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The uses and misuses of religious symbols: 11-30-18


Back in the late 1970s, a British author named Ian Wilson wrote a book about the Shroud of Turin (pictured above in negative), believed by many to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. I read it soon after it was published.

Sign-shroudWilson believed the Shroud probably was the real thing.

Over the years since then the Shroud, kept at a Catholic cathedral in Turin, Italy, has been the subject of various investigations and conflicting conclusions, including stories published just four months ago about blood research that concluded the Shroud is not the real deal. If those stories interest you, you can read three of them here and here and here.

And if you're really into the Shroud and its meaning, you can read this National Catholic Reporter column I wrote about it four years ago.

So why am I bringing all of this up now as Christians move into their season of Advent, preparing to commemorate not the death but the birth of Jesus?

For an odd reason.

Several years ago I acquired (don't ask me how; I don't know) a 2012 book by a British art historian named Thomas de Wesselow called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection. For reasons I can't explain, I apparently just stuck it on a shelf in my house and forgot about it without reading it. When I stumbled across it recently I was surprised that I owned it and surprised I hadn't read it. Now I have, and I want to tell you a bit about it to make a point about religious truth.

It is quickly clear that de Wesselow does not come at this subject as someone committed to the Christian faith, and certainly not as someone who wants others to imagine that the New Testament is a historically reliable witness to the life of Jesus and the way that what became Christianity eventually emerged from Judaism. But he spent years digging into the history of the Shroud and came to formulate a theory about why the Shroud was so important to the formation and growth of Christianity.

You can think of the book has having halves. The first half makes a powerfully persuasive case that the Shroud is truly the burial cloth of Jesus. He acknowledges that carbon dating done on the Shroud in the 1980s labeled it as a mysterious product of the Middle Ages, but he describes in considerable detail why such carbon dating is unreliable and why the supposedly scientific process used in the particular case of the Shroud was especially so.

He argues that the 1980s carbon dating of the Shroud is a major outlier bit of evidence to consider when trying to date the Shroud and determine its geographic origin. Everything else, he insists, places the Shroud in the time of Jesus and in the vicinity of Jerusalem. And the markings on the Shroud that show a crucified man are an excellent match to the Christian story of Good Friday.

Once he concludes that the Shroud is authentic, he spends the second part of the book arguing that when Jesus' early followers, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, other disciples and, later, the Apostle Paul, testify to having seen the risen Christ, what they are really saying is that Jesus' physical body was still in the tomb but that the image on the mysterious Shroud convinced them that he had been raised and now existed as some kind of spiritual being.

No matter what story the New Testament tells about the post-resurrection time -- whether it's Doubting Thomas, an appearance by the risen Christ to 500 people at once or the Damascus Road experience of Paul (then Saul) -- de Wesselow insists that it all can be explained by the Shroud and its strange power.

And not only that, but without the Shroud, he insists, Christianity would have died aborning.

Frankly, de Wesselow asks readers -- especially Christians -- to swallow a lot, and that lot has gnostic thinking written all over it.

Does he ever say directly what ultimately happened to the crucified body of Jesus? No. He just leaves it in the tomb. Does he explain how all of Jesus' followers could be convinced of both resurrection and ascension by a single linen cloth? Well, he tries.

Look. The Christian story of resurrection and ascension if full of mystery and strangeness, which is no doubt part of its appeal. Indeed, every one of the world's great religions tells mysterious and strange stories. And stories draw people in, make them think, make them wonder about eternal matters.

But in the end what really matters is what each of us does with the gift of life we've been given. What matters is how we live and, in that regard, how our faith traditions teach us to live in relation with the eternal. Would it really matter if de Wesselow is right that the Christian idea of an empty tomb is itself empty? Well, yes, it would. Might his alternative explanation of resurrection and ascension be acceptable to Christians today? Maybe to some.

But isn't it more important for Christians to love Jesus and be his disciples than it is to figure out exactly what happened on that first Easter and whether the Shroud really tells that story accurately?

Well, isn't it?

