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A girl Jesus saved from death: 3-31-11

As a rule, I don't review or comment on books of fiction here on the blog. First, because I don't read much fiction. Second, because I feel I'm not very qualified to judge the quality of fiction. And third, I have trouble staying up with all the non-fiction I want to read and call to your attention.

Jairus's-Daughter But today I'll throw all that out and tell you about a quite engaging work of fiction called Jairus's Daughter: A Midrash, by Patti Rutka.

This charming and disarming story comes after a similarly engrossing work of fiction by Rutka, Salomé, which I wrote about briefly last year here. (Scroll to the bottom of that book column.)

The term "midrash" technically means "to inquire." Thus, a midrash is an explanation of whatever it is about which the inquiry is being made. Generally the term refers to interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Rutka's story, she tells of a young girl described -- but not named -- in both Mark 5 and Luke 28. She's the girl whose father, Jairus, a temple leader, sought out Jesus so he could ask Jesus to save her from death. The gospels tell us that by the time Jesus and Jairus got to Jairus's home, the girl was dead. But Jesus raised her to new life.

Rutka names her Aviel and describes her mixed-blessing life after this astonishing event. She eventually moves from Capernaum to Jerusalem and learns to be a scribe, though of course there are rules that prevent her from using her skills to make copies of the Torah.

At the same time, Rutka introduces us to a modern woman from Madison, Wis., named Anna, a professional rock climber, who in the midst of a rocky love relationship, goes to Israel to do some work.

I'm sure I need not tell you that in a mysterious way, the lives and stories of Aviel and Anna intersect, and along the way readers get a good taste of what First Century life in the Holy Land was like and they also get introduced to some aspects of biblical interpretation.

In the end, Rutka makes an ancient gospel story breathe, and she connects it to our own lives. It's quite an achievement. Beyond that, the author understands that verbs are a writer's best friend and are what carry the freight -- a lesson many writers never figure out.

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The two people who proposed to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York now say they are considering instead an interfaith center, either at the same site or elsewhere. I still favor an Islamic center near Ground Zero for many reasons, which I explained last year here. In any case, I hope all this is resolved soon so people who are Islamophobic won't be using it as an excuse for more hatred. (And, no, not all opponents of the Ground Zero area for this center are Islamophobic.)

Questioning Islam's origins: 3-30-11

Anyone minimally familiar with Islam can recite the accepted version of its origins as a distinct religion and of its prophet, Muhammad: He was born in the late 6th Century, received the Qur'an by revelation, created a movement of his followers that swept across what is now Saudi Arabia and into the rest of the world as the religion Islam.

Quran This is what scholars now call the Muslim narrative of Islam's origins. And it is not just well entrenched, it's also accepted by many academics who have studied those beginnings. Many, but not all.

Indeed, a recent review of two books in The New York Review of Books raises the profile of scholars who now are suggesting that there is a great deal in that Muslim narrative's history that is untrustworthy. (The link I've given you in this paragraph will show you only the first few paragraphs of the long article. If you want the whole thing you must subscribe or buy a copy.)

As the author of the review writes, ". . .the seeds of doubt about the version adopted by nearly all Muslim and most Western scholars have been firmly planted. The green shoots of skepticism concerning Islam’s account of its own origins are unlikely to disappear."

I am no scholar of Islam, so my opinion about the reliability of the traditional Muslim narrative is both uninformed and irrelevant. But I do think it's healthy for adherents of any particular faith that makes historical claims about its origins or its beliefs to be open to having those claims tested. Thus, it's good for Mormonism to confront contradictory evidence about its story of ancient Middle Easterners migrating to what now is America and it's good for Judaism to look at the evidence offered by scholars who doubt that King David even existed.

I don't know where this discussion about Islam's origins is going or how it will be resolved, if at all. But faithful Muslims need not fear it, knowing that however it comes out it should not affect the spiritual truths that the religion proclaims.

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Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is thinking of running for president. Since I read this announcement I've been trying to think of even one reason to vote for a man who got tossed off the court for refusing to obey a federal court order. So far I'm blank, but give me another few years.

