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More biblical illiteracy: 4-30-14

As I've said (many times) before, theological and biblical illiteracy is pretty common among Americans.

Bible-stackThere's new and disheartening evidence that I continue to be right about this. As my friend Cathy Lynn Grossman (who was in Kansas City over the weekend for the annual symposium of the Center for Practical Bioethics) writes in this Religion News Service piece, there's lots of biblical ignorance out there.

The American Bible Society's annual survey about biblical knowledge reveals exactly that, she writes. Indeed, 43 percent of Americans quizzed can't even name the first five books of the Bible.

In Cathy's piece, there's a link to a quick six-question quiz you can take to determine a little about your own biblical knowledge. (Yes, I got all six right. If I hadn't I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable writing about this subject today.)

The quiz can be criticized for being too narrow and even a little odd. But take it anyway.

The Bible Society's survey, by the way, measured responses from 1,012 adult Americans.

Biblical knowledge can be helpful, but just being able to name the books of the Penteteuch or the four gospels doesn't guarantee that you have any understanding of how the Bible is to be understood. But it's a start. Well, maybe a better way to say that in this situation is that it's a genesis.

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OK, just for fun today, here's a cute little video about a Jewish James Bond. It's pretty Woody Allenesque, if you ask me.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter now is online here.

More reasons for same-sex unions: 4-29-14

For quite a long time, I have argued that we could solve the contentious issue of same-sex marriage by thinking of it not solely as a religious matter but, rather, as a matter of equality before the law.

HomosexualityIndeed, I think we ought to consider all marriage in that way.

Here's my proposal: People who wish to be recognized by civil government as a married couple (with all the attendant rights, privileges and responsibilities) would be required to be married by civil authorities. If those same people then wanted to have their marriage blessed by a faith community, they would go to that community and ask for that to happen. That community would be free to say yes or no for its own theological reasons.

That way we preserve equality under the law and we preserve the freedom of religious organizations to set their own rules for such ceremonies.

Naturally, because this idea is so sensible it hasn't been adopted on a widespread basis. But I continue to hold out hope.

One bit of evidence that the idea is workable comes now from someone who teaches moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

In this longish essay, Lisa Fullam makes the case for Catholics to affirm civil (not religious) same-sex marriage.

I hope you'll read it carefully, for it's carefully crafted.

But let me get here to her bottom line: ". . .given what we know about sexual orientation, a ban on marriage for gay and lesbian people would seem, according to Church teaching, to abridge a fundamental human right, and so constitute an attack on their human dignity. Beyond that, many gay and lesbian couples calling for the right to marry are recalling to our culture the social and cultural importance of marriage. Rather than living quietly in a legally unrecognized state, gay and lesbian couples asking for marriage affirm the dignity of the institution. Finally, to reject the most intimate relationships of LGBT people as dangerous to the civil polity stokes savage homophobia, which the Church opposes."

The church, under Fullam's (and my) idea, would continue to be free to refuse to bless a same-sex marriage. But at least all marriages would be equal under civil law.

One problem now is that in effect two weddings take place in churches at the same time in the same ceremony. The officiating clergy serve as both agents of the state and agents of the church. Let's free clergy from having to be agents of the state and make them, instead, simply representatives of their faith communities in marriage ceremonies.

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Sarah Palin's recent joke about waterboarding being the way the U.S. baptizes terrorists was not just an affirmation of the use of torture but also, as this commentary makes clear, terrible theology. What's sad is that it was no surprise that it came from Palin.

Finding Wright's good message: 4-28-14

The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., as most of you know, got into all kinds of trouble when his parishioner, Barack Obama, first ran for president in 2008.

Jeremiah-WrightExcerpts of some of his more provocative sermons lit up cyberspace and he was put on the defensive. Eventually he resigned as pastor of the United Church of Christ congregation he had led since 1972 after even Obama criticized some of his words.

That's just a bit of background for a few things I want to tell you about Wright's appearance last week at St. Paul School of Theology in suburban Kansas City, where he preached at a chapel service.