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Here's an interesting religious conversion: The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, was built by a Protestant televangelist, Robert Schuller. But it's now becoming a Catholic Cathedral for the Diocese of Orange. Sort of an appropriate follow-up to my post here from yesterday about what to do with abandoned or underused church buildings.

A new family survey raises values questions: 11-29-18

There is at least a little irony in the fact that I'm writing here today about family -- and a new survey about families -- because it was 22 years ago today that my family expanded considerably when I married a woman with four children while she married a man, me, with two.

Am-fam-surveySince then we have added eight grandchildren to our family. What gifts they all are.

But the idea of family gets misused and abused in various ways in our society, especially by people who imagine that the only proper family is one made up of one wife, one husband and a couple two or three kids.

That particular vision and version of family seems especially popular among certain Christians who would identify themselves as evangelical or fundamentalist and who pay attention to such sources as "Focus on the Family."

Oddly, there's not a lot of biblical support for that narrow vision of family. Go back to the story of Ruth in the Hebrew scriptures and you discover the idea that blood lines aren't the only measure of family. Rather, family also gets constituted by love and a spirit of inclusion.

Which was exactly the point that Jesus was making when some people interrupted some teaching he was doing to tell him that his mother and other family members were outside wanting to see him. Who, he asked, are my real mother and siblings? His answer: Whoever seeks to do the will of God. Jesus wasn't denying the importance of nuclear, biological family. Rather, he was expanding the meaning of family.

At any rate, the just-released fourth annual American Family Survey is interesting and worth a look. It's a nationwide study of 3,000 Americans by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. YouGov conducts it.

One finding confirming previous findings is that people self-identify in various ways and among those various ways, the family-based identities of "parent" and "spouse" are strongest, almost equally so.

When surveyors asked about the importance of shared values in a good marriage, they found this: "Overall, Americans identified shared feelings about children and shared social values (such as honesty or hard work) as by far the most important considerations for couples. More than three-quarters of respondents agreed that couples should have those priorities in common."

You can read the lengthy report for many more details -- and get more results from the graphic here today -- if you want to, but the surveyors' conclusion surely is worth noting: "(P)eople see multiple stresses and sources of tension for families, but that the institution remains resilient in the face of these tensions."

What has changed in my lifetime is that the definition of family has expanded rather remarkably.

Some of the "Father Knows Best" and the "Ozzie and Harriet" families still are around, but my guess is that in addition to families headed by gay couples and families woven together by happenstance, lots more families today resemble mine, a blending of several families into a unit that has half a dozen or more branches.

What ties us together is not necessarily blood, though that can be important, but love and some ideas about how people should be treated, although even there we allow for considerable internal debate. And what's wrong with that?

* * *


The BBC has put together this excellent summary of the state of the terrorist group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) today. It looks for all the world as if ISIS been beaten, given that it now controls only 1 percent of the land it controlled just a few years ago. But don't let that fool you. Not only do ISIS members still exist, so does its radical ideology and so do that many factors that led to the creation first of al-Qaida and later ISIS, which emerged from al-Qaida. Theological thugs like the late Osama bin Laden continue to twist Islam and draw in vulnerable people looking for hope and meaning. And something similar is happening in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, where radical right antisemitism is finding a growing audience.

What to do with underused or empty church buildings? 11-28-18


It surely cannot be news to most Americans that weekly attendance at worship services has been dwindling for decades. This is a pattern that began to establish itself some 50 or more years ago and has accelerated since then.

Creating-Space-for-SliderBecause most Americans still identify as some sort of Christian, this decline in attendance and membership has created the add-on problem of what to do with largely empty church buildings.

As columnist Jonathan Merritt reports in this Atlantic piece, "Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures — 6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America — and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the 'nones,' are growing as a share of the U.S. population."

He notes that some vacant churches get taken over by developers who turn them into condos or businesses. And others simply sit idle waiting for someone to come up with a winning idea for reuse.

