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Learning from darkness, silence: 2-17-16

I wrote here yesterday a little about what the recent first-time measurement of gravitational waves might mean in terms of religion.

Ark15-3Today I want to follow up on that by sharing with you this New York Times piece called "Finding Beauty in the Darkness." In some ways it, too, looks for beyond-science meaning in the stunning scientific achievement of detecting gravitational waves from the collapse of one black hole into another a billion years ago.

When we stare into the deep darkness of space, we discover things about ourselves and our place is the cosmos. Without knowing those things we might continue to live in ignorant, foolish ways.

We might, for instance, imagine that the first creation story in the book of Genesis is scientifically correct in the way it describes a hardened shell of a firmament that makes up what exists above us.

And we might never appreciate the power of human creativity and imagination.

As the Times piece to which I've linked you notes about the gravitational waves news: "To detect the signal they observed they had to be able to measure a periodic difference in the length between the two tunnels by a distance of less than one ten-thousandth the size of a single proton. It is equivalent to measuring the distance between the earth and the nearest star with an accuracy of the width of a human hair." Sort of takes your breath away, doesn't it?

But when we spend time in the darkness, when we allow our hearts to slow down, when we turn off all our electronic devices (don't do that until you finish my blog today, please), we can more easily find our center, our core, our spirit, our soul.

In many ways, that's what this Christian season of Lent is about. It's what Judaism's High Holy Days are about. It's what Islam's Ramadan is about. We Christians at this time of year are asked to value the darkness, the silence, the truths and beauty we can find only in the darkness and silence.

(The book to read is Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor. I wrote about that here.)

OK. Now go out and play in the dark.

(The photo here today of light and darkness is one I took last year in rural Arkansas.)

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OUR CHANGING RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE

One of the top candidates to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court is a Hindu, Sri Srinivasan, with a background in Kansas. If he's nominated and confirmed (huge ifs), the court then would be made up of five Catholics, three Jews and a Hindu. The new America.

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


The gravitational waves of faith: 2-16-16

It gets harder and harder to be a young-Earth creationist -- someone who believes that Earth is no more than, say, 10,000 years old.

Grav-wavesThe latest challenge to that ridiculous position comes from scientists who have just measured gravitational waves for the first time -- waves set off a billion years ago by the merger of two black holes deep in space.

From a scientific perspective, this was huge news. It confirmed the final prediction about the space-time continuum made by Albert Einstein. Although scientists will want to replicate the results to be triply sure, they are convinced already that the small chirp they heard is the first direct evidence of the gravitational waves Einstein predicted early in the 20th Century.

If you're interested in what all this really means in ongoing scientific work, I direct you to this Atlantic Magazine piece. As the piece points out, "As good as Einstein’s theory of general relativity is, it suffers from the fatal flaw of not being compatible with quantum mechanics, our best theory of the universe on very small scales. Most physicists feel that quantum mechanics will ultimately prove to be more fundamental than relativity, which is to say that the two theories will be reconciled by finding some quantum theory that reproduces general relativity in the right circumstances."

So there is much work left to be done to connect our understanding about cosmology (big end stuff) with our understanding of subatomic physics (little end stuff).

But from the perspective of religion, what does all this mean?

Well, one thing I think it means is that when scientists are measuring gravitational waves that have been traveling toward us for a billion years, it's impossible to reconcile that with a literalistic reading of the Bible that concludes Earth is only a few thousand years old.

It also means that we must build into our religious -- and ultimately cultural -- understandings a place for the mysteries of quantum physics. We must become more comfortable with Werner Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle," proposed almost a century ago, in 1927.

Since that time, in science, in religion, in all areas of life, we've had to come to terms with the reality that reality itself is not as cut and dried, not as black and white, as it once seemed. We must learn to live with ambiguity, with paradox. In terms of religion, we must understand that we live by metaphor, by myth, by allegory.

