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Great new Bible books: 11-18-11

I am about ready to declare 2011 the Year of Good Books on the Bible.

I wrote about several such books earlier this year here.

And today I want to introduce you to two more plus a new translation of the New Testament by Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the authors of the earlier Bible books that I wrote about at the link in the previous sentence.

MeaningoftheBibleFirst is The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, by Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine. Levine, one of my favorite scholars, and her next-door Vanderbilt colleague have focused on the Jewish Bible, which contains the same books as does what Christians call the Old Testament, though in a different order.

The authors' goal is to help readers to be able "to distinguish what the text says from what people through the centuries have claimed it says. . ." At the same time, they want readers to understand that there can be -- and often are -- several different legitimate meanings that can be drawn from a particular text.

As might be expected from these scholars, this is a rich book full of wonderful insights for anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously. They give us history, economics, sociology, theology and more in a way that is accessible even to people who are biblically illterate, a population that makes up much of America.

"If we understand why these texts were written and how their ancient audiences understood them," they write, "we can appreciate them more fully. This informed approach is not the enemy of a faith-based reading; biblical scholarship is not, in our view, a weapon designed to destroy one's religious beliefs. It is, rather, something that can enhance such beliefs."

One of the most important points Levine and Knight make is that ". . .the Bible is not a book of answers. It may be, however, a book that helps its readers ask the right questions, and then provies materials that can spark diverse answers."

What-Bible-Tells-UsNext, I want you to know about What the Bible Really Tells Us: The Essential Guide to Biblical Literacy, by T. J. Wray, who teaches religious studies at Salve Regina University. Like the book Bible Babel, which I reviewed this past March at the link in the second paragraph above, this is a welcome and even fun look at the Bible, written especially for people who admit they don't know much about it. And yet I found it contains information and insights that will enlighten even people who think they know the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Perhaps because what she says about reading the text is in complete harmony with the way I try to read it, I was especially pleased to see her say that Bible readers should be asking themselves these three questions:

* What does this passage have to say about God?

* What does this passage have to say about me?

* What does this passage have to say about others (community)?

That's where to begin, not with such questions as "Did this really happen this way?" or "How can I use this to convince my neighbor that I'm right?"

Besides that, Wray found an engaging way to begin -- with a 60-second True or False quiz, beginning with "Eve tempts Adam with an apple in the Garden of Eden." (False, by the way.)

In much of the rest of the book, she offers conventional wisdom about the Bible and then describes how and why it's misguided. It's a trip well worth taking.

Kingdom-new-testamentFinally, I want you to know about Tom Wright's The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. Wright, the former bishop of Durham in England, is perhaps Christianity's most prolific author today, if you don't count all the non-book writing religion scholar Martin E. Marty turns out.

Here he has set out to do what another Englishman, J.B. Philips, did more than 60 years ago -- produce a modern-language translation done by a single translator. On the whole, Wright succeeds well, though if I had to choose between the Wright translation and the new Common English Bible, I'd take the latter for its elegance.

But as one who collects different translations of the Bible, I'm always looking for one more way to read and understand a passage, and Wright brings lots of experience and wisdom to the process, so it's a volume worth having in any collection of translations.

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Should we care -- and, if so, why -- about what religion an American president is? It's a simple question that doesn't have a simple answer. Here's a thoughtful essay talking about why the answer gets complicated.

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P.S.: Want to do something hands-on to help poor people as we head into Winter? Then volunteer to help with a Nov. 26 event sponsored by Care of Poor People, Inc. For details, click here.

On God's economics: 11-17-11

Several times in recent weeks (most recently here), I've raised the question of whether and why people of faith are engaged in the Occupy Wall Street (or Wherever) movement.

Occupy-Kansas-CityOn the whole, at least so far, the answer has been: Here and there but not overwhelmingly.

And yet the matter continues to gain attention. Indeed, recently the organization known as Faith in Public Life compiled this list of media coverage and other notice of the way religion is beginning to have its say about the Occupy movement.

It reveals to me a slow but sure awakening that people of faith are called to respond to the economic issues of the day.

In my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, one way that response has begun to manifest itself is in a three-part sermon series from our pastor, Paul Rock, called "God's Economics."

