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When we confuse God and Santa Claus: 12-19-17

There are many reasons to enjoy the sweet myth of Santa Claus. But if Santa serves as a surrogate or substitute for God, the troubles are nearly endless, as a Marquette professor of religious history argues in this challenging article, "No God But Santa."

Jesus-SantaBut let Ulrich L. Lehner make the point for himself: "Western religion has largely become a self-serving therapeutic endeavor. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim — the push for 'No God but Santa' is universal in our society. The moment we diminish the Divine to a moral law of the universe, the moment we rob God of his awe-inspiring mystery, we have started on the road to sentimentalist religion."

The reality is that we live in a therapeutic culture. When things don't go exactly right, we turn to therapy, whether it's guidance from some kind of licensed therapist or counselor or whether it's self-medication by drugs, alcohol or mindless entertainment. What is wrong with us is not our fault, in this view. So instead of looking inside to spot the cause of our malaise (which sometimes, of course, can require the help of good therapists), we seek to put soothing salve on it via the therapeutic culture.

And as Lehner rightly notes, that leads to what he calls "sentimentalist religion," in which the vision of God is not challenging and holy and, well, other. Rather, the vision of God becomes increasingly Santa-like. It's a seductive model, but in the end it allows us to create God in our own image.

As Lehner puts it, "The 'Santa God' gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling — like a cozy blanket on a cold winter day — and brings us what we want. This God is the ultimate vending machine: As long as you are 'nice' here and there, you get a present and perhaps even a place in heaven."

But does abandoning Santa God mean buying into a vision of God as a wrathful spirit willing to send damn near everyone to burn in the eternal fires of hell? Lehner again: "By attacking the idea of the nice God, I do not argue for a mean God or a God of wrath. God is love, justice, and mercy, but if we leave those attributes lifeless, our faith becomes bland, like 'salt that has lost its flavor' (Mt 5: 13). This may be why so many seek spiritual fulfillment outside the churches."

Indeed. If our faith communities can't offer a vision of a loving God who, at the same time, requires a difficult response from us, no wonder they decline.

So let's keep our images of Santa and God separated, except to note that God is the God of all, including Santa.

(The image here today came from this site.)

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If you consider yourself a Christian evangelical, speaking out in protest against President Trump and the evangelicals who abandon their values and support him, can be costly. This intriguing Politico story about such an evangelical, Jen Hatmaker, is a good example of that. But she's not backing down. “When I see legislation and leadership and government harming people, when I see language that’s being normalized and the effect that is going to have on my neighbors and on people who are typically marginalized, I will not sit by,” she says. Good for her. I wish more evangelicals had her courage.

Here's a religion I'd never heard of: 12-18-17

One evening this past weekend I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to see the breath-taking Picasso exhibit.

BwitiWhile there I discovered a religion. I didn't convert to it. I just became aware that it existed, something I had not previously known.

It's called the Bwiti religion of the African nation of Gabon. At the Picasso exhibit it was mentioned in the explanation of a mask from Gabon, one of the African nations whose art influenced Picasso's approach to art.

The Wikipedia entry to which I've linked you calls Bwiti a "spiritual discipline of the forest-dwelling Babongo and Mitsogo people of Gabon (where it is recognized as one of three official religions. . .)"

Which is intriguing, because the CIA Factbook entry on Gabon says that more than 40 percent the population is Catholic, the rest being "Protestant 13.7%, other Christian 32.4%, Muslim 6.4%, animist 0.3%, other 0.3%, none/no answer 5% (2012 est.)."

I'm thinking the followers of Bwiti fit in the "animist" category, given that the Wikipedia entry says this: "Modern Bwiti incorporates animismancestor worship, and Christianity into a syncretistic belief system."

Bwiti ceremonies use a psychedelic root bark that "yields complex visions and insights anticipated to be valuable to the initiate and the chapel."

I don't know how many religions there are in the world -- and neither does the author of this Beliefnet piece that tries to figure out the answer to that question. But I no longer find it surprising that I am surprised to learn of a religion of which I've never heard.

If Bwiti is your religion and I've made any mistakes in what I've written about it, feel free to e-mail me. But it's probably a waste of your time to try to get me to convert.

(The image here today describing the Bwiti initiation rite I found here. You can read all 17 pages of it there. Your report on this will be due tomorrow.)

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Scientists seem to be able now to recreate extinct species of animals. The question is whether they should. What are the ethical and moral boundaries of fiddling with DNA? Who decides what to bring back and what to keep extinct? What happens if once animals are brought back they turn against us in various ways? It's time for all of us to think about all of this.