This does not mean that there are no certainties in life, no matter on which we can bet the farm. Drop a bowling ball on your toe and it's going to hurt -- and it's not going to fall upward, either, unless you're in weightlessness somewhere, like on a space craft. And in religion you can pledge allegiance to certain propositional truths and live as if they are, in fact, true, because as people of faith we walk not by sight but by faith, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in II Corinthians 5:7. (Note to Donald Trump: You might want to call that Second Corinthians, not Two Corinthians.)

But it does mean that the creation is infinitely more complex and mysterious than previous scientists -- Aristotle, Newton and others -- imagined. So complex and mysterious and, at times, downright weird, in fact, that it is humbling -- or should be. But such scientific breakthroughs should help us to look anew at the eternal questions about how the cosmos came to be and, more to the point, why.

As author Marilynne Robinson writes in her book The Givenness of Things, "Cosmic and miscrocosmic being are so glorious and strange that nothing marvelous can be excluded on the grounds of improbability. . ." What we are gaining with scientific advances, she writes, is "knowledge that has as it signature a radical resistance to simplification, to understanding in terms of any known language of causality."

I love to follow scientific progress and then, as a recent sermon series at my church tried to do, connect science and religion to see what they might have to say to each other.

In the end, plenty. But it requires some humility on both sides to listen.

(For those of you who would like to read a science group's news release about the first measurement of gravitational waves, here one is from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And here is one from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.)

(The illustration seen here today is from here, and carried these cutlines: "Two black holes coalesce in a still from a numerical simulation. Such predictions, based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, match exactly what LIGO scientists discovered on September 14, 2015." MPI for Gravitational Physics / Werner Benger / ZIB / Louisiana State University.)

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WHY WE NEED A NINTH SUPREME COURT JUSTICE

It turns out that the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will have an almost-immediate effect on cases before the court now that at least touch on religious issues, this analysis says. It's hard to imagine how this divided court can function well with lots of 4-4 ties -- another reason to get a replacement for Scalia on the court soon.

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P.S.: I hope you can join me at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., for the next panel discussion in the Faith Series being presented by The American Public Square. For details and to register, click here.


The endless repercussions of terrorism: 2-15-16

The day after what would have been my late nephew's 46th birthday last week, I received a jolting reminder of the way in which an act of religiously motivated terrorism is far from a one-and-done occurrence.

DOD-logoThe U.S. Department of Defense's chief prosecutor at the military trial of some of those accused in planning the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed Karleton Fyfe and nearly 3,000 others, sent 9/11 families a letter responding to a defense attorney's contention that the legal maneuverings and processes in this matter may go on damn near forever (I'm paraphrasing).

I want to share the bulk of that letter with you today because it offers some context for what's been happening at Gitmo in recent years relating to this case and because it is one more reminder of the inevitable toll that terrorism exacts from those who are attacked and from their families.

Gen. Mark Martins, chief prosecutor, wrote this in a latter actually dated Feb. 10, Karleton's birthday:

Dear Families,

On December 11, 2015, the military commission concluded a week-long session at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At that time, the defense and prosecution participated in press conferences, during which the media asked questions regarding the week's events. During his appearance, counsel for the accused Mustafa Al Hawsawi made a statement that "we think we learned that the end is nowhere near in sight [referencing the discovery timeline and litigation]. We will expect to be litigating relevancy probably for the next five to ten years, possibly."

2-10-16-rose(Tammeus note: Mustafa Al Hawsawi is one of five people facing charges connected to 9/11. The others are Khalid Sheikh Mohammad [reported to be the mastermind behind the attacks by al-Qaida], Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.) 

Upon learning of such statements, a significant number of you understandably voiced your concerns and frustrations with the defense counsel's predictions. I believe you deserve to hear from me directly regarding the comments that have caused some of you alarm, and more generally about progress in the case.

