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The persistent errors of anti-gay thinking: 9-19-17

The first significant piece I wrote about LGBTQ people was in 1993 for The Kansas City Star, and had to do with the debate at the time over the "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy about gays in the military.

Nashville-notFrom that time until now, I have grown increasingly baffled by the rigidity of the opposition to treating LGBTQ folks with respect as full citizens of both our nation and of our religious bodies.

Oh, I know that anti-gay stances often are rooted in a long-time misreading of the Bible (see my essay on that subject here) and that it's really hard to get people to acknowledge that they've been misunderstanding the Bible in significant ways. After all, you know, for a lot of people every word in the Bible is historically, scientifically and in all other ways accurate and true. Which is quite a low view of scripture, if you ask me, in that it misses its rich depth, its metaphorical language, its subtleties, the history of how it came together.

Still, religious people should be the leaders in liberating people from bad ideas and squelched lives. Which means people of faith should be way out in front of the culture on treating gays and lesbians respectfully and doing what the great world religions call their followers to do -- love other people.

Instead, religion has been slow to move on this issue. Why, it took until 2011 for my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) to approve the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry. And that was only after fighting with each other for decades.

The shock in all this was the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. It was a wonderful surprise, but if you had asked me in 1993 when I wrote the piece I mentioned earlier when same-sex marriage would be legal everywhere I might have said 2093.

Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who writes regularly for New York (not the New Yorker) Magazine, published this essay a few days ago bemoaning the slowness of certain Christians to get this issue right.

He begins by noting that recently "a group of Evangelical theologians, pastors, and leaders put out what they called the Nashville Statement on sexual morality." It's a terrible statement that continues to view homosexuality as a sin though it says not a word about real sexual immorality.

The statement, Sullivan writes, "does more than condemn the sexual behaviors of gay and transgender people. It erases our self-understanding entirely. Money quote: 'We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.' It is not just what we do that these Evangelical leaders object to; it is who we are."

The issue of how to understand LGBTQ people, Sullivan says, correctly, "is a litmus test for whether Christianity really is about love, and whether the Gospels (which have nothing to say about homosexuality) should even get a hearing. I can date my own niece’s and nephew’s rejection of Christianity to the day the priest urged them to oppose equal rights for their uncle. That’s why Evangelicalism is dying so quickly among the young."

What bewilders both Sullivan and me is that the signers of the Nashville Statement, as he writes, "just signed one of the longest suicide notes in history. Because what they’re saying is not merely callous. It is manifestly untrue."

Some day well into the future, after many more gay people have been injured in various ways by the thinking represented in the Nashville Statement, I think Christians will recognize that many of them got this wrong in the same way that their ancestors got it wrong when they supported slavery on the basis of the Bible. But why can't that day come today?

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Almost 20 percent of Americans don't believe that Muslim citizens of the U.S. have the same First Amendment rights as everyone else, a new survey shows. More evidence that ignorance about basic civics leads to religious prejudice. Sad.

How are the internet and religion connected? 9-18-17

Many factors have affected religious affiliation in the U.S. in recent decades, an obvious result being the slide in membership of Mainline Protestant churches.

Internet-religionBut what role has the ubiquitous internet played in all of this? How many people go online for spiritual resources or sustenance? Is the internet, in fact, the major driver of changes in America's religious landscape now?

Well, maybe not, suggests a new study from Baylor University.

A press release describing the study says that "most Americans report they never use it to find religious or spiritual content, and most never use it to share religious views.

"That holds true regardless of religious tradition, said Baylor University sociologists, who recently presented the latest  findings at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual conference.

"'Even the most religious typically refrain from using the Internet to proselytize, but Evangelicals and Black Protestants are the most likely to share their religious views online,'" said Baylor sociologist Paul McClure.

I acknowledge that because I write about religion, I rely on many internet sources for various kinds of faith-based information and news.

But my own life of faith also is connected to internet use in ways that seem to run against the grain of the Baylor study, and yet I don't feel particularly unusual in the way I use the internet.

For instance, if I miss a sermon at my church, I can and do go online to our congregation's website and watch a recorded video version of it. That's using the internet.