You can read about the series and hear an audio version of the first one by clicking here. (Parts two and three will be preached this Sunday and Nov. 27.) Just a word of explanation about the beginning of the Nov. 13 sermon, in which Paul mentions the smell of smoke for people who came through our courtyard that morning. Youth from our church and two other congregations spent that Saturday night sleeping in cardboard boxes outside our building and learning about the issues of homelessness. In the process, they lit some fire to stay warm. Thus the smoke reference.

My guess is that just as people of faith were key leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, eventually they will take more prominent leadership rolls in the Occupy movement, though not without an acknowledgement that some other people of faith -- perhaps even within the same congregations -- are much more attached to the Tea Party movement. Speaking of the Tea Party, if you missed the excellent piece to which I recently linked readers about that movement's bad theology, you can find it toward the end of this entry.

Oh, and my friends over at have written this week about the Occupy movement here.

(By the way, I found the photo here today at

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Anglicans in America will have the option starting Jan. 1 of becoming Catholic but keeping their liturgical traditions. The Catholic Church is creating a new "ordinariate," as it's called. For the National Catholic Reporter piece I wrote about this matter in late spring, click here.

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

Christian history afresh: 11-16-11

I love good books about Christian history.

So today I'm adding this new book to that category, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark, who co-directs the Institute for the Study of Religion at Baylor University.

Triumph-of-Chrisianity1It will go on my quite-reachable shelf next to Christianity: A Global History, by David Chidester; Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch; Christianity: How a Tiny Sect from a Despised Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire, by Jonathan Hill; Christianity: The Illustrated History, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, and The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins. (I have others, but those are the most recent.)

Just about my only complaint about Stark's new book is the title. I wish he had found another word besides "Triumph," which raises the ugly head of Christian triumphalism, an antagonistic, arrogant approach that Christians would do well to leave behind.

That aside, this book is fresh -- at times to the point of surprise -- as well as insightful and quite readable even for non-scholars.

To begin to list this book's strength, let me note that the author clearly understands that Christianity began as a sect within Judaism and that it's anachronistic to speak of a separate religion for decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, Stark sometimes refers to early followers of the Jesus Movement within Judaism as Christians (I would prefer something like "Christ followers," a term that doesn't yet imply a separate religion), but by the time he does that he has set this new Jewish sect within its proper historical context. And he correctly notes the sometimes-harsh push-back first century Jewish leaders gave against members of the Jesus Movement.

Stark also makes the point -- rarely raised anywhere else -- that "the early Jesus Movement was quite a family affair." Which is to say that Jesus's immediate family -- especially his brother James and mother Mary -- played pivotal roles in the movement, as did Jesus's two grand-nephews, Zoker and James.

In other parts of the book, Stark challenges conventional wisdom about various aspects of history, suggesting, for instance, that "some widely held claims about where and why (Martin) Luther's Protestant Reformation succeeded are wrong. . ." He cites various scholars who offer this or that reason for the success of the Reformation, only to note that many of those causes "were as prevalent in areas that remained Catholic as they were in those that embraced Lutheranism."

Perhaps one of the more surprising chapters has to do with the notorious Spanish Inquisition. Stark asserts that not only wasn't it nearly as awful as its reputation but that it "was a quite temperate body that was responsible for very few deaths and saved a great many lives by opposing the witch hunts that swept through the rest of Europe." And he gripes at scholars who don't acknowledge new studies showing just that.

A final note on something I found helpful: Near the end of the book, Stark offers charts showing first the nominal membership numbers of the various world religions. As expected, it shows Christianity with roughly 2.2 billion members, Islam with just under 1.5 billion and Hinduism with just over 1 billion. But then he offers a chart that shows "active membership" in the various religions. The rankings stay the same, but Christianity drops to just under 1.3 billion while Islam slips to 858 million and Hinduism to 580 million.

As as further proof of the secularization of Judaism, membership in that tradition drops in those charts from just under 13 million to 4.6 million.

In the end, Stark draws this reasonable conclusion: "Perhaps the most essential aspect of Christianity that has facilitated its globalization is its remakrable cultural flexibility. Wherever it goes, the faith is adapted to the local culture -- made possible by its universal message."