First, we disagree with defense counsel. It is true that this case presents higher stakes and greater legal and logistical challenges than, possibly, any other trial in U.S. history. Among these is the necessity of protecting classified information in the discovery and trial process. These factors, in turn, have indeed led to significant delays in bringing the case to a just conclusion. But, at the same time, the United States government has dedicated enormous resources, both financial and human, so as to facilitate the continued law of war detention and now prosecution of these individuals while allowing for a legal defense of each accused that is consistent with our justice traditions. Accordingly, we believe that the trial will take as long as the process mandated by Congress requires, and not the endless and unreasonable period suggested by various defense counsel. However, under the law, the final decision on scheduling rests with the military judge, and thus I cannot provide a date certain when trial on the merits will begin.

Second, we want you to know that progress toward trial is being made. Thus far, more than 320,000 pages of unclassified material and 15,000 pages of classified material comprising the government's case against the accused, as well as material required to be disclosed under the government's affirmative discovery obligations, have been provided to the defense-all of this while safeguarding our nation's legitimate counterterrorism secrets. The parties have briefed in writing 207 substantive motions and have orally argued 46 motions in previous pre-trial proceedings. Of the 207 substantive motions briefed, 9 have been mooted, dismissed, or withdrawn; 96 have been ruled on by the commission; and an additional 38 have been submitted for and are pending decision. The commission has received testimony from 28 witnesses in nearly 81 hours of testimony, with all witnesses subject to cross examination, to assist it in deciding pre-trial motions. The parties have filed 195 exhibits and more than 100 declarations alleging facts and providing references to inform the commission's consideration of these issues. This information, while never meant to imply that justice can be quantified, nonetheless reflects methodical and deliberate movement toward trial.

Third, I do not dispute that much work remains to be done. As you have heard in our updates to you, a large number of motions, the majority filed by the defense, remain pending at this time. There will likely be many more filed in the months to come. All of these motions go through a full briefing process by the parties, followed by evidentiary hearings, if evidence is required, and oral argument to the military judge. Additionally, and of great significance, we continue to work toward fulfilling our discovery obligations.

In December, I told the military judge that it is our intent to have provided all necessary discovery to the defense by September 30, 2016. A great deal of such discovery has been provided to the defense already. However, a great challenge remains. As is well known, all of the accused were initially detained as part of the CIA's former Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. Records, reports and other documents, numbering in the millions, concerning this program are potentially discoverable to the defense. These must be reviewed to identify all documents containing information that is, under the applicable provision of the Military Commissions Act, "noncumulative, relevant, and helpful to a legally cognizable defense, rebuttal of the prosecution's case, or to sentencing." Also, any classified information contained must be protected from unlawful disclosure. This is a painstaking process but one we are committed to completing properly and as quickly as possible.

Toward that end, the prosecution has been working seven days a week on discovery matters since early 2014, and we will continue to do so until the job is finished. Moreover, we have enlisted the aid and commitment of other agencies and departments of the government to provide resources toward our effort. I assure you that we will do all that is humanly possible to meet that goal. Once discovery is completed, we expect the military judge will establish a schedule leading to trial.

In closing, I also want to assure you that the entire prosecution team understands and feels the frustrations of so much time going by since the day so many were murdered. Although I wish I could, I cannot give you a timetable of the future of this case. I can only commit to you that we are doing everything we can to bring the case to trial and achieve justice for all of you and for our nation. In the meantime, the accused remain securely detained, under law, at Guantanamo Bay. I respectfully ask for your understanding and patience while we fulfill our mission, and I promise that you will remain in our thoughts every day as we continue our work.

And then he signed it.

What I'd also like you to imagine is how these terrorist suspects might have been handled in certain other countries. Arrested, jailed, kangaroo-court convictions, executed -- all within months of the event. Doing things right when it comes to justice can take time -- and cause the families of victims more and more pain -- but doing things right is the proper way to proceed.

I'd also like you to think of all the other religiously inspired terrorist acts committed since 9/11 and of the ripple effects still going on from them. It's a wonder that people in criminal justice systems around the world -- whether civilian or military -- have time for anything else.

