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Is the Dalai Lama Catholic? 7-19-11

As you may or (more likely) may not know, the Dalai Lama (pictured here in a U.S. government photo with President Obama) has been in the U.S. in recent days. In fact, he met with Obama on Saturday, and even before the meeting the Chinese government issued a statement criticizing the gathering.

Dalai-Obama When I wrote parenthetically above that it's more likely you may not know, I was simply reflecting the reality of widespread religious ignorance in the U.S.

Indeed, a religious knowledge survey released last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicated that 47 percent of Americans had no idea what the Dalai Lama's religion is.

This willful ignorance strikes me as another reflection of our degraded culture, in which almost everybody knows the names of the actors and actresses in the latest Harry Potter movie but many people can't name their member of Congress or say whether the pope is Catholic or Hindu.

I've previously recommended a book to help with this ridiculous disease. It's by Stephen Prothero and is called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.

If you guessed that the Dalai Lama is a Tibetan Baptist or a Tuesday Night Pastafarian, read the book. How are you going to avoid prejudice and bigotry about the religions other people follow if you don't know squat about those faiths and their leaders?

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I've just begun reading journalist Janet Reitman's newly released book, Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion. And I hope to do a review of it here on the blog in the next week or three. But before I get to that, I wanted you to have a chance to read Reitman's essay on the question of whether Scientology is really a religion. Good question.

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Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, by Lynne M. Baab. The new social networking tools -- Facebook, Twitter, My Space and the rest -- have, by their very existence, raised profound questions about what friendship means. For instance, am I really and truly friends with my nearly 700 Facebook friends? Of course not. In fact, I hardly know some of those folks. But if that's the case, what does friendship really mean in our virtual age? That's the question Lynne Baab comes at from various directions, including notions about being friends with God. Maybe it's because I've thought a lot about this subject in the last year -- partly as a result of a sermon series by my pastor on community in the Internet age -- that I didn't find this book full of insights I hadn't considered before. But if you've given precious little thought to what friendship and community means today, this book can help you ponder all that in a thoughtful and systematic way. The study questions throughout the book can aid considerably in that process. The author, by the way, teaches pastoral theology in New Zealand. Knowing that background, I was disappointed that she repeated the old misinformation that the Apostle Paul converted to Christianity. No. There was no Christian religion yet when Paul lived, only the Jesus Movement within Judaism. Paul always thought of himself as a Torah-observant Jew, but one who believed that the Jewish Messiah had come in Jesus of Nazareth. Describing Paul as "becoming a Christian," as Baab does, has profound implications for how we understand Paul and, in the end, how those of us who are Christian relate to Judaism.

An interfaith youth summer: 7-18-11


So you've no doubt been wondering what the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance has been up to lately, it being some time since you may have heard or read about the group.

Well, I can tell you that this excellent organization, designed to foster interreligious understanding and dialogue, has had -- and continues to have -- a full summer.

I caught up with some of the members this past Friday afternoon as they worked at Harvesters with visiting youth from central Europe to put together boxes of food for hungry people. The photo you see here today shows kids lined up on either side of a conveyor belt filling the boxes with staples and non-perishable food items.

Earlier this summer KCIYA members helped with a youth program at the KC Urban Youth Center and attended a planning meeting for the annual Peace Walk, which may be held this year on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

They're also working with the International Visitors Council of Greater Kansas City to host the central European youth with whom they worked at Harvesters.

So these young people have been engaged in lots of things this summer, with more to come. And if you know young people who would be interested in connecting with this good group, look on the KCIYA Web site, to which I linked you above. There are lots of opportunities to get involved.

We simply must begin with our children to head off religious prejudice and bigotry. And the KCIYA is a great vehicle to help with this important task.

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Herman Cain, who wants to be president, says it's OK to ban mosques in American communities. This is the kind of religious bigotry you get when you haven't had a chance to participate in something like the Interfaith Youth Alliance.

No escaping disaster: 7-16/17-11


As many of you know, Kansas City is marking the sad 30th anniversary of the collapse of the skywalks at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here, a disaster that resulted in the death of 114 people and the injury of another 200.

When the early evening event occurred on July 17, 1981, I was with my Kansas City Star softball team at Northeast Athletic Field. After the game we retired to a nearby watering hole. A TV in the corner broke in with the Hyatt news. Our managing editor was with us and quickly assigned people to go cover this or that aspect of the story.

I was already a columnist on the editorial page and, thus, did not work for the managing editor. But he asked if I'd think about coming in the next morning to produce the lead commentary piece on a special section that The Star would produce for that Sunday.

Which is what I did.

