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A travelogue about heaven: 10-19-12

Biblical scholars -- well, many of them, anyway -- now say it's pretty clear that when Jesus talked about "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven," he wasn't referring to some perfect place in which to spend your afterlife.

HeavenRather, he was talking about the here and now on Earth and how fabulous life could be for everyone if only we'd live the way of peace and compassion and love.

Nonetheless, for centuries Christianity -- to say nothing of many other religions -- has been focused on "heaven," meaning, in the stereotype, that place where angels fly around playing harps and where everyone is happy and at peace.

As you might well imagine, as people have pondered heaven, writers have found it a hot topic for books, and there are a bazillion titles of books that purport to describe heaven. Hell, too. On the bookshelf above my desktop computer, in fact, I find a little booklet from Christian History magazine called "The History of Hell: A Brief Survey and Resource Guide."

A reflection of the wide interest in heaven is seen on the cover of the current Newsweek magazine. It's a story by a physician called "Heaven is Real." It's an excerpt from a new book called Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander.

The magazine piece is a really engaging explanation of what Alexander experienced when, as he writes, he was in "a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline."

What he says he experienced is what most of us would call heaven. He says that while "the nurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity. . .my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I'd never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility."

What are we to make of all this? Hard to say, exactly, but the fact that the person experiencing this is a scientist who tells the story in terms of science gives it more credibility in the minds of lots of folks, I would guess.

In the end, however, I still think Jesus would have us focus not on some sweet by-and-by but, rather, on how we can live today in a way that will be in harmony with the best eternal values.

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When I traveled to Poland in 2007 with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn to work on our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, it was clear how deeply Catholic the country is. But Reuters reports that is changing. The Catholic Church is losing influence in Poland and there's a struggle for the country's soul. Many countries are in the midst of negotiating with post-modernity, so Poland is not alone in that. But Poland's Catholic history is long and deep, and it will be fascinating to see how this current soul-struggle plays out. In the end, I'm betting on the church.

Learning about religious art: 10-18-12

One reason I love living in a large city is that it offers so much in the way of education and culture. Both of those were free for the taking this past Saturday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art when Mike Graves, a preaching professor and director of continuing education at St. Paul School of Theology, led two two-hour tours of New Testatment-related art on display there.

With the help of Nelson docent Donna Houtteman, in the first tour Mike walked nearly 20 of us through more than half a dozen works of art, describing (and even reading) the biblical texts on which the artists drew and helping us see the relationship between art and religion.

We began, for instance, by looking at a painting (pictured above) called "Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin" by Guercino, otherwise known as Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, an Italian Baroque artist.

Mike and Donna drew our attention to a small oxen on the right side of the painting. It's a clue as to who the artist depicted in the painting is because each of the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (at least those are the names attached to the gospels) is represented by a particular symbol. For Luke it's the oxen (John = eagle; Mark - winged lion; Matthew = winged human).

So if we're attuned to that symbolism we know we're looking at a painting of Luke. The painting was done in the 1650s and represents a Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. That Reformation emphasized faith formed "sola scriptura," or by scripture alone. But in the painting the Bible is closed and placed in a secondary position, while Luke points to a work of art (a painting within a painting) that shows Mary and Jesus. It's the artist's way of saying that Jesus, not the Bible, is the center of Christian faith and those Protestants who want to strip churches of art have it wrong.

Prodigal-sonWell, that's just a small sample of our two-hour tour, which wound up outside the main building at the modern sculpture called "Return of the Prodigal Son" (pictured here), by Jacques Lipchitz. It represents what is perhaps Jesus' most famous parable, which can be found in the 15th chapter of Luke.

As Mike explained the parable:

"The father has two sons. And the younger one says he wants his share of the estate -- just wants his share, but he wants it while the father is alive. He really is dishonoring the father. He really said, 'I wish you were dead, Dad.' And he takes his share of the estate. The Bible says he squandered it in riotous living. . .He does squander it but there's something else that happens. There was a famine in the land and he could not find food. So he goes to work feeding pigs. That's very dirty work, not kosher. And then there's the best line in the gospel of Luke: 'When he came to himself,' that is, when he realized who he was, who he was meant to be, he realized, 'Oh my gosh, my father's workers are living better than this. I'll go back. I'll confess my sins and I'll become a worker.'"

