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December 2013
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New life for Jews in Poland: 1-31-14

Jewish life is returning to Poland.

Poland-271-KRabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I found this to be so when we spent time there in 2007 doing interviews for our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Much of this revival of Jewish life was done by non-Jews for non-Jews in restaurants, festivals and theater. But some Jews, too, were finding their way into a renewed Jewish life there.

When World War II began, about 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland -- roughly 10 percent of the population. In the Holocaust, the Germans (with help from some Poles) murdered more than 90 percent of them. Most of the few remaining were driven underground or out of the country by the antisemitic Soviet-dominated rulers after the war.

But now Jewish life is slowly on the rise there, and this good BBC piece will put you up to speed on this phenomenon, especially in Krakow (not far from Auschwitz) and especially what this revival has to do with religion, if anything.

Some of the people turning back to Judaism come from families who were forced for various reasons to convert to Christianity in the past. Many such families from Europe moved to Central and South America.

And today, through his organization called Brit Braja, Rabbi Jacques is reintroducing people there to Judaism and doing conversions.

Recently National Public Radio's "Here and Now" show did an interview with Jacques about this. You can hear it here.

The relgious journey some people take is astonishing and endlessly fascinating, at least to me.

(The photo here today is one I took in a Jewish cemetery in Krakow. Most Jewish cemeteries in Poland were desecrated in World War II or have been left to decay in the post-war years.)

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One of the objections to research using early, or embryonic, stem cells is that extracting the stem cells requires the destruction of what some people consider to be early human life. Now what appears to be a remarkable and remarkably easy way of producing stem cells without that problem has been reported. I continue to be amazed by human curiosity and ingenuity.

Love me, love me not: 1-30-14

In the New Testament gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, it's reported that one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is in the Jewish law.

Loves-me-loves-me-notFor his answer, Jesus drew directly from the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And the second commandment, Jesus said, is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

This obligation to love neighbor is, of course, not peculiar to either Judaism or Christianity. But it is hard to do.

Sometimes our neighbors aren't very lovable. And sometimes we're not very interested in loving anyone but ourselves.

Well, a new Baylor University study seems to shed a bit of light on all this. It found that religious people do tend to love their neighbors, but, well, ahem, not all their neighbors. Instead, the neighbors they love tend to be the ones who share -- or at least don't violate -- their values.

"The bottom line is that religiousness is linked with love of neighbor," said one of the researchers.

And yet when someone adopts rigid or authoritarian opinions about particular groups of people, the study suggested, love of neighbor tends to disintegrate, fall off, disappear.

When Jesus was pressed on the question of who is someone's neighbor, he told the story of the so-called Good Samaritan. This was a shocking story at the time because the hero was a Samaritan. It would be like someone in the Deep South in the 1850s making a slave the hero of a story or someone not long after 9/11 making a member of al-Qaida the hero.

So Jesus' call to love neighbor was radical and inclusive. It's fine to love nice people who looks like you and mostly act like you and hang out in your social clubs and whatnot. But how does that make you different from almost everyone else? The call of Christianity and some other faiths is to love everyone else, as well. Which means seeking their best interest, not necessarily yours.

Being what you might call a picky, or highly selective, lover is nothing to brag about. But that seems to be who many of us are.

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So what were religious organizations tweeting about the State of the Union speech the other evening? Religion News Service has collected some here. As RNS notes, the annual SOTU is the high church service of America's civil religion. And as I noted Tuesday evening on Facebook, "There's America's diversity on the #SOTU platform -- Obama, Biden, Boehner -- black, white and orange."

On hell's frozen nature: 1-29-14

Last week the furnace in our house shuffled off the mortal coil, bought the farm, kicked the bucket. And if that wasn't bad enough, it also stopped working.

Frozen_HellThat was overnight Monday. On Thursday, after almost three heatless days, our new system was installed. That morning the temperature in our family room was 39. It was cold as hell.

That's how Dante would have described it. In fact, that's how Dante did describe hell in his famous Inferno.

The nine circles of hell got progressively colder, not hotter, until there was little but ice in the ninth circle.

Dante knew whereof he wrote. Cold -- unremitting cold -- is hell.

