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Don't read scripture without help: 2-28/3-1-15

Sometimes people -- inevitably non-Muslims -- e-mail me snippets of the Qur'an to make what often turns out to be an anti-Islam point.

Yle-radio1I am hesitant, however, to suggest that they might want to read the whole of the Qur'an because if they do that on their own they would be as lost and maybe misguided as a non-Christian or non-Jew would be reading the Christian or Jewish Bible.

Explanation and interpretation is vital. And that means offering context -- historical, linguistic and otherwise -- to make sense of what one is reading.

People spend whole careers trying to understand the Bible in this thorough way, and even then many of them disagree with one another.

So when I read that a radio network in Finland planned to read the whole of the Qur'an on the air, I was concerned that it would be done with no context.

But it looks as if the Finnish public broadcasting network called Radio 1 is not going to make that mistake.

Rather, as this story points out, each half-hour broadcast (60 in all) will begin with two qualified Muslims -- one an imam, one a professor -- discussing the meaning of what is about to be read. And it's reassuring to know that they have different perspectives on the passages.

Any sacred writ comes out of a time and context different from our own and uses language that may not translate well into English or that may seem to be saying one thing while really suggesting something else.

No matter what the sacred writing is, you need help in understanding it. And, yes, some people will tell you it means one thing, some another thing. But at least you know there are differences of opinion and that, in the end, you must decide which interpretation you think makes the most sense. It's not an exact science.

So although I encourage you to read scripture from traditions not your own, do so only with competent help. And then ask tons of questions.

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So how are people caught living in the alleged "Islamic state" reacting to the brutality of ISIS? There may be good news about that. This Religion News Service piece describes how one young man, originally an ISIS supporter, turned sour on the terrorist group and escaped. Let's hope this is evidence that, as many of us suspect, ISIS contains the seeds of its own destruction.

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P.S.: The deeply disturbing death by apparent suicide of Missouri state auditor and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tom Schweich deserves a thorough investigation, especially in light of Schweich's contention that state GOP chairman John Hancock was making antisemitic remarks about Schweich, an Episcopalian who had a Jewish grandfather. It may never be possible to unravel a motive behind any suicide, but there's no doubt that racism and antisemitism continue to stain Missouri's landscape, and there's every reason to find out if our political leaders are engaging in it or subtly encouraging it. It's difficult for Hancock to defend himself from charges made by a man who now is dead. But every effort should be made by authorities and journalists to find the truth in this sad, sad story. Schweich was a top-cabin public servant who might have made a good governor had he lived and won.

Responding to ISIS article: 2-27-15

On Tuesday of this week here on the blog, I linked readers to a fascinating cover piece in the current Atlantic magazine about the ISIS terrorist group.

AtlanticIt's been one of the few analyses to ask in what way ISIS might be considered a religious organization, drawing on a particularly rigid, literalistic view of the Qur'an and the hadith, a term that means the collections of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

As soon as I read it, I knew that it would receive plenty of response -- both positive and negative. And I wondered whether the author, Graeme Wood, would share some of those responses.

He has done exactly that in this piece.

It may not surprise you to learn there that some ISIS supporters felt Wood had in some ways fairly represented what ISIS is about and how it roots its brutal approach to life in its version of Islam, a version rejected by most of the Muslim world.

Here's part of what Wood wrote about the response to his original piece:

As for the reaction from the Islamic State: I noticed my article tweeted out multiple times by ISIS supporters, at least once by a fan of the group who noted nervously that the guy who wrote it must be spying on their tweets. Those whose comments I saw were delighted that I had taken their ideology seriously and concluded that ISIS is an Islamic group. Their delight pleases me only because my intention was to describe the group in terms it recognized and considered fair. I suppose at least some supporters thought I succeeded, or at least came closer than the last infidel who tried.

