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Books to help your soul: 10-7-11

Once again, my desk is piling up with lots of new books, and so today I'm going to introduce you to a small stack of them that relate, in some way, to how spiritual and ethical thinking and practices can improve our lives.

Streams-Contentment * Streams of Contentment: Lessons I learned on My Uncle's Farm, by Robert J. Wicks. There are simple, important lessons that can be learned in a rural setting, and this book is full of such wisdom. Wicks, a psychologist who teaches at Loyola University in Maryland, is wise enough to make his points mostly by telling relevant stories that illustrate such virtues as warmth and kindness. In the end, however, I found not a lot new here and not a lot of it said in surprising or fresh ways. It's good to be reminded of simple ways to achieve peace and contentment in life, but I kept hoping for flashes of insight I'd never before considered.

SoulSpace * SoulSpace: Transform Your Home, Transform Your Life, by Xorin Balbes. The author is an interior decorator who is concerned not just about the interior of your home but also the interior of you -- meaning your soul and spirit. His contention in this interesting little book is that the home we create not only can say a lot about us but, more to the point, can help shape who we are and how we approach our life and the wellness of our souls. Home, he writes, is about more than being a place to take care of our basic animal needs, it is in addition a place that can help us achieve transcendence. In other words, home can be our own sanctuary if we think carefully about how to create the kind of space that will serve us in that way.

A-Book-of-Miracles * A Book of Miracles: Inspiring True Stories of Healing, Gratitude, and Love, by Bernie S. Siegel. A Jewish prayer book I've quoted here before tells us that "we walk sightless among miracles." Bernie Siegel seconds that motion in this book by expanding the idea of miracle to include all of life. Which, in the words of one of my favorite songs sung by Greg Tamblyn, means that everything is holy now. This book offers testimony to Siegel's idea of miracles by giving readers dozens of little stories by various contributors in which they describe their own experience with a miracle. Whether it has to do with the birth of a baby or the detection and treatment of a cancer, the stories are small statues honoring the concept of miracle. Reading about such miracles should make us more mindful so that we'll notice when such things happen in our own space and time.

Spirit-Junkie * Spirit Junkie: A Radical Road to Self-Love and Miracles, by Gabrielle Bernstein. Speaking of miracles (as I was in writing about the previous book mentioned here) this author, a New Age self-help leader, tells readers that "each time we shift our perception from fear to love we create a miracle." The author, who describes herself as once a lost and fearful young Jewish girl, describes how she found the spiritual guidance text called A Course in Miracles and how it changed her life. She describes her addictions, her ups and downs and her circuitous path toward finding happiness and peace. You'll have to figure out how, if at all, what you read here will connect with any faith tradition of which you've been (or are now) a part and whether you can remain in that tradition and still benefit from what Bernstein offers you.

Ethical-Int * Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond, by Bruce Weinstein. As example after distressing example of unethical behavior in the business world (and elsewhere) has filled news stories, it's easy to believe that we're a people without much of an ingrained sense of ethics. Weinstein, who writes and speaks about ethics as a profession, doesn't want us to give up that easily. What we need, he says, are some reminders about the core principles of ethical living. So in this book he unpacks in various ways with helpful examples what it means to 1. Do no harm 2. Make things better 3. Respect others 4. Be fair and 5. Be loving. Even if you're convinced that you have no ethical flaws, Weinstein's book can remind you of how complicated life sometimes can be and how at times there are no simple or easy answer to the situations we face in life. This book can raise what its author calls your ethical intelligence. And we certainly could use some upward pressure in that category.

Prayer-Chest * The Prayer Chest: A Tale about the Power of Faith Community, and Love, by August Gold and Joel Fotinos. I generally don't review works of fiction here for several reasons, including my own feeling of incompetence to judge fiction professionally. But I'll make a brief exception here just to alert you to an engaging little book that uses fiction to teach people three lessons about prayer. 1. Prayer is answered through you. 2. Prayer is answered when you listen. 3. Prayer is answered when you welcome everything. At the end of this charming little book, readers will be asking themselves how prayer fits into their own lives and whether they are capable of a prayer discipline that can in some ineffable way put them in touch with the divine. And what an excellent purpose for storytelling.

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An Ohio judge has ruled that a school district properly fired a teacher who preached Christian doctrine in his classroom. There's a place for such preaching, but it's not in a classroom of a public school. Seems pretty obvious.