On misreading sacred texts: 3-29-11

n various ways in recent years -- here and in other venues -- I have been writing about sacred scripture and how best to approach it.

Quoting others (with whom I agree), I have said such things as this, when speaking about the Bible:

* You can take scripture seriously or you can take it literally, but you can't do both.

* The Bible is not a constitution to which we can go for specific answers to every dispute or question. Rather, it's a library of writings spanning many centuries by many different authors. Therefore, to begin to understand the Bible we have to know such things as to whom it was written, when, by whom, under what circumstances and how the original Greek or Hebrew (plus a few Aramaic) words might have been understood by the original audience.

* The Bible was not meant to be a scientific text book nor were the four gospels meant to be biographies of Jesus as we might think about biographies today.

* We should be doing exegesis (drawing out from the texts the meaning that's there), not eisegesis (putting in our own meaning).

And so on. (None of that is to say that in some way the Bible isn't God's word. In conformity with Reformed Tradition theology, I believe it is and therefore is authoritative for my life.)

One day last week it was my privilege to attend a clergy institute at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City sponsored by The Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, at which three presentations were made on what the Qur'an, the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about war and peace.

One of the speakers was David May, who teaches New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American Baptist institution, in suburban Shawnee, Kan. I've known David for some years and have been the beneficiary of some classes he's led on the book of Revelation at my own church.

(In the photo here today, David is on the far right. Going then from right to left, the others are Fr. Donald Grabner of Conception Abbey; Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Seminary, and, standing, Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.)

In his remarks he made before getting to the war and peace question, David said some things about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, that I want to share with you because I think they're insightful and they affirm -- and improve upon -- what I've been trying to say about scripture in recent years.

* "Texts never simply appear out of thin air. They are always grounded in very real social and cultural contexts in which they were written. These contexts influence the writings and the perspectives they generate. Therefore, one needs to be sensitive in discerning, correlating, juxtaposing and juggling the differing contexts, ancient and modern."

* "Two Christians can read the same words and narratives in the New Testament and walk away with two differing and perhaps even diametrically opposed interpretations."

In addition, May said, it's important to remember that all of the writings of the New Testament were produced within a space of about 60 years, so the social and cultural contexts of that period must be understood to make sense of what the texts are trying to say.

The point is that if we're going to read, rely on and quote the Bible to make some point or other, we must do more than simply read it in English through the lens of being 21st Century Americans. If we do that, we not only may miss what it's saying to us but, worse, we may get it so wrong that the results will be destructive.

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The U.S. military now is training chaplains about the new rules that allow gay people to serve openly, telling chaplains who believe they can't serve in such a military that they may seek voluntary departure. Seems fair. If people can't stand up for equal protection under the law, why would we want them in our military, whose members pledge to preserve and protect our Constitution?

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P.S.: From 8-10 p.m. tomorrow, the History Channel will air "Secret Access: The Vatican." It will feature behind-the-scenes footage of Pope Benedict XVI at work and prayer.

Unpacking the 'new antisemitism': 3-28-11

Antisemitism is not as old a phenomenon as anti-Judaism. The former is a racial and ethnic disease that first grew to virulent (im)maturity in the 1800s. The latter is a theological position that, though there were examples of it before the Christian era, is now thought of mostly as a Christian prejudice against people whom they falsely accused of deicide. (The book to read is Holy Hatred, by Robert Michael.)

Rosenfeld Most of the world might have hoped that modern antisemitism would have spent itself in the raging fury of the Holocaust, when two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were murdered at the hands of Germany's Nazi regime. Alas, we know that has not happened.

Indeed, antisemitism today is spreading again across Europe. And though it used to find its primary fuel in Christianity, today it finds that fuel mostly in radical Islam.

So scholars, humanitarian workers and others now are trying to understand what has become known as the "new antisemitism."

To help with that, the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University has scheduled an April 3-5 international conference.

The institute is led by Alvin Rosenfeld (pictured here), the Irving M. Glazer chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana. It was my privilege to be the second half of a two-person panel discussion with him last summer at the Indiana campus in Bloomington. He's a wise and careful thinker and his institute seems to have put together an excellent conference that I hope will shed more light on contemporary antisemitism.

