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Do Americans even read the Bible any more? 8-31-16

The Bible outsells all other books -- in print, in digital form, any way you want to measure it.

Invisible-bibleBut is anyone in America reading it? Studying it? Using it to guide their lives?

Those are among the fascinating questions that journalist Kenneth A. Briggs delves into in The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. It's a revealing, well-researched book that Christian and Jewish (and Muslim, given that Muslims are supposed to know Bible stories that are sometimes referred to just briefly in the Qur'an) Bible owners would do well to digest.

"Bibles keep piling up in homes and on smart phones and iPads at phenomenal rates," Briggs writes, "so the desire to own them hasn't notably subsided, but collectively we don't feel much need to read them or consider their prescriptions more binding than those from the multitude of other self-help sources. Americans still want to be friends with the Bible, honor its background, teach things about it, and even put it on a modest pedestal -- but they don't want to partner up with it."

Briggs is not arguing in favor of any kind of literalistic, inerrant view of scripture. He notes, in fact, that such a view is held by fewer and fewer Americans in an age that sometimes makes an idol of science as opposed to making the Bible itself an idol, which is what the literalists do. Indeed, as Briggs notes, "Americans are much less familiar with what is actually in" the Bible than they used to be. One of the results is that "the Bible's blessings are still widely bestowed, covertly at least, on the country's wars, legislatures and ever-escalating material hungers. . .For more and more Americans, the Bible has become a museum exhibit."

Bible-stackThat's an intriguing observation in light of the fact that right now the large national Museum of the Bible is under construction in Washington, D.C., with an opening planned for next year.

Does it matter, Briggs wants to know, that Americans seem to have retired the Bible to the archives? Well, that depends, he concludes: "For a great deal of our history, after all, we as a society sanctioned slavery, practice racial discrimination, tolerated child labor, annihilated Native Americans, treat women as second-class citizens and barred them from voting, and criminalized homosexuality. If that was an ethical golden age, perhaps we may do no better, but we could hardly do worse."

How widespread is Bible ownership among Americans? Briggs reports that in 2014, 88 percent of American homes had at least one copy and that 79 percent of Americans regard it as a sacred book. Today there are, he says, more than 80,000 versions in more than 500 languages around the world, and U.S. sales are annually in the 25 million range. And although the number of Christian bookstores has fallen dramatically in recent years, people are buying Bibles online and are downloading digital versions (like the YouVersion, which I use) like crazy.

And yet biblical and theological illiteracy is rampant among Americans. That's especially true of younger citizens who haven't grown up with the book somehow near the center of their lives.

"The Bible," Briggs concludes after traveling the country to see how and where the Bible is used, "is extolled and sanctified, but more like a grandparent with whom family members seldom actually interact but who exists as a symbol of vaguely familiar wisdom and truth."

There are forces at work to get more Americans better connected to the Bible -- forces beyond local congregations.

For instance, the American Bible Society, as Briggs reports, "says it has overemphasized distribution and will now shine a national spotlight on why so many people are not cracking the Bible open -- and how they could be induced to do so."

But as America becomes a nation with a greater percentage than ever of religiously unaffiliated people -- and a nation that can't seem to agree on the need to teach public school students about the Bible and its influence (yes, there are constitutional ways to do that) -- it seems a daunting task to get Americans more engaged with scripture. Briggs says that "the chances that weak readers will dive into an app seem like a lot shot."

There's much more in this book, including a good account of the tension between the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature and a review of the controversial work of the Jesus Seminar. But, in the end, this is a helpful accounting of the place of the Bible today in American society. It still has lots of influence, but biblical scholarship done at seminaries and on college campuses doesn't regularly find its way to people in the pews. Which means that lots of people who always have understood the book to be a basic moral guide continue to miss the fascinating stories the Bible offers in the way of history, mythology, social customs, change in word usage and so much more.

Too bad. The Bible is a library full of windows that show us not just an ancient world but also what we are and what we could be.

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NOW THERE'S AN OSTEEN SCAM

A woman in Houston has reported a money-grubbing scam from a fake Pastor Joel Osteen. But she figured it out before she turned over any money. You've at least got to admit that the scammer at least knew that prosperity is at the center of what Osteen preaches.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- about privately owned prisons -- is online now here.