A great Bible translator: 10-6-11

Earlier this week here on the blog I told you about a new translation of scripture called the Common English Bible.

Tyndale In that same spirit, today I want to stay with the Bible translation theme to note that it was on this date in 1536 that William Tyndale (depicted here), the remarkable English reformer and Bible translator, was strangled and burned in a prison yard for heresy.

As the site to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph notes, "Tyndale was a theologian and scholar who translated the Bible into an early form of Modern English. He was the first person to take advantage of Gutenberg’s movable-type press for the purpose of printing the scriptures in the English language."

Against the wishes of religious authorities and King Henry VIII, who split from the Catholic Church to create the Church of England, Tyndale was determined that the words of scripture should be available to everyone in his own language, so he became fluent not just in Hebrew but in several other languages to help him in his Bible translation work.

It seems odd to me that today when we hear of religious zealotry, it most often has to do with violent extremists. For Tyndale, that was never part of the equation. Rather, he was zealous that what Christians call the word of God be given to English-speaking people in their own language.

He was a true martyr, in that he was murdered for his views and his actions. This is different from suicide bombers who take their own life. Such people are not martyrs but murderous fools.

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Given the sometimes-perverse nature of humanity, I suppose we'll never finally get rid of such evils as antisemitism and Islamophobia. But I still find the Anti-Defamation League's annual report on antisemitic acts in the U.S. depressing -- especially because the number was up a bit this time over the last report.

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A Profound Mind: Cultivating Wisdom in Everyday Life, by the Dalai Lama. Partway through this explanation of Buddhism by its most famous leader, he writes this: "Regrettably, Tibetan Buddhist texts often take a reader's familiarty with Buddhism for granted." Maybe that's the problem that I had with this book. Perhaps it's simply impossible to offer a clear and full explanation of Buddhist thought and practice in 140-some pages. I'm not unfamiliar with Buddhism, having written about Buddhists and their tradition for years, off and on. But time and again in this book I found myself confronted with what seemed like impenetrable language. For instance, at one point when the Dalai Lama is writing about how Buddhism denies the existence of an "independent self," (an idea in considerable tension with the Abrahamic faiths) he writes this: "Though in Buddhism we do speak of a self, we hold any concept of 'I' to be merely designated, or identified, in dependence on the body and mind that make us up." Now, I eventually may be able to sort through that language and come to some kind of possibly accurate understanding of what he means by "designated" or "identified" in this context, but I submit that most non-Buddhists would have little clue what he was getting at. Well, perhaps this book is meant for those who have been marinating in Buddhist thought for decades and get such concepts almost intuitively. But if non-Buddhists are meant to draw from it a quick and profound understanding of Buddhism, my guess is that lots of them won't.  I was more taken last year with the Dalai Lama's book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, which I introduced blog readers to here, and I'm pleased to report that this small and wise book now is out in paperback.

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

The church's real purpose: 10-5-11

I mentioned here earlier this week that I attended some of what was called the Sentralized conference recently. It was aimed at helping pastors and other Christian leaders better understand what it means to be sent into the world to proclaim the gospel.

Michael-Frost One of the speakers I found especially helpful was Michael Frost (pictured here), a leading voice in the international missional church movement. He’s vice principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia. He’s author of about a dozen books.

Frost had the ability to clarify the mission of the church in a simple and understandable way that I have shared with the strategic planning task force I'm chairing now at my congregation. Here is the core of what he said:

The mission of the church is not to grow the church. . . The mission of the church is to alert all people to the universal reign of God through Christ.

There are two broad ways you can do that. On the one hand, you can speak about it. You can declare. You can tell people. . .

On the other hand, you can demonstrate or show people what the universal reign of God through Christ looks like.

And what will that look like? That would look like hospitality and generosity and peace and justice and love and truth and freedom.

Your job, my friends, is to show people what the reign of God looks like. The reign of God looks like freedom and joy and peace. It’s meant to look magnificent.

Ask yourself: What would that world be like when everything is regenerated? When the Earth is regenerated there is complete justice, utter peace, absolute reconciliation of the races, black, white, old, young, men, women. Just imagine what that. . .would look like. Then just go create a little foretaste of that.

So,  if a congregation imagines that in the reign of God there will be no hunger, its members would find ways to relieve hunger now.

If a congregation imagines that in the reign of God there will be no war, its members would engage in all kinds of peacemaking activities and prayer.

