Previous month:
November 2022
Next month:
January 2023

What if we fought only about what's crucial in faith traditions?


As we move to a new year this weekend, I first want to back up a bit and take note that this fall we passed the 60th anniversary of the start of the hugely influential (and, in some corners, controversial) Second Vatican Council in 1962.

A traditional way of describing what this important gathering of Catholicism's leaders did is that it opened the windows of the church to let in some much-needed fresh air. At least that's the description used by people who favored the council's results, which included allowing the Mass to be said in languages beyond Latin and having priests face the people when they led Mass instead of turning their back on the congregation. And much more.

Fr. Thomas Reese, in this column written for Religion News Service, acknowledges that all these years later Catholics remain divided about whether Vatican II was a life-saver or a serious error.

"The distance from the council," he writes, "has allowed for different interpretations of the event.

"The far right asserts that the council was a mistake; it destroyed the church by abandoning dogma and putting the Mass into the vernacular. They argue that the church should demand strict observance of its moral teaching (although they, too, ignore the demands of the church’s social teaching).

"The left argues that the council did not go far enough in its stated purpose: updating the church for the modern world. The council was a good beginning, these critics say, but more needs to be done — allowing women priests, for example, and allowing all priests to marry. They also prioritize the church’s social teaching over the church’s teaching about sex."

The labels "far right" and "left" hide much more than they reveal. Still, it's fair to say that a primary goal of Pope Francis has been -- and continues to be -- lifting up and solidifying or revivifying the changes brought about by Vatican II and then seeing what else needs to change.

Pope-Our-book-2Perhaps it's why he has gained energetic supporters as well as energetic critics. And why he has attracted considerable attention and support from the Protestant world, as my co-author Paul Rock and I noted in our 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and the Pope Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

(In this photo, you see Pope Francis looking at our book after Paul Rock's wife, Stacey, handed him a copy when they met him in 2022.)

Reese, by the way, concludes that Vatican II "was a revolution that opened our eyes to what the church could be if we dared."

What those of us who aren't Catholic can take away from the history of the council is that within any religious tradition change is inevitable. The key question is what one is willing to change and what one is committed to holding onto no matter what.

The problem is that in so many traditions lots of people major in the minors, meaning they fight about things that should be open to change, things that are, in the end, negotiable. And that sucks energy away from the task of understanding what isn't negotiable and why it must be forever part of the tradition.

The youth leader at my congregation has created a list of beliefs and asked young people in confirmation classes the question of what's the least you can believe on that list and still call yourself a Christian. It's a helpful exercise in that it not only draws teens to what the core of the faith is but also points out some matters that they almost certainly don't need to fight over.

Perhaps each of us who is committed to a faith tradition could promise ourselves that in this new year we'll figure out what's negotiable in our tradition and what isn't -- and then quit fighting about what can, and maybe needs to, change.

* * *


Here's an interesting development in American Christianity: RNS reports that the "minichurch" is the latest trend. Probably nobody started out to create a minichurch, but with the continued diminishment of Christianity in the U.S., it's no doubt a good idea to look for the benefits found in small congregations. After all, didn't Jesus say that where two or three people are gathered in his name, he'd be there?

* * *

P.S.: When the health of retired Pope Benedict XVI took a downward turn a few days ago, Religion News Service raised -- and, in this article, tried to answer -- the question of how the Vatican prepares a funeral for a pope emeritus. Be glad you probably will never have to plan such an event. Note: We learned Saturday morning that B-16's has died. As the AP story to which I've just linked you notes, "A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni on Saturday morning said that: 'With sorrow I inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 in the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in the Vatican.'”

Can we really know who the Apostle Paul was? Maybe.

No one in the first century of the Common Era was more important in drawing people to become followers of Jesus of Nazareth than the man Christians call the Apostle Paul, or St. Paul.

Paul-found-lettersAnd it's hard to think of anyone in Christian history who has been more misunderstood over the centuries, especially by Christians (and Jews, for that matter), than Paul.

