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A faith dependent on resurrection: 3-31/4-1-18


Non-Christians in the U.S. can be forgiven if they imagine that the most important Christian holiday of the year is Christmas. After all, the whole culture goes sort of gift-nuts as people imitate the generous actions of the Magi in the story of Jesus' birth. (Some Christians are confused about this, too.)

But, as author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.

In fact, if Christianity is to be more than a system of moral rules and good advice about the benefits of love, it rises and falls on Easter and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Without that, the core of the faith is eviscerated.

So this Easter weekend, I want to share with you this engaging column from The New York Times. It was written by a woman who, appalled at where many Christian voters took the country in the 2016 presidential election, dropped out of her Catholic church that year.

Margaret Renkl writes that she "couldn’t forgive my fellow Christians for electing a man who exploited his employees, boasted about his sexual assaults, encouraged violence against citizens who disagreed with him, mocked the disabled and welcomed the support of virulent white supremacists. This is what Jesus meant when he told his followers to love one another?

"At church, all I could think about were the millions of people likely to lose their health insurance thanks to Catholic bishops who opposed the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act. I was supposed to be thinking about the infinite love of a merciful God, but all I could hear were thousands of Christians shouting, 'Build that wall!' By the time Easter had come and gone, I was gone too."

But this Easter, she writes, she'll be back at Mass. Why? Her explanation:

"The year away from church hasn’t made me miss the place itself. I don’t miss the stained glass. I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. But I do miss being part of a congregation. I miss standing side by side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world. I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parents’ shoulders. I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace. I miss the singing."

If that seems a little theologically shallow, I don't blame you for thinking so. She doesn't talk about missing the Eucharist, for instance, or hearing scripture read and interpreted in a homily.

But let me suggest that I think, somewhere down deep, she knows that none of what she misses would be happening without the shocking Easter story. After all, she ends the piece by saying that after Mass on Easter she "will walk into the world and do my best to practice resurrection."

What can that possibly mean without a model for resurrection to follow? Yes, the word resurrection has some non-theological meanings ("she resurrected her singing career," for example). But what makes the Christian story so appealing to so many people is that it includes a completely unexpected resurrection and that resurrection is evidence that good already has defeated evil in the world, even if the reign of God has not yet come in full flower.

And we Christians think that surely is worth celebrating.

(The photo here today is one I took about five years ago at Lions Bay north of Vancouver, B.C. I hope it evokes for you a sense of possibility and change. And maybe even resurrection.)

* * *


Did Pope Francis just tell an Italian journalist that there is no hell? The journalist says yes. The Vatican says no. Here's the dilemma: Some say hell is being misquoted by a journalist while others say hell is being quoted correctly by one. I'll leave it to you to choose which happened here.

A Ten Commandments check-up: 3-30-18

In some ways the Ten Commandments have become weaponized in the culture wars.

10-cFools like Judge Roy Moore in Alabama want to put them on display on government-owned property as a way of supporting the second religion (Christianity) to promote them. Judaism, obviously, was first. (How's that working out for you, Moore?)

And they regularly get mentioned by politicians and televangelists as the key to returning the U.S. to its moral center. There may be truth to all that, but one of the problems is that few Americans can name all 10 of the commandments or explain why there are different versions of them in the Bible.

The latest news about the Ten Commandments is that a new survey suggests that fewer and fewer Americans believe they provide an inerrant guide to living, given that more and more Americans are willing to act in ways counter to what the commandments not just ask but order.

The Deseret News in Utah has been doing this series of articles about the relevance of the Ten Commandments today. Its latest entry has to do with bearing false witness, lying. The second link in this paragraph will take you to the study itself, whereas this link will give you the newspaper's latest story.

An few examples from the lying survey:

-- Ten percent of respondents say it's sometimes OK to lie to a spouse about an extramarital affair, while 4 percent say it's often OK to do that.

-- Twelve percent say it's sometimes all right to cheat on your taxes, while 5 percent suggest it's often OK.

