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How to abuse the Bible: 11-18-14

There may not be a more misused book in the world than the Bible, which is actually a collection of books.

Bible-stackNearly every day it's possible to hear people quote some verse to make a point that, in proper context, that verse doesn't make at all or makes only in a partial way.

Author Ben Irwin has put together this list of five commonly misused Bible verses that I recommend to you.

High on the list is this one from Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you . . .’”

The problem with treating the Bible as a collection of stand-alone sayings is that the context -- usually the Jewish context -- of what's written gets lost, often in its entirety. The result is that the meaning that would have been understood by most of the original hearers or readers gets disfigured and eventually lost.

The Bible has multiple authors and was written over a span of hundreds and hundreds of years. To treat it as a cohesive whole that can be divided into tiny segments that will keep their relationship to that whole is to abuse what many Jews and Christians call the word of God.

So have a look at Irwin's list and see if you, too, are guilty of misusing scripture.

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Can religion just disappear some day? The author of this blog posting ponders that question. He writes, "No religion is eternal. They wax and wane and sometimes they disappear." Discuss.

Does Bishop Finn have a future? 11-17-14

It's hard to know exactly what will happen and when but after last night's "60 Minutes" interview with Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, it looks for all the world as if the days are numbered for Bishop Robert W. Finn (pictured here) of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Bishop-FinnO'Malley said in the interview that Pope Francis knows he must deal with Finn's situation "urgently." Finn was convicted in 2012 of a misdemeanor criminal offense of failing to report a suspected child-abusing priest to law enforcement authorities.

But Finn has remained in office despite that stain, injuring not just the local diocese in countless ways but also making it seem as if the church's hierarchy really isn't serious about disciplining bishops who tolerated sexual abuse by priests under their purview.

As The National Catholic Reporter first reported recently and notes again in this piece, earlier this fall the Vatican sent a Canadian archbishop to Kansas City to investigate Finn's leadership.

That plus O'Malley's comments cannot be reassuring for Finn, assuming he wants to keep his job. And that's my assumption, given that after his conviction he failed to do the right thing and resign. Another potential bad sign for Finn was the recent demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke, under whom Finn served for several years when Burke was archbishop of St. Louis. This move against Burke by Pope Francis shows the pontiff's willingness to make tough personnel decisions. Perhaps Finn's removal is next.

A word of caution, however: The church moves slowly on almost all significant matters. Often that's a good thing. In this case, that slowness has been damaging. In The Kansas City Star's Saturday story about all of this, Jeff Weis, a local Catholic who has worked for the removal of Finn, put it this way: "Glaciers move faster than the Catholic Church.”

So there is no assurance that the Vatican will act within the next few days or weeks and there certainly is no assurance that all parishioners in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese will like whoever will be appointed to replace Finn if, in fact, he's forced out.

Indeed, I don't envy the job of the bishop who will have to follow and clean up after Finn. The repair work will take years. The sooner it starts, however, the better.

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If you didn't get to read The Kansas City Star story Sunday (by Judy Thomas) about the man who allegedly murdered three people on this past Palm Sunday here in his quest to kill Jews, please give it a read here. The fanatical evil represented by what this man says is breath-taking. He is a caricature of antisemitism run amok. His hatred is on a level with that of the late anti-gay bigot Fred Phelps, though at least Phelps never killed anyone. (That may be the nicest thing I've ever said about Phelps.)

The impulse to explore: 11-15/16-14


The frontier-pushing, St. Louis County-born American ex-patriot poet T.S. Eliot wrote in his work "Four Quartets" this:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

I thought of this poem the other day when the European Space Agency managed to land a craft on a comet after a 10-year journey. The details, as described in the ESA press release to which I've linked you, are little short of astonishing:

* The Rosetta spacecraft was launched on March 2, 2004, and travelled 6.4 billion kilometers.

* "The landing site, named Agilkia and located on the head of the bizarre double-lobed object, was chosen just six weeks after arrival based on images and data collected at distances of 30–100 km from the comet."

* The "successful landing is undoubtedly the cherry on the icing of a 4 km-wide cake," said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.

So scientists sent up a small craft that traveled almost 4 billion miles (if my kilometer-to-miles math is right) over more than 10 years to hit a target the relative size of a pin head.

