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Are faith communities welcoming people with disabilities? 7-31-19

The great German reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann once declared that any religious community that doesn't include disabled people is in some way itself disabled.

Religion-disabilityI think of that quote almost each Sunday when I push my stepson's wheelchair into the sanctuary in our church building and park him next to me in a specifically cut-out row that makes room for wheelchairs. (My wife was largely responsible for getting those cut-out rows in our sanctuary.) Chris is a special needs adult who loves to go to church and give people hugs.

I also thought of it when I read this article from The Week about ways in which the article's author thinks churches are failing disabled people.

"It may come as a shock to you," writes Heather Avis, "that churches are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of kids with developmental delays and learning disabilities — especially if you're a parent of children without any significant differences. But for people like me — a parent of three adopted children and two who have Down syndrome — these revelations barely induce a yawn. This is a situation we've been wrestling with and tirelessly trying to improve for years."

And, of course, she and her family are not alone. There is considerable room for religious communities to improve the way they welcome people with various kinds of disabilities.

But it's not all a terrible story. Not only can many congregations tell stories about how they've welcomed other people like our Chris, but this past December I wrote this Presbyterian Outlook column about how a church in Michigan has intentionally created a culture of welcome for all kinds of people with disabilities.

Because you have to be a subscriber to read the online version of that column, let me tell you that it contains a story I heard from my friend Brian O'Connor of Detroit, who, like me, is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Brian told me how and why he and his wife, Jodi Noding, and son, Casey, had joined the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan.

As I wrote in that column, Brian explained that Casey is “a late talker with a language delay.” Someone suggested that some help might be available for Casey at FAR Therapeutic Arts and Recreation. That organization, it turns out, is housed at First Presbyterian, so Brian, Jodi and Casey began showing up there a few years ago, first for Casey’s therapy and eventually to check out the whole church.

“We were sort of unchurched at that point,” Brian told me. “I grew up Catholic. My wife was a member of a very conservative Presbyterian denomination. It seemed like a good idea for my son to have that kind of community and upbringing. So we started looking around and one of the things we learned was that First Presbyterian emphasizes inclusion. They call themselves ‘everybody’s church.’

“Inclusion is a really basic concept there. I work with my son in a lot of other activities, where he’s accommodated. Like school and Boy Scouts and summer camps. But accommodated is not the same as inclusion. Accommodated sort of suggests we’ll make room for you and won’t be bothered by your differences or quirks.”

In addition to our experience with Chris and Brian's and Jodi's experience with Casey, I have close friends who have a son with Down syndrome, and that young man has been welcomed and included in many ways in his Catholic parish in Kansas City.

At any rate, I'm glad that Heather Avis has raised this issue in the column she wrote. And I hope faith communities will pay attention and do what they should be doing anyway to include everyone. But I want you to know that the picture in that regard is not entirely bleak.

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Here is a lovely essay about the death of a man who devoted himself to helping others understand death. Rob Moll, author of The Art of Dying, was just 41 when he died recently in a hiking accident on Mount Rainer. His friend Bob Smietana of Religion News Service writes this of Moll: "He wrote about how death has disappeared in modern life. Or at least, any conversation about our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. Death has moved from the home into the hospital, and medical professionals have taken over much of the care of the deathly ill. And we have lost track of it." Our failure to understand our own death means we often don't understand our own life. That needs to change.

Let's think again about faith and suicide: 7-30-19

In this post here on the blog recently, I wrote about attending a memorial service at a Catholic Church for a young woman (in her 20s) who had committed suicide.

Bruised-woundedIn response, a representative of Paraclete Press, a Catholic publishing house, asked if I'd be interested in reading Fr. Ronald Rolheiser's 2018 book on the subject, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide. I agreed to do just that.

It's only 77 pages long so it's a really quick read. And I very much like Rolheiser's approach, which emphasizes the reality that people who commit suicide have something like a disease that they can find no way to cure. It's similar to understanding mental illness as a disease that, like a broken leg or cancer, needs treatment. But sometimes no treatment works and the result is a sad and disastrous death.