I wish I were able to go to the conference, but at least am pleased to learn that the papers presented there eventually will be published.

I'm sure Rosenfeld would agree with me that one can be quite critical of the actions and policies of the modern state of Israel without being antisemitic. Indeed, there are good reasons to be upset with some of those actions and policies.

But that is quite different from the attitude reflected in former Christian teaching and in Nazi ideology that Jews are somehow a scourge and that the world would be better off without them. That's the sickness we must get to the bottom of, and I hope this conference will help.

(For my own essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look for a link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

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Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday reminded the world of the old antisemitism by going to a site in Italy where Nazis massacred both Jews and Catholics in 1944. It is important that we keep these stories of horror alive, not just for the memories of those slaughtered but for the futures of those who might be tempted to fall into this kind of evil.

Some intermarriage help: 3-26/27-11

One of the major issues that has faced Jews in America for a long time is intermarriage, which means a Jew marrying a non-Jew.

Haggadah-book-cover Indeed the rate at which Jews are marrying non-Jews has risen dramatically in recent decades. A report by the Jewish Federations of North America says this:

"As previous analyses have shown and the NJPS data confirm, the intermarriage rate among American Jews climbed dramatically over the course of the second half of the twentieth century . . . The intermarriage rate for Jews who married before 1970 stands at 13%, rises to 28% for those whose marriages started in the 1970s, and then increases again to 38% for Jews married in the first half of the 1980s."

How to think about all this and handle it is a matter for Jews and the non-Jews they marry to work out. But it's clear that there are intermarriage couples and families all over the country. I know several such couples as neighbors and friends, and am often impressed with the ways they work out a religiously divided household.

Interfaithlogo2 Some years ago, prominent journalists Steve Roberts (he's Jewish) and Cokie Roberts (she's Catholic) wrote a book called From This Day Forward to help intermarriage couples like themselves.

This month their new book, Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, appears, and it no doubt will prove to be a wonderful addition to the libraries of such families and the people who care about them.

As Roberts writes in his introduction, "The word haggadah literally means 'the telling' and comes directly from the biblical command to 'tell your children' the story of the Jews' liberation from Egypt." A haggadah refers to the words spoken at a Seder meal. Although the essential outline of the story is the same there are literally thousands of versions of haggadah using slightly different words and prayers.

Although this book is centered on the long Steve-Cokie practice (initiated by the Catholic in this case) of hosting annual Seder meals for friends, its message goes beyond that commemoration and even beyond Jewish-Christian intermarriages. Rather, it offers ways of living into interfaith relations that at once retain a commitment to one's own tradition while also learning about and respecting the traditions of others.

I have said here and in other venues that if the call to Americans of the 20th Century was to get racial harmony right, the call of this century is to get religious harmony right.

This charming little book can be one useful tool in accomplishing that lofty, important goal.

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I've been an opponent of the death penalty for as long as I can remember, believing, among many other reasons, that it's wrong for the state to lower itself to the immoral level of murderers as a way to telling people not to commit murders. But I've never quite thought of these reasons to oppose capital punishment, offered in the Los Angeles Times by a former judge who became known for the number of people he sentenced to death. As he writes, "I am deeply angered by the fact that our system of laws has become so complex and convoluted that it makes mockery of decisions I once believed promised resolution for the family members of victims." It's a good moral argument that keeps in mind the needs of the people whose needs should be kept in mind.

Pondering Egypt's future: 3-25-11

Let's return today to the revolution in Egypt and think about where that ancient civilization is headed now that it has thrown out Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt There has been much fear, especially in the West, that the outlawed-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood now will gain control and turn Egypt into an Islamist state resembling, perhaps, Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

I think that fear is unwarranted, and felt so even in 2002, when I spent some time in Egypt talking with government and religious officials.

