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A call for honest Christian art: 5-19-17

I confess there is much about pop culture and particularly pop music of various kinds about which I know almost nothing. Other subjects and pursuits have filled my time by choice.

U2But I know just enough about the musical group U2 and its lead singer Bono to be glad to know that one of our kids last week surprised his wife by flying her to Vancouver for Mother's Day to hear U2 in concert.

Bono is an intensely spiritual person who, from what I've read and heard, really has a sense about what is important in life and about how all worthy art reflects not just the more lovely aspects of life but also the struggles, the darkness, the wounds.

In that way, such art is similar to the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures.

And, as this interview with Bono attests, he's smart enough to know that about the psalms, too. In fact, they have been quite influential in his life.

"Before taping the new interview," the story reports, "Bono said he reread the Songs of Ascents ― a series of Psalms that were possibly sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made a trip to Jerusalem. Within those few chapters, Bono said he found songs about peace, protection, laughter, hubris, rage, tears, humility and unity. 

“'Okay, that’s just Songs of Ascent. They had utility. And why is it in Christian music, I can’t find them?'”

In fact, though Bono is known as a Christian artist and U2's music reflects a Christian approach to spirituality, he finds a lot of music labeled as "Christian" to be wanting:

"'Creation screams God’s name. So you don’t have to stick a sign on every tree,' Bono said, suggesting that just because a song isn’t explicitly called a 'Christian' song, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritual in nature. 

“'This has really, really got to stop,' he said. 'I want to hear a song about the breakdown in your marriage, I want to hear songs of justice, I want to hear rage at injustice and I want to hear a song so good that it makes people want to do something about the subject.'”

If you can't be brutally honest, your music, your art of any kind lacks veracity, lacks soul. (So I give this blog post a B-minus because, honestly, I wish I had something more insightful to say about this. Maybe I should have sung this one to you.)

* * *


As we continue to commemorate the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago this year, here's a piece about how important Martin Luther was to general literacy of the populace. If you want the full story of how Luther took the newly invented printing press and changed the world, the book to read is Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree. My review of it done for The National Catholic Reporter can be found here.

Is a Swedish Bible test like an English cooking test? 5-18-17

Sometimes the news should carry with it a big stamp that says "Warning: Irony Ahead."

RNS-PEW-IDENTITYb-020117Like this story, saying that Sweden -- Sweden, for heaven's sake -- has been testing Christian converts seeking asylum there about the religion to which they've allegedly converted.

Sweden is -- besides being famous as the birth home of my maternal grandparents -- clearly the least religious country in the West. As this report reveals, about eight out of 10 Swedes have no religious affiliation or are self-declared atheists. I'm pretty sure that would displease my late grandparents, who grew up Lutheran but, once in the U.S., eventually became Presbyterians. (But no matter which they were, they still pronounced jacket as yacket.)

The story to which I linked you in the second paragraph here, notes that "Along with technical questions about their faith, they (the asylum seekers) are tested on the difference between Orthodox and Protestant Churches and how many parts there are to the New Testament, according to news website, The Local. They are also quizzed on details about the sacrament."

Even the wording of the story sounds as if it's been written by someone who doesn't know much about Christianity. Why just Orthodox and Protestants? Why not Catholics? "Parts" of the New Testament? Does that mean books, or chapters? Or does it mean gospels, epistles and other varieties of writing there? (Either way, I guess parts is parts.) And what does "the sacrament" mean? Protestants have two. Catholics seven. Which one sacrament does the story mean?

The story reports that "Immigration lawyer Serpil Güngör said he often had to interrupt administrators to ask if the questions were relevant, given their complexity."

And where did those administrators find anyone qualified to judge the answers in deeply secular Sweden?

If I were an immigrant being thus challenged, I'd be tempted to respond, "Norway I'm going to answer this stuff. Let's Finnish this process, Denmark my application for somewhere else. Or I might just Stockholm." (I learned how to pun as a member of the Scandinavy.)

(The graph here today came from here.)

* * *


President Trump, on his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, plans to give a speech about Islam, White House officials say. The only room for surprise about the contents is on the upside.