Wright took as his biblical text the famous "Good Samaritan" parable in the gospel of Luke and aimed many of his remarks both directly and indirectly at the modern state of Israel for oppressing the Palestinian people. He also took a swipe at journalists, too, so there was plenty of judgment to go around.

For today I will not focus on his strongly pro-Palestinian stand (which I found to be interesting but unbalanced and in some ways unfair). Rather, I will highlight an important point he made about where a literalistic reading of the Bible and in laws in general leads.

"What the law says and what the Lord requires are sometimes two very different things," he said.

He noted, for instance, that one of the people in the Good Samaritan story who avoided the robbed, wounded and naked man on the side of the road knew that touching a dead body could, by Hebrew law, make one unclean.

So that person apparently used a literalistic understanding of that law as an excuse not to help someone in need.

These situations can get complicated. A simplistic example: Suppose you're standing on a dock at a closed marina and someone quite near you is drowning. In that case is it against the law to break the window of the shuttered marina to grab a life-preserver ring visible in the window and toss it to the one drowning? Well, yes, it's against the law to break in and steal. But what's of more worth -- a window or a life?

Wright's point -- despite being made in a quite political way -- was a good one. If you read the Bible or even secular laws literally in all cases, you sometimes will not do what chapter 6 of the book of Micah in the Bible says the Lord requires of us: ". . .to do justice, embrace faithful love and walk humbly with your God."

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At our congregation's family camp this past weekend a group of us spent an hour or two on Saturday conversing with one of our members, a scientist, about the relation between science and faith. A great conversation. So in a bit of nice timing when I got home, I happened across this interesting piece that contends that science has not disproved the existence of God, despite some claims to the contrary. Nor, of course, will science ever be able to disprove the existence of God.

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Woodstock-book-coverA FINAL P.S.: Do you have my new book yet? It's Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, and I think you'll find it engaging. You can read about it here. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me at and I'll tell you how we can make that happen.

Adam Hamilton's journey: 4-26/27-14

The first time I met Adam Hamilton (pictured here), he was an associate or assistant pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City, and he conducted the funeral service for the mother of one of my Kansas City Star colleagues.

Adam-HamiltonIt was -- how shall I put this? -- a profoundly mediocre service. Thus my expectations for Adam's career path from there were, well, quite modest.

I am delighted to say all these years later that I could not have been more wrong. Adam, founding pastor of the huge United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kan., not only has shown that mainline churches have a future, but he has become a nationally and globally sought-after author and speaker. And today one of my daughters and her family are members of COR.

Indeed, when my congregation called our current senior pastor, Paul Rock, in late 2010, one of the first things I did was to have Paul sit down for lunch with Adam to talk about doing ministry in this area. Paul knew quite well who Adam was, having read some of his books as Paul worked on his doctor of ministry degree at Drew University.

Recently my friend David Crumm, former religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and current editor of, sat down with Adam for this in-depth conversation. The occasion was the publication of Adam's new book, Making Sense of the Bible.

I haven't yet had a chance to read this book, but David's interview with Adam gives us lots of clues about what it contains. I'm especially pleased that Adam takes a stand against a strictly literalistic reading of the Bible. He says of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, for instance:

If we free ourselves from all this noise from some of the Fundamentalists about this somehow conflicts with science, then we can begin to appreciate again the deeper truths here. Did a snake appear and speak in a garden in the literal way the scene is described in Genesis? That’s not the point. The point is the real truth of such an experience: Who among us hasn’t heard a serpent speaking to us at some moment in our lives? We’ve all faced temptation—haven’t we? And, often, that temptation feels as real as a serpent speaking to us.

I think Adam is helping to provide one promising road forward for mainline Protestant churches. And I think other pastors can learn a lot from him.

Heck, I might even be willing to have him preach at my funeral some day. Well, if he becomes a Presbyterian.

