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Divisions within Islam: 12-31-13

The fascinating country of Turkey has been in some turmoil in recent weeks over corruption allegations, and some of the trouble has caused some to wonder what it might have to do with a Muslim leader who lives in Pennsylvania now, Fethullah Gülen (pictured here).

Fethullah-gulenIn recent years I have gotten to know some people connected with Gülen and I have come to admire their work and, by extension, to admire the work and thinking of Gülen himself. Some of them oversee the Raindrop Turkish House in Lenexa, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, and are involved in promoting interfaith understanding and dialogue. Indeed, this group has helped quite a few Kansas Citians take what they later described as marvelous educational trips to Turkey.

At the same time, there always has seemed to be a bit of mystery about Gülen, and he certainly has had his critics, both inside of Turkey and outside.

Today I want to link you to a rather extensive look at Gülen through the eyes of a journalist who has covered Turkey and who then wrote about him a couple of years ago after visiting his headquarters in Pennsylvania.

I will not pretend here today to understand the current trouble in Turkey well enough to offer an analysis of it. (I've been to Turkey only once, and that was just to change planes, but I have a friend there now on a Fulbright study trip and hope he can give me a good update when he returns.) Rather, that trouble gives me the chance to let you read more about Gülen and the movement with which he's associated.

That, in turn, should help you and all of us remember how diverse Islam is. This is a religion divided not just between Sunni and Shia and not just between traditional Muslims and the radicals in the bin Laden branch whose views and actions demean Islam. Rather, Islam is a religion of many factions, some of which get along famously with others and some of which are nearly always at odds with other Muslims.

Hmmm. Sort of sounds like Christianity and Judaism, doesn't it?

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President Obama's religious commitments continue to fascinate lots of folks, including those fools who still believe he's a Muslim. Here's a New York Times piece examining Obama's religious practices and thinking. It's not clear to me that we learn much here we didn't know, but perhaps it satisfies our curiosity.

Theology as a 'process': 12-30-13

As we wind down (or wind up?; idioms can be confusing, so sit down and then sit up and pay attention) 2013, it occurs to me that it's been a long time since I said anything about "process theology."

WhiteheadAnd what a good day to do that, for today marks the death in 1947 of Alfred North Whitehead (pictured here), who is credited with laying the groundwork for process theology through his advocacy of process philosophy.

It is easy for traditional Christians to reject process theology because it seems to make God dependent on us humans for God's own growth, change and development. And certainly process theology tends to move in that direction.

But it's more complicated than that, and a swift dismissal of this approach to theology would at the same time dismiss some ideas that might help all of us think more deeply about the relationship of humanity to God.

One of the attributes of God that is promoted and affirmed by Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that in some sense God is personal and cares about individuals. This is different from the old Greek idea of a far-removed deity who really can't be bothered with human affairs.

Process theology, in a sense, takes that idea of a personal god and pumps it up (that's a technical theological term) so that in some ways God seems to be mutable, malleable. Traditional Christianity wants to insist that God's nature never changes, but that God may, in fact, change God's mind about things. And that idea comes from Judaism, with its stories of the way certain biblical characters bargain and even argue with God.

Does process theology take those notions and run too far with them? That's the complaint about it from some traditional Christian theologians.

But I've always thought that the church needs its heretics (as they're sometimes called) to keep it thinking fresh, new thoughts of a God who promises to make all things new.

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The number of people who say they have no religious affiliation is, as we know, rising in the U.S. and has risen in Europe in recent decades. Now we learn a similar phenomenon is happening in Australia. The exception to this trend can be found especially in Africa, where Christianity and Islam have swept in to gain converts from African traditional religions.

When religion gets blamed: 12-28/29-13

It is easy -- and sometimes wrong or partly wrong -- to blame religion for all or most of the wars humans fight.

Central_african_republicFor instance, did World War II have much to do with religion? Only quite tangentially.

What about the current fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic? Well, that certainly looks like sectarian fighting. And surely some of it is.

But it turns out to be much more complicated than that. There are other factors involved and those factors seem to weigh more heavily than religion.

Here, for instance, is a Reuters piece that seeks to educate us about those other factors.

A key paragraph from that story:

Many in the country insist that the origins of the bloodshed have little to do with religion, in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace. Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa's weakest-governed states, split along ethnic faultlines and worsened by foreign meddling.