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Perhaps, like me, you were distressed, though not surprised, that at least two Republican presidential candidates recently endorsed waterboarding, declaring this brutal technique not to be torture. Columnist Frank Bruni properly takes on such nonsense in this insightful piece. After years of work by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, you'd think that presidential candidates, of all people, would move away from Cheneyesque support of a technique that is morally indefensible. But no. In turn, I would judge the defenders of waterboarding as morally unfit for the Oval Office.

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

Bishop Spong -- provocateur: 11-15-11

When I re-introduced myself to Bishop John Shelby Spong at Unity Village this past Friday (we first met at a conference near Washington, D.C., a few years ago), I gave him a business card containing my blog address and told him that if he checks in here regularly I'd eventually offend him.

Spong"Well," he said, "I offend people all the time."

Indeed, that's true of this renegade Episcopal bishop, who was at Unity to talk about "A New Christianity for a New World." By his own count, Spong has had more than a dozen serious threats against his life, though never, he likes to note, from an atheist or a Buddhist.

Spong revels in making Christians think by challenging their core beliefs. And he has done just that -- again -- in his latest book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. If you are a Spong fan, you will love it. ". . .we need to ask," he writes, "just how the claim made by anyone that the Bible in any sense is the 'Word of God' can be sustained even for a moment without violating every rational faculty that human beings possess." (The photo on the left shows Spong signing copies of this new book at Unity on Friday.)

Re-Claiming-the-BibleAnd for the next 400 pages, in often-fascinating detail, he deconstructs the Bible. Over the years I find I disagree with Spong about 60 or 80 percent of the time, but he's always worth hearing or reading for that other 20 to 40 percent that he helps me understand in new ways. And so it is with his new book.

And so it also was with his talk here this past Friday.

Being his normally provocative self, Spong began by suggesting that the old symbols Christianity uses are bankrupt but that we don't yet have new symbols to replace them, so people are anxious.

Among the "bankrupt and inoperative" symbols, he said, are three words and concepts used to describe Jesus Christ: Savior, redeemer and rescuer.

Despite their wide use in Christianity, these terms, he asserted, "imply that human life has something wrong with it, that human life needs to be saved or needs to be redeemed or needs to be rescued."

Spong's contention is that the story of "The Fall" into "Original Sin" is misguided and must be set aside.

When we stick with The Fall and Original Sin, he says, it means we need "divine rescue." And, he said, "it was in the category of divine rescue that we told the Jesus story." Thus we get what he called the "mantra" that "Jesus died for my sins."

What Spong wants to do is to reset the Jesus story in a way that shows us how Jesus was helping us "to become more deeply and fully human."

So, he said, "maybe we should stop calling Jesus by these discredited titles. Suppose we begin to think of the Christ figure as the call to a deeper and fuller humanity. . .That's the power that I now see and experience in Jesus of Nazareth."

Spong was careful not to suggest that setting aside the doctrine of "Original Sin" means "denying the possibility of human evil."

But, he said, "I locate evil not in some mythological fall that has wrecked our potential perfection but simply as part of the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries," meaning we will do almost anything to survive, even destroy others.

In the end, Spong contends, "the task of the Christian church is nothing less than to give life, abundant life, to every child of God" because Jesus himself said, "I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly."

Well, you can see how Spong is happy to whipsaw traditional Christians this way and that as he challenges them this way and affirms them that way.

Is Jack Spong a heretic? Some would say so and I can understand why. But if he's a heretic (one of those circle-the-wagons concepts), I think the church needs such heretics to cause us to be what we in the Presbyterian tradition call "the church reformed and always reforming." I need not agree with Spong to learn from him and I need not condemn him to affirm my own more traditional Christian positions.

But I can at least appreciate his own humanity, such as his humility and humor revealed when he told us that after a sermon he once gave someone leaving the church said this to him: "Every one of your sermons is better than the next."

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Archeologists digging in the historic village of Jamestown in Virginia have turned up what they believe are the oldest remains of a Protestant church in what is now the U.S. No, the first clue wasn't all the leftover casserole dishes.

Nixon's 'spiritual hunger': 11-14-11

Buried deep within the new information in the latest Richard M. Nixon tapes released last week was something about faith that fascinated me.