(The photo on the right shows Karleton's name at the memorial at Ground Zero in New York. On the birthday of every victim, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum staff places a white rose by the name.)

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WHAT SCALIA'S DEATH MIGHT MEAN FOR FAITH

What will Justice Antonin Scalia's death mean for how the U.S. Supreme Court delivers opinions about religion? This Atlantic piece sums up pretty well how complicated any answer to that question is. And it's why presidents should not pick justices just on the basis of political leanings. Rather, they should pick justices who are smart, well-read and willing to learn.

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P.S.: Kansas City Lodge 184 of B'nai B'rith has announced details of the 2016 Margolis Memorial Essay Contest. The prize, $2,000, will go to a student who is graduating from a Kansas City area high school at the end of the spring semester of 2016 and who plans to start college in the fall. Essays are to focus on peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding among different groups. For details and all the rules, write to Mark D. Wasserstrom, chair of the contest, at wass1@sbcglobal.net. There's a June 1 deadline for submitting essays.


The plague of biblical literalism: 2-13/14-16

For years -- decades, really -- the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., John Shelby Spong (shown in the photo below on the right), has been proposing various controversial ways of understanding what Christianity is all about.

Biblical-literalismIn the process, he's rankled all kind of traditional Christians, some of whom have called him a heretic. Although he rejects that label, at times he's seemed almost proud of the insult.

In his new -- and, he says, perhaps final -- book (he'll be 85 years old in June), he's at it again. I already can hear the denunciations of him because of Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. Once the book is released on Tuesday of this coming week, you can bet that there will be charges that he's attempting to throw out nearly all of traditional Christianity and the Bible stories on which it's based and pretty much spiritualizing or allegorizing the religion out of recognition.

I've met Jack Spong at least twice and heard him in large and small settings. I think he frequently overreaches when it comes to theological interpretation. But he challenges traditional thinking in a useful way and he gets many things right.

For instance, he is right that it's foolish to read the whole of the Bible literally -- as if all the stories, all the alleged science, all the history in it are exactly what they seem to be. As I sometimes say, you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both. And this book is a polemic against such narrow biblical literalism.

The task, then, is to determine what parts of the Bible might stand as actual history and what, by contrast, should be considered metaphor, myth, allegory, poetry. Much of the Bible -- both the Jewish and Christian versions -- is full of the latter elements, sometimes even when it appears that the stories being told are rooted in real events.

"The gospels," Spong writes, ". . .were not meant to be read literally, and they become nonsensical and unbelievable if one seeks to do so."

Spong also is right about the books of the New Testament being deeply Jewish documents. They were, after all, written almost entirely by Jews for Jews -- especially those Jews who, like the Apostle Paul, believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth.

Indeed, the core contention of this new book is that the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Spong focuses especially on Matthew in this volume) were written not as biography or history but as liturgy to be used in synagogues in Jewish worship to connect the story of Jesus with Jewish theology, culture and history.

Spong2The problem, as Spong argues, was that by "about the year 150 CE. . .there were hardy any Jews left in the Christian movement. From that day to some point after the end of World War II, the only people who read the New Testament were Gentiles, who had no understanding of and no appreciation for the original Jewish context of the gospels. Absent that context, these Gentiles began to literalize the Jesus stories, a practice which the original writers of the gospels could never have imagined." Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who will speak at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., March 4-5, makes a similar point in her respected work.

What these Gentiles from then to now have mostly missed, writes Spong, is that "the liturgical life of the synagogue was the organizing principle of the three synoptic gospels."

Spong then spends most of the rest of the book showing how especially the gospel of Matthew was designed to serve as liturgy in worship for those Jews who became attracted to the life, ministry, teaching and meaning of Jesus Christ. Theologians, who are paid for this sort of thing, will no doubt argue over what Spong gets right in his thesis and what he gets wrong. But Spong, who describes himself as a devoted Christian, at least has earned a hearing.

Spong also is right in this new book in his general condemnation of traditional Christian atonement theology.