And earlier Religion News Service offered this piece making some of the same points. It said that "a Roman Catholic archbishop said the fighting pitting the two groups is not about religion, but rather politics and power."

For sure religion has been the cause of wars and bitter violence of various kinds for centuries. But sometimes the reality on the ground doesn't match preconceived notions about religion's role in perpetuating violence. And it's best to have a detailed, nuanced description of what's going on so that religion receives the proper amount of blame, if any, but neither too much nor too little.

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When Christians take radically different approaches to such issues as homosexuality, are they simply disagreeing about interpretations or are they, in fact, practicing different religions and even worshiping different gods? Hollis Phelps, an assistant professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, argues the latter. And he may well be on to something.

When God speaks craziness: 12-27-13

What's a good way to spend your 23rd wedding anniversary?

Carrie_NationIf you're a religious (in this case Christian) fanatic, you might spend it committing violence against your perceived enemy. At least that's what Carry Nation (pictured here) did on this date in 1900, having been married on this date in 1877.

The violent prohibitionist went to a saloon in Wichita, having previously gone to Kiowa, Kansas, and, using a brickbat, smashed the place up. Several month earlier she smashed up not just one place in Kiowa. She hit six different drinking establishments that day.

It may not surprise you, as this piece will reveal, that Carry Nation felt God was telling her to smash up saloons as a way to standing against the evils of alcohol.

My advice: When you think you hear God speaking directly to you and only to you with a message that involves violence, get 3,267 of your closest friends to verify what you are hearing. If even one of them votes no, listen to that one.

Alcohol certainly has wrecked lives, and there are reasons to be against its abuse, for sure. But taking a hatchet or rocks -- or hijacked airplanes -- to other people's businesses is not how civilized people go about changing things.

Carry Nation, by the way, also smashed up saloons on 12th Street in Kansas City in 1901. When I first came to town in 1970, there still were saloons along that stretch of 12th Street, where now a big hotel sits. Oh, and you still can get a drink in that hotel today. Nice work, Carry.

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Instead of God speaking craziness, I now offer you my friend and co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn speaking much good sense after he attended a Christmas Eve service this week at an Episcopal Church.

A Puritan post-Christmas: 12-26-13

Yes, yes, Christmas Day is by us, though Christmas itself on the church calendar lasts for more than another week -- up to Epiphany on Jan. 6, in fact.

Mayflower-2And, yes, today is Boxing Day, celebrated mostly in England and Canada.

But what else is worth celebrating -- or at least commemorating -- on Dec. 26?

It was the date on which Mayflower colonists settled Plymouth Colony in 1620, several days after they weighed anchor in Plymouth Harbor.

I have a friend who serves as senior pastor of the Church of the Pilgrimage, a United Church of Christ congregation in Plymouth. When my wife and I visited the church and Plymouth itself a year or two ago I found it an odd mixture of contemporary living and yet deep history.

That should be the way all of us live -- aware of our surroundings and their history. But that seems to happen mostly in places like Plymouth.

So as you spend time with family and friends this Christmas season, remember our founding roots and the joy the Puritans must have felt knowing that the toys they gave their children would never experience run-down batteries.

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I frequently review or at least mention faith-based books here on the blog, but I tend to focus on books that don't get lots of publicity. So today I bring you this Religion News Service piece that lists what the writer thinks are the 10 most important religious books of 2013 -- none of which I've reviewed here. I see several I'd like to read.

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

Imagining Christmas: 12-25-13

In the Hands of the Father

For Christmas this year I offer you a photo of a work of art I used here a couple of Christmases ago, and do so with the permission of the artist, Roger Loveless. It's called "In the Hands of the Father," and the more I look at it the more I like it.

Bethlehem-NativityWe, of course, have no idea exactly what the surroundings looked like when Jesus was born, though twice in my life I've been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and seen the star pictured here in the grotto of the church that, by tradition, marks the spot of the birth. (I shot this photo last year.)

But tradition is different from historical reality, often.

WDT-AvaSo what a painting like the one here by Loveless offers is a metaphor, a parable, if you will, that allows your own imagination to come up with a picture of what that reality may have been. And as someone once said about imagination, the pictures are better on radio.

Last Sunday we took our four-month-old granddaughter to church to listen to the J.S. Bach cantata, "Sleepers, Wake!" I got to hold her as she paid close attention to the music.

So above you have an image called "In the Hands of the Father." And to the right is one we might call "In the Hands of the Grandfather."

