goodness for courts, where all this can be sorted out -- if all works well.

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Brueggemann P.S.: Don't forget that the fabulous biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (pictured here) will speak at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., twice this weekend, Friday and Saturday.

Then on Sunday he'll preach twice at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission and do a 3-6 p.m. workshop that day.

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

Pondering our values: 2-23-11

ust so you know, I'm not the only journalist doing brilliant (in the Missourian language that means adequate) online work to keep people informed about matters pertaining to religion and ethics.

David Crumm, former religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and now founding editor of, which I've told you about before, does wonderful work giving readers lots to think about each day. And now he's expanded his franchise to include a great new offering called Our Values.

The Our Values site was created by Dr. Wayne E. Baker (pictured here), a sociologist on the senior faculty of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, who has worked with David for some years.

Wayne-Baker The link I've given you to Baker in the previous paragraph also will provide more information about what he, Crumm and others working on the Our Values site are trying to do with it.

But a recent good example has been Our Values' presentation on the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. You can start here with that series of postings. And my guess is that you won't anticipate the final verdict on the question.

I've bemoaned the fact here many times that religious illiteracy is simply rampant in this country, which is why I've often recommended that you start to fix that by reading Stephen Prothero's book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.

Sites like ReadTheSpirit and its Our Values offshoot are trying to help in that regard, as I try to do that here on Faith Matters.

So go to FeedMyInbox and sign up to have the OurValues and ReadTheSpirit sites e-mailed to you each day. And do the same for this "Faith Matters" site so you don't have to remember to drop in here every day but can connect through e-mail. And then pass along that idea to your friends.

Consider this a grassroots movement to raise our religious IQ. It's vital that we do that so that America doesn't degenerate into the kind of sectarian violence we've seen elsewhere in the world. We can be a model for religious harmony, but it starts with getting rid of our ignorance.

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The first new Reform synagogue in Germany since the Holocaust has opened. As you may know the roots of the Reform movement are found in Germany. At the start of Hitler's time some half million Jews called Germany home. Today the figure is around 200,000, though most of those are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The new synagogue Is a heartening sign that the old antisemitic Germany is different today, though for sure antisemitism continues to be a problem across Europe.

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

The Bible and sex: 2-22-11

Today's blog post is the second of a two-part series of blog posts introducing you to important new books about the Bible.

* Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, by Jennifer Wright Knust.

Unprotected-texts In our culture's on-going and often tedious debate about all matters of sexuality, the Bible gets used and abused perhaps more than any other source.

This is especially true in arguments about homosexuality. (Look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page to find a link to my own essay about what the Bible really says about homosexuality.)

In many pulpits today you can find preachers who are absolutely certain that homosexual acts, to say nothing of homosexual orientation, are sins clearly denounced in the Bible.

The Bible also is cited in debates about marriage, premarital sex, masturbation and on and on.

But are we getting any of this right? That's the question raised -- and quite clearly answered -- in Unprotected Texts, a great and useful read despite a title that is too clever by half.

The author, an American Baptist pastor who teaches religion at Boston University, wants readers of the Bible to quit imagining that its messages and contents are simple and without issues that require readers to struggle. For purposes of this book, she puts it this way:

"The Bible fails to offer girls -- or anyone -- a consistent message regarding sexual morals and God's priorities. . . Still, the fiction that there is a single biblical sexual standard is repeatedly invoked. . ."

Such simplistic arguments, she says, are "demeaning to the complexity and richness of the biblical books. . .I'm tired of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce its stories and its teachings to slogans. The only way that the Bible can be regarded as straightforward and simple is if no one bothers to read it."

Like Timothy Beal, author of the book I wrote about here yesterday, Jennifer Wright Knust grew up in a home that took the Bible seriously, which meant that she was allowed to ask hard questions about the meaning of biblical stories.

One result of this freedom to approach the Bible with an open mind and open heart is that today, as I mentioned, she is both a pastor and a biblical scholar.

It's hard to think of any aspect of sexuality that she doesn't cover in this book, which even though it is scholarly, with tons of footnotes, is remarkably easy to read. This is a book that should be adopted by church study groups that are serious about the Bible, serious about questioning and understanding sexuality and open to being surprised by what the Good Book says -- and what it doesn't say.

People who read this book along with The Rise and Fall of the Bible, subject of yesterday's post, will get a profound understanding of the Bible. Heck, they might even want to take the Bible off their coffee tables or bookshelves and read it.

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Have you heard about the new Broadway musical about Mormons? This USA Today blog suggests that Mormons may not need to fear it, given that they come off pretty well in it. If you could do a musical about your faith group, what would it look like? I'd probably start one about us Presbyterians at a committee meeting.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read "Standing with Jesus," click here.

Help with the Bible: 2-21-11

I will introduce you today and tomorrow to two new books about the most influential book ever written -- the Bible. But before I do I want to set the stage a bit.

Bibles First, let's remember that the Bible -- whether we're talking about the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Bible (pick your version) -- is not a single book. It's a collection of books. In the New Revised Standard Version, which you'll find in many Mainline Protestant churches, the Hebrew scriptures, often called the Old Testament, consists of 39 books. The New Testament contains 27 books.

