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How religious literalism drove her mad: 12-31-16/1-1-17

A primary argument in my new book, The Value of Doubt, is that we miss much of the meaning of sacred writ if we take it all literally and imagine that it has no historical, scientific, economic or other kinds of errors in it.

Sin-BravelyIn fact, if we get locked into a strict literalistic interpretation of the Bible and a vision of God as a vengeful authority figure without compassion, it can so discombobulate our thinking that it can create what looks for all the world to be -- and may actually be -- mental illness.

Exhibit A of that statement is Maggie Rowe, author of Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience, which is to be officially published Jan. 10 but is now available for pre-order at the Amazon site to which I just linked you. (The subtitle I have on my review copy apparently has been changed to the one you see in the graphic here today: "My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell." I prefer the former one in that the latter seems to slam all evangelicals without regard for the variety of theological thinking among people who choose to call themselves evangelical.)

Maggie grew up in a household it would be fair to describe as conservative or evangelical Christian but not rigidly fundamentalist. And yet from the church teachings of her childhood she somehow came to understand God as a strict, by-the-book rule giver and disciplinarian who would be satisfied with nothing less than spiritual perfection. No one, of course, is capable of that, so, her church taught her, all she had to do was to say the "Sinner's Prayer" in which one confesses one's sinfulness and accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior. The underlying theological theory of atonement here is that Jesus has paid off God's wrath with his death on the cross.

As Rowe writes, ". . .there was a very specific prayer that needed to be said with a very specific attitude. . ." But, she worried, how can one ever know if she has prayed the prayer correctly with no guile in her heart?

"I decided," she says, "that the more I dedicated myself to Jesus and learned what the Bible said, the safer I would be. The more I tilled the soil of God's verses, the more likely it was that genuine faith would blossom inside me."

Theologians call Maggie's approach "works righteousness," which means one believes one's good works can earn eternal salvation. The teaching of the universal Christian church, however, countermands that and says people are saved by grace not by works.

Little Maggie had something else working against her: She seems to have been obsessive and compulsive about many things, and this seems to have transferred over to the way she thought about faith as she worked to prevent her eternal destination from being hell.

"To prevent tooth decay," she writes, "I brush my teeth for the dentist-recommended ninety seconds per quadrant. Every night. To prevent corneal irritation, I soak my contacts for a minimum of eight hours. . .I wash my hands before every meal, always digging my nails into the soap at the end, an added protection against the bacteria that might be lurking. I've always been this way."

So it's no surprise that at age 19 -- after a terrible experience while attending a play -- she finally checks herself into a Christian-based psychiatric unit, where one of the doctors diagnoses her as having a severe case of "scrupulosity." Which means she drills down into the tiniest detail to look for a flaw in her religious reasoning, and in so doing she closes herself off from accepting the possibility that God loves her as she is. As a counselor tells her, scrupulosity "involves a groundless fear of sinning." Another counselor tells her she has "a particular brand of scrupulosity. Something that has been called 'soul weighing,' a question of whether grace is sufficient."

The vision of God that literally terrified Maggie was this: "God was a big security camera in the sky whose feelings were easily hurt. He was a jealous God, capable of bitter, barbaric revenge." The fact that God also is described in the Bible as loving and caring seemed lost in all of this. And, as she notes, "It's just hard to know what is a metaphor and (what is) literal. It all seems to be mixed up together, which would be fine if I didn't think my literary-interpretation skills impacted my eternal fate."

What a burden she placed on herself. It drove her nuts.

And some of the help she got from counselors wasn't helpful at all. One of them, for instance, insisted on this: ". . .in the Bible, which is God's inerrant Word, God is clearly described as male." This particular counselor also misdiagnosed Maggie as being bulimic, as being a lesbian and as having other issues that weren't the problem. But other counselors were, in fact, quite helpful and eventually, after three months in the psych center, Maggie, while never acknowledging that she's "cured," is healed enough to get on with life without constant anxiety about going to hell.

She has gone on to perform in and produce the Comedy Central stage show, "Sit 'n Spin," and has written for such shows as "Arrested Development" and "Flaked." She's now also married to a writer.