-- Twenty-nine percent say it's sometimes OK to inflate your resume to get a job, while 7 percent say that's often all right.

So, much more important than whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in courthouses is the question of whether, however it's measured, Americans have begun to lose their moral center. (Clearly that's the case with white evangelicals voters, 80 percent of whom supported Donald Trump despite the reality that his life repudiates almost every value evangelicals have stood for.)

The problem with being too quick to answer the question about whether we're falling into an immoral black hole is that as soon as we say yes we can find dozens of examples in history when we might have made the same judgment -- not just about Americans but about people around the world. Immorality goes back a long, long way.

So although the Ten Commandments have been a useful guide -- many would say a divinely authored guide -- for centuries, they themselves can become what the first commandment warns against, an idol.

In fact, I've long argued that, in the end, all sin comes down to idolatry -- putting something or someone ahead of God. If we could just get that first commandment right, adherence to all the rest would naturally follow.

So let's spend a bit of time today reading The Deseret News coverage of this matter (and noting its natural special attention to Mormons) and then living out the idea of avoiding idolatry. Sounds like a good plan to me.

* * *


Various faith groups have come out opposed to the Trump administration's move to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. It might be an interesting statistic to have if adding it to the census form weren't so obviously a ploy to limit the response to the census from immigrants and, thus, affect lots of statistics, including congressional district boundaries.

The freedom of not being in the majority: 3-29-18


A new study shows that white Christians now are a minority of the U.S. population, continuing a trend that has been building since at least 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law (though that's far from the only cause of this trend).

You can read the story by Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press to which I've linked you for yourself to get more details, but I want to focus today on something mentioned in the story. She wrote this:

"The trends identified in the survey are fueling anxiety about the place of Christians in society. . ."

History repeatedly shows that Christianity seems to grow and be at its vibrant best when it is a small, even persecuted religious sect in a culture or society. From the early days of the Jesus Movement within Judaism to the various times (including today) that what became Christianity has been oppressed, the faith seems to flourish when the powers that be stand opposed to it.

Stanley Hauerwas, who has spent most of his career teaching at Duke Divinity School, once told me he found it liberating that Christians in the U.S. don't have to be in charge of and responsible for everything any more.

This, he said, frees Christians to use their prophetic voices and take on the role of court jester, meaning being free to point out what the government and society are doing that's wrong, immoral or both.

People of all faith traditions should be fulfilling their role as prophets -- not to predict the future but to call people to act in moral and loving ways and to point out where that's not happening. It's an easier job to do when people of your religion aren't running the government, aren't the heads of industries that pollute the environment, aren't in charge of financial systems that reward only one group of people.

So the "anxiety" that Rachel Zoll mentions Christians sensing probably is misplaced. Not being responsible for every aspect of governance, business and culture actually turns out to be an opportunity to speak out more clearly.

(Speaking of things Christian, the Communion table you see in the photo is a recent one in the sanctuary of the congregation I call home.)

* * *


Having once met President Trump's nominee to be the next national security adviser, John Bolton, and heard him speak, I knew him to be rather deeply hostile toward Islam. What I didn't know is that he's part of an organized anti-Islam group called the “counter-jihad” movement. At a time when the U.S. needs to be figuring out how to be a religiously pluralistic nation, is this the kind of thinker we need at the top levels of our federal government? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Why gratitude is a religious virtue: 3-28-17

Anyone who has grown up in almost any faith tradition has heard over and over the importance of gratitude as an essential approach to living a healthy and spiritually fulfilling life.

GratefulAnd we've all known ingrates and what a pain they can be.

So Diana Butler Bass's new book, Grateful: The Transforming Power of Giving Thanks, does not plow much previously untouched ground. But because of her deft touch and her story-telling ability, she is able to personalize these lessons in ways that keep the reader engaged and, in turn, thinking. (The book's official publication date is this coming Tuesday.)

Bass, a Christian scholar, historian and speaker, has written several important books that have advanced the conversation about what post-modern Christianity does and should look like. I reviewed her last book, Grounded, here.