Similarly, my church has an app that I have on my iPad and smartphone that lets me use a directory of church members to find a phone number or e-mail address, in addition to letting me find out what time this or that event is happening. That's using the internet.

Besides this blog, I also occasionally share other faith-based information on such social network sites as Facebook. Recently, for instance, I've posted information about an upcoming event sponsored by the Dialogue Institute Southwest, a Muslim-based organization, and I posted a photo from the recent 25th anniversary dinner of Friends of Sacred Structures. That's using the internet.

I also keep the "YouVersion" app of the Bible on my iPad and cell phone and sometimes use that app in a Bible study I help to lead. That, too, obviously, is using the internet.

Well, there are other things to check out in the Baylor survey. And I admit I may be an outlier in terms of ways in which the internet connects with my own religious affiliation. But somehow I have the feeling that there are lots of other folks like me who also use the internet fairly regularly for religious information.

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Some superstitious people saw God's wrath displayed in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. This Salon piece is a welcome and necessary statement against such nonsense. Just stop with the God-uses-storms-to-punish people narrative. If that's your God, I prefer not to know such a deity.

No, science won't kill off religion: 9-16/17-17

Reports of the death of religion at the hands of science have, time after time, been greatly exaggerated.

Science-religionYes, there has been a process of secularization in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, particularly Europe -- a process that in many ways grew out of the Protestant Reformation, which began 500 years ago next month.

But none of it has made religion irrelevant. None of it has been a metaphorical two-round knockout of religion, which in some ways (not all of them good) has been flourishing in parts of the world.

In fact, this column by Peter Harrison, an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, contends that not only has science not done away with religion, it never will.

He writes (using, of course, British spelling) that "contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

"The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future."

The fake news, in effect, is that science and religion have been in terrible conflict for centuries and that science is about to win. Harrison, quite properly, begs to differ:

"Secularisation theory," he writes, "failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. . .

"Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism."

Perhaps part of the problem is that lots of people don't understand science any better than they understand religion. But their ignorance has not stopped them from having firm, if conflicting, opinions about both. And another part of the problem is that both science and certain kinds of religion at times have become idols -- idols we are loathe to give up.

Maybe it's time for rational people from both camps (and there are people actually in both camps at once) to sit down and find common ground, recognizing that there are scientific questions religion cannot answer and religious questions science cannot answer. The primary question in the latter group is the one about purpose.

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Disgraced former Judge Roy Moore, now an Alabama Senate candidate, recently suggested that the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened because God was upset with Americans, CNN reports. Whenever you find a candidate or public figure who professes a deep understanding of a vengeful, retributive God, run -- away, not toward. And don't look back.

A religious argument for public education: 9-15-17

One of the most common lessons about life to be preached by the world's great religions (and either later or earlier, by philosophy systems) is the need always and everywhere to care about and work for the common good.

School-desksSelf-centeredness is in many ways idolatrous and, thus, a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. Beyond that, Judaism and Christianity -- and later Islam -- have insisted that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and that the strangers among us are to be included in the people we count as neighbors.

All of that, in some ways, is woven into the idea of public education in the United States. Early in our nation's history our leaders decided, correctly, that public education for all -- not simply private education for the wealthy -- would create an informed citizenry that would serve as the bedrock of our democracy.

And they were right.

In recent years, however, public respect and support for public education has faltered. And we are paying a heavy price in the way of uneducated or badly educated people who don't understand basic civics, who are considerably more focused on materialist consumption than they are on what the humanities can teach us or what constitutes liberty and justice for all, as our Pledge of Allegiance puts it.

This Atlantic piece delves into the failure of many Americans to understand the need for public schools. It's an important read that I hope you will digest and then share with others. (One way is to share this blog post on Facebook or other social media outlets.)

For one thing, it reports some good news about our public schools: "Few people care more about individual students than public-school teachers do, but what’s really missing in this dystopian narrative (of failing public schools) is a hearty helping of reality: 21st-century public schools, with their record numbers of graduates and expanded missions, are nothing close to the cesspools portrayed by political hyperbole."

The author, Erika Christakis, adds this: "Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous."

I was glad recently to be able to write this Flatland column about Kansas City area clergy coming together to find ways to support local education -- public, private and parochial. My hope is that they can help to encourage their congregants to get re-engaged in education. Why? One reason (not the only reason) is religious in origin -- for the common good.

