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November 2013

Asian-American Christians protest: 10-31-13

The demographic shape of Christianity around the world has changed dramatically in recent decades. North America and Europe no longer represent the majority voice in the faith.

ASIAN-AMERICAN-stereotypesChristianity's growth, as Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll and others have noted, is happening in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia.

But change is also happening in the United States, where Protestants no longer make up a majority of the population and where Christians from around the world have come to start new lives. And yet old attitudes -- including prejudicial and xenophobic ones -- continue to arise from predominantly white sections of American Christianity.

This problem recently was the focus of this New York Times piece, in which a theology professor linked readers to an open letter to evangelical churches from Asian-American Christians.

That letter, said this, among other things: "Over the past decade, Christian evangelicalism has been the source of repeated and offensive racial stereotyping, and Asian Americans have been inordinately affected."

The Christian church is the last place one should expect to find racist attitudes and language, given the foundational teaching of the faith that all people are God's children. Or, as one of the great hymns puts it, "In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North; but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth."

And yet everyone knows that Christianity has produced people who have even defended slavery. It's time for such radical disconnects to end, and I'm glad that people are pointing out in public what needs to be done.

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As teachers in Kenya are discovering, if you let your students look at 18-million-year-old skeletons in a museum, it's hard to teach a literalistic reading of the Bible that insists the Earth is just a few thousands years old. True, but it should make it easier to teach the difference between literal truth and metaphor.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- an open letter to Pope Francis about Bishop Robert Finn -- now is online. To read it, click here.

Protecting minority rights: 10-30-13

One of the foundational principles of free and democratic nations is that the rights of minority groups must be protected and respected.

KatjuWhat doesn't often get said, however, is that it is inherently the job of the majority to do that, whether we're talking race, religion, sexual orientation or some other category.

My best friend in India, where I spent two years of my boyhood, retired a year or two ago from service as a justice on India's Supreme Court and now is chairman of the Press Council of India. Markandey Katju (pictured here) also writes a blog about legal and national matters.

It was on that blog the other day that I was pleased to see Markandey tackle the question of protection of the religious rights of minorities, especially given that he is not what you'd call a religious man.

On that blog entry, he made the point succinctly:

"It is the duty of the majority in every specific area to ensure that the minority lives with dignity and respect."

What this means for Americans is that we cannot leave it solely up to government to make sure the rights of minorities are protected. We ourselves must be advocates for those rights and we must intervene in appropriate and legal ways when we find minorities' rights in jeopardy.

Markandey Katju has it right.

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Because of Pope Francis, Rome is experiencing a boom in tourism, especially from South America, it's reported. In a world of equal opportunity, South Americans in Rome, too, should have the experience of having airlines lose their luggage.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- an open letter to Pope Francis about Bishop Robert Finn -- now is online. To read it, click here.

A movie about redemption: 10-29-13

When my friend and fellow columnist Dave Lieber of the Dallas Morning News gives talks about writing and story telling, he draws a large V on the flip chart. Well, it's a V with a small curly-cue at the end.

GravityHis point is that in any good story there's a descent into trouble for the main character and then some kind of redemption or rescue, followed by a nice tie-it-all-up twist of an ending.

I was thinking about Dave's construct the other evening when my wife and I saw the 3-D version of "Gravity," the film by director Alfonso Cuaron that is simply stunning in its special effects and its intensity.

One of the two primary characters, Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, travels the V-shaped slide into darkness and back toward redemption by the end of the movie about astronauts. (Well, this movie is about astronauts in the same way that Catch-22 is about airplanes.)

In that sense of redemption, this film also offers what the great religions offer. They provide adherents with a reason to go on, with hope, with a way out of what we've gotten ourselves into and with a way of making sense of it while we're still in it.

In Christianity, especially, there is a recognition that we're all in dark places that we ourselves have created because, well, we're screw-ups. And we can't unscrew things without help from each other and from the divine.

In "Gravity," Ryan Stone, because she didn't follow orders, has put herself in deep trouble in space, though later her space partner tells her it wasn't all her fault. And just when she's given up, hit bottom, resigned herself to death in space, something happens to give her stamina and a determination to survive, even though before that redemption she has mourned aloud that no one on Earth would mourn her passing or pray for her and that she herself has never said a prayer in her life.