But what I want to talk about today is not so much those still-clear memories of that catastrophe or the Pulitzer our staff won for our coverage.

Rather, I want to point out that no one is immune from disasters -- even clergy.

The most severely injured of the Hyatt survivors turned out to be Sally Firestone, who grew up just a couple of blocks down the street from my family in Woodstock, Ill. Sally, two years younger than me, was in my sister Mary's class. (Sally is mentioned in the piece to which I've linked you above.)

Sally's father was pastor of the Methodist Church next to which the Firestones lived.

I was both surprised and delighted to learn -- well before the Hyatt fell -- that Sally now also was living in Kansas City. Indeed, she stopped by The Star one day just to say hello.

But catastrophe treated Sally and her parents just the same as anyone else and did not change the rules just because her father was in ministry.

Indeed, I know clergy who:

* Have children with disabilities

* Have been estranged from their children

* Have seen their marriage collapse

* Have lost children in car wrecks.

And on and on.

Imagining that doing God's work somehow is protection against the bad stuff life can throw at people is delusional.

And those of us in the congregations of clergy would do well to remember that and to offer them the same kind of love and compassion we seek when evil finds us.

(I found the photo here today at

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A spokesman for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), the denomination Rep. Michele Bachmann left just before announcing a run for president, acknowledges that his church considers the papacy to be the anti-Christ. As The Washington Post reports in the story to which I've just linked you, "The denomination says on its Web site: “We identify the anti-Christ as the papacy. This is an historical judgment based on Scripture.’’ Well, this kind of "historical judgment" goes back to Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation. But you also find it in John Calvin, theological father of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The difference is that we Presbyterians recognized that judgment as simple theological bigotry and have long ago rejected Calvin on this point, as have several other Lutheran denominations. Luther, by the way, in 1543 published On the Jews and Their Lies in which he proposed forbidding rabbis to teach, destroying Jewish homes, schools and synagogues, and confiscating Jewish prayer books.Some of his virulent anti-Jewish attitudes were used by the Nazis as excuses for their efforts to murder Jews in the Holocaust. But Lutherans of all stripe today have rejected Luther's teaching about this.

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P.S.: Free -- but required -- tickets now are available through this site for the 10th anniversary 9/11 memorial service (featuring a large orchestra and chorus) scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City. Order yours now so you don't miss what promises to be a wonderful event.

Learning religion online: 7-15-11

I was reading through my latest issue of the BottomLine/Personal publication the other day and ran across something I should have known about, and am surprised I didn't.

Online-learning You can find free college courses online from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and others. Now, you won't get college credit by sitting at your computer watching a lecture, but, still, you can learn a lot just by clicking in. I'm going to give you this link to the article in the July 15 edition, though it says it's not yet available on the Web, but perhaps if you check back later it might be.

Two of the classes mentioned especially interested me and may interest you.

* "Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)", taught by Yale University religious studies Professor Christine Hayes. To check it out, click here. You will find here 24 lectures for just under an hour each. And if you set the video to run full screen, it's quite clear and engaging.

* On YouTube, you can find lectures in a UCLA class called "Science, Magic and Religion," taught by Professor Courtenay Raia. For those, click here. The page to which I've linked you will contain a bunch of lectures, but I intuitively started at the upper left-hand corner and it turned out to be the opening one. I could tell because she was first talking about not worrying if you, as a student, were on the waiting list for this course.

The BottomLine piece said there were Stanford courses on iTunes, and I found this pdf describing that work.

Well, you can hunt around and see what other faith-based courses you might find for little or no money. Let me know what you turn up. Just don't give me any pop quizzes on what you're learning.

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A man in Austria has been granted the right to wear a colander on his head in his driver's license photo because he claims it's religious headgear required by his faith -- pastafarianism. And we can't wait to see what a person might wear who claims to be a pantheist.

Biblical meaning for today: 7-14-11

As most of us are aware, the Bible often is used in arguments about public policy as well as individual behavior.

Bible-Now Indeed, in my experience, the Bible gets dragged into these discussions by people who are absolutely certain about what it says even though they often know little about the context of the verse (usually no more than one or two verses) they are quoting.

It's this debating from ignorance that a new book, The Bible Now, by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky, should help.

Looking only at the Hebrew Scriptures, or Jewish Bible, the authors unpack what scripture says about homosexuality, abortion, women, the death penalty and the Earth (in terms of ecology).

This is serious, good scholarship.

It is not polemical writing to score political points. Rather, it is good exegesis. Which is to say, it considers the time and context in which the texts were written. It considers the meaning of the original language. It ponders how people at the time might have understood what was written. It draws distinctions between words that are understood as law, as prose or as poetry, and it seeks to help the reader understand the level of authority and meaning such writings have.

