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A descent into biblical literalism: 5-31-17


The fact that the sacred scripture of major faiths is full of metaphor, myth, allegory and poetry seems to escape the notice of some people who prefer to understand things literally.

Such folks get attracted to the weirdness of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where they are told that Earth is just a few thousand years old and that dinosaurs (scientists say they died out 65 million years ago) once roamed the planet along with human beings.

In other words, they take the beautiful creation stories in Genesis (there are two such stories there and they don't match up very well) literally. Or try to.

Well, this approach to faith and business seems to work well enough that, as this Washington Post story reports, the founder of the Creation Museum, Ken Ham, last summer opened up a tourist site featuring a monstrously large Noah's Ark: Ham, "the founder of Answers in Genesis, an online and publishing ministry with a strict creationist interpretation of the Bible, employed 700 workers to erect the $120 million Ark Encounter, which is five stories high and a football field and a half in length, and packs a powerful whoa punch."

Why do people need such literal stories? What is it about faith for them that moves from awe and wonder to an insistence on facts that are not facts but foolishness?

An ark with two of every animal? Well, as Genesis 7 reports, God said two of every unclean animal but seven pairs of every clean animal. The number of animals on board would have been insanely (and impossibly) high.

The Genesis story is not really a history of a real flood. Rather, it's a story about God's faithfulness and humanity's rebellion.

Still, this literal story-telling stuff seems to sell. The potential audience is both gullible and huge. Sigh.

(The image here today is from the Ark Encounter website.)

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The recently reported news that Melania Trump is Catholic raises the question in religion scholar Mark Silk's mind of whether her church believes her marriage to the president is valid. Which brings us into the whole issue when, why and how the Catholic church annuls marriages. "Under the circumstances," Silk writes, "you can understand why the Trump campaign — and, indeed, the Trump presidency — had an interest in suppressing Melania’s religious identity. And why Melania looks so uptight in her photos with the pope." This all might prove much more interesting than whether it's called Second Corinthians or, as Trump puts it, "Two Corinthians."

What Warren Buffett and Tom Watson share: 5-30-17

I am almost 10 years late getting to read a terrific biography of investment wizard Warren Buffett (pictured at left). But I'm finally into The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder.

Buffett Tom-watsonNormally I'd just read this for my own edification and move on without writing about it. But I found in the book a Buffett story about antisemitism from the late 1960s that reminded me of a similar story from 1990 involving golfer Tom Watson (pictured at right) about Kansas City's own antisemitism.

Let me share them with you.

Buffett never had much use for social clubs or country clubs. But when a friend of his announced he no longer would attend meetings at clubs that discriminated against Jews, Buffett, who previously had resigned from a Rotary Club because, as Schroeder writes, he was "repelled by the bigotry he saw as a member of its membership committee," Buffett decided to sponsor a Jew to be a member of the Omaha Club.

But Buffett knew he was likely to run into antisemitic bigotry that would keep his friend Herman Goldstein out of that club, partly on the theory that Jews had their own country club.

So Buffett went to another Jewish friend and asked him to nominate Buffett to be a member of the all-Jewish Highland Country Club. Naturally, some Highland members objected on the basis that non-Jewish clubs in town refused to allow Jews, so why should Highland take in a gentile like Buffett? But Buffett lined up help from some rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League and got voted in.

"Once accepted," Schroeder writes, "Buffett quietly stormed the Omaha Club, armed with his Jewish country-club membership. Herman Goldstein was voted in, and the long-standing religious barrier to membership there finally toppled."

So good for Warren Buffett. But 20-plus years later, in 1990, good for Kansas City's most famous golfer, Tom Watson.

Someone had nominated Henry Bloch, the H of H&R Block (different spelling), to be a member of the Kansas City Country Club. But Bloch, who is Jewish, was blackballed.