Some currently active congregations that are housed in large and expensive structures find innovative ways to use the space on weekdays when there is no worship service. The congregation to which I belong, for instance, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, is in the midst of a $2.6-million renovation project that has as its goal, as our slogan puts it, "Creating Space for All People." (The image at left today shows some of our interior plans. The top photo shows outside work on our new elevator and other projects.) Our goal is to develop more internal space for community and church groups to use in various ways. Well, that and fix our iconic tower that was having some issues and install an ADA-compliant elevator to replace the inadequate one we had.

Our congregation is not unique in its effort to make wise use of our building, which now is more than 100 years old and is in a prime location just southeast of the Country Club Plaza. Other worship centers, too, are finding ways to use their space for purposes beyond weekly worship services.

But that's never an easy or simple process. As Merritt writes, "Closure and adaptive reuse often seems like the simplest and most responsible path. Many houses of worship sit on prime real estate, often in the center of towns or cities, where inventory is low. Selling the property to the highest bidder is a quick and effective way to cut losses and settle debts. But repurposing a sacred space for secular use has a number of drawbacks. There are zoning issues, price negotiations, and sometimes fierce pushback from the surrounding community and the parish’s former members."

It would be fascinating to check back in 100 years or so to see what has happened to the building currently housing my congregation -- and to check on other large worship centers in the KC area. What I know is that things inevitably are going to change. Whether congregations like the one to which I belong can adapt and use their buildings creatively is still an unanswered question.

* * *


You might think that being a scholar of religion and speaking about all of that in public would be a pretty safe job. Think again. As this Religion News Service article reports, that is an increasingly dangerous job and likely to bring you into all kinds of danger, including death threats. Sort of makes you ashamed of being human.

A stranger who shares the planet with me: 11-27-18


People whose family members have died recently will tell you that being without them for the first Thanksgiving, Christmas or other holiday -- or even birthday -- is among the hardest things to do.

Death always brings awe and wonder, of course, but it also inevitably brings pain that can find its sharpest points in times when families should be closest.

I was thinking about that this past Thursday, Thanksgiving day, as I took a solo walk through a cemetery near our house before our family festivities began later in the afternoon.

When I walk through Forest Hill Cemetery, I often stop by the graves of both Buck O'Neil, founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, as well as that of the great pitcher, Satchel Paige, whose 1982 funeral I covered.

As I approached the section where Buck and his wife are buried, I saw a lone man standing near what the turf told me was a fairly recent grave. I was passing within 20 yards or so of the man and it seemed impolite not to acknowledge his presence and his humanity.

So I caught his eye and said to him, "Holidays are the hardest, aren't they?"

He nodded, removed his earbuds and approached me.

"They are," he said. Then he told me that both his grandmother and grandfather had died this year -- one on July 31 and the other a few months later. He was close to them and it was clear that his grief was still palpable.

Then he told me about all the other relatives buried in this cemetery -- aunts, uncles, others. He clearly was spending this gorgeous holiday afternoon with family.

I could have simply walked right by him, not wanting to intrude on his privacy and bereavement. As I say, I didn't know him and he could have turned out to be uninterested in conversation with someone several decades older than he was. I'm glad I didn't let that kind of hesitancy butt in.

As we spoke, I mentioned both Buck O'Neil and Satchel Paige, and he was interested in finding both their graves. So I told him where they were.

We were just two human beings passing but recognizing that we have our humanity in common and that at minimum we can be courteous to one another.

I wished him a happy Thanksgiving as I walked away and he responded, "Yeah, same to you, man."

Nothing profound here. Nothing new. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a chance to acknowledge that we share the same planet together and, even if only tangentially, we have obligations to one another, as the world's great religions all teach. May I always remember that. And may you.

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A young missionary trying to evangelize perhaps the most isolated people in the world on a small island near India has been murdered for his efforts. Such violence is to be decried always, of course, but so is the imperialistic arrogance of disrupting a small civilization. If I'm reading this story right, it appears that the missionary was hunting rare game for egotistical reasons.

