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Fear moves Europe toward religious bigotry: 7-31-18

Over the last 1,000 or more years, religion in Europe has had a decidedly mixed history that includes various faith-based wars, an explosive Protestant Reformation and the Nazi-led Holocaust designed to wipe out European Jewry.

IslamophobiaIt's enough to make me hesitant to acknowledge that my father's family came from Germany and my mother's came from Sweden.

And yet at times Europeans have risen above that dark history and have created space and time for religious liberty and for people to be free to walk away from religion if they want to -- as, indeed, many Europeans have.

But more recently parts of Europe seem to be led by fear and, as a result, are highly limiting, if not destroying, some religious freedom.

In this Politico piece, for instance, a rabbi who is president of the Conference of European Rabbis, bemoans the reality that both France and Denmark are adopting harsh anti-Muslim measures that can do nothing but lead those countries into a dark time.

Pinchas Goldschmidt reports that "New laws targeting Muslims are reminiscent of a time when innocent Jewish children were abducted by masked monks and imprisoned in monasteries to 'save' them from the eternal fire of hell. In our blind mistrust of religious differences, we are returning to the Middle Ages, when the only model for integration was the forced conversion of the minority religion to the majority." And then he adds this shocking information:

"Take Denmark, where the government has introduced new laws mandating that children living in 'ghetto' neighborhoods must spend 25 hours apart from their parents every week. During this time, they’ll be taught 'Danish values,' including Christmas and Easter traditions, and receive Danish language classes."

It's what the U.S. government did to Native American children in the 19th Century, and it ranks up there with our shameful history of incarcerating Japanese-American citizens in World War II in detention camps, in one of which my brother-in-law was born.

The rabbi who wrote the Politico piece is not asking European governments to abandon any concern about internal security and terrorism. Rather, he's asking that they not adopt unnecessary and highly discriminatory measures that privilege white European culture. And he's right. After all, look at all the boneheaded decisions white Europeans have made across history. That should produce humility, not pride.

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The recent resignation-under-pressure of a Catholic cardinal reveals yet another sad chapter in the long story of how some priests and bishops abused children or covered up the abuse by others. The outrage about this has not been better expressed than in this column by Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star.

An unlikely nation moves toward religious freedom: 7-30-18

When I visited Uzbekistan in 2002 with other journalists on a post-9/11 trip to predominantly Muslim countries, Islam Karimov was the strongman president, and representatives of the Human Rights Watch organization regaled us with stories of many human rights violations.

UzbekistanKarimov died in 2016, and changes are afoot in this double-landlocked nation in Central Asia. (Double-landlocked means that every country Uzbekistan touches also is landlocked.)

The nation's new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has started what's often referred to as a Quiet Revolution. One of the apparent changes is the subject of this recent story from Christianity Today magazine. It says genuine religious freedom seems to be on the rise there.

As the story reports, "four key members of the Uzbekistani government were in Washington on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, in order to showcase the country’s newfound commitment to take religious freedom seriously.

"'Uzbekistan has a centuries’ old history of respect and tolerance toward religious groups,' said foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. 'Our government treats religious values with profound respect. There are 140 nationalities and 16 religious faiths in our country, with operation of more than 2,000 religious organizations. All these stand as our greatest historical, cultural, and civilization heritage.'”

Anyone who has had any dealings with the government of Uzbekistan, especially under Karimov, knows to treat such claims with caution.

And yet it's good to see Uzbekistan representatives attending this conference.

When I was in Uzbekistan, I heard stories from several credible sources about how Karimov jailed any religious leaders he found troublesome or threatening in any way -- generally not for religious reasons but for political ones. He was wont to call any such enemies religious extremists and toss them in jail. Not all of that sort of government conduct has been cured under the new president, but there appears to be hope that the country can move -- and has begun to move -- in a new direction of more religious freedom for all.

Which is exactly what the people of Uzbekistan -- a culturally rich nation -- need.

