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A little summer reading: 6-30/7-1-12

I am thinking you still have quite a bit of summer reading left ahead of you and that not all of it needs to be cheesy novels or your 10th re-reading of my own books. (You may stop at nine.)

Unity-factorSo as we move into July, I want to alert you to a few new books that might (or, well, might not) appeal to you.

I'll do brief reviews on just a couple of these and then mention a few more and give you links to where you can learn more about them.

* The Unity Factor: One Lord, One Church, One Mission, by John H. Armstrong. This small (less than 50 pages) book is a plea for the deeply divided Christian church universal to cooperate and move forward motivated by love above all else.

It is evangelical in origin but ecumenical and quite reasonable in tone. And, as I noted in this recent  column for The National Catholic Reporter, the truth in Christianity is not a doctrine or a dogma but a person, Christ Jesus. And this book gets that.

"Christians," writes Armstrong, "have always realized that truth is found in a person, not in a philosophy." Well, some Christians have realized that, anyway.

I also like his conclusion that people must be shown how the love Christianity promotes can change their lives. They can't simply be argued into the faith:

"Arguments designed to answer skeptical questions or emotional reactions aimed at the postmodern rejection of the biblical narrative will not fundamentally change anyone," he writes.

In his argument in favor of Christian unity (not bland uniformity), Armstrong sees more hope than I do, noting that "there is growing evidence that many Christians are deeply concerned about our disunity, and a growing number of them are beginning to get a vision of unity in mission."

I hope he's right, but so far I'm mostly disappointed in efforts to create more unity in Christianity.

Why-Catholicism* Why Catholicism Matters: How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century, by Bill Donohue. I confess first that I rarely agree with Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, about much of anything.

Some of this is personal. My dislike of his overwhelmingly aggressive approach to almost any topic was deepened some years ago when he inaccurately criticized me. It became something of a national Catholic story when, after I had accepted an invitation to be the graduation speaker at a Catholic college in Kansas, I then was disinvited because my employer, The Kansas City Star, ran an excellent series of articles (which I did not write or edit) on AIDS in the Catholic priesthood. I don't recall now exactly how Donohue was wrong in nearly everything he said about that incident, but I was left wondering how someone in his position could be so misinformed.

So I naturally picked up this book with an acknowledged bias against its author, in addition to wondering why anyone would think that Catholicism doesn't matter, given that Catholics number well over 1 billion of the world's population and have been a powerful (and mostly good) influence on the world for centuries.

Well, the title is a bit misleading. Donohue uses his space not to knock down a straw man contending that Catholicism doesn't matter but, instead, to argue that the so-called "Cardinal Virtues"  of justice, temperance, fortitude and truth that Catholicism promotes are exactly what the wounded world needs today. As, indeed, it does, along with mercy, compassion, understanding and love.

But in making his case, it's hard for Donohue to break away from his habit of being an ill-tempered protagonist (imagine a Catholic Rush Limbaugh on a vitriolic roll). A small for instance: Late in the book he writes about the late French philospher and historian, Michel Foucault, known especially for his writings on human sexuality, knowledge and power. Here is some of what Donohue says:

"He was a man so narcissistically driven, so full of himself, so expressly defiant of nature and the natural law that he died thinking that the AIDS he had worked so hard to acquire was merely a social construct. He may have been an inspiring writer, but he had about as much common sense as a man suffering from dementia. More important, what he inspired was moral and physical death."

Beyond that, Donohue says, his writings were "poisonous."

Well, you get the idea.

Donohue's book is (no suprise) Catholic apologetics, a good thing, but at its snottiest, not such a good thing.

Beyond all that, the book lacks an index. What were his publishers thinking?

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And now for mention of a few more that might tempty you:

Hosoi* HOSOI: My life as a Skateboarder Junkie Inmate Pastor, by Christian Hosoi. This autobiography tells the story of a 1980s skateboarding king who fell from grace with drug additiction and about the woman who guided him toward a new life as a Christian.

* The Way to Love: Meditations for Life and Rediscovering Life: Awaken to Reality, both by the late Anthony de Mello. These first is based on a retreat he gave in 1984, while the second is a reissue of a previously published work by this author, a Jesuit priest who directed a pastoral counseling institute in India.

* Flying in the Face of Tradition: Listening to the Lived Experience of the Faithful, by Louis DeThomasis. In contrast to Bill Donohue's new book (see above), this is a Catholic's gentle plea to the church he loves to fix what ails it and move into the future with hope.