So it's a fascinating book that explores the trouble that people who are naturally anxious can get into when they subscribe to a literalistic view of religion.

What I found troubling about the book was not at all the humor in it, and there's plenty. And that works well. Rather, I found that the long passages directly quoting other patients in the psych unit and quoting counselors at length were hard to believe in a literal way. She was mentally unbalanced when all that was taking place in front of her and surely was not taping all these conversations. And yet nowhere in the book do we get any kind of statement that says she's recreated the scenes as well as possible from memory or that the names she uses are not the real names of other patients of physicians. That kind of disclosure would have gone a long way to help me understand how the book was put together as non-fiction.

Perhaps that's just the journalist in me who wants to be clear about sources and means of information collection, but a brief explanation was called for. And readers don't get one.

And yet there is a deep honesty here about what has taken her down this destructive path. At one point she writes that "I hate Christians. I wish I didn't have to be one. I don't like being part of this group who thinks all other groups will lose out in the end." (Which, of course, is a description of just a certain type of Christian, but certainly not all Christians.)

Cover-Value of DoubtWhat, in the end, seems to help is that she begins to accept something that one of her counselors tells her: "Uncertainty is here to stay. You might as well shake hands with it and invite it to the party."

As I write in my own book, "The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certitude. Doubt creates the space in which faith may live. Certitude kills faith. It turns faith into a rigid caricature of itself, a Madame Tussauds' wax figure of the real thing. It may, from a distance, look genuine, but no real blood runs through it. There is no health in it. As much as its holders might pretend that it is vibrant, it is, in fact, comatose."

I hope Maggie Rowe -- and the rest of you -- have learned that by now. (I hope I've learned it, too.)

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I love it every year when my friend Stu Bykofsky, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, does his annual interview with God. Here is this year's version, in which we discover that God is on medical marijuana to relieve symptoms of lumbago. Enjoy. (And don't, for God's sake, take it literally.

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P.S.: My oldest sister, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., sent me a note late Friday night that Huston Smith, a Berkeley resident and the great scholar of world religions, died Friday morning there. He'd been in hospice care for some months. He was a terrific man whom I once got to hear speak in Kansas City and he was a wonderful advocate for interfaith understanding. Not only that, but he has Missouri connections. As of late Friday night Smith's website still reported that he was in hospice care and weak. By Sunday, The New York Times had published this story of his death. And I expect to write about him here on the blog in a few days.

Religious issues confronting us in 2017: 12-30-16

Almost all adult Americans are aware that the term "religious liberty" has taken on various political meanings. To some it means the freedom to protect LGBT people from discrimination. To others it means the freedom to discriminate against such people based on religious belief.

ReligiouslibertyAnd that's far from the only issue in which a similar kind of division can be found. Actually, divisions, plural. The range of positions on any matter touching on freedom of religion can be wide. So thinking in black-white, binary terms is often misleading.

What we can say with some certainty is that several important religious freedom issues will be in the news in 2017 as the Trump-Pence administration replaces the Obama-Biden team.

The courts, where many of these matters ultimately may be decided, are going to be busy.

As this Atlantic piece about all of this notes, "Every issue will come saddled with this fundamental conflict: Some groups’ claims to religious liberty may necessarily involve curtailing the rights of others." That's a pretty sweeping zero-sum-game statement, and I think it may not apply to "every issue," as the piece asserts. But something like that will be present in many cases.

The article also notes this: "No matter what happens, it seems clear that the conflict over religious liberty and discrimination will be the basis of some of the biggest fights and policy shifts over the next two years. What’s also clear is that religious liberty will not just be an issue for the white, conservative Christians who voted Trump into office."

The points of contention will be many, including those having to do with the possibility of a Muslim registry (a terrible and, ultimately, unconstitutional idea, if you ask me), with who will serve on the Supreme Court (now that Republicans have rejected President Obama's nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on purely partisan grounds, meaning that the way we pick justices from now on will be different and highly political), with abortion rights, with so-called bathroom laws about transgender people and more.

These culture-war issues will continue to divide the electorate in part because many of the American people seem to have lost the ability to see any reasonable points in the arguments of people with whom they disagree. Political compromise, once the engine that drove the nation forward, now is seen by many as a toxic cave-in of principles.