NixonAs The Washington Post reported it, one recording contained "his dictated musings about an odd episode from 1970, when he paid a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial to meet anti-war protesters. He told the young people they were hungering for the same things he searched for 40 years earlier.

"Ending the Vietnam War and stopping pollution won’t end 'the spiritual hunger which all of us have,' he dictated. That, he said, is the 'great mystery of life from the beginning of time.'”

So here is this complex, Quaker-born, down-and-dirty president (pictured here) acknowledging a reality all of us know we have -- a spiritual hunger. And this hunger, in Nixon's words, constitutes a "great mystery" that is unending.

Reading that, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with former Nixon aide Chuck Colson. In a visit Colson made to Kansas City (it must have been the early 1980s), I drove Colson around to a speaking venue or two so he could talk about Prison Fellowship, the ministry he started after he was released from prison for his part in the Watergate scandal.

I asked Colson if he had had any recent contact with Nixon, and Colson indicated that Nixon no longer was interested in taking his calls or responding to his mailed notes. This seemed to distress Colson, so I asked why he wanted contact with the disgraced former president.

Colson told me that he believed Nixon was spiritually hungry and that he, Colson, wanted a chance to share the Christian gospel with him while also apologizing for any damage Colson had done to Nixon in the Watergate scandal. What I said next seemed a bit far-fetched to me even at the time, frankly, but I asked Colson if he'd mind if I wrote to Nixon and told him that Colson really wanted a chance to talk with him.

Colson said he'd be fine with me doing that. So I wrote to Nixon telling him, without great detail, that Colson was anxious to talk with him. Eventually I received a note from Nixon saying thanks for my note and that he was glad to have the benefit of my thinking. It was a standard form boiler-plate reply that made no mention of the contents of my note.

And to this day I have no idea whether Colson ever got a chance to speak again with Nixon about what, while Nixon was president, we now know he recognized as everyone's spiritual hunger.

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Herman Cain says God told him to run for president. I'm not sure why (well, if) God is doing this, but 2012 will be the 12th time I've voted for president and so far God has never told me for whom to vote.

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The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America, by Jerome Dean Mahaffey. If Americans know anything about George Whitefield, it's that he was a fiery preacher along with Jonathan Edwards in the Great Awakening of the mid-1700s. What the author of this intriguing new book suggests is that there's something much more important to know: Without Whitefield there would have been no American Revolution. Mahaffey, who teaches communications at Indiana University East, puts it this way: ". . .of all the colonial leaders and their ideas, if you remove Whitefield and his contribution, no one else had the message, popularity, and influence to shape American colonists into people who could declare independence. Indeed, I believe Whitefield converted the colonies not just to Christianity. In a larger sense, his ideas converted the colonies into a unified America from the diverse ethnic and religious-based communities all over the eastern seaboard." But Mahaffey argues that Whitefield, who honed his rhetorical and theological skills in his native England, did not realize that his message of liberty would lead to a separation between the colonies and England, thus the "Accidental" in the title. It may be difficult to imagine how Whitefield became so wildly popular in a culture without radio, TV, the Internet or social media tools, but, Mahaffey says, "he was truly the world's first international pop idol." Using that popularity, Whitefield's work led people to understand that the colonial conflict with was "a millennial struggle between good and evil, with the stakes being slavery or freedom." More proof that if you change minds you change history.

Prayer in many forms: 11-12/13-11


There are many ways to experience religious traditions that are not your own, such as attending worship in a church if you're a Jew or in a mosque if you're a Christian. Or attending a wedding between two people from faith traditions not your own.

But we usually don't think of prayer when it comes to getting exposed to other paths. And yet that is what people who have attended the annual Table of Faiths luncheon in Kansas City for the last seven years -- including this past Thursday -- have been able to experience.

Crosby-KemperBefore the meal, members (pictured above) of more than a dozen different religious traditions offered a prayer. I missed taping the Native American and Baha'i representatives, but I taped the rest and offer that to you today for several reasons.

The first one is by my friend Lama Chuck Stanford, a Buddhist, who once told a gathering at which he was asked to pray that Buddhists don't pray, but nonetheless then and again Thursday he offered the closest equivalent to a Buddhist prayer. To listen to those prayers, click on this link:  Download Interfaith-prayers

Table-faiths-1I hope you will notice two things about these prayers: First is their uniqueness and the way in which they reflect the special characteristics and quality of each tradition. Second is how much common ground they share. In the end, people of faith pray from almost all traditions pray for peace and blessings and pray to say thanks.

