Previous month:
December 2011
Next month:
February 2012

An interfaith journal: 1-19-12

As regular readers of this blog know, I frequently write about and encourage interfaith, or interreligious, dialogue and understanding.

Interfaithlogo2So when I find a new resource that can be helpful with that necessary cross-connection, I like to pass it along.

Some of you may already have discovered the Journal of Comparative Theology that comes out of Harvard University. But if not, have a look.

As its "About" section says, the Journal "was established in 2009 by three graduate students at Harvard Divinity School: Josh Daneshforooz, Axel Takács, and Paul Nicholas.

"The Journal solicits articles from graduate- and doctoral-level scholars that seek to understand a particular faith in theological dialogue with one or more other religious traditions. As such, it endeavors to:

*Foster learning across religious borders;

*Engender interreligious understanding between faith traditions on a theological level;

*Offer a venue in which scholars can remain current about recent work in the field;

*Expand Comparative Theology as an academic discipline."

And here's a story about the journal from The Interfaith Observer.

Let me say something about interfaith work and comparative theology that I've said before: The idea is not to convert someone from one faith to another. The idea is to know and be known. And, ultimately, the idea is to respect one another so we can live in harmony and not kill each other. Seems like a small enough goal, huh?

* * *


When politicians and aggressive capitalists start claiming divine authority for their thoughts and actions, beware. This good piece by a Princeton history teacher alerts us to how this is happening in the current presidential race and how that connects to previous efforts to suggest that God is a free-market capitalist.

* * *

P.S.: What looks like it will be an excellent workshop to help churches do better ministry to the poor is scheduled for March 24 in Kansas City. For details, click here.

A Dickens of a time: 1-18-12

Almost every Christmas season in Kansas City, the KC Repertory Theatre (why must we Americans always spell theater the English way?) puts on "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (depicted here).

Charles-dickensIt's a nice way to remind ourselves to "keep Christmas in our hearts," whatever exactly that means. And, indeed, Dickens managed to capture the right spirit of the season.

What was it about Dickens -- whose 200th birthday will happen next month -- that gave him that insight and that drove him to be as productive as he was?

This intriguing piece in The New York Times attempts an answer. Except it's one that suggests this: "In death, Charles Dickens still keeps his greatest secret to himself — the essence of his energy."

Even odder, when we think about Dickens and "A Christmas Carol,"  we must wonder at why a man who had walked away from traditional Christianity decided to write this play. As this Unitarian site notes, "Although Dickens was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life, he turned to Unitarianism in the 1840s as a Broad Church alternative. He associated with Unitarians until the end of his life."

Perhaps it's one more example of how deeply the norms of Christendom once infused the culture of Western Europe. Christendom -- meaning the religion's overwhelming presence in society and its tacit (and sometimes open) support by the government -- is dead in Europe and slowly dying in the U.S.

But Dickens, bless his soul, lives on.

* * *


Oy. The human race is endlessly fascinating. Get this: A Jewish man has been charged with making antisemitic calls to other Jews, including his relatives. Huh? What in the world are people thinking?

Music's spiritual roots: 1-17-12

When I was considerably younger, I loved much of the music of Paul Simon (pictured here) and Art Garfunkel. I especially remember "Old Friends," which contains a line that says, "How terribly strange to be seventy."

Paul-simonWell, Paul Simon himself now is 70 and I myself am closer to that than I am to 60. How terribly strange

There always seemed to be something of a spiritual quality to Simon & Garfunkel's music -- and even to Paul's when he started making solo music.

So I was intrigued to discover this recent interview with Simon on the PBS show "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly."

As the interviewer points out, Simon came from a Jewish background, about which he says this:

"I was raised to a degree, enough to be, you know, bar-mitzvahed and have that much Jewish education, although I had no interest. None."