As this story recounts, Watson (who at the time was married to a Jew) was overseas when Bloch was blackballed, but heard what had happened and relayed word that if this decision wasn't reversed by the time he got back to Kansas City he'd quit the club. It wasn't and he did.

“He was resigned, I think, for a year or two years," Bloch says, "and then clubs formed to get me back in, and it worked.”

But Watson's principled stand was part of what broke down that ridiculous barrier, just as Buffett's stand had a similar effect in Omaha years earlier.

Is there still antisemitism and racism in country clubs? Of course. But each time someone with a moral center stands up for what's right, it makes it harder for those on the wrong side of history to succeed.

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Some Christians who call themselves conservative or evangelical also believe they're being persecuted in the U.S. This piece suggests otherwise and, in effect, tells them to knock it off because they're hurting their own cause.

How money sometimes gets used in church battles: 5-29-17

Different faith traditions use different methods to provide financial support for their houses of worship and related programming, staff and outreach work.

Collection-plateIt's typical, for instance, for synagogues to have membership dues, sometimes on a sliding scale for individuals and families.

In churches, by contrast, it's common for members (and sometimes non-members who attend regularly) to make annual financial pledges to support the congregation's staff, building, operations and outreach ministries. Typically those pledges are paid off with contributions put in the collection plates each week at worship.

At least in theory, those pledges are seen as an expression of gratitude to God for divine blessings and are not dependent on who, at the moment, might be filling the role of senior pastor, rector or priest.

With that as background, let me describe something happening in a church I know about.

The current pastor, who has been on the job there several years, recently announced -- to the surprise and consternation of some and to the relief of some others -- that he plans to leave soon.

One member of this congregation quickly circulated an e-mail among some other members announcing that she did not trust the elected leadership of the congregation, demanding an explanation of what was going on and announcing a pledge reduction of 90 percent a week while she evaluates her options.

Before long, a "reply all" note from another member announced that he and his wife would be withholding the remaining part of their pledge to the congregation until the situation gets resolved.

I have no direct stake in this matter. I happen to know the pastor and, when I learned he was leaving, sent him a quick note to wish him well as he discerns his future. He replied with thanks and then said, "Whoever said faith is not an adventure?!"

But it saddens me that the people withholding their pledged financial support for the church seem to view things there the way the member of a country club might look at some internal issue that angered them. (In fact, some are talking about leaving the congregation altogether.)

But a pastor is not equivalent to the paid manager of a country club. In Christianity the pastor is considered to be called by God through the voice of the congregation and the denomination's polity structure to fill the role of spiritual leader to equip members to do ministry. Money pledged to support that work -- once pledged -- should never be dependent on unanticipated events that upset the person who made the financial pledge. That money, in effect, belongs to the mission God has given to that congregation. (And if I die in the middle of the year, I hope my descendants, if possible, will fulfill the rest of my annual pledge to my congregation.)

Even if something happens that makes a person decide to abandon the congregation altogether, a pledge should be honored as a promise to God. Money in such cases should not be viewed as a weapon, which is how it appears that it is being used in this case.

Now, of course, what I just described is the way things should work. The reality is that they sometimes don't work that way at all because human egos and agendas and misunderstandings get in the way. Which is why Christianity is about grace, forgiveness, reconciliation.

Which is one more reason it's such a difficult faith to live out fully and consistently.

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On this Memorial Day, I hope you'll join me in giving thanks to all the people in American history who gave their time and sometimes their lives so that we could vote, choose our religion freely, receive public education and all the other amazing benefits and responsibilities of being a citizen of the United States. Freedom, of course, is never free.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what the Jewish community in KC has done to recover from the 2014 shootings -- now is online here.

They show us how to be human: 5-27/28-17

In the midst of chaos, of crisis, of challenge, death and disaster, it's the human stories we look for to give us hope, perspective and a reason not to despair about humanity.

ManchesterSo we are drawn to stories about rescue in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We seek out stories of fire fighters and police officers and paramedics putting themselves in harm's way almost daily.