The top religion story of 2017? 12-16/17-17

Jerome Socolovsky, editor in chief of Religion News Service, has done this intriguing roundup of the most important religion stories of 2017. Whew.

Religion-newsHe lists the most important story of the year as "President Trump’s born-again-like embrace of evangelical politics," and maybe that's right. But I suspect that in the long run the reaction by white evangelicals to that embrace will turn out to be a more important story.

As I've mentioned before, people who identify as white Christian evangelicals have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by politicians (Trump and Roy Moore, among them) whose values fly in the face of traditional evangelical values.

It's been sad and sobering to watch, and the ramifications from this disastrous trip into the political ditch are sure to go on for a long, long time, particularly as young Americans -- whose sensitivity to hypocrisy seems quite high -- begin to recognize and respond to what evangelicals have abandoned in pursuit of political power.

Socolovsky notes that "While the president’s sexual history made them (evangelicals) believers in situational ethics on issues they cared about, he followed a religious right playbook with the zeal of a convert."

Which might well have been expected had Mike Pence been president. Pence really is a deeply committed evangelical. Trump, by contrast, claims to be a Presbyterian, though, as I've noted previously, if he were arrested and charged with being one there wouldn't be enough evidence to convict him.

Well, you can read about the rest of the big religion stories of 2017 and Socolovsky's comments about what to watch for in 2018. As for me, I'm going to try to stay alert to white evangelicals who finally realize they've been deeply compromised and who repent. 

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I was sorry to read about the death on Thursday of theologian, pastor and religious broadcaster R.C. Sproul. He and I differed fairly substantially on many matters of theology, but years ago I found his book, The Holiness of God, to be quite helpful. You might, too.

'An almost pitilessly literal' New Testament translation: 12-15-17

In my house you will find (if I let you in) several shelves (two are pictured here) filled with different translations of the Bible. I collect them because I'm interested in comparing and contrasting how different translators (often teams of translators) unpack the original Hebrew and Greek and render it in English.

Bible-shelvesNone of my Bibles has any special monetary value because, say, it was signed by the Prophet Isaiah or the Apostle Paul or because it was printed by hand by 13th Century monks in Romania.

Still, I value the books and am always on the alert for interesting new translations.

I've just found one that I want to tell you about even though I haven't yet obtained a copy and, thus, haven't read it. I've only read about it, including in this intriguing piece in The Atlantic. It's called, simply, The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion who is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

Apparently what Hart has tried to do here is to produce a quite literal translation of the original Greek while making no effort to smooth out the variances in writing that happened because the New Testament was written by several different writers working over decades and decades.

Hart-NTHere's part of what The Atlantic reports about this translation: “'Again and again,' he (Hart) insists, 'I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation. . .Where an author has written bad Greek. . .I have written bad English.' Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow."

And why would a translator decide to proceed in that way? Again, The Atlantic: "The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event — namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like."

Each translation of scripture, in my experience, has its pluses and minuses. For instance, the King James Version's soaring poetry is unmatched by later translations, but its translation team had access to only a few of the earliest manuscripts. Many of the earliest manuscripts have been found only in the last 100 or so years. So newer translations have the benefit of scholarly review of manuscripts about which the KJV team knew nothing. 

Today I mostly use the Contemporary English Bible, though its translators sometimes make choices that simply annoy me, such as repeatedly referring to Jesus as "The Human One" when the standard phrase is "Son of Man." If used occasionally to make a gender-inclusive point about the incarnation it would be fine, but its repetition becomes a drum beat.

The more you know about how the Bible is translated and the difficult choices translators must make to be sure that the old Hebrew and Greek is understandable in English, the more you not only appreciate their art but also how much room for different opinions there are about what the original words really meant. And if that sounds like one more argument against biblical literalism, I won't deny it.

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In the aftermath of Doug Jones' victory over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, Jonathan Merritt of RNS notes that "The groups’ (white evangelical Christians) reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many Americans who see them as partisan hypocrites, more concerned about political power than piety." Evangelicals, he wrote, "must stop pretending they are a moral voice of reason in the American public square and instead begin getting their houses in order." Spot on, Jonathan.

Is this really the God you mean? 12-14-17

I wish people caught up in news events would either leave God out of it or think carefully about what they say when asked by a journalist to respond.

God-MarionetteThe latest example of what I'm talking about happened Monday in New York when a man detonated a low-tech explosive device in a New York subway-bus station corridor.

This ABC News story quotes a woman who was near the explosion as saying this: “It shakes you up. If I didn’t believe in God, I believe in God today.”


The cryptic nature of the story requires the reader to interpret what the woman really meant, but I surmise that she was glad to have survived and is crediting God with that.