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This past week's U.S. State Department conference on religious freedom was worth holding, if only to keep this subject on the minds of governments (including our own) around the world. Whether it will make any difference in the behavior of governments with terrible human rights records remains to be seen, though it's likely that low expectations are warranted.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about efforts to improve health and wellness in KC's urban core -- now is online here.

When religious leaders get it wrong: 7-28/29-18

Eleven women were ordained as Episcopal priests on this date (Saturday's date) in 1974. They were the first female Episcopal priests, but the House of Bishops almost immediately ruled their ordinations invalid.

Wrong-religionAs often happens, the women were ahead of their male religious leaders, the bishops. By 1976, the church had approved the ordination of women and had declared that those first 11 women -- known as the Philadelphia Eleven -- were, in fact, properly ordained priests.

If you want more details about the Philadelphia Eleven, I wrote about them here a few years ago for The National Catholic Reporter, but this annual anniversary gives us a chance to think about the various ways religious leaders have been wrong over the centuries and what it has taken to straighten things out.

When the Episcopal Church formally approved the ordination of women and began doing that in 1976, they were 20 years behind the Presbyterian Church (USA), as it's now known, and even longer behind such denominations as the one now known as the United Church of Christ.

The Catholic Church, as most of you know, continues to refuse to ordain women, citing a few theological reasons for that stance. Will that ever change? Maybe. But don't hold your breath.

What about other issues? Parts of the church, as we know, were wrong about defending slavery. The destructive ripple effects of that moral failure still can be felt today.

The church wasn't wrong to want to do missionary work to spread the gospel, but it was wrong to tie itself to colonialism, that arrogant idea that white, western nations had the only right (capitalist) approach to economic life and that the job of those nations was to save the savages from their pitiful lives and turn them into both Christians and consumers, not necessarily in that order. Again, we continue to pay a high price for that hubris.

The church was wrong about its historic anti-Judaism, teaching that Jews murdered Jesus and should be held accountable across all time. There is no direct line from the church's early and persistent anti-Jewish teachings to the Holocaust, but those teachings helped to create the atmosphere in which modern antisemitism could grow. And without modern antisemitism, the Holocaust is simply unthinkable. Many branches of Christianity have formally repented of their anti-Judaism, but it's still possible to find this awful hatred coming from Christian sources, though today most of the antisemitism in the world has roots in radical Islam.

And, of course, the church has been historically wrong about its belief that the Bible forbids what we know today as committed homosexual relationships. Some branches of the faith continue to teach this unloving, discriminatory, anti-biblical nonsense. But slowly the Christian church is making progress on this score.

The point is that we Christians (well, all people of faith) should hold our theology and our various doctrines gently, being open to more and new light. So thanks again to the Philadelphia Eleven for reminding us to have a little humility.

(Notice that I didn't even get into the Galileo controversy, truly an embarrassment for the Catholic Church.)

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Turkey's outrageous arrest of an American pastor finally has been met with threats of sanction by the Trump administration. There's no reason for this man still to be in custody. The Erdogan administration in Turkey is guilty of many crimes against the Turkish people, and to that has been added this terrible matter.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Congratulations to Harold Schlozman and Esther Rudnick for recently being honored for their long volunteer work as Spiritual Care Volunteers through the Chaplaincy Program of Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City. As SCV volunteers, Schlozman and Rudnick visit and extend aid to the sick and others in need. You can read in detail about this important ministry by downloading this press release pdf:  Download SVC-2 longtime volunteers story June 2018-rel 1 FINAL The two are seen in this photo with Community Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick in the middle.

Harold Schlozman Rabbi Rudnick & Esther Rudnick-10 years SCV 2018

Why do we seem to need enemies? 7-27-18

David Bentley Hart is the author of a new -- and fascinating -- translation of the New Testament, which I reviewed a few months ago here.

YankeesBut it turns out that Hart also knows something about a religion other than Christianity -- baseball. More specifically, he has some thoughts about the idolatrous worship of the New York Yankees. (I recently also wrote about sports idolatry here.)

