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Time to plan your summer book list: 4-30-18

May begins tomorrow, which means some of you will be prowling book stores and the internet to find things to read on your summer vacation, which usually starts a month or two before it starts, if you know what I mean.

MertonSo I'm going to help you a bit with that, I hope, by briefly telling you about a stack of new books with faith-based themes. These won't be full reviews, but I'll give you a link that will take you to a site (often where you can learn more and buy a copy.

And, for the record, just because I list a book here doesn't mean I agree with everything the author said. Sometimes I just want you to know that such a book exists.

So, onward. We begin with three books related to the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton (pictured here):

What-living-for-- What I Am Living For: Lessons from the Life and Writings of Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney.

-- The Monk's Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan and the Perilous Summer of 1966, by Robert Hudson.

Praise-useless-- In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk's Memoir, by Paul Quenon.

Merton, as many of you know, was a terrifically productive writer and thinker who was known as Father Louis among the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he spent much of his fascinating life. I first encountered his work in the late 1960s and wrote a review of his book Faith and Violence for the first newspaper I worked at after college graduation, the now-defunct Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.

The first Merton book on this list is a collection of essays about him and what he meant to the authors, who include such well-known writers as Sue Monk Kidd and Father James Martin.

The second book is written by a Bob Dylan scholar who is also a member of the International Thomas Merton Society. Merton himself was a big Dylan fan, and the book explores how Merton's and Dylan's lives connect in various thematic ways.

The third book on the list above is by a monk who served as a novice under Merton at the abbey. It's a description of monastic life that concludes with this: "The choreography of the day, the week, and the year sets my pace and keeps me going. What monastics call 'the regular life' is also a form of play. I dance in the water of time, with its threat of sinking, but I am breathing the air of the timeless."

-- Lead Like a Shepherd: The Secret to Leading Well, by Larry Osborne. You know the old hymn, "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us"? This book takes that concept seriously but applies it to leadership by people today, though the author, a pastor, says that the inspiration from the book came from this passage in the New Testament book of I Peter: "Be shepherds of God's flock." It's full of advice about how to be an effective spiritual leader, though he correctly notes that such work "is not for the faint of heart."

-- From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, by Brian C. Stiller. The author is the global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, and offers here his take on how and why Christianity is growing impressively in such places as Africa and the Far East. That growth is happening at a time when, in North America and especially Europe, Christianity is becoming less dominant. The predominant voices in Christianity are beginning to come from the Southern Hemisphere and such places as South Korea, which isn't where Timbuktu is located, but you get the idea.

Secrets-holiness-- Three Secrets to Holiness in Marriage: A 33-Day Self-Guided Retreat for Catholic Couples, by Dan and Amber DeMatte. As the subtitle of this book indicates, for a month-plus-long, it offers daily meditations and conversations about how to hold marriage together. It's written with angst about what the authors see as cultural rejection of "God's plan for human sexuality and marriage" and about people growing up in "a secular culture that promotes relativism, materialism and individualism instead of in a family of life and love." If those ideas speak to you, so will this book.

-- Finding Favor: God's Blessings Beyond Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Brian Jones. The pastor-author of this book uses the word "favor" for what many others call God's grace -- an unmerited divine gift that redeems and guides the lives of people. He's a good story-teller, starting with one about landing in Honduras at the start of a military coup and one about his daughter deciding to give up boys so she could date Jesus (a ridiculous idea, he thought). 

-- Good Enough is Good Enough: Confessions of an Imperfect Catholic Mom, by Colleen Duggan. As the product of a home with an alcoholic father and a mother who had been abused, the author figured out early in life that she had to be excellent at everything. But being a perfectionist as a parent is simply an impossible job, as all parents finally realize. And this author eventually figures that out, too, and tells readers how.

Burden-light-- The Burden is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success, by Jon Tyson. In some harmony with the previous book, this one is a guide to help overachievers recognize that they may not be living the life God would have them live. To live the latter life requires not obedience but surrender, he writes: "Obedience is a momentary decision, but surrender is the posture of the kingdom."