One of the award winners at Thursday's luncheon was the Kansas City Public Library. It was accepted by the library's executive director, R. Crosby Kemper III, pictured on the right. The other award recipient was Donna Ziegenhorn, author of the play, "The Hindu and the Cowboy."

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Rich Cizik is one of the wisest, most thoughtful Christian evangelicals out there, and he has nailed it with this great piece about the need for a serious discussion about values that find their root in the Christian gospel. As he writes in this Washingto Post piece, "The 'compassionate conservatism' espoused by President George W. Bush and many prominent evangelical leaders has been supplanted by a Tea Party ideology that bears more resemblance to the anti-Christian philosophy of Ayn Rand than it does to the Gospel." And he concludes, "This might be good politics, but it’s bad theology." Indeed. (Cizik leads the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.)

Jews and the triune God: 11-11-11

Sometimes a moment of clarity helps to put everything in perspective when it comes to the difficult and entangled issues of faith.

TrinityI mentioned here the other day, for instance, that I had attended a clergy seminar in which a Catholic professor and a rabbi discussed Christian-Jewish relations today.

The Catholic, Philip A. Cunningham of Saint Joseph's University, is co-author of a new book, Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today. And he listed for us what he called the meta-question, which is to say the question on which he and others who worked on the book focused as they did their work. Here it is:

How might we Christians in our time reaffirm our faith claim that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all humanity, even as we affirm the Jewish people's covenantal life with God?

There's the dilemma and task for Christians, all in one sentence.

To work on the book, Cunningham said, the team of scholars decided to consider that question "within the Catholic frames of reference."

So, he said, when scholars looked at the many studies and documents produced by the church and its leaders since the 1965 issuance of the Vatican II document "Nostra Aetate" (which finally declared Jews cannot be considered collectively guilty for the death of Jesus), they recognized that "there's an innate spiritual connection between Judaism and Christianity. They are both communities covenanting with God and cannot, in our perspective, be seen in isolation from one another." Cunningham noted -- properly so because he doesn't want to speak for Jews -- that "how Jews will react to that is another question."

In thinking especially about the incarnate God in Christ, he said, "there is a way in which all of the divine activity of the Word of God, the Logos (both terms refer to Jesus), is Jewish." And this is especially important, he said, when we consider the Christian belief that Christ is not dead but, in fact, is alive and at work in the world today still.

StarofDavid-1The implication of all of this is nearly startling: "If we Christians hold that the Jews are in covenant with the God of Israel. . .then the God with whom Jews covenant is the God we Christians have come to know as triune (the Holy Trinity). Therefore Jews are in relationship with the Father, the Son, the Spirit."

Put another way: "If Jews dwell in covenant with God, then -- from a Christian viewpoint -- they must be in an enduring relationship with the triune God, including God's Word, which is inseparably united with the now-glorified Jew, Jesus."

Does this kind of talk merely mean that Christians are imposing Christian categories on Jews? And, if so, can authentic Jewish-Christian dialogue continue? Cunningham is convinced that if Christians really understand their own faith in this way, then they can enter into healthy relationships with Jews based on respect.

Jews, of course, will have to come to the table with their own theological understandings and categories, but unless both traditions are true to their own beliefs, no authentic dialogue and understanding is possible.

What we must recall in all of this is that respectful and sincere Christian-Jewish dialogue is a relatively new thing, given that for most of Christian history, the Christian church viewed and treated Jews as pestilent. For my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

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The Washington Post, among other media outlets, is taking note of the similarities between the abuse scandal at Penn State and the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. And my friend Tom Roberts at The National Catholic Reporter has some thoughts about the same subject.  In the end, authorities -- religious or secular -- have a choice between protecting their institution or protecting the children. No need in such a case to ask WWJD.

Mapping a trip to Israel: 11-10-11

I have been poring over the excellent maps of the Holy Land contained in the new Common English Bible's special Bible Map Guide.

Bible-Map-GuideThis book is so engaging that I plan on taking it with me when I help lead a Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel in April. (The link in the previous sentence will give you the information you need to join us on the trip.)