Rolheiser is right that "suicide is still perhaps the most misunderstood of all deaths. We still tend to think that because it is self-inflicted it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not."

As a Catholic priest, Rolheiser is naturally interested in conveying a word of hope and comfort to those who are grieving the loss of someone who died by suicide, and he gives it a sincere shot, particularly in light of Catholic teaching found in the Catechism on the subject. It says, "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."

Rolheiser does his best to soften and even ignore that view, but, in the end, he finds himself not quite able to offer the comfort that particularly Catholic families certainly seek when one of their members dies by his or her own hand. There's always a small hedge to Rolheiser's attempt to assure families that the person who died is safely in God's loving hands forever.

For instance, he writes that "in most cases, we should not worry about the victim's eternal salvation." I can imagine a grieving family hearing that and immediately wondering whether the person they lost is one of the exceptions to that "most cases" rule. In another place he writes that "we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation" of those who commit suicide. Worry unduly? How much worry would be enough? And does that mean that someone without "eternal salvation" will spend eternity in a lake of fire, as proposed by those who believe in the physical reality of hell?

And yet Rolheiser comes close again and again to offering the kind of comfort that families need at such a time. He writes,  for instance, that "no God worth worshiping could ever condemn any of these persons to exclusion from the family of life simply because of the manner of their deaths." Well said. But if that's the case, what's with the use of "in most cases" and not worrying "unduly"?

At one point Rolheiser tries to make a distinction between "suicide" and "killing oneself." A suicide, he says, means that "a wounded, oversensitive person is overpowered by chaos and falls fatally victim to an illness." By contrast, killing oneself refers to a case in which "an arrogant, pathological narcissist, acting in strength, refuses to submit to the commonalities of human existence."

Tellingly enough, when Rolheiser wants to offer an example of someone who dies by his own hand but not of an incurable depressive situation or other emotional disaster, the one he comes up with is -- wait for it -- Adolf Hitler, almost always the terrible example of any sin or grievous behavior and surely, therefore, someone who deserves to go to hell. It strikes me that in any self-inflicted death, those left behind can never, ever fully understand the motive. But Rolheiser is convinced he knows why Hitler killed himself 74 years ago. It was what he calls an act of "strength, an act that roots itself in a pride, an intellectual arrogance and a pathological narcissism that, like Lucifer, sets itself before the schema of things and says, 'I will not serve!'"

So here he is talking with grieving readers again about hell and the manager of the property, Lucifer. How comforting. I suppose it's inevitable when the author believes in -- and perhaps feels obliged to believe in -- the reality of such eternal punishment. So he offers this to the grieving: ". . .nobody goes to hell out of weakness, out of a broken heart, out of a crushed spirit, out of the misfortune and unfairness of never having had the sense of being truly loved. Hell is for the strong, for those with a spirit so arrogant that it cannot be crushed or broken, and so is unable to surrender."

All of this sidetracks what Rolheiser wants to be his primary message, which is that "God is not a God of punishment, but a God of forgiveness."

If that's true of God -- and as a Christian I certainly believe it to be so -- then perhaps we should rethink the idea of eternal, cruel punishment for some. And that's exactly what the Christian Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has done in his important forthcoming book, That All Shall Be Saved. The book won't be published until Sept. 24, however. But watch for my review of it here in my Sept. 21/22 blog post.

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Yesterday here on the blog I mentioned some good investigative journalism done by The National Catholic Reporter. But that kind of journalism about religious communities also can -- and should -- come from outlets that are not religious in nature. A good example is the Chicago Tribune's recent look at finances on the Catholic Church in its area. The reporter who did that writing, David Heinzmann, was interviewed recently on National Public Radio. Here is that interview. Faith traditions make up part of the whole social fabric and, therefore, should be covered by traditional journalism in the way that it also covers politics, education, sports, economics and other subjects.