Merry Christmas.

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For Christmas in Bethlehem, which I've been privileged to visit twice in my life, here's an account. Seems like it's time for the Prince of Peace finally to bring some peace to that region.

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

Read more here:

Abusing Christ's gospel: 12-24-13

Here it is Christmas Eve and no doubt I should be writing something about the impending anniversary of the incarnation and what it means to me and to humanity.

PopoffBut instead I'm going to lodge a complaint against people who twist the Christian gospel for their own purposes. Here's why:

I have a friend who is an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country. Good-hearted man. A year or two ago he came to me to ask him what to do about a situation that was almost immediately clear to me as a financial scam. In fact, he lost several thousand dollars to the scam artists and would have lost more had I not intervened and insisted he cut his losses, report the scam to law enforcement authorities and remember the lesson and he costly it was to learn. Well, he did two of the three. The last one he seemed not quite to get.

So the other day my friend called me to ask me my thoughts about a letter he had received from a televangelist. My friend's accent sometimes makes it hard for me to understand him on the phone so I asked him to come by the next day and bring the letter and any other relevant materials with him. I was worried that he was about to fall into another trap that would drain money from his very meager wealth.

He showed up with a three-page computer-generated-but-personalized letter from Peter Popoff (pictured here -- photo borrowed from here), who has his own TV show on the BET network about healing people, a show in which he preaches an especially egregious version of the Prosperity Gospel. The link I gave you on Popoff's name will take you to the Wikipedia entry about him, and it immediately identifies ways in which he was exposed as a fake healer.

The Internet abounds with accounts of Popoff's manipulative and exploitive ways of promising God's riches to people who will send him their own riches. Just Google "Peter Popoff Prosperity Gospel" and see what shows up.

Jerks like Popoff give religion in general and Christianity in particular a bad name, and it is incumbent upon other Christians (I'm one) to declare that his methods and message run counter to the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ, which has to do with love, sacrifice and the in-breaking reign of God, not with tricking God into giving you riches.

It took a bit of conversation for me to convince my friend never to send Popoff another dime (he had previously sent him $20.20 as "seed" money that Popoff promised would gain him entrance into God's blessings).

The letter my friend received thanked him for that donation but said he'd have to do more so he could receive the blessings of God, who wanted my friend to prosper, Popoff claimed.

After I showed my computer-illiterate friend some of the online stories about Popoff, he agreed to stop sending in money. But, he told me, Popoff had promised him two miracles before the end of 2013.

"Well," I said, "you just got one of them: I have stopped you from wasting more money." (The second miracle is up to Popoff.)

My friend is a member of a Kansas City church, and I suggested to him that he use his charitable donations to support his own congregation, where he has a voice and at least some control over how the money is spent.

Religion seems to attract knaves who play on the emotions of vulnerable people. Popoff is one of them. Here's a piece from one of the people who originally exposed his fake-healing ways. I wish my friend had read this before he sent in any money.

The true gospel of Christ is liberating. It has nothing to do with TV preachers who say God wants you to be rich and the way to get rich is to prime the preacher's pump with your money. Not all TV ministry is phony. But ministry done in person in real congregations of people who meet together is almost always ever so much better.

Merry Christmas Eve. And thanks for letting me, well, pop off about this.

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If the Church of England is looking for someplace to send missionaries to draw people into Christianity, I have a suggestion: England. A new survey shows 38 percent of adults and 49 percent of people 18-29 say they are religiously unaffiliated. And to those folks I say, "Merry Whatever."

Ministering to prisoners: 12-23-13

Over the years I have followed various ways in which churches and other faith-based organizations have ministered to people in prison.

Prison-MinistryA few years ago, for instance, I wrote this piece from the Missouri correctional facility in Cameron, Mo., about the Kairos ministry there.

Even as far back as the late 1970s or early 1980s, I was writing about Prison Fellowship, the ministry started by Chuck Colson, a Watergate convict. I even drove Chuck around Kansas City to various speaking engagements one night back then.

So I was intrigued to read this new "Sightings" column from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago.

As you will see, the article says that "Partnerships between religion, government, and prison are rapidly increasing."

As long as constitutional boundaries are respected, this increase is, on the whole, a good thing. There are benefits for both the prisoners and the government. And the courts seem to be keeping a watchful eye on the situation so that the programs with religious motivations don't wind up as means for the government to advocate one religion over another.