After the son returns and his father welcomes him back with a big party, the second son feels anger at this outpouring over his wayward brother. As Mike pointed out, the parable ends on the front porch with the father urging the angry son to come join the party for he is loved as well. And, of course, that's a question often facing us. Will we stay separated from God because we think we've been treated unfairly or will we acknowledge God's love is big enough for all?

By the way, the Nelson is happy to set up docent-led tours of art for anyone on almost any subject. And Kansas Citians should take advantage of the fact that we have such a great gallery here and that we have resources at several seminaries to help us understand religious art and so much more.

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Among Christians who would identify themselves as evangelical, one of my favorites has been Ron Sider, a wise, caring man who has pushed Christians, especially evangelicals, to become more sensitive to the way our economy at times oppresses the poor. The news about Sider this week is that he's retiring as founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Ron has been a prophetic voice of reason and we can all hope that others will follow in his footsteps.

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

A prize for interfaith work: 10-17-12

A few of you -- especially the hordes of you who memorize everything I write -- may remember my National Catholic Reporter column from June 2010 in which I described the first "Goldziher Prize." It was named after a Jewish scholar of Islam and given by a Catholic school (Merrimack College) to a rabbi.

Rabbi-VNow there's some diversity.

Well, please know that the awarding of this prize has not stopped with the first recipient. Just this week, the second Goldziher Prize was given to on Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky (pictured here) of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for his work in advancing Jewish-Muslim dialogue.

The website to which I've linked you on Visotzky's name describes some of his interfaith work that led to his receiving the award. Among other things, it says:

Dr. Visotzky is involved in interreligious engagement internationally, in capitals such as Washington; Warsaw; Rome; Cairo; Doha, Qatar (where he was in the first group of Jews invited to interfaith dialogue by the Emir); and Madrid, Spain (where he was in the first group of Jews invited by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia). In May 2012,  Dr. Visotzky is invited to Muskat, Oman, as part of the first U.S.-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium. He is the winner of the 2012 Goldziher Prize, awarded biennially by Merrimack College for work in Jewish-Muslim relations. Dr. Visotzky is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I tell you all this as a reminder that although this kind of work and the awards it reaps are valuable, much more needs to be done to encourage inter-religious understanding.

I hope you'll figure out a way this week to start to learn something new about a faith different from your own or engage in a respectiful conversation with someone of a different tradition. It's the only way to avoid the ignorance that breeds prejudice, which in turn breeds hatred and even violence. And it's the only way to enjoy the many benefits of a broad religious understanding.

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In contrast to the good work being done by Rabbi Visotzky (see above), Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who is based in the Vatican and is president of its Council for Justice and Peace, caused a huge stir the other day among other church leaders by screening a misleading and scare-tactic video about Muslims taking over Europe. The Reuters piece to which I've linked you will describe the video posted on YouTube, "Muslim Demographics," which I've watched but which I've chosen not to give you a link to. I don't want to be guilty of spreading hateful propaganda. You can hunt for it yourself if you want to see it. Reuters reported that many cardinals and bishops were distressed that Turkson showed the video, though it's unclear whether they will move in some way to discipline him. The Catholic Church has created various good venues for discussing interfaith relations in peaceful, rational and accurate ways. Turkson's choice to show the video was a slap in the face to such efforts and should be condemned by the pope and others in charge at the Vatican. For additional coverage of this matter, the National Catholic Reporter story by John L. Allen Jr. is here.

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

Looking into Kabbalah: 10-16-12

Every religious tradition has its mystical path. Beyond Christian mysticism (among the many names associated with this are Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas a Kempis and Bernard of Clairvaux), there's Sufism in Islam and Kabbalah in Judaism, to mention nothing of similar paths in many other traditions.