Hindus: They're pretty much everywhere: 8-30-16

I became acquainted with Hinduism when I lived in India for two years of my boyhood (ages 11 to 13). And I've discovered that lots of people in the U.S. think Hinduism, the third most populous religion in the world, is pretty much confined to India, save for a few folks who moved to the U.S. and elsewhere from India and brought their Hinduism with them.

T-783Well, there's no breaking news about Hinduism today, but I wanted to pass along this piece (it's interesting, though not well edited) that I ran across the other day that lists the top 11 countries in which Hindus can be found.

Yes, India is ground zero for Hinduism. Some 95 percent of the world's Hindus live in India. The article to which I've linked you says the world Hindu population is about 1 billion. That's higher than I usually see. More often the number is between 850 million and 900 million.

The other countries (or areas) with Hindus in order of numbers? Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates.

Beyond those nations, you'll even find Hindus in Canada. There are, in fact, dozens of Hindu temples in Toronto, one of my favorite cities in the world.

There are lots of theories about how the term Hindu came to be applied to followers of the religion, including the notion that the British colonial rulers of the country started using the term to refer to such folks, whereas before it was a broader geographic or ethnic term.

At any rate, Hindus are in lots of places today, including Kansas City, where the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City is in suburban Shawnee, Kan.

And my guess is that if you live in a fairly large city anywhere in the U.S., you will find Hindus living within a few miles of you.

By the way, Hinduism often is referred to as a polytheistic faith, and that's because it postulates many names and forms for God (some say around 300 million). But, in the end, Hinduism, too, is monotheistic in that there is one God to whom all the others point, or whom they represent and reveal.

(The photo here today is one my father took in the mid-1950s in India. It shows a roadside Hindu temple containing several idols, which are difficult to see in this picture. But the kids in front of it are cute. I mention this photo in my new book, due out Sept. 20, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I'll be introducing the book the evening of Sept. 28 at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library. To make reservations to this free event, click here.)

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SHE CALLS THEM CHRISTIAN MODELS

Well, here's a switch. Sally Vance-Trembath, author of this column, teaches religion at Santa Clara University and she has some words not of critique but of actual praise for two women prominent in, well, politics -- Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton -- not because of their political stances but because, she writes, they live out authentic Christian lives.

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P.S.: The first of my monthly columns for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine, is now online here. It has to do with revelation.


For whom does Jerry Falwell Jr. speak? 8-29-16

One of the problems of being considered a religious leader is that whatever you do or say reflects good or ill or indifference on your faith community.

Fallwell-trumpTraditional Muslims struggle with this all the time when self-appointed radical extremists pretend to speak for all of Islam. But it happens in other traditions, too. Think, for instance, of how often such televangelists as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell said ridiculous things that many outside of Christianity understandably but wrongly imagined was reflective of all of Christianity.

Now the person who is embarrassing other Christians is Fallwell's son, the Rev. Jerry Fallwell Jr., who seems to have tossed aside Christian values to be a big public backer of Donald Trump. (Both are seen in the photo at left. I'll leave it to you to figure out who is who.)

Even media outlets that normally might be in harmony with Falwell on some issues and certainly with mainstream Republicans are having a hard time stomaching what they're seeing.

For instance, The National Review just published this essay, the author of which has a hard time finding anything at all good to say about either Fallwell or Trump. He writes:

"Falwell has fallen under the dark spell of Donald Trump. That is not a crime, but it is having a corrosive effect on his intellectual and moral judgment. He is saying witless and defamatory things. For those of us of the Christian faith, the fact that Falwell is viewed by many as an Evangelical leader makes it that much worse. We have been pained by the harm that a previous generation did to Christian public witness because of partisan, reckless, and graceless comments. Now we have this.

"When a leader of a major Christian institution speaks out on public affairs as Falwell has, he is speaking not just for himself. He is making a broader statement about faith and politics – and, in this case, is shaping how people view Christians and Christianity."

It pains a lot of Mainline Protestants like me to discover that some people imagine that Falwell or James Dobson or Joel Osteen (one of the Prosperity Gospel preachers) somehow is offering thoughts in harmony with ours. No. Christianity operates under a broad umbrella under which, ideally, adherents might be able to find a fair amount of common ground. But sometimes that ground is barely big enough for just two people to occupy at the same time.

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DO JESUS AND BUDDHA OCCUPY COMMON SPACE?