I was surprised a little by this information and the evidence for it that I felt last week. Ten or more years ago we lived through a power outage due to an ice storm and were without power -- and, thus, heat -- for almost five days. But I don't recall being quite so miserable then, perhaps because my wife and I still spent our days back in those pre-retirement days in warm offices.

But this time the cold seemed to creep into my very marrow. Everything in the house was cold by Thursday morning. The socks in my drawer were cold. The toothpaste was thick and cold. The edges of the sheets unwarmed by the electric blanket were cold. The very air we breathed was cold.

Robert Frost once wrote a short poem about how the world would end -- in fire or ice. To pick between fire and ice is a Hobson's choice -- no choice at all. So I reject both. Still, if we really had both in hell, fire and ice, one might cancel out the other and the residents might enjoy a temperate climate. I could live -- or die -- with that.

(By the way, the image here today did not come straight from hell but from here.)

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Speaking of hell, what's your thinking about demons? I tend to have a pretty low demonology. But this story about possible demon possession in Indiana raises the issue again and may cause you at least to ponder the possibilities.

A war that battered faith: 1-28-14

As you know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, that bloody, vicious conflagration that swept across Europe and elsewhere, forever changing political boundaries, thinking and the future.

WW1(By the way, if you've never been to the fabulous World War I Museum in Kansas City, put it on your to-do list for this year. It's an experience not to be missed.)

For my purposes here on the blog, however, I hope from time to time over this year to look at some of the religious connections to WWI.

I doubt that any serious historian would describe the war as a religous war. But it had religious undertones and it certainly helped to affect thinking about religion. Indeed, it's fair to say that lots of people lost faith because of the war -- at least their faith in the faith-based idea that humanity was on a path of steady progress, especially moral progress.

Perhaps no one expressed this profound disappointment about what the war showed about the human condition than the poet Ezra Pound in his poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," in which he wrote this:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Some of that kind of thinking is reflected in this piece about WWI and religion. I commend it to you.

The war's shattering of illusions about human progress also affected theologians, perhaps most importantly Karl Barth, whose post-war commentary on Romans was a game changer within Christianity.

I'll try to take up that subject in a later blog as we take time this year to remember the war that was fought, allegedly, to end all wars. Talk about shattering illusions.

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And, of course, after World War I came World War II, complete with the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of some six million Jews of Europe, two-thirds of the continent's total. Now Tablet magazine reminds us that before too long the last Holocaust survivors will be gone. That reality is one reason Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust when we did, in 2009. Already at least four of the survivors whose stories we tell in that book have died.

The shape of religious brains: 1-27-14

For some years now, scientists have been digging around (well, metaphorically speaking) in the human brain trying to find out why people connect with religion.

Human-brainIt's been sort of interesting stuff, though this work also has made clear that there are some things science never will be able to explain.

The latest news about this kind of research has come out of Auburn University. A researcher there found, as the press release about all this reports, that " brain interactions were different between religious and non-religious subjects."

But as you read that release, if you do, pay attention to this section of it: The researcher says his finding "supports the hypothesis that development of ToM (Theory of Mind) abilities in humans during evolution may have given rise to religion in human societies."

Notice the foundational assumption: Religion came out of the human brain. This seems to be the foundational assumption in nearly all, if not all, of this kind of research.

But what does religion itself say about its source? It points to a supernatural source, to divine revelation, to God. Does the human mind play a part in all of that? Oh, absolutely. But to say that all of religion is simply an invention of the human mind is to say that religion itself cannot be trusted to have an opinion different from that.

Revelation is hard to explain to people, including people of faith. But it is a core tenet of many religions.

So perhaps science should conduct useful research about how the brains of people who are religious may differ from those who aren't. But then perhaps science should acknowledge that it has no way of verifying whether what religious people call revelation is either possible or reliable. Science and religion have much to say to one another that is useful and helpful. But in some matters they would do well to be silent about the claims of the other.

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Tony Blair, former British prime minister, says the 21st Century will be marked by violence due to religious extremism. That's clearly already the case. The question is whether anyone can figure out how to defang this monster.

The black and white of pot: 1-25/26-14

I don't recall the last time I wrote about marijuana use. Maybe never, save in passing.