In this new book, she confesses that she hasn't been naturally gifted with a bent toward gratitude. It's seems to be a gene she was born without.

She writes that she "wondered if we (she and members of her family of origin) were plagued by a gratitude deficit, a kind of hereditary ungratefulness. My mother lost her sense of gratitude as death came closer, and my grandmother struggled with gratitude in relation to poverty. Who knew how many generations had failed at thankfulness? . . .I wanted my heart to sing with gratitude, but it was just so damn hard."

So she had to do some personal exploration to figure out why it's promoted as one of the great virtues, and she's had to learn how to live out a life of gratitude more intentionally.

We all know, she writes, "how difficult it is to practice and sustain thanksgiving -- to live a truly grateful life."

And coming up with a workable definition of gratitude takes some work, she says, but "the right place to begin understanding gratitude is as an emotion issuing from the heart, that pulsing, mysterious place at the center of our being."

To find her way to the practice of gratitude, Bass has had to walk through the various times of pain and betrayal in her own life, from being abused as a 14-year-old by an uncle to the loss of a loved dog, to divorce, to being fired from a teaching job.

She eventually concludes that "gratitude is a feeling, but it is also more than that. And it is much more than a spiritual technique to achieve peace of mind or prosperity. Gratitude is a habit of awareness that reshapes our self-understanding and the moral choices we make in the world. In short, gratitude is an ethic, a coherent set of principles and practices related to grace, gifts and giving that can guide our lives."

So, as I say, you already may be marinated in the lessons of gratitude, but my guess is that the engaging personal stories Bass tells as she works toward her own understanding of this virtue will make you grateful for having read the book.

* * *


It turns out that some folks are pretty upset at the name of a Toronto-based ice cream company now opening shops in the U.S. It's called "Sweet Jesus" ice cream. Hmmm. At least it's not called Religious Nut.

Politics usually isn't why people leave church: 3-27-18

People leave faith communities for many reasons. They range from the serious (theological disagreements, no help in educating children) to the spurious (the pastor has an annoying accent, the choir never sings my favorite hymns).

Religion-politicsBut a new University of Buffalo study suggests that differences over strongly held political views rarely causes people to leave, and those who do leave for that reason generally have only a weak connection to the congregation.

The university's press release to which I linked you quotes one of the study's leaders this way: “All we’re really seeing here is a little churn,” says Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Political Science and one of the authors of the study published in the American Journal of Political Science with Anand Sokhey, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and led by Paul Djupe, an associate professor at Denison University."

And even when a parishioner might have a political difference with church leaders, the tendency is to stay because, just as people leave for many reasons, they also stay for many reasons.

“There are many things to keep people engaged at church," Neiheisel says. "People might attend for the sermons, the small group activities or the social encounters. Churches are not one dimensional. So the people involved with their church still have access to the networks provided and the opportunities for building civic skills.”

It's also my experience that people tend to be pretty careful about finding congregations in which they will feel generally comfortable in terms of social, political, racial and economic matters. And once they make a serious commitment to a congregation they aren't likely to walk away over periodic and relatively small differences of opinion about political matters.

So in that sense the study's findings are not surprising, even though we clearly live in a strongly partisan political culture that often doesn't get left behind at the church door. Just imagine how atomized especially the Christian church would be if people got angry and left to form new churches on a regular basis. Oh, wait. That actually defines Protestant history.

So maybe this new study shows that a bit of maturation on this score is happening. Wouldn't that be nice?

* * *


As this Religion News Service story notes, lots of faith communities around the country participated in Saturday's "March for Our Lives." There certainly were people from faith groups at the Kansas City event, including me and other people from my own congregation. Let's be clear about something: You don't have to know a ton about guns in detail to be in favor of sensible laws that can protect our children in schools and elsewhere. Can you give a precise definition of an assault rifle? Can you describe how a bumpstock works? Do you know your calibers, your marksmanship rules? Fine, if you can say yes to all that. But it's not necessary unless you plan to base an argument or legislative proposal on such things. All you really need to be clear about is that people are needlessly dying and that we personally and we as a society must find ways to prevent however many such deaths we can -- and do it without repealing the Second Amendment. We also might want to ask ourselves why it has taken until now for this many people to get engaged in some way. After all, people have been getting shot to death one by one by one on our streets -- especially in central cities -- for decades without much of a societal response. Still, better late than not at all.