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What surprise -- anti-Islam stuff coming from people at Fox News. This time it's Fox News host Bob Beckel saying he once considered converting to Islam for the so-called promise of 72 virgins for certain Muslim males in heaven. If this is the kind of garbage some members of the media are spitting forth, no wonder Islamophobia has gained traction in the U.S.

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P.S.: It's almost, but not quite, too late to sign up for my class called "From Pain to Hope Through Writing" April 29 and 30 at the Heartland Center of Heartland Presbytery in Parkville, Mo. For details and to register, click here or download this pdf: Download Heartland-Writing-final.

How bigotry hurts us all: 4-25-14

What always takes my breath away when thinking about the many ways prejudice and bigotry have played a role in American history is how many potentially brilliant people have been prevented from being fabulous contributors to society.

Ivy-leagueFor one obvious example, think of all the amazing black baseball players who could have participated in the Major Leagues prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in 1947.

The record books today would look quite a bit different without all those years of discrimination based on race.

Now comes a reminder of the ways in which colleges and universities short-changed America by discriminating when it came to enrolling Jews.

As this Bloomberg View piece makes clear, it cost plenty to maintain antisemitic policies.

As Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, reports in the piece, ". . .the motives that led top colleges and universities to introduce highly selective admissions a century ago were far from lofty. The aim was to keep out one group in particular: Jews."

There is much more in Mihm's piece (and I commend it to you), particularly about how Ivy League schools figured out how to keep Jews from being a larger presence on their campuses. No doubt many of those Jews got educated elsewhere, though perhaps not as well as they might have at places like Harvard and Princeton.

And yet perhaps those turned-down Jews avoided years of experiencing discrimination on campus first hand as well as keeping away from the kind of ridiculous cultural prejudice that created that discrimination.

Today my worry is more about the many young, predominantly black children in our big-city public schools who are not getting the kind of high-quality education their predominantly white counterparts are getting in suburban public schools. We're wasting minds and lives, folks. And we need to find ways to stop it.

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Father James Martin argues in this piece that the Catholic Church and the world still need saints, even if lots of people aren't all that thrilled by the processes that are about to beatify popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Discuss.

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P.S.: Many of you already know this, but I didn't want the week to disappear without acknowledging that my state, Missouri, executed another human being this week in the name of some kind of revengeful justice. Capital punishment is morally unacceptable. Indeed, the death penalty represents a sickness on the part of the state that does the killing, lowering the state to the moral level of the murderers it is trying to punish. Shame again on Missouri.

Of goddesses galore: 4-24-14

Over the years we've all heard about different goddesses and heroines -- those remarkable females of myth, history and the imagination who have become famous, at least to some extent, for their powers, their characteristics and their attributes, which sometimes are miraculous.

Encyclopedia-goddessesFrom Fortuna, the Roman goddess of destiny, to the Greek goddess of sexuality, Aphrodite, these women are the stuff of legend and lore. And, as I say, sometimes history, such as Mary the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.

But who knew there were hundreds and hundreds of them?

Patricia Monaghan (1946-2012) knew. And now you can know, too, with publication of a revised edition of her book, Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines.

You will find entries on more than 1,000 real and imagined women here. A small sample:

* Sicasica: A mountain goddess of the Aymara of Bolivia.

* Venus: ". . .as familiar as her name might be, few today could distinguish the Roman goddess of strawberries and kitchen gardens from Greek Aphrodite."

* Papa: An earth goddess (despite the name) "found in many Pacific cultures."

* Phoureima: The Indian rice goddess.

In the end, this book helps reveal how the world has viewed women across many centuries and across many cultures. Which is to say that it has at once honored them in various ways while also assigning to them certain manipulative sexual roles and certain domestic roles that now often get referred to derisively as "women's work."

As Monaghan writes, "This volume shows the breadth of possibilities associated with the feminine through many ages and cultures."

No doubt many stories and legends of goddesses and heroines have been lost, but this volume at least gives us a good sense of who these women have been over the centuries.

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Church services are being held at a strip club in Ontario, it's reported. Apparently someone misunderstood. It's "good news," not "good nudes."