I don't yet know where the leaders will come from to lead us out of this terrible situation, but my hope is that some of those leaders will come from faith communities that know how to be comfortable with paradox, with ambiguity, with mystery and, above all, with humility. Otherwise the only game in town may degenerate into repetitive arguments of yes-no, yes-no.

The only other option is to silence the opposition. And you have not convinced people just because you have silenced them.

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Tibet's Communist Party leader, criticizing the Dalai Lama, says China's control of religion in Tibet will get only stronger. Notice how such threats and bombast have, since he fled the country in 1959, convinced the Dalai Lama to quit seeking autonomy for his beloved Tibet. Not at all. Is there a better example of meeting force and power with truth and consistency?

The day Duke became Duke: 12-29-16

Yesterday here on the blog, I wrote about an essay written a few decades back by a man who today teaches at Duke Divinity School, which, of course, is part of Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Duke_University_LogoWhat I didn't know when I wrote that entry is that today, by coincidence, marks the date in 1925 that Trinity College changed its name and became Duke University in light of a $40 million endowment fund given to the school (and the state) by one James B. Duke.

The history of Duke is quite interesting. The school's roots go back to 1838 when Methodists and Quakers started a little subscription school. The Quakers eventually gave their support to a different school.

But several name changes later, Duke, an institution that still has a United Methodist identity, now is internationally known -- and not just for basketball nor just for the fact that one of my sisters spent much of her nursing career working at Duke Medical Center (though she was never asked to play on the basketball team).

Its Divinity School is widely known and respected for such thinkers as not only Will Willimon, whom I mentioned yesterday, but for Stanley Hauerwas and others.

The Duke story is a reminder that many schools around the nation began with support from religious groups. It took quite a long time in the history of the United States for public education to become a reality, so many of the early schools -- particularly institutions of higher education -- were formed by faith communities.

In Kansas City, for example (not even counting our several seminaries, which I just wrote about here), Avila and Rockhurst (and St. Mary in Leavenworth) universities and Donnelly College are Catholic Institutions, not to mention Baker University in Baldwin City (with presence in the metro, too), an institution with deep Methodist roots. And there are Christian, Jewish and Islamic schools that go through high school.

In short, though I'm a strong proponent of public education, the educational landscape in this country would look quite different and quite impoverished without school with religious roots.

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Pope Francis, though wildly popular among many Catholics and non-Catholics, has made plenty of enemies. This analysis piece in the Globe and Mail from Canada offers some thoughtful reasons why: "With startling nerve he has humanized the papacy in a way only adumbrated by John XXIII and John Paul I; he has stripped it of its baroque obsessions and replaced them with his own passion for simplicity; he has modeled a ministry of leadership and unity that demystifies the office. He has, in fact, subverted the centuries-old notion of a monarchical papacy and that is the primary reason why he has created more opposition than any of his 20th-century predecessors." There's more to the story, but that's a good start.

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P.S.: I hope many of you can come to my 9-11 a.m. talk on Saturday, Jan. 14, at Second Presbyterian Church in KC called "Doubts and Hard Questions Pave the Road to Faith." Tickets (inexpensive) may be obtained here. I'll be drawing from my new book, The Value of Doubt.

Finding ourselves in holy discomfort: 12-28-16

It must now be 25 years ago that I judged a writing contest for the Evangelical Press Association.

William-willimonIn the midst of some fair-to-middlin' writing and some indigestible junk, I found a lovely piece by Will Willimon (pictured here), who at the time was dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke, and I gave him the top award. Willimon's career as a United Methodist leader has taken him hither and yon since then, but today he's back at Duke Divinity School as professor of the practice of ministry. The blog he writes is here.

It turns out I saved the Willimon piece from back in 1991 and I just rediscovered it as I've been thinning out stuff that over the years has collected in plastic bins in my basement.

I want to share a bit of it with you today because it's still on target. He wrote it about what he wants Duke students to feel and understand when they attend Duke Chapel, which he describes as "Gothic, massive and dark. It makes you feel small. The organ thunders. The space overwhelms you." (I agree. I've been in that chapel.)