-- Psalm Basics for Catholics: Seeing Salvation History in a New Way, by John Bergsma. The psalter historically has been the hymnbook of the church. The book of Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures contains poetry that rings with the wide range of human emotion. The author of this book is a theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and served as a Protestant pastor before converting to Catholicism. Although this guide is written with Catholics in mind, it has information that can be appreciated by Protestants and Orthodox Christians as well as by Jews.

-- Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure with Jesus, by Katie Prejean McGrady. This book grew out of a conversation the author had with someone after she had given a talk. He wanted to know about Jesus and how to get to know him. She writes, "I stuttered out a quick answer, trying to briefly summarize what I'd just said on stage, but I could tell I wasn't satisfying him. I was being vague, speaking in generalities, making references to all the points I'd just made that had clearly prompted him" to ask his questions. The experience "left me shaken," she writes. This book is her answer to his questions.

-- Rethink Happiness: Dare to Embrace God and Experience True Joy, by Paul George. In some ways similar in theme to the Jon Tyson book above, this is a call to surrender to God and to focus on what brings joy. The author is the founder of Adore Ministries. People who search for fulfillment in shallow relationships and material goods inevitably will be disappointed. Paul George suggests a more eternal source of joy.

Worthy-- Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else, by Melanie Springer Mock. Not unlike themes in some previously mentioned books here, the thrust of this one has to do with the need to walk away from the secular industry of self-improvement and walk toward a God whose image you already bear. There is special focus here on how women in our culture are to find their true selves and how that can overcome cultural gender bias.

-- Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, by Christiana N. Peterson. A mystic path is found in many faiths. In Judaism it's kabbalah, in Islam Sufism. Christian mystics, like those in other traditions, are people who have had some kind of quite personal experience of God. The author of this book looks to those Christian mystics to find guides for an authentic life of faith. One thing that readers may find especially valuable here is her eyes-open discussion of death and its mysteries. 

-- The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships, by Suzanne Stabile. And the "Study Guide" for that book. The enneagram is a centuries old personality typing system. I think of it as a spiritual Myers Briggs tool. It's a tool of self discovery, and this book unpacks all of that as well as how it can help guide someone not just to understand oneself but to understand more fully the people with whom one is in relationship. The accompanying study guide puts what the reader learns in the main book into action through exercises and questions. 

-- Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, (revised and expanded) by James Martin. This is a new edition of a book I reviewed here last year. The book as stirred up a lot of talk about LGBT issues, and not just in the Catholic Church. If you missed it last year, here's another chance.

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JAMES CONE, 1936-2018

It was a sad weekend in the world of theology. James Cone, a brilliant man who is known as the founder of black liberation theology, died at age 79. I thought Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Cone taught, summed it up well: “In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years. To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness, and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.” Cone was an inspiration not just to black religious leaders but to all thoughtful religious leaders who take seriously God's concern for the downtrodden.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Calvin Coolidge saving an old church -- now is online here.

Maybe we really are alone in the universe: 4-28/29-18


Humankind is perhaps understandably self-centered. We know, for instance, that so far no life has been found anywhere in the cosmos except on Earth. And that makes us feel, well, special.

And we know that our faith-based creation stories suggest that the ruler of that cosmos had us in mind from the very beginning and that, as Psalm 8 tells us, we humans are just "a little lower than the angels."

So that's pretty good, right?

But, of course, it would be good to have a bit of humility about all this, given the size of the cosmos (it's expanding at an accelerating rate, scientists say) and how long it's been around.

And yet recent evidence reported by cosmologists suggest that life as we know it may be pretty darn rare in the universe because of what may be a lack of phosphorous.

As this press release about the new study notes, "Work by Cardiff University astronomers suggests there may be a cosmic lack of a chemical element essential to life."

Researchers Jane Greaves and Phil Cigan say their work is quite preliminary and they have lots more to do, but the initial finding suggests that other parts of the cosmos may not have the level of phosphorous that Earth has had, and without that phosphorous, "it could be difficult for extra-terrestrial life to exist," the press release says.