What investigative religion journalism can do: 7-29-19

One reason to have good religion journalism is to keep track of the various forces that seek to shape and then influence institutional religion.

EWTN-logoSo I'm glad that The National Catholic Reporter has done a four-part series on the Eternal Word Television Network, commonly referred to simply as EWTN. The first article in the series by writer Heidi Schlumpf can be found here. In a side note found with that story are links to the other parts of the series.

If you are Catholic you almost certainly have heard of EWTN and maybe been a consumer of its many offerings. EWTN will be much less familiar to non-Catholics, though the information NCR has turned up about EWTN's reach and influence is a cautionary tale for any community of faith.

Here's a quick summary of EWTN, in NCR's words: "EWTN's 11 networks — broadcasting 24/7 — claim a reach of more than a quarter of a billion people worldwide in more than 145 countries and territories. EWTN programming is available through more than 6,000 TV affiliates as well as on ROKU, Apple TV, Amazon Fire and YouTube. In addition to the Orange County studio, ETWN has studios in Washington, D.C., and at the company's headquarters outside Birmingham, Alabama.

"And that's just the television portion of the business.

"EWTN also provides free radio programming to more than 500 domestic and international affiliates and on SIRIUS/XM and iHeart Radio, as well as through its worldwide shortwave radio station. It also owns and operates the largest Catholic website in the United States, as well as the National Catholic Register newspaper, an English- and a Spanish-language online news wire service, a book publishing arm and a religious goods online catalog.

"It is truly a global media empire, one so diversified and complex it can be difficult to estimate its total budget or net worth."

What has EWTN been doing with that amazing reach and power?

What consumers are getting, NCR says, "is a very particular slice of Catholicism from EWTN and its affiliate organizations, one not necessarily representative of the U.S. church as a whole. Polling and ongoing studies of the Catholic population in the United States consistently finds a far greater diversity of views and tolerance for questions than is the case on EWTN broadcasts. EWTN has become the only regularly televised image of Catholicism in America."

Programs often mimic Fox News in supporting Republicans who would identify themselves as conservatives. But, the NCR piece notes, "In addition to its slanted political coverage, EWTN and its affiliate journalistic enterprises also have connections to economic libertarian ideologues. . ."

Each media outlet, of course, must decide on its own editorial policy, as NCR does for itself. And in many ways NCR represents the voice of progressive Catholicism in the U.S., meaning its content often will be quite different in perspective and tone from EWTN's. But whereas NCR readers can be counted in the tens of thousands, EWTN consumer numbers dwarf such figures.

Which is another good reason to understand what EWTN is and how it approaches its work.

I wish there were more religion journalists at work doing the kinds of investigate reporting NCR has done in this series. One reason religion journalism isn't a larger national enterprise is that readers don't demand it. It's time to fix that.

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In the P.S. below, I mention my column about construction of a new Sikh temple in Kansas City. In that column I make note of several ways Sikhs have been attacked in this country. It just happened again in California, as this story reports. The amount of ignorance and hate related to religion here and abroad sometimes astonishes me, though by now I should expect it.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what it means that a new Sikh temple is being built in suburban Kansas City -- now is online here.

The role of religious civil disobedience: 7-27/28-19

Civil disobedience has a long and in many ways honored history in the American story, maybe beginning with the original Tea Party in Boston.

Civil-disobedienceThe article to which I linked you in the first two words of the previous sentence offers someone's 1971 definition, which I think is pretty good: "a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies."

Sometimes, such as the Tea Party, those intentionally breaking the law do so for civil, or secular, reasons. But quite often people's religious beliefs drive them to do that.

This RNS column argues that we need more religiously based civil disobedience today.

"We need a revival of religious civil disobedience," writes John Gehring. "Along with Mohandas Gandhi and (Martin Luther) King, Catholics can look back to the prophetic activism of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, the farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez and the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who burned draft files in protest of the Vietnam War." Gehring is the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.

Why more faith-based civil disobedience? His answer: "Being a faithful Christian sometimes means breaking the rules. Moral disruption is a sacred act when the status quo is sinful.

