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Do Christian ethics have a place in a post-Christian world?

Christmas, as many of you know, doesn't end at the tick of the last second of Dec. 25 each year. In fact, Dec. 25 marks the first day of what's called the 12 days of Christmas. And in some Christian traditions, the Christmas season continues until Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the magi, or three wise men, as described in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Gushee-coverSo because it's still Christmas, I'm going to introduce you today to a forthcoming book (it will be available for ordering on Jan. 11 and will be published in February) that speaks about how followers of the child born on Christmas are to be living today in light of his birth, life, death and resurrection.

It's called Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today, by David P. Gushee, one of the best-known Christian ethicists. Here is a short YouTube introduction to it.

It's a challenging book because it takes Jesus seriously and it takes seriously what it means to be a Christ follower. But it also raises questions that even non-Christians would do well to ponder as together we face a wounded world in need of relief and redemption.

I had a recent phone conversation with the author. Here's a transcript of that, edited for length and clarity.

Bill Tammeus: If, as many say, we are living in a post-Christian world, is there a need any longer for a book on Christian ethics? And if there is a need, what is it?

David Gushee: I think we are living in a post-Christian-dominated world. And I think the polling is very clear that Christianity is fading in the people of the United States and other places. But there’s still more than two billion people who profess to be followers of Jesus, so this book is guidance for them. So as long as there are Christian people anywhere, there will always be a need for thinking about how we are to live.

BT: You write that "The One Big Question" in the moral arena is “How should I/we live?” What does a Christian ethics approach to that question offer people that it can’t find in other faith traditions?

DG: The centrality of Jesus is at the heart of answering the question of how we should live. Other faith traditions either do not have Jesus or do not center Jesus in the way that Christian ethics does. One of the blessings of the Christian moral tradition is that we have this compelling person with a lot of information about him — how he lived and what he said — at the center of our tradition. So ethics for Christians has never been about only principles or rules or goals. It’s about looking at and imitating the person Jesus Christ.

BT: You mention in the book caring for your 90-year-old father (who died about a year ago). How does that personal involvement in the care of another shape your understanding of Christian ethics?

DG: I began writing this book before he died and finished it after he died. It definitely affects the chapter on end-of-life decision making. But this whole book has a unique feature that I’ve never seen in an ethics book before. It has a life-cycle approach. I think about how moral issues present themselves across the life cycle beginning with children. So I arrange the presentation of the other moral issues around the theme of when kids begin to encounter these issues and what value could Christian moral tradition offer. So it begins with creation care. And the book ends with the end-of-life issues we face. I believe that Christian ethics are enriched by very serious reflection on our personal experience, and, in fact, that reflection is indispensable to good Christian ethics.

BT: Sort of on the other end of that, if Christian ethics were widely used in the way that you wish they were, what difference would that make in our economy, in our approach to the environment and in our attitudes about race?

DG: I have in the book a chapter on economics ethics in which I exegete the parable of the unjust manager (Luke 16). I’m trying to get at the structure and crookedness and injustice of most economic systems whether in Jesus’ time or our own. Jesus appears to be looking at the economy from the perspective of the dispossessed. It means an awareness of the corruption in all economic systems and a desire to live differently to resist that corruption and not make an idol out of money.

As for creation care, we need as many people on this planet as possible who love God’s creation and who are committed to caring for it. We do not have enough right now. The Christian tradition needs to join with other traditions in encouraging a critical mass of people who understand the value of creation, its eco-systems and other creatures.

On race, there is no place in the Christian faith for viewing one group of people as better than or less than other people. That should be ruled out by the example of Jesus. But racism has been woven into the Christian culture for a lot of complicated historical reasons. It’s time for us to repent of that and treat everyone with dignity, justice and love. Part of what Christian ethics has to do is to tease out what is of Christ and what is of culture and be ready to challenge anything that is of culture.

Remnant-Christianity-1BT: You write that “I once hoped for a world transformed. Chastened, today I mainly hope for the formation of communities of Christ-followers who will live in the way of Jesus regardless of the direction of world history.” I’m struck by how similar is the hope of Fr. W. Paul Jones, as he expresses it in his new book Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World. Paul thinks the only hope now is for small remnant Christian communities to gather and live out authentic Christianity so they’ll be ready to teach it to the world again if and when the world ever abandons its current idols because they have proven to be empty. Is that also what you’re suggesting?

DG: We are falling apart. It feels like we built up this civilization here but are falling apart under the impact of social decay and Covid and so on. What must be discovered now is how the kingdom of God should be understood in Christian ethics. I have a chapter that’s about that. In an earlier book I had a more optimistic, social-gospel type hope that Christians working with other people of goodwill could bring about constructive social transformation in every area of life which in some way or other would bring major advances in the kingdom of God. But I’ve learned over a 30-year career that such major victories are very hard to find. And overall the mood here at the end of 2021 is more sober than that.