(For those of you born after, say, 1970 or so, the photo here today shows what public school classrooms looked like when I was in elementary school. Notice not just the desks in military rows -- thank goodness that's mostly ended -- but notice also the American flag and the piano. The arts were nurtured in many public schools at the time.)

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In June I reviewed Fr. James Martin's new book in which he asked the Catholic Church to treat LGBTQ folks with respect and vice versa. I welcomed the book and its tone but criticized Martin for, at times, seeming to blame the victims. The response to the book has varied widely, which is why a Fordham teacher recently spoke with Martin about his thoughts about those responses. It's worth a read.

Yes, the Exodus happened, but not that way: 9-14-17

Whether from the Bible or from such classics as The Exodus by Leon Uris, most of us know the story of the enslaved Jews in Egypt escaping captivity there several thousand years ago, wandering in the desert for 40 years while Moses led them and finally entering the Holy Land (though under Joshua, not Moses).

ExodusBut, it turns out, a lot of what we think we know is wrong, contends Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman in his compelling, revealing and fascinating new book, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters.

Unlike some scholars, Friedman does not contend that the story of the Exodus is entirely fictional. But he does assert that it did not involve millions of Jews, as the traditional story tells it. Rather, he says, just the Levites, a much smaller group, left Egypt in that way. And, he says, there are two religious developments that can be traced pretty directly to the Exodus: the widespread acceptance of monotheism and the ethical ideas of welcoming the stranger and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Those two great developments, Friedman contends, "went hand in hand from the beginning."

Friedman, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Georgia, uses recent archaeological findings as well as careful study of the biblical texts themselves to draw his conclusions. And in what he calls a time with "an anti-historical wind blowing," it matters now what really happened. We can figure out at least the broad sweep of the story, he writes, even if some details are lost forever.

The evidence -- both archaeological and textual -- does not support the story that about two million Jews escaped all at once from Egypt. There were, rather, numerous smaller exits by various groups of people from Egypt, and one of them was the Levites, who eventually joined the people of Israel in what today we think of as the Holy Land.

One way we can be confident about this conclusion, he writes, is by looking at the sources the biblical writers used to tell the story of the Exodus. There are four major sources, often labeled J, E, P and D. (Friedman describes in detail what those letters mean.) Three of those sources, E, P and D, "were written by Levites." And those sources tie the Levites (whose role in life was to assist with priestly duties among Jews) in several crucial ways to life in Egypt. In fact, Friedman contends, "the narrative that encompasses Exodus 1-15 evokes the Egyptian setting at every turn."

The J source -- so-called "because Yahweh's name in it (spelled Jahwe in early German studies) is known by humans from the very beginning of the story at creation" -- is focused on the "period of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . .The J text. . .is so non-priestly that I raised the possibility that it could have been written by a woman. . ." J has essentially nothing to say about the people of Israel being slaves in Egypt.

When Friedman goes through the evidence for a Levites-only Exodus, he finds that eight out of eight Israelites with Egyptian names are Levites. Beyond that, all "texts treating slavery during and after the Egyptian stay are Levite sources." And there are eight other important clues that it was the Levites who were in Egypt and who later joined the Israelites in the Holy Land. They were welcomed into the life of the Jews there and eventually the Levites' story of the Exodus became the story of the whole people of Israel.

The biblical writers, he concludes, did not make up the Exodus, but they did make up the number of Jews in the Exodus -- about 2 million. Archaeologists, he writes, "have been combing in vain to find" evidence of so large an Exodus. But they have -- and, Friedman asserts, always will -- come up empty because that massive number of people leaving Egypt all at once never happened. Nor, he says, was there a bloody conquest of the land of Canaan by the people who left Egypt. Rather, it was just the Levites joining Jews already in the land and becoming their priests. "And thank heavens for that," Friedman writes. "It is a story of violent destruction, and the Jews have been denigrated for it; but it never happened."

The kingdoms of Israel and Judah, he writes, "were there for hundreds of years. Still, the mystery is from where they came -- and we just do not know."