The idea of the U.S. as 'Christian' has been slimed: 3-26-18

Over the weekend here on the blog, I shared with readers columnist Michael Gerson's excellent Atlantic cover story about how white Christian evangelicals made the stupefying choice to be big supporters of President Donald Trump.

America-flag-crossIt's a cautionary -- and even shocking -- tale for sure.

Just as Gerson took us back a bit in history, this Religion & Politics piece, by Benjamin E. Park, gives us even more of a historical perspective on this gobsmacking, revolting development.

Park takes us back to the times of both the American and the soon-to-follow French revolutions to reveal how some Christian leaders -- sometimes while paying lip service to religious freedom and diversity -- came to think of the U.S. as the quintessential Christian nation that must be guided by Christian principles and theology.

The French Revolution's "quick spiral into violence. . .," he writes, "proved a crucial moment in American politics, as it forced significant developments in the nation’s concept of exceptionalism, ideas of violence and revolution, and understanding of democracy. And given that religion was always at the center of their discussions concerning France, it also both shifted and validated competing theologies of national belonging. France’s descent into anarchy, many argued, was due to their lack of religious devotion. For America to succeed, then, they had to redouble their Christian alliance. America’s nationalism could only be built upon ardent Christian patriotism."

Not all American political leaders then bought this, of course, but many of the nation's religious leaders did, and it led in the country's early decades to the idea that -- despite what the Constitution said about religious freedom -- this was a Christian nation and would have to remain one to survive and thrive.

Park concludes this: "In response to the French Revolution, American ministers helped cultivate the framework in which their congregants could interpret their world and the events taking place within it. In an Age of Revolutions, in which everything seemed in transition, religion provided the tools through which to construct a consistent allegiance. These debates also developed one of the most dominant frameworks for American nationalism. The United States of America was to be, beyond anything else, a Christian refuge from a fallen world. Those who wished to control its power were expected to follow those guidelines.

"Two centuries later, Americans, and especially American conservatives, are still devoted to proving the religious nature of their patriotic devotion."

One problem with all that today is that the religious landscape in the U.S. has changed -- in some ways quite dramatically. For instance, Protestants used to make up a huge majority of the population. Today they make up fewer than 50 percent of its citizens. And although a majority of the population still identifies as some sort of Christian, the U.S. is a much more religiously diverse nation now.

This can and should be a strength, just as our racial and ethnic diversity can and should be. But when religious leaders (I'm thinking now mostly of white evangelical Christians) abandon their moral centers, trading them for political power, which is what's happened in the age of Trump, both the religious and the political authenticity of the nation get compromised.

So there are deep roots to the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation (even though that technically and politically has not been true since the adoption of the Bill of Rights). But the latest distortion of religious principles in favor of power to control and win the culture wars has made the idea of a Christian nation not just a sham but profoundly undesirable if that's the way Christians are going to act.

* * *


Keying off Saturday's March for Our Lives, Pope Francis said in a Palm Sunday sermon that it's time for youth to lead. And you've got to think that a guy in his 80s really means it.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column (about how Kansas City's clergy led the response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago) now is online here.

How evangelicals got sucked into Trumpism's black hole: 3-24/25-18

One of the most astonishing theological-political stories of our era (and, in fact, in all of American history) is how white Christian evangelicals abandoned their moral values to vote overwhelmingly to elect as president Donald J. Trump, a man whose life stands against almost all of those values.