So what I really want to see is Christians who have their moral wits about them because they are deeply studying and attempting to follow Jesus and this is going to make them different from people who are fundamentally disoriented morally because they don’t know what to believe about anything right now — as well as Christians who are so swept up in a certain kind of ideological current that they are thinking more like politicos and less like followers of Jesus. I don’t think only Christians, even remnant Christians that I’m talking about, are going to be part of the solution to a better world but I do think that is our responsibility to the world.

BT: Your summary of the Christian story is brief but clear. Can the idea of Christian ethics be meaningful to people who either don’t believe that story or who now have replaced it with other stories?

DG: Christian ethics is not just rooted in the example of Jesus, but Jesus tells a certain kind of story and that story has gotten imbedded into the way Christians look at the world. It’s a story of a good world made by a good God damaged by human sin, redeemed in successive waves of covenants by God, culminating in Christ, ultimately to be consummated when he returns. So that’s a particular story. It’s a narrative. A lot of people don’t buy that narrative anymore. Even for some Christians, that narrative is not at the center of how they look at the world. But I do think that the ethical teachings of the Christian faith have a quality and significance to them worth considering regardless of whether people buy that story. So I would commend my book to anyone interested in the question of how they should live.

BT: Near the end of your book, you write that “following Jesus is about far more than the knowledge of ethics or any other discipline. It is about keeping our hearts free of any idol that would displace Jesus Christ as Lord.” My reading of the world is that it’s full of exactly such idols. Can Christian ethics help to show them for what they are and make them powerless?

DG: I think this is the human condition. If you want to talk about somewhat of a pessimistic vision, my wife said I should end the book with something more positive than why following Jesus is so hard. It is a hard word, but it’s a truthful word. Bracket off the people who don’t want to follow Jesus, who don’t care. Now you go to the people who say they want to follow Jesus. And there he is, available in worship and tradition and scripture and church, but our eyes get bedazzled by other gods. We could make a list of them: Ideology, money, power, self-interest whatever it might be.

My vision is that there are lots of people who say they want to follow Jesus who can be weaned off these idols if they know what they’re dealing with and if they’re properly instructed in community. This involves the strengthening of the church as a community, not just a place where people go but a community of formation that helps us keep our eyes on the real Jesus we meet in the gospel. It’s hard work. That’s why I believe it’s always going to be a minority experience. I hope my book will be one little help that people can turn to so they can learn how to follow Jesus and not idols instead.

Bibles* * *


The death a few days ago of Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives all of us an opportunity to learn about Ubuntu Theology, which this great man promoted. As the article from "The Conversation," to which I just linked you, says, Ubuntu is "the southern African (specifically, Nguni) word for humanness that is often used to encapsulate sub-Saharan moral ideals." One way I've heard it put is this: "I am because you are." Or, as the Conversation piece has it, "A person is a person through other persons." Ubuntu suggests that when one member of our family or our group is sick, we're all unwell. In other words, it's the difference between a commitment to rugged individualism and a commitment to the common good. There is, of course, some room for both, but a radically individual-focused society eventually eats its own seed corn and people starve. Tutu was a remarkable shining light at a time of bleak darkness. We need more like him today.

An old Nativity Scene's Christmas story

For Christmas this year, I'm going to reproduce for you a Christmas tale I told years ago in the now-defunct Star Magazine, which used to appear each Sunday in The Kansas City Star.

In it, I try to get at the heart of Christmas by describing an old Nativity Scene that was present each year in the home in which I grew up in Woodstock, Ill.

The only form in which I have this story now is in scanned pieces. So let's see if I can get them to you here in the right order.







Merry Christmas.

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In Christmas remarks to the cardinals at the Vatican, Pope Francis offered this perfect definition of the difference between people who are humble and those who are proud: “The humble are those who are concerned not simply with the past but also with the future, since they know how to look ahead, to spread their branches, remembering the past with gratitude. The proud, on the other hand, simply repeat, grow rigid and enclose themselves in that repetition, feeling certain about what they know and fearful of anything new because they cannot control it.” Bingo.

Will American Christianity just disappear or can it be saved?

From soon after the time both he and his mother almost died in the process of his birth, my friend Fr. W. Paul Jones -- once a United Methodist pastor and theology professor and now, at age 91, a Catholic priest and Trappist monk -- has urged the world to take life seriously (but in good humor) and to see reality with great clarity.

Remnant-Christianity-1Never has that been more evident than in his new book, his 15th, Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World: Plight of the Modern Church.

His critique of the status of American Christianity is sharp. And his suggestions for how it can have any sort of future are fascinating even if they almost certainly will seem radical to some readers.

Jones, now resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in Pittsburg, Mo., sees clearly that Christianity (and religion in general) in the U.S. is in sharp decline -- and that the future for it is bleak.

Indeed, the most recent polling from the Pew Research Center says that the number of Americans who now declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated has grown to 29 percent, while the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian has fallen from 75 percent 10 years ago to 63 percent today. (The photo of Jones at a table below was taken last year at the retreat center, on the board of which I served for a few years. The other photo of Jones painting eves at the center is from a few years earlier.)