* * *



A Surgeon's Odyssey, by Richard Moss. This is the engaging story of an ear-nose-throat doctor who, early in his career, decided to move to Asia to work among poor people. It's an inspiring, interesting tale, but that isn't what attracted me to the book. Rather, what I most appreciated about the book is that the author, a Jewish man, almost always seemed to be attentive to matters of religion and spirituality to which his odyssey exposed him. He started working in Thailand and began to learn about Buddhism in some detail, in part because as he launched this part of his life, he writes, "I was seeking something. I wanted to help the neglected and diseased. But I wanted something else. I wanted to understand healing, its essence, and embrace it as something sacred." Indeed, he discovered something about Buddhism that rang true about his Judaism: "It had persisted, like Judaism, through the continents and vagaries of history, through the quirks and antagonisms of human caprice and aggression, to this instant." As he moved around Asia, he also encountered Hinduism and Islam and had to figure out how to understand those faith traditions even when aspects of them seemed silly, arrogant or otherwise flawed to him. For instance, he discovered that the story told in the Hebrew Bible about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is told in the Qur'an, only it's not Isaac but Ishmael whom Abraham is asked to sacrifice. So rooted in the Isaac story was the author that he wondered whether Islam, by telling the story about Ishmael and not Isaac, "could be taken seriously." In the end, Moss discovered the flaws in himself: "I performed surgery on others to heal and restore them but did not accept an internal surgery that would have elevated me. . .Yet it was still worth it. . .My own realization would continue."

The imploding world for Middle East Christians: 11-26-18

Over recent decades -- both here and in other venues -- I have written about the persecution of religious people around the world, including Christians, who today are under immense pressure in various locations outside the U.S., but especially in the Middle East, which, of course, is where the religion began.

Harpers-December-2018The annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the annual report from the U.S. State Department on religious liberty around the world detail the sad and outrageous stories of persecution of people of faith in many countries. If this subject interests you, those reports are a good place to start.

But a specific focus on Christians in the Middle East, especially (but not exclusively in Iraq) is found in this cover story in the December issue of Harper's magazine.

The situation there is heartbreaking -- and it appears that Trump administration immigration policies are not helping.

The reporter for Harper's, Janine di Giovanni, writes from Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq: "The Christians here have endured invasions by Persians, Kurds, and Turks, but they have recovered after each persecution. This is, in part, their tradition: they believe in their sacred right to their land. Mosul is part of the Assyrian triangle, recorded in the Book of Genesis, and the plains of Nineveh — where the Hebrew prophet Jonah is said to have preached after he was spat out by a giant fish in the eighth century BC — are situated on the outskirts of Mosul on the east bank of the Tigris River.

"This time, things were different. . ." As one of the remaining Christians told her, “We’re worried. Even with ISIS gone, there’s another big threat: there is no work for us. Our enemy is emigration. People are leaving every day.”

ISIS captured Mosul in June 2104, but since has been driven out (though, of course, the chances of it reforming and coming back cannot be discounted).

But how are Trump policies affecting all of this?

Again, di Giovanni: "Whether emigration is the real threat to Christians in the Middle East remains to be seen. Although Donald Trump’s election caused a dramatic dialing back of human-rights diplomacy, the presence of his vice president, Mike Pence, a conservative evangelical, meant there was still a chance of an effort to protect persecuted Christians. In September 2017, Trump had signed his third version of the travel ban, which implied that Christians would still be welcomed to the United States. I remember feeling an ominous sense of confusion. I was relieved that my Christian friends in the Middle East could find refuge in America, but I was deeply concerned about the greater connotations of their embrace by far-right evangelicals. I did not want them to be used as 'good refugees' as opposed to 'bad refugees' — i.e., Muslims.

"That October, Pence spoke at a dinner for In Defense of Christians, an advocacy group, where he declared, 'Christianity now faces an exodus in the Middle East unrivaled since the days of Moses.' . . .(Tammeus note: That's really what the author said Pence said. I didn't doctor the quote to make Pence look ridiculous talking about Christians in the time of Moses.)

"Then in December, Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there. As a result, many Christian leaders in the region who are generally pro-Palestine — including the Coptic Pope — refused to meet with Pence during his visit in January 2018. . . .