The goal is rehabilitation of prisoners. If these faith-based programs are helping with that without violating church-state separation borders, good.

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You don't often find people writing in financial journals about the benefits of religion, but here's a piece in Forbes that argues religion is good for all of us, even those without any religious affiliation. I'm not sure I want to pick a faith based on a cost-benefit analysis, however.

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P.S.: Today marks the start of the 10th year of this blog. If you're new here, you've got lots of catching up to do, but all previous entries are in the archives, which you'll find on the right side of this page.

Partnerships between religion, government, and prison are rapidly increasing. - See more at:

Is evangelicalism dying? 12-21/22-13

As we move into Christmas week, it's time to ask an indelicate question: Is evangelical Christianity dying in the United States?

Answering that requires you to define what you mean by evangelical Christianity as well as what you mean by dying.

But as this intriguing American Scholar piece makes clear, in some ways the obvious answer appears to be yes.

Crystal cathedralJim Hinch, who wrote the piece, is the religion writer for the Orange County Register, and he's right to draw a distinction -- one often missed by people -- between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

Hinch, who pays a lot of attention in his piece to the former Crystal Cathedral (pictured here) in Orange County, describes evangelicals as "more theologically diverse and open to the secular world than their fundamentalist brethren."

True, but there's more: People who would call themselves evangelical as opposed to fundamentalist tend not to be biblical literalists and, thus, tend not to adopt such positions as being proponents of a young (6,000-to-10,000 years or so) Earth. Evangelicals also are more open than fundamentalists to the possibility that other religions also convey truths and that Christianity may not have a monopoly on salvation, though most evangelicals would say that faith in Christ is the basis of the possibility of an afterlife.

Hinch's conclusion about evangelicalism's future may be stated a bit too broadly, however: "evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff."

I call that too stark a view partly because in one sense all of Christianity is evangelical. What does that mean? It means that Christians believe they are called to tell the story, the good news, the gospel in some way. It can be communicated through preaching but also through action.

St. Francis of Assisi is said to have put it this way: "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words."

So in a broad sense, evangelical is a term that can be used to describe all Christians, though in recent decades the term has been applied mostly to those who say they are "born again" (another term that could be applied to all Christians) and to those who use such phrases as "Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior."

The fact is, the ground under American Christianity has been shifting ever since the first Christian set foot in the New World. And it will continue to do so. If so-called evangelicalism is slipping now it simply means that some other approach to the faith may be rising. Or that all approaches to the religion may be declining.

There is nothing static about American Christianity. And churches or denominations that want to freeze the calendar and hold their place in time and space soon will discover that time and space have left them behind.

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Uganda officially has gone over the sanity edge by passing legislation imposing tough penalties on people for being gay. Hey, wait. Let's solve the problem of Fred Phelps & Co. by getting up a collection to move them to Uganda, where surely their homophobia would be more welcome.

A changing religious landscape: 12-20-13


Over the last several decades, scholars and others have been noting the shifting religious landscape in the United States.

There's been a slip in the percentage of people who identify themselves as Christian. And Protestant Christians, who used to be a huge majority of the American population, now clock in at just under 50 percent. There also has been a marked increase in the percentage people who say they have no religious affiliation.

And especially since President Lyndon Johnson signed immigration reform into law in 1965, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and others have come to the U.S. in large numbers, to say nothing of Christians from non-Western traditions.

Some of these changes have been designated the "Europeanization" of America, meaning a decreasing emphasis on the importance of any religion at all. But it's more complicated than that.

Still, a British newspaper writer, Damian Thompson, has been reading Washington Post coverage about all of this as well as surveys from the Pew Research staff and has some interesting observations here. (The map above I borrowed from that Washington Post site.)

For instance, he notes that there now are more religious Muslims in Florida than religious Jews. In total there are more Jews than Muslims in Florida but so many Jews now declare themselves secular, or non-religious, that religious Muslims outnumber observant Jews there.

All of which reinforces the point I've made over and over: If the call to Americans in the 20th Century was to get racial harmony right (still an unfinished task), the call of the 21st Century is to get religious harmony right.

We can do this folks. We can show the world how all kinds of religious adherents plus atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers and others can live together without killing one another. It would be a great model for the world.

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New figures show use of the death penalty in the U.S. is continuing to decline. Good, but the sooner we get to zero the better. The death penalty has no place in a civilized society.