We've known for decades that Mainline Protestantism in the U.S. has been in consistent decline, but it's now clear that almost all branches of Christianity are in a membership and financial crisis.

Perhaps the only hope, Jones says, is for small groups of committed Christians to become remnants of the faith and to live out the tradition on a fully committed wager that Christianity speaks truth. And even if those self-chosen people are wrong about the truth of Christianity, Jones hopes that, like him, they would not want to live in any other way or be committed to any other spiritual path.

He then outlines what this remnant of Christians would be required to do to rescue the faith so that when others in the population (and in the church) finally give up on secular options and want to seek something authentic, healing, life-giving and redemptive, they will have an answer.

Jones' prophetic voice is insistent (as it has been throughout his career), confident and clear, even as he acknowledges that wagering on the Christian story means a true wager, not something scientifically verifiable.

Churches, he says, need clarity now about their diminished reality: "Mainline church leadership is unable to remain in denial, being forced into realism by the failure of their previously ambitious reversal strategies, acknowledging with growing alarm this pattern of rapid membership erosion."

Not even megachurches can hold together forever, he writes: "As demography inevitably shifts the centers of growth, desirability and affluence, megachurches, unlike commercial ventures, will be financially unable to liquidate their crystal cathedrals and move along with the dynamics, dotting landscapes with boarded-up religious versions of Toys R Us."

A big part of the problem, Jones writes, is that "the churches are increasingly unclear about what the sine qua non of the gospel really is. . .(T)he result is most often a Christianity that falls in upon itself. . .What if that which is gospel no longer sells, and that which sells is no longer gospel?"

Part of the problem, of course, is the reality of postmodernism, when everything is up for debate and all the meta-narratives no longer are convincing or reliable guides: "Ours is a world in which things seem out of control, rudderless in an ethos bereft of certainty about anything, its values shattered into the subjectivity of rival ideologies, society splintered into bewildered selves isolated by competitive individualism, and its institutions invasively controlled by the greed of transnational corporate capitalism."

Jones is not arguing for a return to the unquestioned old religious answers of rigid dogma. Rather, he wants a Christian faith tradition that will stand up against the dehumanizing practices and policies that lead to entrenched poverty in the midst of plenty, to racism in the face of God's insistence that we're all children of the divine and to military answers to almost all questions of conflict -- a faith, in other words, reflective of the divine, redemptive love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Without that kind of religion, he writes, "we are passing over a threshold into a post-Christian era that is irreversible. . .So erosively inconceivable for the postmodern mind is Christianity. . .that not only is diminishment of the churches relentless, but even the survival of Christianity itself is in question. I draw this conclusion as a practicing Christian, deeply committed to the Christian faith, but who is being forced to conclude that survival of any authentic vestiges of our faith depends upon our honest recognition of the crisis we are facing."

Having acknowledged that crisis, Jones seeks its causes and finds many -- from the church's failure to accommodate itself to scientific reality to its inability to extract itself from a bewildering economic system that rewards the rich and punishes the poor (the latter being the very people about whom Jesus cared most), to an economic battering of the middle class that historically has been the core of the church to a world in which even verifiable facts are in conspiratorial dispute.

W-Paul-JonesThe result, he says, is that "the empty pews are mostly reflecting the incredulous younger generations, but how much longer can the older adult church members continue to believe the literal physical imagery rehearsed in Scripture, liturgy and hymnology? Thus, the major diminishment of church attendance is still to come, because a goodly number of present church attenders are still holding on to this growingly unstable literal Christianity."

The options to respond to all of this are few, and most are doomed to failure, he asserts: "What is needed is a retranslation of the orthodox heart of Christianity into a way of living that has honest integrity in the face of the multiple limitations closing in upon the Christianity and the church that we once knew."

Some of that retranslation will require a recovery of wonder and awe at the gift that the wounded world is and a re-engagement with the ancient god questions that humanity has asked from the beginning: Is there a god? What can we say about that god that's helpful? Why are we here? Without mystery and an accommodation to ambiguity and uncertainty, we're lost. As I've said in other venues, and as Jones would agree, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude.

Beyond that, Jones correctly asserts that everyone -- including atheists and agnostics -- lives by faith because of eternal realities that they cannot scientifically or in any other way verify.

There is much, much more in this book for serious Christians to absorb and to which they should react. But one of Jones' major points is that "Christianity can be true to itself only if it serves as a counterweight to the dynamics of modern society -- resisting external efforts to brush it off as fanaticism and internal ones encouraging domestication. The real diminishment the church needs to fear is that of losing its faithfulness to the God whose authority transcends that of the state."

Paul-painting-evesIn the end, Jones proposes various steps he thinks need to be taken and various options that can be used to create pockets of remnant Christianity, willing to hold to the core of the faith and ready to share it with people who finally find life now empty of eternal meaning. There are things in his proposal to debate, for sure, but the future for both Christianity and all of faith in the U.S. seems dire, and thank heavens there are thinkers like Jones out there suggesting ways to move forward authentically.