* 7 Keys to Spiritual Wellness, by Joe Patrocki. The author, a Catholic consultant on faith formation, provides some help for those who are feeling spiritually dead in the water.

Finally two novels, though I rarely mention fiction:

* The Search, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This book two of "The Secrets of Crittenden County" series about Amish life.

* The Mirrored World, by Debra Dean. This is a fictionalized version of the intriguing life of St. Xenia of Russia. (This book has a late August release date, but you can pre-order now at the Amazon link I've given you on its title.)

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Reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional continues to pour in and bubble up. I'll have more to say about this here Monday, but I was intrigued by what a Catholic nun had to say here: "This law is pro-life and we must do everything possible to preserve and expand its reach."

Putting our beliefs in ink: 6-29-12

Every religion in one way or another -- and often in many ways -- sets forth what it teaches and what its followers are obliged to believe.

StatementFaithIn Christianity, almost every age from the very beginning of the faith's reluctant parting from Judaism has produced some kind of statement of faith, a "confession," as such documents often are called.

One of the two books that make up the constitution of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is called the Book of Confessions, and contains a dozen or so statements of faith, starting with the Apostles' and Nicene creeds and going up through a modern confession from the 1980s.

We call such confessions secondary in importance to the Bible, or "subordinate standards." Still, they contain, along with occasional strange language and thinking, the essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition faith.

I mention all this today because it was on this date (in the U.S.; June 30 in Rome) in 1968 that Pope Paul VI issued what is called the Creed of the People of God (or Solemni Hac Liturgia), his own effort to encapsulate the foundational teachings of the Catholic Church.

It's intriguing to go back those 44 years and see how the language and thinking strike us today, just as it's intriguing to return to the Confession of 1967 that's found in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions.

Both reflect something of the tenor of those tumultuous times in which it seemed that absolutely everything was up for grabs.

Pope Paul VI takes note of that in this way:

In making this profession, we are aware of the disquiet which agitates certain modern quarters with regard to the faith. They do not escape the influence of a world being profoundly changed, in which so many certainties are being disputed or discussed. We see even Catholics allowing themselves to be seized by a kind of passion for change and novelty. The Church, most assuredly, has always the duty to carry on the effort to study more deeply and to present, in a manner ever better adapted to successive generations, the unfathomable mysteries of God, rich for all in fruits of salvation. But at the same time the greatest care must be taken, while fulfilling the indispensable duty of research, to do no injury to the teachings of Christian doctrine. For that would be to give rise, as is unfortunately seen in these days, to disturbance and perplexity in many faithful souls.

Notice there the pontiff's deep caution about modernity.

The Confession of 1967 also reflects the troubling times in which it was written. As the revised version of it (which updated the original gender-exclusive language) to which I've linked you said:

The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

Clearly that was written in a time of upheaval in the civil rights movement.

The creed from Pope Paul could easily be revised (as was the Presbyterian creed) to include considerably more gender-neutral language, even if the Catholic priesthood today remains off limits to women. But the original versions of both tell us something about history and the thinking of the time.

What these repeated efforts at writing creeds reveal is that people of every age have both an obligation and a longing to say as clearly as they can what they believe and what difference it makes. Thousands of years from now, I suspect, we'll find that hundreds of new attempts at creeds will have been added to the stockpile -- creating a kind of roadmap of the journey faith has taken.

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A pastor of a megachurch in Singapore has been charged with misusing $19 million in church funds to further his wife's singing career. Call me dense, but I simply never will understand how people think they can get away with stuff like this (I'm looking at you, Bernie Madoff).

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P.S.: Further proof that we live in a deeply divided 5-4 country now is the reaction from religious voices to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision yesterday on the Affordable Care Act. Comments ranged from sensible to hysterical. For another collection of faith-based reactions, click here. And for a podcast from the Center for Practical Bioethics about how to move forward from here to create an ethical health care system, click here. I hope to look deeper into this issue some time next week.

Memoir of a spiritual journey: 6-28-12

Why would I care about a memoir written by an emeritus English professor from Fordham University, a man of whom I've never heard?

HiddenThat's what I wondered when I recently received a review copy of Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS and Spiritual Desire, by Richard Giannone.

Oh, my. Let me count the ways I care.

First, the writing is splendid. One sentence after another left me wishing I had written it.