And now my belief that the Muslim Brotherhood has no serious long-term future there is echoed in this good piece in the Financial Times by a lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics. (You may have to register -- it's free -- to read the piece.) She wraps up her agument this way:

"The Muslim Brotherhood is run by a sclerotic gerontocracy, much in the same way as the Egyptian regime it opposed for decades. It would be a mistake to underestimate its power and potential at this moment, just as one ought not exaggerate the degree to which it truly espouses democratic values. But the most effective way to diminish its power is encouraging it, or at least allowing it, to participate in a more open political field. This will expose the poverty of its political ideas. The youth-led movement calling for change in Egypt is already leaving it behind."

No one -- certainly not me -- can predict Egypt's future or the role religion will play in that future. But it sometimes seem pretty clear when history has passed by a movement. And I think that's what's happened here, though the Brotherhood won't go out quietly.

By the way, in an editorial today, the New York Times lays out a pretty balanced picture of Egypt now and its future, though I think its one mention of the Muslim Brotherhood perpetuates the myth that the Brotherhood is a long-term worry.

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The late Pope John Paul II now has a Facebook page, and this report says it has been attracting friends like crazy since its launch (March 14, though this report says May 14). There should be a term for this. How about e-mortality.

A Salvation Army birthday: 3-24-11

When people today think about the Salvation Army, my guess is that the two words that make up the name of the organization register and translate mostly as a large group of people saving others from various disasters and misfortunes.

Salvation-army For, in fact, that's much of what the Salvation Army does today. It stands ready to help people burned out of their homes, people whose worlds have been shaken by earthquakes or tornadoes, people who have experienced all kinds of economic tsunamis and now are homeless.

But today is a good day to think about the original meaning (which still has currency) of the Salvation Army, for it was on this date in 1880 that the American branch of the Salvation Army was founded. You can find the history of the Salvation Army on its U.S. Web site, and it makes interesting reading -- especially the early years in London under William Booth.

But notice how it begins: "William Booth embarked upon his ministerial career in 1852, desiring to win the lost multitudes of England to Christ. He walked the streets of London to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute."

Today the Salvation Army still is in the evangelism business. And if you have any doubts about the group's theological positions, they're quite clearly laid out on the Web site. At the same time, the desire to connect with and help the underprivileged grows out of that theology and drives the programming of the agency. For a look at the programs it offers, click here.

One thing I've always liked about the Salvation Army is that it doesn't shy away from its roots or from its beliefs. And yet it reaches out to anyone in trouble, which, as I say, is how most people probably think of it.

At any rate, I'm glad the Salvation Army has been around to help for the last 131 years.

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A British theologian has concluded that God once had a wife, but she was edited out of the Bible. It's not so far fetched, given that we've known several women over the years who have thought that they, too, were Mrs. God.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "Thinking of food with astonished gratitude about abundance," now is online. To read it, click here.

Predictors' perfect record: 3-23-11

Somehow the religious date-setters don't seem to learn that their zero-for-always record might be telling them that they should cool it with their predictions.

Franklingraham Century after century, countless would-be prophets have predicted the end of the world, the Second Coming or both. And every single time they've been wrong.

The latest prediction, though somewhat of a hedged bet, comes from the Rev. Franklin Graham (pictured here), Billy's son. Franklin says the earthquake in Japan may be a sign that Jesus is returning soon.

Yes, yes, I know that it's possible to read certain passages of the New Testament as suggesting that the end-times will be preceded by various natural disasters. But it strikes me as a complete waste of time to worry about all of this every time tectonic plates move or the sea covers dry land.

If somehow God decides to end the world or that it's time for the Second Coming, no one can do a thing about it. So get on with life.

There. I'm not going to spend any more words on this silly subject today. And I hope Franklin Graham won't, either.

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Speaking of strange predictions, a new study suggests religion will become extinct in nine nations, Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The death of religion -- and even the death of God -- has been both predicted and pronounced countless times. I'm thinking that these predictions, too, always wind up with egg on their face.

