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A Bible app for the masses: 11-30/12-1-13

YouVersionFor more than a year I've had on my iPad the Bible app called YouVersion.

I like it for many reasons, including the fact that it offers 39 different English translations. In fact, I like so much that I recently put the app on my allegedly smart phone and my PC. The app, by the way, is free.

Recently one of the "Sightings" columns from the Martin E. Marty Center at the University of Chicago focused on this app in its discussion of digitized bibles.

As the piece reports, "YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips."

Well, all those other languages may be useful to someone, but except for a bit of French and Hindi, I'm pretty well stuck with English.

As the "Sightings" piece notes, the success of the app isn't due to evangelical zeal but, rather, to smart marketing and knowing the audience: "YouVersion collects vast amounts of behavioral data from its users and, in turn, uses this information to build customer loyalty. IP addresses, GPS locations, habits and preferences enable YouVersion to provide a 'tailored experience' to the sacred text."

I don't want to digitize religion completely. That would remove from it the important mystery it inevitably contains. But what if the message about that mystery -- and everything else religious -- doesn't get out and doesn't have a chance to transform lives?

I think religion -- and even individual congregations -- can learn from YouVersion that we must pay close attention to the wants and needs of those outside our traditions if we hope to invite them to explore what being part of our tradition would mean.

This doesn't have to mean all kinds of digital phishing, so to speak, so we become, in old Christian terms, phishers of men. But it does mean using today's tools to bring good news to today's people.

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And for all of you who are worn out from shopping on Black Friday (having expressed gratitude for all you have the day before, Thanksgiving), Pope Francis wants you to know that trickle-down economics doesn't work and never has. Hey, why is this guy stick his nose into the business of business? Shouldn't he stick to religion? Ah, well, there is no subject that religion does not touch, including conspicuous consumption, as it used to be called.

YouVersion collects vast amounts of behavioral data from its users and, in turn, uses this information to build customer loyalty. IP addresses, GPS locations, habits and preferences enable YouVersion to provide a “tailored experience” to the sacred text. - See more at:
YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips. - See more at:
YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips. - See more at:
YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips. - See more at:
YouVersion is revolutionizing the accessibility and distribution of the biblical text, putting over 600 versions in over 400 languages right at our fingertips. - See more at:

A great interfaith guide: 11-29-13

On Wednesday this week here on the blog, I told you about the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler and his efforts to create better relations between Christians and Muslims.

World-religions-bookI want to follow that up today with a new book that I think may become almost indispensible for people who are trying to create harmonious interfaith relations.

It's World Religions and Contemporary Issues, by Brennan R. Hill, an emeritus professor at Xavier University.

The first thing the author does is provide a careful overview of each of the religions he focuses on: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are lots of books about comparative religion studies that include the kind of information Hill offers, but Hill is using this information to build a base on which to create working relationships on several major global issues: ecology, peace and women.

In addition to excellent information about the faith traditions themselves, there is useful information about how each faith approaches these issues and, thus, how adherents of the different traditions might work together without slamming up against each other in destructive ways.

Beyond that, the author gives readers a series of links to various YouTube videos to help them understand in more details the issues under consideration and how the various religions approach them.

"Today," Hill writes, "religions are becoming more involved in world issues and are attemption to reasses their beliefs and values so that they can be active players in global concerns, especially in the areas of economy, peace and women's issues."

Even if readers simply use this book as a primer on these five important religions they will find this book valuable. But it will be more useful if they read it with people of other faith traditions and work with them to get involved in the issues Hill outlines.

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What's the next fight in the U.S. Supreme Court over Obamacare really all about? This columnist suggests it's part of the culture war, but not over religion or women but, rather, modernity. I believe Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times is on to something.

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P.S.: In this holiday time of year, faith communities are especially engaged in providing food for the hungry in various ways. The director of faith outreach for the Humane Society of the U.S. has this timely message for ways in which such communities also can help feed the pets of needy families. In a land of relative plenty, which this is, we should not be forced to choose between feeding humans and feeding their pets. We can do both. The article offers good ways to get engaged.

Abe and George proclaim: 11-28-13


T h a n k s. . .

. . .for dropping in here today and whenever you do.

For Thanksgiving today I'll be brief as I bring you a word or two from our most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

For Lincoln's 1863 (in the middle of the Civil War) Thanksgiving proclamation, click here.

And for George Washington's 1789 proclamation, click here.

Note the faith-based language in each.

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If you're interested in the issues to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case about contraception and Obamacare, David Gibson of Religion News Service has you covered here. Do you think the courts will ever be done with Obamacare? (I do.)