"Christians follow a Messiah who had dark skin and who preached liberation to those on the margins of a powerful empire. Two millennia later, we face a stark choice between moral resistance and the cowardice of complicity. History will judge that decision."

I don't disagree with Gehring, but I hope people engaging in civil disobedience are prepared to pay the consequences, which may be more than a two-hour arrest, release and dismissal of charges. If it's more than that, they must be ready to comply. And, I think, they need to be sure before they jump into civil disobedience that all other legal avenues have been tried. Like actual war, civil disobedience should be a last resort as a tool for change and justice. But it must remain a tool.

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The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., (which I wrote about here before it opened because of its Kansas City connections) has received a lot of criticism -- much of it justified -- from scholars. Now some of those scholars have collected their essays about what's wrong with the museum in a new book, and Religion News Service has done this interview with one of the editors. As Yonat Shimron of RNS writes in introducing the interview, the museum "has been accused of privileging the Protestant Bible over other versions, harboring questionable and misappropriated antiquities among its vast collection and partnering with a range of charismatic, Pentecostal and conservative Christian groups, including the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, in ways that suggest it wants to advance an evangelical agenda." That's a lot to overcome.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what it means that a new Sikh temple is being built in suburban Kansas City -- now is online here.

Texas leads the wrong way on capital punishment: 7-26-19

Ah, Texas. Brash, proud, big and wrong about so much, including its prominent leadership among states that continue to use the death penalty, an immoral system that is wildly expensive and that sometimes lets the state kill innocent people.

Texas-Death-PenaltyAt the moment, Texas has 10 executions scheduled between Aug. 15 and Nov. 6. Texas deserves, for this, a highlighted place in the Hall of Shame.

But here and there in Texas there still are voices of reason, including the authors of this recent opinion piece in The Houston Chronicle.

"As of today (July 20)," they write, "13 men have walked free from Texas death row because they were wrongfully convicted. Anthony Graves, one of the authors of this piece, is one of them. He spent more than 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Twice he faced execution dates.

"Besides the unthinkable gravity of such mistakes, the facts show that the death penalty is an extremely expensive way to seek justice. A death penalty trial, including mandatory appeals, is now estimated to cost more than $2 million. We are spending an awful lot of money on a system that has proven to be wrong a bunch of times."

But Texas has done something to make all of this worse. Earlier this year Texas banned all chaplains from being present at executions.

In response to this clear outrage, dozens of faith leaders from all around Texas have asked the state to change its mind about that.

In this interfaith statement, those leaders says they are "united in recognizing that the right of condemned people to spiritual comfort at the moment of death is a longstanding and widely-recognized religious practice." The state's decision, they say, "also infringes on the religious liberty rights of chaplains and spiritual advisers themselves. Clergy have the right to minister to those who have placed themselves in their care, up to and including the moment of death. The state cannot, and should not attempt to, regulate spiritual solace."

No telling what Texas will do next about all of this, but my guess is they'll find a way somehow to make it even worse yet again.

The death penalty should be abolished in every state and for federal crimes as well. (And speaking of federal crimes, our government has decided to start executing criminals again. Here's the story.) Most countries have done that. And you almost certainly would not want to live in some of the countries that retain capital punishment (like Iran), except for the U.S. We're in some bad company and for all the wrong reasons. It's time to change.

(The image here today came from this site.)

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Time for some serious satire, folks. Fr. Thomas Reese suggests in this RNS column that it's way past time for the U.S. to send the Statue of Liberty back to France. After all, he writes, "She entered our country in 1886 without a visa and has stayed here ever since. She never applied for citizenship and does not have a green card. She does not speak one word of English."

KC: An ecumenical and interfaith leader: 7-25-19

Even those of us who are active in interfaith work in the Kansas City area sometimes lose track of how much goes on in this important field.

Ecumen-interfaith-blackmeA new booklet by Geneva Blackmer should help everyone keep track of that and, I hope, become more engaged in this work.