In this opinion piece written for The New York Times, Hart discusses why we non-Yankees fans sort of seem to need the Yankees to hate: "Soberly considered, the New York Yankees and their fans present a moral dilemma. Our consciences, naturally abhorring everything abominable, tell us that such things simply ought not exist. And yet we also know that the evil they represent is one we would not really want eradicated. Somehow we depend on it, not because it appeals to some morbid subliminal fascination with the horrific in us, and not even because it teaches us about the world’s deep Darwinian laws, but because it answers to a psychological need.

"By exciting in the rest of us that sweet cold loathing that only they induce — that strangely tender malice, at once so delicious and yet so purifying — the Yankees and their followers provide an emotional cleansing. They give us occasion for the discharge of a dark, dangerous passion, but one unburdened by guilt. The detestation that any rational soul spontaneously feels for the Yankees is so innocent, so uncontaminated by spite — just instinctive revulsion before something obscene. . .And there are few luxuries more gorgeously nourishing than the license to hate with an unclouded conscience."

Well, of course Hart is having some fun here with the damn Yankees. As well he should. (These are the same damn Yankees who beat the Royals 7-2 last night.)

But in doing that he raises the serious question of whether human beings need enemies, real or imagined. It turns out that whether we need them or not, we come up with them left and right. We dehumanize others to feel better about ourselves. It's why Jerry Springer's TV show ran for nearly three decades. It's why people tune in to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

But beyond all that, the faults of Major League Baseball and the Yankees may be reflected in what's wrong now with the U.S., Hart suggests.

He writes that "the business of baseball — through greed, profligacy, shortsightedness and an insatiable appetite for immediate gratification — consumes itself by relentlessly allowing its own communal basis to disintegrate beneath it, and by ignoring the needs of future generations."

And then adds this long, delicious, disheartening thought: "The analogy is imperfect, but irresistible. America — with its decaying infrastructure, its third-world public transit, its shrinking labor market, its evaporating middle class, its expanding gulf between rich and poor, its heartless health insurance system, its mindless indifference to a dying ecology, its predatory credit agencies, its looming Social Security collapse, its interminable war, its metastasizing national debt and all the social pathologies that gave it a degenerate imbecile and child-abducting sadist as its president — remains the only developed economy in the world that believes it wrong to use civic wealth for civic goods."

That, friends, is what a prophet voice sounds like, whether you agree or disagree. Prophetic voices find their foundation in such religious texts as the New Testament that Hart spent a long time translating. How is your prophetic voice sounding today? Has it said anything recently about the Yankees? Or about our "metastasizing national debt"?

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For the first time in its history, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has elected six female bishops all at once, including the Mainline denomination's first two African-American women bishops. Emily McFarlan Miller of RNS sat down with all of them to talk about their plans. Good for the ELCA.

The story of American Jews in WWI: 7-26-18

Until I visited the fascinating exhibit -- "For Liberty -- American Jewish Experience in World War I" -- at the World War I Museum earlier this week, I had no idea that nearly 250,000 Jews served in the American Expeditionary Forces.

Ww1-Jewish-welfareOr that the AEF total was made up of 4.8 million people, 18 percent of whom were foreign born and 13 percent of whom were African-American.

If you also knew none of that, I recommend you visit this exhibit at the museum at Liberty Memorial in downtown Kansas City. It's really well done and offers the fascinating worldwide context in which Jews served in the war (and, in some cases, opposed it).

Before Americans entered the war in 1917, Rabbi Stephen Wise said that military service "would mark the burial, without the hope of resurrection, of hyphenism, and will token the birth of a united and indivisible country." Never heard of hyphenism? I've given you a link to a page that will explain it.

The image here on the left today, by the way, is from the National Jewish Welfare Board, which worked to unify the Jewish response to the war by creating cooperation among Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and other Jewish branches to provide chaplains, kosher foods and other needs for American Jewish soldiers.

Some other highlights you'll find at the exhibit:

Ww1-Golda-card-- A 1918 postcard (pictured at right) from Golda Meyerson (later Meir), who later became prime minister of Israel.

