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A day full of biblical history: 9-30-19


While Jews now are celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Christians might consider naming today Bible Day. Why?

-- Today marks the 1,599th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who translated the entire Bible into Latin in what became known as the Vulgate.

-- On this date in 1943, Pope Pius XII unleashed Catholic biblical scholars by issuing an encyclical known as Divino Afflante Spiritu, which stressed the importance of textual criticism in biblical studies, thus permitting Catholic scholars to begin catching up with the way other scholars had been doing biblical exegesis, or interpretation, for a long time.

-- On this date in 1952, the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was first published. It was a full revision of the 1611 King James Version, and ushered in decades of many new translations -- an outpouring that hasn't yet ceased.

-- On this date in 1970, the complete New American Bible was published. This was a direct outgrowth of the pope's 1943 encyclical and was the first Catholic-sponsored English translation of the Bible taken directly from the original Hebrew and Greek (and a bit of Aramaic).

On the whole, pretty good for one day in history.

If it's helpful to know this, the two study Bibles I use most now are the Common English Bible and Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, which uses the New Revised Standard Version translation. I wrote about that new Bible here. I also have come to appreciate and rely on Robert Alter's new three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible, which I wrote about earlier this year here, and on David Bentley Hart's 2017 translation of the New Testament, which I wrote about here and here.

It continues to astonish me how deeply the Bible has shaped the world in so many ways and yet how biblically illiterate so much of the world is. See if you can fix that today, please.

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Do you believe you have a guardian angel? The Catholic priest who wrote this article for Crux insists that we all have one: "(T)he Christian tradition is clear. There is a specific angel that is uniquely tasked just to us." I can't disprove that. But I wish mine showed up for work more often.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what KC's seminaries teach about hell -- now is online here.

When truth becomes a casualty of government action: 9-28/29-19

The history of the Jewish people in Poland is long, productive, creative but ultimately brutal beyond imagining, as more than 90 percent of the roughly 3.3 million Jews living in Poland at the outbreak of World War II were murdered in the Holocaust.

Polin museumRabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I tell a small part of that story in our book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

But a much broader account of the history is told at Warsaw’s Polin, the museum of the history of Polish Jews (pictured here), which opened five years ago, several years after Jacques and I were in Poland doing interviews for our book. The museum has been praised for its scope and its attention to detail.

As this New Yorker story reports, however, it's now in trouble because of a recalcitrant national government that wants to shape the story of Poland and the Holocaust to fit its political agenda.

At the moment, the controversy is centered on the reappointment of the man who has been the museum's director since its opening, Dariusz Stola.

"Stola," the article by Masha Gessen notes, "was a somewhat unexpected choice as director of Polin. He is not Jewish, nor did his previous work focus primarily on Jewish history; just before coming to the museum, he was writing on late-stage socialism in Poland. 'Stola has done a surprisingly good job,' Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Jewish journalist and activist in Warsaw, told me. 'That guy has been the most brilliant museum director,' Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. 'He is a terrific scholar. He is a great guy. He is a mensch of the first order.'”

Gessen then describes how, in "2015, Poland elected a nationalist-conservative government, which, like many other Eastern and Central European governments, promised to make the country’s past great again; 'Down with the pedagogy of shame' was one of its buzz phrases. It meant that Poles should stop apologizing for their sins, foremost among them their coöperation with the Nazis in exterminating European Jewry."

TWJP-coverTo be clear, Poland, though it once invited and welcomed Jews hundreds of years ago under a smart and entrepreneurial king, has a deserved reputation for antisemitism. And yet even though the punishment for helping Jews at the time of the Holocaust was harsher in Poland than almost anywhere else, a surprising number of Poles came to the rescue of Jews and saved their lives. From whom?

Well, yes, from some other Poles but mostly from the Germans, whose Nazi government had adopted genocide of the Jews as its official policy, a policy that succeeded in murdering some six million of Europe's nine million Jews.

It's that complicated story -- and other stories from Jewish history in Poland -- that the museum has been telling.

Which raises the question of what it means if institutions -- whether museums or schools or government research agencies -- are not allowed to tell the truth. Of what value are they? We see this question being raised not just in relation to this important museum in Poland but also in relation to scientific research by government departments in the U.S. in an administration led by a president bent on denying that climate change is happening or that human activity contributes to it.