But what impresses me even more than the physical accomplishment is the affirmation that human minds are restless, curious and insatiable. We are built for relationship, to be sure, but also built to try to understand the world around us, which people of faith call the creation.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has kept humanity alive and exploring the cosmos. Where to explore, as Eliot noted, does not matter. Some explore the "dark cold and empty desolition" of space. Others explore the stunningly enigmatic world of subatomic physics. Others explore the workings of the mind, the impulses of love, the formation of intelligence and faith.

We get into trouble not when our explorations turn up further mysteries but when we stop looking altogether, imagining that we know everything about whatever we're exploring. That drills our footings into our target and keeps us from further insight.

What applies to good scientific research also applies to questions of faith. We must not be afraid to explore, to ask the challenging questions, to risk finding further mystery. If we stop, whatever we're looking for may never find us, and then we'll never experience what Eliot called "a deeper communion." After all, as he wrote, "In my end is my beginning," words with deep scientific as well as religious implications.

(The image here today is an artist's impression of the Philae landing craft separating from Rosetta and descending to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is an ESA illustration you can find here.)

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Antisemitism is on the rise again in Europe, a German leader says at a recent conference. Not exactly news, though I'm glad there continues to be focus on this matter. The best picture of worldwide antisemitism can be found in a book edited by Alvin Rosenfeld, Resurgent Antisemitism. You can find my review of the book here.

The varied Muslim responses: 11-14-14

One of the most interesting evolving religious stories in the United States is the ways in which Muslims are negotiating a place in American life.

On-MediaThere have been Muslims in the U.S. for centuries, of course. But it really wasn't until the 9/11 terrorist attacks that most non-Muslim Americans noted their presence and began to respond to them, often in hostile ways.

In response, some Muslims have clammed up and sought the comfort of anonymity. Others have joined public advocacy groups that seek to defend Islam and the ways in which Muslim Americans have become good citizens. A few have disappeared into the radical fringe, even joining terrorist groups overseas.

Recently "On the Media" aired this piece about how American Muslims are responding to the ISIS terrorist organization and other radicals. What struck me about it was how American the responses have been. Which is to say that there is division over how to respond, that some of the responses are rooted in humor and satire, some in sincere and ardent discourse.

What is more American than such kinds of disagreements?

As Muslims work through all of this, those of us who are non-Muslims continue to have an obligation to understand our neighbors' religion and culture. That means getting to know American Muslims and finding out their aspirations and values. And it means not believing much of the garbage that floats around the Internet condemning all of Islam for the radicals.

And if you need help with that, get it through such organizations as the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

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An American history professor at Yale has written this piece for The New York Times in which she reveals the appalling text of the anonymous so-called "suicide letter" that we now know the FBI sent to Martin Luther King Jr. "You are no clergyman and you know it," the letter says. The text of this letter, written 50 years ago, is a reminder not only of the run-amok nature of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover but also the viscious ways in which elements of American society stood against the Civil Rights Movement. In denouncing King as "evil," the FBI proved that it was the embodiment of evil at the time.

* * * Way-grace


* The Way of Grace: Finding God on the Path of Surrender, by Glandion Carney with Marjean Brooks. The author is an Anglican priest who was struck by Parkinson's disease. This small book (150-plus pages) is his description of how he came to accept his ailment and receive what he came to understand as God's grace upon grace to help him. He finds 10 different kinds of grace -- from acceptance to living a new way -- and seeks here to help readers grasp how they can be attuned to the inbreaking of God's presence where they might least expect it. Each chapter offers an opportunity for reflection about the topic and some suggestions for applying the lessons. The strength of the book is in the personal stories Carney tells.

Deeply disconcerted bishops: 11-13-14

What a remarkable time for the Catholic Church worldwide, but what a strange time for America's Catholic bishops.

USCCBIn a year and a half, Pope Francis has turned their world upside down. Many seem to have "lost their bearings," a former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service is quoted as saying in this interesting Associated Press piece.

The bishops gathered in Baltimore on Monday for their fall General Assembly, and a look at their agenda would tell you that almost nothing has changed since Francis became pope.

Their agenda included talk about religious liberty (read anti-abortion positions related to the Affordable Care Act), upholding traditional marriage (as if they somehow can stop the tidal wave in favor of marriage equity moving the country) and other matters that seem unrelated to Pope Francis' efforts to move the church toward advocacy for the poor and away from hot-button culture war issues.