Well, as much as all of us humans would like to feel unique in the universe, I sort of hope Greaves and Cigan are wrong and that a chemical basis for life exists all over the place. I'd love to see examples of what author Annie Dillard meant when she wrote that the Creator simply "loves pizzazz."

Besides that, we humans have sort of made a mess of things in many ways, what with wars, crime, ecological devastation and prime time TV. Wouldn't it be nice to think that there's a species somewhere else in the cosmos that is doing better than we are?

Still, even if we're not alone in the universe, I do think it's helpful to remember the lesson from the great religions that each of us is, in fact, unique and precious in God's sight.

That's certainly special enough for me. How about you?

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I almost certainly will write more about this in the coming days, but it appears that House Speaker Paul Ryan has forced the chaplain of the House to resign, and the reasons appear quite political. The bigger question to be investigated here is why we use taxpayers' money to pay for chaplains in the House and Senate.

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P.S.: I regularly link readers of this blog to stories produced by the journalists at the Religion News Service, an excellent journalistic source of faith coverage. It turns out the editor in chief was just fired, and there is some disturbing turmoil inside the organization. All this saddens me but I suppose it's not surprising that even in the world of religion journalism there are disputes and disagreements. The story to which I've linked you about this, by the Columbia Journalism Review, may seem like a lot of inside journalism baseball, but I give you the link, nonetheless, and let you know that I plan to continue to rely on RNS for excellent coverage unless it begins to prove that it's no longer credible.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Calvin Coolidge saving an old church -- now is online here.

The Qur'an's deep connections with the Bible: 4-27-18

A couple of years ago, my church offered a four-Saturdays class meant to introduce Christians to the Qur'an. The teachers were Muslim friends of mine, and it was a terrific series.

Quran-BibleOne of the points made in that series by Imam Sulaiman Z. Salaam Jr. -- a point that came as something of a surprise to many people -- was that Muslims are obliged to know the Bible. Why? Because the Qur'an makes many references to biblical figures and to biblical stories but rarely tells the full stories. So to understand why the Qur'an mentions such people and matters, Muslims need to be familiar with the Bible.

A new 1,000-page book from Yale University Press should help Muslims with that very task even as it educates Christians, Jews and others about the connections between the Bible and the Islamic holy book.

The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and Commentary, by Gabriel Said Reynolds, a professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame, is an important resource for anyone who wants to grasp the deep, organic connections between these two sacred books and among the three Abrahamic faiths.

In the book's introduction, Reynolds notes that ". . .the Qur'an alludes to, and develops, earlier traditions," including the Bible itself and some "post-Biblical (but pre-Qur'anic) Jewish and Christian writings which became part of the repertoire of sacred history among Jews and Christians and, eventually, for the author of the Qur'an.

"My conviction, a conviction which has only increased during my work on this book, is that the Qur'an is an original work in literary and religious terms, but also a work which depends heavily on its audience's knowledge of the Bible and the traditions which developed out of the Bible." Which is just what Sulaiman told people at our church.

Reynolds notes, however, that ". . .the Qur'an is not so much borrowing from any particular work, but rather emerging from a religious culture in which these traditions were discussed and elaborated."

So, he concludes, ". . .the Qur'an itself, by referring regularly to Jewish and Christian traditions, demands that its audience know those traditions. The Qur'an, in other words, has an intimate relationship with the Bible."

Most of the book is taken up with the text of the Qur'an itself, using a modern English translation by Ali Quli Qarai. But on many pages, the text is interspersed with Reynolds' commentary relating what is written to biblical sources.

A couple of examples: In sura (or chapter) 19, the Qur'an mentions "the progeny of Abraham and Israel." Reynolds' note on the passage points out that this "reflects an awareness of the tradition in Genesis 32 of the change of Jacob's name" (to Israel).