Perhaps if Polish leaders do the right thing and let the museum tell a truthful story under a good director it will give some encouragement to other governments around the world to stand for truth, too. Perhaps.

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One of the things I've most admired about Pope Francis is his honesty about himself, by which I mean his modesty and his recognition that his high office does not change his core humanity. That trait was evident again recently when he met in private for conversation with Jesuit priests in Mozambique. As this RNS report notes, the pope said, among other things, this: “The mere fact that I now dress all in white has not made me any less sinful or holier than before.” Would that all leaders -- religious, political, business and otherwise -- have that same sense of self and modesty.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about what KC's seminaries teach about hell -- now is online here.

Why Saladin still holds power 800-plus years later: 9-27-19

The great Muslim military leader of the 12th Century, known as Saladin, has long captured the imagination and respect of many Western leaders because of his reputation for kindness, generosity and even his fierce commitment to doing what needed to be done to advance the cause of Islam and to recapture Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders who took control of it in 1099 in the First Crusade.

SaladinThe idea of a kind and generous Muslim sultan, of course, needs to be put in historical context. And that's in large part what Crusades scholar Jonathan Phillips does in his engaging new book, The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin.

It's not just a careful account of the rise of Saladin (born Al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Abu'l Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayyub al-Tikriti al-Kurdi) and the story of his life but also an exploration into why and how he developed his good reputation not just in the Islamic world but even among Crusaders and much later Western, non-Muslim leaders.

Beyond that, it's an exploration of how the idea of "jihad" developed in Islam -- both the "greater jihad," which is spiritual in nature and the more important of the two kinds of jihad, and the "lesser jihad," which involved, often, military means to defend one's homeland and to extend the reach of Islam into regions that were producing threats to land controlled by Muslims.

The militaristic kind of jihad, Phillips writes, "was barely in evidence" at the time Christian Crusaders reached the Holy Land in the late 1090s. By the early 1100s, however, Islamic scholars and preachers were calling for the lesser jihad as they criticized their leaders for allowing Christians to take control of Muslim-occupied land.

Phillips makes clear that this was an era of almost unimaginable brutality perpetrated by military forces on all sides. There were no internationally agreed-upon rules of war, no Geneva Convention, and time and again the slaughter was massive and at times seemingly little more than uncontrolled vengeance.

This was seen in Jerusalem when, after a siege, the First Crusaders finally took control of the city. In Steven Runciman's classic three-volume account of the Crusades, he describes what happened when the Crusaders, after overcoming forces fiercely defending the city, finally took the city:

The Crusaders, maddened by so great a victory after such suffering, rushed through the streets and into the houses and mosques killing all that they met, men, women and children alike. All that afternoon and all through the night the massacre continued. . .Early the next morning a band of Crusaders forced an entry into the (al-Aqsa) mosque and slew everyone. When Raymond of Aguilers later that morning went to visit the Temple area he had to pick his way through corpses and blood that reached up to his knees.

So seemingly the pattern was set for any Muslim leader who later might retake the city. Which Saladin did in 1187 after his forces' success in the crucial but bloody Battle of Hattin.

But Saladin gained control of the city with almost no bloodshed and he showed considerable restraint in how he treated the city's residents. He even allowed 10 male Christian nurses to stay at the Hospital of St. John opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Phillips says, "to care for the sick, once again showing a measure of practicality and mercy."

Beginning with the memory of that kind of approach, he writes, "Saladin has emerged to hold an overwhelmingly positive image in the West. It is, I would venture, impossible to think of another figure from history who dealt such a deep wound to a people and a faith, and yet became so admired." And that reputation, as I've noted, started, Phillips says, with "the incontrovertible fact that Saladin had not massacred the Christian defenders of Jerusalem, a stark antithesis to the savagery meted out to its Muslim inhabitants by the armies of the First Crusade."

Today Saladin's name gets drawn into debates over the future of the Palestinians and the fight against terrorism by Islamists, and Phillips explores all that in some depth.

It's unclear how those debates ultimately will get resolved, but readers of Phillips' book will have a better grasp of present developments because they will gain a clearer understand of the history that informs those developments. Saladin still bears what Phillips calls "symbolic power" to influence contemporary affairs.