He keeps stomach medicine for himself close at hand because the chapel always makes him uncomfortable -- which is exactly how he wants students to feel when they think about God.

"Some Sundays," he wrote, "even though we've got everything planned and the order of worship all nailed down, the Almighty still manages to reach in here, grab us by the neck and shake us."

But, he wrote, such worship is not common today: "We upholster churches like great carpeted living rooms, where every hard edge is cushioned and preachers pad around in slippers lest someone be even mildly disturbed.

"Mostly, we exit church no different from when we entered, once again reassured that God is silent, or, if not silent, at least speaking in a voice that sounds like our own. . .God: good friend, cheap therapist."

Author Annie Dillard once wrote something quite similar about God in one of her essays: "On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

And yet the domestication of God has continued in countless ways. But Willimon says the real God, the God who is "not some pale, idolatrous projection of our ego" sometimes can be seen driving "people out of graduate school and into the jungles of Honduras. I've seen people repent of their behavior even in a world that lives by 'if it feels good do it.' I've seen it!"

The balancing act, of course, is to understand the wholly and holy otherness of God even while not creating in our theological heads an angry God who wants to send us all to hell unless we say certain words of commitment.

When you get that balance right, let me know.

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When it was announced that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will perform at Donald Trump's inauguration, I half expected some complaints from Christians who think Mormonism is a cult. But it turns out the ones complaining are Mormons who don't want it to appear that Mormons are giving their approval to the Trump administration. A satiric reversal if I ever heard of one.

What do we speak of when we're dying? 12-27-16

2012-01-28 06.19.31

When people know they are dying, know their time is coming to an end in a matter of months, if not weeks or days, what do they want to talk about, to remember, to re-think in their sunset days?

The answer from the hospice nurse who wrote this CNN piece is pretty simple: "Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters. They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

"They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents: Mama, Daddy, Mother."

Faced with our own mortality and either the perceived immensity or meaninglessness of our own lives, all the loose, wandering embers of the fires of memory are stirred and we seem to dive deeply into what was most important to us -- assuming our pain is controlled enough to allow it.

One of the things I think this tells us is that however much we understand ourselves to be spiritual beings, we also come at the end of our time to recognize that we are physical beings who are deeply attached to what we can see, feel, smell, remember.

There is something divine about what is material in the sense that it is so mysterious, so almost-magical. The apparent solidity of the desk on which my keyboard sits as I type this is really mostly empty space around electrons and protons and neutrons and subatomic particles. It's the same with the people we love. It's the same with our own bodies. But it's through this mystery that we experience one another and the world around us. It's through this mystery that we begin to imagine not just the miracle of the natural world but also the supernatural.

When our time on Earth is short, we return to what we know, to the people and places we have loved, to our experiences with those people and places and we relive what we can.

I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, and our hospice nurses and chaplains will tell you very much what Kerry Egan, author of the CNN piece, has written: ". . .people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

"We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends. This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear."
Yes, we are spiritual people. But -- against what the old gnostics would have us believe -- we understand what that means via contact with the physical world.
(The sunset photo here today I took a couple of years ago from the deck of the home of friends in Kansas.)
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As the world prepares to commemorate in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis is seeking to reform the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially the Curia, or group of Vatican leaders. The Reformation started by Martin Luther wasn't an easy change, nor will the reformation Francis seeks within Catholicism. But as the pope says, "reform is not an end unto itself, but rather a process of growth, and above all, conversion.”

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P.S.: If you missed it, my latest column for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine, was published on Christmas Day and can be found here.

A plea for theological modesty: 12-26-16

In important ways, theology is, inevitably, an arrogant and even foolish pursuit, given that there is no possible way our finite minds can come close to grasping the infinite.

Divine-DanceAnd yet something in us -- something honorable, perhaps even God-given -- seeks to discover answers to the eternal questions about origin and especially about purpose. Science, math and other disciplines can answer many things for us but never the question about the purpose of life. Religion tries to answer the purpose question, but its answers always must be regarded as human efforts that may be wrong.

Many people who either commit themselves to theological study or who at least find ways to wrestle with theological questions are sincere people simply seeking to make sense of life and not to use what they're learning for personal economic or social advantage.