American-Flag-CrossThere have been lots of analyses trying to explain how this moral cave-in happened. Some suggested it was all about getting federal judges appointed who eventually would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Some added other aspects of the culture wars. Some even proposed that many of these white Christians bought into a version of "vessel theology," in which they imagined Trump as the new King Cyrus the Great, chosen by God to do the divine will.

No doubt there is some truth to all of this. But I think it's more complicated than any of that, and so does columnist Michael Gerson, who seeks to unpack what happened in this cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic. It's a terrific read with lots of important history, and I commend it to you.

Gerson, who has strong conservative and evangelical credentials, outlines the essential disconnect between Trump and evangelical teaching this way: ". . .the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism — his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth — is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for 'the other' stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for 'losers' smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ."

Beyond that, he writes, "Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. . .The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness."

All of this and more, including the history of how lots of evangelicals became staunch supporters of the Republican Party, is painful for Gerson (and for the rest of us). He writes:

"It is difficult to see something you so deeply value discredited so comprehensively. Evangelical faith has shaped my life, as it has the lives of millions. Evangelical history has provided me with models of conscience. Evangelical institutions have given me gifts of learning and purpose. Evangelical friends have shared my joys and sorrows. And now the very word is brought into needless disrepute.

"This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders."

You can read the Gerson piece and get a better grasp of the way in which evangelicals got drawn toward the black hole of Trumpism. The question now, of course, is whether they can extricate themselves from it or whether their moral compromises will so damage them that it will be impossible to recover anything like their previous reputation for high moral standards.

* * *


Because of exhaustion and age, the Dalai Lama is cutting back on his travel schedule, it's reported. Well, he's been at this a long time, and has been in almost constant motion since escaping Tibet in the late 1950s. Twenty years from now, I'd love to read the definite biography about him, with a full assessment of his accomplishments and of the goals he failed to achieve.

Another bothersome school prayer issue: 3-23-18

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the Engel v. Vitale case in 1962 that prayer in public schools composed and encouraged by public employees is unconstitutional, confused people of faith have been trying to sneak it back in.

Prayer-schoolsAnother effort is being made now in Kentucky, where, under a law just passed by the House, an annual day of prayer for the state's students would become law.

First, let's say whatever we legitimately can about what, if anything, is good about this effort.

Well, let's see. It would be a nice sign of support for students if people who practice prayer would pray for them. You can bet that some of the kids in school, especially facing tough math tests, say, are doing a fair amount of praying in school themselves. So there's that.

But what's really going on here?

Despite efforts to bend over backwards to keep this law within constitutional bounds, what's really going on is that elected public officials are trying to lead us theologically. Which, of course, is not their job. Suggesting prayer inevitably means they believe there's a recipient of that prayer, some kind of god. I happen to believe there is such a deity, but I certainly don't want my elected officials trying to tell me anything about the subject.

If those officials want to support students in school, they can do something innocuous (and almost useless), such as creating an "Honor Schools Day," when citizens would be urged to think about underpaid, overworked teachers and the struggles of the students under their care. Fine.

But much better would be for those elected officials to be done with theology and empty gestures and to find ways to provide adequate financial support for the schools (I'm looking at you especially, Kansas) and to create ways in which teachers would have all the resources they need to do their jobs well.

You want to support kids in school, lawmakers? Help make sure kids are safe, well fed and have access to great teachers and excellent educational resources. Once you've done that, go ahead and pray for them. Just don't order anyone else to do that.

* * *


A new survey shows that most Protestant congregations still are made up predominantly of people of one racial classification, but that they are changing to become more diverse. There's a lot of terrible history to overcome in this regard. And yet the most recent group of new members to join my own predominantly white congregation included three people of color. So little by little the world is changing for the better.