"The Christian share of refugees admitted to the United States had risen to 63 percent by last spring, up from 47 percent the year before — mostly because the total number of refugees admitted to the United States has plummeted. And the overall number is likely to decline even more. Among other reasons, the administration’s border policy has meant that many refugees are turned away before being allowed to apply for asylum.

"It’s hard to imagine any foreign policy strategy that could do much to change the widespread crisis facing Christians in the Middle East. For the past two millennia, they have lived through periods of quiet tolerance interrupted by bursts of brutal persecution. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and First World War contributed to the first such wave in modern history; the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the second. The chaos sown in the aftermath of that latter conflict has compromised the safety of countless Christian communities beyond Iraq, including those in Egypt, Syria, and perhaps even Lebanon. In each of those places, conflict has made the already complicated and dangerous position of Christians even more precarious."

I don't have any easy answers for what Christians or other people of faith in the U.S. should do to help stop this persecution. But it's important that our elected representatives in Congress know of our concern and that we try to discover what help our individual congregations or denominational leaders might offer.

Thoughts and prayers seems like not much of a solution.

* * *


Just curious: If the snow storm in Kansas City canceled worship services for you yesterday, what did you do instead? My bride and I attended services as usual at our church in the morning. But in the afternoon I drove a family member back home in nearly white-out conditions. I'm confident driving in this kind of mess, so any spontaneous prayers from me were to keep others out of my way. It was a safe trip both ways, but I don't want to do it again. (The photo below shows what my back yard looked like about 4 p.m. yesterday. The day before my bride was out there mowing the yard for a final time this year.)

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about clergy in Kansas City who do things besides preach -- now is online here.


When evil's darkness moves in: 11-24/25-18

As we move through this time of year when darkness overtakes light in the Northern Hemisphere, I sometimes wonder about the source of spiritual darkness -- those experiences when we might feel abandoned by a loving God or even embraced by something like that God's opposite.

Cedar-Creek-2017-aSeveral years ago, after the so-called BTK serial killer was caught in the Wichita, Kan., area, I spoke with the pastor of the church in which BTK, or Dennis Rader, had been a lay leader.

I asked Mike Clark whether his experience of coming to terms with a church member who turned out to be a vicious killer had changed his mind about evil and whether he now thought that evil was personified as the "devil," or "Satan." Indeed, he told me, it had changed his mind. He had looked personal evil in the eye, he said, and had come to think it was quite real. Before that experience, he said, he often avoided preaching on scripture passages that talked about Satan because he didn't know what to make of them or thought they just imaginatively personified evil.

So the subject is not a new one to me, but it always surprises me a little bit when I run across a long, serious article having to do with this subject of evil in the form of demonic possession and the practice of exorcism.

But that's what this article from The Atlantic focuses on -- and at some length, too -- though in a calm, reportorial way. (It's quite long, but well worth the read.)

It reports that more and more people are asking representatives of the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms on them to relieve them of what they understand to be possession by demons or at least some kind of evil.

Ideas about such things go back a long, long way, the piece notes, but "belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.

"Perhaps as a result, demand for exorcisms — the Catholic Church’s antidote to demonic possession — seems to be growing as well. Though the Church does not keep official statistics, the exorcists I interviewed for this article attest to fielding more pleas for help every year," writes journalist Mike Mariani.

This all may seem out of sync in a world of advancing psychiatric and psychological theories, techniques and treatments.

But, in fact, there is much that science either can't explain or hasn't yet explained. And when someone goes through the experiences of Louisa, on whom The Atlantic article focuses, who wouldn't be willing to allow that person try anything that can bring some relief?

If exorcism done by carefully trained people who are in deep conversation with people offering medical or counseling solutions can bring help to those who feel they are demon possessed, I see no reason to forbid such a practice. As Mariani writes, "Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise?"

I cannot prove to you that there is a personified devil or that there isn't one. But I do know that evil is real and that the human capacity for evil (as well as for good) is almost limitless.

So perhaps it's wise to have as many tools to confront evil as we can have, as long as those tools don't make things worse or provide false hope.

(The photo here of the moon through the trees is one I took a few winters back at a lake in Kansas.)