Near the end of sura 14, there is mention of "the day when the earth is turned into another earth. . ." Reynolds points to a passage in the New Testament book of Revelation in which the author, John, writes that "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . ."

The tradition of Islam is that the Qur'an was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by an angel over the course of more than 20 years. Reynolds holds open the possibility that the Qur'an had more than one author and/or editor, though he doesn't spend a lot of time on that matter. It's hard to imagine why any mosque in the country wouldn't want this book in its library. (Or any church or synagogue, for that matter.)

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I may have more to say about this next week on the blog, but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom just issued its annual report and in it has bemoaned what it calls an “ongoing downward trend” in religious liberty around the world. The link in the previous sentence will take you to a story about the release. Here is a link to the report itself.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk in KC happens Saturday, and I'll be walking again to support the AIDS Service Foundation. If you'd like to be part of the solution by making a contribution, you can do that here. And thanks.

Let's waste some time debating hell: 4-26-18

Nothing stirs up the religious juices like a good discussion about hell.

Hell-Dream-MeaningSo let's begin.

A few weeks ago, an Italian journalist published an article in which he quoted Pope Francis as saying this when asked where "bad souls" wind up: "Souls are not punished. Those who repent obtain God's forgiveness and go among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. There is no hell -- there is the disappearance of sinful souls."

Which would be a denial of current Catholic teaching. So the Vatican issued a denial that Francis had actually said that.

All of which prompted a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross to write this explanation of what the church says hell is.

It should not surprise you that the professor, Joanne M. Pierce, writes this: "The Christian belief in hell has developed over the centuries, influenced by both Jewish and Greek ideas of the afterlife."

Theological doctrines and religious beliefs are always produced over time, are always shifting a bit this way and that. Which is not to say that they are made up out of whole cloth and rearranged to fit the times but, rather, that new times bring new light on old concerns.

And, by the way, Francis is far from the first pope to raise questions about hell. Pope John Paul II in 1999 devoted this general audience to the subject. He said that hell ". . .is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life. To describe this reality Sacred Scripture uses a symbolical language. . ."

He further described hell as a state of being rather than a place.

And Pope Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, said this about hell a few years ago: “When one is not aware of the judgment of God, when one does not recognize the possibility of hell, of the radical and definitive failure of life, then one does not recognize the possibility and necessity for purification.”

Other branches of Christianity also talk about hell. Heck (which is Hell Lite), even we Presbyterians wrestle with the concept of hell now and then, such as in this piece.

And certainly there are whole movements within Christianity that, in effect, depend on hell being a reality so that they can scare people into membership and financial support.

I'm not going to settle the issue of hell for you or me or for anyone for all time here today. I just want you to know that it's still taking up people's time. If you ask me, it's time that could be better spent not on worrying about getting people into heaven instead of hell but, rather, on getting heaven into people here.

(By the way, I found the fun image above here.)

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I saw the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform recently with the Kansas City Symphony, but from that experience I didn't draw the conclusion that he was God. But that's the conclusion Jeffrey Salkin draws in this RNS blog. Some fascinating theology. I wish it had occurred to me.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk in KC happens Saturday, and I'll be walking again to support the AIDS Service Foundation. If you'd like to be part of the solution by making a contribution, you can do that here. And thanks.

Two Corporon family stories with one message: 4-25-18

After almost every catastrophe -- whether it's caused by humans or by nature -- some people affected are likely to say that such things happen to others and that they never imagined it happening to them.

Something-beautifulThat certainly was my reaction when I learned that the only son of one of my sisters died when one of the hijacked planes in the 9/11 terrorist attacks smashed into the World Trade Center.

And it was certainly among the reactions of Mindy Corporon and her extended family when a neo-Nazi seeking to kill Jews murdered her Christian son and father as well as another Christian person in April 2014 in suburban Kansas City.

Now a member of that extended family, Yvette Manessis Corporon, has written a new book that describes what Mindy and her family went through -- but sets that story in the context of another family story about how Yvette's grandmother and others on the tiny Greek island of Erikousa helped to save a Jewish family from death in the Holocaust in World War II.

Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil started out to recount Yvette's search for anyone alive today because of what her grandmother and others on Erikousa did to save a Jewish tailor and his family. But as she was deep into the often-frustrating research she learned that Mindy's son, Reat Underwood, and her father, Bill Corporon, had been murdered at the Jewish Community Center and that Terri LaManno had been shot to death by the same thug at a nearby Jewish facility.

So the book moves back and forth between the story of the family of Savvas Israel, the tailor, and the story of how Mindy, with support from her husband Len and son Lukas, her mother, Melinda Corporon, and Jim LaManno, Terri's husband, created the SevenDays movement of love and engagement in response to the death of Reat and Bill.

The irony that both stories involved a connection with Jews helps hold those two stories together.

Since the 2014 shootings, I've gotten to know Mindy and her family and, like anyone who meets them, I continue to be impressed by how they have carried their grief but, at the same time, turned it into what Yvette rightly calls something beautiful.

And although I was familiar with much of the story of the death of Reat and Bill, Yvette's account adds detail and nuance that perhaps only a member of the Corporon family could offer.

I, of course, knew nothing about the Erikousa story, though because I've co-authored a book about rescuers of Jews in the Holocaust (They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust), I was aware of the risk of death that any rescuer faced by helping Jews survive.

But the details about how the people of Erikousa rescued a Jewish family by a group effort are, of course, unique and compelling. And the story of how Yvette and others finally turned up living relatives of the tailor and his family makes for page-turning reading.

Could these two stories have been two books? Yes. And maybe some book editor somewhere would argue for that. But I'm glad to have both stories in one book and to see how together they reinforce the message that despite the obvious evil in the world, good and love and mercy and compassion also can change the world.

That triumphant message stands in stark contrast to the reality that the Nazis were so determined to wipe out all the Jews of Europe that they bothered to invade not just Greece but also the small Greek island of Corfu and then the nearby much smaller island of Erikousa. As Yvette writes, "Erikousa's remoteness, the fact that she was merely a tiny speck of land on the horizon and was rarely found on any map, was not enough to keep Nazi soldiers from completing their mission."

Under Yvette's guidance, the book is being made into a not-yet-finished documentary film called "Hope," which some of us got to see half of recently. There's not yet a scheduled release date for the completed film, but I'll do my best to alert you when that happens. In the meantime, you've got time to read the book.

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Growing political activism on the part of Hindus in the U.S. means, this report says, that in the next Congress there could be as many as eight Hindus. This is how America works -- and should work. One minority group after another finds its way here and negotiates its place in society. So good for the Hindus.

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P.S.: The next "Contemporary Spirituality" speaker will be Mike Graves, who teaches preaching and worship at St. Paul School of Theology. He'll be talking about dinner churches, which I wrote about here. This will happen the morning of Saturday, May 5. All the details you need are in this pdf flier:  Download RevGravesMay5

A Bible critic's ignorance and foolishness: 4-24-18

How would you describe the Bible?

Bible-stackI'm guessing most of you would not use the words that novelist Jesse Ball used in this GQ story in which various writers describe a famous book they think you should avoid reading. They offer a substitute for the one they trash.

Here's what Ball wrote about the Bible:

"The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned."

Ah, yes. Spoken like a man who doesn't have much of a clue about the Bible. First, it's important to know that the term Bible is used for several different books, and he'd have done well to say which one he meant. The book that Jews call the Bible is made up of 39 separate books, collectively known as the Hebrew scriptures. Sometimes the word Torah is applied to all 39, but more often that word is used to name just the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch.

Then there's the larger Bible used by Christians. It, of course, contains not only the books in the Hebrew scriptures (though in a somewhat different order) but also the 27 books that make up the New Testament. In addition, the Bible used by Catholics contains another dozen and a half books known collectively as the Apocrypha.

Maybe Ball meant his dismissive description of the Bible to include all of those, but he didn't say.