Second, it took me back to the first days of the AIDS crisis, which began in the early 1980s, a crisis that, by the end of that decade, had led me to help create the AIDS Ministry at my church, a ministry still operating today, and for which I do occasional volunteer work at Hope Care Center.

Third, the author's insights into end-of-life matters are cogent and helpful, especially as I prepare to co-teach a class on preparing for death at Ghost Ranch in July.

Fourth, the author's theological insights from a Catholic perspective (Giannone's partner is a former Catholic priest) are thoughtful and humble. Giannone's efforts to understand his own deep spiritual longings are sure to prompt in readers a journey if discovery.

Having told you all that, I don't know why I need to go into detail about the story Giannone tells about how the AIDS crisis affected him and those around him; how he discovered his initially reluctant life partner and how they cobbled together a life of love and service, and  how Giannone (and his generous, guileless partner) helped to care for Giannone's aging mother as well as Giannone's older sister until each of them died.

Those stories form the skeleton on which the author hangs the rich muscle of his life's unlikely journey from an out-of-sync gay boy in New Jersey to a mature adult with high academic accomplishments but, more, with an effective peace treaty with life.

In Giannone's academic life, he has written books about such wonderful authors as Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor. I've not had a chance to read them, but it's hard to imagine that they carry the emotional and intellectual weight of this lovely memoir.

My only complaint about the book is that the proofreaders at Fordham University Press (which is to be congratulated for taking a chance on this book) have done Giannone no favors, allowing several completely avoidable typographical errors to remain in the final manuscript as well as at least two errors involving time elements. I expect better of an academic press. (The review copy I read was not a galley proof but a final version. In an earlier version of this post, I erred by saying Oxford University Press instead of Fordham. Oxford is the book's distributor, not its publisher.)

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As I mentioned here the other day, there will be lots of back-and-forth analysis about Egypt's future under a president who represented the Muslim Brotherhood. Right off the bat, for instance, there appears to be what looks like reassuring news, which is that Mohamed Morsi says he'll pick both a Coptic Christian and a woman as his vice presidents. The Copts in Egypt have had a rough go of it, and it remains to be seen whether the new government will treat them any better. But this looks like a promising start.

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

Violent attacks on religion: 6-27-12

Yesterday here on the blog I wrote about the shameful anti-Mormonism than infects almost one in five Americans who say they would refuse to vote for a Mormon for president.

JosephsmithI'll follow that up today with a reminder that anti-Mormonism is nothing new. Indeed, on this date in 1844 an armed mob in Carthage, Ill., killed the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith (depicted here), along with his brother Hyrum.

The Smiths at the time were in jail. The specific charge had to do with Joseph Smith ordering an offending printing press destroyed (and then fleeing the state), but there also was widespread uneasiness because Joseph Smith, by what he called divine revelation, a year earlier had authorized polygamous marriage for members of the Mormon community.

I know that this kind of violence with religious overtones seems so 19th Century, but, of course, we have seen examples of exactly that in various forms in our era.

On the list of incidents of religiously tainted violence you will find the 1993 conflagration at the Branch Davidian home outside of Waco, Texas. The year-later analysis pieces about what happened there that I wrote for The Kansas City Star can be found in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

And, of course, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were nothing if not violence driven by a radical vision of religion, in that case Islam.

In between there have been church burnings, antisemitic attacks on synagogues and much more. One of the better books of recent years on this general subject is When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball. It deals with religious fanatics who use violence, however, and not so much with bigoted people who turn violent against religion.

In any case, violence against religion grows out of fear, which in turn grows out of ignorance -- and sometimes ignorance is willfully attained.

(By the way, my friends over at have written about the death of Joseph Smith today, too. To read their take, click here.)

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A Scottish newspaper reports that an American science textbook put out by a fundamentalist Christian organization says the Loch Ness monster is proof of Creationism and disproof of evolution. There's a technical name for such claims -- SilliNess.

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

Americans' anti-Mormon bias: 6-26-12

What is it about Mormonism that causes a significant portion of non-Mormons to react to its adherents as if they were somehow profoundly untrustworthy and even weird?

MormonsI'm not sure, but a recent Gallup Poll shows that way back in 1967, when Mitt Romney's father was thinking of running for president, 17 percent of Americans said they would never vote for a Mormon.

Now, 45 years later, when George Romney's son is the presumptive Republican nominee, that figure is up a tick to 18 percent.