The list of religions in the world continues to grow even as quite a few people are walking away from religion. The most recent one I've heard about is called The Aetherius Society and was started in the 1950s by a guy named George King. It's about UFOs and Buddha and Jesus being from Venus. And such like that. Here is a story describing the group. The human imagination seems almost limitless.

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P.S.: The first of my monthly columns for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine, is now online here. It has to do with revelation.


Some end-of-summer faith-based books: 8-27/28-16

My own next book, The Value of Doubt, will be out in a few weeks. And I hope you'll come to the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza branch the evening of Sept. 28 to hear about it. For details and to register, click here.

Cover-Value of DoubtBut as you might imagine, I'm far from the only person around writing faith-based books.

In fact, they're pouring off the presses at a prodigious rate -- so fast it's impossible to keep up. But today I wanted to give you a list of some recent ones that have crossed my desk. I won't be doing anything like a long review of them, but I will give you just a bit about them and then give you a link to a site that can tell you more and even sell you the book.

You might be interested in: 

-- When Anything Goes: Being Christian in a Post-Christian World, by Leslie Williams. This is an informal book of Christian apology, meaning a defense of the faith. It's well written and quite accessible even to younger readers who may no longer understand biblical references. Williams offers her judgment (from Episcopal roots) that God is very much alive and that Jesus Christ is both relevant in the 21st Century and necessary. There is hope for the Christian church here, even if at times she overstates the ways in which the culture has undone a society rooted in Christian traditions.

Break-away-amish-- Breakaway Amish: Growing Up with the Bergholz Beard Cutters, by Johnny Mast, with Shawn Smucker. Perhaps you recall the wildly improbable story a few years ago of former members of an Amish community in Ohio attacking Amish men there and cutting the beards of those men. This is the story of that strangeness told by the grandson of the man who led the attacks. That grandfather was one more in a long line of religious zealots who decided to worship personal power. It's a sad, cautionary tale, but one that needed to be told.

-- A Man Who Told Us the Truth, by Will Davis Jr. The author, founding and senior pastor of Austin Christian Fellowship in Austin, Texas, offers here his review of some things Jesus Christ said and why what he said was truth. It's a book of Christian apologetics that seems designed for seekers, not people who already have struggled through many of the hard questions of faith.

-- Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. People of faith have known for a long time that the vision of God as an old white man with a beard who hovers out there somewhere and oversees humanity is far too simplistic, to say nothing of too male, too racist and too silly. But what kind of useful image might replace that one? That's the central question addressed by these two scholars who have spent much of their careers focusing on women in religion and feminist theology. The two authors don't agree about everything, and that gives added strength to the book.

-- Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season, by Lucinda Secrest McDowell. This is a book of daily devotionals focusing on a separate word each day. The author relies on storytelling, and does it well.

Sacred-reading-the-2017-- Sacred Reading: The 2017 Guide to Daily Prayer, by the Apostleship of Prayer, Douglas Leonard, executive director. While we're on the subject of devotionals, here's one from an international Jesuit prayer ministry. I'll bet even some non-Jesuits will find this useful.

-- The Catholic Mom's Prayer Companion: A Book of Daily Reflections, edited by Lisa M. Hendey and Sarah A. Reinhard. Let's do a trifecta of daily devotional books. This one comes from the folks at CatholicMom.com, and, as you might expect, offers help for the saints we call mothers.

-- Mary's Way: The Power of Entrusting Your Child to God, by Judy Landrieu Klein. Like the previously mentioned book, this one also comes out of the partnership between CatholicMom.com and Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame. The author shares her difficult struggles with her own children's serious issues, and recounts how she came to rely on what she learned from Mary, mother of Jesus.

Good-xian-sex-- Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn't the Only Option -- And Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, by Bromleigh McCleneghan. Unsatisfied with all the old answers about sex, the author, pastor of a church in suburban Chicago, decides here to have a new look at all the old questions and approaches. Why is it so difficult for some people of faith to have honest, open discussions (with children and even each other) about matters of sexuality? This book can move us toward better, more helpful discussions about sex and what our faith teaches us about how to understand it. It's a useful guide for a culture saturated with distorted views on what should be seen as the beauty of appropriate sexual responses.