It's a compelling film. See it with redemption on your mind. And be attuned to the forces of redemption in your own life.

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Four Iranian Christians, it's reported, were sentenced to 80 lashes for consuming Communion wine. I just will never understand why some adherents of Islam think their religion needs such ridiculous measures of defense. It's not that weak. It can stand on its own.

How a Jesuit pope leads: 10-28-13

In the few months since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, a crowdy stack of books about him already has become available.

Francis-bookYou can look over one list of them here on

Which raises the question of why I might highlight just one of them here. Well, several reasons, including the fact that I simply don't have time to read them all. Beyond that, by highlighting one of the Pope Francis books I can alert you to the fact that there are many more. And you can choose among them or simply ignore them all and continue trying to log into

The book to which I point you today is a bit different from some of the others. It's Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads, by Chris Lowney. Although Lowney once was a Jesuit (the pope's order) seminarian, he spent much of his career as a managing director of J.P. Morgan and today chairs the board of Catholic Health Initiatives.

And Lowney is interested in leadership styles and how the pope's Jesuit background gives him a particular approach to leadership -- a servanthood approach, in a nutshell.

Lowney is not hesitant to suggest that a Jesuit approach to leadership may be precisely what the Catholic Church -- and the world -- need now: "Let's face it: we badly need to be jarred from some of our settled preconceptions about leadership because they have utterly failed us. And we need to be shocked into new ways of thinking and acting."

This is an admiring look not just at this pontiff but at the tradition that taught him how to lead. If you really want to understand how Pope Francis thinks and operates, this is a good place to start.

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Another way this pope leads is by engaging people of different religious traditions. Here's an intriguing story about Francis e-mailing a Jewish leader. The more I know about Francis the more I'm impressed with his spirit.

How to grow religious giving: 10-26/27-13

As many Christian churches move into what is called pledge season -- the annual effort to get financial commitments from members for the next year -- there's news from a Baylor University researcher they might want to take into account.

Collection_plateA study has found that people who have had supernatural experiences are more likely to give money for religious purposes.

Katie Corcoran, a postdoctoral fellow in Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, says in her study, "Divine exchanges: Applying social exchange theory to religious behavior," that the less religious doubt people have the more likely they are go give.

Here's what she said: "You can't empirically verify the existence of God, but mystical experiences are believed to be empirical signs of God, of having some sort of interaction with the divine. For some people, that can be a conscious exchange, for others an unconscious one. If you think God exists, you're more likely to give."

So all over the country this fall there are churches trying to figure out how to encourage people to be more generous in their pledging.

Sounds like the answer is pretty easy: Arrange for the speaker on pledge Sunday to be God. Issue solved.

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There's a timely new study out about our main subject today, and it says that giving to churches has dropped to Depression-era levels. It helps if people understand clearly how their money is being spent, but it also helps if they understand, in the Christian tradition, that God gives people 100 percent of everything and lets them keep up to 90 percent if they need to.

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P.S.: Don't wait any longer to sign up for an essay writing class I'll be teaching from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6, through Communiversity. It will be in the Witherspoon room of Second Presbyterian Church, 318 E. 55th St. To sign up, click here for the Communiversity online catalog and scroll down to page 14. Or for a direct link to register, click here. Do it today. The class size is limited.

Telling the press 'no comment': 10-25-13

When should faith communities approach the media with stories of what is happening inside their churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, denominations, etc.?

Religion-JournalismIt's a good question that I'm glad you asked.

The "GetReligion" section of has an answer to the question, too, based on what a leading Baptist voice said recently.

Here's a quote from the Associated Baptist Press story:

"Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said the prohibition in First Corinthians 6 on church members suing one another in secular court means 'we don’t take matters before unbelievers.'

"'This also means that you don’t take matters to the press,’ Patterson said. 'What goes on in the church of God doesn’t go to the press.'"

Well, frankly, the press doesn't care about a lot of what goes on inside religious institutions. Some of it is simply internal stuff of no wider interest. And other matters should be covered but the press has no one to do it or no one competent to do it, so it gets left undone.

But I think the Patterson advice is an odd reading of that passage from the Bible and I think it's bad public relations advice. If you have a story you want the press to tell about you, of course you should shape it yourself and then take it to the press.