Let's think about that.

What kind of God would be making micro-management decisions about exactly how far one single woman in a New York subway happened to be away from an explosion so that God could be sure this woman survived?

One answer is this: The same kind of God who decides that when a commercial airliner crash lands, the person seated in 18-A dies while the person in 18-B survives.

That's one extraordinarily busy God, what with more than seven billion people whose lives need this kind of hourly micromanaging.

Now, I'm not saying God isn't theoretically capable of that. And I'm not denying that Luke 12:7 in the New Testament says that "Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered."

Keeping track of every hair on the heads of seven-plus billion people sounds like a full-time job, if you want to take what Luke wrote literally. Which I don't.

The biblical witness is trying to tell us that God loves us individually -- enough to allow us to be free to accept or reject that love. A lover like that doesn't create animated marionettes whose every move must be arranged. If we're all marionettes on divine strings, why would there be evil, random chance and suffering in the world? Is God an incompetent puppeteer?

That's what the woman in New York was suggesting, whether she knew it or not. Which is why I hope that if you're ever in something like that woman's spot, you'll not pretend to be a learned theologian.

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The surprising victory by Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race may have made you wonder what faith connections Jones has. Religion News Service, in a piece written before the election, has five answers here. My hope is that we've now heard the last of Roy Moore.

'And lead us not into, uh, change': 12-13-17

Perhaps you noted a story a few days ago about Pope Francis suggesting a tweak to what Protestants usually call "The Lord's Prayer" and what Catholics often call the "Our Father."

Lords-prayerHere is America Magazine's version of that story. (I've added The Telegraph's version of the story in the "Related Articles" section below.)

As the story reports, the suggested rewording would try "to clear up the confusion around the phrase 'lead us not into temptation.'

“'That is not a good translation,' the pope said in a interview on Wednesday night with Italian television, according to published reports."

Some of this has to do with how particular Greek words in the New Testament have been translated into English. It's what scholars wrestle with every day as they work to understand how the original readers (or, more likely, hearers) would have understood what was written.

But some of it also has to do with our concept of God. The phrase "lead us not into temptation" presumes a God who, for reasons not altogether clear to us, tempts us. To many people, including me, that vision of God is troubling. Indeed, the role of "tempter" in Christian theology traditionally has been left to Satan. (And, for now, let's not get into whether there really is a personified devil.)

A modern translation of the prayer that I prefer -- one often used by Episcopalians -- changes that temptation line to this: "Save us from the time of trial."

That translation seems more in concert with the next line, "and (or "but") deliver us from evil."

That supposes a God who, rather than dragging us toward temptation and evil, is actively working to move us away from such trials and evils. Which conforms much more closely to the God to whom the scriptures bear witness.

One reason I returned to this story today is to suggest that these kinds of proposed changes are terribly difficult for faith communities to adopt. Even if they come from the top. People of faith, in my experience, tend to want things to remain as they were when they were children. Change upsets them, even though the God worshiped by followers of the three Abrahamic faiths is in many ways a God of change whose nature, nonetheless, never changes.

God seeks to change our hearts, change our understanding of divine things, change our behavior so it lines up with what we say we believe, change the evil being done to other humans. And on and on.

Why so many people of faith are, in response, so resistant to change will always be a mystery to me. I pray to be led away from the temptation to box the ears of some such folks.

(Notice that the version of the prayer pictured here today uses "debts" and "debtors" instead of "trespasses." That's because that's the way we Presbyterians say it -- and I have no interest in change on that matter. I wish I had an irony emoji here.) 

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I trust you will not be shocked to learn that white Christian evangelicals who support President Trump through thin and thin are thrilled that he has formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The problem is that many of them tend to see current events through the eyes of the mysterious book of Revelation in the New Testament. The book is the account of a vision by its author, one that half-baked theologians have turned into precise prophesy, especially about Israel and the end times. And that's how they're viewing Trump's declaration. Maybe it helps to know that the brilliant reform leader John Calvin (who wasn't right about everything) declined to write a commentary about Revelation because he just couldn't quite make a lot of sense of it. That's a pretty good and careful way to approach that fascinating book.

The urban nature of Christianity: 12-12-17

I have always found it intriguing that the Christian Bible -- which begins with the Hebrew scriptures, though it puts the books in a different order -- shows humanity starting in a garden in Genesis and ending up in a city -- the New Jerusalem -- in the book of Revelation.

Christian-historyThat journey says something about the relational nature of the faith. In fact, Christianity is most in balance when it keeps a creative tension between what I sometimes call "Me and Jesus in the Garden" hymns and theology and theology that emphasizes the covenant community of which individuals are members. The more crowded the environment, the more need for relational theology.