And we look for examples of people who cross boundaries to bring comfort, to offer a word of balm, to show evidence of our common humanity.

Here is just such an example in the aftermath of the deadly suicide bombing outside a concert hall a few days ago in Manchester in the United Kingdom.

What we see in this brief story from the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) news organization is a 93-year-old Jewish woman speaking and praying with a much younger Muslim man at a makeshift memorial site in Manchester.

Be sure to scroll down and watch the brief, touching video of the two.

We don't know a lot about either person except that both are from an interfaith forum in another English city. But in this case their individual identities are much less important than their roles as representatives of what humanity should be and how humans should behave in response to a catastrophe.

There are, of course, other iconic models of that. Think, for instance, of the lone man in Beijing in 1989 standing in front of a tank near Tiananman Square, where people died in a protest movement.

We need those images. We need people to show us how to be fully human. What they say to the suicide bombers, to oppressive government authorities is that you have chosen the wrong side of both history and humanity. Yes, each of us is capable of evil, but at our best we choose good, even love.

(The JTA story identified the photo here today as a screenshot from Twitter.)

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A wave of antisemitic attacks in the Bay Area of California has heightened tensions there, but it's not the only place in the U.S. where this evil is happening. When my next Flatland column posts Sunday morning here, you can read about how Kansas City's Jewish community has been recovering from being targeted in shootings in April 2014 at Jewish institutions here. Antisemitism is a sickness rooted in fear and marinated in hatred. Its sources must be uprooted and its victims surrounded by love and protection.

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P.S.: The next speaker in the Contemporary Spirituality series (I spoke in January) will be Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister who teaches at Villanova. It's a Friday evening/Saturday day event June 23 and 24, but there are options if you can be there only part of the time. For a pdf about the event, download this file:  Download Delio

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what the Jewish community in KC has done to recover from the 2014 shootings -- now is online here.

Modern echoes of the Inquisition: 5-26-17

One of the reasons I wrote my latest book, The Value of Doubt, is that in various places around the world I see evidence of religion that countenances no doubts about anything, religion that insists not only that it has all the answers but that if any alleged adherents of that religion have different answers they must be crushed.

Heresy Cover-Value of DoubtIf this sounds like some of the terrorists who justify their violent extremism on the basis of their twisted reading of Islam, yes, I'm thinking of that -- mostly recently the slaughter in Manchester, England, and the ISIS claim of responsibility for that madness. But let's not imagine that such misshapen religious thought and action is somehow new in our era. Oh, my, no.

For instance, it was on this date in 1232 that Pope Gregory IX sent the first Inquisition team to Aragon in Spain. This did not become directly what we'd later referred to as the Spanish Inquisition. That dates to the late 15th Century. But both attempts at policing orthodoxy within Catholicism were examples of what happens when theological certitude about matters that cannot bear the weight of certitude rules the day.

Gregory's order in 1232 happened in the midst of what was known as Albigensian or Cathar heresy.

The heresy, if it was one, had to do with a Gnostic view of things, including the idea that there was a good God of the New Testament and an evil God found in the Hebrew scriptures.

These kinds of theological sword fights to the death seem weird and even unthinkable to many Christians today, and yet we find various branches of the faith -- not just Catholicism -- creating ways to enforce orthodox thinking. Even as you read this, for instance, the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Mainline Protestant denominations, is at the edge of schism because some of its members, on the basis of how they read scripture, want to prevent ordination of gays and lesbians while others want to change the rules to allow such ordination. Some on both sides of that issue are locked into certitude with no room for compromise or discussion.

What history makes clear is that when religious bodies adopt rigid positions about which there can be neither debate nor serious conversation, the path forward inevitably is filled with blood and trauma. Which should be a warning, but rarely is perceived that way.

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As we continue to commemorate the 500th anniversary this year of the start of the Protestant Reformation, let's not forget the effect this had on music, especially church and protest music. This BBC piece explains. But if we're to stay ahead of the curve, don't we need a rap version of Martin Luther's most famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"?