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

Improving Christian-Muslim relations: 11-27-13

My regular readers are well aware that I've long been a proponent of interfaith dialogue. That's not just so people from different traditions can talk and talk and talk, often over one another. Rather it's so that we can understand each other better and move toward harmonious relationships that allow us to work together to help fix the wounded world.

ChandlerThe Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler (pictured here) doesn't disagree with me about that, but in weekend remarks at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., he noted that the term interfaith dialogue has become "very trendy" and has lost some of its punch and meaning. Interfaith dialogue, he complained, has become more about "the impartation of knowledge" and less about living together in peace and with common purpose.

Chandler, an American Episcopal priest who grew up in Senegal and has spent the last 10 years working in Egypt, said we should worry less about talking about our faith. Rather, he said, we should "live it so people can come to see its source."

Later, Chandler, author of Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths, described himself as "not so passionate about interfaith dialogue. . .but I'm passionate about interfaith friendships." And that's a harder task, he said.

I asked him about the reality that some Christians are biblical literalists who believe Islam is a religion of the devil, while some Muslims consider Christians to be infidels who should be done away with. Is it possible ever to bring such people together in peace and understanding?

Chandler hasn't depaired of that possibility. His experience in several Muslim countries, especially Egypt, he said, showed him that if you approach people and invite them not to debate religion but to participate in some common endeavor that both sides can support, eventually it's possible to break down some of the thick walls that form barriers between people of different rigid traditions.

It's not easy and it takes time, but it's possible, he indicated.

Chandler noted that one of the five pillars of Islam is for those who are financially and physically able to take a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. The idea of pilgrimage can connect people of different faiths.

"I think it's critical for relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters," he said, "that we all see ourselves as pilgrims, as one, journeying toward God, and not having arrived."

In a time of strident religious voices seeking to divide, it's reassuring to hear of someone who has lived much of his life in Islamic cultures and wants Christians and Muslims to invest the time and energy required to live together harmoniously.

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New archeological evidence suggests that Buddha may have been born several centuries earlier than previously believed. The good news, of course, is that he reached Nirvana sooner than thought, too.

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

Checking out the Moonies: 11-26-13

I think it was back in the mid-1970s that the the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon (pictured here) came to Kansas City to promote his Unification Church. I was on the reporting staff of The Kansas City Star and was assigned one Saturday evening to cover his appearance.

MoonSince then I like to tell people that Sun Myung Moon once met me.

I don't recall a lot about that evening except that I think I wasn't allowed to stay with Moon very long and that I didn't write a very long story about it. But Moon and I did meet and shake hands.

I've been both intrigued and at times repulsed by Moon and his unique and astonishingly self-centered and works-righteousness approach to religion.

This whole matter came to my memory again recently when, to my surprise, a representative of the Unification Church was among those asked to give a brief history of his faith community in the U.S. at a community Thanksgiving dinner I emceed.

After that event, someone asked me what I knew about the Unification Church. The person who asked said she sometimes has heard it referred to as a cult. That's obviously become a pejorative term these days (it didn't used to be) and it's one I try to avoid. But in response to her question, I linked her to this recent story in The New Republic about the church.

It's rather lengthy and certainly distressing as it reveals the decidedly checkered history of the Unification Church and especially of the wildly dysfunctional Moon family.

I suppose the lesson here is that people checking out religious traditions to which they may want to attach themselves would do well to be thorough in their investigation before jumping in. All religions have dark spots in their histories, and potential adherents should know about those as well as about the light they've shed on the world. Going into a religion in complete ignorance is a good way to make a major mistake.

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If you want to tour the Washington National Cathedral, you're going to have to start paying an admission fee to cover budget shortfalls, it's reported. More proof that the D.C. at the end of Washington stands for Deficit City.

Are you ready to die well? 11-25-13


Late last week I was a member of a panel at a symposium at the University of Kansas School of Nursing sponsored by the Osler Society of Greater Kansas City on end-of-life issues.

End-of-life-overview-1The intended audience was made up of medical students from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and, indeed, quite a few such folks showed up, along with others.

It was my task to give people the sad news that America is a death-denying culture in which lots of Americas somehow think death is optional.

The job of all of us, including future and current physicians and nurses, is to help people think about how they want to die and to prepare for that inevitability. It was also my task to talk just a bit about the role of faith communities in all of this.

The very day we gathered the Pew Research Center released the results of a sobering study that indicated we are not making progress with this task. (Here's Cathy Lynn Grossman's story about it for Religion News Service.)