Christian History magazine, a terrific publication, has a new issue out called "Faith in the city: How the early church flourished in urban centers." In fact, you can download a pdf version of the issue for free. And if you want to sign up as a subscriber, that's done on a donation basis.

Cities, of course, were where early followers of Jesus found the most people to invite into the faith. As managing editor Jennifer Woodruff Tait notes in the front of this issue, "From Jesus' small group of early disciples, the Christian movement grew within 350 years to 56 percent of the population of the (Roman) empire." (It certainly didn't hurt that the Emperor Constantine, apparently for both religious and political reasons, eventually converted to Christianity.)

The movement did not, as we know, separate itself fully from Judaism for quite a long time (in some places, it took more than a century), so if by "Christian movement" she means full-fledged Christianity, the term is anachronistic.

But it was in large cities that the Jesus Movement found most of its converts.

As Joel C. Elowsky, professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, writes in this issue: "From their first headquarters in the holy city of Jerusalem, to their future Western hub in the imperial city of Rome, the apostles' mission was an urban one."

Christianity today certainly has a place in rural areas both in the U.S. and around the world. In fact, often churches in rural America are the social (and theological) centers of the surrounding communities.

But the robust nature of the faith makes it feel quite at home in the world's urban areas. I'd be interested in reading a report by a religious scholar on whether that is especially true of other faith traditions as well.

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The election for a U.S. Senate seat is today in Alabama, and it may be too late to convince evangelical Christian supporters of Roy Moore that they're being hypocritical beyond belief, but this column by an evangelical teacher tries to convince them of the error of their thinking. I hope some voters will have read it and adjusted their voting plans accordingly.

How clergy can help stop suicide: 12-11-17


A few weeks ago, the senior pastor of our congregation preached this terrific sermon about what it means to be a man today.

In it, he mentioned that most suicides are committed by men and lots of them have to do with guns.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, for instance, notes here that men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women and that white males accounted for 70 percent of the suicides in 2015. Beyond that, firearms are used in about half of all suicides, and firearms are the primary tool used by men. And, of course, guns are much more likely to produce death than other methods of suicide.

Which leads me to share this piece from Religion & Politics about a minister's efforts to prevent suicide and to minister to those who are tempted to commit it or who try but fail.

Since 1994, the story reports, the Rev. Rob Schenck has led the evangelical ministry Faith and Action on Capitol Hill: "A series of gun-related incidents over the past decade profoundly altered the trajectory of Schenck’s vocation. Until 2014, Schenck was perhaps best known as a prominent anti-abortion activist and for his work with Operation Rescue. Over the years, he began to see opposing gun violence as part and parcel of his pro-life work. It struck him how closely linked suicide was to gun violence. The latest available CDC figures reveal that suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 34, and nearly half of all suicides occur by firearms."

There have been efforts, including here in Kansas City, to help equip members of the clergy to recognize signs of depression in congregants, especially in those nearing the end of their lives, and to help such people get help. But that effort here lasted just a few years.

It may be time to find new ways to help religious leaders get the training they need to recognize in their parishioners the signs that may lead toward suicide. It's one of the most pro-life things that could be done.

(Right after I wrote this post I learned that the pastors of my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, have a sermon series planned for January about this very topic. It's called "Let's Talk: Honest Conversations about Emotional Wounds, Faith and Mental Illness." If you're interested, our services are at 8:15 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. Or by the next day a video of the sermon is posted on the church's website under the "Worship" tab.)

(The graphic here today is from this site on religion and suicide.)

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In the midst of all the serious news slamming us hourly, are you ready for a little satire? Me, too. Fortunately, The Onion brings it to us with this story, in which God is quoted as revealing that, in truth, Jerusalem is only the 87th most sacred city on the planet, even behind Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My guess is that Topeka still is way, way below all of those places.

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Pope-caringPope Francis and the Caring Society, edited by Robert W. Whaples. Pope Francis, in various encyclicals, talks and interviews, has said a lot about how Christians are to understand economics and weave its mysteries into a life of faith. Not all economists have agreed with everything he's said, nor have all theologians. But Frances, formed by his life in South America and his Catholic faith, has used his prophetic voice to stand for and with the poor and needy of the world and to critique economies that have helped to keep the poor in poverty. This interesting volume from the Independent Institute gathers together essays from several writers to, in turn, critique the pope's own critique. It's a lively conversation and a reminder that no single view of economics or theology holds all the truth. For instance, is Francis right, as Whaples writes in the introduction, "that wealth and abundant consumer goods and services are dangerous. . ."? The pope takes both criticism and praise in this book. And that balance advances the conversation and the understanding.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- focusing on a needed Christian response to all the sexual assault scandals we're hearing and reading about -- now is online here.