What happens after that generally is out of your hands as a religious leader. But you've offered the story to the public in the best shape you can.

If, on the other hand, you have a story of something bad happening in your community, it's always best to tell it yourself and tell it your way and not wait for the press to discover it and make it look as if you've tried to cover it up.

Ask the Catholic Church how it worked out to let the press discover the sexual abuse scandal. Always try to get ahead of bad news. Not only will journalists appreciate your honesty but you'll be more likely to have some role in shaping the story.

I'd be interested to know if you have some experience in media coverage of good and bad stories from your faith community. How did it happen and what would you have done differently? E-mail me at

(Yes, I know the image here today is of an out-of-date typewriter, but it's not unlike a portable I used when I began my career.)

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Hollywood is looking for good film ideas and scripts by searching through Bible stories, it's reported. Yes, the Bible. Or, as it's no doubt known in Tinseltown, The Greatest Story Ever Sold.

Daisy's rejected religion: 10-24-13

For many reasons, I've been reluctant to comment about the terrible sexual assault case in Maryville, Mo. In fact, I wish everyone would take a deep breath and, now that a good special prosecutor has been appointed, wait quietly until the case can be reviewed by proper legal authorities to decide what, if anything, to do next.

Maryville_MOBut the young girl at the center of this story, Daisy Coleman, put her own version of what happened on a public website recently, and in her remarks she said, among much else, this: "Why would I even want to believe in a God? Why would a God even allow this to happen? I lost all faith in religion and humanity."

Those are heartbreaking, but not surprising, words.

The faith of 14-year-olds, as a rule, is generally simple and often confused. That's especially true when their experience runs up against the problem of suffering and evil. Theological explanations of suffering and evil are called theodicies, and the problem is, as I've said before, that no theodicy is exhaustive. None offers a full explanation of why, if God is good, suffering and evil have a prominent place in the world.

Pain and suffering constitute the open wound of religion, in fact.

So it's not shocking that a 14-year-old would smash into the theodicy question and decide that somehow God is to blame.

Perhaps there's nothing I or anyone else can say to Daisy right now, in the midst of all the turmoil swirling around her, to get her to reconsider her image of God as a power who should -- and does -- regularly and almost automatically intervene in human affairs to prevent evil and suffering. (Is that the God you know?)

If she thinks about it long and hard enough -- and with enough competent adult help -- she will understand that such an image of God is false and unhelpful. And she will begin to understand that God does not want humans to suffer pain and evil. In fact, God is the one who redeems us and loves us through that evil. That is the image of God offered by the great world religions, and my faith, Christianity, in particular. In the end, God intends to redeem the whole creation and make everything right. But for now we live in a broken world.

In Daisy's case, human beings made a lot of bad decisions, including Daisy herself, as she has acknowledged. The result was disastrous for many people. God did not urge teen-age girls to drink alcohol and slip out of the house late at night to party with older boys. God did not want those boys to give girls more alcohol and then exploit them sexually. God did not want Daisy to have to sit -- drunk and violated -- outside in freezing weather for hours.

People made those choices. (So no wonder she lost faith in humanity, but I hope she eventually remembers all the good that humans also do.)

In one sense I'm glad Daisy lost her religion. The religion she lost wasn't helping anyway. It was a house of bad theological cards doomed to fail. But I hope some day she can find a mature faith that understands a little better the nature of a loving God and that grasps the role humans, nature and other factors play in the reality of evil and pain.

That will be my prayer for Daisy and for all who have rejected the God who was never -- and is never -- there in the way they imagined God to be.

(If you're reading this through Facebook today, I encourage you to share it.)

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Momentum in the United Methodist Church is moving in the right direction on the issue of how the church deals with LGBT issues, and the church's highest court is about to face all of this. The courage of pastors and others who are choosing to stand up for gays and lesbians is slowly making a difference. Go, Methodists.

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

Healthy interfaith marriages: 10-23-13

An old joke goes this way:

Interfaith-marriageMan: "I'm in an interfaith marriage."

Friend: "You are?"

Man: "Yes. I'm a Methodist and she's the devil."

Look, I didn't say it was all that funny, but it is old. And I retell it today to introduce you to this short but good piece about how to have a healthy interfaith marriage.