* * * 


In the midst of shameful news about the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal there's this bit of good news: Pope Francis has asked Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich to help organize the February gathering of leaders at the Vatican that is to decide how to start to fix what has gone wrong. Cupich has long been in the Francis camp and knows what is at stake for the church in this disheartening matter. Francis has made some serious missteps in handling this scandal, so nothing is guaranteed about the people he's picked to organize the February summit. But better Cupich than any of several others who have been seeking to undermine this papacy.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about clergy in Kansas City who do things besides preach -- now is online here.

On Santa and his dependent clauses: 11-23-18

In modern American culture, today is the day that Santa Claus, that deeply meaningful religious figure formerly and formally known as St. Nicholas, has shown up in malls, department stores and pistol ranges or wherever to entertain children and teach them how to beg their parents for the latest toys and gee-gaws.

WDT-santaSome of you know that St. Nicholas was a real human being who, centuries ago, was the Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. From there his journey into pop culture in the U.S. has been pretty much straight downward.

You can read some about St. Nick and the various ways that Santa weaseled his way into the American psyche in this interesting piece from Canisius College, which is in Buffalo, N.Y., which in the winter feels and looks a great deal like the North Pole, as does nearby Rochester, N.Y., where I worked for three years in the late 1960s until the metric tons of snow and generally miserable weather drove me westward to Kansas City.

I'm sort of fond of the snarky way the Canisius piece starts out: "His coming makes the children sick with anticipation and when he arrives in the dead of night, he spoils them rotten with candy and toys. If that’s not enough, he’s overweight and smokes. How can such an obvious candidate for a coronary be any kind of role model? But then, what kid has ever wanted to grow up to be Santa Claus?"

Well, look. Santa is kind of fun and mostly harmless. Pretending he's real to little kids eventually teaches them about myth and imagination, and that's not such a bad thing. But, of course, there's the annual complaint about how Santa helps to commercialize Christmas, which is a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. And, yes, many people lose focus in this holiday season, but banning Santa isn't the answer.

Santa is the culture's way of having a little fun in a seasonally dark time of year. Besides, Christmas isn't the most important Christian holiday. Easter is. But as author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, "Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time."

(The picture here today is not of Santa. Rather, it's a photo of some blogger/columnist or other who asked if he could wear Santa's hat today. And Santa's answer was, "Who wants to know?")

* * *


A new survey finds that many Americans find more meaning in money than in anything else. The poet T.S. Eliot had a word for such people in one of his poems: hollow. Sigh.

Some multi-color gratitude for you: 11-22-18


I continue to be grateful for all of you readers -- even those of you who regularly disagree with me. My hope is that at least in some small way I complicate your thinking.

So for today I say no more -- but no less -- than:


Come back tomorrow and I'll have some words about a bloated man who sneaks around at night and leaves candy and junk for kids.

* * *


A Hollywood actress says God stopped the California wildfires at her property line in response to her prayers. Uh, OK. But it does make me wonder just a little bit why she was praying only for herself and her property. If she's right about the power of her prayer, wouldn't it have been a good idea if she had prayed for others, too?

* * *

P.S.: As you ponder about all you're thankful for today, perhaps you'd think about sharing a bit of your bounty with a smart high school student I know who has several opportunities to further her education through special programs but needs outside financial help to take advantage of them. See her GoFundMe page here. And thanks for any help you can give, including sharing that page on social media.

What it means to be Jewish in America now: 11-21-18

For most of 3,000 years, Jewish people have faced the question of who they are. The answer from the Bible is that through Abraham they were chosen to be part of a covenant with God -- not for privilege but for the difficult task of being a light to the nations, which means being assigned to show others what it looks like to live in healthy relationship with God.

Jewish-American-ParadoxThe biblical witness is that sometimes they did well with that work and sometimes not so much.

But questions even today remain about whether Jews are simply people who follow the religion of Judaism or whether they are in some sense a culture or a race or an ethnicity and a people. And depending on where the approximately 15 million Jews in the world live, those questions can get answered in different, even conflicting, ways.

