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Faith news while I'm gone: 6-30-14

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Over this past weekend, I've been here attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

News-packetWhat a funny bunch of good people, who once chose me to be their president. Go figure.

Anyway, I'll get back to daily blogging here on Wednesday, but in the meantime if you're looking for updates about religion news, I suggest you check in with Religion News Service here and at the Pew Research Religion & Public Life "Religion in the News" page.

Enjoy a couple of pretty much Tammeus-less summer days.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me the evening of Wednesday, July 2, at the Downtown Kansas City Public Library when I talk about what Middle Americans, as I call them in my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, have contributed to this country. It'll be a Fourth of July week celebration. Details are here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: It's time to sign up for the workshop I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.


On disagreements among friends: 6-28/29-14

Perhaps the most difficult matters to face in life have to do with disagreements with people you love and respect.

Pcusa-crossThat's what I've encountered again in my Presbyterian denomination in regard to two matters -- how the church thinks about and treats homosexuals and what the church should be doing to promote peace in the Middle East.

As I wrote here the other day, I thought we got the same-sex marriage issue right when our national governing body met recently in Detroit. But there are lots of Presbyterians who disagree with me, though some of those who don't see eye to eye with me on this belong to congregations that now are leaving our denomination.

That's painful.

The other matter -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- has resulted in a close denominational vote at the Detroit meeting to divest from three companies that the church believes make money from Israeli governmental policies that are unjust.

I believe also that some Israeli policies and practices as regards the Palestinians are unfair and unjust. But I don't think divestment is the right tool to use. Nor do I think that Zionism itself is the problem, a contention made by a recent report to the church. I also think we Presbyterians have become kind of myopic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when there is much else going on in the Middle East that we seem not to say much about.

This recent Wall Street Journal piece is in harmony with my view. And this JTA piece reveals some of why our Jewish friends are so upset with us Presbyterians. (As for proponents of the action and clarity about what the PCUSA did, here's a balanced piece. And here is religion scholar Mark Silk's insightful take on why the PCUSA vote is, in effect, a rejection of radical anti-Israel views.) But, as I say, some people in my denomination (and even in my congregation) whom I love and respect differ with me. The question is whether we can continue to love and respect each other despite our differences.

If our faith can't help us do that, what good is it?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Until Monday evening I'm here attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president. So until I return you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. But you can catch up on breaking religion news by going to the website of Religion News Service.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me the evening of Wednesday, July 2, at the Downtown Kansas City Public Library when I talk about what Middle Americans, as I call them in my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, have contributed to this country. It'll be a Fourth of July week celebration. Details are here. Earlier that day, at 10 a.m., I'll be a guest on KCUR's "Central Standard" show to talk about Middle American values as described in my book. As many of you know, KCUR is at 89.3 FM.

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ANOTHER P.S.: It's time to sign up for the workshop I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.


America's runner-up religions: 6-27-14

As you know from personal experience if from nothing else, the religious landscape in the U.S. has been changing -- and quite dramatically since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law.

Runner-up-religionsLots of people from Asia, Africa and, generally, the Southern Hemisphere have arrived in the U.S. and have brought their religions with them -- including different expressions of Christianity. The result has been remarkable, with mosques and Hindu temples and other houses of worship springing up in neighborhoods that were used to seeing only churches and synagogues.

Recently the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies put together a fascinating map that shows what the runner-up religion (in terms of number of adherents) is in each state.

And guess what. In most states the runner-up religion to Christianity is no longer Judaism. Rather, it's Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and even Baha'ism.

Although "none" isn't exactly a religion, my guess is that if it were counted as one it would be runner-up in a number of states, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

One question all of this change raises, of course, is how churches and synagogues are reacting to it. Are they building bridges or building walls? Just FYI, walls would be the wrong choice.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Until Monday evening I'm here attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president. So until I return you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. But you can catch up on breaking religion news by going to the website of Religion News Service.

* * *

P.S.: Please plan to join me the evening of Wednesday, July 2, at the Downtown Kansas City Public Library when I talk about what Middle Americans, as I call them in my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, have contributed to this country. It'll be a Fourth of July week celebration. Details are here.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: It's time to sign up for the workshop I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.


The power of propaganda: 6-26-14

It's hard to think of a time when propaganda was used more effectively -- or with more deadly results -- than in Nazi Germany.

State-of-Deception-Propoganda-Banner-1Hitler's regime figured out early that it could shape messages in remarkably believable ways even when the content of those messages was false. And it used the power of propaganda to persuade citizens of one of the most educated and advanced countries in world history to succumb to the Nazi view of the world, including the party's murderous antisemitism that led to the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

It would be profoundly foolish to forget the lessons from the Nazi use of propaganda. Which is why we should be grateful that the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education has brought to Kansas City "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda." This traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., opened two days ago at the National Archives just west of Union Station and will run through Oct. 25. Please see it. And as you do, think about who is using propaganda today and how effective it is.