* * *


Why God

Why God?: Explaining Religious Phenomena, by Rodney Stark. Is religion simply a product of the human imagination run amok? Or some kind of delusion that has roots in our over- (or maybe under-) active brains? Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, thinks not. He aggressively thinks not, and isn't shy about dismissing such conclusions as sappy theories that ignore the reality of God. This is another in his series of ongoing attempts to "explain what religion is, what it does and why it seems to be a universal feature of human societies. Whether gods actually exist is irrelevant. What matters is that all religions assert the existence of a god or gods and that belief in such supernatural beings is fundamental to all religious phenomena." Stark rejects "godless definitions of religion," despite their popularity among some scholars. One reason, Stark writes, is that "belief in the existence of a god or gods has prevailed in every known society from the earliest times." One thing to admire about Stark is that he's self-critical. He notes his two previous written attempts to explain religion but confesses of the second one that "I soon found the theory to be very flawed and the text to be very heavy going." A later book he co-authored he describes as "poorly conceived." That may scare off readers, wondering what's wrong with this current effort, but I found his honesty refreshing. Stark is nothing if not opinionated. A small example: He refers to Sigmund Freud as "that immensely influential quack." And he is not hesitant about pointing out this harsh reality: "All religious groups suffer from chronic internal dissent and schismatic tendencies." Sad, but true. His criticism of Mainline Protestant churches seems, however, too easy: He writes that they have been transformed "into very lax and declining liberal bodies," and he blames that on the clergy. The term "liberal" hides much more than it reveals, while the term "lax" is so squishy a charge as to mean precious little. But the assertion he makes that's likely to find the most pushback in the increasingly secular West is this one: "Only religion can make existence meaningful." I think it's possible to make a good case for that contention, but lots of others disagree.

The Unitarian Universalist controversy: 5-17-17

Even Unitarian Universalist congregations themselves would describe themselves as among the most theologically and socially liberal church bodies in the U.S.

Uua-logoIt is a non-creedal religious movement in which all are welcome and all are encouraged to search for their own path to spiritual growth.

As this Wikipedia entry on Unitarian Universalism notes, "The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was formed in 1961 through the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association, established in 1825, and the Universalist Church of America, established in 1793."

So these folks have been around a long time in one form or another.

Why am I bringing them to your attention today? Because, like many other religious bodies, they're in the midst of painful change and some turmoil.

University of Chicago religion scholar Martin Marty, in one of his periodic "Sightings" columns, takes note of the fact that the current problem is "the furor over racial policies and practices in this most liberal denomination, sparked by the resignation of its president, the Rev. Peter Morales, in the face of a ruckus over the appointment of what critics see as too many privileged (i.e., white) candidates and leaders."

Marty adds: "Let it be noted that the UUA’s language and stated intentions are all on the side of changing the image of a denomination that has a very small percentage of minority or marginalized leaders. Morales’s stepping down was followed by two more resignations at the highest level. To no one’s surprise, a variety of caucuses and rights-and-interest groups quickly organized and spoke up. Finger-pointing and soul-searching among members made headlines wherever the UUA has local congregational representation."

Schism and controversy seem almost inevitable in faith communities. This seems to be true from the most rigid fundamentalists to the most loose progressives.

It says something about human nature. And about why religion is important in the first place.

* * *


A Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Americans who think the Bible is not only the word of God but that it should be taken literally, word for word, has shrunk to 24 percent, smaller than the percentage who view it as essentially full of fairy tales. Well, if you take the Bible literally you can't take it seriously. Same if you take it as just "a book of fables." Too bad so few Americans actually read it with enough help to understand it.

When churches worry about the wrong thing: 5-16-17

Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, whose books I've read and whom I've met several times, is one of those rational but challenging voices trying to re-imagine and re-energize Protestant Christianity.

Diana-Butler-BassI reviewed her book Grounded: Finding God in the World, a Spiritual Revolution here.

I don't always agree with her but I find her always worth hearing and reading.

So I was pleased recently to discover this interview with her. It was done in connection with her forthcoming appearance at the Wild Goose Festival, an art-music-faith event scheduled for this July in North Carolina.

Diana understands that religious faith is profoundly tied up in metaphorical language. She explains:

"Grounded is about an attempt to find a different kind of metaphor… the driving question of Grounded is, 'Where is God?' For centuries in Christianity we’ve had an answer to that question and it’s a metaphorical one. It’s an answer that shaped theology and worship and it shaped the way we did church and that answer is, 'God’s up in heaven.' I think that’s one of the central failed metaphors of our own time. . .