-- This statistic: 100,000 German Jews fought on behalf of Germany in World War I, and about 12,000 of them died fighting.

-- A Jewish American soldier named William Shemin was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015. The medal is on display there along with photos of President Barack Obama presenting it to two of his surviving relatives.

-- Plenty of information about the Balfour Declaration, written by the British government in support of the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. That's some of what I mean by the worldwide context at the time when American Jewish soldiers joined the fighting.

-- The information that President Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis, a Jewish American jurist, to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, and that "Justice James McReynolds refused to speak to him for three years or be photographed next to him." How'd you like to explain that to descendants of McReynolds today?

-- A copy of the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the information that "President Wilson advocated for a fair and just resolution" of the post-war period, but European leaders wanted to punish Germany with harsh reparations. Many scholars suggest that this harshness helped to lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his murderous Nazi regime and, of course, the Holocaust.

Well, there's more. And I hope you'll take the time before this exhibit closes on Nov. 11 to stop by and learn. In fact, if you're not Jewish, take a Jewish friend with you. If you are, take a non-Jew with you.

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At a religious freedom summit this week to which adherents of many faith traditions were invited, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback at least was saying the right things. So credit to him for these words: “We need your faith in action to move the world to not just tolerance of differences —although that’s important — but unfortunately, that bar is just too low. We must move to a place where people genuinely care and love one another, no matter our differences. You must help us get there.”

Life lessons from the graveyard: 7-25-18

WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I am here in Oakland Cemetery in my northern Illinois hometown hearing lessons -- relearning them, really -- that I heard as a child.

Tammeus-graveAt my parents' grave, I hear Mom and Dad again -- more than two decades after their deaths -- telling me to do my best, to be kind, to show an affirming light, to take out the trash.

Not far away is the grave of my third grade teacher and elementary school principal, Ethel Wienke. She had what she called a "talking ruler." No doubt it wouldn't be allowed today, but when one of us misbehaved in the early 1950s, the talking ruler would whack our hands as, through her voice, it said, "Do NOT do that again." I got 10 whacks once for some crime I no longer remember.

Over and over I tell people to go to funerals. That's where we are reminded about the purposes of life. And, as I've said more than once, we'll never understand our own life if we don't understand our own death.

Visiting a cemetery where people you know are buried can be a religious ritual of great purpose.

To get to the spot where my parents are buried (that's my sister Mary standing next to me there in the photo at left), I had to walk past the graves of Earl and Mildred Hughes, close friends of my parents. Earl was a prosperous Woodstock farmer for whom I worked a few summers. The best job was driving a corn detasseling rig. I rode up high on it while behind me six or eight or 10 (details get fuzzy so many years later) teen-agers rode behind me pulling the tassels off corn stalks. Why is this done? You can read about that here, if you care.

At any rate, I still can hear Earl telling me that my crew must be thorough and careful and that, as the driver, I have to not just be careful where I drive the rig but that I must protect my crew from the first hint of lightning. Protect others, is the lesson. And a good lesson it is. Every life, after all, is precious in God's sight.

Nearby are the graves of my friend Ann Henslee's father and brother. Ann called her father by his first name, Ned. She had her reasons. It taught me to see even older people, my parents included, as individuals with individual histories and stories.

Not far away is the grave of the wife of Carl H. Jessen (photo at right), who hired me to work Saturday mornings to clean his bakery the summer I graduated from high school. Carl paid me $5 plus all the doughnuts and milk I wanted. But he withheld 18 cents for Social Security. Eighteen cents. Imagine that. The lesson? Obey the law. Don't slide by. If you don't like the rules, work to change them. Until then obey them or be prepared to pay the penalty.

Carl-Jessen-3 W-8-J-StompanatoAcross the way is the grave (photo at left) of Johnny Stompanato, brother of a man in our church. Johnny died in 1958 at the knife-wielding hands of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of actress Lana Turner in a domestic struggle. His funeral was in our church. The lessons? Violence doesn't pay. Keep peace at home. Be careful of really famous people.