Analysts suggest that this could spell growing trouble for Romney because at the moment only about 57 percent of Americans (believe it or not) know that Romney is a Mormon. As the campaign moves forward and more people begin to identify his religious affiliation, that 18 percent no-Mormon vote is likely to become even more important.

I am not a Mormon. As a Protestant Christian, I naturally have theological differences with Mormonism, a made-in-America religion if there ever was one. But in my personal experience most Mormon Americans are thoughtful, patriotic citizens.

I worked with a Mormon, Cliff Smith, in my first post-college newspaper job in Rochester, N.Y., not far from Palmyra, N.Y., where in the 1820s Joseph Smith is said to have discovered on Hill Cumorah the tablets that, upon translation, became the Book of Mormon. I'd have trusted Cliff with my life. What a sweet, gentle family man.

I certainly know that one Mormon (I've known many more) doesn't stand for all Mormons. And I know that there are aspects of the Mormon story as described in the Book of Mormon that I find hard to accept.

But in this country there is, according to our Constitution, no religious test for public office. What matters is the candidate's character, experience and proposed policies, some of which may have been developed in response to religious beliefs.

Which is why I find the idea that nearly one-fifth of Americans would say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon to be an admission of shameful prejudice, especially because I'm betting that a significant proportion of those folks would describe themselves as strict constructionists when it comes to the Constitution they denegrate by their bias.

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Pope Benedict XVI is worried enough about the Vatileaks scandal that he's meeting with cardinals to get advice and he's hired a Fox News reporter as a communications adviser. Of course, another way for religious leaders to handle leaks is never to have anything embarrassing in your files. How's that for a concept?

The sources of generosity: 6-25-12

What motivates people of faith to give charitable gifts? In other words, is there something about the religion itself that prompts generosity -- a trait certainly not limited to people of faith?

GenerositySome academic researchers recently looked into that very question as it affects both Catholics and Muslims.

They turned up some intriguing answers, but I was especially interested in how Catholics and Muslims differ in terms of motivation. Here's what the press release about the study said on that matter:

"The study’s findings were extremely clear in some cases such as motivation to give. Muslims strongly feel that if they are blessed then they have an obligation to God to share with those less fortunate than themselves. They also feel that they are following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammad by being charitable to others. Catholics don’t see an obligation to God as a primary motivator to help others; instead, their love for Jesus motivates them to help others."

There certainly were, in addition, some commonalities between Catholics and Muslims in terms of generosity, and you can explore those in the link I gave you above to the press release.

But I wonder what the difference in motivation says about the two faiths, Islam and the Catholic expression of Christianity.

In the case of Muslims the emphasis is on obligation -- a sort of noblesse oblige -- as well as on emulation, by which they seek to imitate Muhammad's good example. I wouldn't exactly label this what in Christian theology often gets called "works righteousness," the idea that people can earn enough favor with God to merit an eternal relationship. But it's closing in on that idea.

By contrast, Catholics reported not a sense of obligation but a response of generosity that found its impulse in love. This is in deep harmony with the Christian idea that we are to live lives of gratitude not to earn God's favor but in thankfulness for what God already has done for us.

It's much too easy to generalize from the results of such studies, and I think we need to be careful not to do that.

That said, I think the responses these scholars turned up reflected well the different natures of the religions in question -- one of which stresses duty to a God of justice and one of which stresses gratitude to a God of grace. Putting it that way is too simplistic and ignores the Islamic attention to God's mercy as well as the Christian attention to God's judgments. Still, I found the responses telling.

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What are we to make of the announcement Sunday morning that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for the office of president of Egypt has won? You will hear lots of speculation about what it all means not just for Egypt, the Middle East and Islam but also for the U.S. The reality is that the situation is so fluid that no one knows. For each positive thing one can say about what's happening in Egypt there is at least one negative. Sometimes more. The last thing that needs to happen, however, is for American elected officials to denounce the election results and to try to scare the world about what is coming in an administration supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. That would simply make us more unnecessary enemies in the Islamic world. Our diplomatic approach should be cautious and firm in its support for the hopes and dreams of the Egyptian people.

Are you a 'true' adherent? 6-23/24-12

What does it mean to be a "true" Christian, a "true" Catholic, a "true" Muslim, a "true" Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist or (you fill in the blank)?

True BelieversI don't know. But what I do know is that if you find yourself having to defend yourself against poeple who believe you are not a "true" whatever, the accusers almost certainly are fearful, defensive and worried that they themselves might be labeled heretics by someone else. So they strike first.