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China's unconscionable crackdown on its Muslims grows worse day by day, as this NPR report notes. But at least some members of our national government are beginning to respond, as this RNS story reports. Former Kansas governor Sam Brownback, now the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, has it right when he says that “China’s at war with faith.” The question the rest of our government should be asking is whether and how to deal with all this in light of the desire to have a new trade agreement with the Chinese. What should be the moral parameters of that? Can and should we work for our economic benefit if one side effect is the crushing of China's Muslims?

This church wants to scare the hell out of you: 9-26-19

This past weekend here on the blog, I reviewed the fascinating new book, That All Shall Be Saved, by Christian Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, who argues that an eternal hell for everlasting torment doesn't exist and that the idea of it was simply made up by Christian leaders as a tool of fear.

HellHart's opinion about hell is, at least judging by official theological declarations across Christianity, in the minority. But his notion that fear of hell is used as a controlling mechanism can be confirmed in lots of churches on any given Sunday.

And not just on Sundays, it turns out. As this story from Fort Smith, Ark., shows, some churches put on elaborate events focused on hell.

As the story reports, "The 'Heaven or Hell Drama 2019' event will be staged nightly at 7 p.m. Oct. 16-20 at Evangel Temple’s new building. . ." This will be the 26th annual event. (Does any of you want to go? If you do go, please report back.)

And as the pastor says, one reason the church built a new building is "because when we would put on these dramas in the past, we would have to turn away over 500 people a night due to space; that just broke our hearts. . ."

The story doesn't make clear exactly what the plot, if any, of the drama will be, but it looks for all the world as if someone or several someones are going to be confronted with life choices that could lead them to be sentenced to the lake of fire in hell for all eternity. Nobody wants that, so the fear of such an outcome may lead people to join the church and get on the winning side.

The church's media director cautions people about bringing small children: "this production is good for those who are 10 or older, because there’s a lot of flames in hell, and there’s the presence of some demons in the production."

Flames, demons, 10-year-olds. What could go wrong?

Wouldn't it be more helpful to guide people toward living lives of mercy, compassion, justice and love? No doubt. But probably that's what the church thinks it's doing. Fear, after all, can be a great motivator.

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As the High Holidays start at sundown this Sunday, Jewish leaders are focusing more tightly on security at their synagogues, this RNS story reports. A recent rise in antisemitic violence is the cause. As the story notes, "shootings at a synagogue in California and a mosque in New Zealand, as well as the synagogue in Pittsburgh, have complicated and expanded synagogues’ security measures, not only at High Holidays but year-round." This adds to what often is called the cost of faithfulness.

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P.S.: And now just for fun: Speaking of hell, as I was above, a childhood friend of mine from India (I lived there two years as a boy), Markandey Katju, and I have been ping-ponging thoughts back and forth recently about hell. He's an atheist who puts no stock in the ideas of God, heaven or hell, but he's a fun writer and a thoughtful man, as one might expect from a former justice on India's Supreme Court. At any rate, I recently e-mailed him to say that the author of the book on hell I wrote about here believes atheists like Katju won't get sent to hell. Markandey, who recently arrived in California to visit his daughter, told me in response that he fully expects to be in hell and will be disappointed if I'm not there to keep him company. Then, because he thinks (as I do) that Native Americans have been unjustly bludgeoned by American history, he sent the short essay below, not dissimilar in tone, you'll note, from the stinging satire sometimes produced by Jonathan Swift. (Markandey jokingly calls me Reverend even though I'm not one.)

I have a dream
([I am] as certain a candidate for hell, being an atheist, as my former classmate, the God fearing Reverend Bill Tammeus, is for heaven with its 72 houris [Tammeus note: the term houris means virgins].)
I have a dream, that the paleface in America mucks off to Europe from where he came, so that my cousins, the native Americans (Red Indians), to whom America belongs, can live in peace in open spaces and are not confined to concentration camps called reservations, with their scalps still attached to their bodies, and not sold for $2 a piece, as the white man is accustomed to do.
I have a dream, that America is repopulated by decent people like my cousins, the Red Indians, who will invite the excess population in India to settle in America and teach the redskins IT and Yoga, and the cousins live happily in wigwams smoking peace pipes and drinking hot stuff with our squaws, under a government like the Iroquois Confederacy, the best kind of government invented as yet in the world.
I have a dream, that a huge wall is erected all around America, so that the white man is kept away and not allowed to ever come here again (except as tourists with euros to spend) with his evil habits of gambling, consuming drugs, prostitution, etc., and the Mafia is kept confined to Sicily.
I have a dream, that a few rare exceptions be made to this grand plan, such as permitting my friend the Reverend and his lovely wife, and Donald Trump, who is checking the greatest danger in the world, Chinese imperialism, to remain on this hallowed land, provided they promise to give up the nasty habit in the white man to be crazy about amassing dollars and collecting Red Indian scalps and making war on the world.

