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Some farewell-to-2012 reading: 12-31-12

For the last post of the year, I'm offering you some links to some posts you may have missed earlier -- ones that seem still somehow to be relevant.

If, like most of my blog readers, you've already read every word of each of these and memorized those words for the upcoming test, then today will be a day off for you.

But for the stragglers, today is your chance to catch up on some previous, uh, brilliance.

* Some Muslims are talking about "reformation" of Islam, 2-27-12.

* Here's a review of a book that tells a distressing Amish story, 2-21-12.

* And here's a review of Miroslav Volf's brilliant book on Islam, 3-3/4-12.

* Do you know the legend of the dogwood tree's blossom? I tell it to you, 4-2-12.

* I helped lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel in April. Daily accounts start on 4-16-12 and from there you can follow the trip day by day. (The photo here today is one of many I took on that trip, so dig through the archives. There's plenty more where that came from.)

* When the trip ended, I wrote about what I called Israel's new future, 4-28/29-12.

* There's a really good new translation of the New Testament, 6-12-12.

* I've gone through only about half the year here, but I think I'll stop with the difficult-to-preach homily I delivered at the funeral of my wife's sister, Leslie Von Bargen, who died July 9 in Vermont at age 58, 7-19-12.

(But the archives, which you can find on the right side of this page, go back to December 2004, so if you missed all that, get busy. If you're too lazy to look for the archives on the right, just click here.)

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Over the weekend here on the blog I shared a piece asking where the secular humanists were among those responding to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. From quite the opposite perspective, here's a piece asking why in times of national disaster we must turn to religion.

Updating Holocaust stories: 12-29/30-12

In the three-plus years since the University of Missouri Press published They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I have tried to stay up to date on the people whose stories we told there.

TWJP-cover-JPGThe sad news, as I've previously noted here, is that four of the Jewish survivors have died, Sheila Bernard, Anna Schiff, Felix Zandman and Maria Devinki. They were amazing people whom we were blessed to get to know. (Look for a post about them among the "Related articles" below.

But among the more satisfying post-publication stories is one that comes from a survivor named Jerry Koenig (pictured below on the right), who now lives with his wife in the St. Louis area.

When Jacques and I were in Poland to do interviews for our book, we went to the hometown of the Goral family, who saved Jerry and nearly a dozen other Jews by hiding them in a barn quite near the Treblinka death camp. Jerry's father had made a deal with a farmer that if he hid his family and they survived the war he would give the farmer the farm land the Koenigs owned nearby.

In the limited time we had, we asked civic authorities there about the Gorals and sought unsuccessfully to speak to religious leaders there who might be able to tell us whether the Goral family survived. But we turned up nothing.

We even were led -- in a terrific rainstorm -- to the home of a Goral family, but it turned out they weren't the right Gorals and had no knowledge of the Gorals for whom we were searching. Neither did anyone else. It was frustrating, but we reported in our book our efforts and our failure.

But now comes the good news that -- despite suspicions among some members of Jerry's family that antisemites may have killed the Gorals right after the war for hiding Jews -- the Gorals survived.

Koenig-1Here's some of what the Koenigs have learned, as reported in an e-mail to us from Jerry and his wife Linda:

"A Polish historian is writing a series of articles on his home town, Kosow-Lacki, during the war. He found a copy of your book, and discovered the Goral family/Koenig family story. In about September 2012 he was in Warsaw at a party, and there by chance met the granddaughter of Jan and Alexandra Goral. (T)he historian also found Mike Koenig's book (Mike is Jerry's brother), so contacted him. From that set of circumstances, (the historian) gave Mike the granddaughter's name and e-mail address. We have corresponded twice with her in recent weeks by e-mail, asking and answering lots of questions.

"The granddaughter, Teresa, has told us that the only living member of the family who hid the Koenigs and others is the oldest of the Goral daughters. Teresa is her neice. Teresa is probably in her 70s. Her aunt is definitely 94 years old. Teresa listened well to the stories her grandparents, mother and aunt told her, and she even took notes. Most of the story she tells jibes exactly with what Jerry and Mike remember also.