"And so in Grounded what I tried to do is say, 'Okay. Where is God?' And then I went the other direction and I said, 'Well, God is with us here.' And that’s a very legitimate personal, theological and biblical answer to that question because it draws off of the doctrine of the incarnation."

Not only that, but it connects directly with what Jesus said he had come to do, which was to announce the in-breaking of what he called the Kingdom of God. That means, he said, that you can live in that kingdom of justice, mercy, compassion and love today. You need not wait for some promised afterlife. The reign of God is at hand, he said, right here, right now, even if that reign hasn't yet come in full flower.

A pastor friend once complained to me that some people are so focused on heaven that they're no earthly good. In that sense, heaven can be an addictive narcotic that prevents us from loving ourselves and our neighbors today.

Still, Diana says this could be a good time for the church, if only it can focus on the right things: "I think we’re living in a time of the most intense spiritual longing that American society has been in for at least half a century and maybe the whole century. But there’s this huge gap between institutions that are worried about having enough money to keep the roof on the building and making sure the coffers are full, and then, on the other hand, people who are trying to connect with meaning and purpose and gratitude. But they don’t find those things in the institutions we have."

To which the institutional church says, "Ouch."

(The photo of Diana here today can be found on her website, to which I've linked you on her name above.)

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Reuters reports that Pope Francis says he has serious doubts about the "authenticity of alleged continuing apparitions of the Madonna in Medjugorje, a once-obscure village in Bosnia." But, for the record, he added nothing about the continuing apparitions that Donald Trump is president of the U.S.

First a citizen or first a person of faith? 5-15-17

After the recent election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France, it's worth taking a look at what that might mean for that nation's on-going effort to assimilate a large Muslim population within its borders, its customs, its life.

France-MapThis piece from The Economist does a pretty good job of that. It praises Macron's "cerebral intensity" and the fact that he understands French history, particularly its commitment to being a secular state that cherishes religious liberty.

But it also raises a troubling question about whether Macron expects more allegiance to the state from Muslims than they pledge to their religion -- a question that is not just for Muslims but for people of all faiths in all countries.

The article quotes Macron as having once said this: "Our mission…it will be difficult, it will take time, it will be demanding for all men and women…will be to act in such a way that French people of the Muslim faith are always more proud of being French than of being Muslim…"

Although the idea of pride mentioned by Macron may be softer and more pliable than the idea of first allegiance, in the end that may be a difference without a distinction.

Let's put it in an American context: Is it incumbent on Christians here (or Muslims, Jews, Bah'ais, etc.) to be Americans first or Christians first? To which should one's primary allegiance be?

I know there are people who disagree with me about this (imagine that), but I think the first loyalty of people of faith is to their faith and not to any nation state in which they happen to be living. Think, after all, of how many such nations no longer exist or have quite different boundaries today. Were Catholics in Poland at the outbreak of World War II, say, to be more devoted to their Catholicism or to their nation that soon got carved up, meaning that people living in Grodno started out as residents of Poland but wound up as residence of Belarus?

None of this is to downplay patriotism and our duties as citizens to defend and protect both our nation and our Constitution. But it is to remind us that some things are eternal and some things are not. I think it makes more sense to have our ultimate loyalty given to what is eternal than to what is temporary. And I hope Macron comes to that understanding, too.

(By the way, do you think the borders of France you see in the map here today have been exactly the same throughout human history? Uh, maybe not.)

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Figures from a new study confirm that fewer and fewer residents of Britain are adherents of any religion. And Anglicans now make up just 17.1 percent of the British population. Maybe that church would have more appeal and street cred if it changed its name to Ganglican.

When seminary teachers clash: 5-13/14-17

Controversies in theological seminaries are not new, though over time the shape and content of them changes.

Duke-Div-logoWhen I was a reporter for the now-defunct Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union in the late 1960s, black students at what was then called Colgate-Rochester Divinity School (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), took over the administration building in protest to bring attention to numerous grievances about their treatment at the school.