The end-of-the-world predictors are always wrong: 9-25-19


The people I call the date-setters -- who predict when the end of the world will happen or the second coming of Christ or both -- have one thing in common. They've been wrong every time. Every single time.

So whenever I read or hear about another date-setter, my temptation is to dismiss the prediction immediately. And yet I find it interesting how convoluted they can get in their reasons for whatever prediction they make.

This story, for instance, from a British paper, talks about an alleged Bible scholar who, as the headline says, thinks the second coming is "shockingly close." You can read the story for yourself, though it's buried amid annoying other things and sort of hard to follow -- not just rationally but technically as you work your way through sensational graphics.

At any rate, the quoted scholar said "the rapture" will happen no later than 2021.

Well, first of all, the idea of the rapture -- when followers of Jesus supposedly will be swept up into the clouds to meet the Lord and leave behind a chaotic Earth -- is based on extraordinarily shaky ground. The book to read is The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara Rossing.

So the likelihood is that this scholar is predicting something that won't ever happen.

Beyond that, the idea of the second coming of Christ has been the subject of conflicting interpretations. One idea is that it's already happened -- at Pentecost, when, according to the biblical witness, the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus. And who is the Holy Spirit? One member of the Holy Trinity, each member being fully God. So according to this interpretation, the coming of the Holy Spirit amounted to the second coming of Christ.

It's really easy to get bogged down in this kind of theological treasure hunting. And much of it simply detracts from what people of faith -- all faiths -- are called to do, which is to live lives of compassion, mercy, justice and love.

So the next time you see a story about date-setters, feel free just to move on and try to live a useful, grace-filled life without worrying about whether the date-setters are right. So far they're batting .000.

(The photo here is one I took at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas a few years ago. I think it's the escape hatch through which people will be raptured. Right?)

* * *


Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have announced plans to construct a church, a synagogue and a mosque on the same plot of land on an island that's part of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. As one Muslim leader accurately put it, "we are basically planting a beacon of light.” Let's hope this gets done and that it accomplishes its goal of interfaith cooperation. The world needs such a model badly.

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P.S.: My friend Barry Speert, who teaches and writes about interfaith and related matters in various venues from a Jewish perspective, tells me he's finally joined the Twitter world. You can follow Barry at @BarryOnTheology .

Christian evangelicals becoming more environmentally active: 9-24-19

Since the modern environmental movement kicked off in the late 1960s and, especially, in 1970 with the first Earth Day, people who identify as evangelical Christians have been among those least likely to consider ecological degradation a serious problem and among the most likely to deny that climate change is being affected by human activity.

Climate-changeNo doubt there are several reasons for this, including a belief that somehow God would fix things if there really is some kind of climate problem.

But, as this report notes, things are changing in the evangelical world, and more of them, thank goodness, are taking environmental issues more seriously. It's about time.

The story notes that "in recent years, a few leaders have started connecting environmentalism with religion. They’re starting to find a receptive audience among evangelicals."

Among those advocating receptivity is Katharine Hayhoe, whom the story describes as "a prominent climate change scientist and evangelical Christian."

Her view: “As Christians, we believe that we have been given responsibility over every little thing on this planet, and we believe we’re to care for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.”

That wording may sound a little strange, as if only Christians are to be in charge of making sure not just the environment is healthy but also every other aspect of life. I've read about Hayhoe's work before and am convinced that's not what she means. But she could have worded it more clearly.

At any rate, it's good to see at least some evangelicals getting motivated to do what they can to protect the environment. In that, they join Pope Francis, who expressed -- quite eloquently -- his ecological hopes in an encyclical called Laudato Si.

What people of faith are coming to understand more clearly is that stopping environmental degradation requires not just individual action but also systemic approaches.

Let's just hope they haven't learned that lesson too late.