An admirable Eugene Peterson collection: 5-25-17

The millions of fans of the Rev. Eugene H. Peterson, whose masterful paraphrase of the Bible called The Message has been wildly popular, will be thrilled to learn of the publication of a thick collection of his sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God.

Kingfishers-FireFor almost 30 years, Peterson was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. And now the rest of us get to listen in as he preaches wisdom and challenge to that congregation -- and to us.

Peterson, now a professor emeritus at Regent College in British Columbia, comes into the pulpit knowing where members of the congregation hurt and need balm, knowing their joys, their sorrows, their hopes, their rages. Over the bubbling, troubled water of human emotion he spreads out the oil of scripture and what he thinks it means for this time and place.

He tries not to get in the way of the word that God would speak to congregants. Rather, he tries to be a channel of God's grace, though a thoughtful, well-prepared channel.

For a Christmas sermon, for instance, he returns to the Isaiah source of the promise, "To us a child is born, to us a son is given." And he notes the foolishness of human wisdom about that: "One would think that a thunderbolt would be more effective. Or something massive and worldwide like Noah's flood. Something attention getting like the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah. Something spectacular like the battle of Armageddon. What they got was a child. What we get is a child."

For Peterson, the word "congruence" is crucial. The Christian life for him must be in harmony with what we've learned about life from Jesus:

"The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence -- congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Words made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh."

There are seven sections here, each containing seven sermons.

Dillard-PetersonAnd each section shimmers with insight.

A closing aside: One of the best pieces I ever read by Peterson was his July 1986 article in Theology Today about author Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and other works. I still have that piece on my office bookshelf (well marked up from my reading it years ago, as you can see in the photo at left), though the link I've given you to it is merely an abstract of it. But I knew then that Peterson was something special as a writer and as a thinker.

He's still at it today, though this latest volume of sermons may serve, in some sense, as a final representation of his life of ministry. And the rest of us are blessed to have it.

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When President Trump and Pope Francis met at the Vatican, the pontiff, reports RNS, gave Trump "three lengthy documents, including his landmark encyclical underscoring the perils of global warming." And Trump replied, "I will be reading them." You may insert your own punchline -- about lying, about reading attention span, about global warming, about any of dozens of other possibilities -- here.

What Trump got right (and wrong) in Saudi Arabia: 5-24-17

Now that a couple of days have passed since President Donald Trump spoke at length in Saudi Arabia about Islam, let's take a deep breath and try to give it a fair analysis. If you didn't hear it or haven't read it, here's the text.

Abrahamic-faithsOn the whole, it was better than I expected (though my expectations were low). Given Trump's incendiary, anti-Muslim language in his presidential campaign last fall, no one would have been surprised had this most indelicate of leaders tromped into the heart of Islam's founding and behaved like a bull in a china shop. But instead of repeating such nonsense as his campaign contention that Islam hates us, this speech was more measured, more careful, more nuanced.

Not perfect, but, by Trump standards, much better.

There was, of course, the traditional self-congratulatory bunkum that all presidents offer: "For Americans, this is an exciting time. A new spirit of optimism is sweeping our country." Well, it is an exciting time for Americans, but much more because it's a time of great uncertainty as we're being led by a president with a terrible approval rating who is enmeshed in scandals and investigations that conceivably might wind up with his impeachment on charges of obstruction of justice.

But you didn't expect him to say that, right?

One line that may or may not have been sincere but that I was, nonetheless, glad to see on the record was Trump's promise "that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others."

Both indirectly and directly, America has tried to do that in countless ways since we became an international superpower. The reality of global commerce means that at least indirectly this will continue, but at least some of the blame will go to the buyers of our Hollywood movies, our soulless TV shows, our weapons as well as our useful products.

Trump made that pledge more specific in his speech: "We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all."