I covered that lock-out as a reporter. It lasted several days. Eventually I talked my way into the seized building to interview some of the black students. And, once it all ended, I did a long interview for my newspaper with the school's president.

Many seminaries have made needed adjustments that have prevented current minority students from feeling it necessary to take that kind of relatively drastic action. But that doesn't mean schools of theology live in controversy-free zones nowadays. Not at all.

The most interesting recent example I've read about has to do with Duke Divinity School and a faculty kerfuffle over what this Inside Higher Ed piece says was as "a two-day Racial Equity Institute described as providing foundational training in understanding historical and institutional racism."

One faculty member sent out an e-mail to others on the teaching staff urging them to attend the workshop. In response, another faculty member, in a group e-mail, called the upcoming event a “waste” and objected to what he called the “exhortation” to attend.

He wrote: “We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.”

Perhaps you, too, can see here the outlines here of a disagreement that might be predicted in what we've come to call the Culture Wars, in which one side urges sensitivity training on racial and gender issues, say, while another side thinks such things are fairly useless and big-brotherish in style.

Although I know no more this matter than what the piece I've linked you to reports, I'm glad that it was reported but even happier that this sort of exchange can and obviously does happen on higher education campuses. One fairly common charge in recent years is that college campuses have become so "politically correct" that they won't allow free and spirited debate about any subject.

I don't know how true that is, but I do know that institutions of higher education, including seminaries, should be places where all kinds of ideas get a non-violent hearing. That may be especially true in seminaries, which, by design, are created to teach people theology acceptable to this tradition or that. To know what is acceptable, one also needs to hear about what ultimately gets rejected as beyond the pale, a term that itself has theological and ethnic roots.

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As I noted recently here on the blog, Russia is being increasingly criticized for its failure to protect the religious freedom of anyone there but Orthodox Christians. Here is a story that fleshes out some of that. Just what we need, eh? Another international problem involving Russia.

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The millions of fans of the late Madeleine L'Engle will be happy that Convergent, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, is about to (re)publish (May 23) her three books that make up the Genesis Trilogy: And It Was Good, A Stone for a Pillow and Sold into Egypt. The publisher, in honor of the 100th anniversary of L'Engle's birth in 1918, plans to repackage and republish a total of 12 of her works. These three focus, clearly, on the stories that make up the first book of the Bible, and there's a new introduction to them by author and blogger Rachel Held Evans. Each of the three volumes includes a fairly extensive and helpful readers' guide with questions. By the way, one of L'Engle's most famous books, A Wrinkle in Time, is being made into a movie due to be released next spring. If this republication effort is any indication, L'Engle's many beautiful words will survive for a long time.

Just what is this old book called the Bible?: 5-12-17

Rob Bell, a young (46) Christian pastor and author, has been making quite a name for himself as founding pastor of a fast-growing church in Michigan (which he left in 2012) and, in his book Love Wins, by suggesting that maybe hell doesn't exist at all.

What-is-BibleHis many fans (and, well, detractors) have been waiting for his next book, What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. The wait ends this coming Tuesday, publication date.

Let's talk first about what this book isn't. It is not a plea for biblical literalism -- the idea that the Bible is somehow literally true in all ways and, thus, factually "inerrant," as the popular term is used by some Christian fundamentalists and conservatives. Bell, in fact, argues against that kind of inerrancy.

Nor is this new book for people long familiar with and well-schooled in the nuances of the Bible. It's not that such people can't pick up some new insights here. It's just that the book clearly is written for people who either don't know much about the Bible or who have given up reading it because they haven't understood it.

This is in some ways kind of a sometimes-flippant (at times annoyingly so) primer on how the library we call the Bible got put together and how to read it in ways that honor its context, meaning that it must be read with the understanding that it was written over hundreds and hundreds of years by dozens and dozens of different authors, each of whom was in some way a reflection of his (almost exclusively his) own culture and times.

The Bible, Bell writes, "is a dangerous, subversive, explicit, foul, honest, strange, contradictory, paradoxical, ruthlessly hopeful book that makes a number of rather stunning claims about pretty much everything."

Bell's approach to the Bible is sound and helpful. He's interested in taking it seriously, not literally, and knows it's impossible to do both. But his jokey asides and his typographical tricks (which at times seem juvenile and manipulative) detract from his core message, which is that if you understand how to mine the gems in the Bible it will transform your life.