One such person is a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr, who has made quite a name for himself as an author and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.

His latest book is The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (co-authored with Mike Morrell), and I want to quote a brief passage from it because it says so well what I try to say when I urge people to be cautious about using language that seems to draw rigid theological conclusions:

"Our speaking of God is a search for similes, analogies, and metaphors. All theological language is an approximation, offered tentatively in holy awe. That's the best human language can achieve. We can say, 'It's like -- it's similar to. . .," but we can never say, 'It is. . ." because we are in the realm of beyond, of transcendence, of mystery. And we must -- absolutely must -- maintain a fundamental humility before the Great Mystery. If we do not, religion always worships itself and its formulations and never God."

Cover-Value of DoubtRohr is not arguing -- and, in my new book, The Value of Doubt, I am not arguing -- that it's never possible to make a faith commitment, to draw at least a provisional conclusion about God, about spiritual matters. Everyone does that in some way or another, even atheists and agnostics. Nor are we saying that it's foolish to commit oneself to living out a particular faith, to act as if you believe what you say you believe.

But both Rohr and I think it's essential to remember, as I point out in my book, that all language is metaphorical, pointing beyond itself to something else. So we should have some humility about drawing hard conclusions when it comes to matters of the spirit, of the divine.

Imagine all the trouble over the centuries that the world would have been saved had everyone shown that kind of theological humility as opposed to the false certitude (surely an idolatry) we often see. Imagine.

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A new poll shows that most Americans still think religion is really important, though the number of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated continues to rise. But you couldn't tell how important people think religion is if you were to judge by how much coverage the media devote to it. Instead, you'd think the most important thing of all was either sports or politics. 

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The Complete Encyclicals, Bulls, and Apostolic Exhortations, Volume 1, by Pope Francis. Whatever else you might say about this pontiff, there is no doubt that he has been prolific in his writings and speakings. I might even argue that he's been a more modest theologian than either of his two predecessors, John Paul XXIII or Benedict XVI. This volume, being released today, offers readers a collection of his most important words since he assumed the papacy in March 2013. If I were to judge what will be seen as his most important work -- at least so far -- it would be the encyclical called Laudato Si' about saving the environment. And that's certainly part of this collection. It's not a fancy book full of photos and illustrations. It's basically the texts, but in an easy-to-read font size. Catholics -- and others -- serious about understanding what this remarkable pope is bringing to the church will want a copy of this revealing book.

Being Christ bearers for Christmas: 12-24/25-16

For Christians, the incarnation that happened at Christmas (no matter when it really occurred on the calendar) is, in the end, about love and grace and understanding that God is compassionate.

2015-03-15 12.06.26What all that means must be unpacked by each follower of Jesus, but surely it means that we must do what Jesus told us to do in Matthew 18:3, and that is to change and "become like children." That doesn't mean becoming ignorant or foolish. It doesn't mean staying uneducated or immature. What it means, I think, is being open to love, open to the goodness in the world. It means believing the best about others, even if, as adults, we've been almost relentlessly disappointed in others and even in ourselves.

The one person I know who best exemplifies that trait of open innocence and willingness to love by thinking the best of others is my stepson Chris, a special needs adult in his 40s. Chris lives in a group home and works at a sheltered workshop. He's a member of our church, and he pretty much just wants to give everyone a hug -- especially when he ushers there once a month.

In the picture at left, you see Chris in early 2015 when I took him to Burger King for lunch one day and crowned him. It pleased him to be king for an hour, though I want you to know that he didn't issue any confiscatory decrees or, as kings are wont to do, send any armies out to capture additional real estate.

He just wore the gift of a crown and smiled.

It would be easy to romanticize people with developmental disabilities like Chris and make them into perfect examples of moral virtues. I don't want to do that because nobody is a perfect example of moral virtue, except, Christians would say, Jesus himself. Rather, I want to acknowledge the problems Chris has in life and especially acknowledge the powerful and admirable love and care his mother, my wife, has given to Chris all his life, but especially from the time he developed a seizure disorder as a toddler. Marcia is simply remarkable as Chris' mother.