Like any good journalist who writes analysis or opinion, Wood has complicated the thinking of a lot of people. It's good to understand in as much depth as possible how any religious or political group understands itself, if only to know its weaknesses and strengths. That's especially important for a vicious and repugnant group like ISIS. To know how to oppose such organizations we must understand their leadership and their theology, however disgusting we think both may be. Wood's two pieces are helping with that.

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Among the world's more interesting people is Camille Paglia, who teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Although she's moved away from Catholicism, it's still a big influence in her life. Here's an interview with her done recently by a Jesuit priest.

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P.S.: I hope you are thinking about joining me the week of Aug. 3-9 at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for my seminar on "Writing Your Spiritual Will." Details needed to register are here. Come to Georgia O'Keeffe country, the red rock hills of northern New Mexico, for a week you won't soon forget.

Awarding interfaith progress: 2-26-15

Two deserving recipients will receive awards at the Table of Faiths event in April from the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

GKCIFC-logoThe Rev. Wallace Hartsfield Sr., former pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, will receive the Steve Jeffers Interfaith Leaders Award and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will receive the Table of Faiths award.

The Jeffers award, named after a leader at Shawnee Mission Medical Center who helped to educate health care workers about respect for different religious traditions, will given to a pastor who has been active in creating more harmonious interreligious relationships and who has served on local and national religious and civic boards for decades.

In a press release, the interfaith council said this of the Nelson-Atkins Museum: "The contributions made by the Nelson-Atkins to interfaith and intercultural education and understanding is exhibited through its emphasis on works of great cultural, as well as artistic, significance, in special exhibits like 2014’s Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists, Roads to Arabia, and The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky as well as in its permanent collection."

The Table of Faiths event will begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, at the Sheraton Hotel Crown Center. You may make reservations starting this Sunday at the link I gave you in the first paragraph above.

One of the things I most like about this event is the opportunity to visit with representatives of about 20 different faith traditions at educational booths. This and the meal itself further the council's goal of helping to make Kansas City one of the most religiously welcoming communities in the country.

There's still a long way to go to reach that goal, but we're closer to it today because of the council's good and faithful work.

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The last few days I've written several times about the ISIS terrorist group and its theology. Now a Muslim has written this piece suggesting that ISIS is doomed and that Jesus will bring about the end of the group, starting this year. Things are getting curiouser and curiouser.

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P.S.: I hope you are thinking about joining me the week of Aug. 3-9 at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for my seminar on "Writing Your Spiritual Will." Details needed to register are here. Come to Georgia O'Keeffe country, the red rock hills of northern New Mexico, for a week you won't soon forget.

Interpreting the Qur'an less literally? 2-25-15

When I was in Egypt in 2002, among the people I and other journalists with me spoke to was Mouhamed Said Tantawy, the grand imam of Egypt. He spoke to us of the need for all people to know others better because of the shrinking world.

Quran"The world," he said, "now has become one country or even one village. So there is a great need for cooperation and knowing one another."

What he did not speak about directly was the need for Muslims around the world to interpret the Qur'an and the hadith (the collections of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) in a way that would forbid the kind of action we saw al-Qaida operatives take in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, more recently, the brutal actions of ISIS and its followers. The burden, in Tantawy's mind, was more on non-Muslims than on Muslims to understand Islam and find ways to live in harmony with Muslims.

Tantawy died a few years ago, and the man who now is grand imam of Egypt (at al-Azhar University in Cairo), Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, has begun to speak about the need for Muslims to interpret the Qur'an in ways that don't lead to ISIS-like actions. It's a welcome development. You can read about his remarks in this story.

As the story reports, al-Tayeb gave a speech in which he linked extremism to "bad interpretations" of the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad.

"The only hope for the Muslim nation to recover unity is to tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers," he said. The accusation of one Muslim that another Muslim is an infidel is a serious charge that can lead to death for the accused or the accuser, depending on who is right.