One of the best things about this presentation is that it will include weekly free lectures on various aspects of the story. The link in this paragraph will give you those details just as the first link in the previous paragraph will tell you what you need to know to see the exhibit.

In and around various travels I have committed to this summer, I plan to get to the exhibit and hope to write about what I learned there later.

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THAT MORMON EXCOMMUNICATION

The woman just excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says she's done nothing wrong in advocating female ordination and wants the church to change. Obviously some battles won in some religious traditions don't automatically transfer over to others.

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P.S.: Please plan to join me the evening of Wednesday, July 2, at the Downtown Kansas City Public Library when I talk about what Middle Americans, as I call them in my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, have contributed to this country. It'll be a Fourth of July week celebration. Details are here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: It's time to sign up for the workshop I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.

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AND YET ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.


Getting gay matters right: 6-25-14

Because I was on the road last week when my denomination's national governing body changed the rules to allow our pastors to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, I'm a bit late in describing what I think this means.

HomosexualityIt means that we in the Presbyterian Church (USA) finally have been dragged into the late 20th Century. We were dragged when we should have been leading. That's sometimes the way with religious bodies who lose their courage or who get sucked into the prejudices of the culture.

For a long, long time, the culture was anti-gay. This could be seen in many ways, from simple taunts aimed at homosexuals to violence against gays and lesbians to shutting them out of leadership roles in faith communities.

But when the tide began to turn 50 or 60 years ago -- slowly -- it usually wasn't because of leadership from religious leaders. Rather, many of those leaders remained in thrall to a serious misreading of scripture, one that said homosexuals are sinners damned to hell.

(You can read my take on what the Bible really says about homosexuality here.)

Slowly people of faith began to re-examine the biblical witness and began to ask why, if religion is supposed to be a tool for liberation, as it surely is, it was being used in this case as a tool for continued oppression.

In some ways the PCUSA's history with this matter goes back to the late 1970s when a gay man named William Silver asked to be ordained to the gospel ministry. He was turned down, though not without some Presbyterians beginning to speak up for equality and liberation.

Since then we've been battling with ourselves over this matter, in some ways wasting a lot of time that could have been better spent on doing ministry to those in need. Finally in 2011 the denomination approved a change in our constitution that would allow the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry and to election as church officers (though, of course, there've been many gay pastors and officers in the past).

That change was simply too much for some congregations, whose leaders (and many followers) continued to believe that homosexuality was sinful. So some of those congregations simply left the denomination. That made it easier for the same-sex marriage change this year to pass.

In many ways, those outside of traditional religious organizations look at the foolish way we've tied ourselves in knots over this issue and shake their heads. Much of the culture -- though surely not all of it -- is long past anti-gay attitudes. Why, they wonder, are we still struggling with this? The slaves have been freed. Women have the vote. Let's work toward further liberation, not additional oppression.

So although I'm glad my denomination has made this move -- one aspect of which still needs approval of the denomination's regional governing bodies over the next year -- I'm sorry it has taken us so long. And I'm sorry other faith communities continue to dig in their heels and stand in the schoolhouse door.

Enough. There simply is no reason to stand against equality. None.

(By the way, some other denominations are either ahead of the PCUSA in this matter or finally are moving in the right direction, as this news from the United Methodist Church indicates.)

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A CALL FOR MORE RELIGION

James Carroll, author of Constantine's Sword, takes note of renewed religious violence around the world and suggests the world needs more religion, not less: "What the holy warriors miss is how every religion includes β€” within its dogma and tradition β€” the principles of its own self-criticism. The universal prohibition of idolatry, for example, means that anyone who kills wantonly, no matter the justification, is claiming an absolute moral power that does not belong to human beings. The worship of God carries with it the prohibition against the worship of the self as God. Religion so emphatically insists on this precisely because something in the human heart wants to be God, and when that something prevails, all hell breaks loose. The ultimate sin always comes disguised as salvation β€” a self-deception against which religion rails. In this sense, what is needed even in an age marked by religious violence is not less religion, but more. Religion is its own antidote." Agree? I pretty much do.

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P.S.: It's time to sign up for the workshop I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.

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


Thinking about conversions: 6-24-14

Because I'm the co-author of a Holocaust-related book (They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust), I'm regularly alert to films that touch on that genocidal explosion.

IdaIn recent weeks I've seen two of them and I want to recommend them to you, though the only one I saw as a current theater offering may not be available there much longer.