It's called The Ecumenical and Interfaith History of Greater Kansas City. And it's available for very little money from Amazon at this link.

As Blackmer, a 2016-'17 intern for the Center for Religious Experience and Study who recently accepted a position as program director for the Interfaith Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, notes, "If it was ever necessary to designate one city in the United States as the heart of interfaith activity, a very compelling argument could be made for Kansas City."

The booklet is itself an argument for that contention.

It begins with ecumenical and interfaith activity starting in 1925 and lists several dozen organizations and initiatives that have been part of this work since then.

One of the earliest efforts was the Kansas City Council of Churches, organized in 1925 "consisting of white Protestant denominations." By 1935, Kansas Citians were busy with an interracial conference in Kansas City "sponsored by the Race Relations Committee of the Federal Council of Churches."

In interfaith work, among the earliest efforts was the creation in 1953 of the Kansas City chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Between then and the early 1980s, lots of relatively small but important ecumenical and interfaith initiatives were active here.

Then, in 1982, the Rev. Vern Barnet founded the Center for Religious Experience and Study, now usually just called CRES, and it continues under his leadership. Barnet also was instrumental in creating the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989 as a CRES program. That council today has representatives from some 20 different faith traditions.

Well, lots else is listed in Blackmer's book, including a few efforts I've been privileged to be part of, such as the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance, which now works closely with the Faith Always Wins Foundation, created by Mindy Corporon and others after a neo-Nazi murdered three people at Jewish institutions in 2014, including Corporon's father and son.

There is, of course, still much to be done to reach the Interfaith Council's goal of making KC the most religiously welcoming community in the country. But Blackmer's work is a tribute to how much effort already has gone into achieving that goal.

Get a copy of the book and find where you might plug in.

(And speaking of religious literacy, here's a story from the Pew Research Center about what Americans know and don't know about religion. How do you stack up?)

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Speaking of matters of religion in the Missouri-Kansas area, there's a new film out about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, the virulently anti-gay congregation founded by the late Fred Phelps. But the writer of this review of the film doesn't like it much. Well, given that Phelps and his theological thugs have picketed me personally five times, I don't much like the Westboro Baptist Church, so there's that.

Would it matter if we're not alone in the universe? 7-24-19


I have long been intrigued by the ways in which science and religion are and aren't related or connected.

My sound-bite version of my conclusion is this: Science tries to answer the what and how questions while religion seeks to know why, to what purpose.

That's a little simplistic, but perhaps a helpful generalization that should keep scientists from imagining that they can answer the purpose question or theologians from thinking they can explain, say, the precise origins of creation.

I was thinking about that this week when I ran across this Vox article about the Vatican Observatory in Arizona. Yes, the Vatican runs an observatory in Arizona.

The article is mostly an interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno, who directs the observatory. And one of the key questions was how discovery of life outside our planet might affect the thinking of Catholicism.

I liked Consolmagno's answer:

"You know, we’ve already got [parts of scripture] that say that we’re not the only intelligent things made by God. That’s already built into the system.

"You’ve got marvelous places [in the Bible] where a farmer talks about the stars shouting for joy at their creator. We don’t know what we’re talking about. And as long as we realize that it’s fun to hypothesize, it’s fun to have fun with the ideas."

The reality is that we who live on Earth take up very little space in a universe that's nearly 14 billion light years across, and we really have no idea what else or who else might be with us in the cosmos.

We like to think of ourselves as unique or at least special, but I can't think of any good theological reasons to suppose that God could not have arranged for other life elsewhere, especially given how much God seems to value relationships. Maybe before terribly long we'll get to meet some of our cosmic neighbors.

(You see just a cloudy little piece of our small galaxy in the photo above, which I took from an airplane.)

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A man who, with his wife, is creating a new church that may not be called a church, writes of it: "The value of community will be the center of our identity. Despite our digital connectedness, Americans are lonelier than they have ever been in recent memory." Institutional religion has answers for that loneliness, but often it has allowed rules and strict doctrinal positions to get in the way.