But a top Muslim leader simply opening up to the idea of more latitude in interpreting the Qur'an and hadith is a healthy sign that is desperately needed in the face of the rigid, literalistic interpretations of both offered by ISIS leaders and similar groups. Whether Islam now can have a vigorous internal debate about how to interpret its sacred writ more broadly remains to be seen. We all can only hope it happens so that the ISIS approach ultimately fails and reason wins the day.

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Lent is about a lot more than giving something up. Still, the giving up part is a big focus for folks. So what do they mostly give up? This report says it's a lot more than chocolate, though it's in the top five of school, chocolate, Twitter, alcohol and social networking. What? You can give up school for Lent? I hope my grandkids don't hear about this.

In what sense is ISIS religious? 2-24-15

Today let's follow up some recent discussion here about whether and how terrorists are motivated by religion.

Isis-logoPresident Obama was right recently to say that "we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." But when he said that the leaders of ISIS (the logo of which is pictured here) and al-Qaida and similar group are not "religious leaders," he would have done well to explain that although these leaders consider themselves religious leaders, the vast majority of Muslims do not.

In what way is ISIS an Islamic movement and how does it help us to oppose ISIS to understand the answer to that question.

This story in the current issue of The Atlantic offers an intriguing investigation of that very question. Here's a key point from the piece:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

In fact, I've been struck by some similarities between our government's failure to understand the religious nature of Koresh and the Branch Davidians and our government's failure to grasp the deep (meaning, mostly, ancient) religious roots of ISIS and similar terrorist organizations. The failure to understand the theology of the Branch Davidians, who lived outside of Waco, led to the deaths in 1993 of many Branch Davidians and several law enforcement authorities. If we fail to grasp the way in which ISIS perverts traditional Islam by emphasizing only a radically fundamentalist approach to it, we also may come up with the wrong way to stop it.

Federal authorities in Waco could have prevented that disaster in 1993 had they simply gone to the religious studies department of Baylor University and learned what scholars there had spent decades learning about the Branch Davidians. I hope our government authorities now are consulting with religious scholars and other Muslims about the best way to confront ISIS and other terrorists. A good place to start that discussion would be for them simply to read this Atlantic piece.

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Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin says he doesn't know whether President Obama is a Christian. I'm glad I'm not still writing a humor column. It's almost impossible these days to be funnier on purpose than some public officials are inadvertently.

Paving the way toward peace: 2-23-15

The longer I pay attention to what's happening in the world of interfaith understanding and dialogue the more I learn about organizations engaged in this work that I didn't know existed.

Pave-the-wayThe latest such group is called the Pave the Way Foundation. I had heard of its co-founder (with his wife, Meredith) and president, Gary L. Krupp, but I didn't know about Pave the Way. The link on Krupp's name will take you to a New York Times story about him that describes how this retired medical equipment dealer from New York became "Commendatore Gary Krupp, Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great."

At any rate, Krupp has enlisted lots of help to create Pave the Way, with the goal of helping people recognize when religion is being misused for ideological purposes (see al-Qaida, see ISIS, see raging fundamentalists everywhere, etc.).

As the organization's mission statement says, Pave the Way is "a non-sectarian organization dedicated to achieving peace by closing the gap in tolerance, education and the practical relations between religions, through cultural, technological and intellectual exchanges. We strive to eliminate the use of religion as a tool which, historically has been used, by some, to achieve personal agendas and to cause conflicts."

This work is in harmony with something President Obama said last week (and, as usual, took heat for saying) in his remarks to a conference on countering violent extremism:

"Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders -- holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the 'Islamic State.' And they propagate the notion that America -- and the West, generally -- is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders -- they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."

So, yes, the terrorists do use religion, but it is not the traditional, historic version of the faith they claim to represent. It is a radically fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of that faith. In that way, as Obama (and many others) have said, they pervert religion. To paint an entire faith as teaching and supporting terrorism is historically ignorant and of no help in achieving the sort of reconciliation that Pave the Way says it's working toward.