"Of particular interest to us is what happened to the Gorals after the war. Teresa says the elder Gorals lived on their farm the rest of their lives. The farm promised by the Koenigs was parceled out during the Communist regime so they never realized ownership of that farm. The daughter-in-law who lost the baby in the farm house (Tammeus note: The story of the death of that baby is told in our book), eventually had four more children with her husband. That family moved at some point to another town. One of the teen-age daughters whom Jerry and Mike remember died at age 20, due to an operation gone wrong."

So as that correspondence continues, the Koenig family will begin to get a clearer picture of the wonderful family that saved their lives.

Zygie-AllweissIn the meantime, Esther Ingber, the daughter of another survivor in our book, Zygie Allweiss (pictured at left), has been in correspondence with people who are helping to sort out in more detail the story of how Zygie wound up for a time serving in the Soviet armed forces under the name of the Dudzik family who saved him and his brother by hiding them on their farm.

In our book we told Zygie's story as he and members of the Dudzik family told it to us, and now the Allweiss family (Zygie lives near Detroit) are filling in some details and clarifying various points.

History is an on-going process, and in some ways it's Judaism's insistence on the importance of memory that is bringing a few updates to some of the stories we told in our book.

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This intriguing story asking where the humanists were after the Sandy Hook Elementary School schootings quotes, among others, a Kansas Citian. If secularists can't somehow offer the kind of deep sense of community that religious groups can at a time of crisis, they'll be missing something important.

News permeated by religion: 12-28-12

As 2012 comes to a close, I find it intriguing how once again religion was a thread that ran through countless big news stories.

RNSFrom the election to the debate over Obamacare, from nuns on the bus to a growing number of "nones" (religiously unaffiliated) in our religious landscape, from Catholic bishops in trouble with the law to what in the world we are to do about gun violence -- all that and more required the presence of journalists who understand religion.

Thanks goodness, then, for the reporters at Religion News Service, among other outlets, who do their best to keep the public up to speed on all of this. (The link in the first paragraph takes you to an excellent Religion News Service roundup of 2012 stories with religious angles.)

Interfaithlogo2But it's not enough. The resources newspapers now to devote to coverage of religion stories is shrinking, partly because newspapers are in financially tough straits all over the country and partly because most readers have never insisted on better coverage of religion.

And now at The Kansas City Star, where I spent most of my career (at the end as the Faith section columnist), the religion editor, Helen Gray, who has done that job for decades, is retiring next week. I don't know how the paper intends now to cover religion, given that Helen is the only one currently assigned full-time to that task. Helen has been a good and faithful servant who has been consistently fair to the many different religious communities that make up our region. She has more than earned her retirement.

I plan to continue posting this daily blog that The Star makes available on its website, but perhaps now is the time for people everywhere to contact the news organizations they depend on and ask for more and better coverage of religion because it's nearly impossible to understand any of the major issues in our country today without grasping how those matters are affected by religion.

So if you're a KC Star reader, now is the time to thank Helen Gray ( for her long service. Then contact all your news outlets and ask that religion coverage be beefed up.

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A website in the Netherlands has been set up to help Catholics there "de-baptize" as a way of protesting Pope Benedict XVI's anti-gay remarks over the Christmas holiday. The founder of it wisely notes that you can't really be de-baptized, given that the sacrament of Baptism is a once-forever event. But he says Catholics there can "de-register" from being Catholic. Hope the Vatican's next step isn't to change the words of the carol from "don we now our gay apparel."