"Books" here is a bit of a misnomer in that some of these books are simply letters. But never mind that. The point is that this collection of books was put together over a long period of time and has many authors who lived sometimes centuries apart.

Next, let's acknowledge that there are countless was of interpreting the Bible. For some, it's the literal word of God and contains no errors or contradictions of any kind, whether historical or scientific or cultural. For others (I'm in this group), it's the word of God mediated to us by the words of humans, and it must be studied with a careful eye toward when it was written, to whom, under what circumstances and the meaning of particular words at the time they were written. To others, it's just an interesting book of stories from which one might (or might not) draw some lessons about morality. (I've described here three approaches, but there are others.)

All right. Now let's look at:

* Rise The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, by Timothy Beal.

This is both a wonderfully readable and important book. It speaks to the spiritual hunger many of us feel and does so in a clear and personal way.

The author is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, but how he came to teach religion in a secular school is perhaps at least as important to this book as what he's doing there now. He grew up in a biblically literate household he describes as "conservative evangelical."

His parents were regular Bible readers and they encouraged Beal to be the same, which he was while growing up. But it was only later, as a young adult, that he really sat down and read the Bible carefully. The contents shocked and confused him. This was not the answers-to-everything book he imagined it to be. Rather, it was full of stories of sinful people doing strange things, he found. He writes:

"I knew what Bible answers I was supposed to find. But actually opening and reading the Bible was undermining my belief in it."

(It's one reason readers of any sacred writ should read it in the company of someone who can help explain its meaning[s].)

So he decided to look into how it came together, who wrote it, what the stories are trying to say and more. This process humbled and yet intrigued him. And he came away from the experience thinking something like what an Orthodox rabbi once explained to me about the Talmud, which he described as "3,000 pages long, 90 percent of which is unresolved debate." The point of having a Talmud that long and not a short guidebook, he said, was for the reader never to "think your understanding is the final one."

That's how Beal now approaches the Bible -- open to hearing it speak to new generations, open to applying ancient wisdom to new situations, open to hearing God's word ringing down through the centuries and striking its truth into previously unimagined circumstances.

This is what he writes about that: ". . .the Bible as the literal Word of God and closed book of answers is a dead end."

Beal's book is a trip not through that kind of answers Bible but an explanation of how to understand its appeal and power today. It's a wise, careful, realistic and helpful book for anyone who wants to take scripture seriously, something (as I have said before) you can't do if you take it literally.

Tomorrow I will introduce you to Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, by Jennifer Wright Knust.

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You may have wondered what the response of faith communities has been to the protests in Wisconsin, and no doubt they've been all over the lot. But this story has several examples of religious people who have been speaking out -- and acting -- in the midst of this controversy. For whom would your faith community speak in this dispute? And why? Or would it remain silent?

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P.S.: What? You're not getting my blog by e-mail each day so you don't forget to check out what's going on here? Well, fix that at by clicking here. The nice people there will send you my blog every day for free and you will never be out of the loop again. Well, at least not about my blog.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read "Standing with Jesus," click here.

Eisenhower's religion: 2-19/20-11

When I was in college, I took a lot of history courses. One of them focused on modern American history, and the professor would begin each lecture with an overriding question that he'd then spend the hour trying to answer.

Ike As someone who grew up in a heavily Republican county in northern Illinois, I was a little surprised one day when this was the question: "To what can we attribute the failure of the Eisenhower years?"

The lecture was not a politcal rant. Rather, it was a pretty careful look at what seemed then, in the mid-1960s -- as all kinds of social movements were stirring -- a do-little period of eight calm years under Dwight D. Eisenhower (pictured here) that swept problems under the rug. Oh, it wasn't that harsh, because the professor acknowledged some of Ike's accomplishments. But his analysis suggested that we had entered a period of social unrest in part because the Eisenhower-Nixon administrations hadn't done much to move the ball forward on such matters as civil rights, equality for women and so forth.

Ever since then I've been interested to read things about Eisenhower that could either confirm or deny the professor's thesis. I think today that professor would treat Ike a little more tenderly. Nonetheless, it's been intriguing to see historians unpack the 1950s and offer their perspectives.

One aspect of Ike that doesn't get much play is his connection to religion. Perhaps that's because that connection was rather tenuous in some ways and was never the focus of much public attention.

So I was intrigued to find this recent piece in The American Spectator, which concludes that "In religion, as in so much else, Ike was far more sophisticated than commonly realized."

The piece reminds us that Ike's mother came from an Anabaptist tradition and later joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. It also reminds us that Ike was baptized a Christian while he was president and attended Presbyterian churches in Washington and later in Gettysburg, where he preached at least once.

So have a read about Ike's faith. Given all the attention given to Barack Obama's religious connections, it's nice at least to read a piece that doesn't raise the question of whether Ike was really a Muslim.