Romanticizing developmental disabilities is sort of like romanticizing poverty. It's demeaning and it paints a false picture of the realities of the lives of those affected by it. Beyond that, it stops efforts to find causes and undo them.

And yet I have come to understand that there is something phenomenal about Chris and about how he has a capacity for giving and accepting love, which means being open to the core of another person's being no matter the status of that person.

The name Christopher means Christ bearer. Each follower of Jesus is called to be a Christ bearer to others. Most of us fail at that every day, sometimes in terribly destructive ways. If each of us could do as well as Chris in being a Christ bearer for others, the problems of this world might simply melt away into the longed-for peace for which the Prince of Peace stands.

Merry Christmas.

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And here's a Christmas challenge from a Catholic writer: "It’s tempting to turn Christmas into a safe holiday that asks little of us. But that would ignore the prophetic, subversive life of Jesus. Christians honor him on this holiday — and the rest of the year — only if we risk the scorn of the powerful to stand with the undocumented immigrant, the Muslim family viewed with suspicion, the refugee fleeing injustice." Well, unless all that is more than you or I can handle, in which case we can just go back to sweet carols, gift cards and fake trees. You know, ding dong merrily along.

When our culture, economy lack grace: 12-23-16

The United States has just been through a terrifically vile and trying election season. Before we move on, we would do well to think about (for the purpose of changing and fixing) what this Atlantic piece calls "The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy."

MeritocracyWhatever else we need as we seek to adjust to a politics and an economics that increasingly seems divisive and unwelcoming to many of our fellow citizens, what we cannot do without is grace.

As Victor Tan Chen, author of the article, writes, "While it has its roots in Christianity, grace is prized by many other religions — from Buddhism’s call to accept suffering with equanimity, to the Tao Te Ching’s admonishment to treat the good and bad alike with kindness, to the Upanishads’ focus on the eternal and infinite nature of reality."

Chen, who teaches sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, notes that although everyone needs grace, "the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those — both white and nonwhite — who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins — cultural and economic — they can deal more kindly with one another. Grace is a forgiving god."

You heard this blame game going on from both sides in the Trump-Clinton race. It was Clinton referring to some Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables." It was Trump describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and Muslims as unwilling to tell law enforcement authorities about terrorists in their midst.

The problem, Chen writes, is that our economy is a meritocracy that moves us toward a failure of compassion, an unwillingness to recognize the common humanity in others who may be poorer or less well-educated than we are and/or to grasp the causes of their poverty and ignorance, many of which are beyond the control of those suffering:

"The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth."

What Chen is doing here is what I suggested in this recent post that we all should do, and that is to think theologically -- even though Chen calls himself an agnostic.

The lessons of grace, of forgiveness, of concern for the poor and needy often seem to be lost in the meritocracy that is our economy and our culture generally. When that happens, we lose sight of the reality that each of us is a precious life, each a child of God, to put it in theological terms. And when we lose that we pretty much lose everything.

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Pope Francis, it's reported, went to a shop in Rome the other day to buy a pair of orthopedic shoes. Everyone seemed astonished that he would perform so mundane a task. But it didn't surprise me. After all, who better is in a position to deal with soles?

Things looking up for Bethlehem? 12-22-16

Another thing each Christmas season brings is a report about the state of life and tourism in Bethlehem, a few miles from Jerusalem. (The new version of the Christmas carol, by the way, is, "O Little Town of Bethlehem, on the Occupied West Bank.")

Nativity-Beth-15This year the news is better than in some recent times -- at least for this Christmas season. The Reuters piece to which I just linked you reports that "Bethlehem really can boast again that there is no room at the inn, as relative calm in the Israeli-occupied West Bank brings pilgrims and tourists flocking to the town of Jesus's birth."

Tourists are filling the 5,000 rooms in the city's 46 hotels. And the Church of the Nativity is full of pilgrims. (However, for the longer term, lots Christians are leaving Bethlehem, as this piece reports, and the future is uncertain.)

All of which is a reminder of a couple of things:

First, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, with no resolution in sight. And, as I reported here recently, there are diplomats and others who seem to be giving up on the idea that a two-state solution will ever work. Barring some miraculous development in the next few weeks, the diplomatic questions about all of this from an American perspective will fall to the incoming Trump administration.