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The Christian World of The Hobbit, by Devin Brown. Ever since J.R.R. Tolkein published The Hobbit in 1937, it has been no secret that its underpinnings are Christian, though as Tolkein himself once noted, the Christianity the book reflects is not on the surface but beneath and woven into the story subtly. But because of the wild popularity of both The Hobbit (now a new movie) and The Lord of the Rings (each has sold more than 100 million copies), the fascination with the story and the core values it reflects never seems to end. Thus, this new book by an English professor at Asbury University, in which the author promises (and then fulfills his promise) that he "will make the case that The Hobbit is a fundamentally Christian work where we can see Tolkien's faith reflected in his fiction. . ." But he is careful to assert that one character in the book doesn't represent Satan while another equals Christ: "While there may be similarities that evoke associations in the reader's mind, the proper claim to make in these cases is something like parallels, echoes, resembles, mirrors, or reflects, not represents, symbolizes, corresponds to, equals, or is (italics Brown's)." The author then carefully walks readers through the book and its fantastic characters and plot, pointing out the parallels, echoes and resemblances. It's a good read, especially for long-time fans of Tolkein who want to be up to speed on the latest scholarship in the field, scholarship that concludes that "readers who embrace the moral principles found in The Hobbit, and who long for a world like Middle-earth where these principles hold true, can find that place in the Christian faith its author professed." (To read a piece by author Devin Brown about the subject of his book, click here.)

New biblical interpretation? 12-27-12

Understanding and interpreting biblical texts in their original language (Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic tossed in) can be both immensely satisfying and enormously frustrating.

HuldahFor much of the last 200 or so years, scholars using modern exegetical techniques have picked their way through the texts word by word -- and then sometimes have been required to do it all again because an earlier manuscript has turned up. They have used tools that have come to be labeled form criticism, higher criticism and other such terms in their hermeneutical task.

And although scholars differ -- sometimes greatly -- with one another over what this word or phrase means or how it might be connected to a similar phrase in another book of the Bible, there has developed a kind of general protocol for use of exegetical tools by scholars seeking to lift meaning out of the original texts. In short, serious scholars do the work generally this way and not that way.

One tool most scholars are really reluctant to employ for traditional exegetical work is biblical code -- the idea that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament purposefully hid meaning within the texts for various reasons.

Bible-stackSeveral years ago, for instance, Michael Drosnin's book, The Bible Code, described how the biblical text contains all kinds of hidden codes that he then interpreted to predict events in our current time. Most scholars just laughed at this or shook their heads or issued statements saying that there may well be coding in the Bible (for instance, the book of Revelation doesn't speak of Rome but it's clear that it refers to Rome in various ways) but that Drosnin's work didn't uncover it.

And, of course, once a Bible coder has been derided, the next person to offer a book about codes in the Bible will naturally be taken more skeptically.

Which brings us to a new book, Huldah: The Prophet Who Wrote Hebrew Scripture, by Preston Kavanagh. The author, described as an executive of a large company who retired 25 years ago to pursue questions about who wrote the Hebrew scriptures, has written three other books on the subject. And the publisher, Wipf and Stock, is quite well regarded in the field of religion-related book publishing.

But because I was aware of the Drosnin work and the criticism of it, I became a cautious reader of my review copy of Kavanagh's book when I realized that it was largely devoted to using embedded coding in the text to prove that a woman named Huldah (she really does show up a time or two in the Bible) wrote large sections of what Christians traditionally have called the Old Testament.

The book explores what the author calls the biblical writers' use of anagrams and athbash (or atbash, or abash) as ways to hide meaning in the text. He uses such tools to discover not just who wrote what but also when. For instance, Kavanagh concludes that Psalms 72 and 145 were written about the year 573 BCE, and then writes, "In several thousand years no one has succeeded in dating even a single psalm -- yet the preceding sentence dates two of them. This is a fine example of the power of anagrams."

Then he tells us that scripture, meaning the Hebrew Bible, "contains 1,773 Huldah anagrams, each inserted into an individual text word."

Well, I'm perfectly prepared to believe that some of the Bible might have been written by women, despite the patriarchal nature of the hundreds and hundreds of years over which the various texts that made it into the Bible were composed. And I know that sometimes scholars trying to understand Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism, examine the use of anagrams and athbash, among other esoteric tools.