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Did you happen to read a recent story about a priest who died, then came back to life and said he saw God, who is female? As this article notes, the whole thing is almost certainly fraudulent, based on a fake story in a satirical publication. What a world. Sometimes it's so wacky out there that we can't tell satire from real news.

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P.S.: Speaking of interreligious conversation, a program called "The World's Religions in Three Acts" is being offered this Friday and Saturday at the Southwood United Church of Christ in Raytown, Mo. For details in a pdf about it, click on this link:  Download 2015 Southwood KC_flyer

Qatar's duplicitous hatred: 2-21/22-15

Ever since (and even before) the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's sometimes been hard to know who America's friends are, especially among governmental and religious leaders in the Middle East.

QatarSometimes you would find such leaders talking out of both sides of their mouths -- condemning terrorism, for instance, on the one hand but then justifying suicide bombing on the other.

This ambiguity and at-times deceitful behavior has been evident in Saudi Arabia, home to a majority of the 9/11 hijackers and home to the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam that some observers see as encouraging violent extremism, at least under certain circumstances.

But it's not just Saudi Arabia. It turns out that another source of the problem is the small emirate of Qatar. This Daily Beast piece describes the way in which the grand mosque there has become a center of hate and a promoter of extremism, even as the country's political leaders say they oppose such a radical approach to Islam.

Embedded in the piece to which I've linked you is a video of an imam praying that God would destroy Jews and Christians. What kind of sickening theology is that?

There are sincere Muslims all over the world who are working against this perversion of their faith, but they need the support of religious and government leaders in all countries with large Muslim populations. They don't need such leaders to be encouraging the kind of radical hatred being spouted from the grand mosque in Qatar. They also need to hear American governmental and religious figures condemning this trash coming from Qatar.

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And speaking hatred, a disturbing but important new book details the many ways in which Mormons supported Adolf Hitler's hateful Nazi regime. RNS blogger Jana Riess has done this interview with the author of Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany, David Conley Nelson. Read it and weep.

Oh, Jesus, take the wheel: 2-20-15

If you are a regular reader here on the blog, you know that a couple of times recently I have written about President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, and have been critical of the ridiculous criticisms he's received for those remarks. The main piece I wrote is here.

Jesus-at-the-wheelToday I want to turn back to that speech, but with nothing serious in mind. In fact, anyone who finds anything serious in this posting will be arrested and eventually sent to the witless protection program.

I know (via electronic correspondence) a fellow who lives now in Taiwan and who is something of a climate activist. Danny Bloom is his name, and some of his climate work involves writing what he calls Cli-Fi, which means Climate Fiction. You could look it up. Oh, wait. I did that for you and you can read a brief Wikipedia entry about it here.

At any rate, Danny sent me a note the other day with a link to this piece that he wrote for the San Diego Jewish World. In it, Danny carries on about Obama's speech but eventually focuses on the president's remark to NASCAR hall of famer Darrell Waltrip, who also was at the prayer breakfast.

Among other things, Obama said this about Waltrip: "Darrell knows that when you’re going 200 miles an hour, a little prayer cannot hurt. I suspect that more than once, Darrell has had the same thought as many of us have in our own lives — Jesus, take the wheel. Although I hope that you kept your hands on the wheel when you were thinking that, [Darrell].”

Well, that was all Danny needed to write a song called "Jesus, Take the Wheel." An audio version of it is embedded in the Danny's piece for the San Diego paper, to which I've linked you above. Give it a listen. It's sung by someone Danny knows in Texas named J. Gale Kilgore. As far as I know he's no relation to Kilgore Trout, the great character who shows up in several Kurt Vonnegut novels. But who knows?

By the way, I told Danny that Waltrip might want to ask Jesus to take the wheel, but I'm not sure I'd trust someone with that responsibility who never even imagined driving a car when he lived on Earth.

There, now wasn't that more fun than listening to Rick Santorum and others tear into Obama for speaking truth?

(By the way, do you know what Jesus would drive if he could? Obviously a Christler.)