If a congregation imagines that in the reign of God no one will be homeless, its members would work to create housing for people who have none.

Same with literacy, with racial harmony, with meaningful employment and on and on.

Now, understand that most Christians get the fact that they cannot create the kingdom of God on Earth (an error the so-called post-millennialists made) in our lifetimes or ever. Rather, the best we can do is to demonstrate what that reign will be like and hope others will want to join us in that.

Frost's way of putting it made sense to me.

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The newly freed Amanda Knox is said to have returned to her Catholicism while she was a prisoner in Italy. With a name like Knox, lots of people might think she'd be a Presbyterian in the spirit of John Knox, but such folks are forgetting Catholic Msgr. Ronald Knox and his translation of the Bible.

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You-lost-me You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith, by David Kinnaman. Speaking of churches, as I was above, lots of young people are leaving them in various ways -- sometimes for good, sometimes temporarily. If someone wanted to be too cute by half, he or she might call this condition Faithus Interruptus. The question church leaders want answered is why and what they can do about it. This book, drawing from tons of studies over the years, pulls together a picture of the problem and offers a stack of possible solutions. First, as the book notes, it's important to recognize that "The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is 'missing in action' from most congregations." The result, writes Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, is that "We are at a critical point in the life of the North Ameican church; the Christian community must rethink our efforts to make disciples." Perhaps the most helpful part of the book is a list of 50 ideas to help the church reconnect with the younger generation. These ideas come from lots of different people. Some of painfully obvious but many reflect creative thinking. If your congregation finds itself with an age 18-to-29 black hole, you might want to give Kinnaman's work a look.

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

A new Bible translation: 10-4-11

This is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. By contrast, most of the English translations of the Bible won't celebrate their 400th anniversary for more than 300 years.

Common-English-Bible That's because the explosion of translations didn't really begin until the 1950s.

But one new translation that will celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2411 is the Common English Bible, just published.

I haven't had a chance to do an in-depth reading of it yet, but I hope soon to add it to my translation collection because what I've read so far I like.

And some pastors I know have expressed appreciation for its clarity.

So let's sample just a couple of passages, starting with the beginning of the Beatitudes in the New Testament book of Matthew:

3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

Or how about the poetic (in the KJV and other translations) beginning to the Gospel of John:

1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being 4 through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

Finally, here's the opening of the Bible's first book, Genesis:

1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth— 2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— 3 God said, “ Let there be light.” And so light appeared. 4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

The wording seems clean, simple. And yet it is not without a sense of metaphor, or poetic vision. So explore this new Bible at the link I've given you and see if it's one you'd like to own.

I'm anxious to dig deeper into this version. If you already have, let me know what you think.

By the way, another way to explore the Common English Bible is to have a look at what my friends at had to say about it recently here.

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Do you have a guardian angel? Pope Benedict XVI said the other day that everyone has one. If so, sometimes I think mine must call in sick or drift off to sleep on the job.

More subtle anti-Judaism: 10-3-11

One of the sad realities of much of the religious world is that people of faith many times think that they must criticize other religions as a way of making their religion appear right and good.

Hugh-Halter Quite often this happens almost without the perpetrators knowing they're doing it.

I suppose there are countless examples of overt criticism, such as when certain Christians describe Islam as the religion of the devil. This kind of in-your-face style of insult used to be found a lot in the way Christians spoke about Judaism. (For my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Today the Christian critique of Judaism tends to be much more subtle, though, to be sure, it's still there and still as completely unnecessary as ever as a way of raising up what is beautiful about Christianity.

I heard an example of this kind of subtle put-down the other evening at the opening night of what was called the Sentralized Conference, held at Heartland Community Church in Olathe and focused on how Christians today are to be sent into the world to alert people to the reign of God announced by Jesus Christ. (Indeed, as several speakers made clear, that is the primary mission of the church. And they're right about that.)

But the speaker to whom I refer (and he had many interesting, valid and good things to say) was Hugh Halter (pictured here), an author and national director of Missio, a ministry that seeks to develop church leaders.

Halter was speaking about incarnation and the Christian belief that Jesus was God incarnate. Then, speaking of the ministry and message of Jesus, Halter said this:

"Everything about what he did -- from saying no more temple worship, no more priests, the law of Moses is going to be obsolete, everything you thought it was to be a God person -- he starts to upturn everything."