That one was "Ida" (pronounced Ee-da), a movie that my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I will draw on when we lead a conversation about religious conversion on Sunday, Aug. 24, at the Jewish Community Center in suburban Kansas City on what's called "Day of Discovery." (I hope some of you can join us that afternoon.)

(The photo here today shows actress Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida.) 

The other film was "Left Luggage," a 2001 film that was offered recently by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's film series. The first link in the previous sentence will take you to the late Roger Ebert's quite critical review of the movie, a fictional work set in Antwerp in the 1970s. Roger's review doesn't give away the surprise near the end of the film but will give you the basic plot.

"Ida" is set in Poland in the 1960s, meaning in post-war Communist Poland, which is still struggling to find itself after the Germans built six of their Shoah death camps on Polish ground and murdered there many of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

The main character is an 18-year-old woman who is about to take her vows as a Catholic nun but who then discovers that she was born a Jew.

What to do?

It's not dissimilar from one of the stories Jacques and I tell in our book about a man who did not discover he had been born a Jew until a dozen years after he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

Again, what to do?

All of this, in fact, raises questions about how, whether and why one might convert from one faith tradition to another -- or to return to one's original tradition after having left it on purpose or by indirection or indifference.

That's an important subject, especially at a time when some rigid followers of certain religions are threatening death against people who, in fact, convert from those religions. (I'm especially looking at you, radical Islamists.)

As I say, I hope you'll join Jacques and me in late August to consider all of this -- especially if you have an interesting conversion story to tell.

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EVEN IN THE POPE'S FAMILY

The "spiritual but not religious" label is one even the niece of Pope Francis applies to herself. You'll know he's making serious progress when something he says or does moves her to traditional Catholicism. But don't hold your breath.


Holding volunteers accountable: 6-23-14

We've all heard variations of the 80-20 rule, which says that 20 percent of the people in any organization do 80 percent of the work.

VolunteersThis can be especially true in religious congregations, partly because of the built-in governance structure and partly because people are reluctant to challenge not just authority but long-followed tradition.

I've chaired lots of committees in my congregation, and experience tells me there always will be some committee members you can count on and some not so much. My question always is: What can I do to change that?

The folks over at CongregationalConsulting.org think one answer may be to figure out how to give power away.

Consultant Dan Hotchkiss writes that "the system needs to learn to delegate, and to share power beyond the inner circle. I say the system needs to learn because it’s not enough to send one leader to a seminar on delegation. The whole congregation has to support delegation as its normal practice. No amount of talk about shared leadership can substitute for mastery of the fundamental principles and practices that make delegation happen."

It is, of course, one thing to delegate authority but quite another to hold accountable the person or persons to whom you've delegated authority. Accountability is much easier when the person is an employee and not a volunteer. It's a lot harder to create consequences for a volunteer who doesn't do the job.

Well, I suspect that Hotchkiss is onto something here but I also suspect that if there were an easy answer to this problem it would have been found long ago.

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WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I've been in my hometown for the weekend making several appearances related to my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. So until tomorrow you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. By the way, you can buy the e-version of my book for next to nothing here at Amazon.com. Or e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy of the print version. If you're in the KC area, Rainy Day Books has a few autographed copies on the shelf there.


Rethinking statements of faith: 6-21/22-14

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has a constitution made up of two books, the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions.

BelharMost of the "confessions," or statements of faith, come to us from history, particularly the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.

But some are of more recent vintage, including the Theological Declaration of Barmen, a product of the Nazi time in Germany; the Confession of 1967, an effort to speak a prophetic word of reconciliation in a time of civil upheaval, and Brief Statement of Faith, adopted when the southern and northern branches of the church came back together in 1983.

Pcusa-crossIn the current meeting of our church's General Assembly, which is our national governing body, the church moved (by a 551-87 vote) to add to the Book of Confessions something called the Belhar Confession, which came out of South Africa in the 1980s as a reaction against the government's policy of racial segregation called apartheid. The various regional governing bodies, called presbyteries, now will vote on whether to make the addition official, using resources about the confession such as those found here. Two-thirds approval by the presbyteries is necessary.

It is possible for such statements of faith to become idols, which is to say that sometimes people place them ahead of scripture in importance. It's also true that sometimes these confessions become time bound and parts of them no longer reflect what the church believes.

But I think the dozen-plus confessions that guide the PCUSA are valuable and worthy of study in that they teach church history, they demonstrate the consistency of theology over the centuries and they serve as a schoolhouse for new members.

In fact, it's not a bad exercise for individuals and congregations to write their own statements of faith periodically. It requires them to rethink not just what they believe but what they are called to do in the midst of current conditions, which, of course, differ from conditions in existence 10 years ago or 100 years ago, to say nothing of 2,000 years ago.