But I'd be more open to believing Kavanagh's conclusions if more traditional scholars knew of and approved of his work. Notice I'm not saying Kavanagh's work is silly or worse. It's just that so far he seems to be a voice calling in the wilderness.

And some of the responses to that call aren't especially friendly toward his work.

For instance, when I asked a top-cabin biblical scholar I know (I'm not identifying these scholars here because I did not contact them for quotation by name, just for guidance on this book) what she knew about Kavanagh and his approach to the biblical text, she said she was "unfamiliar with this book," but added: "Abash gets used in rabbinic literature, but I am unaware of its use in standard OT exegesis."

She did, however, point me to this biting critique of Wipf and Stock for publishing Kavanagh's book. The tone is set in the headline on the piece: "Really, Wipf and Stock?"

When I asked another biblical scholar from a major Western university, this is the reply I got:

"I don't know the author or the book.  None of the author's previous work has ever been reviewed in a scholarly journal, which is not a good sign for credibility.  As for the use of anagrams and atbash, etc., as a kind of biblical interpretation, this type of interpretation is typical of medieval Judaism, especially in Kabbalah.  The roots of this type of interpretation may, however, go back to antiquity in magical texts.  But it shouldn't form the basis of biblical interpretation.  I'd recommend the standard and classic work by Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford U. Press, 1985)."

A third biblical scholar from a major Eastern university said this:

"I also hadn't heard of the book you mention, although I have now looked on the publisher's web site (click here). Basically, I would say that from the point of view of academic biblical scholarship, the conclusions claimed by the author according to the book's description on the website would not be considered of merit, and the methodologies you describe are ones no serious biblical scholar would embrace."

So where does all that leave us?

I'm not sure. Is Kavanagh an Einstein whose theories have yet to be accepted by an insular, rigid and unwelcoming scholarly community or is he just a novice who has found some interesting tools to play with but is in over his head? Or is there another possibility?

I'm tempted to wait 10 years or so to find out. In the meantime, if you're looking for an engaging read about the mysteries of biblical interpretation, well, have at Kavanagh's book. But don't say I didn't give you some cautions.

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Yes, Pope Benedict XVI used his Christmas message to speak against marriage equality -- an odd time to promote a flawed idea -- but he also was right about the speed of our lives and how that hurts us, as a writer in The Telegraph in England notes.

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

Our imagined landscapes: 12-26-12

A few days ago here on the blog -- for reasons that I hope were obvious in the context of my subject that day -- I gave you a link to a webcam that looks at a park at the center of the business district in my hometown's downtown.

India-religionThat business district is organized around what we Woodstock, Ill., natives call The Square -- four streets that form the boundaries of the central park.

But it's also true that for me The Square has always played a central role in what religion scholar Diana L. Eck calls our "imagined landscape." What I think she means by that is that in our own minds we place ourselves in a certain geographic and mythologic context -- one that changes and evolves as we move through our day and our days.

For instance, if, like me, you grew up in a small town there is always some part of that experience that connects you to it. I am, as I write this, about 500 miles away from my small hometown, though despite that distance I am connected to it just as I'm connected to the other places where I spent parts of my boyhood (including two years in India) and parts of my adult years.

Thus, I am always (relentlessly, almost by instinct) placing myself somewhere in this imagined landscape as a way of acknowledging my current context, its connection to my past and its possible future direction. In other words, I am -- as someone once said of poetry -- a real frog in an imaginary garden.

Eck writes about this in her engaging book India: A Sacred Geography, (I introduced blog readers to the book earlier this year here) in which she makes the point that what overlays India in the religious imagination of its people is a sacred landscape connected to their religious history.

But, she writes, "let us recognize that to speak of an 'imagined landscape' is not to speak of something fanciful, for the imagined landscape is the most powerful landscape in which we live. No one really lives in the India displayed on a digitally accurate map, or in any other two-dimensional graph of the world. Such a map can locate our hometown. . . There is no question of the utility of such a map. But all of us, individually and culturally, live in the mappings of our imagined landscape, with its charged centers and its dim peripheries, with its mountaintops and its terrae incognitae, with its powerful sentimental and emotional three-dimensionality, with its bordered terrain and the loyalty it inspires, with its holy places, both private and communally shared."