Indeed, he asserts that "nothing in this book will be more important than freeing Christianity from the shackles of atonement theology." (I've written about atonement theories and their problems here.)

There are many atonement theories in Christianity, none of which offers an exhaustive explanation of what happened on the cross of Christ. Especially troubling has been one called the penal substitutionary atonement theory. To put this theory in unfair bumper-sticker form, it says that God loves us because Christ died for us, whereas Christianity really teaches the opposite, which is that Christ died for us because God loves us.

Even that latter formulation, however, no doubt would find objections from Spong, who, while acknowledging the reality of evil in the world and the human participation in it, rejects the notion of Original Sin and, thus, the need to be redeemed from it. We now know, he says, that the two Genesis creation stories are metaphorical and that humanity was not forever stained with sin because of what has been called the fall of Adam and Eve, who, despite the claims of fundamentalist and some other Christians, were not historical figures.

Traditional atonement theology, he writes, is "a total distortion of the meaning of Jesus, based, as I believe it was, on a complete misunderstanding of Yom Kippur."

Which brings us back to the reality that many Christians today -- and, in fact, from the middle of the Second Century on -- have lost touch with the Jewish roots of Christianity. That loss means that it's terribly difficult to understand the books of the New Testament, including the gospels, because those books are steeped in Jewish theology, history and culture.

Every few pages, as I read this, I wished that Spong and a more traditional Christian theologian like Luke Timothy Johnson were in my presence so I could ask questions. And so I could challenge Spong on a few points -- maybe with Johnson's help. For instance, Spong knows better than to label either the Apostle Paul or Jesus himself as the founder of Christianity, and yet right there on page 37 is the phrase ". . .the story of Christianity after the death of Jesus, its founder." That would be a correct description if one meant that the Christian religion eventually separated from Judaism and came to stand on its own as a result of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, but not if one meant that Jesus came for the purposes of creating Christianity.

Some of what Spong writes in this book is not new, especially when you think of his 1996 book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes.

But if this is Spong's swan song, he's going out not with a whimper but a shout -- and traditional Christianity will have to decide what he got right and what he didn't. It should make for a lively -- and quite necessary -- discussion.

(The photo of Spong here today is one I took at a journalism conference in the Washington, D.C., area at which he spoke several years ago.)

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EDUCATING PEOPLE ABOUT FAITHS

Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant has put together a pretty nifty and pretty simple tool to help you understand all the different faith communities in the U.S. You can find it here. It'll help you distinguish the United Methodists from the Presbyterians and the Sunni Muslims from the Shi'a Muslims. But be sure to read Tobin's instructions before you leap in.


Another bad blasphemy law proposal: 2-12-16

The country (not the state) of Georgia in eastern Europe is considering adopting a law that would punish people who commit what that law describes as religious blasphemy.

Georgia_mapGovernment-approved anti-blasphemy laws are ridiculous, whether they come from nations like Georgia, whose citizens are predominantly Christian Orthodox, or nations like Pakistan, whose citizens are predominantly Muslim.

What blasphemy laws reveal is that their proponents are full of fear that the religions they are trying to protect are so weak that they cannot stand up for themselves without government assistance.

Georgia's proposed law is especially problematic in that way because of the vagueness of what it says. The law would limit religious expression that results in "insult of religious feelings." And the fines for such a sloppily worded crime would be quite substantial.

I certainly am not a proponent of insulting the religious feelings of others. Indeed, healthy religion should help to create people who are loving and respectful of all people, regardless of faith or the lack of faith.

But to suggest that a religion is so weak and threatened that it cannot survive without a state law designed to protect the delicate sensibilities of its followers is itself to insult that religion.

Blasphemy laws have been widely misused, especially in predominantly Muslim countries. To adopt such laws in a predominantly Christian Orthodox country like Georgia would lead to additional abuse of the freedom of speech.

How about we all grow up, act as respectful adults and get government out of the business of having to defend the honor of any religion anywhere? I'd vote for all that.