The two other leaders of that April 15-25 trip, by the way, will be with me at 9 a.m. this Sunday at my church speaking about "Israel Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." I hope you can join me, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City and Father Gar Demo, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church for this presentation -- even if you don't plan to join our excursion next spring.

I love maps. Maybe that's because my father was a mapmaker as his final career, and, watching him and sometimes working with him, I came to understand the detailed work that goes into the craft.

This new map guide is designed to accompany the new Common English Bible translation, which I wrote about here on the blog. It contains 21 maps, each one with a reference to a passage from the Bible that gives its historical and spiritual context. There's a page of text on the left page and a map on the right page. The text contains such extras as charts of Roman history and the Herod family.

If you come to our presentation this Sunday, by the way, I'll be handing out an Israel history timeline that begins 17 centuries B.C.E. and continues through to the present.

I can imagine traveling around Israel, having this map book with us and sharing its features as we make various stops. The color maps, by the way, were produced by National Geographic.

This is the third pre-trip class Jacques, Gar and I will have done. Once people are signed up, we'll also be doing some trip preparation classes to help all of us be ready for what we'll encounter next spring in Israel, a land sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I hope you'll be among those along for the trip.

By the way: Rabbi Jacques is doing a couple of new things to help people understand Judaism. First, he's doing some brief YouTube teaching clips he calls "Jewish Tidbits." To watch the first one, click here. Then this coming spring, he'll be teaching classes called "The ABCs of Judaism" and "Tales of Hassidic Masters" through Communiversity, the community outreach school operated under the auspices of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When Communiversity's spring catalog is out, you'll be able to find it here.

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Speaking of Israel, Slate is running excerpts from a new book (just released this week) by Israeli historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, The Unmaking of Israel. Part two is here, though you can get to part one there, too. In part two Gorenberg argues that the growth of ultra-orthodox Judaism in Israel has been an economic disaster. What a complex, fascinating place, Israel. I wonder if its people ever will experience anything like what we middle-class Midwesterners think of as normal life.

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Hope Underground: The 34 Chilean Miners, a Story of Faith and Miracles, by Carlos  Para Diaz. Those of us who watched on TV the breathtaking rescue last year of the miners trapped in Chile may think this: Hey, weren't there just 33 of them? What's with the 34th in this title? The Seventh Day Adventist pastor who has written this book quotes the miners as saying over and over, "God was our 34th miner." This is an engaging book about a news event that received attention worldwide for weeks on end, and I found that it filled in some gaps in my knowledge and reminded me of things I did know. But this is not a journalistic recounting of the collapse of the San Jose mine and the astonishing recovery of all 33 miners alive. Rather, this is a story of faith told from the perspective of a man who became known as the chaplain of Camp Hope, that temporary tent community of miners' family members that they set up near the mine entrance. It is, in many ways, a touching story of a man who sought to be a healing presence in the midst of wild despair and wilder hope. At the same time, you may, as I did, struggle some with the author's rather deterministic theology. Through the author's eyes, this was a story of divine intervention in a world filled with attacks from Satan. He does not question that it was God behind the whole event, and he asks why God permitted it to happen. His answer: "To get our attention. To call humanity back to Himself. . .God has issued a call to His creation, every human being to make a decision while there is still time to do so." This approach to theology, common as it is, raises profound -- even disturbing -- questions about the kind of God who would subject 33 men to terror and possible death to send a message. And it raises the question of what it means to decide "while there is still time." The obvious implication of such a statement is that each of us must answer the decision question in the way this pastor thinks we should or we may face eternal damnation. Setting all that (and more) aside, however, I found the story of the mine rescue compelling enough to work my way through the simplistic theological assumptions of the author. And in the process I was inspired again by the families of the trapped men as they kept vigil in hope. And I was impressed by the author's description of the leadership abilities of the woman who became known as the mayor of Camp Hope. Still, I will be looking for a careful, historical book that will tell the story of the Chilean government's decision to do everything possible to save the miners and of the international help that arrived to work with Chileans to accomplish the task. Such a book should not ignore the spiritual support that people like Carlos Parra Diaz generously gave to the anxious families, but it should go well beyond that.

The meaning of salvation: 11-9-11

When thinking about terms widely used among people of faith, particularly but not exclusively meaning Christians, the word "salvation" is hard to miss.