Kabbalistic-journeyIn recent years, because of publicized interest by such celebrities as Madonna, Kabbalah has received a fair amount of press and become at times rather faddish.

But Kabbalah is an ancient and honorable way of seeking a personal experience of God, which is what mysticism generally is all about. And it is the subject of two new books by Rabbi Joseph P. Schultz, the former director of the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Schultz, who now lives in the Boston area, will be in Kansas City soon to talk about his books, The Kabbalistic Journey: From Religion to Spirituality to Mysticism, and In Search of Higher Wisdom: Conversations About Religion, Spirituality and Mysticism.

Search-WisdomHe will speak at free public events at 10 a.m. this Sunday at Congregation Beth Shalom, 14200 Lamar, Overland Park, Kan., and at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at Congregation Beth Torah, 6100 W. 127th St., Overland Park.

The Sunday presentation will be done in an interview format with Schultz's son, Eric Schultz, a journalist at KSHB-TV, Channel 41, in Kansas City, who also helped edit the new books and who, with his sister, Reena Schultz, a teacher in the Boston area, conducted the interviews with Rabbi Schultz that make up the core of In Search of Higher Wisdom.

People first learning about Kabbalah and mysticism in general might want to start with In Search of Higher Wisdom. Its interview format makes for easier reading, and Rabbi Schultz's deep knowledge and expansive sense about the human struggle come through clearly.

One thing I especially liked about this volume (also present in the more traditional other book) was its attention to interfaith matters.

In response to a simple question, Rabbi Schultz reaches into his experience and learning and brings readers information from Buddhism, Islam, Native American spirituality, Christianity and other traditions. It's impressive and enlightening.

The Kabbalistic Journey book has a more traditional format but is quite accessible, even to those not especially familiar with mysticism. (And, by the way, did you know that there's a Christian Kabbalah path, too? Schultz writes a bit about it, explaining how it and Christian mysticism generally owes a lot to Judaism's mystic path.)

Perhaps Rabbi Schultz's appearances in Kansas City will be your opportunity to explore mysticism in general and Kabbalah in particular.

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Four "Occupy" protesters chained themselves to the pulpit of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. It's a start, but it's going to take a lot more of them for church attendance to improve in Europe.

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Yesterday here on the blog I praised a book about Christian history but took issue with the author about his description of the Apostle Paul converting people to Christianity.

Today, I'm sorry to say, I will make a quite similar point, though this time about a different book, Paul: The Great Scandal, by Vassilios Bakoyannis. Despite containing some interesting facts about Paul, this book makes so many errors that Convivium Press, whose books I've generally admired, should have passed on publishing it.

The opening page is a tip-off. It calls Paul "the former Christian persecutor." There was no religion called Christianity in Paul's lifetime. Rather, there were Jews, including Paul, who believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. It also says the New Testament contains 14 "of the Apostle Paul's epistles." In fact, though many New Testament books have been attributed to Paul, scholars believe only seven were actually written by him personally. It gets worse.

In describing Torah-observant Jews of Paul's day, the author says they spent time in their synagogues "learning of the Old Testament." The term "Old Testament" is a Christian designation of the Hebrew Scriptures that came into use only after the New Testament was put together. No Jew of Paul's time would know what you meant if you talked about the "Old Testament." Still, the author says Paul "knew the Old Testament by heart."

A page or two later Bakoyannis talks about "Christ's new religion," as if Jesus himself had created a separate religious tradition. The separation from Judaism of what became Christianity did not happen in any formal or complete way until decades after Jesus' life, and it happened at different times in different locations. The first members of the First Century Jesus movement were Jews who remained Jews. Later they were joined by non-Jews, who were urged by Paul and others to convert to that branch of Judaism that believed the Messiah had come.

In describing Paul's role in the death of the martyr Stephen, Bakoyannis writes that "supporters of Judaism were set on eradicating Christianity," as if there were any such religion then. They may have wanted to dissuade members of the Jesus Movement from continuing in their beliefs, but there was no Christianity as such to eradicate. And on and on.