A second question the annual Bethlehem news story raises is whether Bethlehem really was the birthplace of Jesus. The evidence for it is slim, but it long as been accepted as tradition in Christianity, and no one seems very interested in upending that tradition. I've been to Bethlehem twice in my life -- once on Christmas Eve of 1957 (when it was still in Jordan) and once in the spring of 2012, when I took the photo you see here of the glass and metal star placed in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity on the exact spot (that's what tourists are told) of Jesus' birth.

All of that, again, calls into question why some people think the Bible should be read as literal history. I won't get into all that again today except to say that if you think the Bible is inerrant historically, scientifically and in all other ways, you're missing a lot of the point of the book. Sigh.

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Do you buy monk-made fruitcakes from Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo., this time of year? You're far from alone, as this NPR story attests. My good friend Fr. W. Paul Jones is a Catholic priest and Trappist monk attached to Assumption Abbey, though he spends just one week a month there. The other three weeks he's the resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in Pittsburg, Mo., on Lake Pomme de Terre, a center on whose board I serve. (You can find the center's Facebook page here.) Paul tells us that the abbey has invited in a community of Vietnamese monks to live there and rejuvenate the community, and it's become an increasingly lively place.

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P.S.: Please put it on your calendar. I will be speaking from 9 to 11 a.m. on Jan. 14 at Second Presbyterian Church about contemporary spirituality, based on my new book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. I'm the third speaker in a four-part series, and we'll have contemplative fun with PowerPoint photos, YouTube videos, music tracks amid words from me and then your questions. Tickets are required (they're cheap) and you can get one here. I hope to see some of you that Saturday morning.

A new use for Hitler's birthplace: 12-21-16

The ripple effects from the Holocaust are endless. Often they are personal and painful, as survivors remember those who were murdered by Adolf Hitler's Nazi machinery of death and who tell their own stories of escape.

Hitler-birth-houseBut sometimes they are more symbolic, raising questions about how to commemorate what happened, how to remember those responsible, how to interpret history and theology in light of Germany's policy of murdering all the Jews of Europe -- a policy that was two-thirds successful, resulting in about six million Jewish deaths, to say nothing of millions more who perished because they were gay or gypsies or Polish intelligentsia and others.

A nagging symbolic question for some years has been what to do with the house in Austria in which Hitler was born (seen in the photo at left). Should it be a museum about the leader of the Third Reich? Should it be devoted to Jewish causes? Should it simply be torn down?

The Austrian government has now answered that question by deciding to seize the property and let it be used by a charity that cares for people with learning disabilities.

In some ways, many of the Austrian people -- and certainly some of its leaders -- might be said to have suffered from a learning disability, which is to say their failure to learn how they themselves supported the evil that Hitler enacted on the world.

As the Christian Science Monitor piece to which I've linked you reports, "The question of what should become of the house had raised tough choices for Austrians, whose understanding of their country’s role in World War II has only in recent decades shifted toward an acknowledgment of involvement in the Third Reich’s crimes. And it seems to underscore the importance of the public's understanding of its country's history and what that means for the present."

Austria's support for the Nazis was deep and wide. As the Monitor piece notes, "until the early 1990s, the official story was that Austrians were simply the Nazis’ first victims, obscuring the truth of the way that Austrians received the German takeover, according to Winfried Garscha, a historian at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance in Vienna.

“'The majority of the Austrian population welcomed Hitler because for them it was a big event, the German chancellor invading Austria and coming here and bringing all those new promises of the Nazis, because Austria at that time was a very poor country,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in a 2015 interview.

“'The second reason was a very Austrian one. In Austria anti-Semitism was even deeper rooted than in Germany.'"

As the Hitler birth place finds a useful new life, I hope somewhere on the property its connection to Hitler will be noted. To forget is, after all, in some way to open up the possibility of history repeating itself.

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The new international religious freedom act, just signed by President Obama, now includes protection of atheists and other religiously unaffiliated people. Good. It's an important inclusion at a time when roughly 25 percent of American citizens now identify as religiously unaffiliated.