If Bible-based disagreements about homosexuality or abortion, for instance, used the careful analysis found in this book -- the sort of analysis that seeks to understand how the Bible applies today, if at all -- the whole world would be much better off.

The authors are clear that they are not including New Testament passages in their work. There are some good books that include such texts on various subjects, but it would be wonderful to have them done in one book in this kind of thematic approach. Nonetheless, because the Hebrew Scriptures are nomative and authoritative for both Jews and Christians, this is an excellent start.

(For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. I may now revise and update that essay using some insights from this new book.)

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Various representatives of faith communities are weighing in on the debt ceiling crisis. For what some Catholics had to say, click here. And if you want to listen to a press conference about all of this yesterday from clergy representing some 4,000 clergy around the country, click here. Obviously not all clergy agree on what to say about this or even whether to say it, but I'm glad some are speaking out on behalf of the values their communities represent.

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

Why religion promotes kindess: 7-13-11


ABIQUIU, N.M. -- What a mixture of possibility, pain and redemption people are.

Last week here at Ghost Ranch (pictured here), where I taught a writing class, I spent time with some pretty amazing people who reminded me that each of us is carrying sometimes crushing burdens and histories that shape who we are -- even if each of us also brings into the present various moments of victory, of elation, of insight.

And what all the great religions ask us to do is to remember that and therefore to treat people with compassion and gentleness.

Two of the women I met eventually told stories of what I can only call physical and emotional abuse in their childhoods.

One man lives estranged from his grown children today and can't seem to find anyplace that feels like home to him.

One woman's sister is battling cancer, and she feels the pull of wanting not to live nearly 1,500 miles away from her now.

One young woman is unemployed and not at all sure what she'll do next or whether there might be some kind of spiritual home for her that fits.

One man rejoices in his two daughters but also prays that the brain cancer that once afflicted one of them won't return. Ever.

We're all carrying weights and worries. We're all preoccupied with our historical baggage, our uncertain futures, our deferred dreams that may shrivel away. And while all this is true, each of us also carries with us memories of joy, of laughter, of bliss.

So when religion offers some version of the Golden Rule -- that admonishment to treat others with the kindness we'd like for ourselves -- it's not just an Emily Post matter of etiquette. Rather, it's rooted in a deep sense of the human condition, which is almost always a mixture of wound, wonder and mystery.

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The Vatican's newspaper says the phone hacking newspaper scandal in England shows the need for more ethics in journalism. No question. In turn, the worldwide priest abuse scandal shows the need for more ethics in the church.

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

Emotional work for clergy: 7-12-11

ABIQUIU, N.M. -- Over the decades I have known dozens and dozens of members of the clergy from many faith traditions.

Clergy For the most part I have admired these men and women and have had at least some sense of the pressure under which they regularly work.

But until a clergy member gave me a name for some of that pressure while I was here last week teaching a writing class at Ghost Ranch, I didn't have had a vocabulary to talk about it with much coherence.

It's a simple name: "emotional work." And what it means is the effort one must put forth to maintain some kind of emotional control when all around are some demanding people who want a little piece of you and who are saying and doing things that may contribute to trouble in the congregation. Often these people have no idea that they are making the clergy do emotional work. And their oblivious attitude adds to the stress on the pastor, rabbi, priest.

Clergy, for instance, must do emotional work to respond with honesty but gentleness when a parishioner says something critical about the sermon after a worship service. Or when a rabbi is meeting with the synagogue's board and some board members are questioning almost everything he's doing. Or when a priest is serving under a bishop he doesn't much like or respect and that priest must not openly rebel and yet must find a way to be true to himself. Or when a young couple wants a pastor to include something in the wedding ceremony that is in tension with the religious tradition that pastor represents.

Every profession requires emotional work, of course, as does simply living in any family. But from my experience of knowing so many members of the clergy over so many years, I would say that the emotional  work required of pastors, rabbis, priests, imams and others is pretty constant and terribly draining.

As members of congregations, we'd do well to remember that and to try to contribute as little as possible to additional emotional work our clergy must do. And they would do well to recognize this as a cause of tension and potential burnout in their lives and to do what they can to mitigate its consequences.

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The famous -- some would say infamous -- International House of Prayer in south Kansas City was the focus this week of this pretty detailed piece in The New York Times. Mike Bickle, the pastor who started IHOP, had a brother, Pat, about whom I once wrote a profile for The Kansas City Star. Pat was severely injured as a high school football player in the 1970s and was the subject of much prayer by Mike and his followers. Pat died in 2007.