But, he is quick to add, "the Bible is not a book about going to heaven: The action is here. The life is here. The point is here." (Though for unneeded emphasis he spread those last four sentences over four separate lines of type.)

Bell, to his credit, makes this helpful point, sometimes made by other biblical scholars: The term "eternal life," when found in the New Testament, usually is not a reference to an afterlife. Rather, it was a "phrase people used to describe a particular divine quality of life, the kind that comes from living in harmony and peace and connection with God."

People similarly get misled when the term Jesus uses to open his ministry, "the kingdom God," sometimes get translated as "the kingdom of heaven," making people think he's talking about an afterlife. It's not that Jesus doesn't have thoughts about life after death, but his quite-Jewish focus was on living a life of love, compassion, justice and mercy in this world now.

And although Bell doesn't spend a lot of time unpacking and dismissing various atonement theories that try to describe what happened as a result of Jesus' death on the cross, he does make clear that "God didn't need to kill someone to be 'happy' with humanity. What kind of God would that be? Awful. Horrific." So much for the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (among others). And good riddance.

Bell is also right about this: "The Bible is not an argument. It is a record of human experience. The point is not to prove that it's the word of God or it's inspired or it's whatever the current words is that people are using. The point is to enter into its stories with such intention and vitality that you find what it is that inspired people to write these books."

It's just that to get to some of Bell's good points, you have to read through passages that seem like they're being tossed at you from a stage by a performer desperate to do anything not to lose his audience.

Some other books about how to understand the Bible that I recommend: Making Sense of the Bible, by Adam Hamilton. I wrote about that book hereHow to Read the Bible, by Harvey Cox. I reviewed that here. And Bible Babel, by Kristin Swenson. I wrote about that one here, along with several other books on understanding the Bible.

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In this Flatland column earlier this year, I wrote about the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., and its Kansas City connections. I'm glad to see other media starting to cover the museum's impending opening now, such as this Washington Post piece printed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Caring more about spiritual healing than curing: 5-11-17

Earlier this week, Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett is chairman), said he was appalled at the wasteful spending that goes toward the dying in our American health care system.

Cloud073"The amount of waste from overtreatment of the dying is just disgusting," is specifically what he said. And he's clearly right. It's one more thing that neither Obamacare nor the House-passed bill designed to replace it deals with well.

And by overtreatment, I'm certainly not talking about hospice care. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, a terrific non-profit agency.) Good hospice care can be less expensive than aggressive treatment when such treatment no longer makes medical sense. Beyond that, good hospice care can provide a much smoother road to the inevitable end.

But I am talking about the kind of wasteful use of medical resources at the end of life that physician and author Atul Gawande writes about in his book Being Mortal.

Perhaps it would help if physicians and all health care workers knew pretty specifically what is most important to people as they near death.

A new survey by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked exactly that of residents of four countries, the U.S., Italy, Japan and Brazil. And although there were some differences in the answers among the respondents, "being at peace spiritually" was pretty high on all four lists: "Fully 88% thought that being at peace spiritually at the end was 'extremely' or 'very important.'"

It's my experience that sometimes our health care professionals -- and certainly our many health care insurance companies -- don't understand the difference between being cured and being healed. You can be healed (spiritually and emotionally) without ever being cured of what is killing you.

And, in the end, as the Economist-Kaiser study shows, people are at least as interested in being healed -- probably more so -- than they are in being cured.

In fact, when asked how important to them "living as long as possible" was, many respondents had that pretty far down the list.

By the way, recently I wrote here on the blog about a book that describes what people say at the end of their lives, their final words. Some of what's reported in that book is also in harmony with the Economist-Kaiser study.

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Pope Francis has invited top scientists to the Vatican to help religious leaders understand the Big Bang. Think of it this way, Holy Father: "And God said 'Let there be light years.'"

A bishop promotes a renewed Jesus movement: 5-10-17

When Jesus of Nazareth began his brief (one to three years) ministry, he did not, while on Earth, start a new religion. What he started was a movement to reform certain practices and focuses of Judaism, his religion.