"Whichever option is chosen," he writes, "there will continue to be church closings, mergers of congregations, selling of church buildings, diminishing denominational translocal agencies, minimization of ecumenical ventures, online clergy training, part-time local pastors and an increasing reliance on lay leadership. This irreversible diminishment of the churches will be demoralizing unless a remnant alternative plan is put into place now."

Unless, of course, it's already too late.

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It took way too long, but the U.S. finally has a new U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. By a vote of 85-5, with 10 senator not voting, Rashad Hussain, the first Muslim to hold the post, has been confirmed. The last person to hold the job was Sam Brownback, former Kansas governor, who, the story to which I've linked you says, cheered Hussain's appointment. I found it a bit surprising that even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), famous for promoting Donald Trump's Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, voted to confirm Hussain, who has been director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council. This ambassadorship is charged with promoting foundational religious liberty around the world.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who grew up Muslim in India, fell in love with Jesus, makes Christ-centered art but who today is a member of no institutional religion -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'd like to think it's the power of journalism that made the Pentagon the other day issue rules for stopping extremism by members of the armed forces. After all, I wrote about that very issue recently here. But, of course, the Pentagon has had rules about this in place for some time, though the new ones are considerably more detailed and have been in the works for awhile. Still, I'm glad to see them.

How women are overcoming religion's bigotry against them

Next weekend, as Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, considerable attention will be paid to a woman who, in effect, made Christmas possible -- Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mother-MaryIn the birth narrative in the gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to young Mary, engaged but not yet married to a man named Joseph, and tells her that she is to have a baby who "will be called God's Son."

Mary, questioning how in the world such a thing could happen "since I haven't had sexual relations with a man," nonetheless eventually says this to the angel: "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said."

So she had a choice and she chose to give birth.

Since then the church has honored Mary in various ways, though perhaps the Catholic Church has led the way in this regard. But all parts of the church have at least paid lip service to the idea of women having choices about their lives. And yet even today vast stretches of world religions are patriarchal. In some cases women are not allowed to be ordained as clergy. In other cases, it's even worse. They are told to shut up in church and listen to the men -- even as some of those men hypocritically say words of praise for Mary.

But over the last 75 or 100 years, women increasingly have gained stature in institutional religion. My Presbyterian denomination, for instance, ordained its first woman pastor, the Rev. Margaret Towner, in 1956. (Marg, by the way, is still active in church affairs in Florida.) Twenty years later the Episcopal Church began to ordain women to the priesthood.

But it's been a slow process, and women have had to battle for every inch of progress to try to crack the stained-glass ceiling.

Recently, the Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation have produced a series of stories describing some of that history and some recent developments. You can find all of them at this RNS home page.

Here, for instance, is a story about how Muslim women have been working hard to find leadership positions in modern Islam. (By the way, when the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam to the world, his vision of it was quite liberating for women. But as the religion moved from the Arabian peninsula into areas even more dominated by patriarchal cultures, those cultures bent Islam's original vision of women to their subservient vision of women. Only recently have many Muslim women begun to overcome that sad history. But there still is a long way to go, as we know from the Taliban's recent takeover of Afghanistan.)

And here is a story about the most powerful woman at the Vatican and why she's optimistic about women achieving gender equality in the Catholic Church.

Next is this story about the various ways women in historically Black churches are finding their way into leadership positions.

And here is a story about how women in the Southern Baptist Convention are struggling to find ways to be heard and to lead.

Finally, here is a story about other women in the Catholic Church who, barred from becoming priests, are finding other positions of leadership in the church.

One of the creation stories in Genesis makes clear what God's intentions were about the role and status of women and men: "God created humanity in God's own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them."

So both were created in the image of God. And nowhere in scripture do you find this addition to that story: "but men were thus created a little more in God's image than women."

So as Christians and others mark Christmas this year and praise Mother Mary (by the way, the Qur'an contains more about her than does the New Testament), it's a good time to measure how close religion is to treating males and females with equality and equity. And to fix those many instances in which religion continues to fail at that.

(The art displayed here today came from this site.)

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Maybe the silliness of reading Bible stories as if they're literal history is part of what leads to the additional silliness of having live camels in Nativity Scenes each year at Christmas. That silliness often amounts to mistreatment of animals, to say nothing of what can happen when one escapes, as a camel did the other day in suburban Bonner Springs, Kan., west of Kansas City. In fact, that camel traveled around on its own for a few days before being recaptured. If you're going to use live animals in Manger Scenes, know what you're doing and treat them well. Better yet, use stuffed animals and allow people to use their imaginations, which often produce more interesting scenes than does reality.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who grew up Muslim, fell in love with Jesus, makes Christ-centered art but who today is a member of no institutional religion -- now is online here.

When people in uniform get drawn into extremism

Extremists-with-Military-Backgrounds-1990-2021One recent evening I was talking over dinner with a friend who serves in the military and both of us were commenting on the sad reality that quite a few military veterans and former law enforcement officers (and no doubt some active ones) get drawn into extremist groups, like white nationalists.