In announcing the opening of a "new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology" in Saudi Arabia, the president correctly noted that Muslim-majority countries "must take the lead in combating radicalization." It might not have been received well, but at this point Trump missed an opportunity to remind the Saudi leadership that their on-going promotion of the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam around the world has made religious ideas that lead to terrorism more prominent. How else can we begin to explain that the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis?

He also failed to remind members of the House of Saud that they permit no religious freedom in their kingdom. Americans cherish religious liberty as a foundational human right. Trump could have spoken truth to power by pointing out that Islam is strong enough by itself (as it has proven around the world) and doesn't need to be propped up by a government that forbids the practice of any other faith within its boundaries. That was a clear Trump failure in this speech.

Trump's words about ending violent extremism were in considerable tension with his words from his campaign. In the Saudi speech he said, "Th(e) goal is to meet history’s great test — to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples." It was easy to imagine Trump, at this point, saying to himself, "But just don't try to do that in the U.S. We don't want you."

IslamThat attitude, expressed in various ways by Trump and many of his supporters, ignores the reality that the U.S. is home to many Muslims now and has been for centuries. Among the Muslims Trump seems to ignore are African-Americans, who make up a sizable portion of American Muslims. In fact, Muslims have been part of the fabric of our country since the days of slavery.

I did find it odd and a bit out of character for Trump, a man who seems to have a nominal commitment to religious faith and an even shallower understanding of religion, to sound a few times in the Saudi speech like a preacher: "If we do not stand in uniform condemnation of this killing — then not only will we be judged by our people, not only will we be judged by history, but we will be judged by God."

Then he used language one expects to hear from some of the more fiery pulpits: "Barbarism will deliver you no glory – piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and YOUR SOUL WILL BE CONDEMNED." (Those all-caps are in the White House official text. So, in effect, Trump is screaming at people about going to hell. Weird. Well, at least he didn't promise them 72 Miss USA pageant participants.)

He also described the fight against terrorism as "a battle between Good and Evil."

That's the kind of simplistic dualism we have come to expect from many political leaders. A true leader would find a way to stand for what is both good and just even while acknowledging that all of us -- even our countries -- fail at that. The damage around the world that Western Imperialism (whether political, economic or religious) has done kneecaps any claim that we in the West always are on the side of good.

Trump was correct when he noted that "the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children." But this Middle-East-centric language ignores the reality that the largest Muslim-majority country in the world isn't in the Middle East at all. It's Indonesia. And soon India's Muslim population may surpass Indonesia's.

The reach of terrorism, after all, is not confined to the Middle East, nor are its sources.

And here was a Trump line delivered in Saudi Arabia that I wish we had heard about America in his campaign: "For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again — and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope."

Instead, Americans got Trump's call for at least a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration. And, oh, my, what irony in the Saudi speech to hear Trump say that he was glad to "applaud Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees." Would that he'd say that about the U.S.

Well, Trump could have done much worse. I'm glad he had speech writers who were able to soften the president's raw emotions that seem instinctively to seek revenge and victory for self. This speech did not represent great diplomacy, but for this man on a tour of world religions at least there was evidence of the possibility of reason. The question now, as this Atlantic piece rightly asks, is what policy changes, if any, will Trump make now?

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Just for comparative purposes, here is journalist Mehdi Hasan's critical view of the Trump speech in Saudi Arabia. He is convinced that the real Muslim-bashing Trump soon will reappear. I hope he's wrong but my hope isn't based on much.