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 Naked-Spirituality Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, by Brian D. McLaren. In some ways, Brian McLaren, an Emergent Church Movement pioneer, seems in this book to be reaching for an audience beyond Christians. And most, if not all, of the spiritual discipline he proposes here could, in fact, be used by people of any faith. But McLaren is at his best when speaking directly to Christians, and my guess is that it's almost solely among Christians that this book will find its audience. McLaren offers readers 12 words that have helped him in his approach to spirituality -- Here, Thanks, O, Sorry, Help, Please, When, No, Why, Behold, Yes and ". . ." (by which he means the practice of contemplation and rest). There's nothing particularly magic about each of those words, but readers will come to understand how they represent attitudes and practices that can enrich life. And yet the best part of this book isn't even the 12-word spirituality scheme. Rather, it's McLaren's ability simply to tell engaging stories, especially about himself and how he grew out of a pretty narrow approach to the faith. Readers of his books, such as Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christianity, already knew that, but now some of those stories are set in a different context and they shed new light on what it means to be spiritual. As McLaren seeks to draw in new readers, he says things that will seem perfectly obvious to his many fans, but I suppose that's just the price to be paid for bringing others along on this religious journey.

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P.S.: In my first blog entry of 2011 I mentioned an April conference to be held at Baylor University to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The deadline to register for that event has been extended until March 31. Those attending the conference also will be able to see a collection of rare Bibles.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "Thinking of food with astonished gratitude about abundance," now is online. To read it, click here.


New books on sacred texts: 3-22-11

The publishers of faith-related books are getting ahead of me, so today I want to introduce you to several at once. But these books all have something in common. One way or another they are about sacred writ. Let's begin with one I really like (despite the overly cutesy title):

BibleBabel * Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time, by Kristin Swenson. This is a fun, scholarly, fascinating, readable, engaging book. It is especially an excellent place to start for people who don't know much about the Bible, and especially people who feel a little guilty about that. The author teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and she doesn't hestitate to get into some controversial areas, such as why the Bible sometimes has been a source of anti-Judaism. That plus the evolution-creationism controversy could fill separate volumes, but this book at least introduces readers to ways of understanding these matters by understanding what the Bible is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. Got a young adult who would do well to be, if not biblically literate, at least familiar with the major themes and their arc? Get this book for that person, but first read it yourself.

Scripture-Wright * Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, by N.T. Wright. Bishop Wright's many fans will be pleased that he has revised a previous book, The Last Words, and sought to help people understand how it is that the Bible can be thought of as authoritative for Christian living. Wright clearly understands that the Bible should not be thought of as a "constitution," a concept and term used (and criticized by) emergent church movement guru Brian McLaren. That is, the Bible is not a book to turn to when you need to know a specific answer to one of life's puzzling questions, though for sure it offers answers as well as general principles by which to live. Rather, Wright understands and explains that the Bible is a product of hundreds of years of writing by many authors and that, in the end, it's a library. This means we must take the time to understand who wrote each book in it, to whom and under what circumstances. For this revision, Wright focuses on two matters to see how the Bible might speak about them today: monogamy and keeping the Sabbath. Tom Wright communicates clearly even for people who aren't biblical scholars.

Forged * Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, by Bart D. Ehrman. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the career of this author, who teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, that he might choose a provocative title for a book. Ehrman has created a pretty busy little indeustry asking difficult and pointed questions about belief (especially belief in Jesus) and the Bible. Anyone with basic familiary with the Bible already will know that many of the books attributed to particular writers (including authors of the gospels and some of Paul's letters, almost certainly were not written by the person to whom they are attributed. Saying, for instance, that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark, was a way of adding to its authority. But were such writings "forged," as Ehrman's title would have it? Well, only in the most narrow, technical sense, if at all. Rather, the writings attributed to John, for instance, even if not written by one of the Sons of Thunder, reflect the thinking of what's called the Johannine Community. Still, Ehrman is an interesting writer and even people who are bliblical literalists (I am not one) would do well to read him so they can know what criticisms are being leveled at the book. But no one should approach Ehrman's book imagining that for the first time ever he and he alone has uncovered a major scoop and has been shocked by the news. That others wrote books of the Bible and attributed them to authoritative names is neither news nor shocking -- and most Christian scholars would say that information changes nothing about the Bible's worth.