For reasons I cannot imagine, this book reflects none of the excellent scholarly work that has been done about Paul for the last half a century or so. There's really no excuse for that because misrepresenting who Paul was leads to terrible misunderstandings between Christians and Jews today, and we've got more than enough of that.

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

Christianity's global history: 10-15-12

I am endlessly fascinated by the history of religions. And because I'm a Christian, most of that fascination has focused on Christianity.

Church-historyIn fact, a few years ago I audited an excellent two-semester Christian history course at Central Baptist Theological Seminary here in the Kansas City area.

So I'm always alert for new books that tell this history, and the latest is one I can highly recommend.

Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline, by Dyron B. Daughrity, gives readers several approaches to understanding how the faith has developed and adapted to its contexts in the last 2,000 years.

Instead of offering simply a chronological accounting (though he does give that) of Christian history, Daughrity, who teaches religion at Pepperdine University, also offers these other approaches to this dynamic story: denominational, sociological, geographical and biographical.

What surprises me about this book is that it packs so much into fewer than 300 pages.

No, not every detail of every church controversy or international ecumenical council is there, but in every one of these five approaches the author ranges far beyond the traditional Western view of church history to remind us that Christians are spread across the globe and have been for centuries. As Daughrity notes, "the history of Christianity has always been so much more than a Western story."

The book is written with college and seminary students in mind, but its writing is not stilted academese. So it's unlikely that most of you will get lost in esoteric concepts and language. In fact, there are some excellent charts and other graphics that help readers grasp the global scope of Christianity and how the current patterns developed.

My complaints about this book are relatively minor, but at least one is worth mentioning. Daughrity is clear that the early followers of Jesus considered themselves Jews and that the Apostle Paul himself was always a Jew. Paul's Damascus Road "conversion" was from a Judaism that believed the Messiah had not yet come to one who believed he had come as Jesus of Nazareth. So, as Pauline scholar Mark Nanos has pointed out, in his missionary work, Paul was attempting to convert Gentiles, or non-Jews, to that second form of Judaism, not to Christianity, which did not yet exist.

And even though Daughrity gets that part right, he still falls into the old now-discredited pattern and writes that Paul "traveled aroundthe Miditerranean world converting people to Christianity. . ." and he says -- without challenging the idea -- that Paul "often is called the second founder of Christianity." That assumes Jesus was the first founder, though it's clear Jesus did not mean to found a brand new religion, and it assumes Paul meant to create a new religion, also not true.

Nonetheless, there is much in this book to recommend it, especially the global context in which the author sets the religion.

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A new survey in Great Britain finds more people there believe in UFOs than believe in God. Well, yes, but before you get too excited about that result either way, just remember that a lot of people in Great Britain also think the British can cook.

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

Liberating Muslim women: 10-13/14-12

It is clear to many Muslims and non-Muslims alike that if we look at countries in which Muslims make up the majority of the population, the status of women and girls often is problematic. (The primary latest example is in Pakistan, with the Taliban-directed shooting of a 14-year-old girl who is a child rights activist.)

HassanWhy should this be so and what can be done about it in ways that, while liberating women from oppression, nonetheless respect the core of Islam?

Those were the very questions at the core of an excellent presentation by a visiting female Muslim scholar this past week at St. Paul School of Theology.

I liked not only Dr. Riffat Hassan's (she's pictured here) answers but also her sense of humor and her realistic approach to what needs to change. Hassan is a retired religion professor at the University of Louisville.

After years of studying the Qur'an and the Hadith (the collected sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), Hassan, a native of Pakistan, concluded that three fundamental theological assumptions form the base of the thinking that leads many Muslims to view women as inferior to men:

1. Eve was created from Adam, as described in one of the two creation stories in Genesis, so this made Eve derivative and of secondary importance.

2. Eve was assumed to bear primary guilt for the story of what has come to be known as The Fall, because it was Eve who gave the forbidden fruit to Adam.