As the press release about this said, "most Americans say there are some circumstances in which doctors and nurses should allow a patient to die. At the same time, however, a growing minority says that medical professionals should do everything possible to save a patient’s life in all circumstances."

A growing number? Yes. In 1990 just 15 percent of those responding to this survey wanted doctors to do absolutely everything possible to save people in end-of-life situations, whereas today that percentage has more than doubled to 31.

What this ultimately means is that people are pushing for expensive and non-beneficial treatments to keep people alive for a matter of hours or days. It's not just a terrible waste of medical resources but it's also a way of making sure that the final hours and days of someone's life are more -- not less -- full of pain and anxiety.

Communities of faith have to take the lead in this matter and educate people about end-of-life matters and how to prepare families for that.

My own congregation will be offering exactly that sort of thing this spring in one of our regular end-of-life series of classes. I hope yours is working on something similar.

(Panelists pictured here: from left, were moderator Dr. Jerry Burton; Elaine McIntosh, CEO of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care; Dr. Richard Butin, and me.)

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Just when you think that maybe Americans are pretty much done with anti-Judaism and the old and discredited idea that Jews are guilty of deicide, up pops the slander again. This time it was in a Christian publication put out by students at Harvard University. It was an anonymous piece written by someone who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Sounds like that convert has a lot left to learn.

What the Bible doesn't say: 11-23/24-13

I have said many times before (as my regular readers certainly know) that biblical and theological ignorance is rampant in the U.S., including in congregations of many different religions.

Bible-stackIt's not just Christians, my faith community, who don't know shari'a from shekhinah. But for sure many Christians must plead guilty to such religious illiteracy. (The book to read is Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero.)

Now and then someone will compile a list of sayings or beliefs that are accepted as traditional Christian teachings or wisdom but that fly in the face of the biblical witness or what orthodox (lower-case o) Christianity teaches.

I ran across such a list the other day and I invite you to ponder it this weekend. It's called "Seven Things People Think Are in the Bible (But Totally Aren't)." You'll find it here.

Now, you can argue this or that point with the author of this piece, but I think you'll find it worth your while to ask whether you've bought some of this stuff without thinking it through carefully.

If so, just remember that God helps those who helps themselves -- unless, of course, that's just unbiblical nonsense (which it is).

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Uh-oh. A distributor accidently mislabeled Bibles that Costco had for sale as "fiction" and Costco didn't catch it in time. Costco has fixed the problem and apologized. But if you're going to give the Bible any traditional bookstore label, what would it be? History? Uh, not all of it. Poetry? Well, parts of it. Maybe mystery, except so few people of faith are comfortable with mystery, preferring stone cold answers in black and white.

Remembering two Jacks: 11-22-13

As we Americans (as well as many others) pause today to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (pictured at right), some of us also will be remembering that on that same date in 1963 the great Christian author and scholar C.S. (Jack) Lewis (pictured at left) died.

Lewis JFKReligion News Service has done this good piece about the two Jacks and their approaches to faith. I commend it to you.

My recollection of the time is that the Kennedy murder so dominated the news that it was several days before I, then a college freshman, learned of the death of Lewis.

I'm not sure the Lewis death would have registered heavily on me at the time because it wasn't until several years after his death that I really began to read much of Lewis' work. For instance, I was well into adulthood before I ever spent much time with his Narnia chronicles.

And on American TV and radio that sad weekend in 1963, there simply was no news other than the JFK death and all that followed.

These anniversaries of public events affect many people in ways we rarely think about. For instance, Kennedy and Lewis died the day before my oldest sister's 25th birthday, so every year since then the shadow of these deaths -- especially Kennedy's -- has hovered at least a little over Karin's birthday. It hasn't caused my other sisters and me to celebrate the remarkable Karin any less, but it has made us keenly aware of everyone's mortality.

So if you know Karin and can do the math, feel free to acknowledge her big day tomorow. And to stare in awe today at what we must again acknowledge is the awesome power of death.

(P.S.: While you're remembering people who died Nov. 22, 1963, don't forget author Aldous Huxley. Thanks to educator and blogger Leroy Seat for reminding me of that.)

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The Church of England finally is moving toward having female bishops. One more case of the church following where it should lead.

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

From antisemite to Jew: 11-21-13

When Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were in Poland in 2007 doing interviews for our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we encountered a man who was working his way to the dark side, though at the time we didn't know it.

SzegediWhen the man was a youth, his family had help to rescue Jews. He told us that story and we included it in our book.