What Eck doesn't say here, but I think she implies, is that we would all do well to acknowledge that each person's imagined landscape is different and we should respect that and not try to overlay ours on theirs. Respect does not mean we agree with someone, just that we acknowledge the right of others to live in the world as they understand it, not as we understand it. (Religious zealots, I'm talking to you.)

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Before the peace of Christmas gives way completely to the madness of the coming New Year, I invite you to read this lovely piece about a woman who grew up in a church family, drifted away and then, as an adult, felt deeply drawn to be in a church to pray. If any of you feel that same need, know that my congregation will always welcome you.

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

Noticing the incarnation: 12-25-12

Merry Christmas

Which is to say, may your experience of incarnation, or God's presence in our midst, be joyful.

Christmas-starA Jewish prayer book I've quoted here before says that "we walk sightless among miracles." So we often miss the presence of God incarnated in others, in nature, in our own spirits.

That's why our Buddhist friends tell us to be mindful, to notice, to pay attention. It's why someone not long ago wrote a book with the great title Every Bush is Burning.

So my Christmas prayer for all people of faith is that starting today you would not walk sightless in the midst of the incarnation, that you would be mindful, that you would see that all ground is holy, that every bush is burning.

Which is to say, Merry Christmas.

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The U.K.'s chief rabbi (now leaving that post) has written this intriguing piece about why humanity needs -- and will continue to need -- religion. As he says, "Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age." And, boy, do we need antidotes to that.

Christmas via other eyes: 12-24-12

On this Christmas Eve I want to reprise a column I wrote several years ago for The Kansas City Star about the way in which the Qur'an reports on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is Islam's second most important prophet.

QuiltcIndeed, there's considerably more about Mary in the Qur'an than you'll find in the New Testament, and, of course, Islam has a different take on who Jesus was and is. That said, it's worth the time of Christians to see how another tradition tells the story. So here's the piece:

Christmas through Islamic eyes

One reason the Christmas story engages so many hearts is that it portrays a God of surprises.

God, for instance, assumes human form -- and as a baby, no less. But not a royal baby. No, it's a child born to poor, wandering parents. And not in a cosmopolitan population center but in a small village of the Roman Empire's hinterlands.

This unpredictability is why I like to reread the birth narratives in the New Testament. But I also have found it enlightening to read the story as it's told in the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, which considers Jesus a major prophet.

Because I'm Christian, I don't go to the Qur'an looking for confirmation of what my own tradition teaches about Christ. Rather, I go to find fresh wording and unfamiliar ways of understanding what theologians call the "Christ event."

In a similar way, earlier this year I suggested in a column that even though the man who introduced yoga to America had quite a different theology than I do, his new, posthumously published book, ``The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You,'' contains insights that can help Christians see their faith in fresh ways.

Islam, unlike Christianity, does not consider Jesus divine. In that way it shares common ground with Judaism. But unlike much of Judaism, which tends to see Jesus as an interesting if misguided man, Islam honors him as a great prophet who called people to love -- and submit to -- the one God.

So I know the Qur'an will not tell the orthodox Christian story. But I find it worth reading, nonetheless.

Here, in prose form (the translation by A. Yusuf Ali is done in poetry style), is part of what it says in Surah (or chapter) 3:

"Behold! The angels said: `O Mary! God hath chosen thee and purified thee -- chosen thee above the women of all nations.'''

Which is pretty much what the New Testament says. Of special interest here is the idea that God is the initiator of the action. The theme that God first chooses us is embedded in both Judaism and Christianity.

After the angels in the Qur'an story urge Mary to "worship the Lord devoutly," they say, "O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him; his name will be Christ Jesus, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God."

Again, there is much resonance with New Testament, including the opening passage of the Gospel of John, which describes Christ as the "Word" of God.