What is the not-so-subtle message here? Pauline scholar Mark D. Nanos puts that distressing message this way: That for there to be something right with Christianity there obviously must be something wrong with Judaism. (Never mind that Jesus didn't ever exactly say that there would be no more temple worship and no more priests and that the law of Moses will be obsolete; indeed, Jesus said he came to change not a jot or tittle of that law but to fulfill it. That, however, is a complicated subject for another day.)

My point is that it should be possible -- indeed, I would argue, it is necessary -- for Christians to point to the gospel of Jesus, the message of the in-breaking reign of God, without having to trash the faith of others, particularly since Judaism itself has survived (against astonishing odds, almost no thanks to Christianity) since Jesus' time and continues to be a valuable and valued tradition.

Later, after some good insights about how Christians can help introduce people to Jesus, Halter drifted into a familiar ditch -- by using the Pharisees of Jesus' time as a foil. Clearly Jesus criticized the Pharisees in the New Testament, but that was an internal Jewish dispute and we need to be careful about dragging that into today's context without doing a lot of explanation. When Christians casually pick up that battle today it can't help but be seen, however unintended, as anti-Jewish.

"The definition of a Pharisee," Halter said, "is actually somebody who knows a lot of scripture but separates from the world, which is most pastors that I've met. So tweet that: 'Halter just called 500 pastors Pharisees.' I do. I think that you're Pharisees. I've become one. I think I'm recovering but I spent my whole life studying. . ."

And when Christians hear that today, theyalmost inevitably  first hear "Pharisee" as "Jew," (no matter if Halter then applies the label to pastors) and Christians in the pews rarely have the historical understanding to keep the story in a First Century Jewish context. Rather, they are led to think, "Pharisee equals Jew equals bad."

Halter later went into a criticism of the Sabbath rules of the First Century, and I heard it as a way of saying that Judaism was mostly interested in rules and regulations, not in the spirit of life and love. And in the minds of hearers the "was" in the previous sentence gets unconsciously changed to "is."

As the New Testament scholar from Vanderbilt University, Amy-Jill Levine, reminds us in her indispensible book The Misunderstood Jew, the Pharisees in the First Century were the ones who took faith seriously: "Although a bit generous as an analogy, the Pharisees would be the equivalent of Mother Teresa or Billy Graham." Nevertheless, she writes, today "Christian readers (of the gospels) usually presume Pharisaic evil."

Why? Because Christian leaders and pastors presume it and teach it and what it amounts to, at base, is anti-Judaism, and it's absolutely unnecessary to the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

When Levine writes about a passage in the gospel of Luke, she notes this: "By Luke's time, the Pharisees had come to represent for the church the Jews who refused to follow Jesus; their portrait is primarily composed of polemic, not objectivity." (Too bad lots of seminarians and Bible college students don't learn that.)

Christianity is beautiful not because of what it is against but because of what it is for -- love and mercy and grace and justice and peace and redemption and generosity and compassion and on an on.  I wish more Christian leaders would remember that, would be trained not to engage in subtle anti-Judaism or Islamophobia, would understand that Christianity is strong enough to stand on its own without having to be defined as not-this or not-that.

Why is that so hard?

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A Catholic columnist, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, has taken on Catholic members of the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Justice Scalia. I love living in a country in which this kind of intrafaith dialogue can be public and can cause the rest of us to think.

A Christian hero's tale: 10-1/2-11

The number of German Christians who can be considered legitimate heroes in standing up to Hitler's brutal Nazi regime in World War II is small.

Bonhoeffer But surely at or near the top of the list is Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In April 1945, as Germany was on the verge of collapse, the Nazis executed this pastor and theologian for his role in attempts to assassinate Hitler.

The story of Bonhoeffer is told in clear and revealing ways in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. The book won several prestigious awards when it was published in hard cover last year. It's now out in paperback.

Bonhoeffer had a chance to escape Germany and stay in America, where, for a time, he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York. But he believed that if he did not return to Germany and do what he could to oppose Nazism, he could have no part in the Germany that would emerge -- and need to be redeemed -- after the war.

So he went back home and, in effect, sealed his fate by taking his Christian faith seriously. That meant, among many other things, opposing Germany's treatment of Jews, which began with oppression and wound up with the genocide known as the Holocaust.