Later, however, we heard from the good folks who had helped us find this man and set up the interview that he had become a convert to antisemitism, possibly through the influnce of Radio Maryja, a radio station in Poland that spews antisemitic trash.

How sad, we thought.

Now, however, I have just read of a Hungarian man who has moved in the opposite direction. Indeed, he seems to have gone from being a leader of an antisemitic political party there, Jobbik, to being an observant Jew.

A friend alerted me to a piece about Csanad Szegedi (pictured here) in the current issue of The New Yorker. You can find that story here, though you may not be able to read it all unless you're a subscriber. But I found this piece in Haaretz that tells very much the same story.

Szegedi's discovery that he himself has Jewish roots seems to have given him new eyes. Some time will have to pass, of course, before it's clear that this transformation is real and permanent, but it's so far a fascinating tale of how religious bigotry can be kneecapped by personal experience.

When Jacques and I were in Poland we also spoke with a woman who helped to save Jews and who only in recent years learned that she herself is Jewish *though her story didn't make it into our book). That revelation didn't change her view of Jews, but it did come as something of a shock to her, though she fully embraced her Jewish heritage and formally converted from Christianity to Judaism.

The antisemites that Szegedi helped to lead in Hungary, however, continue their campaign against Jews in Hungary, and it's clear that what historian Robert Michael, in his book of the title, called Holy Hatred is a disease that has yet to heal.

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As a Missourian, I feel deep shame today to be a citizen of the state that yesterday executed white supremacist and serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. The death penalty drags the state down to the level of the vilest criminal, which Franklin certainly was. Death ends Franklin's deserved punishment and removes any possibility -- however unlikely -- of his rehabilitation. The U.S. is among the last of the developed nations to keep capital punishment, and it demeans our whole society.

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

OMG, she's tweeting the Bible: 11-20-13

It's hard to get a sense of it reading, say, the old King James Version of the Bible, but Jesus was at times a funny guy and God has a wonderful sense of humor.

Twible(Why else would he have attached a pigeon's head to its butt so that both always move when it walks?)

And now we have a funny paraphrase of the Bible in which humor, absurdity and irony reign. It's called The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters of Less, by Jana Riess, an author who blogs for Religion News Service.

It is irreverent without being sacrilegious, sarcastic without being despairing, clever without being too clever by half.

What I don't like about this book (besides the grammatical error in the subtitle, which uses "Less" instead of "Fewer,") is that I didn't think of it first. Doh.

Can anyone really boil each chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to 140 or fewer characters? Well, not really, unless in a light way you're trying to get people interested in reading the original again, which I think may be part of Riess's purpose.

Want a few examples of what she does? OK. Here's the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John:

JC uses his own saliva to heal a man born blind, so the first thing the guy sees is a stranger spitting on him. Hello, cruel world.

Bet you never thought of it that way, huh?

How about the famous Christmas story in Luke 2?

"Ma'am, the rooms are full at Bethlehem Inn, but there's a rustic barn out back that is quite charming. And the hay is complimentary."

And here's Matthew 5, home of the Beatitudes:

JC's Greatest Hits include "Beatitudes," "You Are Salt," and "Don't Even Think about Adultery or You've Already Committed It."

She also gives brief overviews of each book of the Bible. Here's the one for the lusty Song of Solomon: "The original sexting. Keeping youth group kids exposed to soft porn for approximately 2,300 years and counting. NC-17."

In addition, there are quite a few one-page commentaries of various topics covered in the Bible, each worth a read.

From Genesis 1, which begins, "After 6 days of creation, G's totally wiped. Day off tomorrow!" to the final chapter in Revelation, which begins, "Bible ends with G opening a fruit-of-the-month club and restoring Eden," this is both a fun read and one that will open your hearts to an understanding of religious metaphor.

If you don't have time to read all of the above, here's my 140-character review: "The Twible: This is speedfaithing in an age of annoying literalism that cuts to heart of Scripture and reveals Scripture with a heart." (And for you literalists, that was only 136 characters.)

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Sam-Mann-2High-fives to the Rev. Sam E. Mann (pictured here), who at an interfaith Thanksgiving community dinner I emceed this past Sunday, received the 2013 Vern Barnet Interfaith Service Award.

Sam, a southern white boy who served for decades as the pastor of a predominantly black church, St. Mark Union of Kansas City, has spent his life protesting injustice, preaching justice and helping people be fully human.

Besides which, now that he's retired and catching his breath, he's a pretty fair golfer.

(The link I've given you for the church is not the congregation's official website, which seems not to work.)