Serendipitously, soon after that conversation, I came across this article from "Government Executive" about that very problem. And because I spend a couple of chapters in my most recent book, Love, Loss and Endurance, exploring how people get sucked into radicalism and what we can do about it, I found the piece helpful and informative. And hope you will, too.

Military veterans, the piece reports, "account for 15 percent of the people charged so far in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — and. . .those charges figure heavily in the 350 percent increase in extremist-related crimes committed by veterans in the past decade, one terrorism expert said."

The numbers are disturbing and distressing. As the piece notes, "Since 1990 through the first nine months of 2021, at least 424 U.S. veterans 'committed criminal acts that were motivated by their political, economic, social or religious goals,' said a fact sheet released in October by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, an academic effort led by the University of Maryland. That includes 99 veterans who have been charged with crimes related to the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6."

I didn't know this, but it turns out that American University operates what it calls a Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who heads up that lab, is quoted this way: “We focus on the rhetorical strategies and narratives of persuasive tactics that extremist groups and propaganda use to try to recruit people. And then we design, in the lab, interventions that we test to see if we can interrupt those processes at the really early stage. It’s not even deradicalization or disengagement, but how do you prevent people from being persuaded by some of those extremist rhetorical strategies.”

As others quoted in the piece note, it's important that information about extremism and recruitment into radical groups be given to members of the military early in their training. Any institution -- such as the military, the police or even religious congregations -- develops its own internal culture. And if that culture is influenced by fact-free conspiracy thinking or radical ideas about race, for instance, members obviously are more likely to be drawn into extremism.

I recall classes in college in which we students were introduced to the concept of propaganda and how to recognize it. My memory is that this was part of history classes that looked at such horrors as the Holocaust and the anti-Jewish propaganda the Nazis used to persuade Germans that Jews were the problem in their country -- and around the world.

I hope -- but don't know -- that colleges (and other schools earlier) are teaching students to recognize propaganda and, well, lies, today. It's abundantly clear that many people have fallen for lies today, including the Big Lie promoted by Donald Trump that the last presidential election was stolen from him.

William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, is quoted this way in the article to which I've linked you: "(I)t's not just a numbers problem. This is a problem regarding American democracy. And it's a problem for which we have to put a preventative ecosystem in place now before the numbers do get more concerning.”

This concern about radicalism among Americans is not just an academic worry. As Barton Gellman of The Atlantic recently reported, the political extremism behind Trump's Big Lie hasn't died and is working hard to make sure that the political system produces the results it seeks in future elections. As he writes:

"If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.

"The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already." And Gellman is far from the only one noticing this. Near the end of his new book, Midnight in Washington, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) writes that "Republican legislators all across the country. . .are preparing the battlefield for the struggle to overturn the next presidential election if it doesn't go their way, and should they regain majorities in Congress, they just might be successful."

The future of our democracy depends on something every world religious teaches: The importance of truth.

(The chart you see at the top of this post came from the University of Maryland and can be found at this site.)

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In a new book by in-big-trouble Mark Meadows, Donald Trump's White House chief of staff, he writes that the manipulative idea to have Trump walk across the street to a church while holding a Bible for a photo op came from the president's daughter, Ivanka. Meadows writes that she wanted to “send a message to people of faith.” Message received: Trump understood precious little about the George Floyd demonstrations and has no idea what the Bible might have to say about treating all people as if they're children of God.

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Cover-lle-hi-res TWJP-coverP.S.: If you're interested in giving any of my books as holiday gifts, they're all listed on my Amazon author's page here. I have a few autographed copies available, too. If you e-mail me at I'll tell you how we can arrange to get you one (or more) of those.

Preparing to hear the core power of the Christmas story


As Christians move through this season of Advent and its culmination, Christmas, it's a good time to remember that what gives the Bible its power, its resilience, its hold on the hearts and minds of so many people is not the literal history it may record. Rather, its power comes from the stories it tells and the ways it tells them.

So if we get bogged down in a literalistic argument over whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, as the Bible reports, or in Nazareth, as seems more likely to many scholars, we'll miss the point of his birth. If we argue about the science behind a huge star moving through the sky and pointing visitors to a stable, the beauty of the birth story begins to fade and we wind up looking like art critics who can't see the art because their interpretation of it prevents them from perceiving its reality -- or, more likely, its realities.

The brilliant 20th Century theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), complained that people who lose an awareness of the depth and complexity of life and, instead, substitute for that depth what he called the limited "horizontal dimension," lose the power of the story, especially stories that religious texts tell.

"If the dimension of depth is lost," he wrote in a 1958 essay, "Invocation: The Lost Dimension in Religion," then "the symbols in which life in this dimension has expressed itself must also disappear. I am speaking of the great symbols of the historical religions of our Western world, of Judaism and Christianity.

"The reason that the religious symbols become lost is not primarily scientific criticism, but it is a complete misunderstanding of their meaning; and only because of this misunderstanding was scientific critique able, and even justified, in attacking them. The first step toward the nonreligion of the Western world was made by religion itself.