-- My Life with the Saints: 10th Anniversary Edition, by James Martin (the book has a Sept. 1 release date).  This was the book, first published in 2006, that really put the author, a Jesuit priest, on the map. It's his description of what various Catholic saints have meant to his life. This edition has a new epilogue by Martin, who became known as the Official Chaplain of "The Colbert Report."

-- Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews and Talks, by Dallas Willard, edited by Gary Black Jr. The late teacher and theologian Dallas Willard (he died in 2013) was a popular writer, especially, but not exclusively, among Christians who would call themselves evangelical. This book is a collection of his writings and other material, some of it previously unpublished, that gives readers a good sense of why he was so widely read.

Dropping-struggle-- Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have, by Roger Housden (publication date Sept. 8). This is in the self-help category (well, I'd put it there). It advises readers to quit struggling so much and learn to love life. The desire for what we don't need and what, in fact, may hurt us, is what Housden wants us to avoid.

-- A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve, by Mother Teresa, edited with an introduction by Brian Kolodiejchuk. As the late Mother Teresa is canonized as a saint on Sept. 4, this posthumous book of her teachings will be a good resource to remind people of her life and her commitment to serving the poor. The editor of the book is the priest who has been in charge of the cause of her canonization. In this Year of Mercy, declared by Pope Francis, Mother Teresa's words collected here will help the world understand not just her thinking but also why each individual is called to act mercifully.

-- Twelve Little Ways to Transform Your Heart: Lessons in Holiness and Evangelization from St. Therese of Liseux, by Susan Muto. This book draws on the wisdom of the French-born saint known as "Little Flower." It unpacks the "little way" of hiddenness, gratitude, sacramental life, simplicity and other aspects of faith. Her name, by the way, also is honored in Kansas City's St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church.

Way-silence-- The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life, by Brother David Steindl-Rast. The author, a Benedictine monk since 1953, offers here his understanding of the paradox and ambiguities of a life lived with deep spiritual awareness. It's an approach that honors the idea that different people bring different gifts and problems to questions of religion: "The word God," he writes, "ought to be used with utmost caution if we want to avoid misunderstandings." In that case and, in fact, in much of life, "the silent language of gestures helps to express our unity."

-- The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki's Ancient Epic -- Complete and Comprehensive, by Linda Egenes and Kumuda Reddy (Sept. 6 publication date). This famous ancient Indian epic is brought back to life in this new version. Author Egenes has written books about the benefits of yoga and meditation, while author Reddy is a medical doctor who taught at Albany Medical College. This old sacred text provides much of the religious context of India even today.

-- The Mysteries of the Rosary: An Adult Coloring Book, by Daniel Mitsui. The title tells it all, and proves that today any subject in the world can be the focus of the adult coloring book craze.

Beautiful-not-yet-- The Beautiful Not Yet: Poems, Essays and Lyrics, by Carrie Newcomer (Sept. 16 release). I never review music here and don't intend to start now, but in this case I'll make the small exception of offering you notice that songwriter and recording artist Carrie Newcomer has put the lyrics to her new CD in this small book along with some poems and essays. And the lyrics are quite engagingly spiritual, such as: "Carry nothing but what you must,/Lean in toward the Light./Let it go, shake off the dust/Lean in toward the Light./Today is now, tomorrow beckons/Lean in toward the Light./Keep practicing resurrection." (I also like the CD.)

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AND HE'S NOT LIKE HIS DADDY, EITHER

Some Christians in Vancouver, preparing for a March 2017 festival, say they don't want the Rev. Franklin Graham to be part of it because he's "incendiary and intolerant." Sounds like a conclusion from Captain Obvious, who recently declared the pope to be Catholic and Barack Obama America's first black president.

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P.S.: Anglican Bishop David Alvarado of El Salvador will be speaking about refugee issues at a public forum, “Immigration: Seeing the Connections,” at 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Kan. For details about that and related events, download this pdf:  Download Bishop Alvarado of El Salvador.


How college students think about faith: 8-26-16

When I went off to college as an 18-year-old, I essentially left faith behind. The church, after all, was full of hypocrites, and in my teen-age arrogance I didn't want to hang out with them.

Encouraging-spiritual-development-of-college-studentsIt took a dozen or so years for me to understand that I was one of those hypocrites and needed help. So I came back to church, which I discovered was full of people who knew they also needed help with lots of aspects of life.