3. Eve was created not simply from Adam but also for Adam, as a "helpmeet," or, in effect, a servant.

Hassan said that when she talked with both men and women Muslims and asked how Eve came to be they all said, "from Adam's rib." The problem with that answer, she said, is that although it comes from one of the Genesis creation stories, it's not found in the Qur'an, and it is in tension with the first creation story in Genesis.

So she looked for the origin of Muslim thinking about all this and discovered it not in the Qur'an but in the Hadith, though many, if not most, of these 600,000 or so collected sayings and stories about Muhammad have been judged to lack authenticity. Indeed, one early prominent Muslim scholar judged only about 3,000 of the 600,000 to be authentic.

The point, she said, is that "women got derailed at the point of creation. And you cannot put them on the right track if you don't go back to that point."

Which means, she said, that if you want to undo the inequality many women experience in predominantly Muslim countries, you can't begin with secular documents about equality from such institutions as the United Nations. Rather, "the only way to challenge injustice towards women is from within the tradition." That means teaching both male and female Muslims that Islam was really quite liberating for women as the religion was introduced by Muhammad. Since then, however, various cultural and other forces have led to oppression of women in Muslim societies.

So Hassan has been training both men and women to give Islamic, theological answers to people who hold the three foundational theological assumptions about women that she identified. And it's beginning to have an effect, she said.

"I see a lot of pregress has been made but we have a long, long way to go yet," she said, but progress is slow because most Muslim women in the world are poor, illiterate and live in small villages, so their opportunity to challenge anti-woman attitudes and practices is limited.

The three theological assumptions she identified in Islam are, in some ways, even more deeply embedded in both Christianity and Judaism, particularly in branches of those faiths that take a fundamentalist approach to theology.

That's why we see a pushback with the rise of feminist theology in the last several decades as scholars and others seek to find a different theological framework that doesn't subjugate half the population.

By the way, Hassan's talk is just one example of the many talks and other programs by visiting scholars that our several local seminaries offer. If you want to get e-mail notifications about such events from St. Paul, click here.

(The Louisville Courier-Journal did a piece in late July about Riffat Hassan's work. You can find the start of it here, but if you want to read more it will require payment.)

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The part of the vice presidential debate on Thursday night that most intrigued me was when moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, both Catholics, to comment on how their faith influenced their position on abortion. As you may know, Biden is generally called pro-choice, while Ryan has said he's against abortion even in cases of rape or incest, though he's going along with Mitt Romney's stance of having exceptions in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother. You can read their answers in this part of the transcript, but I thought Biden's answer was most in harmony with public opinion on this. He said: ". . .with regard to abortion, I accept my church's position on abortion as a -- what we call a (inaudible) doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the -- the congressman. I -- I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that -- women they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor." Seeking to impose specific parts of religious doctrine on the public through legislation is almost always problematic, though even there one finds a thin line between being true to one's beliefs and governing properly. By the way, I believe that in the "inaudible" part of the transcript, Biden referred to a "De Fide" doctrine. Such doctrines in Catholicism are considered divinely revealed and belief in them is thus obligatory for Catholics.

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P.S.: As my regular readers know, I've been an opponent of the death penalty for a long time and for many reasons. In fact, I used to write the anti-capital punishment editorials that expressed the position of The Kansas City Star on this matter. So I'm glad to notify you of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty's Nov. 10 "Abolition Conference," to be held in Olathe, Kan., in suburban Kansas City. The speaker will be Dr. Allen Ault, dean of the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University and former Department of Corrections commissioner in Georgia, Colorado and Mississippi. Details about the conference (registration is free) are at the site to which I've linked you above. And feel free to spread that link around to your own faith community, if any.

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ANOTHER P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members). Hope you can join us.

The growing UU church: 10-12-12

At a time when Protestants in America have slipped below 50 percent of the population (the nation used to be a landslide for Protestantism), it's intriguing to discover that the Unitarian Universalists, a relatively small sect with Christian roots, are growing.

UUA_LogoReligion scholar Martin E. Marty took note of that in one of his recent "Sightings" columns.

Quoting a USA Today piece, Marty reported that "from 2000 to 2010 this church grew by 15.8 percent."