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A VICTORY THAT'S ONLY TEMPORARY

The Wheaton College professor who said Christians and Muslims worship the same God has left that school under pressure. But, as David Gushee of Religion News Service notes in this piece, in the end this was about more than the professor and the school. Rather, it was about the future of Christian evangelicalism. Gushee thinks the wrong side prevailed in the Wheaton matter. I think he's right.


What's wrong with the National Prayer Breakfast? 2-11-16

Another National Prayer Breakfast has come and gone -- this time without a ton of media coverage. President Obama (pictured here) showed up again -- as all presidents have done since Ike in 1953 -- and made a pretty unsurprising speech

NPB-ObamaYou can judge that for yourself by reading the transcript.

What's long fascinated me about this annual inside-the-beltway tradition is how an especially evangelical branch of Christianity has been its founder and backer and how in many ways it's an event not acknowledging religious diversity in this country but, rather, mainstreaming conservative Christianity.

As the Time Magazine history of the event (I've linked you to it above in the phrase about Ike) notes, it was created as a project of International Christian Leadership, the name that group's founder, Abraham Vereide, gave to his movement (it continues to exist today, now known as the Family or the Fellowship).

Journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote a book about this group a few years back. It's called The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. It's a disturbing read. I wrote about that book in my Kansas City Star column when it came out and later mentioned it here on the blog when I introduced readers to Sharlet's next book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

I think the use of the word "Fundamentalist" or "Fundamentalism" is theologically misleading in the books' subtitles, given that many people connected with The Family would not identify themselves as fundamentalists. Still, if you really want a thorough picture of the forces behind the annual prayer breakfast (and their widespread influence) in Washington, Sharlet's writing is a must.

I have no objection to any president accepting an invitation from a non-governmental group to speak at a prayer breakfast. But I wish this one didn't have "National" in its title, making it seem like it has some kind of governmental sponsorship. And I wish that if there is to be some kind of truly national event like this, it and its leadership would be much more representative of the American religious landscape.

We should be the most religiously welcoming country on the planet. Events like the National Prayer Breakfast send a different message.

(The photo here today came from this NBC News site.)

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A BONANZA FOR THE JESUITS

I love this RNS story about a Kansas City teacher -- seemingly of modest means -- who gave $2 million to the Jesuits when she died. May the Jesuits show their gratitude to Anna Kurzweil by spending it in ways that would honor her life of teaching and giving and care.


When a pope meets a patriarch: 2-10-16

1054-split

As those of us who are Christian enter the season of Lent today on Ash Wednesday, it's an appropriate time to think about the meaning of the upcoming visit between Pope Francis and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. And especially the history of the Orthodox-Catholic split.

This Economist piece does a pretty good job of filling in the back story. And it properly notes that this is far from the first time that a pope and an Orthodox patriarch have met, though that hasn't happened much since what's called the Great Schism happened in 1054, splitting east from west, Catholic from Orthodox.

In terms of core theology, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are quite close. The division, after all these centuries, has much more to do with governance, culture and, no doubt, a tradition of stubbornness on each side.

As the Economist piece reports, "If there were a breakthrough moment in the relationship between those two institutions, it would have been the encounter in Jerusalem in 1964 between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Without claiming to have settled any doctrinal differences, they agreed to set aside their ancient 'anathemas' or mutual denunciations."

In effect, each church excommunicated the other back in 1054, though excommunication may not be the proper technical term for denouncing each other.

We find these difficult divisions almost everywhere in the religious world. Think of the Protestant-Catholic split in the 1500s, the Sunni-Shi'a division after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the ways in which Judaism is divided into such branches as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

Sometimes each subdivision would claim that great matters of theology are at stake. But more often it comes down to the fact that all the adherents and their leaders are flawed human beings who have differences they don't know how to settle.

I'm not sure what will come of the meeting in Cuba between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, but if it can be a model for religious respect between old enemies, good. And if it leads toward some eventual recombination or reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox communities, better. Just don't bet the farm on that yet.