Pathways * Pathway to Our Hearts: A Simple Approach to Lectio Divina with the Sermon on the Mount, by Archbishop Thomas Collins. The spiritual discipline of lectio divina is more familiar to Catholics and Anglicans than to most Protestants. But it's a prayerful, careful, slow way of reading a relatively brief passage of scripture and meditating on it as the reader marinates in it. The author, archbishop of Toronto, is correct to note that there are many different ways of understanding and practicing lectio divina, and he's wise not to insist that only one way is correct. For this small book he has chosen to read the Sermon on the Mount from the fifth chapter of Matthew and then offer his reflections on what the words and phrases mean to him. I especially like his notion that Christians who use this technique should consider the "word of God" not just the biblical text but also Jesus himself because "the word becomes flesh and dwells among us in human language, in the divinely inspired texts of scripture."

Tanach * The Artscroll English Tanach: The Jewish Bible, with Insights from Classic Rabbinic Thought, edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. As Torah-observant Jews know, the term Tanach, which means the Hebrew Scriptures, is an acronym drawn from the three sections of the Jewish Bible: Torah, Neviim (prophets) and Kesuvim (writings). This scholarly new edition of that Bible renders in modern English, though faithful to the original Hebrew, the text that has been sacred to Jews -- and later to Christians -- for several thousand years. Christians who read this version will need to learn or be reminded of several things, among them that "HaShem," which literally translates to "The Name," refers to God. Some of the translations are quite lovely, beginning, in fact, with the widely known first three verses of Genesis, which get rendered this way: "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth -- when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters -- God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." My preference, however, is for the Psalms to be printed in poetry style because they are widely understood to be poetry. But this translation lumps them into one block of prose each, with occasional indentations for paragraphs in longer Psalms.

Bhagavad-Gita * The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners, by Jack Hawley. Anyone from a Western culture who has ever read the ancient Hindu scripture called The Bhagavad Gita knows that it is (quite naturally) permeated with Eastern thinking, Eastern ways of understanding the cosmos and that it reflects well the very heart of India, where I was privileged to spend two years of my boyhood. The Gita, thus, is in some ways foreign territory for Westerners, and sometimes it's hard to grasp from it what it has to offer. This prose translation of that old battle poem -- along with some introductory commentary -- offers Westerners a path toward the truths of the Gita, and does it in lovely and accessible language. The author lives, studies and lectures for half of each year in southern India.

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Speaking of books, you may recall that I wrote here recently about Eugene Peterson's new memoir, The Pastor. is featuring the book on its site this week along with an interview with Peterson. Good stuff. Take a look.

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

On religious martyrdom: 3-21-11

So what is today? Yes, yes, the first full day of spring, which arrived at 6:21 p.m. CDT yesterday.

Cranmer2 Mark that, if you like.

But I'm thinking of a faith-related matter (big surprise), one that is considerably more somber than the tweet-tweeting of birds and the blooming of the crocus.

It was on this date in 1556 that Thomas Cranmer (depicted here), the archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake as Queen Mary sought to restore England to Roman Catholicism.

I won't go into all the back-and-forth that happened in the early 1500s that led to the creation of the Church of England under Henry VIII and the subsequent Anglican-Catholic struggles. You can read about all that at the Web site to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph. Or, to read the CofE's own version of its history, click here.

But I will remind you that throughout human history, people have chosen to die rather than to betray their religious beliefs, and Cranmer was among them.

The ultimate question, of course, is what is worth dying for. It's also helpful to know that there's a big difference between being, say, a suicide bomber and a martyr. To be a martyr, someone else must murder you as you defend what you believe is a righteous cause. Being a suicide bomber, by contrast, is a selfish act reflecting misguided theology and/or political ideology.

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In the wake of Rep. Peter King's divisive hears on terrorism rooted in Islam, Reuters has done this interesting story about an imam in California who, after studying at an ancient Islamic center of learning in Egypt, discovered how profoundly American he is. The Islamic center is Al Azhar in Cairo, which I visited in 2002. It's the center of Sunni jurisprudence and scholarship, though it should not be thought of as somehow Islam's equivalent of a Christian seminary. At any rate, William Suhaib Webb, subject of the Reuters story, is just one more example of the broad array of Muslims in this country, where people sometimes think that all Muslims think alike.

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