What is clear to Friedman is that the idea of monotheism found its permanent home among the Jews once the Exodus had occurred. As did the idea of loving neighbor as self, and acknowledging that neighbors include aliens.

Particularly intriguing in Friedman's account is how humanity got to monotheism. It required, he says, the death of various "gods," and there is biblical textual evidence that exactly that happened to explain what happened to those gods and why there is only one God left.

"Monotheism prevailed," he writes, "but if the exodus had not happened, monotheism would have developed either (1) later, or (2) completely differently, or (3) it might never have happened at all." And much the same is true, he writes, of being kind to neighbor and aliens in our midst.

Biblical scholars, of course, argue about a lot of this. And Friedman acknowledges some of those disputes. But he presents his arguments in language accessible to everyone and he argues his case with many supporting details and with conviction.

(In 2011, I reviewed a previous book from Friedman -- of which he was co-author. You can read that here.)

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A group of Protestant church leaders, commemorating the start of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago next month, has released this new statement of faith, called "A Reforming Catholic Confession," described in a subtitle as "What We Protestants of Diverse Churches and Theological Traditions Say Together." This Christianity Today story about it says "the confession has garnered more than 250 signatories," and hopes to add more, especially women and people from nations beyond the U.S. You can read the statement for yourself and judge whether it's something, if you're Protestant, you could sign in good faith. I find a little of the language to be dog whistles for positions within or close to fundamentalism, including the use of the word "infallible" to describe the Bible. There are ways in which I think it's possible to use that word when talking about scripture, but I think the use of it in this creed is too broad. In any case, it's always helpful for people of faith to try to put their faith in words in each new generation, and I'm glad to see this effort, even if I personally would have said it differently.

Will England 'disestablish' its church? 9-13-17

One of the reasons many of the early settlers left England to come to what eventually became the United States was that they didn't want to be part of their country's established church, the Church of England.

Church-of-england-logoBut, of course, the idea of a state-approved church was so deeply embedded in European culture at the time that many of the eventual states here, before the adoption of our Constitution, actually had established churches.

In the end, however, the thinking of such leaders as Roger Williams won the day and the U.S. was created as a nation of religious freedom without an established church. And that has been a good thing. A very good thing.

But if we look back at England, we find the Church of England still enjoys (or, perhaps, suffers from) the status of being the established church there. And the monarch is the defender of the faith, though these days only about 15 percent of the English population identifies as being part of that church.

Which is why England is beginning to hear louder voices asking for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

For instance, this columnist in The Guardian says it's not just past time for disestablishment but that disestablishment is inevitable.

Speaking as a member of the church, columnist Giles Fraser writes this: "For too long we have been made content by feeding off the crumbs left out for us by the establishment. We have become its pet. And it has made us lazy. Housetrained. Safe. The Bible uses a different image: if salt has lost its saltiness, what use is it?"

He adds, rather ruefully, "I think something like this is unavoidable and that the established church has to get ahead of the situation by transforming itself, rather than play a continuous rearguard action against the inevitable."

In a de facto way, Protestantism has been the established church of the U.S. But now Protestants make up less than 50 percent of the population, and that percentage is shrinking almost weekly. In some ways that frees those of us who are Protestant to confront the powers that be about what needs fixing in our world because it's less likely that we Protestants are in charge of things and overseeing the maintenance of what needs reforming.

I don't know if England will go through disestablishment of the Church of England, but I think the English would find it enormously liberating, freeing them to be authentically Christian voices in a world that needs such voices uncompromised by the sinews of power.

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Those who deny climate change, says Pope Francis, are "stupid." That's the formal, highly technical theological term for them. The more colloquial term should get any kid's mouth washed out with soap.

Farewell to a great theologian: 9-12-17

There was a time in America when at least a few theologians were quite famous. And by theologians I don't mean revivalist preachers or pastors of famous churches. I mean people who study (ology) God (theo) and write about their findings.

JensonWhy, back in 1948, for instance, Rheinhold Niebuhr graced the cover of Time Magazine. (Niebuhr, by the way, was born in Missouri.) And the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent a few years in the U.S., was widely known after the Third Reich executed him in 1945 for being part of a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

Not many theologians today are as famous, given that most of them haven't figured out how to describe their theories of atonement or their views on eschatology or soteriology in 140 characters or less. Sad.