(The map shown here today came from here.)

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DOES GOD CARE ABOUT FLINT?

In what sense is the Flint, Mich., water crisis a religious issue? Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin explains here. He says God is weeping, and a good rule to remember is that what breaks God's heart must surely break ours.


The power of faith-based stories: 2-9-16

Pope Francis has a new book out that I haven't read, though I've read some about it.

Name-God-MercyIt's called The Name of God is Mercy, and no doubt was timed to fit well with the pontiff's declaration of this as a Jubilee Year of Mercy. But in this Patheos.com blog about the book, the Polish-born author, Artur Rosman, talks about the power of story, the power of anecdote to make a point.

It's a point that cannot be made too often. In fact, I spoke this past Sunday at a church about writing a spiritual will, and one of the points I made is that whoever receives such a document will grasp its meaning more quickly and remember it longer if it contains stories about the values by which you tried to live your life instead of simply containing a list of those values.

Don't just say that you valued honesty, I told them. Instead, tell them a story about some choice you had to make at some point in life that taught you to value honesty.

As Rosman writes, ". . .an anecdote, an existentially significant chunk of someone’s life, reads big. Pope Francis’s anecdotes come from sources as varied as his own life, the lives and writings of other popes, lives of the saints, his own parishioners (both the ignorant rich and the wise poor), and the accounts of confessors."

This is why Jesus told parables, those richly layered stories that mean one thing to one person and something else to another. The problem with those parables today, as I wrote recently here, is that we've domesticated them to the point that they rarely have the ability to shock and discomfort us in the way the First Century Jews who heard them would have been shocked and discomforted.

Still, it's stories that burrow their way into our brains and can be called up with much more ease than a list of rules or commandments.

The other night, for instance, we had a baseball-themed dinner at our house. When my friend Denny Matthews, the voice of the Kansas City Royals (current world champs, in case you hadn't heard), wanted to make a point about how inadvertently funny Yogi Berra could be, he didn't just say, "Yogi could be a funny guy without even meaning to be." Rather, Denny told our guests a great story about Yogi talking about an old Steve McQueen movie. I won't retell that here except to note the punchline, which was Yogi saying this: "Yeah, I think he made that movie before he died."

Religions live and die by stories. As I will make clear in a book I have coming out later this year, we live by metaphor, by allegory, by myth because we have no choice. We tell stories because they help us grasp at least some small aspect of an infinite God. The best preachers know that.

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A HUGE ARCHIVE OF BLACK SERMONS

In sermons delivered in predominantly African-American churches, you will find preachers using lots of stories to make their points. Now a black pastor has put together a website called Roho to collect black sermons and offer a forum for discussion. This New York Times story will tell you about it.


Studying Muslims and the media: 2-8-16

Media coverage of Muslims matters, an Iowa State University psychology professor says after studying that coverage and public support for military action and restrictions against Muslims.

Crescent-moon-IslamCraig Anderson said this of the results of his research: “The influence of negative media stories -- as well as a separate link we found between political conservatism and anti-Muslim sentiments and beliefs -- both suggest that U.S. political candidates who were willing to take very strong anti-Muslim stands would get a lot of support from the most active and vocal conservatives.”

In the press release about this work, Anderson said journalists should recognize how their coverage affects public perception and opinion. He said reporters can make a difference by actively seeking out positive stories about Muslim Americans, and when covering Islamist-related terrorist attacks, reporters could talk with Muslim Americans about their opposition to such actions.

Another scholar who has been looking at Muslims and use of media is Duke sociologist Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream.

What follows is from a recent interview with Bail done by a political website:

Your research examines how anti-Muslim fringe organizations use social media to edge into the mainstream. What might surprise people about the messaging and tools these groups use?

I think many people might be surprised to learn that many people who describe themselves as terrorism experts actually have relatively little expertise in the area. Some of the most popular websites on the Internet that cover issues related to Islam and terrorism (such as Jihadwatch.com) have the appearance of legitimacy but are in fact highly unreliable sources of information about these topics.