Kansas Citians may be forgiven for wondering whether the bishops once again will ignore the fact that one of their number, Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese, has been convicted in court of a misdemeanor crime, failure to report a priest suspected of child sex abuse to government authorities and that recently he has been under Vatican investigation.

But why would they say anything now, having ignored the problem for so long?

In the recent Vatican synod on family matters, Francis encouraged real debate about ticklish issues, and this has not set well with some of the American bishops. But it looks as if many of them are increasingly out of touch not just with the congregations in their dioceses but also out of touch with their pontiff.

No telling how all of this will resolve itself, but as Francis is complicating their lives, here's hoping he also complicates their thinking.

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As the American bishops have been meeting this week, they've also been trying to figure out how to capture the kind of appreciative media attention that Pope Francis has been receiving, RNS reports. Maybe it would help if they listened to him, watched him and did likewise.

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

Calling 'Woodsteins' of faith: 11-12-14

Although so far I haven't written about it here on the blog, you may be aware that Mark Driscoll, pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, resigned recently, admitting his many failures.

World_real_matters1His Mars Hill church is dissolving, too.

It's not clear how much of this would be happening without the investigative reporting done by an evangelical magazine called The World.

As this New York Times piece reports, The World "broke one of the most damaging stories about Mr. Driscoll."

The story described how more than $200,000 in Mars Hill church money went to a marketing firm that promised to get a book written by Driscoll and his wife on best seller lists.

Well, you can read The Times story and surf around The World site on your own.

I raise it today to ask why more journalism outlets aren't doing investigative reporting and critical analysis of religious institutions.

Some are, for sure. But not enough.

The National Catholic Reporter (for which I write a biweekly column), for instance, published information about the scandal of priests abusing children long before Boston Globe reporting made it a national story. And although The Presbyterian Outlook (for which I write a monthly column) did not initiate the investigation into ethics violations by denomination employees, it has done good reporting on the matter.

But there is lots of room out there for serious religious journalism that deals with controversial topics in a fair way.

Sometimes the secular press does some digging and turns up interesting stories. For instance, a couple of months ago, Dugan Arnett, a Kansas City Star reporter, wrote about all the turmoil in the world of the Church of the Nazarene, the world headquarters of which is in Kansas City.

On the whole, I think religious institutions and movements would be stronger and cleaner if there were good, independent journalism covering all appropriate aspects of life within them.

(Didn't get the headline here today? "Woodstein" is the short-hand way to refer to Washington Post Watergate investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.)

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And as for faith communities being honest in their own reporting about their own sometimes-embarrassing history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) is setting a good example by publishing online essays about some of its own history. The latest piece, as described by The New York Times, acknowledges that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives. Every faith community has skeletons in its closet. It's best to be honest about them.

* * *

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

Our appalling politics: 11-11-14

Having just come through one more terrible election cycle, the American people seem to be losing heart about our political system.

Tom-SchweichThey understand it's become a corrupt and that it favors people with money at the expense of others. They recognize that the way we pay for elections inevitably leads to corruption. They see that there is precious little incentive for lawmakers to tackle difficult problems when they know they will get blasted unfairly for their efforts in the next campaign. And they recognize that our best and brightest citizens are steering away from politics, often leaving it to fools and demagogues.

Am I over-generalizing? Yes. But not by a lot.

Our political system is broken and darn few people inside that system are challenging it. Just as darn few leaders of faith communities are using their prophetic voices to call for reform of our politics. That's the part that disheartens me the most.

It's as if many of our religious leaders are simply looking the other way when they should be demanding changes that would return some semblance of ethics to the system.

All that said, I found it encouraging to hear Republican Tom Schweich's election night speech after he was re-elected state auditor of Missouri. And I was grateful to my former Kansas City Star colleague Barbara Shelly for writing about this bit of light in the darkness.

About halfway through his remarks, Schweich (seen in the photo here today) unloaded on politics in Missouri, especially what he sees in the state legislature in Jefferson City: "I think there's political corruption plain and simple."