My experience of drifting away from religion after high school was not unique in the 1960s. Nor is it unique today, though now there are many more dynamics at play, including a mini-explosion of inner spiritual paths that have mushroomed into existence in the last 50 or 60 years.

But what do you know about faith on college campuses today?

Probably not enough, but Abilene Christian University’s Online Masters in Higher Education program has created an interesting graphic that outlines the findings of various surveys and studies of college students and their connection to religion.

You can find it here online if you want to pass it on to others, but clearly I've reprinted it for you here.

If you're part of a faith community, I'd encourage you to share it with whoever there leads ministry to youth and young adults.

There are many reasons young people walk away from the faith tradition in which they were reared, and there are many reasons some of them return or find a new religious home.

The kind of information that Abilene Christian has put together can shed at least a little light on how those young people think about all of those reasons when they're on a college campus.

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A DOWNSIDE TO DIVERSITY?

The growing religious diversity in the U.S. might be making the country less religious, this analysis suggests. There's some logic to the findings but I think it's going to take a long time and a lot more study to be able to say for sure whether that conclusion has merit.

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Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: My new book is due out Sept. 20. It's The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I'll be introducing it at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. For more details and to reserve a seat, click here. I hope to see you there.

 


Let's talk about God and stuff: 8-25-16

You can find theological conclusions almost everywhere you look these days.

TheologyIn casual conversation you often hear the non-biblical bromide that God helps those who help themselves. (Actually, the Bible teaches that God helps those who can't help themselves.)

On popular TV shows, you find various characters saying that everything happens for a reason. That, too, is often bogus theology that fails to account for something that truly does exist in the world -- randomness and chance and coincidence.

And even in Christian churches you hear about our "immortal souls." That's an old Greek idea, not a Christian one. The Christian alternative to that is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In Christian theology, only God is immortal, and if we are to be granted eternal life, that will be a gift from God. It will not be because anything about us now is immortal.

Faith communities -- whether Christian or another tradition -- should be offering their adult members and friends (to say nothing of children and youth) classes that help people unpack theology. Many congregations do that, including my own. But many more aren't very vigilant about such efforts.

Bruce Epperly, the pastor who wrote this worthwhile piece, thinks teaching theology is one of the crucial things faith communities can do.

"Today," he writes, "people receive a plethora of religious information on cable television and the internet, and it is imperative that the church add its voice to media presentations on the life of Jesus, scripture, God, the Gnostic scriptures, and world religions, not to mention the superficial and often harmful theologies often presented by popular televangelists. In a time in which many assert that post-modernism privileges experience over doctrine, open-ended theological reflection has become more essential in the pulpit and the congregational classroom. Congregants need to nurture the mind as well as the spirit and heart to creatively face the challenges of our pluralistic age. They need safe places in which to explore their faith questions and challenge childhood ideas about God and humankind."

Cover-Value of DoubtHe is making some of the points that I make in my new book, due out Sept. 20, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I'll be introducing that book at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. For more details and to reserve a seat, click here.

Theology, after all, is the study of God. And what topic is more important than that?

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THE PROBLEMS WITH RELIGION COVERAGE

I often complain about the lack (and quality) of journalistic coverage of religion. Even when newspapers were in their prime in the U.S., they didn't devote nearly enough resources to this important area of our society. So I was intrigued by this analysis of religion coverage in Australia, a piece that offers many of the same complaints about coverage there. The author, who spent much of his career covering religion, bemoans "how much is missing from news media today, from ordinary human stories of faith to great themes." I'm guessing that part of the problem there is similar to the problem here in the U.S.: Few readers or consumers of news complain. Nowadays there are more and more online sources of religion coverage, but that's more true of national and international stories than of local stories. So as my former employer, The Kansas City Star, has cut back (to very little) on coverage of religion, at least KCPT-TV has picked up on it through its "Beyond Belief" initiative and its Flatland digital magazine. In fact, I'll now be writing a monthly column for Flatland. Stay tuned here. I'll let you know when that starts.


A great journalist who lived her faith: 8-24-16

I just finished reading a terrific biography of the late columnist Mary McGrory, whom I met in 2000 when the National Society of Newspaper Columnists gave her our Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mary-McGroryReading the book let me relive many of the major political events that have occurred in my life, from the Army-McCarthy hearings to JFK's assassination to Watergate to Iran-Contra to the raucous Bill Clinton years to the Supreme Court's decision that declared George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore in 2000.