"When it defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories, it had already lost the battle (emphasis mine). In doing so the theologians (and today many religious laymen) helped to transfer the powerful expressions of the dimension of depth into objects or happenings on the horizontal plane. There the symbols lose their power and meaning and become an easy prey to physical, biological and historical attack.

"If the symbol of creation which points to the divine ground of everything is transferred to the horizontal plane, it becomes a story of events in a removed past for which there is no evidence, but which contradicts every piece of scientific evidence."

Shortly after making that excellent point, however, Tillich seems to use literalism himself to critique it by writing this: "If the symbols of the Saviour and the salvation through Him which point to the healing power in history and personal life are transferred to the horizontal plane, they become stories of a half-divine being coming from a heavenly place and returning to it."

What Tillich seems to refer to there is the great, mysterious, revealing, marvelous paradox that traditional Christianity insists that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine. People who cling to what Tillich describes as a "half-divine being" miss that great mystery by literalizing the story, thus vastly diminishing it.

Tillich comes back to his main point a bit later in the essay when he writes this: "If the resurgence of religion would produce a new understanding of the symbols of the past and their relevance for our situation, instead of premature and deceptive answers, it would become a creative factor in our culture and a saving factor for many who live in estrangement, anxiety and despair."

Sort of on the opposite end of Tillich's desire to keep the symbolism in biblical stories as opposed to reading them literally, author and critic Susan Sontag (1933-2004) argues against interpretational readings in a 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation." She's mostly writing about art criticism, but she leaves her area of expertise just long enough to show that she gets it wrong when it comes to how to read sacred writ.

". . .Philo of Alexandria," she writes, "interpreted the literal historical narratives (emphasis mine) of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. . .Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can't admit to doing this."

ScriptureNo, no. Careful interpretation of any sacred writing, whether the Bible, the Qu'ran or some other text, is not altering what's written (and what's written is only rarely a literal historical narrative). Rather, it's uncovering the power of the words that were written. It's helping readers find the light in the stories -- the light, not the literal accounting of an event in history -- though at times scripture does contain such history.

Another writer who considers literalism versus interpretive story is my friend Fr. W. Paul Jones, a Trappist monk who is resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in Pittsburg, Mo. In Paul's new book (which I will write about here on the blog later in more detail), Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World, he writes that "the history of Christianity has proceeded broadly on two parallel tracks. On one level are the theologians and educated ecclesiastical authorities who, as intellectually fluent, tend to understand Scripture and doctrine more figuratively, using typology, analogy, metaphor and simile. On the other level is the domain populated by the majority of laity whose understanding remains more literalistic."

When the latter group of people don't understand sacred stories that use metaphor and analogy, they are likely to lose their bearings when science challenges the literalistic readings they've relied on. As Jones writes:

"If the church was shaken by the earth's eviction from its unique centrality in our solar system, how much more are believers being impacted by a universe of infinite space, in which the earth is likely to be far from alone in supporting life, with recent estimates being that there are at least 300 million potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way alone. Religious questions come flooding in. As one pundit put it, apparently Jesus will be kept quite busy making guest appearances. And if he doesn't visit them all, can he be regarded any longer as the unique and only Savior? Will we find Adams and Eves on each planet? If so, are there some couples who were able not to fall, making atonement and redemption irrelevant for them?"

Well, as Tillich noted, when religion "defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories, it had already lost the battle."

So as those of us who are Christians hear the Christmas story again this year, I hope we will be caught up in the story's mystery, its power, its beauty, its ultimate meaning for our own context -- not in whether the so-called three wisemen were from Persia or somewhere else, not in whether history supports the idea of the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem to be taxed, not in which particular field near Bethlehem the shepherds left to go see the child.

Let's, instead, take these stories seriously, not literally.

(Both Tillich's and Sontag's essays can be found in The Glorious American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. The photo above here today is of the Nativity Scene that my family used when I was a boy. Come back here to the blog on Christmas Day and I will tell you an old story about that Nativity Scene.)

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It's intriguing to read this RNS story about various synagogues working to help settle Afghan refugees in the U.S. The story is from North Carolina, but it's happening in KC, too. Indeed, my Presbyterian congregation has partnered with Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City to work with Jewish Vocational Services here to help refugees settle, and it now looks as if we soon may be assigned our first family from Afghanistan. We're still gathering things to help furnish living space for the family. If you want to help, email me at and I'll tell you how.

A book about love and healing drawn from years of preaching

Today I will introduce you to a new book that, it turns out, is quite in harmony with a book I told you about recently here. The book to tell you about today is Life Is to Be Celebrated: Selected Sermons, Messages for the 21st Century, by the Rev. Robert Lee Hill

I will connect it with Poems in Glass, by Hasna Sal.

Life-CelebratedWhat they have in common is that both of the authors are artists. Bob Hill's form of art is the Christian sermon. Hasna Sal's forms of art are glass sculptures and poetry.