A re-look at a faithful pilgrimage: 12-9/10-17

More than 15 years ago, religion scholar Diana Butler Bass published Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community, and it helped Americans understand not only the decline of Mainline Protestant denominations but also why people like her have stayed connected to church.

Strength-journeyIt was -- and remains -- a helpful and enlightening read.

And now it's back in a new edition with a foreword by religion writer Carol Howard Merritt and an afterword by Bass herself.

In some ways the ground has shifted in a decade and a half, but what Bass provides here continues to be insightful and to offer guidance to anyone seeking to understand the contemporary American religious landscape.

In the new ending to the book, Bass describes a speech she gave at a session of the Parliament of the World Religions in 2015 in Salt Lake City. She talks about being at her local Starbucks, where her favorite barista is a young Muslim woman.

But Bass noticed one day that the woman was wearing a bright green hijab (head scarf) instead of the black one she'd always seen her wear. Asked about it, the woman said she had been told that the rules require she wear black: "But I didn't believe it. So, I looked it up myself. I don't have to wear black. I can wear any color I want."

What mattered for that woman and for women of all religious traditions, Bass writes, is that "she had searched the 'rules' for herself, not listening to someone else's interpretation, but reading the text on her own. . .Women with the power of words can change the world."

Well, Bass herself has the power of words, and in this book she uses them to tell about her connection with eight different Episcopal parishes over two decades. Each is dealing with different issues but each provides an opportunity to learn how to respond to the new religious reality in the U.S., where roughly 25 percent of adults now identify as religiously unaffiliated.

It's a new day in the U.S. in terms of faith, and it's helpful to return to this book to see where we've come since then and what we can learn from her journey.

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No one really knows how the vote Tuesday in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat will turn out. But as this RNS story makes clear, the result may depend more on whether African-American voters turn out to support Democrat Doug Jones than whether enough people abandon Republican Roy Moore because of the allegations against him of sexual misconduct. Blacks have many reasons to vote against Moore beyond those allegations. And they have several reasons, some involving church life, to support Jones.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- about a Christian response to the disgusting series of revelations about sexual assault in the news -- now is online here.

Sometimes lack of religious literacy can kill: 12-8-17

In 1994, a year after the horrific fire (pictured here) at the home of the Branch Davidians outside of Waco, Texas, I went there to write a series of articles for The Kansas City Star about what really happened and why.

WacoYou can find that series in my first book, A Gift of Meaning. One of my sad conclusions was that if the federal agencies in charge of the response to alleged illegal activities by members of that small religious sect had spend even half an hour talking with religious scholars at nearby Baylor University, they never would have initiated the aggressive action that ultimately resulted in the violent death of dozens of people.

Recently my friend Cathy Lynn Grossman of Religion News Service attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and wrote this enlightening story about the ways in which the FBI and other agencies learned from that grievous error and now are relying on religion scholars in crises that somehow involve religious groups.

Since the disaster at Mount Carmel, outside of Waco, Cathy writes, "AAR scholars have advised the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group when dissident religious groups that are not generally well-understood come into conflict with law enforcement. Scholars also work with the FBI’s National Academy to equip new agents with a wider range of religious understanding.

“'We don’t have an excuse not to ask for advice,' said David T. Resch, who was part of the FBI team at Waco and is now special agent in charge of the FBI National Academy. . .However, he noted, creating a 'Religion 101' road map for current and future law enforcement officers is not so simple. Not everyone agrees on what the curriculum should be in this religiously diverse society, one where conflicts also arise shaped by racial division, varying political worldviews and disparities in power."

And yet it's crucial that law enforcement officers at all levels of government have some basic grasp of religious matters and that they have some quick access to helpful religion scholars and leaders who can guide them away from the kind of deadly mistakes made in the Branch Davidian crisis.

As gun violence has increasingly targeted people of faith, it's also incumbent upon religious leaders to have developed a good relationship with law enforcement so authorities can help churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship increase security to try to prevent the terrible massacres we've seen in such places in recent years. So this is a two-way street.

All of this is another example of why religious literacy is so crucial in our society. Sometimes religious illiteracy can be fatal.

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Our friends at Religion News Service have scoured the stores to come up with this fun list of holiday gifts for people of faith (and no faith). I'd take one of the T-shirts with a picture of Martin Luther in sunglasses on it and the words "Nailed It." Extra large.