But his songs deal with God and angels and many other topics that interest people of faith. Here is Simon's view of God and the creation:

"How was all of this created? If the answer to that question is God created everything, there was a creator, than I say, great! What a great job. And I like the idea. I find it very, I don’t know, I find it comforting in some way. But if the answer to that is there is no God, I don’t feel like, well, what a jerk I’ve been. I feel, oh fine, so there’s another answer. I don’t know the answer. I’m just a speck of dust here for a nanosecond, and I’m very grateful."

Simon wasn't the only performer who took me to spiritual places last week. So did Shelby Lynne. I had barely heard of her before, but friends invited us to her concert at the Folly Theater in KC the other night. One of the songs she sang was "Jesus on a Greyhound."

I liked it a lot because it met at the intersection of Imagination, Deep Need and Hope.

Which, after all, is what much good music does, whether sacred or not.

* * *


You've got to hand it to popes -- they decline in health and stamina, but they struggle on, as this analysis shows about Pope Bendict XVI. Perhaps the pertinent question is why so many of them seem to think they're so indispensible that they must keep on keeping on until they die. That's always seemed to me an indication of hubris and arrogance.

A cautionary King Day tale: 1-16-12

Even for those of us who lived through the 1950s, '60s and '70s it's sometimes hard to bring back a sense of what it was like in the civil rights movement and how much was always at risk.

MLKjrI was already working as a reporter at an upstate New York newspaper in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. (pictured here) was gunned down in Memphis, and I recall that day and the aftermath vividly.

But what many of us learned only later was the despicable involvement of branches of our own government in putting all kinds of pressure on King -- and no doubt other civil rights leaders.

Yes, Lyndon B. Johnson, to the pleasant surprise of some and the bitter disappointment of others, turned out to be a friend of the civil rights movement. But there clearly was renegade work happening within the government. And Martin Luther King Jr. Day today is a good day to recall that.

As an example, let me share with you one single paragraph from Russ Baker's compelling 2009 book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America's Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years:

"The Church Committee (a U.S. Senate-created committee headed by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho to investigate rogue CIA operations) documented a mind-boggling array of domestic 'dirty tricks.' The CIA and FBI would send anonymous letters designed to induce employers to fire politically suspect workers, for example. Similar letters went to spouses in an effort to destroy marriages. The committee also documented criminal break-ins and disinformation campaigns aimed at provoking violent attacks against selected individuals, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI also mailed King a tape recording taken from microphones hidden in his hotel rooms -- accompanied by a note warning that the recording, with its evidence of marital indiscretions, would be released to the public unless King committed suicide."

As we celebrate King's dreams and accomplishments this day, it would be well to remain vigilant so that our own government doesn't turn against us and engage in this kind of horrific behavior ever again.

* * *


What promises to be a fascinating new book on Mitt Romney -- one that explores his relationship to Mormonism in some detail -- is given a preview here on a Washington Post blog. The Real Romney, to be released tomorrow, is written by two Boston Globe reporters. Wonder what Romney's own reaction to it will be.

Understanding Mormonism: 1-14/15-12

One of the fabulous things about the United States is that we Americans can openly debate all kinds of matters, from religion to sports to politics to sex to religion. And did I mention religion?

Mormon-templeAnd so even though for decades and decades, Americans have worried over and debated the role religion plays or should play in presidential politics, it's still a hot and legitimate topic.

This time around, because of Mitt Romney's success in Iowa and New Hampshire and the growing notion that he'll be the Republican presidential nominee, Mormonism is getting lots of attention.

For instance, Religion New Service has offered this analysis of whether Mormon leaders would try to influence Romney's policies if he's elected to the Oval Office.

It's an interesting question, but essentially one that Romney already has done his best -- both in this campaign and especially in the 2008 race -- to address honestly and openly. It not an issue that worries me.

Mormonism -- that unique American-born religion -- also is the focus of a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released just a couple of days ago, "Mormons in America: Certain in their Belief, Uncertain of Their Place in Society."

As the study's executive summary notes, "Many Mormons feel they are misunderstood, discriminated against and not accepted by other Americans as part of mainstream society. Yet, at the same time, a majority of Mormons think that acceptance of Mormonism is rising. Overwhelmingly, they are satisfied with their lives and content with their communities. And most say they think the country is ready to elect a Mormon president."