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We Stood Upon Stars: Finding God in Lost Places, by Roger W. Thompson. In some ways this is the kind of lovely little travel book you'd like with you on a long flight or at the beach. But it's deeper and more engaging than that. The author's sensitivities are profoundly spiritual, though not in an obtrusive, ham-handed kind of way. Think of the gentle way Annie Dillard, for instance, writes about nature and the ways in which it is infused with the holy. This is a book about finding eternal meaning -- and finding one's own soul. The method is by travel through the American West, though that, frankly, is incidental to the book's purpose. People, the author writes, "seem more lost than ever" even though we have "streets mapped and towns gridded and cars and phones outfitted with GPS." Thompson, an entrepreneur and author, writes of "reckless" beauty and of being drawn into the landscape, proof that there can be a theology of place. There is much personal in this volume, including the loss of a child in the womb. But there is also a sense of whimsy. And, most important, you will find here an eternal perspective: "There is something embedded in us that draws us to the horizon. We are not entirely at home here. So we look beyond the oceans and deserts and mountains to the stars, and we wonder why. It's the distant wind that catches our face in the breeze and we breathe it deep through our nostrils and it smells of freedom and we know it is freedom we seek."

Another problem when religion fades: 5-23-17

It no longer is news that religion has become less important to many Americans. We've all read about the decline in membership of many Protestant denominations. We know that about 25 percent of American adults now consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. We're aware of surveys that show atheism is on the rise. And on and on.

Alt-rightWhat is less understood are some of the ramifications of this slippage. This became clearer to me recently when I read this fascinating article in the current issue of The Atlantic. It's called "His Kampf," and describes how alt-right white supremacist Richard Spencer has become a leader of this vile movement. (The article is long, but worth your time.)

The author, journalist Graeme Wood, who was a high school classmate of Spencer, writes this toward the end of this disturbing profile:

"Meanwhile, religion has faded. (The late Christopher) Hitchens (an aggressive "new atheist") would have said that's for the best. But at the Christmas party (described earlier in the piece), Spencer was right about religion's power. It exerted a binding force and sense of purpose on its followers, and in its absence, the alt-right is delighted to supply values and idols all its own."

Now, of course, the huge majority of people who either have walked away from institutional religion or were never connected to it in the first place do not adopt the radically racist thinking of much of the alt-right. But it's also true that when a vacuum begins to form, something will try to fill it.

Some of what fills gaps left by religion is, in our culture, mindless entertainment with no moral center, whether that means violent films or video games or online trash of various kinds. But for the especially susceptible, the vulnerable, the intellectually flaccid, the malignant ideas of the alt-right can have some appeal.

It is a foolish waste of time to pine over some imagined time of American greatness in, say, the 1950s, when churches and synagogues were full and there weren't many mosques or other houses of worship. There was much that was diseased about that time of more overt and systemic racism (including in religious bodies). Nonetheless, it is understandable for many Americans who have deep roots in religious faith to wish that the defensible values and morals promoted by such faith were more robustly available today to act as a counter force to the malevolence of the alt-right.

This is not news, either: It's up to such people of faith to work to make that so.

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Disgraced and once-jailed former televangelist Jim Bakker is back preaching that the end times are near (he'll sell you survival food) and that Donald Trump was anointed by God, this longish Buzzfeed story reports. Doesn't sound like he's learned much.

An Episcopal-Methodist partnership? 5-22-17

In a time of division and rancor within Christianity (well, within almost all faith traditions), it's sort of nice to hear about the potential for cooperation and partnership.

Episcopal-logo UMC-logoA group made up of Episcopalians and United Methodists is recommending that both denominations enter into what is called "full communion." Each would remain a separate body, but such an agreement would allow them to work together in many ways, both theologically and in terms of how ministry is done. (You may know that Methodism originally was a break-away movement from Anglicanism.)

As the Episcopal press release to which I've linked you above reports, "Full implementation of the proposal will take at least three years. The Episcopal Church General Convention and the United Methodist Church General Conference must approve the agreement, which culminates 15 years of exploration and more than 50 years of formal dialogue between the two churches."

The 10-page document proposing full communion is called “A Gift to the World, Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

One of the aspects I particularly wondered about is how the document proposes to treat the issue of apostolic succession, the idea that bishops in the Episcopal Church, like Catholic bishops, believe they can trace the chain of their ordination all the way back to the apostles of Jesus Christ. Protestants, including United Methodists, generally aren't nearly as concerned about that if they're concerned at all.