I've been thinking about all of this since a reader sent me this CNN Belief Blog piece about whether a "true Catholic" ever would support same-sex marriage.

Certainly every religious tradition makes certain exclusivist claims and draws certain boundaries around itself -- or at least describes a center for itself that winds up being called essential, if not non-negotiable. Without such claims or such a center the group would be little more than a debating society.

In Christianity, such claims have most to do with who Jesus Christ is and with the triune nature of God.

Islam, for its part, identifies its Five Pillars as somehow central to the faith.

But when the debate centers on who is a "true" Christian or a "true" Muslim, you can pretty much bet that some kind of fundamentalist impulse has arisen and the motive, despite claims to the contrary, has less to do with defense of the faith than it does with the power to define the faith and its followers.

Questions to ask when the "true" question comes up include who wants to know and why it matters. Answers to those questions will reveal a great deal about whether this is a useful conversation. I'd almost always bet against the possibility that it will be either enlightening or uplifting for the community of faith.

In my Christian faith, I'm happy to leave to God the question of who is a "true" follower, though I think it behooves me to be sensitive to the question of who might be a "false" prophet. Even there, however, I want to be sure about why the question is even being raised.

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Have scientists identified bones found in Bulgaria as those of John the Baptist? Uh, maybe. The carbon dating seems right. But no reports of locust remains stuck in his teeth. I also think you'll enjoy the skepticism with which my friends over at have written about this whole matter.

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P.S.: The conviction Friday of Monsignor William Lynn of child endangerment charges by a Philadelphia jury won't let Kansas City Bishop Robert W. Finn sleep more peacefully. Finn faces a criminal misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse, and it cannot be comforting to him to know that a jury elsewhere was willing to convict a high-ranking church official. In addition, surely the conviction in the Jerry Sandusky trial must give Finn pause.

On depression and faith: 6-22-12

Depression -- sometimes called clinical depression or major depressive disorder -- is startlingly common.

When-LifeAs Richard Winter writes in his new book, When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in the Midst of Depression, "Approximately one in every eight women and one in every sixteen men will at some time in their lives have. . .an experience of depression."

The question Winter poses here is how people of faith -- specifically Christians -- are to understand the sources and treatments of depression while adhering to a faith that is supposed to bring them ultimate joy.

"The Christian's struggle with depression is often complicated," he writes, "because the Bible can seem irrelevant, prayer a pointless exercise, forgiveness impossible and God far away -- if he exists at all."

Winter, a psychotherapist, counselor and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, has taken his 1986 book, The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope, and updated it in various ways.

It is, on many counts, a helpful look at this serious issue by a serious and sensitive man, who himself has dealt with depression.

Among other things, it points readers to the reality that the Bible itself offers (especially in the books of Psalms and Lamentations but elsewhere, too) evidence that people thousands of years ago were facing what today we would label depression. The Bible's willingness to reflect that reality is a useful reminder of the paradox that although there's not much new under the sun, God daily makes all things new.

One of the reasons this book will get an appreciative audience is that members of the clergy are among the victims of depression.

Indeed, as this New York Times piece reported less than two years ago, "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans."

And yet these are the people on whom congregation members often call for help with what they themselves may not even recognize as signs of depression.

If I have concerns about this book they are theological and not scientific. Winter expresses his understanding of mental illnesses and their treatment in much the same way that a completely secular scientist probably would.

But when Winter begins to speak about God's role in all this (and, late in the book, even Satan's role) he fairly clearly reflects what the denomination of his seminary, the Presbyterian Church in America -- different from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to which my congregation belongs -- would call an evangelical, fairly conservative approach to Christianity.

For instance, Winter uses the "spiritual warfare" language so common to that branch of the faith, and talks about why it's sometimes helpful to see our personal suffering as God's disciplining of us. While not ruling out that such interpretations may in some way reflect reality, I tend to find that approach too simplistic and thus reflective of a manipulative God rather than a loving God.

Winter is careful as he considers what role, if any, Satan might be playing in people's depression -- and is, I think, even more careful not to rely on a serious demonology in his approach to treatment of depression. But it's clear that he has a fairly well developed demonology, certainly a considerably higher demonology than my own.

If Christians either agree with him about that or if they can work their way around and through those passages without dismissing the rest of what he says, I think they will find a lot in this book that can help them understand depression in the context of their faith.