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

One with the burned land: 7-11-11


ABIQUIU, N.M. -- The red rock hills around us -- some only yards away -- were HD clear most of each day last week here at Ghost Ranch, where I was teaching a writing class.

But in the evenings, smoke from the Las Conchas fire would drift toward us and sometimes obliterate the famous flat-topped hill Pedernal, which God once told artist George O'Keeffe she could have if she painted it a hundred times. (That's Pedernal in the photo here today.)

It drifted toward and over us and our throats knew we were ingesting some of the geography, sucking into our very being some of the atoms and molecules that, until recently, had made up trees and shrumbs and grasses.

In an odd sort of way, we were becoming the charred land near us.

Even on the days when the smoke seemed to be way off from the ranch, my eyes were reddened, and I knew they were reacting to what I could not see.

The writing class I taught I called "Restless Hearts: Writing Our Way Toward Home." And it was perhaps fitting that the land that was our home for the week came sliding through the air toward us and into us and around us as smoke.

The great religions teach stewardship of -- care for -- the land, the whole environment. The lessons seem much clearer when you realize that some parts of the landscape we are to protect now reside within us as ingested smoke.

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Do you watch TV shows about housewives? If so, would you watch "Real Housewives of the Bible?" That show is to be released soon on DVD, and it features the lives of a dozen or so biblical women. I'm a little fearful of how it will be presented, but maybe it will be worthwhile. Someone out there watch it and tell me.

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White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet's Lost Emissary to the New World, by Douglas Veenhof. This is a marvelously well-reported account of a man of whom most Americans -- even those who pursue yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism or any related Eastern spiritual practice -- have never heard. And yet without Theos Bernard it's difficult to imagine that yoga would be anywhere near as popular as it is today in North America. Bernard, who simply disappeared in 1947 in the Himalayas, 10 years after being the third American ever allowed into Tibet, was an early practitioner and teacher of Hatha Yoga, Tantra and the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. As a boy who grew up Episcopalian in Tombstone, Ariz., it was wildly unlikely that Bernard would become an expert in all of this and -- more to the point -- spread the word about it all to the United States. But his wanderlust father and a half-brother led him to yoga and Eastern religion, and it felt like home to Theos. Veenhof is a careful writer who fills in lots of missing information about Bernard through meticulous research. Even for folks who don't care much about yoga or Buddhism or Eastern spiritual practices, this is a good and engaging story.

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

Gaining insights from waiting: 7-9/10-11

We've all been there -- in the waiting place.

The waiting place We've waited to be not seven and a half years old but eight.

We've waited to finish school and begin "real life," as if school had been something else.

We've waited for love, for success, for progress, for prayers to be answered.

Eileen Button, a columnist for the Flint, Mich., Journal, has been in all those waiting places, too, and many more. (She's pictured below.)

In her charming, kicky, surprising and moving new book, The Waiting Place, she lets us wait with her and learn what she has learned.

Eileen understands that truth often gets communicated by way of story telling. And she's a wonderful story teller.

You may wonder why you would care about the stories of a Michigan columnist, stories of her childhood, her pastor husband, her three children (one of whom almost didn't survive infancy), her mother, her father, their divorce. But the truth is that these stories really are about you and me.

They hold up a mirror into which we can see ourselves more clearly and begin to understand that faith is not about having all the answers. Rather, it's about being able to live confidently with the questions.

EileenButton Eileen grew up Catholic in the Rochester, N.Y., area and today is married to a Free Methodist pastor. She takes her Christian faith seriously. Which means she sometimes raises an eyebrow at God, sometimes asks God what in the world he thinks he's doing, sometimes says she just doesn't get it. And sometimes she even buys into shallow bumpersticker theology, as in, "I know he doesn't give us more than we can handle."

And yet what is precious and moving about this book is its honesty, often made tender with humor.

Now and then she settles for an easy phrase, a cliche that was fresh once but now has lost its freshness. But it doesn't happen often and she offers enough fresh images that I soon forgave her for that.

There is a certain richness and rawness to Eileen's writing, and you will want to know how her baby boy survives being born with a condition in which his upper and lower esophagus failed to connect. You will care about why her husband, half naked, is racing down the street at 4 a.m. in a van trying to stop a girl who, he thought, swiped a chair out of that van. You may even recognize yourself in some of the church members who can be cruel to others, including to a pastor who is on the edge of professional burnout. And you will have ah-ha moments when you find out why she calls the church her husband pastors his mistress.

This is a collection of essays that will change your heart after it complicates your thinking.

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A top Kremlin official says God sent Vladimir Putin to lead Russia. Dang. Whatever happened to all those godless Communists there whom everyone here loved to hate? Come on, God, enough with the whiplash.