But the Qur'an also gives fresh wording about how Christ will be honored both in this world and the next. The New Testament story of his suffering and crucifixion complicates the Qur'an's prophecy that he will be held in honor in this world, at least during his time on Earth. But the Qur'an nonetheless points to the high esteem in which Islam holds Jesus by saying he'd be honored in heaven by those closest to God.

The Qur'an continues describing the baby to whom Mary will give birth: "He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." This passage brings to Christian minds the story of 12-year-old Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem conferring with - and impressing - religious teachers. But the phrase "in childhood and in maturity" is new to Christian ears and carries many levels of meaning.

In the Qur'an, as in the New Testament, Mary asks how she is to have a son since she is not married and, as the Qur'an bluntly puts it, "no man hath touched me." The Qur'anic angels assure her that God will arrange things and then they describe the work Jesus will do for God.

Next comes a passage in which Islam separates itself decisively from Christianity. It says that "the similitude of Jesus before God is as that of Adam; he created him from dust, then said to him: `Be'; and he was."

The implication is clear. For Islam, Jesus, as Ali says in a footnote on this verse, is not "God or the son of God or anything more than a man."

Still, in that verse, we see a god who creates in precisely the same way the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, says God creates: by speaking.

The point is that we need not agree with the theology contained in the sacred books of other faiths to learn from them and to have them shed new light on our own. What a nice Christmas gift.

(Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it and happy New Year to everyone.)

(The Nativity Scene in the top photo is one I grew up with and still own. The other photo shows a tapestry I found several years ago at a Mennonite quilt auction.)

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The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot, who used to be at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in the Kansas City area, now serves a church in Bennington, Vt. Over the weekend, the Bennington Banner published his thoughts about end-times and the fact that the world didn't end on Dec. 21, as some folks thought the Mayans had predicted it would. It's worth a read.

Humans vs. other animals: 12-22/23-12

As all of us continue to process the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, one of the foundational questions inevitably is this: What does it mean to be human?

It's a question to which all the great religions try to give answers, some more complete and definite than others, but none so full as to exhaust the question's possible answers.

I have been thinking about that question with the help, believe it or not, of two webcams -- one trained on the business district of my small hometown of Woodstock, Ill., and one trained on a polar bear at the Kansas City Zoo. (The camera in Woodstock got frozen over in the recent storm but the nice WavTek people who installed it have thawed it out.)

I know it seems like an odd juxtaposition -- and it is. But it has reminded me of both what humans have in common with other animals and what makes humans unique.

Yes, I know that various species of animals share a lot in common with humans in terms of their genetic makeup. The genetic material of chimps, for instance, is reported to be 96 percent the same as humans. And mice and humans share 99 percent genetic similarity.

But that really doesn't tell us much about the deeper differences between humans and other animals -- questions about intelligence, self-reflection, souls and all those other questions theologians and philosophers raise about what makes us humans civilized (if, in fact, we still can claim that designation after reading the news every day).

What I can tell you after watching people in my hometown move around what we call The Square (or central business district centered on a park seen in the photo above) versus watching the polar bear Nikita move around a reserved space at the zoo is that there are lots of surface similarities: Seemingly random movement, impulsive changes of direction, patterns of activity and inactivity and so forth. In some ways, humans and other animals are all free agents -- but within boundaries.

But the humans seem most human when they are with other humans. I've seen parents in Woodstock pick up their toddlers and hug them or hold their little hands as they cross the street. I've seen children gather on The Square to meet Santa Claus and to watch a dog team pull a sled around the park. All acts of intentionally seeking joy.

Nikita, by contrast, sometimes seems to relate a bit to the people standing outside watching through glass. But mostly Nikita seems locked into a world that must seem baffling, if polar bears can be baffled, or purposeless, though I doubt polar bears have any idea of what purpose means. Nikita seems to do a lot of what looks like mindless pacing -- sort of like a human on a treadmill. (Hmmmm.)