Both of these artists help us see our own world with greater clarity and inspiration. Both Hill's sermons and Sal's poetry and artwork are reflections of life's beauty in the midst of the pain, chaos and disaster that life sometimes drags in through our doors.

Hill's collection of sermons were nearly all preached when he was the senior minister at Community Christian Church in Kansas City from 1985 until 2015.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about the purpose of sermons, I've found. Some imagine that a sermon is just a chance for the preacher to share his or her own opinions about religious matters with a congregation.

Some think sermons are -- or should be -- just inspirational words to recharge our batteries for another week.

And some think they're merely clever words used to creatively beg for more donations to a faith community.

But let's look at what the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the several statements of faith from the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, says about preaching: "The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. . .(W)e believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful." But more than that, it says that even if the preacher "be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains true and good."

What that means for someone like Bob Hill is that every time he steps into the pulpit to preach, he carries with him an extraordinary burden. His task is to explain the biblical text so that God's word may become clear to the listeners and instruct them and guide them to act in ways that God wants them to act. And what is that way? As Hill shows over and over in this collection of sermons, that way is the way of love.

Not mushy romantic love but all-consuming, sacrificial love, the kind Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry. Whether Hill is preaching about baseball great (and new member of the Baseball Hall of Fame) Buck O'Neil and his remarkable life or about the cry of anguish Jesus moaned from the cross -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" -- Hill knows that God's way is the way of love.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Hill about his book and his preaching, and it's been recorded for YouTube. You can hear our conversation of about half an hour here. I think you'll get a much better sense of what Hill's sermons try to do by listening to him explain that in his own words instead of my spending any more words here on that task.

Poems-in-glassSo how else is Hill's book somehow related to Hasna Sal's lovely little book?

Her book, as I mentioned here the other day, contains not just poetry and prose, but also photos of her remarkable glass art work. She grew up a Muslim in India but attended Catholic schools there before coming to the U.S. and getting her architecture degree from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

Hasna Sal takes the world of color, texture and painful human frailty as her texts, not dissimilar from the way Hill draws on the written biblical text. From that text, she produces beauty and enlightenment and pathways the mind and spirit can follow to find truths they might otherwise have missed.

In one of the essays in her book, she notes this: "Perhaps my journey as a sculptor had been preordained to step beyond the liminalities of aesthetic and transcend into the realm of storytelling. My work could be a messenger of goodness, love, kindness, humanity and above all else, peace in the world and respect for all things God has made."

See? That's why I see both Bob Hill and Hasna Sal doing quite similar work, though in considerably different ways. And I think the two books together would be a terrific holiday gift for anyone.

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I hope you remember the brutal murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Like all such traumatic events caused by extremism or hate, the story never really ends, as I make clear in my new 9/11-related book, Love, Loss and Endurance. In the Tree of Life case, there's some recent hopeful news. A state agency in Pennsylvania has pledged $6.6 million toward redevelopment of the synagogue and the area around it. Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers says that the funds will help “transform this site that has been marked by horror…into one full of hope, remembrance and education.” The RNS story to which I've linked you doesn't go into any detail about how state funds can be used to support a religious institution, but it does says that "the campus will include a memorial; worship and education spaces; and a wing for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh." My guess is the state money will go toward the non-religious aspects of the site.

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P.S.: The annual art button competition for students for next year's Give Seven Days annual event is open and now has a Dec. 17 deadline. If you know high school artists, let them know. The link in the opening sentence will tell you all you need to know. The Seven Days commemoration marks the anniversary of the murders of William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno by a neo-Nazi at Jewish sites in the Kansas City area in 2014. You can read more about that here.

When Earth is seen not as owned property but as a gift


ALMA, Kan. -- In the serendipitous way the world often seems to work, I'm here in the Flint Hills for a few days and reading a book that contains an essay by a man who should have spent a few days in the Flint Hills before writing what he did.

Alma-14Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), a biologist and physician, says this in a 1974 essay called "The Lives of a Cell": "(I)t is an illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death." (You can find his essay on page 701 of The Glorious American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate.)

Even though Thomas goes on to make some valid points about the vulnerability of humans, that sentence alone today would be enough to affix on him the label of climate change denier.

We know now, after all, that not only is life on Earth fragile, so is the earth itself, despite its remarkable ability to withstand and recover from abuse.

I don't want to be too hard on Thomas, for, after all, it's quite possible that had he spent some time here in the subtly and disarmingly beautiful Flint Hills, he might have used this area as proof of his idea that Earth is "impermeable to death."

After all, it's possible to drive for miles and miles on gravel roads and to see land that today looks virtually untouched by human hands. Some years ago, in fact, I remember standing on a hill outside Salina with Wes Jackson, the genius behind the Land Institute, while Wes pointed out to me a patch of land that hadn't been plowed or disturbed by humanity since time began. He was using that land to make the point that, as he said, humankind "has been farming wrong for 10,000 years."

One of the best places to get a sense of the fragility of our planet in the hands of humanity is to visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve here in the Flint Hills. As the National Parks Service folks who run the place like to point out, "Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America, but within a generation most of it had been transformed into farmland. Today less than 4 percent remains intact, mostly in the Kansas Flint Hills."