But it also reminded me that quite a few (not all) of my columnist colleagues around the country over the years have been people of faith who have sought to live out their faith in various ways.

Mary McGrory was just such a person. From early in her career at the now-defunct Washington Star to her later career at the Washington Post, this Irish-Catholic (and half German) woman was a regular volunteer at an orphanage in suburban Washington, St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, now known as St. Ann's Center for Children, Youth and Families.

Mary was almost relentless as a volunteer there.

This is how author John Norris describes the start of that work in his new book, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism:

"Although Mary fit in with reporters, her Catholicism set her slightly apart from the rest of the breed. She didn't like it when reporters gambled, and she took the Church's dim view of things like premarital sex seriously. She also had an abiding belief in the importance of doing good works. Not long after settling in Washington, Mary visited the St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, a short walk away from where she was living, by Dupont Circle. St. Ann's was a refuge for unwed mothers and their children, and its clientele was mostly young Catholic girls who had gotten into trouble.

"Mary introduced herself to the sisters who ran St. Ann's. Chatting over tea, she opined that many of the single women she met in Washington were alarmingly self-absorbed, and she wanted to volunteer at the orphanage. The sisters, never having had a volunteer, weren't sure what to make of this insistent young woman. As they tried to diplomatically say 'No, thank you,' one of the orphans wandered in from the playground and clambered into Mary's lap. With upturned eyes, he asked Mary if she was going to stay the night. St. Ann's had its first volunteer."

She was a volunteer there on a regular basis almost to her death in 2004. But she didn't do it alone. Which is to say that she talked some of the politicians, including presidents, she covered into helping out there, too. It was hard to say no to Mary McGrory.

For much of the time that Mary was an active journalist until today many newsrooms have had a reputation as being filled by people without much connection to religion. That reputation is only partly deserved. In my nearly 36-plus years of full-time work at The Kansas City Star, I knew many people who were quite committed to their faith traditions, along with some agnostics, atheists and others who had so little connection to faith that they hardly knew how to classify themselves.

But McGrory's active Catholic life, while perhaps a bit unusual for journalists of her time, was not unique. And this new biography may help other journalists with active faith lives realize they aren't alone.

* * *

THE CONCENTRATED USE OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

The death penalty, which has been used less and less in recent years in the U.S., continues to shame every state that uses it. But where is it most often in play? This New York Times Magazine piece describes the reality that just a handful of counties across the country account for a disproportionate number of capital punishment cases. Which means, of course, that the death penalty is not used evenly or fairly everywhere -- one more reason that people of faith should be working hard to abolish it.


An unusual look at Judaism: 8-23-16

Last year I wrote this post, which was critical of a new book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I found Harari, who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to be certain of a lot of things about which no one can be certain.

StarofDavid-1Now I've just run across this Haaretz article by Harari, which I find more interesting than his book but that strikes me as a little overwrought.

In the piece, Harari argues that in the broad sweep of human history, Judaism simply hasn't been very important.

"Lest I be suspected of being a 'self-hating Jew' or an anti-Semite," he writes, "I would like to emphasize that I am not saying Judaism was a particularly evil or benighted religion. All I am saying is that it wasn’t particularly important to the history of humankind. For many centuries, Judaism was the humble religion of a small persecuted minority that preferred to read and contemplate rather than to build empires and burn heretics at the stake."

Harari thinks a lot of people in Israel have a distorted view of how important Judaism has been: "Unlike such universal religions as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, Judaism is a tribal creed. It focuses on the fate of one small nation and one tiny land, and has little interest in the fate of all other people and all other countries."

I'm sure Harari would argue that his conclusion is simply a historical fact, not an attempt to minimize the values and contribution that Judaism and Jews have brought to the world.

And maybe he'd be right to make that argument. But the whole approach seems to me needlessly dismissive and even petty at times. And yet, if you have read Sapiens, you know that Harari has almost no use for any religion. Judaism is far from the only faith tradition he thinks may have caused more harm than good. And besides, he argues, all religions are simply systems of thought made up out of whole cloth.

Well, give the Haaretz piece a read and see what you think. I'd be interested in your reaction, especially if you're Jewish. E-mail me at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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OR HERE'S ANOTHER APPROACH

Donald Trump has hired a religious outreach director to attract faith-based voters. Wouldn't it help more if, instead, he tried to live, think and behave in ways that weren't largely antithetical to the world's great religions?