The Episcopal-Methodist document deals with that starting in line 143. It seems to draw a distinction between apostolic succession and  “historic episcopate,” which apparently satisfies both sides, though it might take a weekend seminar to explain it to the rest of us. You can read it in detail in the document to which I've linked you if that interests you.

In any case, what Christians call the Body of Christ -- the church universal -- is badly divided. Any move toward unity -- not uniformity, which is something different -- is to be applauded, as far as I'm concerned.

But it may be that the Episcopalians are in process of entering into full communion with a body that is itself on the edge of schism. I wrote about that, including the role that the Rev. Adam Hamilton of the Kansas City area is playing, in this recent Flatland column.

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How interesting. In his Sunday speech in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of his world religion tour, President Trump's speech as written did not use the controversial term "radical Islamic terrorism," referring to such violence instead as "fanatical violence," though at one point he referenced "Islamic extremism." But as this Washington Post story notes,  "he slightly veered off the prepared excerpts released earlier by the White House, saying 'Islamic' instead of 'Islamist' on several occasions." On the whole, the wording choice in the prepared remarks was an improvement. I plan to have a deeper look at this speech and its ramifications here on Wednesday.

Some needed historical context about Islam: 5-20/21-17

As President Trump travels to the heart of Islam, Saudi Arabia, I want to call to your attention a book about Islam that I haven't yet had a chance to read but that may (or may not) help you understand some of the historical background and context that I have every confidence the president knows almost nothing about.

Idea-muslim-worldBut his ignorance and short-attention span need not be our model.

This Chronicle of Higher Education review of a new book called The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, by Cemil Aydin, suggests that when we think in blanket terms, such as "the Muslim world" or "the West," we get a dangerously distorted view not just of present reality but also of history.

Each of those terms covers a huge and often-clashing internal reality that cannot be brought to harness by a single term. As I've said over and over to the point of tiring even myself out, labels hide more than they reveal, so we must be really careful in how we use them.

A small example: The word Presbyterian. It's a label put on several denominations but it's really a description of a system of church governance, one that employs representative democracy. When you hear the word, you would do well to ask whether the person using it is referring to the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the the Presbyterian Church in America or to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church or to something else.

And even drawing such distinctions may not help you much in knowing what common feature is meant by use of the term.

Similarly, when people speak today about Islam, it's useful to ask whether they mean Sunni, Shi'a or Sufi. Do they refer to this or that school of Islamic jurisprudence? Do they mean something about Islam as it's found in dozens and dozens of countries in the world today or do they mean something about its founding in the Seventh Century -- or somewhere in between.

And as the reviewer writes in the piece to which I've linked you, it helps also to know that "the racialization of Muslims as a homogeneous group and the construction of the 'Muslim world' as a seamless whole began in this period (the latter half of the 19th century), with the onset of Western colonization of much of what we term today the Middle East and other parts of Asia."

Yes, but we can't blame Western imperialists alone: "What is interesting is that this European project of constructing a monolithic 'Muslim world' was bolstered by Muslim intellectuals themselves, who, in the same period, sought refuge in Pan-Islamism," the piece says.

Well, I'm glad these kinds of efforts at history are being made. Perhaps they can redirect the kind of anti-intellectual critiques of Islam we've seen not just from this president but also from some of his willfully ignorant followers. The truth about the history and current state of Islam is complex, nuanced and difficult to hold in a one-frame picture.

That reality should lead all of us to speak about Islam (a jewel with a thousand cuts and shapes) with caution. But it rarely seems to.

* * *


An Emory University professor suggests in a new book that knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures among Christians is now so slight that it's accurate to say that, at least for Christians, "the Old Testament is dying." Biblical and theological illiteracy, in fact, is severe among American Christians, and interfaith understanding is even worse. If your congregation isn't helping you with this problem, find one that will.