As for the Bible being repetitive, Ball might like to know that some of that is on purpose. For instance, the Psalms are full of Hebrew poetry, and one of the hallmarks of such verse is that it often contains two ways of saying the same thing. The very first psalm, for instance, in the Common English Bible translation, says that "the truly happy person doesn't follow wicked advice, doesn't stand on the road of sinners. . ." The wicked advice phrase is basically another way of saying what the road of sinners phrase says.

In Psalm 2 we read, "The one who rules in heaven laughs; my Lord makes fun of them." Elegant repetition for emphasis.

Psalm 3 begins: "Lord, I have so many enemies! So many are standing against me." Same thought expressed in two ways to note that the author the the psalm is really, really in trouble. (I say "author" and not "David," because many scholars now believe King David wrote none of the psalms attributed to him.)

The Bible is "repetitive," to use Ball's phrase in the same way that a star in the NBA draining three-pointer after three-pointer is repetitive. Purposefully, joyfully, skillfully.

It's not quite clear what Ball means by saying that the Bible is "self-contradictory," but if it's a reference to the ways in which the four gospels in the New Testament don't always agree on facts, that is really one of the Bible's strengths. Which is to say that the gospels were not written the way 21st Century history book are (or should be) written. Rather, they have a theological purpose, and the different ways they tell the story of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection provide a richness and nuance that would not be present if there were one gospel written by one writer.

And the ways in which Jesus' disciples often look foolish (to use another of Ball's terms) adds to the credibility of the story. Which means that if you were trying to make these early followers of Jesus look smart and dependable you would avoid a lot of the stories the New Testament tells about them, from Peter's denials of Christ to the disciples being unable to stay awake while Jesus prayed in the garden -- not to mention what seems to be the mental denseness of the disciples (they often just don't get what's going on).

Many of you know that I am not a biblical literalist. Which is to say (among many other points) that I don't believe Earth was created in what we think of as six 24-hour days and I don't believe the entire Earth was flooded while Noah packed a boat with animals. Those stories aren't about literal history. They're told for other purposes.

But I do take the Bible seriously. Which means that I understand it was written by dozens of writers over hundreds of years and that it is meant to be an adequate revelation of who God is. Jesse Ball is free to dismiss that as "repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned."

But no other book has had the impact on the world that the Bible has. And it behooves critics of the Bible to know how it came to be and why Christianity and Judaism revere it as sacred (and why Islam considers it essential for Muslims to know so they can understand the Qur'an better) before they cavalierly dismiss it and make themselves seem "sententious, foolish and even ill-intentioned."

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This Politico piece reports that President Trump's most reliable media mouthpiece is Christian-based TV: "As Christian networks have become more comfortable with politics, the Trump administration has turned them into a new pipeline for its message." It's one more piece of evidence to add to the mountain of proof that many evangelical Christians have lost their moral compass by supporting a man whose life has rejected almost everything those evangelicals stand for.

When going it alone can be dangerous: 4-23-18

Mindy Thompson Fullilove (pictured here) is a psychiatrist and professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School in New York.

Fullilove-2At the invitation of an ad hoc group I'm part of, the Friends of Father Norman Rotert, she was in Kansas City this past Thursday and Friday to help community development people and related organizations think through what it takes to build healthy communities.

She spoke a lot about the need to keep the whole city in mind as people work to improve individual neighborhoods. And she encouraged people to work closely and inclusively together so that everyone feels part of the process.

Lots of good ideas about what works and what doesn't.

But in a question-answer periods after her Thursday evening talk at UMKC (thanks Center for Neighborhoods and other sponsors), someone described the countless problems various Kansas City neighborhoods face and expressed some angst about how those problems ever would get solved, given their complexity and their scope.

I was a little surprised by her answer, which I'll get to in a moment.

The next day, after her comments at a workshop at the Kauffman Foundation, I asked her about that this way: "Last night in response to a question about 'This is so hard. How do we do it?' you said 'When there is no way God will show you a way and you've got to have faith.' And today you said that because you don't know Kansas City in detail you don't know what great things the people here will do. So I'm wondering how we know when we simply have faith and optimism versus when we're delusional."