Over the years I've know quite a few couples in interfaith unions, mostly Christian-Jewish marriages. And they seem to work best when both spouses are open and clear about their own faith commitments and are clear with each other about how to introduce their children to one or the other of the religions.

There is a tradition in Christianity that urges adherents not to enter into interfaith marriages, basing that admonition on II Corinthians 6:14, which in the King James Version reads this way: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?"

Although there are special challenges to interfaith marriage, I've always considered that reading of that passage to be too narrow and not necessarily a direct reference to interfaith unions. But some folks read it to mean interfaith unions are barred.

At any rate, I thought the advice offered in the piece to which I've linked you was solid. So have a look.

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If you read my review of Alvin Rosenfeld's new book, Resurgent Antisemitism, this news will not surprise you -- there have been dozens and dozens of attacks on synagogues in Germany in recent years. This is an old hatred that requites constant vigilance.

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

When the world didn't end: 10-22-13

Had you been around on this date in 1844 and also a follower of a certain William Miller (depicted here), you would forever after know Oct. 22 as the date of the "Great Disappointment."

William-MillerFor it was this Miller fellow who gathered followers by predicting the Second Coming of Christ on this date that year. Well, he had first predicted it would be in 1843 or maybe 1844. Then on March 21, 1844. Then Oct. 22, 1844.

And when it didn't happen, lots of folks abandoned the Millerite movement and even left Christianity altogether. But others used Miller's date-setting errors to create, eventually, what today is known as Seventh Day Adventism.

The obvious lesson here, of course, is that the date-setters are always wrong. And one primary reason they are wrong is that the Bible, which they use to set their dates for the Second Coming or the end of the world, cannot be read in that literal way and still be sensible.

Over and over and over again, however, people have predicted the end is about to happen, and they've been wrong every time and will continue to be wrong. Yes, I know I made this same point when everyone was all wrapped up in the end of the Mayan calendar and the separate predictions by the fraud Harold Camping, but it's a point worth making again.

Heck, even Jesus said no one knows, including him, when the end of time will come, if ever.

That's good enough for me.

But if you do decide to get rid of all your possessions and go wait for the end of the world on a hillside somewhere, can I have your money?

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Thanks to the popularity of Pope Francis, Francesco now is the most popular name being given babies in Italy, it's reported. This way of naming babies is crazy, says my friend Elvis.

A call for global faith freedom: 10-21-13

Much of the news about religion around the globe is not good.

GlobalPublicSquare* We continue to see terrorism by Islamists rooted in extremist views of the ancient faith of Muslims.

* We see antisemitism resurgent not just across Europe, where the Holocaust happened, but in many places around the world.

* Oppression and persecution of Christian minorities in many countries seems to be growing.

* Fundamentalism of various kinds infects religious traditions and leads to human suffering and wars in many places.

* And as the annual reports from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom document, many governments oppress people of different faiths. (The author of the book I write about below here misidentifies the USCIRF as the U.S. Commission on International Human Rights, which doesn't exist.)

None of this is to deny all the good done in the name of religion. Indeed, I and many others argue that the good far outweighs the bad. But it is to say that we have yet to figure out for our time how to assure religious freedom.

Author and social critic Os Guinness takes a look at religous freedom and diversity in his new book, The Global Public Square. It's worth a read, despite the fact that at times his language is imprecise, resulting in a mistiness of meaning and at times he's so certain of his position that he overstates his case.

Drawing on Roger Williams' term "soul liberty," Guinness pushes hard for what he calls soul freedom, a state in which every individual is free to make religious choices without evil consequences and governmental pressures. It's the right goal, but much of the world is far from achieving it, and Guinness doesn't offer clear ways of getting there.

Guinness correctly identifies one of the problems of international religious tension, and that is that leaders sometimes forget that their words -- even when not spoken to the whole world -- quickly get communicated to the whole world. Thus we get violent reactions to such speeches as Pope Benedict's clumsy 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany.

Guinness is at his best when he's promoting the values contained in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which he asserts could not be passed today) and the 2012 Global Charter of Conscience.

If people on this planet are to live into their true destinies, they must be free to make choices, including religious choices. Many are not. Guinness leads us into a useful discussion about why and urges us to ponder what we can do to change things.

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Speaking of freedom of religion, here's a nice change: The agnostic who wrote this piece is defending religion, at least in part. He clearly understands that very little is completely this or completely that.