What role should religion play after a suicide? 7-23-19

Over this past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a woman in her middle 20s who committed suicide earlier this month. It was a terrible loss.

ChapelAnd, historically, religions haven't been especially helpful in dealing with the always-mysterious choice of killing oneself. As the helpful piece to which I just linked you notes, religions have understandably sought to steer people away from suicide because of the preciousness of life. But sometimes they have gone beyond that and condemned (sometimes suggesting hell) those who die by their own hand.

It's a heartless way to approach this difficult matter. Absolutely heartless. And unnecessary.

The good news, as reported in "The Conversation" article to which I've linked you, is that some of that is changing:

"While striving to emphasize the sacredness of life, it’s most certainly the case that traditional religious prohibitions against suicide provide little comfort to those who contemplate taking their own life, not to mention to the loved ones who will be left behind.

"The good news is that today, there are more and more resources for talking about and preventing suicide. In particular, world religions have become more sympathetic and nuanced in their understanding.

"JewsCatholicsMuslimsBuddhists and Hindus have all established extensive outreach programs to those who suffer from suicidal thoughts. Such efforts recognize that God especially loves those who suffer in the darkness of depression. Suicide then is not an act that calls for divine punishment, but an all-too-common threat that calls us to reaffirm hope in life as a precious gift given by God."

I was pleased that the Catholic priest and woman religious who led the service I attended were gentle, consoling, mournful and comforting. The priest even used one of the many New Testament verses that suggest that God will rescue and redeem all of us, John 6:39, which quotes Jesus this way: "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day."

The reality about suicide is that it is impossible to get inside the head of the person who dies. We are left simply to guess at what drove the person to the act. All of our speculation -- no matter how well informed -- is just that, speculation. Even if the person who dies leaves a note, it cannot possibly offer a full explanation.

So what those of us who crowded into a beautiful little chapel Saturday morning were doing was simply offering our presence to the family, our comfort, our hope that family members might find a way forward and to remember the gift that this young woman was to them.

The priest quoted the mother of the woman who died as saying that she, the mother, eventually will get through this ordeal but she'd never get over it.

Well said.

And the job of religion in such cases is to help those left behind to get through it, not promise that they'll ever get over it. Slowly religion seems to be getting that message.

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The votes are in. The Hymn Society of the U.S. and Canada has decided that the greatest hymn ever is "Holy, Holy, Holy." Our Trinitarian guess is that it won 3-1. 

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One of the hymns we sang at the memorial service about which I wrote above was "Amazing Grace," that marvelous old standard written by a man who used to be in the slave-trading business. It's one of the 15 spiritual songs highlighted, explained and recommended in a lovely little new book, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life, by Henry L. Carrigan Jr. It's no surprise that it begins with "Amazing Grace," particularly recommending Aretha Franklin's 1972 version of it. The author is a guitarist and music critic who has been playing gospel music for decades. And he's right to conclude this: "Great music changes us. Great gospel music changes how we live." Carrigan isn't writing a history of spirituals and gospel music, but he does note that this music "developed first in the black church and then evolved in white Southern churches in forms referred to as country gospel and bluegrass gospel, each of which has its own style. But no matter the particular gospel style, the music has despair, salvation, love hope and transcendence at its core." Among my personal favorites included in this small volume: "How Great Thou Art," "I'll Fly Away" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Even before you finish reading this book, you'll want to be singing.

How did Christianity and oil make America? 7-22-19

As regular readers of this blog know, I frequently review -- or at least mention -- new books that in some way touch on religion or spirituality.

Anointed_with_oilIt is impossible, of course, for anyone to keep up with the hundredyskillion such books produced each week, so I must pick and choose, to use a cliche employing two words that mean approximately the same thing. (Who thought that one up?)

But sometimes I run across a book that I haven't had a chance to read but that looks like one that might interest some of you. Which is why, today, I'm writing about a new book by a man who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame, a book I have simply read about, not actually read.