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Do you know about the Christian who lives next to Tahrir Square in Cairo and who was at the very center of the revolution, offering support to all the people he called "Facebook kids"? Let New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tell you the fascinating story. Talk about interfaith work to make changes for the good, here's a great example. By the way, the Pew Research Center offers this new estimate of how many Christians there are now in Egypt.

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 River-of-Poss River of Possibilities, by Marti Lawrence. This is an e-book novel by a Kansas City area writer. Indeed much of the book is set in Kansas City, and one of the characters was born the day the skywalks collapsed at the Hyatt Hotel in 1981. Why might it interest people who care about religious themes? Because it moves readers to think about the paranormal. I don't have much interest in or, frankly, respect for such things as Tarot cards and psychic readings, perhaps partly because the Bible itself suggests one should be wary of all that. Part of verse 28 in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, for instance, says people should not "practice divination or soothsaying." But over the years people have been fascinated by the capabilities of the human brain and by the idea that ghosts may inhabit the earth in some way. This story of mystery, murder and, well, mayhem at times has characters who seem to have psychic powers and characters who run into ghosts. The story itself is engaging, perhaps especially because of its local setting, and it moves quickly and easily. But it's impossible to read the 125 pages (in the pdf version) without asking yourself questions about the nature of any afterlife and about whether there is anything to the psychic mysteries that seem to defy understanding. It may make you want to ask leaders of your religious tradition what that tradition teaches about all of this -- and whether you buy into that teaching.

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P.S.: What? You're not getting my blog by e-mail each day so you don't forget to check out what's going on here? Well, fix that at by clicking here. The nice people there will send you my blog every day for free and you will never be out of the loop again. Well, at least not about my blog.

An interfaith college event: 2-18-11

If Americans are to figure out how to live long-term in religious harmony, the idea will have to take root among young people.

Interfaith That's why I was delighted to learn that Princeton University this weekend is host for the Fifth National Conference of Collegiate Interfaith Leaders, an event called Coming Together 5.

Princeton was host for the first such gathering in 2006. After that, collegiate interfaith leaders held gatherings at Johns Hopkins, University of Southern California and University of Puget Sound. And now the fifth such event comes back to Princeton.

This is how a Princeton press release explains the need for such a gathering:

"As religion increasingly factors into public life, interest in religion has dramatically risen among American college students. Simultaneously, campuses have become more religiously diverse with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh groups forming alongside mainline Christian, Evangelical and Jewish groups. Given the global international nature of the American university, the potential for religious conflict on campuses has grown. In response to this interest and diversity, college students have begun forming inter-religious councils that are seen as crucial mechanisms for maintaining a positive religious atmosphere on college campuses."

Those attending this weekend will come from Stanford, Yale, Chicago, City College of New York, USC, Penn, Macalester, Texas Christian University, Rice, Oberlin, Columbia, MIT and twenty five other schools. Princeton's Religious Life Council is organizing things.

This is a religiously vibrant time in the U.S. and it's vital that we figure out how to keep adherents of various faiths (and none) from degenerating into vitriol and even violence against others. Given the appalling religious ignorance and prejudice in the U.S., these kinds of gatherings are essential.

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Ah, yes. Now we get the national debt and annual federal budget deficits as a moral issue, this USA Today blog entry notes, quoting the Religion News Service. Well, look. It has been a moral issue for a long time -- certainly since the Reagan administration ran up huge deficits. It's just that lots of folks don't want to cast it in those terms if they're benefiting from the debt. But you'll be hearing lots of political preaching over the next few months as Congress works on the budget. Perhaps after these tiresome sermons someone will suggest passing the collection plate to the folks who benefited most from the Bush-era tax cuts, which President Obama agreed to keep as part of a compromise a few months ago.

Cherry picking the Bible: 2-17-11

When my kids were growing up I was regularly surprised by two things -- what they knew and what they didn't know.

Jefferson Similarly I often learn things from readers that they assume I already know and I discover that they don't know things I can't imagine them not knowing.

One such thing is the Thomas Jefferson Bible.

Today is a good day to tell you a bit about that because it was on this date in 1801 that Thomas Jefferson (depicted here) was elected the third president of the United States.

As for Jefferson's Bible, well, it was a cut-and-paste version he himself put together after essentially removing from the New Testament any references that might suggest the divinity of Jesus Christ, a concept that Jefferson rejected.

Jefferson thought Jesus was a great ethical teacher. Period. So as this site explains, he "sought to separate those ethical teachings from the religious dogma and other supernatural elements that are intermixed in the account provided by the four Gospels."

In this view, Jefferson is diametrically opposed to the great 20th Century Christian author C.S. Lewis, who, in Mere Christianity, wrote this about people who wanted to say Jesus was just a moral teacher:

"This is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a gret moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell."

One thing about Lewis: He didn't mince words.

By the way, you still can buy the Jefferson Bible on Amazon, where it's a pretty steady seller.

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Now that Hosni Mubarak has lost the power struggle in Egypt, the Coptic Christian pope is praising the youthful leaders of the revolution -- the same people this long-time Mubarak supporter earlier told to leave Tahrir Square and go home. I'd like to think this guy saw the light and repented, but that's probably giving him too much credit.