Curry-2Which is why religion scholars -- the best ones, any way -- don't refer to Jesus' 12 apostles as Christians. And they say it's anachronistic to speak of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism until decades after Jesus' time. The term they most often use to refer to people attracted to the life and message of Jesus in the early years is the Jesus Movement.

Michael B. Curry (pictured here), presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, thinks it's time for a renewed Jesus Movement, one that draws its focus and energy from the teachings of Jesus and that de-emphasizes the institutional nature of the church.

Curry was in Kansas City (and Springfield, Mo.) this past weekend for event called "Awakening the Spirit." I had a chance to talk with him at the Power & Light District in downtown KC before he addressed the crowd there.

"I really believe," he told me, "that whether it's the church or any organization or institution, the further it gets away from its reason for being, the weaker it becomes. And the closer it gets to its reason for being, the stronger it will be. That's one of the reasons I've been using the language of the church being a Jesus movement. That's where the origins are. Jesus began a movement and that movement gathered around him and changed lives."

For the institutional church, he said, it means "reclaiming who you are. The closer we are to our deepest roots as followers of Jesus of Nazareth I think the more effective we will be in engaging the culture and being a witness in our time."

I asked him how a church can appeal to people rooted in our 21st Century scientific culture and worldview who struggle to make sense of stories from the gospels about the virgin birth, resurrection, a man who can walk on water and calm stormy seas with a word.

Curry said the thing to do is to focus not on those things but on the loving spirit of Jesus and how we might acquire that same kind of spirit: "Then the kind of life that Jesus lived becomes a possibility for me now." Rather than getting stuck in arguments about whether Jesus really drove demons out of people or raised Lazarus from the dead, he said, people should try to live in ways that mirror the spirit of Jesus. "That's a game changer," he said.

Christianity is really quite simple, he said: "Love God, love neighbor. That's the whole kit and caboodle."

Curry said he's "finding a receptivity" to his idea of describing his denomination as "the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. It's reclaiming who we are in the first place. It's not actually anything new. It's going down to our deep roots. . .This is a cause, a cause that actually changed lives and changed the world for good."

The Episcopal Church, like such Mainline Protestant churches as the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, has seen its membership numbers decline in recent years for a number of reasons, including people who left the church when it began ordaining otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. That's what is bringing the United Methodist Church to the edge of schism today, as I wrote about recently here. But the core issue is not about sexuality but about how to interpret the Bible.

So Curry is right to try to return to the center of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself. Whether the Episcopal Church as an institution can deliver that message in an effective way -- or whether some new forms of messenger are needed -- isn't yet clear. Often across history the institutional church universal (not just the Episcopalians) has been as much a hindrance to the message as a help.

Maybe the Jesus movement Curry is promoting can help to change that.

* * *


Some American Jews, The Forward reports here, are moving toward proselytizing, or evangelism, to bring more people into Judaism, even though that approach is unusual among Jews. I once heard a rabbi explain that all Jews should do is to tell the story of their people. If those listening believe they find themselves in that story they are welcome to join. That's a fairly passive approach. The approach described in the story to which I've linked you is more assertive.

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Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, by Barbara Mahany. The author, a former Chicago Tribune columnist who continues to write for that paper and others on a freelance basis, is an excellent writer and -- more to the point -- observant and thoughtful mother. You may have to hustle to give this book to someone for Mother's Day this weekend, but it would be worth it. Mahany has taken careful notes about her experience of motherhood and has woven them together into this lovely tapestry that comes with Catholic and Jewish sensibilities. Motherhood, she writes, is an act of courage, "from the moment that seed of life burrows deep into the womb, makes its way to connect to the richness that is a mother's blood, lifeblood, that will feed, will sustain. From conception on, there is no going back, if God is willing, if prayers are answered. We move forth, one corpuscle tied to the next. We are in this, literally, together. Forever entwined." And what is prayer for mothers? "We fill in the blanks with supplications that wash out from deep inside us, and over us, and far into the beyond. We pray for hours if we have to, keeping on with all the rest we do. Not letting on that there is prayer at work. We drop to knees. We dab holy water, head and chest and shoulders, the sign of the cross. We lie down and stretch our arms as high as we can reach. We venerate. We call on God, and ones we love who are no longer but might well come to the holy blessed rescue." And then she shares all that with others.