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The guy who was teaching our top military leaders that the U.S. is at war with Islam has been relieved of his duties and the class redesigned, it's reported. Thank goodness someone complained about this nonsense. Incredible.

Some Saudi puzzlements: 6-21-12

I am beginning to get a bit of a complex. I wrote about Rodney King and two days later he died. I wrote about Saudi Arabia's effort to stop terrorism, and not long after that the prince who has mostly led that effort died.

SalmanMaybe you should pray I won't write about you.

But let's go back to the death the other day of Prince Nayef (sometimes Naif) of Saudi Arabia, who was Crown Prince, meaning next in line to become king on the death of the current king, Abdullah.

This development -- and the subsequent choice of Prince Salman (pictured here) to be Crown Prince -- gives us another chance to think through several matters, including the Saudi relationship to terrorism, the rigid sort of Islam officially practiced in the kingdom and whether there ever will be anything close to religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

We all know that most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia, as did the late Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida network recruited and trained them. But the House of Saud through the Saudi government it controls has worked with some diligence to knee-cap terrorism, partly (maybe mostly) because one of the main target of the violent extremists who claim to be living out Islam is the House of Saud itself.

If Prince Salman indeed becomes king (and the frail Abdullah is either 88 or 89, depending on which news account you read), he is likely to continue the reforms (painfully slow, but reforms nonetheless) instituted by Abdullah. This likely would not have happened under Nayef, who was no great fan of political, social or religious reform.

Will the puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam lose its grip on Saudi Arabia as the old generation of princes (all sons of Saudi Arabia's founding King Abdul Aziz) goes the way of all flesh? Unlikely. Wahhabism is deeply embedded in the House of Saud. It would take a political revolution, I think, to create a religious revolution, though neither is outside the realm of possibility.

And what about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. It simply doesn't exist now. As the 2012 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported: "During the reporting period, systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements. More than 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief."

(This despite the fact that within Saudi culture King Abdullah is viewed as a reformer.)

So the sands of time continue to fall through the Saudi hourglass, but before we imagine that this slow parade will yield much change, we need to remember how much sand there is in the kingdom.

(The photo of Prince Salman here today accompanied this Agence France Press online story.)

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Religious groups around the world seem willing to pay big bucks to control newly available Internet domain names, such as .church and .Bible, it's reported. Beware groups that want to use the domain .hell.

Help for grandparents: 6-20-12

Ten years ago today I was in Egypt with a group of journalists on a post-9/11 tour of predominantly Islamic nations. We also went to Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

Osmdance5-1Before I left, I gave my pregnant older daughter strict instructions not to give birth until I returned. I did not want to miss the arrival of my first grandchild.

But because my daughter comes from hearty and independent stock, she paid no attention to her father and gave birth to beautiful Olivia 10 years ago today. Ten more days would pass before I returned to the U.S. to see this marvel, who met me at the Kansas City airport with her parents.

I mention all this today not to brag about Olivia (though you should have seen the beautiful ballet solo she danced this past Saturday evening at the Folly Theater) but to suggest that the world's great religions would do well to give deeper thought than they have to the role of grandparents. (As you can tell from the photo here today, Olivia has been practicing dance since she was just a little squirt.)

The Bible, of course, admonishes children to honor their parents and tells parents not to dishearten their children.

And some of the Eastern religions place emphasis on respect for the wisdom of the elderly.

But as life expectancies increase, there will be more and more grandparents seeking guidance on how to be healthy and supportive presences in the lives of the grandchildren. (Perhaps you saw this Kansas City Star story on Sunday about grandparents helping to rear their grandchildren.) And surely our faith traditions have ideas about how to help make that happen.

I was driven to think about this not only because of Olivia's birthday, but also because of what my other daughter told me my granddaughter Lucy said about me the other day: "Grandpa is really smart," she told her mother, who asked her how she knows that. And Lucy said it's "because he does this a lot," and she mimicked the way I look over the top of my glasses to read things closely.

So we grandparents are giving off messages all the time, even if we don't realize it. And we could use some help to give off the right messages.

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Violent extremists with roots in any faith tradition must be exposed and denounced. So now it's time for Jews to condemn the torching of a mosque in the West Bank, even if the culprits have not yet been arrested and identified. Israeli military authorities already have called it "a grave and criminal act." Adherents of whatever faith is being used as a cover for such violent acts should be first in line to condemn them.