(Yes, people laughed at the question.)

"Check with somebody else," she answered, "when you think you have this great idea."

It's exactly the answer that people of faith always need to remember. Religion is, in the end, a team sport. Which is to say that if we have precious little training in it and sit quietly in a room dreaming up religious ideas, the chances are quite high that we'll come up with something bizarre, at minimum, and dangerous, at worst.

We need to be part of a community in which we can check our ideas with someone else. Otherwise, as I noted in my last book, The Value of Doubt, we can go running off into theologically anarchistic streets where anything goes.

So if we're trying to repair a neighborhood, a city or the world, we must do so in community, checking our allegedly brilliant ideas against the thinking of others. And if we're seeking to grasp the divine, the eternal, the infinite, our obligation to check in with others -- both living and dead, via the records left behind -- is perhaps even greater.

So today when you think you're right about something, take Mindy Fullilove's advice and "check with somebody else." The world may well thank you.

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Recently here on the blog I wrote about a new book on Pope Francis by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a harsh critic of the pope. I return briefly to that subject today to share with you this Atlantic piece in which Emma Green maintains that in his new book, "Douthat is digging at a question present in every aspect of contemporary culture and politics: How can those who primarily wish to preserve their culture live in community with those who cheer for inexorable change?" It is, indeed, a prominent question being raised in many venues. But in my experience it's often the case that those wishing to preserve their culture can't see clearly what in that culture is diseased and needs to be reformed. Similarly, those cheering for change often haven't thought through the implications of the change they seek and, thus, they rush into change that simply does a different kind of damage than the old way. Where are the leaders who can help us avoid both of those problems?

What Islam contributed to the Enlightenment: 4-21/22-18

On a fairly regular basis here on the blog, I talk about new books with some kind of religion theme.

Republic-Arabic-LettersMost of the time I do this after receiving and reading (or deeply scanning) books from publishers. That's what I did this past Thursday when I wrote about an interesting new book called Great Muslims of the West.

But sometimes I read about a new book that I think would be of interest to you readers and, without having read it myself, pass along the thoughts of others about it. That's what I'm doing this weekend, partly because it has a connection to that Great Muslims book.

It's called  The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment, and you can read what The New Republic published about it here.

I'm not sure two books make a trend, but it does seem to me that scholars, sociologists, historians and others are paying more attention to the ways in which Islam has moved into and affected life in the West from its origins on the Arabian peninsula.

In some ways, that's an old story. We know, for instance, that many of the slaves dragged to the U.S. from African were Muslims, so Muslims -- slave and free -- have been on the North American continent for a long time. And we know that Islam played a large role in Spain at one point as well as in several countries in Central Asia, which is at least arguably on the eastern edge of what today we call the West.

The new book by Alexander Bevilacqua is described in the New Republic piece as a "tour de force study of the origins of modern Islamic scholarship in the West and its central role in the Enlightenment."

At one point, of course, Islamic nations were leading much of the world in architecture, math and other fields, and you can see evidence of that (as I have) in such countries as Uzbekistan. But for many reasons the last 500 or so years have seen a decline in the ways in which Islam has spearheaded artistic and cultural world developments.

These two books can help all of us understand why that has happened by understanding the history of Islam in the West.

Indeed, that also may help us figure out Islam's future.

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And speaking of books I haven't read, a Catholic biologist has written a new one that affirms evolution as the means by which humans have reached a higher level of consciousness, self-awareness, creativity and intelligence, this RNS report says. Human Instinct, by Kenneth R. Miller sounds like one a lot of us should read.

A ridiculous case at the Anne Frank museum: 4-20-18

In Alvin Rosenfeld's 2011 book, The End of the Holocaust, which I reviewed here, he notes that between one million and one and a half million children were among the six million Jews murdered by Adolf Hitler's Nazi killing machine in World War II.

