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August 2014
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Considering a happy atheist: 9-18-14

Theists and atheists continue to make their arguments, sometimes in a friendly way, often in ways that are, to say the least, disrespectful and inhospitable.

No-religionThose latter qualities were one reason I shut off comments here on the blog. The comments had turned into one more nasty platform for uncivil discourse, and I didn't want to be responsible for offering such a useless and even destructive thing.

Sometimes atheists offer fascinating, cogent, respectful but revealing explanations of why they have abandoned belief (if they ever had it).

For instance, this Patheos blog describes the benefits the author feels he obtained by leaving religion. It's worth a read.

But as you read it, ask yourself if the religion he left is one you, too, might have left. In reading between the lines, I discovered that the faith tradition to which he was attached is one I wouldn't want to be attached to, either.

For instance, he writes that without religion, "you don’t have to be ruled by your need to have answers to all your questions." No healthy religion would promise answers to all your questions. Indeed, healthy religion simply helps you live with the questions and accept that at times we don't have answers. Instead, we have silence or ambiguity.

He also writes this: "My change of mind energized my dormant scientific side." In healthy, open religion, there is no reason to have a dormant scientific side of one's mind. All questions should be asked, including hard scientific ones. Religion that pretends to answer all or most of the questions of science is a fraudulent faith.

Finally, he says that "Religious belief taught me, for example, to judge the LGBT community for being attracted to anything other than 'the appropriate sex.'" Well, yes. Certain segments of certain faiths get that wrong (for my essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page). And it's a good thing to ditch an approach to faith that misreads scripture in this way, but that doesn't mean all of religion gets this wrong.

Well, there's more, but this is one more case of someone saying he doesn't believe in God and it turns out I don't believe in the God he describes, either. But there is, nonetheless, a credible, loving faith available. Sorry this guy hasn't found it yet.

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A historic church in Atlanta could soon get national recognition for its role in the formation of the civil rights movement. Good. Let's not lose that history.

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When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages, by Jon M. Sweeney. The world was surprised and intrigued when the first Jesuit pope chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century visionary who, Sweeney argues, remade the Catholic Church in his 44 short years on earth. Sweeney does his best to draw our attention away from the saint of the myriad statues seen around the world and to the real human being, especially what he calls his "revolutionary approach" to friendship, "The Other," provery, sprituality, care and death. In fewer than 200 pages, he gives readers not just a look back at St. Francis but also a sense of how the new pope who took his name may be changing the church in harmony with the old saint's life and thinking. One complaint about this book is that, like so many others that need one, it doesn't have an index in the back. I'm not sure how this no-index trend started, but I wish it would end.

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

Teaching religious literacy: 9-17-14

My regular readers know that I have long been an advocate for improved religious literacy -- that skill that allows us to understand not only our own faith tradition, if any, but also have a decent grasp of the traditions of others.

Quilt-of-faithsIn a world full of religious conflict, such literacy strikes me as a necessity. It's one reason I've written so much about it and that I've been working with a small group over the last year or two to dream about creation of a religious literacy center of some kind here in Kansas City.

As this group makes slow progress toward that vision, I find it encouraging to learn that we're not the only people around the country with this in mind.

In fact, there's now a Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. And it looks quite promising. One part of it, to launch later this year, is a website "with a collection of helpful information and tools."

The current Harvard site talks about the need for religious literacy this way:

Understanding. . .complex religious influences is a critical dimension of understanding modern human affairs. In spite of this awareness, there remains a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe. There are many consequences of this illiteracy, but the most urgent is that it fuels conflict and antagonisms and hinders cooperative endeavors in all arenas of human experience.

Exactly. Ignorance leads to fear and prejudice. Eventually that road can lead to violence and disaster.

So good for Harvard. And when there's news about the Kansas City area effort, I'll let you know.

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ISIS says that in the city of Mosul, which it now controls, schools will not teach evolution, art, history, Christianity or literature. One more reason to destroy this bleak terrorist organization. And the sooner the better.