You can listen to his whole speech at the YouTube link I've given you above, but let me highlight just a couple of other things he said:

* "We have a lot of politicians in this state that spend more time worrying about their next election than improving our state. They fly all around the state on expensive planes for photo ops but they don't make the tough, politically risky decisions we need to make to bring people out of poverty, to improve our education, to improve our economic development. It's very, very bad and it needs to be improved."

* "I see corruption at all levels -- state, county, local -- people who are serving themselves at the expense of the people."

* The state government in Jefferson City has been "overrun with special interests that have completely corrupted that government there."

Why aren't more clergy saying such things from the pulpits? Where are the outraged voices from faith community leaders?

It's said that we have the government we deserve. And I guess that's true. (In fact, here and there we have examples of good government and good public officials. I put Kansas City Mayor Sly James and Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders on that list.) But, frankly, the quality of much government is appalling -- from Washington to Topeka and Jeff City -- and it doesn't speak well of any of us. Our silence about it convicts us -- a silence that includes a ridiculously low voter turnout rate. (Veterans Day today is a reminder that people died so we could vote.)

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What role does language play in the understanding and formation of faith? This interesting piece explores that question. Perhaps the reporter should have asked God, too. After all, the Bible says God spoke the world into existence. Pretty powerful language right there.

All those Muslims in. . .Japan: 11-10-14

Many of us are aware of the reality that the religious landscape of the United States has become increasingly diverse in the last several decades.

Openingtokyomosque1938What we may not appreciate, however, is that something similar is happening to varying degrees in other countries around the world.

For instance, I just ran across this piece about Japan's rich Muslim past and present.

Wait, what?

Oh, I know that Islam is the second largest religion in the world in terms of the number of adherents (Christianity is first) and I know that you can find Muslims all over the place. But I had almost no idea that they had much of a presence -- much less an interesting past -- in Japan, of all places. (The photo here today shows the opening of a mosque in Tokyo in 1938. I found the picture here.)

But apparently there are more than 200 mosques in Japan today. And there have been mosques in Japan since the 1930s, the article says. It also reports that Japan today has some "70,000 to 120,000 Muslim residents with about 10 percent of that number being Japanese."

The article also says that "While Islam may not have the same footprint in Japan as other religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, knowledge of it and the Prophet Muhammad here can be traced back to the 8th century. Serious and sustained engagement with the Muslim world began for Japan as a part of its global outreach in the early Meiji period (1868-1890), with trade and information gathering missions sailing towards the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East."

Who knew?

Well, now you and I do. And it's a reminder not to assume that the whole of India is Hindu, the whole of Utah Mormon, the whole of Israel Jewish or -- no matter what the House of Saud would prefer -- the whole of Saudi Arabia Muslim.

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When the Vatican hosts a conference late this month on the roles of males and females, will there be any discussion of intersexuality? There should be, the author of this Daily Beast article says. Don't know much about intersexuality? Have a look at the article and learn.

Relearning Civil Rights lessons: 11-8/9-14

If we date the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement -- roughly and arbitrarily -- from December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., it started when I was not quite 11 years old.

Burning-busAt its most raucous and amazing height, I was in college and paying pretty close attention to developments from my post as a journalism student at the University of Missouri, located in a South-sympathizing border state.

So names like Selma and Birmingham and Memphis and Montgomery are pretty deeply implanted in my memory, though I spent little time in the South in those years, save for a trip through that area in 1963, when I saw outdoor drinking fountains still marked "White" and "Colored."

Less on my radar screen was Anniston, Ala., though perhaps it should have been. It was on Mother's Day in 1961 that a Freedom Riders' bus stopped in Anniston but was immediately attacked and set on fire by violent segregationists (as seen in this photo).

Beyond-busThe question for this racially divided town of 35,000 people then was how to respond.

Would Anniston degenerate into lawlessness and violence, as had many other cities in the South? Or would residents there find another path.

Well, as Phil Noble, a Presbyterian pastor, writes in his new book, Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town, there was some violence in Anniston but, in the end, residents of Anniston chose the path of peace and reconciliation.

Noble reluctantly became the first chairman of a biracial human rights commission that city leaders appointed after the bus burning incident. In this book he describes the delicate and difficult work of the commission as it sought to desegregate life in Anniston at a pace that would let black residents know progress was under way but that wouldn't draw from whites any violent resistance.