The UU's, as they're often called, even by themselves, tend to be expansively tolerant of almost any spiritual path, though clearly in their early history they rejected the Trinitarianism that charcterizes traditional Christianity. Sometimes they get kidded for this characteristic. I recall attending a wedding reception once at a UU church with my former and late boss. It was a hot summer evening and as we entered the fan-only-cooled reception hall he turned to me (he was an Episcopalian) with exasperation and whispered rather loudly, "The UUs don't believe in air-conditioning EITHER."

The UU website to which I've linked you above describes the tradition as "a liberal religion" that honors "theological diversity." And it offers these seven principles that guide UUs.

In a time when our culture seems to value the individual at times above the community, it's not surprising that the UU church is growing, given its encouragement of individuals finding their own path. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, UU's also lift up communal values as vital.

While I was in New England recently I spent some time with people who are UU members, and they're fabulous people whom I would trust with my life.

It's just that Unitarian Universalism doesn't work for me theologically. God makes the most sense to me when seen through a Trinitarian prism. But I'd be happy if one of my sisters married one. In fact, one did.

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As I've mentioned here several times in recent weeks, yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, a remarkable gathering that has changed the Catholic Church in many ways. Here's a good analysis of what Vatican II produced by a Georgetown University professor and Jesuit priest. And for a good NPR piece about Vatican II and nuns, click here.

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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members). Hope you can join us.

Converting Israel's Jews? 10-11-12

As a Christian, I certainly know that followers of our faith tradition feel a sense of obligation about sharing their faith with others.

TbnIt's considered a mandate from Jesus himself.

Fair enough.

But there can be huge differences in approach -- from in-your-face hellfire street preachers at one end of the continuum to quiet teachers and health care workers who simply model what Christian love is supposed to look like.

All of that has become an issue (again) in Israel, where two American-based Christian broadcasters, Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar, have opened up studios and are doing their best to convert Jews -- and maybe getting ready to cover Christ's Second Coming, which they think is due any day now.

DaystarI'm certainly not suggesting that there shouldn't be free speech in a democracy like Israel. But I do think it's incumbent on Christians to consider the context and to behave with deference and care in the presence of a people whom Christianity has oppressed and mistreated -- often violently -- for nearly 2,000 years.

Under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this blog page you'll find my essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history.

Given the horrific history that I describe in that essay, I think we Christians have lost the right to seek to convert Jews (who, if you ask me, do not need to convert to be in an eternal relationship with God anyway) until we have fully repented of our antisemitic behavior and treated the Jews with kindness and respect for at least the same 2,000-year period in which we denigrated them.

So I would be just as happy if the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar would either pack up and leave Israel or, on their stations, simply run good documentaries about the sinful Christian history I describe in my essay.

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As we watch tonight's vice-presidential candidate debate, there's new background controversy over one of the two Catholic candidates. In this case it's not loose-lipped Joe Biden but, rather, Paul Ryan. More than 100 Catholic theologians and scholars have signed this statement contending that "Our concern is that Ryan and his Catholic supporters, must be informed—as prochoice candidates and Catholics who vote for them are perennially and appropriately reminded—that some of his positions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church." No wonder the Catholic vote in recent years has been so split.

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P.S.: A presentation that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I are giving at the end of the month in the Chicago area is getting a bit of play in the local press there. We'll be talking about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Hope some of you who live near Arlington Heights can make it. Spread the word.

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ANOTHER P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members). Hope you can join us.

Thanks, Spiro T. Agnew: 10-10-12

I am pretty sure that many of you, like me, commemorate this date each year as the anniversary of the 1973 resignation of Spiro T. Agnew (pictured here) from the vice presidency after he pleaded no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion.

AgnewIt's a good annual way to remind ourselves that unless our politics is built on some foundational ethics we'll wind up with a banana republic led by knaves.

Some years ago I happened to be in Washington, D.C., for a week writing Kansas City Star editorial page columns from there, and was lucky enough to be there on an Oct. 10. It also happened to be a week when George H. W. Bush was president and he and Congress reached such an impass on budget negotiations that the government shut down for several days.