Alma-18The world's great religions advocate the idea -- in various ways and with varying success -- that humanity should be a wise and careful steward of our planet. But sometimes certain verses of scripture are taken as license for an authoritarian attitude toward the environment. In one of the creation stories in the book of Genesis, for instance, we read this in the King James Version of the Bible: "God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Subdue it. Have dominion.

That's pretty far from the idea among Native Americans that they belong to the land and that the land and the plants it sustains have much to teach people because they've been around much longer than people.

Alma-3What it takes to look out at the gentle slopes and falls of the Flint Hills and see something other than land to conquer is the observational skills of author Annie Dillard, whose first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, showed what a keen eye and mind she had.

In a 1974 essay (also in the book I mentioned above), Dillard describes not just Tinker Creek but also Carvin Creek in Virginia's Roanoke Valley this way: "The creeks. . .are an active mystery, fresh every minute. Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."

The plains, the Flint Hills, the prairie -- these, too, are active mystery, fresh every minute. But to see that you can't look at the land as a resource, as a servant to be restrained by dozens of kinds of barbed wire, such as the examples seen in the photo on the left, taken in a museum in Cottonwood Falls, Kan. Instead, you must look at it as a gift to be cherished, cared for, even loved.


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A new study indicates that "church attendance reduces the prevalence of substance-related crimes and white-collar crimes” and that when it rains on Sunday, fewer people go to church so crime increases. The study is called "Sinning in the Rain," and I think the title of it is considerably more clever than its findings. But at least the people who are doing these kinds of studies aren't, instead, out committing crimes. Well, unless they're doing that, too.

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Giving-machinesP.S.: Kansas City is one of 10 cities nationwide hosting Light the World Giving Machines through December. The KC machines, located near the ice rink at Crown Center, are sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and allow people to make charitable contributions to a variety of agencies. The credit card fees and all other expenses are covered by the church so 100 percent of what donors give will go to the charity chosen. Even KC Wolf thinks this is a cool idea.

We can see through this glass not darkly but spectacularly

Sometimes a worthy cause finds you -- and won't let you go.

Poems-in-glassIn some ways, that's what happened to architect and glass artist Hasna Sal when she met a victim of human trafficking. Hasna knew she couldn't be silent about this evil practice. So she used her words and her lovely art to tell both Kansas City and the world what was happening to women and to honor their struggle to emerge from this slavery as whole people.

One result is her new book, Poems in Glass, full of poetry and prose and photos of her art.

It's a lovely, inspiring little volume that will touch your heart if you give it a chance.

I wrote a bit about Hasna and her artwork just a year ago here. You can see there not only her "Nativity Triptych," a stunning and creative look at the Holy Family (crafted by a woman who grew up in a Muslim home in India), but also a photo of one of the panels in a multi-panel work she did in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association.

That installation is described as the first exterior memorial in the nation for victims of human trafficking. To see a short video about it, click here. A much longer video in which the artist explains the work can be viewed here.

But the new book shows off this artist's skills as both a weaver of glass and color but also a weaver of words in prose and poetry forms. Her primary medium is, of course, the art. But the words give depth of meaning to what viewers see in what she does to shape glass into messages about the spiritual nature of humanity.

As she said of the book in a recent KKFI radio interview:

“This work is a compilation of two years of work that emerged from my experiences with the world of human trafficking and my interactions with victims of trafficking. It’s a journey I fell into about a year and a half ago when I met the first survivor. . .at Lykins Square Park. I learned so much from them. I was inspired to create a memorial for them.”

So she worked a year and a half pro bono to create the outdoor memorial. Indeed, in the book she writes that "glass is a metaphor for survivor."

And she writes that "glass creates a place of healing. When sunlight pours through the glass and bathes the viewer in colorful light, it becomes a spiritual cleansing. One attains nirvana."

“This book," she said, "is a result of all these feelings that I could not resolve. The result of my work was really the sculptures. The writing was an afterthought.”

Which just proves that sometimes afterthoughts can be both deep and moving.

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The long history of the U.S. Supreme Court making rulings about religious freedom will add another chapter in December in a case from Maine, Carson v. Makin. This article from The Conversation provides some helpful background to grasp the evolving way the court has considered such cases. As the article notes, "Carson is unlikely to end disagreements over the limits of using taxpayer funds to assist students who attend religious schools. However, it will likely provide an indication of the Supreme Court’s position on the future of the child benefit test, as it seems to be softening on its attitude of maintaining a wall of separation between church and state when it comes to education and aid to students who attend religious schools."

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Cover-lle-hi-res TWJP-coverP.S.: If you're interested in giving any of my books as holiday gifts, they're all listed on my Amazon author's page here. I have a few autographed copies available, too. If you e-mail me at I'll tell you how we can arrange to get you one (or more) of those.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my most recent Flatland column -- about a KC pastor who refuses to be a bystander in the face of need -- you'll find it here.