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Back in the early time of President George W. Bush, American Muslim voters tended to vote Republican. In his 2000 race against Al Gore, for instance, Bush polled 11 points better than Gore among Muslims. But as this Economist piece reports, those days are gone. In the 2016 presidential election, Muslims preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 78 percent to 8 percent. And it's looking as if whoever the Democratic nominee is for the 2020 race, he or she will have similar Muslim support. Clearly, words and actions have consequences.

What the Jewish Community Center expansion means: 9-23-19


The groundbreaking last week for a major expansion of the Jewish Community Center Campus in suburban Overland Park, Kan., revealed again how the Kansas City area's Jewish community is at once both cohesive and welcoming to non-Jews. In fact, Jews in our area often set a model for healthy religious and ethnic pluralism.

JCC-3If you want more details about the new construction, The Kansas City Business Journal's story about it is here. (The architectural rendering above, courtesy of the JCC, shows what the new lobby will look like.)

Andrew Kaplan, chair of the center's board, told 100-plus people gathered for the ceremony that since its establishment in 1914, the center has "always welcomed all," whether Jewish or not. And, of course, the Jewish community here and elsewhere has several different approaches to Jewish life. In religious terms, the primary ones are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, but, in fact, many Jews here and across the U.S. identify as non-religious and yet still are part of the Jewish Community.

Adam Tilove, head of school of the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy -- which is located at the center's site, often referred to just as The J -- said that "the new J isn't an end but a means to a greater end." It's clear that such a greater end would mean a healthy and secure Jewish community that is welcomed and appreciated by the wider community.

That's an important goal, especially given the ways that antisemitism has, across Kansas City's history, infected the community in both subtle and violent public ways. The most well-known recent example of the latter happened in April 2014 when a neo-Nazi seeking to kill Jews murdered two people outside The J (and one more at nearby Village Shalom), though all three turned out to be Christians.

So it was not surprising that when The J's executive director, Jim Lee Sluyter, spoke at the groundbreaking about what will be offered in the newly constructed space, he mentioned "enhanced security." (I wrote about the security question here in 2017.)

Michael Staenberg, a St. Louis philanthropist and former Kansas City resident who gave $3 million toward the $11 project (plus $2 million for ongoing maintenance), described to the groundbreaking crowd how important the Jewish Community Center was to him in Omaha when he was growing up. He's now helping to improve such centers in several U.S. cities.

What happened at the groundbreaking was evidence of several good things. First, that the Jewish community here is strong and dedicated to being an important part of the whole community. Second, that The J's programming is an important part of that and that it is drawing from the wider community -- so much so, in fact, that this expansion was necessary. But third, the Jewish community here is committed to confront a resurgent antisemitism in the nation by showing what a healthy community that takes care of its own and welcomes others looks like.

What those of us who aren't Jewish can do in response is pretty simple: participate in some of the offerings at The J and be good neighbors.

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The governor of Tennessee plans to name Oct. 10 a day of prayer and fasting for the state's citizens. Did voters know they were electing a religious leader? If so, why didn't they choose a pastor, an imam, a rabbi, a lama or some such?

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P.S.: Speaking of things Jewish today, please know that Kansas City Lodge 184 of B'nai B'rith has announced its 2019/2020 Margolis Memorial Essay Contest. It's for students graduating from a Kansas City area high school at the end of the Spring 2020 semester. For an application, you can download this pdf: Download Brith Please feel free to share it.

Why the idea of hell is so morally abhorrent: 9-21/22-19

For centuries, many branches of Christianity (and some other faith traditions, too) have used the idea of eternal punishment in hell for sinners (including, in some traditions, unbaptized infants who died before even having had a chance to sin) as a tool of fear and control.

That-all-savedIn his extraordinary and important new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation, David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox Christian scholar, makes a strong argument that it's long past time for that theological manipulation to end and that, in fact, it never should have begun.

The primary reason, he asserts, is that such eternal punishment is in the cards for no one because a hell like that simply doesn't exist. Never has. Never will. Everything about the incoherent idea of such a hell is, he says, a repudiation of the nature of the very God whom Christianity confesses as universal lord and savior -- not savior just of some but redeemer of the whole cosmos.

And he makes this argument not by throwing out the biblical witness but by taking that witness seriously.