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Transitions: Leading Churches Through Change, edited by David N. Mosser. (Yes, more than one book here today.) Every Christian church is either changing or dying. Sometimes both. But if they aren't changing in response to the needs to people both inside and outside the congregation, they aren't long for this world. This collection of helpful essays gives pastors and other church leaders some good insights into how to manage change, how to guide it and not let it run amok. The essays by experienced pastors, theologians and others tackle issues having to do with clergy in crisis as well as congregations that have run into chaos or simply are trying to adapt to changing circumstances. Anyone seeking to understand transition in congregations and the lives of their leaders will be wiser once having digested these essays.

Three worthy new books: 7-8-11

Early in June here on the blog I introduced readers to a new book from Convivium Press, A New Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels, by Roland Meynet. (Convivium is an interesting publishing house. To read more about its approach, click here.)

Today I want to tell you about three more new books from Convivium, the first and second of which use the Meynet's technique of "rhetorical analysis." The first one does that to draw meaning out of the fifth chapter of the Qur'an, a chapter (or sura) called "The Banquet."

Banquet * The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur'an, by Michel Cuypers. I will not pretend here that I understand or could employ the technique of rhetorical analysis. If you want some links to that subject, click on the link in the first paragraph here and you'll find some. But what I want to emphasize even by including this book here on the blog is that despite what many non-Muslims believe, the Qur'an is open to the same kind of critical study and analysis as the Bible -- or, indeed, any sacred writing. And Cuypers here offers more than 500 pages of deep-drilling analysis of just a single sura. Cuypers acknowledges early in the book that the Qur'an "cannot be easily tackled. The Westerner who attempts to read it for the first time, particularly in translation, is rapidly thrown off course by this text, with its disconnected sequences, where subjects follow one another and are mixed up among one another without any discernable logic or order." Which is exactly why I think it's foolish and even dangerous for a non-Muslim to try to read the Qur'an alone, without the help of a knowledgeable Muslim to explain what's happening. And I would say the same thing to non-Christians and non-Jews about reading the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. Cuypers wants readers to know that Qur'anic exegetical studies have everything to gain from the ways in which scholars have studied the Bible in modern times. So even if you are unable to follow the detailed verse-by-verse exploration in this book, it should be reassuring to know that Muslims and non-Muslims alike are doing serious textual analysis of the Qur'an to help people understand its complexities. Perhaps one of the good results will be to call into question the sincerity of radicals who want to read it in a way that justifies their extremism.

Different-Priest * A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews, by Albert Vanhoye. This next Convivium book is also among those that use rhetorical analysis to unpack sacred writ. And with good reason. This "epistle," after all, was not first written as a letter at all but, rather, as Vanhoye notes, as a speech, indeed, "a magnificent homily, made to be delivered to a Christian assembly in apostolic times." (Yes, but let's keep in mind that in apostolic times there was no Christianity yet, only the Jesus movement within Judaism that eventually split off to become Christianity -- in different places at different times.) Because of its scholarly approach, this book would not be appropriate for a beginning Bible study group. It is too nuanced and academic for that, but no doubt this book will serve Christian preachers well as they seek to unpack the meaning of Hebrews in sermons and in classes about the New Testament. Hebrews offers its readers a high Christology and some memorable passages, and this book looks at all of that in great detail.

Jesus-H-A * Jesus: An Historical Approximation, by José A. Pagola. First published in Spanish in 2007, this book now is in English and offers a rich look at who Jesus was, what his life and times were like and why he still matters. The author, a Catholic, says he "tries to answer questions like these: What was he like? How did he understand his life? What were the basic characteristics of his activity, the thrust and essential content of his message? Why did they kill him? How did the adventure of his life end?" Pagola correctly focuses on the undeniable reality that what was most important to Jesus was introducing people to "the reign of God." That, Pagola notes, "is his true passion. It is the cause for which he struggles and pours out his life, for which he is persecuted and finally executed. For Jesus, 'only the kingdom is absolute and it makes everything else relative.'" Pagola says that in "these times of deep religious crisis, it is not enough to believe in just any God; we need to discern the true God. It is not enough to say that Jesus is God; we need to know what kind of God is embodied and revealed in Jesus." So from a Christian faith stance, Pagola offers us a fresh look at the man/God Christians call savior and lord.

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Six years ago, British-born terrorists attacked the transit system in London, and as this insightful column in The New York Times suggests, citizens of the U.K. still are trying to figure out what went wrong. I think the author is on the right path when he suggests that the problem is not cultural diversity but, rather, the way that governments have developed policies to deal with that.