Anne-frank"To the world at large, however," he writes, "these children all bear one name -- that of Anne Frank" (pictured here).

Well, that remarkable young diarist, eventually another victim of the Nazis, was in the news again recently -- for quite an odd reason.  As this Daily Mail story accounts, a Jewish employee of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam was banned from wearing a traditional Jewish kippah, or skull cap, while on duty there.


Yes, Barry Vingerling, an Orthodox Jew, showed up for work on his first day and was told to take off his yarmulke.

A museum official later said that the museum did not have a policy on the wearing of religious clothing, but "we never had an employee before who wanted to wear a yarmulke, headscarf or cross. We first wanted to know if a religious expression would interfere with our independent position. The Anne Frank Foundation is an independent organization without religious ties."

As the story reports, "The board of the Anne Frank Foundation finally concluded, after more than six months of discussions, that Mr. Vingerling could wear his yarmulke. He said he was happy to hear he could finally wear his skullcap but still did not understand why the Anne Frank Foundation had made an issue out of it for so long.

"'I work in the house of Anne Frank, who had to hide because of her identity. In that same house I should hide my identity?' he said." Well put.

This bizarre story points to a widespread need for businesses and other organizations to adopt clear and sensible policies that allow religious expression as long as it doesn't interfere with others. There are common-sense solutions to these matters -- whether they relate to yarmulkes, hijabs or the wearing of crosses and other symbols. And it should never take six months to figure this out. Six hours should be the max.

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I certainly will miss Barbara Bush, who died this week. Here is a story about how her deep Christian faith guided her life. I'm surely not the only one who thought she might have made a better president than her husband. But, then, I thought the same of Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter. I ranked it a tie between Barack and Michelle Obama.

Muslims who helped shape Western civilization: 4-19-18

Yesterday here on the blog I wrote about the appalling ignorance Americans showed in a recent survey about the Holocaust.

Great-MuslimsI don't have recent survey material to back up my related point today about American ignorance about Islam, but I do have a new resource that can help with that.

It's a new book called Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam, by Muhammad Mojlum Khan, a native of Bangladesh who now is a British writer, literary critic and research scholar. He's the director of the Bengal Muslim Research Institute in the United Kingdom.

It offers relatively brief biographies of 50 important Muslims, the earliest born in the year 729 and the latest born in 1942 (the boxer Muhammad Ali). Then it offers shorter bios of another 25 "honorable mentions."

But in this age of visual arts, I'm sorry to say that there's not a single drawing or photo of any of these people in the 500-plus pages.

It's also true that only seven of the people written about here are women. The author discusses that choice this way: "I agree that Muslim women have played a proactive and pivotal role in the development and progress of Islamic thought, culture and civilization, although it is equally true that they more often than not preferred to make their contributions from behind the scenes. Due to their humility and humbleness (Tammeus note: What's the difference between those two words?), they often avoided the limelight and, for that reason, their contribution and achievements were not always recorded or acknowledged."

Maybe, but I wonder if a female author would have written that or at least written it that way.

At any rate, the great usefulness of this book is that it provides non-Muslims and Muslims alike with a much broader and more nuanced picture of Muslim thinkers and leaders who have had an influence on what the religion looks like in the West than is generally available.

I confess, for instance, never to have heard of a British Muslim named Lady Evelyn Cobbold (born Evelyn Murray to a wealthy Scottish family in 1867). She's a fascinating character who traveled the world and eventually embraced Islam. Khan describes her as "an intelligent, outward-looking and fiercely independent-minded woman," who, among other achievements, wrote a book called Pilgrimage to Mecca, which even today you can find for sale on

Khan's goal in this reference book, he writes, has been to highlight "the pivotal role played by Western Muslims in the development of Western civilization."

And with one biographical portrait after another, he's done just that.

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Egypt's grand mufti has issued a fatwa saying it's against the rules of Islam to buy any "like" on Facebook. And I'm sure he's right. After all, we know for sure that the Prophet Muhammad, not to mention Jesus, Moses and Buddha, never did it.