So now we Presbyterians have an opportunity to read and think through the Belhar Confession and to understand how it might guide us in our time and place.

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WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I'm in my hometown for the weekend making several appearances related to my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. So until next week you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. By the way, you can buy the e-version of my book for next to nothing here at Amazon.com. Or e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy of the print version. If you're in the KC area, Rainy Day Books has a few autographed copies on the shelf there.

 


Arguing for 'Intelligent Design': 6-20-14

Some years back, a few of the people who read the Bible literalistically began to talk about what they labeled "Creation Science."

Darwin-doubtIt was an odd pot full of non-scientific bunk. It lacked any empirical approach. Instead, it bought the Bible's creation story (well, there are two creation stories in Genesis, and they don't agree, but let that go) and then tried to concoct scientific-sounding theories that would verify the history they said Genesis was reporting.

Creation Science, so-called, was an effort to rescue the creation from the evidence-based naturalism and materialism that modern science relies on to help us understand the cosmos. The failure of Creation Science was inevitable, partly because it didn't look at evidence first and then create a theory based on that evidence; instead, it took a theory and went looking for evidence to back it up. It got the process backwards.

Some people claim that "Intelligent Design" (I.D.) is simply Creation Science dressed up to look more respectable. That may well be, but I think I.D. is much more interesting that Creation Science and that it sometimes challenges traditional science in helpful ways. I figure it's always helpful to challenge conventional wisdom. And conventional scientific wisdom these days includes the theory of evolution.

Which brings me to an I.D.-related book that has just been issued in paperback, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, by Stephen C. Meyer, who now is director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, which is the prime driver behind the I.D. movement these days.

Meyer argues that scientists have not been able to explain what's known as the Cambrian Explosion, which refers to the fact that more than 500 million years ago a huge variety of animal life suddenly burst onto the scene. He says Charles Darwin recognized that the Cambrian Explosion raised questions about his theory of evolution. In the end, Meyer contends that the Cambrian Explosion may well be evidence of an intelligent designer (which many people would call God).

Well, I am not a scientist. I am not, therefore, in any position to judge what Meyer got right and what he got wrong about the science he covers in his book. I note, however, that this review of his book in Science magazine says Meyer got some crucial stuff wrong and simply ignored other matters.

So please don't think I'm recommending this book as a way of proving that evolutionists are full of baloney. There may well be things we haven't sorted out yet about the theory of evolution, but no reputable scientist today discards it as useless.

What I am suggesting is that this book is kind of fun in that it continues to make life a little more complicated for folks who think evolutionary science has solved all the issues.

One of my problems with even the term Intelligent Design is that the word design implies a one-time process. Sort of like designing a mouse trap that then gets used over and over. But life is much more complicated than that. Life in fact evolves, changes, is not static, as the word design implies.

In theological terms, God is drawing the cosmos toward a fulfilled future. Nothing in true modern science can have anything to say about that contention. Just as nothing in true modern science can have anything to say about the initial origin of -- and purpose for -- life. Once there is life, science has plenty to say, of course, but as to what happened to start the Big Bang and why, science must be silent.

That leaves room for philosophers and theologians to step in with ideas. And they have. A bazillion of them. But sometimes those ideas get camouflaged in scientific dress. That's what I'm afraid the I.D. folks are doing. In some ways I wish they'd stop it, but they certainly make life more interesting by keeping on.

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WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I'm in my hometown for the weekend making several appearances related to my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. So until next week you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. By the way, you can buy the e-version of my book for next to nothing here at Amazon.com. Or e-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy of the print version. If you're in the KC area, Rainy Day Books has a few autographed copies on the shelf there.


All for one in a congregation: 6-19-14

St-M-ACB

Just before my youngest granddaughter was baptized recently, I was sitting in the church building and looking at all the people, some of whom you can see in this photo.

This isn't my congregation but, rather, the congregation my wife used to attend and the one some of her kids, my stepchildren, attend. I've been there quite a lot over the years and know lots of people there, so it feels pretty much like home to me, too.

But what struck me as I waited for the baptism is that our granddaughter was adding lots and lots of people to her family that day. Not only do the parents of infants at this sacrament promise to teach their children the ways of faith, but the whole community agrees to love, cherish, teach and support these children.

It's a beautiful thing.

Religion can be terribly private at times, deeply mystical and personal. But if it's only that it falls short of what it's meant to be -- a communal experience in which each of us, as the Apostle Paul wrote, plays a part. And without all the parts the whole is less than whole.

Some day our granddaughter will begin to grasp all this, I hope. But for now her community is simply there for her.

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MY CHURCH BUILDING NOT ON THE LIST EITHER

What are the five most-visited religious sites in the world? Not what you think, I bet. In fact, the Vatican isn't even on the list. See if you guessed any of them.