Hart, whose previous work was his own engaging 2017 translation of the New Testament, seems incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. His use of words you've never seen in print before may drive you to distraction on occasion, but if you bother to look up those words you discover he has used exactly the right word each time. In fact, it's quite uncanny.

So this isn't an especially easy read for the average person in the pews of the average Christian church, but it's a crucial read nonetheless.

Many such Christians grew up in the way Sister Jean Prejean writes about her growing up years in her new book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

In her childhood, she writes (in the present tense), "I'm scared to death of hell, and it's going to take me a long time to break free of the fear. . .In my formative years, fear of hell is so interwoven into Catholic teaching that almost subliminally, no matter how much God's loving mercy is talked about, the Big Fear always wins, hands down."

Against that Big Fear, Hart asserts that in the first few centuries of Christianity, the "universalists," meaning those who believed that all would be saved no matter what, were quite prominent. But "over time, of course, in large part as a result of certain obvious institutional imperatives, the voice of the universalists would dwindle away to little more than a secretive whisper at the margins of the faith, except in a few of the sunnier quarters of Christendom (such as the East Syrian church)."

Hart usually is more direct than when he uses the phrase "certain obvious institutional imperatives." What he clearly means by those words is that the church needed some way to instill terror about hell into the hearts of followers so they would continue to need and support the church for their personal salvation.

Although Hart maintains a nice sense of humor and irony about this subject, he is nothing if not direct in his opinions: ". . .if Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification."

In what I've written here so far, I've covered just up to page 3 of a 200-plus page book. But the message already is clear: Eternal punishment in hell is a cockamamie idea that needs to be jettisoned. However, if you just quickly buy that argument and walk away, you'll miss page after page of fascinating exegesis in which Hart tries to leave no room for any supportable rebuttal. To either agree with Hart quickly and move on or to condemn him immediately as a heretic would be a cheap, inadequate response to a deeply serious work that should be discussed in detail in all corners of Christianity (to say nothing of other faith traditions that also make room for the idea of everlasting punishment).

One reason for such a conversation is that Hart is not the first in modern times to dismiss hell. As this National Geographic piece reports, scholars increasingly are questioning what -- and whether -- hell is, even as belief in hell declines among Christians. One fairly recent (2010) book challenging traditional views on this subject is Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught about God's Wrath and Judgment, by Sharon L. Baker.

Early in the book Hart lays the groundwork for his no-hell position by arguing that "the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become."

HellThe punishment, in other words, must fit the crime. And eternal torment is never a proportionally just sentence. To imagine that it ever could be, Hart argues, is "to mistake the contradictory for the paradoxical, and thereby to accept incoherence as profundity or moral idiocy as spiritual subtlety."

But before Hart completely dismisses the broad idea of hell, he says he can conceive of something we might call hell: "I do believe that the only hell that could possibly exist is the one of which those Christian contemplatives speak: the hatred within each of us that turns the love of others -- of God and neighbor -- into torment. It is entirely a state we impose upon ourselves. And the only Christian narrative of salvation that to me seems coherent is the one that the earliest church derived so directly from scripture: a relentless tale of rescue, conducted by a God who requires no tribute to win his forgiveness or love. Any other version of the story I regard not only as an exegetical and conceptual error (though certainly that), but also a rather sickly parody of the Christianity of the New Testament."

Yes, Hart says, people sin and violate God's loving and just standards, but "a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty." The God Christianity worships, he insists, is incapable of such capricious sadism. Nothing about that kind of God would be, in Christian terms, good news. Such a god would be, Hart says, a "metaphysical absurdity."

Hart is particularly hard on the theology associated with the Reformed Tradition (read Presbyterian, my denomination) because although that tradition is consistent in teaching that God is always and forever sovereign over all things, it argues, in Hart's words, that "God could have created us for everlasting torment if he had so wished and it would have been perfectly just for him to do so simply because it lay in his power." But, Hart says, when John Calvin made that argument it "was the product of centuries of bad scriptural interpretation and even worse theological reasoning." Any writer who dismisses Calvin in that way lacks nothing in the way of self-confidence.

Hart's argument also focuses on the essential character of God: "Because he is the Good itself, God cannot be the author of absolute injustice, absolute evil; such an irrational possibility would be a limitation upon the infinite freedom with which he expresses his nature. . .So we should really stop telling such sordid lies about him." In the end, he argues, "the God of eternal retribution and pure sovereignty proclaimed by so much of Christian tradition is not, and cannot possibly be, the God of self-outpouring love revealed in Christ."