So I wrote a piece about how having a shuttered government was no big deal on any Oct. 10 because one still could wander around to the great Spiro T. Agnew Memorial Resignation sites. For instance, to commemorate the day I stood out front of the White House and look toward where Agnew took bribe money in his office there. Then I went to the federal courthouse in nearby Baltimore to see where he pleaded no contest to tax evasion charges. Then I went to the motel in Virginia to see where the deal for his plea and resignation was worked out by careful prosecutors who were the real public servants in this case.

It was a fabulous tour, though I had to be my own tour guide.

Well, Agnew is far from the only crook we've ever elected to office (I'm looking at you, Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency less than a year after Agnew, his vice president, quit), and there's the lesson. We need elected officials who live on a solid rock of ethics and we need fair and persistent journalists who will let the public know when they stray from that foundation.

Spiro T. Agnew Resignation Day seems like a date we might wish to turn into Ethical Government Day each year -- just to keep all this in mind. After all, Agnew was not useless. He still can be used as a bad example.

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A new study shows the number of Americans who say they follow no religion has grown, and such folks now make up about 20 percent of our population. The common term for such people now is "nones," meaning that given a list of religions to pick from they pick none of the above. I'll have more to say later about this and the shrinkage of Protestants to below 50 percent of the population by some estimates. But the reality is that we live in a time of fairly rapid changes demographically and religiously, and if you're paying attention to all that, none of these figures should come as a surprise.

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Green Thoreau

The Green Thoreau, edited by Carol Spenard LaRusso. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, New World Library has published this revised edition of a book that collects -- carefully and interestingly -- Thoreau's thoughts that primarily focus on his love of nature and humanity's duty to protect Earth. Thoreau, of course, is best known for Walden, which describes his experience living outside Concord, Mass., in a small cabin he built at the edge of Walden Pond. But he contributed much more than that in the way of insightful writing and thinking, and the editor of this slim volume has divided those thoughts into eight categories, nature, technology, livelihood, living, possessions, time, diet and food and aspiration. If it's been a long time since you sampled Thoreau, this is a lovely place to start, especially now when so many people of faith have committed themselves to the kind of ecological sense that Thoreau preached in the 19th Century.

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P.S.:  Swami Chetanananda and author Philip Goldberg will speak at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at at Regnier Hall on the KU Edwards Campus, 12600 Quivira, sponsored by the Vedanta Society of Kansas City. The topic for this, the fourth Arjun Kumar Sharma Memorial Lecture, will be “Vedanta and the Spiritual Yogas in America.” The next day at 10:30 a.m., Swami Chetanananda and will also speak at the Vedanta Society, 8701 Ward Parkway. Both programs are free. For more details, click here.

Celebrating religious freedom: 10-9-12

Because America was founded by people who cherished religious liberty, some folks imagine that all of those founders thought such liberty should extend beyond themselves.

Roger_williamsWell, today is a good day to remind ourselves that it took awhile for what became the United States to achieve anything close to true religious freedom, for it was on this date in 1635 that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams (depicted here) for preaching that civil government should stay out of religious affairs.

Or, as colony officials put it, Williams was offering "newe & dangerous opinions."

Well, as we know, Williams bought land from some Indians the next year and founded Providence, so Rhode Island became something of a haven for people seeking real religious freedom.

From then until now, of course, Americans have struggled to figure out just what the boundaries of religious freedom are, but clearly the concept is one we continue to cherish, even as we disagree about whether it means X or Y in this or that case.

And we continue -- through reports from the U.S. Statement Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (among other tools) to promote religious liberty as a foundational human right around the world. Good for us, even though we don't always get it right here or abroad.

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I have a rule about protest signs: I ignore any of them (or adopt the opposite position) if they contain spelling errors, like the one found recently at an Obama campaign office in Des Moines that called him a "Muslim lier." Heck, everybody knows the word "slim" doesn't begin with "Mu." Or this one.