* * *

P.S.: You can find my latest National Catholic Reporter column online here.

A deeply non-traditional view of Jesus: 5-9-17

Among the most widely used and affirmed statements of Christian faith is the Apostles' Creed, which says this about Jesus of Nazareth:

Jesus-LenaersI believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The Rev. Roger Lenaers, a Jesuit pastor and author of Jesus of Nazareth: A Person Like Us?, takes almost none of that to be literally true. He writes in this new book that the kind of language found in the creeds and taught by the church universal is based on mystical, mythological and misguided thinking that is driving modern people who are rooted in a scientific worldview away from the church. And, he says to the church, it's time to change that.

This book is sure to drive fundamentalists and other Christians who identify as conservative crazy -- and maybe lots of folks in the mainstream of Christianity, too. And yet Lenaers, who ministers in Innsbruck in the Alps, raises fascinating questions and challenging issues that are well worth consideration, even if, in the end, his contentions are rejected.

Lenaers begins by asserting that any search for the historical Jesus "is a sheer waste of time." We simply don't have anything close to the necessary documentation to know much that could be considered historically reliable. The four gospels of the New Testament, for instance, contain (sometimes conflicting) biographical information, but they weren't written to be biographies. Rather, they were written for theological purposes.

Today, he writes, people are turning away from the mythology found in the gospels and turning toward atheism because they can't accept the church's insistence that the mythological stories represent actual history.

"The reason for this," he writes, "is partly that the Church authorities do not present their own myths as myths, namely as images standing for something else, in the way they do in the case of pre-Christian myths. Instead, the Church maintains that its mythical texts describe actual reality, even though there is no concrete evidence available."

Lenaers is begging the church to "demythologize the message of our faith." That doesn't mean turning Jesus into "a person of the same poor evolutionary level as we are." Jesus, he insists, "was not that."

This Catholic priest directly challenges his church on many issues. For instance, he calls the "Immaculate Conception" of Mary and her "Assumption into Heaven" "impossible dogmas." And he insists that the idea of the virgin birth "is based on an error in translation."

The narratives of Jesus' birth found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, he writes, are not accurate history but have a deeper purpose -- helping people know who this mysterious baby really is: "The whole journey to Bethlehem is therefore an invention in the service of mythology, for it only serves to show Jesus, through his birth in Bethlehem, as the long awaited Messiah, i.e. as the Savior of the Jewish people promised by God." Lenaers, in fact, agrees with the French scholar Ernest Renan, who began his book about Jesus this way: "Jesus was born in Nazareth."

And contrary to many assertions by evangelical Christian authorities, Lenaers says that Jesus "never called himself, or presented himself, as God." And as for gospel stories of driving demons out of people and curing them, these aren't historical but are, instead, "confessions of faith in his resurrection."

As for the so-called nature miracles (him calming the storm at sea, walking on water, etc.), the best explanation is "probably that they are an attempt to interpret the mysterious depth we sense in Jesus by tracing it back to its source: the mighty presence of God in Him."

Like many scholars today, Lenaers falls into the anachronistic habit of calling the very first followers of Jesus "Christian." No. They were Jews who believed that the Messiah had come. But they still were Jews. The Jesus movement didn't split away from Judaism to become a separate religion called Christianity until quite a bit later -- in some cases and places not until about the year 150.

Lenaers also challenges conventional understandings of Jesus' resurrection and many other aspects of traditional faith, and yet he regards Jesus as unique, full of the mystery of God and well worth following as a disciple.

As I say, whole branches of the church will find this book unpalatable and heretical. But as I've said more than once, in some ways the church needs its heretics, if they are in fact that, to challenge it to rethink some things it believes are settled.

Lenaers, by the way, acknowledges that his book was written as a response and challenge to the 2014 book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Lenaers believes Aslan got a lot wrong.

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In this National Catholic Reporter column last December, I suggested that we beware of the influence of the "Prosperity Gospel" in the incoming Trump administration. Now this Atlantic piece about the health care bill that the House of Representatives recently passed says exactly the Prosperity Gospel helps explain what's in this deeply flawed legislation. If we want something reasonable and helpful to replace Obamacare, we're going to have to lean on our senators to produce a bill that is rooted in the common good, not in bogus theories about God favoring the rich and healthy.