If Hart is hard on the Reformed Tradition, he's also hard on everyone who insists on sticking to a belief in eternal torment for sinners. It shows, he says, "the way in which Christians down the centuries (and I like to think, Western Christians with a special genius) have excelled at converting the 'good tidings' of God's love in Christ into something dreadful, irrational and morally horrid." What the traditional teaching about hell amounts to, he insists, is "sheer moral squalor."

Oh, and Hart also rejects the "annihilationist" position, which suggests that instead of assigning wicked people to hell when they die, God simply destroys any trace of them. Such destruction would not constitute the victory of God in Christ over death, Hart says. Rather, it would amount to "an almost farcically drab, depressingly ambiguous anticlimax."

Belief in an eternal hell is based on fear, Hart says, and "fear is a majestically potent instrument." Perhaps that's why it has been found so useful. Still, Hart writes, "my conscience forbids assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational and essentially wicked."

Clearly Hart has fired Satan as a property manager, given that in his view there no longer is any property to be managed -- and never has been.

(In my next Flatland column, scheduled to post on Sunday, Sept. 29, here, I'll describe how Kansas City area seminaries are reacting to such challenges to hell in what they teach students. Also: Last Sunday, my pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock, preached this sermon on hell. Normally it would be a video recording, but an equipment problem prevented that, so it's just the audio. But it's well worth a listen.)

* * *


Several plans for how to resolve the division in the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ issues have been finalized and will be considered at a church-wide gathering next May, RNS reports. The goal, the story says, is " an amicable, and orderly, breakup of a worldwide church." How sad that the church's decision earlier this year to keep its anti-LGBTQ stance is resulting in this terrible model of disunity. For details about this whole matter, I refer you to the columns and blog posts I've written about this here and here and here .

How congregations can help us heal: 9-20-19

What good is a faith community if it won't create the kind of atmosphere in which people who need help with various aspects of life feel they can share their deepest needs?

Mental_DisorderThe obvious answer is: not much.

But sometimes the person struggling with mental illness or family divisions or economic crises must trust that if he or she shares what's going on within a faith community, that community will surround the person with deep wells from which to draw love and mercy and compassion. And not with judgment and ostracism.

That's the lesson described in this Patheos blog by a female Methodist pastor who suffered anxiety but was afraid to reveal that to her congregation.

She was having panic attacks, including when she entered the pulpit.

"I knew I needed help," she writes, "but I was terrified of letting anyone know I was struggling. What kind of church leader has panic attacks, let alone panic attacks in church?"

She secretly got professional help and got better. She writes:

"I viewed keeping my secret as a great success. Now I look back and wonder how many other people in that congregation were suffering from anxiety. If I had been honest about my struggle with mental illness, who else might have been freed to share their struggle as well?

"But I was not honest and I did not share about my illness. I feared condemnation and being seen as too imperfect to effectively lead, so I buried my anxiety secret in the depths."

She knows now that was the wrong approach. And now she encourages others to be honest about their struggles. Congregations exist, in part, to provide a safe space in which to share burdens and to find love and support and even some guidance toward solving whatever is wrong.

In turn, pastors and other religious leaders must know the limits of what they can do to help and must know when it's time to refer people to professional counselors or others who can deal skillfully with whatever the issues are. So such leaders must be trained to recognize mental illness and other forms of debilitation and to know where to find outside help to which they can refer people.

If we keep silent about our troubles, no one can help us. And if our faith leaders are not equipped to recognize their own limits in giving help, they may exacerbate the problems.

How is your congregation doing with all of that?

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In Alaska (from which Sarah Palin says she can see Russia), a recent court ruling says anyone should be allowed to give an invocation at the beginning of the meetings of government bodies. So the other day a Pastafarian pastor representing the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster opened a local meeting. As the Associated Press story reports, "Church followers believe an invisible and undetectable monster made of spaghetti and meatballs created the universe after drinking heavily, and that his 'noodly appendages' hold great power. Many label the movement as satire, but it is recognized as an official religion in some countries." OK. Move along. Nothing to see here.