How ISIS was founded: 8-22-16

Iraq_syria_control

The major terrorism stories in the last two-plus years have come from ISIS, which goes by various names. ISIS means Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIL, another name for the same group, means Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Daesh, yet another label that has grown in popularity, especially in the Middle East, is an acronym for the Arabic phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

But where did this ISIS come from? How was it formed? There's a lot about that we don't know (though we do know that no matter what Donald Trump says, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is the "founder" of ISIS; neither is Trump the founder, as Sen. Claire McCaskill, hitting back at Trump, has alleged -- see "Related Articles" below).

ForeignPolicy.com has published this three-part series about how ISIS got created. It is based on extensive interviews with a member of ISIS who has some disagreements with how the organization operates but who still is attached to the terrorist group. The story tells about the many hours and hours of interviewing the two journalists who wrote the series did with this man and some of the ways in which they sought to verify his information.

In these sorts of cases, of course, it is wise to be at least a little skeptical about whether a terrorist is being fully truthful and about what he might really know and why he wants to tell journalists what he knows.

That said, so far this seems to be one of the few accounts of the creation of ISIS that seems credible.

As you read the series, keep in mind that the goal of ISIS is to create a caliphate, or Muslim-run nation, and spread to the entire world the group's sickening, twisted version of Islam by any means necessary, including, as part two of the series reveals, chemical weapons.

The series makes me wonder how much of the information it contains already was known and verified by our government and its allies and how much was news to those conducting anti-terrorist efforts. I hope most was known and that our intelligence services are on top of their job. But I just don't know.

(The August 2016 map shown here today can be found here and is from the BBC.)

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THE CENTER OF RELIGIOUS ACTION

Pope Francis has called the church to be a field hospital for a wounded world. But as this priest notes, if that doesn't happen at the parish level, it's probably not going to happen at all. Despite being a hierarchical organization, the Catholic Church's primary center of activity is the parish, and it's parishes that must organize to help the needy and spread the good news. It turns out the same thing is true for other faith traditions. Just as all politics is local, so all religion is local, too, in a sense.


Convicting a radical Islamist cleric: 8-20/21-16

Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a lot of the focus on violent Islamists has been in Europe, especially in such countries as Britain, France and Germany. And for good reason.

MuchAnjem-choudary of the theological and philosophical support for terrorist activities has come from extremist clerics in those countries, as they have preached in mosques and used social media to spread their hatred.

Which is why it's good to learn of the recent conviction of a man Reuters news service labels "Britain’s most high-profile Islamist preacher," Anjem Choudary (pictured here).

The Reuters story says Choudary, 49, "has been found guilty of inviting support for the group known as the Islamic State."

Choudary is exactly the kind of extremist who has given Islam a bad name, not just in England but around the world, including in the United States. He's also an example of the radicals who must be stopped by every legal means available and who must be denounced by traditional Muslims and others who are working hard to let the world know that Choudary and his ilk are not preaching Islam but a putrefied, distorted version of religion.

Reuters quoted Dean Haydon, head of London police’s Counter Terrorism Command, this way: “These men have stayed just within the law for many years, but there is no one within the counter terrorism world that has any doubts of the influence that they have had, the hate they have spread and the people that they have encouraged to join terrorist organisations.”

Because the U.S. enjoys a long and cherished tradition of free speech, it may be harder here than in some other countries -- where the laws may be a bit different -- to find and convict any radical clerics who would like nothing better than to hunt up recruits for ISIS, al-Qaida or other terrorist networks. But wherever such anti-civilization voices are heard, law enforcement authorities, aided by citizens who are aware of such messages, should be doing everything in their power to shut them down.

The British have done the world a favor by convicting Choudary. Until he has a message of repentance and hope to offer, may he be silent.

(Here, by the way, is the BBC's account of how officials finally shut Choudary down.)

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ZINGERS FROM THE BACK PEWS

Just discovered a guy on Twitter called the "Church Curmudgeon." Here's a story about him, along with some of his funny, satirical tweets. Further proof that grumpy old men can be a hoot.

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Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: Please mark your calendar and tell friends: I will introduce my newest book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. Hope to see you there. For details and to register, click here.