Marijuana-leafAlthough I went to college in the 1960s, I never smoked marijuana. Never wanted to, though I engaged in other vices. The closest I came to smoking pot was one evening when I had in my car several fellow students along with one of our journalism professors. The professor got out some weed and passed it around as I drove to wherever we were going.


And I remember being at a party in Kansas City back in the 1970s or early 1980s when some of the folks there passed around some joints. I declined the invitation.

Today, however, marijuana possession and use is being decriminalized fairly quickly in different states, and it has caused me to wonder what people of faith should think or do about this.

Perhaps the most interesting and most damning piece I've read about that question was posted recently on

It took a look at the ways the criminal justice system has handled marijuana-related arrests of both blacks and whites. And it quotes at length a book about all of that and more.

The piece reports a terrible inequality in the way the law has treated blacks and whites. The Patheos blog entry quotes author Michelle Alexander this way: “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”

And then the piece adds: "Alexander implicates the Christian community in her statement because we are those 'who care about racial justice.'”

I don't know what to do about legalization of pot. All I know is that the current system is deeply flawed and that it results in a racially biased criminal justice system. And that's something people of faith should stand against.

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The Catholic magazine America has this intriguing piece about what the church can learn from comedian Stephen Colbert, who is, as you may know, a Catholic. Turns out the piece offers some pretty good advice for any faith community seeking to be relevant in the 21st Century.

Not 'Donne' with this idea: 1-24-14

If proof is needed that almost every new religious idea has its roots in a past religious idea, today is a good day to ponder that reality. Today, it turns out, is the 441st anniversary of the birth of the English poet and preacher John Donne (depicted here).

John-DonneIn his 1624 prose work, "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions," he wrote what may be his most famous lines: "No man is an island, entire of itself. . . .Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind."

Donne, born a Catholic but a convert to Anglicanism, was expressing there something remarkably similar to what today Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa promotes as "Ubuntu Theology." It says, in effect, that if any member of my community is ill or suffering, we all are ill are suffering. It says, in short, "I am because we are." It says, in short, that no one is an island and that anyone's death or suffering diminishes me.

What is true of the commonality of Donne's and Tutu's approach to theology is true of many of the great religious stories and themes across various faith traditions. More than one religion has a story of a great flood, for instance. Same with virgin birth. Same with miracles of various sorts.

Each religion, of course, makes exclusivist claims that differentiate it from others. But there is something cyclical about at least some religious thinking. And the Donne-Tutu approach certainly is one that deserves to keep coming around and around.

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The Church of England has produced some suggested rules for use of social media. There are nine of them. Somehow No. 10 must have gotten lost: Invent Gracebook. Now someone get on that, please.

Traveling to the Holy Land: 1-23-14


It has been my privilege to be in the Holy Land twice -- once just before I turned 13 and once in 2012 on a 10-day Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel that I helped to lead.

Caesarea-1When I returned from the 2012 trip quite a few friends told me they had wanted to go but couldn't work out the timing then.

Well, those friends and you now have another chance, though without me going with you. But you'll be led by my two friends who helped to lead the 2012 study tour to Israel, Father Gar Demo, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in suburban Kansas City, and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, co-author of my last book and spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.

They have scheduled a trip for this November. For the itinerary, pricing and other details, see this pdf:  Download Cukierkorn Rabbi Jacques NOV 2014 FLY

For many reasons my schedule doesn't work in November to go back to Israel, but I can tell you that you are in for a marvelous treat if you accompany Gar and Jacques.

Dead-Sea-1The Holy Land is sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it will change your perspective about all of them to spend time in modern Israel. When we were there in April 2012 we also benefited from having both Christians and Jews traveling together and learning from one another.

So if you've always wanted to make this trip, have a look at the details in the flyer. And enjoy here a few photos that I took on my last trip there.


(The top photo shows the dove of peace above the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, looking for a place to land. The photo at left is of Caesarea. The photo on the right shows the Dead Sea. And the bottom photo was taken from the Golan Heights looking into Syria.)

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Why is our society so polarized? The author of this interesting piece thinks religion has something to do with it, among other factors. And as you can tell by some of the comments in response to it, the article produced polarized reactions.