A century later this book still finds our hearts: 9-19-19

Because the date today has two 19s in it, it's a good time to write something about a book that was published 100 years ago in 1919 -- Winesburg, Ohio, which was written by Sherwood Anderson.

WinesburgWell, mostly I'm going to connect you with this terrific essay about the book written by Joel Kurz, a friend who is pastor of Bethlehem Luther Church, a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in Warrensburg, Mo.

What Kurz has to say about the book not only is interesting and well said, but it speaks, by indirection, to what healthy communities of faith can provide to people. I'll get to that in a minute.

Joel writes that he first read Anderson's book in high school.

"I was," he writes, "struck by its magnificence but also troubled by what I saw as its heresy. When I read it again in my thirties, I was convinced that every ministerial student needed to read it in order to gain a better grasp on the individual variables present in human community. When I read it again last year, toward the end of my forties, I was simply broken in the presence of truth."

(Similarly I've read Mark Twain's Huck Finn more than a dozen times and each time I find something new, something deeper, something revelatory.)

In Winesburg, Anderson explores the wounded, sometimes-desperate lives being lived in small-town America. Because it appeared right after World War I, it reflected the reality that this brutal war ripped way the illusion that humankind was perfectible. Clearly humanity (at least human nature) wasn't -- couldn't, it was now clear -- get better and better. Clearly humanity was full of flaws that led to this global catastrophe. The poet Ezra Pound wrote that the war was fought for "a botched civilization," for "an old bitch, gone in the teeth."

Some of that is visible in the lives Anderson describes in his book.

As Joel writes about one character in the book, "Discontent with her squandered past and withering present, Elizabeth ekes her way through life until one day she becomes paralyzed — 'only her mind and her eyes alive' as she thinks of her son and struggles to say something about her hopes for his future."

As Joel read more about Anderson's personal struggles in life, he came to see all of that reflected in some of the characters in the book:

The personal, marital, financial, and artistic struggles that culminated in Anderson’s 1912 breakdown are there in Alice, the jilted store-clerk feebly trying “to get a new hold upon life,” whose “mad desire to run naked through the streets” on a rain-soaked night gives her renewed courage to face “the fact that many people must live and die alone.” Those struggles are in Elmer, the distraught business-owner, who tries to leave it all and finds himself alone, muddy, and cold — “miserable in body and in mind” — while trying to build a fire in the dark of night. Those struggles are in Ray, the fifty-year-old farmhand, who feels tricked and made a fool of by his existence, yet is so in awe of the countryside’s beauty that he runs across the field shouting “a protest against his life, against all life, against everything that makes life ugly.” They are in Tom, the gentle yet soul-scarred young loafer and workman who “could not hate anything,” who drinks to feel, who wants to be hurt and suffer with others but detests doing wrong and hurting someone to suffer. Anderson’s own struggles are in Elizabeth, George’s mother, who in a moment of fevered despair “wanted to get out of town, out of my clothes, out of my marriage, out of my body, out of everything” — who wants to run away from everything but “towards something too.”

What struck me as I read Joel's reflections on Anderson's book was that one can find such lives all around us still today. And the task of faith communities, such as Joel's and mine, is to minister to the people leading those lives. That requires that we get to know each other, that we are honest with each other about our struggles, our doubts, our failings as well as our joys.

Healthy faith communities provide the space and time for that to happen. Unhealthy ones want those details hidden away so that the institution can function efficiently and not have to be entangled with the messiness of life.

That, I think, is what Joel means when he writes that Sherwood Anderson asks readers "to wrestle with the scarred and sacred, the profane and praiseworthy, so that by caring about everything one arrives at a hard-earned and awe-filled knowledge that transforms every detail of living."

I tasted Winesburg long ago. I'm thinking that this coming year, instead of rereading Huck Finn again, I need to follow Joel's example and let Anderson's book speak to me.

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Sarah Hurwitz, a speechwriter in the Obama White House, has written a new book not about those years but, rather, about her rediscovery of Judaism. Its long title is Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). RNS has done this interesting interview with her about that. In it, she says this: "Judaism offers a tremendous amount of really sophisticated theology that a lot of people would really benefit from learning about. So I wanted to share it because it certainly was incredibly meaningful to me." It's also true that other faith traditions offer lots of "really sophisticated theology." The question, finally, about that theology is whether and how it drives people to live moral and useful lives.