It's called Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, by Darren Dochuk. And it looks intriguing.

Here's a bit about the book from this Notre Dame press release:

Dochuk "chronicles North America’s age of oil — in particular, crude’s inseparable relationship to Christianity. He finds that since the Civil War-era discovery of oil, Americans have consistently claimed black gold as a spiritual blessing, a sacred burden and an emblem of national identity and mission in the world."

Would you have intuitively put those two together, oil and Christianity? I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have thought to do so. Which is why the book interests me.

Dochuk, the press release says, "introduces two main characters and their attendant belief systems. The first is major oil’s civil religion of crude, most clearly manifested in the sprawling and centralized business, faith and philanthropy of the Rockefeller family. The second is independent oil’s populist, boom-bust style of 'wildcat Christianity,' represented by oil families like the Pews and Hunts and rooted in the Southwest."

The editorial reviews at the Amazon page to which I've linked you above on the book's title are full of praise, which is sort of what you expect on Amazon pages, of course, but they're still interesting.

Christianity has been the dominant religion in this land since well before the U.S. became an official nation. So it make some sense for historians and theologians to look at the various ways the faith has shaped the nation and ways the American culture has, in turn, influenced Christianity in all its forms here. Christianity's dominance in the U.S. has been slipping for many years, but a majority of American citizens still identify as some kind of Christian.

So the intersection of faith and American politics and culture will continue to be a rich field for scholars for a long time.

Whoever among you reads this book first, please send me a report. And if you find things to criticize about it, fine. Just don't be crude.

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What's being described as the oldest Christian letter outside the Bible has been uncovered in Switzerland, dating to the 230s. No, as far as we know it hasn't been in process through the U.S. Postal Service all that time.

Maybe the internet is our religion: 7-20/21-19

In recent weeks here on the blog I've considered the changing face of religion in the U.S. and around the world, focusing on alternative spiritual paths, the rise of the "nones," or religiously unaffiliated, and the sinking popularity of clergy.

Jesus_on_a_Mac[1] (2)This weekend I return to that general topic to share with you this BBC opinion piece, which suggests that the most popular new religion among people around the world is the internet. I think , BBC m

Put yourself into the great intellectual flourishing of 8th Century Baghdad or of Medici Florence. In such places, religion was the air you breathe, the water you drink, the underlying code to all social interaction. The internet does the same for us today: cyberspace is everywhere and nowhere, the background noise made tangible by smartphones, those wizard-like gadgets in our hands.

"The transcendental realm to which the Medicis referred citizens was painted on the ceilings of their beautiful churches, and written into the walls of their palaces. And what is YouTube, that digital Narnia, if not a transcendentally different realm?"

Well, all analogies eventually break down, and internet-as-a-religion can take you only so far. Still, in Matthew 6:21, Jesus is reported saying this: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

And a pretty good definition of religion is "where your heart is," which is to say that to which you are devoted.

In that case, the internet certainly gains devotees and could be thought of as a religion. For, Rajan writes, "just as religion found its expression through hierarchical institutions atop of which sat a priesthood, so undoubtedly has the cult of Silicon Valley in particular given us quasi-leaders. What was (Steve) Jobs, that Zen Buddhist, if not a spiritual guide to Apple's employees, inspiring almost unconditional devotion? What is Mark Zuckerberg, if not a Utopian leading a mass movement, who wants all humanity to be part of his scheme? The priesthood had their holy texts. Today's tech evangelists find the meaning of life in code."

But maybe you disagree. Maybe we should create a meet-up group on social media to talk about this. Be sure to bring an offering for when the collection plate is passed. Apple Pay or Bitcoin probably accepted.

(The image here today can be found all over the internet, including here.)

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As a follow-up to this blog post from this past Monday, here's the RNS report on this past week's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, D.C. On the whole, it looks like a good beginning, though of course words are cheap and so far mostly what we have are words. We'll see whether countries guilty of repressing religious liberty will begin to bend.