* * *



One of the musical genres with which I don't have a lot of familiarity is Christian rock, which used to be considered something of an oxymoron. Oh, I've heard some and even liked a little. But it's not my music. Neither is a distant cousin of Christian rock called praise music, which I sometimes call 7-11 music, meaning seven words repeated 11 times. And yet you might imagine that there is an interesting history to Christian rock, and indeed there is. One place to read about it, and especially about the person called the godfather of that style of music, is in Gregory Alan Thornbury's new book, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock. It describes the creative, strange, highly directed life of Larry Norman, who began his musical career in the world of traditional rock but then decided in the 1970s that he was called to use his music to lead people to Jesus. He was an oddly prickly performer who insisted on doing things exactly his way and who seemed to enjoy antagonizing even his many fans at concerts sometimes. The book is full of stories about his odd life, his deep devotion to Christ, his eventual divorce, his apparently being poisoned (though not fatally) by Russia's spy agency, the KGB, and more. It raises lots of old questions about the people God chooses to be prophets and preachers. When he died in 2008 at age 60, his tombstone was inscribed with these descriptions: "Evangelist Without Portfolio" and "Bloodstained Israelite." Thornbury adds: "Without portfolio indeed. He was not authorized by any church or ministry, nor was he ever rewarded by the rock-'n'-roll industry for talking about belief. To the end, he stood in the public square, with a Flamenco guitar strapped to his chest, singing about Jesus, unapologetic about both his faith and his failures until the very end."

Recovery from the Holocaust still continues: 3-22-18

Ten years ago, as Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I were working for on our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, it became clear to me that many of the amazing stories of survivors also led to post-war trauma that often gets inherited by their children and grandchildren.

Zygie-JC-WDT-EstherImagine what it might be like to grow up as the child of someone who was alive by the slimmest of chances. Even daily pressures could be enormous: "I survived the Holocaust so you could get a C in math?"

Every family, of course, is and was different, meaning that some second- or third-generation members have sailed through life in happy, productive, non-traumatic ways. But many have depended on various supportive mechanisms and groups to be able to face life in a post-traumatic time.

In our work, Jacques and I met and have gotten to know Esther Allweiss Ingber, whose father, the late Ziggy Allweiss, is the subject of the first story we tell in our book.

Esther, who lives in the Detroit area, is a journalist. Last week she wrote this interesting piece for the Jewish News of Detroit. It tells of various ways that charitable social service organizations minister to the needs of Holocaust survivors and their families.

I share it with you not because many of you will know Detroit-area Holocaust survivors but because this kind of supportive work goes on in various ways all around the country and, indeed, the world. And because it's important work.

In her article, Esther writes about Charley Silow, founding director of Program for Holocaust Survivors and Families (PHSF)

"Support groups remain the heart of PHSF," she writes, "and Silow leads more than 160 sessions yearly."

In one sense, the Holocaust did not end when the last death camp was liberated and Adolf Hitler took his own life in his Berlin bunker. Its ripple effects continue in many ways even today, as Esther's piece attests. It's another reminder that the evil that people do often lives long after them.

(The photo here was taken in 2014 when Jacques and I spoke at the Holocaust memorial museum in suburban Detroit. That's Ziggy to my left and Esther between Ziggy and Jacques.)

* * *


"The obligation to save lives overrules virtually all other Jewish laws," a rabbi writes in this Religion News Service piece. So he's going to break one of those laws he promised to obey so he can travel on the Sabbath to join teens on the March for Our Lives on Saturday. He writes that "this march, if successful, will surely save lives." I hope he's right about that last point, and surely the march is worth doing, though it's going to take more than this to make sensible changes in gun regulations.

* * *

P.S.: A reminder that the annual Seven Days events kicks off in Kansas City on April 10. The link I've given you will tell you about the planned week of healing and reflection events. As part of it, I'll be co-leading an adult interfaith workshop on April 15. Hope to see some of you there.