There is a remorselessness to mere biological activity, no matter how entertaining it can be to watch. Part of what makes us humans is that we can recognize that reality and transcend mere biological activity -- even if sometimes our transcendence turns to incomprehensible violence against our own species.

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Did you know there's now another late-December holiday? Yep, the secular humanists have created a holiday called HumanLight. I haven't looked into it deeply yet, so I still don't know if an atheist comes down your chimney.

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The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God's Love, by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post. This interesting book is a bit hard to categorize. In many ways it's an academic report on sociological studies about how people's personal experience of God affects their willingness to be benevolent. But it's also, at least indirectly, an encouragement to be open to the kinds of direct experiences of God that mystics describe as well as the more extravagent spiritual experiences reported by Pentecostals. Indeed, the authors -- two sociologists and a theologian -- cite evidence that American Christians, in searching for more personal experiences of God's transforming love, are adopting more Pentecostal expressions of the faith, even if they're not in Pentecostal denominations. The authors have interviewed lots of people to be able to write this book, exploring with them such subjects as "how this experience of deep prayer helps prevent wrong decisions, reduces worrry and anxiety, fosters inner healing and peacefulness, invites God into daily activity, produces confidence, sharpens discernment, increases energy for action, prevents distractions, and helps distinguish mere 'busyness' from real fruitfulness." In all of this, they write, their "aim was to investigate the relationship between spiritual empowerment, benevolence, and the experience of God's love. . ." They sought to do this in a way that would satisfy the rigorous demands of academic scholarship while also producing a book that regular people of faith could understand. You'll have to judge how well they accomplished that. I found it a worthwhile read but the book seemed not quite fish and not quite foul because of the desire to please two audiences. Still, there are some inspiring stories here of how the experience of God's love changed lives. (Small complaint: I'd have hoped that a quality publisher like Oxford University Press wouldn't have allowed the authors to misuse the word "hopefully" in the common way it's misused in daily dialogue. But perhaps I've lost the battle against "hopefully," as I seem to have lost the battle for "whom.")

Mali's religious disaster: 12-21-12

Given everything that's been going related to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last Friday (to say nothing of fiscal cliff and other stories), it's understandable that the world hasn't been paying much attention to the African nation of Mali.

MaliBut we'd all do well to take note of the terrible developments in that nation since people widely described as Islamic extremists have seized control of the northern part of the country. Many Muslims would dissociate themselves from these extremists and even claim they cannot be Muslims if they are acting the way they are acting.

How are they acting? As this distressing story explains, they are raping, killing and performing amputations on people.

In more detail, the story describes this horror: "Islamist militants who seized control of an area larger than the UK six months ago have imposed their ultra-conservative brand of sharia law. The tales recounted suggest a population subjugated by a regime well versed in appalling brutality. Allegations of war crimes include summary executions, mass rape, racism and the targeting of elders by child soldiers recruited by the extremists. Some allege that child soldiers are being forced to rape women."

These radicals claim to be living out their particularly rigid brand of Islam, and once again that religion is getting slammed in the courts of public opinion because of this.

And yet in the midst of all this there are stories of courage surfacing, such as the Mali residents who continue to operate a radio station that is trying to bring the truth to the country.

As I've said before, I don't have the answer to how to defang this kind of violent extremism done in the name of religion -- any religion -- and I recognize that the battle for the heart and soul of Islam must be fought by Muslims. But surely the rest of us can stand up for foundational human rights and denounce actions that violate those rights. And surely our diplomats must be vocal about this on our behalf.

And surely Muslims opposed to such extremism (and that's most Muslims) must speak out and work against this radicalism. The louder they speak and the more public they make their voice the better.

In the end, religious wingnuts give all religion a bad name.

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The Trappist monastery in Ava, Mo., Assumption Abbey, to which my good friend Fr. W. Paul Jones is connected, is the subject of this good story about the 25,000 fruitcakes made there each year. The tale puts the lie to the rumor that there's only one fruitcake in the world that simply gets passed from person to person. Fr. Paul, by the way, is the resident manager of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center at the edge of Pittsburg, Mo. I serve on the center's board. It's a fabulous place. Come for some personal downtime and find yourself again.