And on and on. There's the grave of our old police chief, Tiny Hansman. Terrific man. A model of what law enforcement should have been like back in the 1950s and what it should be like today.

W-4-gouldOh, and there's the grave (photo at lower left) of Chester Gould, the creator of the comic strip "Dick Tracy." Chet and my Dad would meet at the Post Office on many weekday mornings and share the news. When my daughters were small I took them to meet Chet and he drew them some personal cartoons. I hope they saved them. The lesson? Even famous people can be lovely.

And on and on. The eternal guidelines that religions teach can be remembered or relearned in a cemetery where people you know are buried. I need periodic reminders. It's one reason I return home and stop by the small plot of earth that now envelopes my parents.

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I wrote here the other day about the idea of the rescued Thai soccer boys being temporarily ordained as Buddhist monks. Well, it has happened to all but one (he's a Christian). This time of meditation and service should be really good for these boys as they heal physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Finding faith news while I'm gone: 7-24-18

WHEATON, Ill. -- I've been here in Chicagoland for a few days for several reasons, and while I'm gone I want to give you some sources to use to find religion news.

NewspapersThe first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last 13-plus years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. 

Miss me. See you back here tomorrow, God willing.

By the way, many of you know that if you friend me on Facebook, a link to my daily blog will show up in your newsfeed.

Looking to Muslim leadership in Afghanistan: 7-23-18

For more than a decade and a half, American troops and their allies have been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan at the cost of enormous blood and treasure -- and without any certain good outcome.

Afghan-mapPerhaps it's time to listen to the wise Islamic voice who penned this essay for Time Magazine and imagine how, because the Taliban misused Islam as a weapon of war, Muslim peace activists might draw on Islam's strengths and insights to wage peace.

The author of the piece is Ambassador Tariq Ali Bakhiet, director general of political affairs for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the second-largest intergovernmental body in the world; he was previously a diplomat at the Sudanese Mission to the United Nations and at the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

His argument is that the Taliban has succeeded by convincing Afghans that it speaks for Islam as its primary defender. But, he argues, it does no such thing. And not only that, but many Afghan Muslims are coming to understand the false claims consistently made by the Taliban.

He describes how recently 100 Islamic scholars met in Mecca "to discuss one thing: peace."

The peace process, if it can even be called that in Afghanistan, usually has been shaped by Western leaders who simply don't understand Afghan and Islamic culture very well.

"Too often," the author writes, "what has been ignored in this process is the nation’s indigenous and authentic non-governmental leadership. This has consequently prevented change from being led by and for Afghans — the very people who will have to maintain peace. It has also lost sight of those determining the role of Islam in our society."

What's worse, he writes, "Although abhorred by the vast majority of Muslims, groups like the Taliban feed off their perceived religious legitimacy. In countries like Afghanistan, extremists have long exploited a nation with widespread illiteracy by presenting themselves as the authentic voice of Islam and perverting not just the fabric of Afghan society, but the function of religion itself. They use Islam as a weapon of war. Western powers and the Afghani people have failed to wrest it from their grasp."

Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I've heard angry voices demanding to know why Muslims don't speak up about terrorism and seek solutions. It's a bogus complaint, mostly. Many Muslim leaders around the world have been speaking out and working for peace even before 9/11. Perhaps now we've reached a stage where Western leaders who think they know how to bring peace to a land scarred by war can step aside and allow indigenous religious and political leaders to take more responsibility for the future. Surely they can't fail more spectacularly than those who have been in charge for the last decade and a half-plus.

(The Aljazeera map of Afghanistan here shows who controlled various sections of the country as of this past May.)

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WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- While I'm in Chicagoland, including here in my hometown, this weekend, I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should return to normal on the blog on Wednesday.

A meritorious ordination idea: 7-21/22-18

I learned something from the story about the recent rescue of the Thai soccer boys and their coach that I had no expectation of learning: It has to do with the ordination of Buddhist monks.