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

Celebrating women clergy: 9-16-14

If you read this piece I wrote this summer in The National Catholic Reporter, you know that it was 40 years ago that the first women were ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.

Women-ministryThose ordinations first were deemed irregular and invalid, though the church later came around to declare them valid.

Why am I raising this subject again here today? Because it was on this date in 1976 -- more than two years after those renegade ordinations in Philadelphia -- that the 65th triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church officially approved the ordination of women.

So today is a day to celebrate women in ministry, whether you're Episcopalian or not.

When the church voted to ordain women, it also regularlized, as the term went, the ordination of the 11 women ordained in Philadelphia in 1974 and the four women later ordained in Washington, D.C.

The Episcopalians, of course, were not the first branch of Christianity to move in this direction. My own denomination, now called the Presbyterian Church (USA), began ordaining women in 1956, for instance, and the United Church of Christ did so earlier.

Because the Anglican tradition began in England as a split from the Catholic Church, the subject of ordaining women inevitably raises the question of whether the Catholics ever will ordain females as priests.

I would not bet against that happening, but ask me in 2114 how close I think we are to that happening. I'll have a better sense of it then.

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The guy who runs Hobby Lobby is creating a big Bible museum in Washington, D.C. It's good to collect this historical material, but it would be even better if somehow we could get people to read the Bible and understand its central message instead of trying to make it a science or history book.

It's the Islamists vs. Islam: 9-15-14

As I have noted often since 9/11, Islam is in a struggle for its very soul.

QANTA_ahmedTerrorists who justify their brutality on the basis of some twisted form of the religion stand against those Muslims who understand and promote what is beautiful in the faith.

You will find various experts arguing about how many of the world's roughly 1.6 billion Muslims are, at heart, on the side of the terrorists, now called Islamists, and how many stand with those who continue to follow traditional Islam. Clearly the vast majority of Muslims are in the latter group, but it doesn't take a lot of people to form a cancerous minority that can call enormous attention to itself and damage the religion it pretends to support.

Now and then, someone from traditional Islam speaks out in a way that clarifies the struggle. That's what Qanta Ahmed (pictured here), who teaches medicine at the State University of New York, has done in this fine piece.

Her money line:

"Islamism – the radical impostor form of my religion – has declared war on Islam."

I also have made the point that this is a war that Muslims themselves will have to fight and win, though non-Muslims can try to be supportive.

As the newly reconstituted battle against ISIS gets under way, it will be helpful to have additional Muslim voices saying the things Dr. Ahmed has said here, but saying it from their own personal perspective.

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The British prime minister was right yesterday to declare that his government and its allies will "drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy" ISIS. But it also would be good to hear him and other leaders from targeted countries to talk about working with traditional Islamic leaders to reduce the attractiveness of terrorist groups to young Muslims. Just killing terrorists seems to lead only to more terrorists.

Can your congregation help? 9-13/14-14

The issue of domestic violence has been brought front and center in the last week or two by the NFL's outrageous failure to handle the Rice case well.

Stop-domestic-violenceThis is leading to an important and necessary conversation within faith communities about how they deal with this subject.

In that regard, I found this piece by a Southern Baptist to be quite good. People from different traditions may quibble with this or that phrase in the piece, but there's no argument with this conclusion:

The world around us is often violent, misogynistic, hypersexualized. We ought to be a countercultural presence, embodying a kingdom that calls on us to cherish and protect the vulnerable, including women and girls in danger.

I also agree with the author when he writes:

The time to start addressing domestic violence is not just reactively in a crisis but proactively, starting in our children’s programs.

We must teach boys and girls how to think about this matter and how to respond to behavior (like bullying) that, in later life, might be termed domestic violence.

The question is what your faith community is doing about this matter. If you don't know, it's time to find out. If the answer is nothing, it's time to fix that.

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I'm glad to hear that President Obama is thinking about ways to protect Christians in the Middle East as the fight against ISIS goes on. They are a threatened minority.