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P.S.: If the world ends today, you'll miss my thoughts about webcams, polar bears, humans and my hometown here tomorrow. Oh, well. And speaking of my blog entry tomorrow, it will mark the end of my eighth year of writing this daily material. Year 9, the Mayan calendar notwithstanding, begins this weekend. Whatever you missed is in the archives. Look for them on the right side of this page.

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ANOTHER P.S.: No doubt you and all your friends already own dozens of copies of my last book, but if not, you still can order it for Christmas from Amazon. Just click here to get They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust in paper, hardback or Kindle versions. Or, heck, all three.

Defining who we are: 12-20-12

I am always intrigued by how people of a particular religious tradition describe and define themselves. Naturally, those definitions can vary widely, depending on the person doing the describing and the branch of the tradition with which he or she is most closely associated.

StarofDavid-1One of the more intriguing self-definitions I've read recently comes from a fabulous 1972 Isaac Bashevis Singer novel I finally just read, Enemies: A Love Story.

The main character, Herman Broder, is a Jew from Poland now living in New York. Like the people in my last book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, he was saved from the Holocaust by a non-Jew in Poland who hid him in a loft. (Indeed, he marries the woman who saved him after hearing his wife and children perished.)

Toward the end of the book Herman is brooding about the nature and purpose of life and how one survives it all. And he winds up describing how he believes Jews -- against so many odds and so many enemies over so many years -- have survived. So here is what Singer -- a Nobel literature laureate -- writes:

"In Herman's private philosophy, survival itself was based on guile. From microbe to man, life prevailed generation to generation by sneaking past the jealous powers of destruction. Just like the Tzivkever (Tzivkev was Herman's hometown) smugglers in World War I, who stuffed their boots and blouses with tobacco, secreted all manner of contraband about their bodices, and stole across borders, breaking laws and bribing officials -- so did every bit of protoplasm, or conglomerate of protoplasm furtively traffic its way from epoch to epoch

"It had been so when the first bacteria appeared in the slime at the ocean's edge and would be so when the sun became a cinder and the last living creature on earth froze to death, or perished in whichever way the final biological drama dictated. Animals had accepted the precariousness of existence and the necessity for flight and stealth; only man sought certainty and instead succeeded in accomplishing his own downfall.

"The Jew had always managed to smuggle his way in through crime and madness. He had stolen into Canaan and into Egypt. Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister. The whole two thousand years of exile, beginning with Alexandria, Babylon, and Rome and ending in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna had been one great act of smuggling. The Bible, the Talmud, and the Commentaries instruct the Jew in one strategy: flee from evil, hide from danger, avoid showdowns, give the angry powers of the universe as wide a berth as possible. The Jew never looked askance at the deserter who crept into a cellar or attic while armies clashed in the streets outside."

 Well, no one should take Herman's views, given to him by Singer, as typical of the view of all Jews about Jews, but it's one fascinating definition that seeks to integrate the reality of Jewish suffering into the Jewish condition today.

So my question for you is: If you're Jewish, does this description make sense to you? If you're not Jewish, what self-description of people in your own tradition makes sense to you and seems fair?

The standard definition for us Presbyterians is "the frozen chosen." It misses a lot, but also has an uncomfortable ring of truth to it.

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On Tuesday here on the blog I told you about a new survey of world religions by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A Washington Post blogger has done this good analysis of what it means. Have a look, and if you didn't get a chance to dig into the report earlier this week, now's your chance. There's a link to the full report in my earlier posting.

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P.S.: To take note of the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire that destroyed Westport Presbyterian Church in midtown Kansas City, the congregation will hold a vigil in the parking lot at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29. Tentative plans for rebuilding will be unveiled about the same time. The church building is at 201 Westport Road.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Journalists (not me) have voted on the top 10 religion stories of 2012. I generally think such top 10 lists are silly, except as a way of reminding people how many seemingly straight news stories have religious elements to them.