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

Praying away depression? 1-22-14

Depression -- clinical and otherwise -- is a major problem in our culture. And there are efforts to help members of the clergy identify it in their congregations and to know when to recommend that those who seem to be suffering from it get professional help.

DepressionOne possible route to help may be found in the very practices of the congregations those clergy members help to lead.

That, at least, is the finding of a new study by researchers at Columbia University.

As the press release about the study says, "Those who gave religion or spirituality a top score were shown to have a thicker brain cortex in the exact region where the cortex was thinning in those who were non-believers…and who were at high risk for depression."

Interesting, but a word of caution.

Becoming an adherent of a religion or a practitioner of a spiritual path simply to ward off depression strikes me as a pretty shallow reason.

And my guess is that one reason people who are active in a religion or a spiritual practice may be less likely to suffer depression than others is that they have become part of a larger supportive community and, thus, are less likely to feel alone or abandoned.

No doubt clinical depression can be found in deeply religious people as it can be found in others. But when someone in a faith community experiences symptoms, there's at least a chance that he or she will know that support is available from fellow members.

It would be interesting to see whether a similar finding might be true of non-religious people who are, nonetheless, members of some kind of tight-knit community. Maybe we should pray that someone does such a study. Our praying might ward off depression. Maybe.

(The photo above came from here.)

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President Obama plans to travel to Italy in late March to talk with Pope Francis. See? This pope not only washes the feet of poor Muslims, he also meets with famous ones. (If I have to explain to you that this is a joke, satire, go directly to jail. Do not pass "Go." Do not collect $200. And don't e-mail me.)

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

Mark Twain's religious criticism: 1-21-14

Noted Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas (pictured here) once told me he has a sign on his office door labeled "A Modest Proposal." It says Christians should quit killing Christians.

HauerwasHe makes that point in this essay written for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

When Hauerwas writes about non-violence, about waging peace, about Christians believing that war already has been abolished, about Christians not killing Christians, he does so from within the faith. He turns state's evidence against his own religion. Thus, his is a powerful witness because he's calling his own community to account for some of the misguided ways it is acting.

MarkTwainAnd then there's Mark Twain. (Pictured here.) No, really. I do mean that Mark Twain.

I'm currently reading Volume 2 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Volume 1 was published in 2010, a century after the great writer's death. Volume 2 just appeared a few months ago, and somone who loves me gave it to me for Christmas.

You may know that Twain grew up a Presbyterian, but as he aged he moved further and further away from traditional Christianity. He was a bit reluctant to blast the religion as hogwash while he was alive, but now that he's perfectly dead he's quite willing to rip it up.

In his June 22, 1906, dictation for his 100-years-later autobiography, he says this:

"Within this last generation each Christian power has turned the bulk of its attention to finding out newer and still newer, and more and more effective ways of killing Christians -- and, incidentally, a pagan now and then -- and the surest way to get rich quickly, in Christ's earthly kingdom, is to invent a gun that can kill more Christians at one shot than any other existing gun."

Well, those are damning words and hard for Christians then or now to face, however true they may have been or still are. And remember that they were written before World War I broke out, leading a parade of blood across the 20th Century.

But the words of Hauerwas are more powerful and convicting than those of Twain. Why? First because they come from someone who professes to be a Christian. And second because they come from someone now still alive. Hauerwas doesn't protect himself by speaking from the grave a century later.

I have the same criticism of Twain's biting critique of the Bible, also found in the second volume of his autobiography. He sounds very much like one of the more aggressive so-called "New Atheists" of our day, like Richard Dawkins. Which means he pretends to be (or maybe is) a biblical literalist and offers his criticisms of the Bible based on a literalistic reading of holy writ.

If Twain were around today I'd tell him what I try to tell other atheistic biblical literalists: If you don't understand metaphorical religious language, just be quiet until you do.

(I took the Hauerwas photo here today. The Twain picture came from here.)

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New reports suggest that Pope Francis may order the opening of the secret Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII (who served 1939-1958) to see what the records show about how he handled the Holocaust, which occurred while he was pontiff. It would be exactly the right thing to do. Pius has been denounced as "Hitler's Pope" and praised for helping to save Jews from the Shoah. Both can't be true. Let's see what's in the archives and go from there.