So it may not mean much to you when I tell you that Robert W. Jenson just died. But Jenson (pictured here) was quite well known in the world of theology as a brilliant mind. He was Lutheran and brought the sensitivities of Martin Luther's theology to his considerable portfolio of work.

The Jenson book that has been most helpful to me is Systematic Theology: The Triune God, Volume 1. I recall being at Ghost Ranch several years ago to teach a class and spending a lot of my free time there carefully trying to digest Jenson's penetrating insights. There are lots of red-pen marks throughout my copy of the book.

Jenson, though quite capable of dense theological language, also could say things simply. An example: "Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, ‘Whoever rescued us from Egypt.’ . . . To the question ‘Who is God?’ the New Testament has one descriptively identifying answer: ‘Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.’” Jenson's point was that both religions recognize God as a rescuer and redeemer.

One reason I admired Jenson is that, as the story about his death reports, "Jenson was consistently involved in ecumenical dialogue throughout his career." He sought to bring a divided church together. And as I noted in my most recent column for The National Catholic Reporter, there are some signs of success in that effort.

So today I raise a toast to Robert W. Jenson and invite you to do the same, no matter your faith commitment, if any.

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While keeping track of some of the coverage of Hurricane Irma, you may have heard about a small island called Islamorada. And, like me, you may have wondered whether it was somehow connected to Islam. Well, the answer is no. As this history of the place reveals, "The early settlers came from the Bahamas and New England. They raised and shipped thousands of pineapples to northern markets. One of these ships was the Island Home, built on Plantation Key by Johnny Brush Pinder. It was from this schooner that Islamorada got its name 'Is la morada' in Spanish meaning Island Home." Now you know. But my guess is plenty of Muslims over the years have visited the place.

Another year -- and we still have terrorism: 9-11-17

On this, the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I will use the space here today to give you some resources that will help to update you on the terrorist threat to the U.S. -- both external and internal -- and to the world, though the U.S. is more my focus.

IMG_4938Is it different today than in 2001? If so, how?

The first resource is this report from a think tank called New America. It provides some perspective on the international pattern of terrorism and the U.S.

From Wikipedia, comes this always-changing list of Islamist terrorist attacks starting in the 1970s.

This June 2017 story reports on an Islamist lone-wolf attack in Michigan, and it says it's the 96th on U.S. soil since 9/11.

This Politifact story from mid-August, however, says the number of domestic terrorism attacks is 85 through last December, though I suppose that depends on whose counting and what criteria is being used to define "domestic terrorism."

This CNN story notes that terrorism against the U.S. -- especially by Islamists -- didn't start in 2001 but, rather, in the 1990s.

And this Los Angeles Times story says Islamists have attacked on U.S. soil 10 times since 9/11.

In view of President Trump's attempt at a Muslim ban, The Atlantic did this piece talking about where the terrorists who strike on U.S. soil actually come from.

Finally, as for terrorism perpetrated by Americans in America, I don't know anyone who has covered that subject as well as Judy Thomas of The Kansas City Star. You can read some of her reports here.

In the end, what we know about terrorism today is what we knew on 9/11, which is that it grows from bad, often false, ideas that frequently are rooted in distorted religion. Even when the terrorists have legitimate political grievances, misguided religion often leads them to act in violent ways that hurt their cause.

Whether it's al-Qaida, ISIS or the Ku Klux Klan, if you dig deeply enough you discover a false certitude about ideas, particularly ideas about who God is and how God wants us to live. Back in the early Protestant Reformation era (we're marking year 500 of the beginning of the Reformation next month), Christians who disagreed with other Christians about matters of theology often just went to war to prove their point. Today Islamists, white supremacists and others adopt terrorism as their weapon of choice. (By the way, I prefer the term "Islamist" and not "Islamic" to refer to violent extremists who claim to do their deeds in the name of Islam because Islam is a religion while Islamism is a cancerous growth on that religion. Lots of "isms" turn out to be malignant growths that initially feed on something healthy.)

Until we can figure out how to unplug people from radical religious ideas that feed their hatred, this kind of violence will continue.