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Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools Are Transforming Urban Education, by Megan Sweas. Anyone who lives in one of America's major cities knows that public schools often are in trouble. The challenge of offering education to urban students, which often means most of them are from racial minority communities, is increased by issues of poverty, racism, transportation, family dyanmics and more. Catholic educators have not and cannot solve this problem for everyone. But they have created an important model from which public schools can learn. It's the network of Cristo Rey high schools, which now number 28 around the country, educating some 9,000 students. One such school is in Kansas City adjacent to the Catholic Church known as Redemptorist at Linwood and Broadway. This new book is an admiring look at how these schools work, what challenges they've had to overcome and what their future looks like. One of the particular aspects of the Crysto Rey model that attracts fans is the work-study program that allows students to work five days each month at one of the many business partners. As I say, not everything from the Cristo Rey parochial experience can be transferred to the public school setting, but here still are aspects of it that can work in any setting. And this book provides a great summary of what works.

The Qur'an as American scripture: 9-12-14

As something of a follow-up to yesterday's 9-11 anniversary posting, I want to tell you about a new book that explores what the Qur'an means to American Muslims.

Quran-conversationQur'an in Conversation, compiled and edited by Michael Birkel, who teaches religion at Earlham College, is an important addition to literature that can help non-Muslim Americans understand their Islamic neighbors.

What is clear from the book is that Muslims reading the Qur'an in an American context find ways to apply its meanings to their lives in this culture just as Christians and Jews who read the Bible -- also an ancient Middle Eastern document -- find ways for the words to shape their lives.

It turns out that I have met and heard speak three of the people who offer commentaries on segments of the Qur'an in this book, and I admire each of them for different reasons -- Ingrid Mattson, Eboo Patel and Imam Sayed Hassan al-Qazwini.

First is Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America. She previously taught at Hartford Seminary and now teaches at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario. I heard her speak some years ago at a seminar on Islam that I attended at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

She writes in this new book about the story in the Qur'an of the patriarch Joseph, who also is a star in the Hebrew scriptures.

"This story," Mattson writes, "teaches me that we need to trust that, behind all the hardship and difficulty we face, there is goodness and wisdom. The outcome may be very different from our expectation. Whatever we experience in the external reality is not necessarily the same as the truth of the matter. Like Joseph's father, we have to trust in God throughout all of it."

Next, Patel, who founded and leads the Interfaith Youth Core. Several years ago he was the keynote speaker at Kansas City's Festival of Faiths, and I moderated a discussion with him afterward.

For this book, he picked a passage from the Qur'an that tells humans they are here for a divine purpose.

"Frankly," Patel writes, "I disagree with a fair amount of religious discourse that claims that religion is about getting back to heaven or jannah. I just don't think that's all of religion. A lot of religion is what we do here. God made us with a sacred purpose to steward His sacred creation. What we do here is holy."

Finally, al-Qazwini, whom I've heard speak in Kansas City and whose large mosque in Dearborn, Mich., the Islamic Center of America, I've visited. He chose a portion of the Qur'an that says humans are to repel evil with good, not with more evil.

This passage, he writes, "reminds me of the ethics of Islam, which resonate in both Christianity and Judaism. And this confirms that these three religions trace their roots to one origin, which is God. . .We read different texts, but we are worshiping the same God, and we basically promote the same values. These are, I would call them, the divine values, monotheistic values that we all share. Reaching out to the neighbors, being kind to parents, being kind to others, taking care of the needy and the orphans. . ."

In some ways, Muslims in America are creating a new version of Islam that finds its home in a religiously pluralistic culture. Islam wants its say just as other faiths do in this setting. The Muslim leaders who analyze passages from the Qur'an in this book are the ones who best articulate an Islam that can be at home in a democratic culture in which freedom of religion is cherished. These are the voices that make such voices of terror as al-Qaida and ISIS seem even more outrageous and non-Islamic than they do already.

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A new study shows that American churches are opening their doors more to the active participation of gays and lesbians. Good. Way too slow, but good.

Why nothing can be the same: 9-11-14

Because I'm both a journalist and a member of a 9/11 family, every year on this date I feel as if I'm expected to write again about the murder of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, or about how things are for 9/11 families after (fill in the blank) years.