In recent years several new books have sought to understand what it means to be Jewish in the United States, which is home to approximately six million Jews.

In fact, a weekend ago the New York Times Book Review offered readers this long piece that included looks at about half a dozen books about Jews in America.

One of those books, which I want to focus on today and recommend to you, is by a man who grew up in Kansas City and now teaches law at Harvard University, Robert H. Mnookin.

His book, which will be published this coming Tuesday, is called The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World.

It is fascinating, eminently readable and challenging. It explores the long Jewish experience in the U.S. and looks ahead to see how the many current winds buffeting Jewish culture here may affect not just how Jews see themselves but how they fit into the broader American social fabric.

The book is especially important in light of the recent mass murder at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Mnookin notes that antisemitism still can be found in the U.S., but that "hostility is no longer expressed through American institutions that hold the keys to power, prestige and inclusion. My grandchildren will never experience the fear and discrimination that gave earlier generations such a strong bond. This freedom is a blessing for them, but it removes a potent reminder that they are Jewish. It is also the primary reason they will find it so easy to reject a Jewish identity if it doesn't appeal to them."

As Mnookin asks of American Jews in this chapter title, "Can We Survive Acceptance?"

Like people from almost any religious or cultural tradition, American Jews are divided. Religiously they fall into one of several denominations, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. But as Mnookin notes, many American Jews are not connected with any synagogue and do not consider themselves Torah-observant, though they still may observe Jewish holidays and identify culturally as Jewish.

With declining attachments to a religious expression of Judaism and with a growing number of Jews marrying non-Jews, some worry that American Jews will "disappear as a group entirely." Mnookin thinks that's "nonsense," but he does acknowledge that Jewish people will continue to face the challenge of defining who they are and who's in "the tribe," as Jews often say of themselves, and who's not.

One of the most interesting parts of this book has to do with whether Jews should be defined by the old matrilineal principle, which says that you are Jewish if your mother was Jewish. In the U.S. Mnookin asserts, that principle "produces results that are dysfunctional, arbitrary and unfair." So he'd prefer a system in which people can simply self-identify as Jews and be accepted as Jews.

Mnookin also writes at some length about what he calls the "puzzle of Jewish blood," noting that "there is no genetic test that can accurately identify whether a person is Jewish. . .But the field of so-called Jewish genetics has given new life to the idea that Jews as a group are united by biological ties." One reason to exercise great caution in thinking about this, of course, is that one can easily fall into the pattern of identifying Jews using the system that the Nazis used to figure out who was unworthy of life and should be murdered.

Another subject that gets a lot of attention in this book is Israel, and how American Jews should relate to it. There is no single answer to that question, of course, because even American Jews are divided on whether and how to support certain policies adopted by the Israeli government (especially in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) and on whether they agree that the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel should be the group that decides who is Jewish there.

As Mnookin notes, "I am appalled by certain major policies of the Israeli government. But I do feel an emotional connection to Israel, and I am deeply committed to its survival as a Jewish and democratic state." And he tells readers that "anyone who looks to the State of Israel for a neat and coherent answer to the question of 'Who is a Jew?' will be disappointed."

As I noted, Mnookin's own answer to that question is to let people self-identify as Jews. Then, any organization under what he calls the "Big Tent" of Judaism "may set its own boundaries for membership and participation." That includes letting individual synagogues decide to what extent, if any, the non-Jewish spouse of a member may be active in the congregation. He adds: "What I'm really arguing for is greater tolerance for ambiguity."

I was glad to see Mnookin not shy away from the reality that antisemitism has deep roots in the anti-Judaism that has characterized Christianity almost from its beginning. You may read my essay about that here. Mnookin properly explores the disastrous results of the reality that the church officially and unofficially preached against the Jews for centuries, only recently changing its tune.