BuddhismAs this intriguing piece from "The Conversation" reports, many of the rescued boys now are contemplating becoming ordained as monks. But, no, this response does not mean that because of their harrowing experience they have decided to devote the rest of their lives to a spiritual life of poverty and service. Rather, they are thinking about temporary ordination as a way of saying thanks to the Thai Navy SEAL who died trying to rescue them.

Here's a bit of how the story explains that:

"Ordaining as a full monk – known as 'bhikkhu' in Pali, the religious language of the Theravada Buddhism – is only available to men over 20. The boys would instead be ordained as novices, or 'nen,' who undergo fewer restrictions. . .In Theravada Buddhist practice, ordaining to be a monk and donating the merit thus gained is one of the greatest honors that a person can give to another."

In other words, the boys would receive a kind of divine or spiritual merit for their temporary ordination and would donate it to the dead SEAL. (But when I use the word "divine," we should remember that Buddhism doesn't teach the existence of any god or gods.)

As the story explains, "Most Thai men get ordained in order to make merit – known as 'tham bun.' Devoting oneself to the study of the Buddha’s teachings, the dharma, is one of the most holy acts that one can do. Buddhists who get ordained are believed to acquire a great deal of bun, or merit.

"For Buddhists, this life is but one in a cycle of deaths and rebirths, where the good deeds one does in the past determine where and in what form – human, animal, divine being – one is reborn. Eventually, over many lifetimes, enough knowledge and merit will allow for escape from this cycle and transcendence. . .In the case of the 12 boys and their coach, however, they are offering the merit they will make to (the dead SEAL) in order to ensure a better rebirth in his next life."

I am aware that in Christianity and Judaism, sometimes ordinations are temporary, though not by initial purpose. Rather, people demit, or give up, their ordinations for various reasons, ranging from failure to obey the rules of a tradition to losing faith and not being able to continue with honesty.

But until now I've never heard of a temporary ordination done on purpose. In fact, it's something other traditions might consider as they re-imagine what religious leadership should look like.

At any rate, good for the Thai boys in at least considering this on behalf of someone who sought to save them.

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LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. -- While I'm in Chicagoland for a long weekend, I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should return to normal here by Wednesday.

A compelling Jewish-Christian commentary on Luke: 7-20-18

In a time when religious affiliation in Europe and North America is declining, it is a measure of how important the Bible remains in that major publishers continue to look for scholars to help readers understand the writings that Jews and Christians call scripture.

Luke-Levine-WitheringtonAnd it is a measure of how much more open publishers are to finding new ways to get scholars with different approaches to work together that Cambridge University Press has added to its New Cambridge Bible Commentary series The Gospel of Luke, with commentary by both Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine and Christian scholar Ben Witherington III.

What they have produced here is a commentary that is enlightening, engaging and challenging -- but civil. Even better, it shows how Jewish-Christian relations (which, over the long haul, have had a terrible history) can be advanced through an openness to hear someone else's view that's different from yours.

Both Levine, who attends an Orthodox synagogue and teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt, and Witherington, who describes himself as an evangelical United Methodist who teaches New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, are widely recognized as insightful and accessible experts in the 27 books that make up the New Testament canon.

No matter how many times you've read Luke's gospel and no matter how well you think you understand its main points, its history and its nuances, you will learn something new -- and sometimes unexpected -- in this new volume, the official publication date for which is July 31, though it can be pre-ordered now.

One aspect about this book that's especially appealing is that Levine and Witherington say early on that they "have no delusions about being able to answer definitively all -- or perhaps even any -- of the questions Luke's Gospel poses to historians, literary critics, theologians and people who read the Bible for spiritual direction and inspiration. Indeed, definitive answers elude us, and they always will."

So these scholars wish to be modest theologians, a welcome category when false certitude so often rules the day in religion.