KDBF-NY-siteI accept this obligation and am grateful to so many of you for your kind words of support and sympathy over the years since Karleton's death. (The photo here today shows his name at the Ground Zero memorial site in New York.)

But I want you to know that I'm not the only member of my family or of any 9/11 family that approaches each anniversary of these terrorist attacks with a certain dread, a certain sense of wishing we didn't have to go through this again this year.

And yet I can't just tell you that when I saw Karleton's widow Haven (now remarried) this summer I found that she's doing really well. I also feel compelled to add that I want to curse al-Qaida again for having made her life first terribly painful and then so different from what it otherwise would have been had Karleton not been on American Flight 11.

A visit to her, her husband and sons -- or a visit to my sister and her husband (Karelton's parents) or their two daughters and their families -- isn't just a visit to family. There is always the shadow of 9/11 somehow hanging in the background, always a sense that this is not how things were supposed to be -- or "meant to be," in the words that Karleton had inscribed inside Haven's wedding ring.

So all of this reflects some of how religious extremism changes lives. This is a small picture of the endless ripple effects of radical fundamentalism run amok. And what is gained by such violence? Nothing at all. There's nothing to put in the gain column. It's all loss.

But from that loss, from that stunning darkness, people learn to live lives of value, even lives of joy, as my sister and her husband, their other children and grandchildren and Haven and her new family are doing. But that's a testament to them and their strength and resolve. And if somehow I could go back 13 years and one day and stop 9/11 I would do it in a heartbeat.

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Sometimes it seems as if women are making progress in breaking through the stained-glass ceiling and becoming pastors of various congregations. But this story indicates that the percentage of American congregations led by women today -- 11 -- is exactly the same as the percentage led by women in 1998. I'll have to ask my pastor (a male) why he thinks this is.

When religion fails to lead: 9-10-14

Although it's pretty clear that this ship has sailed, there continues to be debate about how people of faith should view homosexuality.

GaymarriageAn old Christian tradition -- wrong from the first -- says that homosexuality is a sin condemned by the biblical witness. For my views about that, read my essay that you can find under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

In more recent years, some of the mainline Christian denominations have adjusted their rules to allow for ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians as clergy and officers and to allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages.

Still, the debate continues even as social opinion on the matter has moved quickly toward the kind of liberation that religion itself should be leading.

Evidence of that debate can be found in this piece, which asks whether Catholicism will ever bless same-sex marriage.

My own answer to the question is that I don't expect to see that in my lifetime, but eventually it will happen -- not as a rejection of the biblical witness but, rather, as an acknowledgement that the Bible essentially has nothing to say about what we're coming to understand as homosexual orientation.

As I say, I just wish religion would be leaders in the movement to liberate people. Too often, religion stands with those who want to continue oppressing people. Living out the moral and ethical mandates of any of the world's great religions is difficult. It can put people at odds with the culture around them -- and often should do that.

But religion that doesn't free people from oppression, from addiction, from idolatry isn't worth the effort.

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The Dalai Lama says he should be the last Dalai Lama. Fine with me, but pardon what may be an ignorant question from someone outside of Buddhism: Does reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama simply end when you decide it ends? How does that work?

When faith leaders get too serious: 9-9-14

In recent weeks, a Bible study group I help to lead looked at the two (yes, there are two) creation stories in the book of Genesis to see how they fit together (not very well) and what we might make of them.

Not-the-bibleIt was a serious look at a serious topic, but that didn't stop me from bringing along a copy of a fun little book several decades old: Not the Bible, by Sean Kelly and Tony Hendra. It does a delicious bit of satire on the first and second chapters of Genesis.

An example:

In the beginning God created Dates.

And the date was Monday, July 4, 4004 B.C.

It's an obvious joke about James Ussher, the 17th Century archbishop of Ireland who used genealogies in the Bible to decide that the world was created in 4004 B.C., though Ussher's actual date of creation was Oct. 23, not July 4.