The two-pope Vatican: 4-23-14

As everyone knows, the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign more than a year ago shook up the Catholic Church and opened the door for the thus-far remarkable papacy of Pope Francis (pictured here to the left, with B-16 onthe right).

Two-popesAt the time of his resignation, B-16 looked drawn and fragile. No doubt many people assumed he might not last long.

But here we are more than a year later and we still have an emeritus pontiff (in seemingly reasonable health) living quite close to the current pope.

How's that odd situation going?

This Atlantic Monthly piece by Paul Elie gives us a good sense of that. What I especially like about the article is how well reported it is. That is, it gives us lots of details that most outsiders know nothing about.

When I teach writing, I tell people to be mindful of details and to be accurate about them. If readers can trust you on small details and if they notice that you are paying attention to those details they are more likely to trust you on your larger conclusions.

Here's one of those key observations from Elie's piece: ". . . what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church."

What a fabulous time to be a reporter covering the Vatican.

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I wrote here earlier this week about the move to make the Bible Louisiana's official state book. In a moment of reasonableness, the sponsor of that goofy bill now has withdrawn it. Praise be.

Understanding Catholicism better: 4-22-14

Today I’m alerting you to three new Catholic-themed books that almost certainly will have appeal beyond Catholicism.

Church-mercyThe first is a collection of remarks, sermons, talks and papers issued in the first year of the pontificate of Pope Francis, a remarkable man who has taken the world by gentle storm. It’s called The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church.

In fewer than 150 pages, the collection is not exhaustive, of course, but it’s a representative gathering of the words and thinking of a man who says he wants a church of, by and for the poor.

What I found intriguing about these words is how orthodox they seem. Francis is repeating ideas that Christianity has stood for over and over again for 2,000 years. And yet somehow they seem a bit fresher coming from the first Jesuit pope.

Non-on-busNext I want you to know about A Nun on the Bus, by Sister Simone Campbell. The author is executive director of a Catholic social justice lobby called NETWORK, which in 2012 organized the now-famous “Nuns on the Bus” tour to highlight the needs of the poor and the ways in which government policy was negatively affecting them.

A second bus tour the next year focused on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

This is an activist nun who explains that “the Gospel has social consequences that must be lived.” That, she writes, requires us to recognize that “we are a country based on community not on individualism.” Well, that’s what she writes despite much disturbing evidence to the contrary.

The book is not, however, limited to describing what happened at all the stops the national bus tours made. It also describes Campbell’s own life and how she was drawn into her decision to become a nun. One small complaint about the book: She doesn’t seem to know that “notoriety” is not a synonym for “fame.” Rather, it means being famous for a bad reason.

Catholic-choiceFinally, there’s Catholic by Choice: Why I Embraced the Faith, Joined the Church and Embarked on the Adventure of a Lifetime, by Richard Cole.

The author, a poet, describes how he went on a brief retreat at a monastery at a time when faith meant almost nothing to him. But while he was there something important and deep began to speak to him.

It tooks time, but eventually Cole discovered that he had fallen in love with the Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Mass. It filled a need in him he hardly knew he had. But it filled it so completely that he began to feel as if he were drowning in the times between one Mass and the next.

Although he wrote much of this book more than a decade ago, it took until now to realize how immature and self-centered he was in the early days of his conversion. Part of that may have had to do with his addiction to alcohol, which seemed to define his existence in ways that were all about him. Now, although he acknowledges great vulnerability and enthusiasm for his love of the church, he has a more mature and balanced faith.

It's an interesting read, one that will help non-Catholics understand better the particular appeal of Catholicism.

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The popemobile isn't just the pontiff's ride, it's a way of making a point about the church and the papacy itself, this interesting piece contends. It's a lesson in meaning-making and how broad that can be.

Misusing the Bible again: 4-21-14

As impossible as it may be to believe, the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs of Louisiana's legislature has just approved a bill that would make the Bible the state's official book.