I will say more about what I like about this commentary, but first let me note that I believe their use of the term "Christian" to describe Luke himself (as they do on page 7) is anachronistic, whether Luke, whoever he was, was a Gentile or a Jew. When Luke wrote late in the First Century, there was not yet a separate religion called Christianity, only a subset of Judaism whose members believed that the long-promised Jewish Messiah had come as Jesus of Nazareth. So to call either the Apostle Paul or Luke a "Christian" seems like a category error. If Levine and Witherington wish to defend their use of the term, I'll do my best to publish their responses here on the blog later.

At any rate, they are right in their introduction to the book to suggest that readers not divide up into "team-Ben" or "team-Amy-Jill."

"This," they write, "is not what we want. We want our readers to see the same text through difference lenses: Jewish and Christian (of particular sorts), historical and literary, behind the text and in front of the text as well as in the text. We want our readers to read Luke, and then read our comments, and then to join us in the conversation."

One of the clear tasks of these scholars is, together, to undo some of the deeply held but misguided views about the Jewish context in which Jesus lived. One problem, they note, is that ". . .a number of Christian readers are convinced that the Torah creates an impossible burden and that Jesus came to free 'us' from the 'burden' of the Law. These are false views of the Torah and mischaracterizations of Jewish practice. Gentiles were never under the distinct commands of Torah such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, the dietary regulations, wearing fringes to remind them of the commandments and so on, since these laws functioned to separate Jews from the broader gentile world. One cannot be 'freed' from something to which one is not bound. Nor was Torah observance a 'burden,' but a delight, as practicing Jews to this day attest."

But where Levine and Witherington disagree about interpretations, the reader will know, as in the case of how they read whether the birth of Jesus was some kind of threat to the rule of Caesar.

It is not unusual in this commentary to find that Witherington takes the text more literally or at least more historically accurate than does Levine, who is less worried about what 21st Century readers would consider historical accuracy and more about what the text meant at the time it was written and what it might mean for readers today.

An example is the story of the stoning of Stephen. Witherington accepts Luke's account "as historical; Amy-Jill, concerned that Stephen is not mentioned by Paul or the early Church fathers, that his Greek name means 'Crown' and so symbolizes the crown of martyrdom, and that his speech reads like a Lucan composition, wonders if he is a Lucan construction. . ."

Another fascinating area in which Witherington and Levine come to conclusions in some tension with each other has to do with passages that Christians sometimes have used as warrants for their historic anti-Judaism (I linked you to my essay on that subject above in the words "terrible history").

Levine sees Luke essentially blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Witherington disagrees.

A sample of some details about this from the book: "Amy-Jill suggests that, by continuing accusations against the chief priests, along with Temple officials, elders and scribes, Luke keeps the responsibility for Jesus' death primarily in their hands and not that of the Romans. By continuing to note that this cabal would have acted themselves were they not fearful of the reaction of the Jerusalem crowds, Luke further exculpates Pilate and so Rome even as the Gospel holds out hope that the people Israel will reject the local authorities and follow Jesus instead.

"Ben. . .notes that Jesus from the cross forgives his Roman executioners and perhaps also the Jewish critics who watch him die, because they acted in 'ignorance,' that is, they did not realize the implications of their actions. The penitent bandit speaks for some Jews when he speaks to Jesus' innocence. . .Ben therefore regards Luke as presenting both some of the Jewish leaders and the Romans as playing a part in Jesus' death."

(Speaking of blaming the Jews, don't miss the sidebar in the book that starts on page 582, "A closer look: Judas Iscariot.")

In the end, Levine and Witherington say that they "have written as colleagues and friends who not infrequently disagree, without becoming disagreeable, but also find many things to agree on."

This new commentary is a gift to readers who want to take the Bible seriously instead of literally. It does not solve all disputes about meaning, nor did it mean to. But it brings the readers into the conversation in many helpful ways. It will be hard to imagine reading Luke again without this book at my side.

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The world is getting a little clearer idea about plans developed by a United Methodist commission that hopes to avoid schism over matters of human sexuality in the 12-million-member Protestant denomination. More details were made public this week when the commission went to the church's top court to ask for a review of the constitutionality of what it is proposing. I have written about the (flawed) plan here and I wrote this column about how the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City, is working to hold the denomination together.