One of the problems Mormons face -- especially Mormon politicians like Romney and Jon Huntsman running nationally -- is that a significant segment of people who would identify themselves as evangelical or conservative Christians have a deep fear of and prejudice about Mormonism and, thus, Mormons. Some go so far as to call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a cult.

As the new Pew study notes, by contrast, "Mormons are nearly unanimous in describing Mormonism as a Christian religion." Whereas, the study notes, nearly one-third of American adults don't consider Mormonism Christian.

I suspect there will always be this kind of divide about Mormonism in America. What there should not be is fear of and prejudice against Mormons because of their religious beliefs -- even if a majority of Americans would describe some of those beliefs as unbelievable.

By the way, in a conference call for the media in which I participated on Thursday, I asked whether the Pew survey included any members of the much-smaller church, the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Latter-day Saints, based in the Kansas City area. The answer was that such people were eligible to be included but that hardly any were. One reason, one of the researchers told me, is that the term "Mormon" among Community of Christ members is a "contested term," and their refusal to embrace the term may have screened some of them out of the survey.

In any case, I invite you to dig through the report to learn more about Mormonism and how Mormons view themselves.

(The photo here today shows the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.)

* * *


The other day here on the blog I mentioned this week's 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling about a "ministerial exception" in faith communities hiring and firing workers and I spoke of it approvingly. I still think it was the right decision, but here's a dissenting view, with some good points, from the editorial board of The New York Times.

* * *

P.S.: Last year here on the blog, I reviewed a marvelous new book, The End of the Holocaust, by Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University. The other day Alvin alerted me to an excellent radio interview he did recently about the book and its topic, and I thought it might interest some of you. So to hear it, click here. Then you can either play it or download it.

Almost friggatriskaidekaphobia: 1-13-12

On this Friday the 13th, I want to talk about something as irrational as friggatriskaidekaphobia, which means fear of Friday the 13th.

IslamophobiaWhich is to say that I want to talk about an aspect of Islamophobia -- fear of Islamic law, or Shari'a.

Fortunately, our courts seem to be standing up to this prejudice. Earlier this week, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that had prevented Oklahoma's anti-Shari'a from going into effect.

In 2010, Oklahoma voters, swayed by ignorant and even hateful rhetoric about how Shari'a law would destroy America, forbid the state's courts from recognizing international law.

Regular readers of this blog may recall last September that here and here I wrote about a phenomenal new book about Shari'a by a University of Kansas professor. In the second piece, the author, Raj Bhala, had some comments about why it's hurtful to the American economy and essentially idiocy (my word, not his) to ban courts from ever considering Shari'a.

 Here's what Bhala told me then about anti-Shari'a bills such as Oklahoma's:

"These bills are based on ignorance," he said. "The American legal system -- many specific concepts in it -- owes a debt, either direct or indirect, to the Shari'a. We have. . .imported some concepts or some debates into our legal system that also are found in the Shari'a, and the Shari'a long predates English law from which our system more directly comes.

"So it's like banishing the blood of your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents from your veins. You can't do it. So it's intellectually ignorant and disingenuous to do that.

"It is also bad for business. I think this is a very important point that a lot of people miss -- these legisators who are trying to do this. One of the reasons why New York or England are commonly chosen in choice-of-law clauses in major contracts, whether it's financial deals or deals to transport goods or services, is of course the laws of New York and England are well known and they're major jurisdictions and they're rule-of-law jurisdictions. But another reason is they're highly tolerant jurisdictions of different legal traditions. So you can have in some of these more progressive cosmopolitan places. . .(the opportunity to say) we want the law of another country to apply to this part of our contract. . ."

Read more here:

So, in the end, it's good news that the Court of Appeals has slowed down, if not yet stopped, implementation of the Oklahoma law. There's more yet to happen with this case, however.