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With tons and tons of snow in New England, what have worshiping congregations done to hold things together? This article offers some answers. Clearly people of faith have to be flexible -- and sometimes even are.

Facing racial injustices: 2-19-15

Several times since the racial eruptions in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere last year, I have written about the need for faith communities to take an active part in examining racial history in the United States and finding ways to acknowledge what went wrong (and continues to go wrong) and then help find ways to fix it.

Carlton-reevesBut, of course, I speak from the perspective of a white American male, meaning that I won the ovarian lottery. We certainly need the voices of whites in this conversation, but we also need starkly honest African-Americans who can point to what we already should have learned from our bitter racial history.

We heard just such an eloquent voice recently when U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves (pictured here) in Mississippi sentenced three white men for the death of a black man named James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Miss., in 2011.

Reeves took the opportunity to remind everyone who was listening of the terrible history of racism and of violence against black people in Mississippi.

"Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement," Reeves said. "Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi ... causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again."

It would, of course, be easy for those of us who live anywhere but Mississippi to assume this is a problem just for that state and to feel superior to it. But the problem, to varying degrees, is everywhere. Kansas City's own racial history is a sad, tormented one. And while we celebrate the progress made, we cannot forget our history nor ignore what continues to be unjust aspects of our social and political system, especially our criminal justice system.

That's where voices from faith communities are needed. And Judge Reeves has given us a model of how to confront the truth.

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If you thought President Obama took some heat for the history lesson he delivered as part of his recent National Prayer Breakfast remarks, you should read here what the excellent theologian Miroslav Volf says by way of comparing the ISIS terrorists to Christians and other people of faith in previous eras. I suspect Volf is going to take some harsh criticism, too, though for the most part he's right. He's also right about the fact that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, as he explains in his book Allah: A Christian Response, which is well worth a read.

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Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, by Chris Hoke. If you've ever wondered what healthy radical faith looks like -- faith that takes Jesus seriously about loving even enemies -- this new book will give you a credible picture. Although not formally ordained to ministry, the author is a jail chaplain and defacto pastor to a lot of gang members and violent offenders in Washington state. This book is the story of how he elected to follow that path and of the scary, fascinating, redemptive places the journey took him. Hoke is a keen observer and, thus, a good reporter. He notices important details, which add credibility to the sometimes wild stories he tells. Anyone pondering any kind of ministry -- but especially prison ministry -- would do well to give this worthy book a read.

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

Help in understanding religion: 2-18-15

Perhaps not everyone is aware that religion is not simply a public and private way of talking about eternal matters and finding meaning in life. It also has become an academic discipline. Scholars devote their lives to trying to understand the religious impulse.

Quilt-of-faithsSometimes academic studies of religion yield no light at all or yield answers that everyone already knew. But sometimes they help everyone think more clearly about what religion offers the world.

Early next month people in the Kansas City area will get a chance to hear from some of these scholars. A town hall meeting to discuss religious understandings from an interfaith perspective will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10, at Avila University. To sign up to attend this free event and learn more about it, click here.

A press release describing the event says that in conjunction with four other researchers at universities in the U.S., Martin Shuster, chair of Avila's Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy, "has served as a co-principal investigator in a research project into religious understanding as part of a research grant in philosophy of religion awarded by the 'Varieties of Understanding' project, funded by the Templeton Foundation."

You can read much more about that work at this site. To download a poster with more information about the March 10 event, click on this link:  Download Religious Understanding Town Hall poster 11x17-2

Kansas City is becoming nationally known for its efforts to create interfaith dialogue and understanding. This event is just one more example of why.

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A New Jersey judge has pounded one more nail in the coffin of still-kicking anti-gay thoughts and actions. He ruled that people who offer conversion therapy to "cure" homosexuality are committing consumer fraud if they describe homosexuality as a mental illness subject to treatment. The old reparative therapy, or conversion therapy, nonsense has been around a long time and has damaged a lot of lives. So good for the judge.

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