Metaxas tells this story in clear and compelling ways, and Bonhoeffer emerges in this portrait not so much as a singular hero far beyond normal human achievement but as a complex but committed man who should be an inspiration to all people of faith. We see Bonhoeffer live out the reality that he himself described in his own book, The Cost of Discipleship, which is that when Christ calls someone, he bids that person to come and die. That is not a call to suicide bombing but, rather, to a full and final commitment to be part of the revolution of love and grace that Jesus came to announce and initiate.

Just as no hero is ever perfect (save, Christians would say, for Jesus), so Bonhoeffer himself was a product of his times and at times reflected its prejudices and flaws.

One had to do with the traditional anti-Judaism that, until quite recently, Christianity preached for nearly 2,000 years. Bonhoeffer was not immune to that sickness, though you won't discover that in the Metaxas book. (For my own essay on that anti-Judaism, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Rather, to learn about Bonhoeffer's anti-Jewish impulse (later repudiated), you have to go to a book such as Holy Hatred, by historian Robert Michael. There, Michael says that in response to the April 1, 1933, Nazi-led boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany, "Bonhoeffer. . .defended the Riech's anti-Jewish actions: 'The state's measures against the Jewish people are connected. . .in a very special way with the Church. In the Church of Christ, we have never lost sight of the idea that the 'Chosen People,' that nailed the Savior of the world to the cross, must bear the curse of its action through a long history of suffering."

I asked Metaxas what he made of this quote and why he didn't deal with it in his book. His response:

". . .what this Professor Michael suggests -- the idea that Bonhoeffer would EVER defend the April 1st boycott -- is simply outlandish. Bonhoeffer is one of the few who spoke out against that boycott and who spoke out against anti-semitism of every kind with everything in him. I'm not sure how someone could ever misunderstand him as profoundly as this Professor Michael seems to have done. It's almost funny, if it weren't so slanderous and profoundly wrong-headed. I'm not sure what he seems to be referring to, but he's really way off on this one. Bonhoeffer is often misunderstood, but this one really takes the cake."

I was disappointed that even though I gave Metaxas the name of the document Michael quoted he (Metaxas) essentially did not comment directly on its clear anti-Judaism. So I asked him again about the quote, and this was his reply:

"Bonhoeffer wrote those words in his famous 1933 essay 'The Church and the Jewish Question' in which he was very boldly and bravely calling the church to stand up for the Jews AGAINST the Nazi state. So the essay was written in part because he was disturbed at the actions of the state toward the Jews. So Michael is completely wrong if he is suggesting anything else. As for Bonhoeffer's buying into the idea that the Jews were suffering for their part in crucifying Jesus, he repents of that a few years later in telling his Finkenwalde students that Kristallnacht was an attack on 'God's people' and that the idea that the Jews should suffer for this was simply wrong. I talk about that in my book. So it's a bit complicated, but one thing I'm sure about, Bonhoeffer's essay in 1933 was specifically written because he was disturbed at the state's actions against the Jews, not as an approbation of those actions. Michael seems to have taken that sentence very far out of context if he believes Bonhoeffer somehow approved of the boycott. In any case, I'm grateful to think more deeply about this and to revisit this essay of Bonhoeffer's."

Well, I, in turn, am grateful to Metaxes for taking the time to reply to my questions, and, in the end he's right that Bonhoeffer, whatever might have been his early failings (as viewed from afar and from a radically different context), in the end stood up for the Jews and stood against Hitler. And he paid for those choices with his life.

Metaxas has written an admiring biography because Bonhoeffer is, well, amazingly admirable, and is one of my own heroes. But even the most admirable of heroes must be understood in his historical, geographic, political and religious contexts. And if he has warts we must not ignore them.

For a YouTube interview with Metaxas about this book, click here.

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Darn. I need to get to Washington, D.C., to see the exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library about the King James Version of the Bible, which, as you know because I told you here on the first day of this year, turns 400 this year. Like many other more recent translations of the Bible, the KJV today is more read about than read. By the way, starting at 9 a.m. Sunday in the Witherspoon Class of my church, there will be a five-week series of one-hour classes on the KJV. Everyone's invited. Second Presbyterian, 55th and Brookside, Kansas City, Mo.

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P.S.: At 9:30 a.m. this Sunday I'll be speaking at St. Thomas Episcopal Church of Overland Park, Kan., with Father Gar Demo and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn about "Israel Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." The three of us will be leading a Christian-Jewish study trip to Israel in April. We'll do the same class at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13, at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. And on Friday, Oct. 21, Father Demo and I will speak about what Israel means to us as Christians at Rabbi Cukierkorn's congregation, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.