But when we let prejudice rule, wisdom goes out the window.

* * *


Two years after the earthquake that devasted Haiti, things are still in terrible shape there. This good commentary suggests, in effect, we set aside the question of why God seemed to be missing in action in this catastrophe and get on with the task of helping. Exactly right.

* * *

P.S.: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life yesterday released a broad survey about Mormons in America. I'll be sharing it and some thoughts here on the blog this weekend.

Big Bible seller where? Norway: 1-12-12

I argue regularly that the world is full of people who are spiritually hungry. Often they are seekers who don't really know what they're looking for. They just know that the material world isn't giving them all the answers for which they yearn.

Tromso-Cathedral-007So it's not surprising to find faith-based books selling well, for instance, though sometimes the surprise is who is buying them.

Take, for instance, the news that the best-selling book in, of all places, Norway for the last several months of 2011 was the Bible. In fact, it was a new Norwegian translation, and it's been jumping off the shelves at rates that surprise even the publisher.

Norway? you ask. Isn't that one of those Scandinavian countries that has become thoroughly secularized? Where no one goes to church? Where Jesus Christ is mostly an exclamation?

Yeah, well, maybe that image of Norway has some truth to it, but it's a little off base. It turns out that -- for whatever it means -- 80 percent of Norway's population still officially belongs to the Church of Norway.

There's been some speculation that the terrorist attacks in Norway last summer may have something to do with people snatching up Bibles, but I doubt that it's that simple. The new translation is done in literary style, without verse numbers, and it's the first modern Norwegian translation in decades. So there's been widespread interest.

And maybe if people actually read it instead of installing it as a coffee table decoration they may have questions that they will want to explore further. We'll see.

(The photo here today shows Norway's Tromso Cathedral.)

* * *


OK, folks. The only way to deal with all the Tim Tebow-as-Messiah foolishness is to use a bit of satire, which is exactly what this piece does. I wish I'd been able to pull off a miracle and get the author to use "its" when that's what is meant instead of "it's", but I failed. Maybe I need to move to Denver. I think it's 316 X 2 miles away from Kansas City, give or take.

* * *

P.S.: The U.S. Supreme Court, in a welcome 9-0 decision, got it right yesterday when it ruled that the government has no business interfering in the hiring and firing decision of ministers or others hired for religious purposes by faith communities. At first glance, this "ministerial exception" case appears not to affect faith-based groups that take public money to offer social services. I'll need to dig a little deeper into that question, but in such tax-funded situations, employment discrimination laws do and should come into play so that, for instance, religious groups whose theology says homosexuality is a sin could not both take tax money for a day care center and also refuse to hire other-wise qualified gays and lesbians as employees.

* * *

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

The pluralism of a date: 1-11-12

Some days seem almost mined with religious significance -- and for no apparent reason beyond coincidence.

January 2012 calendarConsider Jan. 11, today's date. On this date in:

* 1775, Francis Salvador, the first Jew to hold an elective office in the Americas, was installed as a member of the South Carolina Provincial Congress.

* In 1949, the cornerstone was laid for the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. It's often considered the first important mosque in the U.S.

* In 1978, Toni Morrison's book with the name of a book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book is not about the biblical chapter after which it's named, however.

* In 2010, Miep Gies, famous for hiding Anne Frank in the Holocaust, died at age 100.

I'm sure that conspiracy theorists could come up with some strange way that all of these Jan. 11 events are connected, but I simply want to note that almost certainly you could pick most any date in the calendar and find it to be the anniversary of some important or at least interesting religious-related event.

I just happened to pick today. Had I picked a week from today, I'd have been forced to mention the birth of a religion blogger and columnist, ahem.