To read my 9/11-related column that The Kansas City Star published Sunday, click here. The photo here today is the stone at the burial site of my nephew, Karleton D.B. Ffyfe, a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. The one fragment of Karleton's remains to be recovered from Ground Zero is buried in a box under that stone in North Carolina.)

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A small Greek Orthodox Church next to Ground Zero in New York was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but a larger replacement is under construction and set to open next year, the Associated Press reports. It's hard to imagine any city, even the most densely populated and developed, without pockets of sacred space. I'm glad this one will return to service.

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

The Protestant Reformation still shapes America: 9-9/10-17

What's most newsworthy today about the Protestant Reformation is not that it started 500 years ago next month, though that's what's getting the most attention.

Rebel-ranksRather, what's most worth paying attention to regarding the Reformation is the way it continues to shape American culture today. And that's the story that Brad S. Gregory (pictured below right), who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame, tells so well and compellingly in his new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World.

It's to be published on Tuesday and it's a terrific read.

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, was bothered by several issues he had with the church and he was bothered by his own uncertainty about his ultimate fate in an afterlife. Eventually (Oct. 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany) he publicly outlined 95 points for discussion to clarify what was bothering him.

Well, as we know, the Catholic Church did not much welcome Luther's questions, which contained what it thought were heretical thoughts as well as a profoundly anti-pope bias. Eventually (1521) the church excommunicated Luther, but by that time the Reformation -- which he started, as Gregory writes, "inadvertently, improbably and unintentionally" -- was a movement neither he nor anyone else could stop or control.

And why was that?

One primary reason, as Gregory notes, was that Luther insisted that each Christian was free to interpret the Bible. Beyond that, the Bible, not the church and its tradition, was the only source of truth, Luther said. The term was "sola scriptura," scripture alone.

That idea, Gregory writes, "becomes his rock. On this basis he will criticize whatever in Church teaching and practice contradicts God's Word. On this basis he will reconstruct authentic Christian teaching and practice for the sake of lay people, who have been sadly misled through no fault of their own. And on this basis he will become the unwitting progenitor of a revolution in Western Christianity -- a revolution that will affect just about everything because of how religion is interconnected with the rest of life." The unforeseen and probably unintended consequence of the wide acceptance of sola scriptura was that every person became, in effect, his or her own denomination.

Which, of course, meant that the Reformation itself splintered, almost from the beginning: "The Reformation involves disagreements among Protestants no less than it assumes their repudiation of the Roman Catholic Church. Disagreement begins among evangelicals in the 1520s and never goes away. Instead of becoming a shared basis for reforming the Church, the Bible becomes a bone of contention among Protestants as well as between Protestants and Catholics." And we certainly can see that across the U.S. today. As Gregory notes, ". . .scripture interpreted through the Spirit, as Luther emphasized, could come to mean almost anything."

"The Reformation," Gregory writes, "had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference. This separation from public life is what I mean by secularization. Multiple areas of life in Western societies ended up getting secularized because the Reformation inadvertently made Christianity into an intractable problem."

So, he argues, correctly, "anyone who wants to understand how and why we have the Western ideas and institutions we have today must understand the Reformation and all that followed in its wake."

Brad_gregoryLuther, the troubled monk, can't find a way to feel that he's done enough for God to forgive his sins. Ultimately, based partly on insights from reading the New Testament book of Romans, he realizes that there's nothing he can do to merit forgiveness. Rather, divine forgiveness is always and only a gift of grace. That's the liberating message he begins to distribute via his writing. And his writing was nothing less than a massive outpouring. Within a few years, he was the most widely published writer in Germany, if not all of Europe. That story is told in detail in an excellent book called Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree, which I reviewed here last year for The National Catholic Reporter.

With the explosion of Luther's printed word came the explosion of the Reformation, though as Gregory notes, were it not for protection from Frederick of Saxony, the ruler of the area where Luther lived, "Luther's sudden rise would have come to an immediate end, and with it the Reformation."

But because of Frederick's willingness to shield Luther, he did not get arrested or killed and he began to draw both supporters and foes of his idea that "scripture's authority trumps papal authority." It's true that all these years later Luther's most talked-about complaint about the Catholic Church was that it was selling indulgences to people so their dead loved ones might spend less time in purgatory and/or might avoid hell altogether. And, in fact, that was an important part of what Luther argued. But even many Catholics weren't happy with the selling of indulgences then and it was likely that without Luther the practice eventually would have gone away.