Noble was pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Anniston at the time and also had to walk a fine line between members of his church who enthusiastically supported what he was doing with the human rights commission and members who supported segregation and wanted Noble to back off of any civil rights agenda.

The job of the human rights commission, he writes, was "to mediate community tension." And although that didn't always work, Anniston developed a reputation as a community of reason that worked against violence with much success.

The story Noble tells is engaging mostly because he was in the middle of the struggle. But he also is a clear truth-teller. For instance:

"The Christian Church," he writes, "has not always been clear about its role in relation to slavery or segregation. The Church and many of its ministers could not condone slavery, but it was difficult for them to oppose the practice in the Confederate States. Therefore the Presbyterian Church developed the doctrine of 'The Spirituality of the Church,' by which it was meant that the Church was to deal only with 'spiritual' matters, such as worship, Bible Study and Prayer, and not be involved in what was considered social and political matters. In that way the Church sought to get off the hook regarding slavery. This way of thinking greatly influenced the Church in the South when segregation/integration became an issue."

It's hard to imagine a more "spiritual" matter than the enslavement of and/or segregation of human beings.

In a time now of continued unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere over matters of racial justice and social systems that keep people down, Noble's book is a good reminder that although the U.S. has made progress from conditions in the 1950s and '60s, there still is much to do. And it takes people of all races willing to take positions of leadership for progress to continue.

(By the way, you'll find no mention of any of this history on the Anniston city website to which I've linked you above. I sent an e-mail to city officials asking why not and received a prompt answer saying additions to the site need to be made and are in the works. Good. By contrast, the website of the church Noble led then has mention of his role in that era in its history section.)

(A second by the way: My friend George Smith has been a writer with the Anniston Star for decades and still writes an occasional column for the paper. When I was reading Noble's book, I e-mail George to ask him about that era in Anniston. This was part of his reply):

I haven't read Noble's book, but I was right in the middle of some of that very ugly stuff.

Back when I was a young sports writer at The Star and wasn't scared of anything 'cept my wife, Montgomery was about to explode. Our managing editior called me in with: "Would you go to Montgomery for us? None of the reporters want to go."


"OK, go home and get some clothes and then go by the sheriff's office and pick up a gun permit."


"Yeah, you're going to take a gun with you."

With that, he shoved a .38 revolver across his desk.

When I got to Montgomery, the first thing I did was put that gun under the mattress, proving I was smart beyond my years.

Then I put on some old beat up clothes, stuck a Chesterfield in my mouth, and ran with the mob for two nights.
When I got home and sort of thought about what I'd done, it came to me I now knew what fear was.

Imagine that.

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Someone has compiled this list of the most important religious comics. The first one is the graphic novel Maus. Roman Frayman, a Holocaust survivor whose story Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I tell in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, once told us that a drawing of a room in that book was based on his boyhood room.

Understanding American Muslims: 11-7-14

You have only a little over a week left to see a fabulous play at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre that seeks to help viewers understand what it's like for Muslim immigrants to the U.S. to negotiate life here.

WhoandWhatposter_72dpi_1406902816I saw "The Who & the What" recently and urge you to see it, too. It's by Pulitzer Prize-winning playright Ayad Akhtar and focuses on a family of Pakistani origin whose American-born children are trying to understand and honor the culture and traditions that their parents brought to this country while also becoming fully American.

And the cool thing about the play is that despite its serious themes, it's a comedy. And some of it is really funny.

The play is set in Atlanta, though it easily could have been in Kansas City and easily could have been about some Muslim families I know here.

My former Kansas City Star colleague Robert Trussell captures the essence of the play in this review.

There's still a lot of fear of Islam and anger at Muslims in this country. The problem is that some people lump Islamist terrorists in with traditional Muslims who seek the same opportunities in America that our own non-Muslim families sought when they came here. In my case that would be my maternal grandparents from Sweden and my paternal great-grandparents from Germany.

That fear and anger no doubt will persist until more people get to know American Muslims personally. This play provides an opening toward that goal by showing the deeply human struggles of a Muslim family. Good for the Rep for presenting it. Good for you if you go see it.

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Pope Francis, bless his heart, now is talking about making Catholic annulments of marriage cheap or even free. “When you attach economic interests to spiritual interests, it is not about God,” he said. My latest National Catholic Reporter column is about this subject. If you missed it, read it here.