* * *



Because last year marked the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, lots of books about its first leader, Martin Luther, have hit the bookshelves. I reviewed one of them, Brand Luther, here. And I wrote about another one, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, here. Today I want you to know about another worthy book that deals with Luther, but this time not just Luther. Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing, compares and contrasts these two giants of religious history in almost 1,000 pages. This dual biography of Desiderus Erasmus and Martin Luther (contemporaries and philosophical competitors for more than 50 years) shows how the humanism of Erasmus and the theology of Luther set up often-conflicting paths that had to be negotiated both then and now. This was a period, Massing writes, "when the medieval gave way to the modern," and Erasmus and Luther had different views of what the modern period should look like. Erasmus, sometimes known as the Dutch pre-reformer, has been overshadowed by Luther for most of the last 500 years. But his ideas still influence us today, as we move into post-modernity and what many have called a post-Christian world. "While Erasmus stressed the capabilities of man," Massing writes, "Luther exalted the power of God." One might think it possible to weave those two mega-ideas into a comprehensible whole approach to life, but that has proved difficult. Which is why today what's called evangelicalism often seems so starkly different from what's called humanism. To say that either Erasmus or Luther won this binary battle is to oversimplify and grossly distort history. Massing here helps readers understand why.

The challenge of change in Islam's ground zero: 3-21-18

Saudi Arabia, home to most of the 9-11 hijackers, home to Osama bin Laden himself, purveyor of the rigid brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, seems to be moving toward something resembling modernity under its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (pictured here).

MBSSo much so that the CBS news feature show "Sixty Minutes" devoted more than 25 of its minutes Sunday to a piece about MBS, as he's known, and what his ascendancy might mean for the country, for the House of Saud and for Islam.

It was clear to me when I spent some time in Saudi Arabia in 2002 that both Wahhabism and the youthful nature of the population (the median age then was something like 17) were creating an unsustainable situation. Something had to give. What seems to be giving is a little bit of the authoritarian nature of the monarchy.

Which in itself creates a new and dangerous dynamic. Will the religious powers that be, who want to continue to push their own punitive brand of Islam, and the extremists, who take that brand of Islam and distort it beyond recognition, let MBS get away with it? We don't yet know.

CBS reports that the crown prince's "reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary. He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption in a land with 15,000 princes. But selling Saudi Arabia won't be easy."

Although the culture on the Arabian peninsula is ancient, Saudi Arabia as a nation has existed only since the 1930s, the founding king being MBS's grandfather.

The standard and believable story about power in the country is that the founding king, Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (known usually just as Abdulaziz), made a deal with the leaders of Wahhabism at the time. He would let them promote their strict theology throughout the nation in exchange for unwavering support of the House of Saud.

Correspondent Norah O'Donnell of CBS asked MBS this: "There is a widespread perception that the kind of Islam practiced inside Arabia is harsh, it's strict, it's intolerant. Is there any truth to that?"

His response: "After 1979 (when Iran went through its Islamic revolution), that's true. We were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal."

And speaking of religion there now, there was this exchange:

Norah O'Donnell: "You have said you are, 'Taking Saudi Arabia back to what we were, a moderate Islam.' What does that mean?"

Mohammed bin Salman: "We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace. Many of those ideas contradict the way of life during the time of the prophet and the caliphs. This is the real example and the true model."

Well, he's right about that. But the violent extremists don't give up easily. Any social change is hard. Social change that challenges your idea that God wants this or that to be a particular way is much harder. That's what MBS is up against.

This may not be pretty.

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A priest in Poland, upset because Pope Francis wants to help Muslim refugees, says he's praying for the pontiff's early death if Francis doesn't change his mind. Further evidence of the widespread need for a class called "Remedial Christianity."

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Speaking of religious change in a country, as I was above about Islam and Saudi Arabia, China has been experiencing a pretty remarkable resurgence of religious activity in the last several decades. That's the intriguing story told by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Johnson in his new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. What he describes is far from the atheist China of conventional wisdom. "Faith and values," he writes, "are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life." For a time, a fair amount of religious activity in China was driven underground. The place was full of so-called "unregistered churches," meaning, Johnson writes, that "these congregations usually met in people's homes or somewhere in secret." But today, he writes, such churches are "big and public. In fact, these unregistered churches make up about half of China's fifty to sixty million Protestants, forming one of those gray areas that defines much of religious life in China." This is an important story well told. You won't think of China the same once you read it.