BiblesNo, it wasn't the committee's response to a national contest to see which legislature could pass the stupidest and most embarrassing bill in the country, but if there had been such a contest this bill surely would be in the running.

Rather, Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, simply wants to make the King James version of the Bible the official state book.

So as you already have guessed, this is one of the many versions of the Christian Bible. The Jewish Bible contains the same books found in what Christians traditionally (and, I argue, offensively) called the Old Testament, though in the Hebrew Scriptures those books appear in a different order.

And the Bible that Carmody wants to raise up on a pedestal does not contain the so-called apocryphal books that you'll find in various translations of the Bible used in the Catholic Church.

Nor does he want an English translation that is any more modern than one that uses the Elizabethan English of more than 400 years ago, thank you very much. Apparently he doesn't necessarily want the people of Louisiana to be able to understand the state's official book.

So here's my question: Why do some Christians think their faith is so weak and defenseless that they must put the power of official state actions behind it? Actions like making an old version of the Bible the state book or like putting Nativity Scenes or the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns.

The truth is that Christianity often does better when it's cornered and oppressed by the powers that be. Look what happened to Christianity when Europe was the center of so-called Christendom. It wilted on the vine and today in many places there is barely breathing.

If Louisiana wants an official state book, how about making it the U.S. Constitution -- maybe one that highlights the First Amendment?

Or, failing that, I have some writer friends in Louisiana who'd be happy to have their books highlighted by the state. I could give Representative Carmody a list.

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Scholars and others seem to spend a lot of time wondering about the source of religion in human history. Here is the latest guess. It has to do with family. Hmmmm. I'm thinking it might be more profitable to learn how to live out the healthy lessons of religion rather than worrying so much about its original source. But maybe that's just me.

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P.S.: It's not too late to sign up for a class called "From Pain to Hope Through Writing" April 29 and 30 at the Heartland Center of Heartland Presbytery in Parkville, Mo. For details and to register, click here or download this pdf: Download Heartland-Writing-final.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Typepad was down again for hours yesterday in something described as a denial of service attack. If you missed my weekend post because of that, click here.

Places that need resurrection: 4-19/20-14

On this Easter weekend, I'm thinking of places that need to experience some kind of resurrection. And high on the list is the Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims have been at each other's throats for more than a year.

CAR-mapConflict between religious communities is always ugly, always embarrassing, always disheartening, and that only begins to describe what's been happening in the CAR.

As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson reported recently, "A little more than a year ago, Muslim Seleka rebels (including some Chadian rebels and mercenaries) seized power. They constituted a state that purposely demolished the structures of the state — looting, destroying public records and attacking Christians. Christian militias called anti-balaka organized and armed, at first in self-defense. Soon they were attacking Chadians, then all Muslims as supposed accomplices of the Seleka."

All of this and more, Gerson writes, is happening "in a country with little history of religious conflict. It seems to be another case (as in Syria) in which political leaders fed religious divisions, which then took on a monstrous life of their own."

There's an important lesson here: People of faith must be extraordinarily careful in their political alliances and extraordinarily careful not to become pawns in political maneuvers.

We see much less violent examples of such untoward faith-politics connections in this country when politicians seek to enlist people of faith into their armies by playing up stances on such divisive issues as abortion and equal rights for gays. Too often, people of faith fall for this and wind up simply being exploited while their own religious traditions often get compromised.

So in the case of the Central African Republic, I think it behooves Americans to press our political leaders to work with international peacemakers to stop the bloodshed and unplug religious groups there from the violence. It's hard work, but the more faith-to-faith warfare is allowed to continue the more religion in general is damaged.

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I was not able to be at the "Service of Unity and Hope" at the Jewish Community Center on Thursday but Religion News Service has put together this slide show of what went on there. The Kansas City community continues to mourn the loss of three people. What a sad time and a maddening time, too, in the face of murders that seemed to grow out of irrational hatred.

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P.S.: Typepad was down for several hours yesterday. If you missed the blog then, click here.