Many anti-Muslim organizations came of age during a period where public advocacy was rapidly changing because of the advent of social media. Therefore, many of these organizations have large fan bases or followers, and use sites like Facebook and Twitter to circumnavigate the gatekeepers who would usually prevent false information from appearing within the public sphere.

So in addition to immigrant Muslims negotiating their way through a culture often quite different from the one they came from, they also must be willing and able to respond to people who get their information about Islam from unreliable -- sometimes purposefully so -- sources. That can be a doubly stressful life.

A related problem is the general failure of traditional media to cover Muslim life in America. That includes the failure to cover religion generally as thoroughly as it should be covered. Bail notes this: "Because of the lack of media coverage of mainstream Muslim organizations condemning terrorism, many Americans have the incorrect impression that Muslim-Americans either condone or tacitly support violent extremism."

In the end, it's up to those of us who are consumers of media to ask for the kind of coverage we need. If editors never hear from readers, viewers or listeners, those editors can -- and often do -- assume that they're offering the right coverage.

(By the way, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., recently organized a series of messages that looked at how Muslims are finding their way in the U.S. today. It's worth a look, and you can find it here.)

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PREPARING MUSLIMS FOR THE ELECTION

It's interesting to see how others view us. Here, for instance, is a column by a former Pakistani government official, who seeks to explain religion and politics in the U.S., especially as it relates to Muslims. His conclusion: "If in November, the White House goes to a Republican, the Muslim world should be prepared to deal with a hostile United States."


Updating the hospitality of mosques: 2-6/7-16

President Obama's first-ever visit to a mosque in the U.S. this past Wednesday was long overdue.

Icofa-1And although it was important for many reasons (including a political reason, given that Obama used it, among other things, to excoriate Donald Trump for his xenophobia without naming Trump), it was especially important for a reason that most of us non-Muslims would have missed, had not some Muslims pointed it out to us.

For instance, Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, wrote this piece for CNN in which he argued that it's by having important guests that mosques will more readily shape up and begin to treat all their members more equitably and hospitably.

In that piece, Moghul writes this:

Too many mosques are still cults of personality, dominated by one person or at most a handful. There's little turnover on many boards, not much outreach to the wider community, underinvestment in education and overemphasis on a religious discourse that alienates instead of empowers. I still come across mosques that relegate women to parts of the building that are clearly afterthoughts, if not incipient human rights violations.

Half the congregation is consigned to basements, walled-off rooms with no access to speakers or preachers, or relegated to distant and dark upstairs corners. I am afraid, though, that some of us might get used to this kind of discrimination, and become resigned to it. Until and unless, of course, you have a guest. Maybe an important guest. Maybe the most powerful person in the world.

The fact of engaging with the wider world might help give many Muslim communities the push they need to make changes that are long overdue.

So perhaps if Obama and other dignitaries were to visit mosques more frequently, those who run them would begin to make them more inviting even for Muslims, including those Muslims who, like Moghul, don't feel especially welcome there now and who have issues with how they're run.

I've been to quite a few mosques in the U.S. and always have been welcomed graciously, though in a few of them it's been obvious that they're unused to seeing non-Muslims visit. A culture of hospitality can be good not just for the visitors but also for members, it turns out. And such visitors can help American Muslims more easily negotiate their place in the American religious landscape.

By the way, here is the text of Obama's remarks at the Islamic Center of Baltimore.

(The mosque you see in the photo above is the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., which I visited a few years ago.)

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ISLAMIC TOGETHERNESS

Speaking of issues in the Islamic world, Muslim leaders from various Western countries have created a new coalition to tackle such issues as Islamophobia. It's always frustrating to have to create ways to work against what shouldn't exist in the first place.

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P.S.: I hope you can join me the week of July 10 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico for a class called "Conversations with Jesus and Pope Francis," based on my latest book, co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. All the details you need to learn more and sign up are here. Still got questions? E-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com.