There are many reasons for Jews and non-Jews to read this book, but there are special reasons for Kansas Citians to do so. Here and there Mnookin describes what it was like to grow up as a Jew here and he tells such stories as how his grandfather, George Sittenfeld, bought a house in 1924 on Westover Road but "could do so only with the help of a gentile friend" because of the covenants in effect at the time that forbid whites to sell to blacks or to Jews. He also tells the well-known story of how the Kansas City Country Club blocked membership for a Jew, Henry Bloch, co-founder of H. & R. Block, causing golfer Tom Watson, married to a Jew at the time, to quit the club. That forced a new vote and eventual approval of Bloch.

Mnookin obviously finished this book before the Pittsburgh massacre, though he does mention the white supremacists' protests and violence last year in Charlottesville, Va. "When I started writing this book in 2015," he writes, "I was confident that fears of a sharp resurgence of American anti-Semitism were unwarranted. With the the recent rise in anti-Jewish activity, I am less certain."

Well, there is much more here that Jews and non-Jews should know, if only to avoid prejudice and bad reasoning based on misinformation.

Mnookin has offered not just a clear picture of the challenges facing American Jews, but also a path toward resolving some of them in a reasonable way.

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Is the persistent religious devotion found in the U.S. unique in the world or are the downward trends affecting Europe going to be found here, too? Sociologists, this RNS piece says, disagree about the answer to that question. It's an intriguing debate. I think the answer isn't yet knowable.

Two differing views of a religious America: 11-20-18

One thing that sometimes surprises people from other countries about Americans is that we are serious about religion, whether we're adherents of a particular tradition or not.

First Amendment 628That is, we love to argue about it, defend it, accuse it and use it to achieve our goals. All of this despite the fact that our mothers told us that the two subjects to avoid in polite society are religion or politics. But what did our mothers know?

I have been thinking about this since Rabbi Mark Levin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Torah in the Kansas City area, recently sent me a copy of the statement you see pictured here at left. It's signed by various religious leaders in the Kansas City area.

First Amendment2 628The list of signers is pictured at right.

As the statement indicates, it was written to "bear witness to and embrace religious diversity as a primary strength and foundational value of our American democracy."

The impetus for such a statement came last summer when the Hobby Lobby company published its annual full-age ad in newspapers around the country extolling the religious values that undergird the U.S. -- and not just religious values but specifically Christian values. You can read that ad for yourself because it's pictured below left.

Thank goodness this is a free country and private companies can pretty much say whatever they want to say about religious values while clergy and other religious leaders are free to disagree with the contents and/or tone of what a company may say.

But as Rabbi Levin read the Hobby Lobby statement, he concluded that "these people are lobbying now for a Christian America." So he and others came up with the opposing statement you see here today, though it took some time to write and to gather signatures. But Levin says Thanksgiving week in America is a good time for people to read the local statement and think about the pluralistic values it supports: "I am hopeful that this will help us to create a Thanksgiving atmosphere of equal acceptance of all religions under the law in this great country."

Hobby-lobby-statementPluralism, by the way, does not mean moralistic relativism, nor does it promote the idea that because all religions are pretty much the same it doesn't much matter what faith, if any, you choose to follow.

Rather, pluralism suggests that it's important for every citizen of the U.S. to realize that our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion means that we will inevitably disagree with other Americans about religion. Our task in that case is to respect the religious choices others make and find ways to live in harmony with people who don't share our particular religious tradition.

So give both statements -- the local one and the Hobby Lobby one -- a read and see where you stand with all of that. (And if you want an even more aggressive statement disagreeing with the Hobby Lobby ad, the Freedom from Religion Foundation offers this one.)

As for me, I like living in a religiously pluralistic society, especially one that affirms my own right to hold my own religious convictions in perfect freedom. The last thing I want is a theocracy.

(If you click on the images they will expand for easier reading.)

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Politico reports that Marianne Williamson, who was the keynote speaker in Kansas City this fall for the "Womankind 2018" event at Unity on the Plaza, plans to run for president. I wrote about Williamson at that Womankind event in this Flatland column. Politico describes her as "pal of Oprah, spirituality guru and fixture of Hollywood's New Age community." She's an excellent speaker, but I'm having trouble imaging an electorate that chose Donald Trump changing enough to embrace Williamson. However, I've been wrong before.