* * *


Speaking of polls that seem a bit tough to believe (as I was here the other day), a new poll reported by a group connected to the Southern Baptist Convention shows that an overwhelming percentage of Protestant pastors think Adam and Eve were literal people and that God did not use evolution. Plus nearly half agree that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Oh, my. The section of the poll that describes its methodology is so scant that it's difficult to tell how many of these Protestant pastors were Southern Baptists versus how many might have been Mainline Protestants such as Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian. My guess is that if you polled only Mainline pastors you'd find a huge majority who would reject the idea that Adam and Eve were historical human beings and an even bigger majority who would laugh at the idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. The majority opinions reflected in this poll are what make many people in the world rub their eyes and respond, "Say, what?"

* * *

P.S.: At 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., there will be an pre-trip orientation meeting for those going on the Jewish-Christian study trip I'm helping to lead to Israel in April. Even if you haven't yet signed up, you're welcome to come. If you've already signed up, hope to see you there with my co-leaders, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and Fr. Gar Demo.

* * *

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

Power in the church: 1-10-12

Somehow the concept of power in church has been all over my radar screen this past week.

Cross-powerFirst, the pastor of my church, Paul Rock, gave a terrific sermon (click on the Jan. 8 sermon) about power this past Sunday -- the opening of a sermon series he's calling "Sex and Power."

His text was the first 11 verses of chapter 2 of Philippians, in which the Apostle Paul, probably drawing on an early hymn, writes that Jesus "made himself of no reputation," or, in another translation, "made himself nothing." He "humbled" or "emptied" himself.

That, Paul Rock said, is our model for how we are to handle power. As St. Paul wrote, we are to "look out not only for (our) own interests, but also for the interests of others."

Then someone alerted me to this good piece about youth in church. It says that if churches really want to draw more youth in they need to give them power.

The idea of giving up power, of sharing power, of limiting our use of power -- this is part of what makes the Christian faith so difficult to follow. Our culture seems to want us to acquire power, to exercise it almost ruthlessly and to display the signs of power, whether that means the fanciest car or the highest-tech devices. Christianity, by contrast, says to think first of others, to empty ourselves of power.

No wonder G.K. Chesterton once wrote that "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI says gay marriage is a threat to humanity. A lot, I suppose, like that strange old idea that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Who attends worship? 1-9-12

A career in journalism taught me, among many other things, that one always should be cautious about drawing conclusions from polls.

Empty_church_pewsSome polls are, after all, done to prove a point. Others are done with bad methodology. And some are excellent pictures of reality at a certain point in time -- a point that is now gone, and along with it perhaps the accuracy of the picture.

Still, most of us find polls endlessly fascinating, especially in a presidential election year.

But the polling data I want to share with you today isn't about politics. It's about religion, and -- among other things --  how many Americans regularly attend worship services., a site that seeks to help Christian clergy and other leaders, reports that fewer than 20 percent of Americans regularly attend worship, and that's about half the traditionally reported number.

The 17.7 percent of Christians who regularly attended a worship service in 2004, as the story to which I've linked you reports, may or may not be accurate. I just don't know.

What I do know is this:

* That was eight years ago.

* The story is sloppily written, giving me cause to wonder about its conclusions. For instance, in the third paragraph, it talks about someone whose last name is Olson but never gives a first name. More than that, it talks about "Orthodox Christian" congregations, by which one would assume it means Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Armenian, Russian, etc.), given the capital O. But, no, later in the story we find that this really means lower-case-o orthodox, "Catholic, mainline and evangelical".

Those facts may not affect the picture the story paints of the polling or the accuracy of the findings. (And there are many more findings beyond worship attendance.) But in terms of methodology, I wonder whether the study took into account the many new worshipping communities that are rising under the wings of existing denominations -- communities not yet recognized as regular congregations but, nonetheless, places where people are gathering. Indeed, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has committed to creating 1,001 such worshipping communities within the next 10 years.

In any case, Christian congregations should be aware of these findings and remember that while Christians once considered the mission field to be foreign countries, today's mission field often lies right outside the doors of the church.

* * *


I love this story. It's about a Moroccan-born Muslim woman who, as a child, was frustrated that she couldn't see God. So eventually she became a physicist to understand the creation, and now is having great success unpacking information about quarks and such.