What was more important about Luther's challenge, as Gregory makes clear, is, as I've noted, that he freed individual Christians to believe that they could interpret scripture on their own and did not have to rely on the church's authorities to tell them what it means. When Luther then created a German translation of the Bible that many ordinary people could read, there was no stopping the Reformation, which then developed in many different forms, leading to the bazillion Protestant denominations (well, several thousand) today. Luther, Gregory writes, "would deride the idea of (religious) freedom we know today and disclaim any credit for it. In fact, he would be disgusted by it. . ."

Today, however, at least in the U.S., a common attitude among Christians is that they simply will agree to disagree, sometimes vociferously but rarely violently. Gregory, however, notes that "virtually no one held this view in the early sixteenth century -- and for good reasons, because their hope of eternal life depended on the fit of their faith, and all that implied, with God's truth." So Christians then literally went to war with each other -- often for decades. "The most fundamental and influential fact about the Reformation era is its sustained disagreement," Gregory notes.

And while the Protestants were killing each other, the Catholic Church was busy doing its own internal reforms. As Gregory writes, "The Reformation did not overcome or abolish Roman Catholicism; rather, it actually contributed directly if unintentionally to rejuvenating the Roman Church."

Gregory's book tells all of this and weaves in the lives and works of such other reformers as John Calvin, Ulrich (sometimes Huldrych) Zwingli and John Knox. It's a pretty complete picture in fewer than 300 pages.

In the end, Gregory concludes persuasively that "The modern Western world, in its basic ideas, institutions and assumptions, is in large measure the product of the interrelated responses that arose to address problems inherited from the Reformation era. . .The long-term outcome of the Reformation era -- and its ultimate irony -- has been the gradual, unintended secularization of modern Western society. That process still goes on today. . ."

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Music, known as the universal language, can be a powerful way for people to express their faith. And just because I love the cello (the Pandora station I play most often is Yo-Yo Ma Radio), I'm passing along this intriguing story from the Bay Area about a Jewish cellist and how the instrument lets him speak that universal language. The cellist, Amit Peled, says this: “I tell the public, I found my religion to be music. I am proud to be Israeli, proud to be Jewish. My kids go to Jewish day school. We go to synagogue. That’s important to me. But deep inside, what I believe in, is music.”

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: On Sunday, The Kansas City Star published this 9/11-related column by me.

How America's religious landscape is changing: 9-8-17

Because religious affiliation is not a question that U.S. census takers ask (or should ask), we rely on other organizations to give us a reliable picture of what America's religious landscape looks like and how it's changing.

PrriOne of those organizations is called PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute. And it has just released its latest survey information about what it found last year when it took a snapshot, via extensive survey work, of what religion in America looks like. It confirmed what those of us to pay attention to such matters know to be true -- there is dramatic change in the country's religious makeup.

In short, more Americans than ever are religiously unaffiliated. White Christians are shrinking as a portion of the population. And the country's youngest religious groups are all non-Christian.

Here, in detail from the report, are the top four findings:

  1. White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.
  2. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%.
  3. Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined. Jewish Americans constitute 2% of the public while Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each constitute only 1% of the public. All other non-Christian religions constitute an additional 1%.
  4. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

There are 10 more findings, as well, along with lots of other data, and you can read all that at the link I've given you.

These statistics put even more pressure on existing faith communities to figure out how to live into the future and even whether they have a future. In fact, that's been the focus of many faith groups for decades. The ones that are surviving and even flourishing are the ones that don't fear change and that are willing to offer their message in ways that can be heard in 2017, ways that weren't even thought of 30 years ago.

Faith communities that fail in that task are the ones that may wind up in history's dust bin.

(By the way, here is the Religion News Service story about this new PRRI survey.)

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Some people have seen hurricanes Harvey and Irma as evidence that God is punishing the U.S. for something or other. This scholar of religion begs to disagree. As do I. In fact, why would God need to use natural disasters to punish humans, given that through many of our own actions we surely punish ourselves enough already?