At any rate, there was a bit of space in our creation studies to have some fun at the expense of the fundamentalists who take Genesis literally.

I wish the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela were exhibiting that kind of acceptance of altered religious scripts.

Instead, it has condemned some followers of the late leader Hugo Chavez for reciting praise of Chavez done in the form of the Lord's Prayer.

As you can read in this piece about it, it begins, "Our Chavez, who are in heaven, the earth, the sea and in us delegates. . ."

Well, it's a silly little ditty about a man who was wrong about a lot in life. But for the church to get all bent out of shape about it strikes me as equally silly. A church communique said this: "Just as no one would be allowed to change the words of the national anthem to honor a person, so too is it illicit to change the 'Lord's Prayer'." Oh, come on. The American national anthem was, in its original use, a song in praises of wine. And sillier versions of it have begun, "José, can you see any bed bugs on me. . ."

What American patriot would resort to the rocket's red glare against purveyors of such trivia?

Relax, church. When folks make a bit of fun of you, it means they take you seriously and are paying attention. Usually.

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A group of families of 9/11 victims is launching an anti-Islamophobia campaign. Good. It's the right thing to do. (Disclosure: One of my sisters and her husband, whose son was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, are members of the group sponsoring this, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.)

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The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, by Peter Enns. This is one more good tool for people who take the Bible seriously, which means they don't take all of it literally. It's written in a light-hearted style that sometimes strikes just the right key and sometimes tries too hard. But the author, who teaches biblical studies at Eastern University, is right in terms of Christian theology when he says that the Bible is "nonnegotiable as God's word, but it wasn't God's final word. Jesus was." This book is in harmony with such recent works as Razing Hell, by Sharon L. Baker, Love Wins, by Rob Bell, and Making Sense of the Bible, by Adam Hamilton. But if you have time to read only one, I recommend Hamilton's book. The Enns book, however, may be more your style if you want an approach that sometimes will make you laugh as it enlightens you.

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P.S.: If you don't yet own my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, e-mail me at [email protected] and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy. The e-version of the book is almost free here at

The battle against bullying: 9-8-14

In some ways, religiously based bigotry is simply another form of bullying.

Bullying-bookThink of a female Muslim teen-ager in a Western culture who gets teased and harrassed when she wears a hijab over her hair.

Or think of Jewish boys wearing a yarmulkah, or kippah, who experience similar bullying.

But bullying over religious matters is just one type of bullying that people of faith (and others, of course) should be working to prevent. After all, bullying attacks people made in the image of God, as religion says.

That's why I'm really pleased that my friend David Crumm, former religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press and creator of, has used his book publishing business to produce a cartoon/comic book called Bullying is No Laughing Matter, compiled and annotated by Kurt J. Kolka, a journalist and artist.

The book contains anti-bullying comics by more than 30 artists, plus solid narrative information about what bullying is and what can be done to stop it. Also included is a personal story about being bullied by a high school student.

Then, if you flip the book over and start from the back, you'll find a full-length comics feature by Kolka called "The Cardinal: Wrath of the Warthog, a Bullying Story."

This can be a great resource for parents and grandparents to get kids to open up about ways in which they are being bullied -- or perhaps bullying others. As often happens with children of households in which there is domestic violence, they can wind up perpetrating more such violence as adults. And those who are bullied often become bullyers.

I love comics and was glad to be introduced to a few in this book I didn't know about. But it also was good to see some old friends, like Dick Tracy. The late Chester Gould who created that strip lived in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., and was friends with my father. In the Tracy strip in this book, the great detective stops a student from perpetrating a massacre at a high school prom. Most of the comics are less graphic and violent about bullying, but bullying certainly runs the gamut.

Think about using this book in your congregation. At the very least, pick up a copy for the people who do youth ministry in your congregation.

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Should religion be blamed for the rise of ISIS? This commentator says no. "Blindly blaming religion is a recipe for a failed foreign policy strategy that addresses symptoms rather than root causes, which in turn sets the foundation for more violence in the future," he writes. And he's right.