Cunningham-Berkun-2But it may not mean the same thing to all people -- even people of the same faith. Which is why when ideas about salvation are brought to an interfaith context, great care must be used to be able to understand one another.

On Monday of this week at a seminar for clergy on Jewish-Christian relations, that point was made abundantly clear by Philip A. Cunningham (left in photo), director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He and Alvin K. Berkun (right in photo), rabbi emeritus of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, were the two speakers in this series of seminars guided by Rabbi Alan Cohen, director of interreligious affairs here for the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee.

Cunningham was highlighting the main points in a new book (of which he's a co-author) called Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today, just published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and Gregorian & Biblical Press in honor of the recent 45th anniversary of the release of "Nostra Aetate," the Vatican II document on Catholic relations with Jews and other people of faith.

"We realized that what we mean by salvation varies across Christian traditions. . .Sometimes we forget that it has an eschatological (end times) dimension, that we are all praying that the kingdom come and that things will happen on that day that aren't prevailing currently. And that salvation is intertwined with the notion of being in covenant with God. . .

"Salvation is so multi-layered and textured that the Catholic Church has never specified a formal definition. You have catechism definitions of it but they will vary from catechism to catechism. . .In the Christian tradition, the experience and anticipation of salvation has been richly described in terms of redemption, reconciliation, sanctification and incorporation into the divine life or as being freed from sin, oppression, meaninglessness or death."

Christ-JesusThat broad range of possible meanings, of course, makes the old "Are you saved?" question seem like what it often is -- simplistic and less of a search for a real answer than a challenge to adopt the theology of the one asking the question.

As for me, when Christians of a certain persuasion ask me when I was saved, my usual response is this: "It was a Friday afternoon about 2,000 years ago." More proof that God sometimes offers salvation even to a smart-aleck.

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A new survey shows two-thirds of Americans think it's important for presidential candidates to have strong religious beliefs. Kind of an intriguing finding in a nation whose people are said to worship 300 million different gods. Because religious and biblical illiteracy is so rampant in America, my guess is that what people responding to this survey really want are candidates with good core values, which they rightly perceive can be the products of religion.

Faith's need for hospitality: 11-8-11

Congregations of various faiths often struggle with how to attract new members. Indeed, Mainline Protestant denominations have seen membership declines for decades now. And the Catholic church in America would have registered similar declines were it not for the immigrant population.

Jan-Edmiston-1Perhaps one reason for the failure to draw people into the fold is that often the people already there are interested in pleasing their own tastes and not the tastes of people they're seeking to attract.

The Rev. Jan Edmiston (pictured here) of the Presbytery of Chicago spoke to members of my congregation over the weekend and told a story that I want to share with you about this very point.

"I went to a new church development conference a few years ago and was talking to a guy.  He's an older guy and I said, 'So tell me about your new church.'

"He said, 'You know what? We meet at a school and it really doesn't do anything for me. I really like traditional church buildings in stone. And the music, I really don't like the music. It's just really not my style. I don't listen to that kind of music on the radio. And the worship is a little jumpy for me and I'm not really into it.'

"So I said, 'Let me get this straight. You're on the Session (board of elders) of this church and you don't like the space, you don't like the music, you don't like the worship. So why are you there?'

"And his face kind of lit up and he said, 'Because I would trade all of my favorite things in worship to see that many young adults in worship every Sunday who come through our doors. So I'm willing to give up what I like for the kingdom of God.'

"I said, 'That's great. But how do you feed your soul?' And he said, 'I feed my soul by talking to these kids after worship during coffee hour. . .that's what feeds my soul.'"

Clearly faith communities must meet people where they are and display profound hospitality if they hope to interest people in becoming part of that community and eventually affirming that community's theology and the life such theology requires of its adherents.

If churches and synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship insist on thoughtlessly doing things the way they've done them for 50 years, it will be clear to newcomers that they're not really welcome. Which may explain at least some of the decline in Mainline churches.

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Speaking of hospitality, here's a feel-good interfaith story: Two Muslim men have bought an old Jewish bagel shop in New York to save it from closing and plan to keep it kosher. Could we get everyone involved in this to go to the Middle East and settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?