But starting in 1963, with the publication of an article in the Harvard Theological Review by Krister Stendahl, bishop of Stockholm in the Church of Sweden, Paul has been coming into a clearer focus in countless ways. In recent times, in fact, a Kansas City scholar, Mark D. Nanos, has been at the forefront of this Pauline scholarship. One of the essays you can find on Mark's website is "Paul -- Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective." You can read it here.

Among the major themes of this new perspective on Paul are that he always thought of himself as a Jew, that he never converted to Christianity because, in his lifetime, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism didn't exist and that Paul didn't ever say a lot of what people have long thought he said. Beyond that, this misunderstood and, thus, mischaracterized Paul has been among the roots of almost 2,000 years of anti-Jewish teachings in Christianity.

One reason many people don't know about this newer view of Paul is that the considerable scholarly work that's been done rarely seems to find its way into the pulpits of churches even if the scholarship is read and grasped by the people who deliver weekly sermons. In some ways, that's understandable, given that explaining to a congregation that although the scripture passages being used as the basis of the sermon is attributed to Paul, someone else actually wrote it in Paul's name -- and sometimes, thus, it misrepresented what Paul said or would have said on that subject. By then, half the sermon time is gone and half the congregation is yawning.

However, retired Episcopal priest George H. Martin has written a new book -- Paul Found in His Letters -- in which he does his best to equip preachers to make it much clearer to those who hear their sermons who Paul really was and what he really said and thought.

It's helpful, insightful and rooted in Martin's own long experience as a preacher. And if Christian pastors preaching sermons would just read it and take its message to heart, a lot of the controversy caused by what people think Paul said might disappear or at least diminish.

Paul is credited with writing 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament. However, scholars consider only seven of them indisputably authored by Paul. So Martin limits his effort to find the real Paul to those seven. And he notes quite carefully and thoroughly how the Paul he finds in Paul's authentic epistles differs -- sometimes starkly -- from the Paul who appears in other books, especially in the Acts of the Apostles.

For example, writes Martin, "Paul's way of telling the story of being called to be an apostle is quite different from the account in Acts. . .(W)hen we let Paul have the last word on what happened, we will see a different Paul. . ." Among other things, we will be more likely to say that the risen Christ "called" Paul to be an apostle, not that Paul had a conversion experience. The latter always sounds as if he converted from Judaism to Christianity. Instead, he became part of the rather small segment of Jews at the time who were convinced that Jesus is the Messiah for whom Jews had waited so long. And far from leaving a Jewish life, Paul spent his apostleship calling others "to live Jewishly," Martin writes.

The book of Acts, Martin writes, "has played such a significant role in planting the image of Paul in our minds. More often than not all that is reported in it has been accepted as fact, not fiction. But it seems likely that it contains both fact and fiction."

So he suggests always checking Acts against what Paul really said in his authentic letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians and Philippians. There is general consensus (though with some dispute) that II Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians were not written by Paul, but there is even more solid scholarly consensus that Paul did not write I and II Timothy and Titus. And as Martin notes, it's from those three so-called "pastoral epistles" that come "most of the most troubling statements attributed to Paul." By contrast, it's in the so-called "Letter of Tears" (II Corinthians chapters 10 through 13) where we find "the greatest amount of autobiographical material from any of the undisputed letters."

Martin acknowledges that neither he nor anyone else, using the New Testament as the sole source, can "present an organized biographical story regarding Paul," mostly because "we actually don't know much." But by using the undisputed epistles, Martin believes he can get closer to that. And much more important for the church today, he can get closer to Paul's theological thinking about such hot-button topics as slavery and the role of women in both the church and marriage. In this way, Paul's thinking turns out to be much more nuanced and even liberated than it might seem to be when we read the epistles he didn't really write.

As Martin notes, "what will surprise some about this Paul is that he cannot be categorized as a misogynistic patriarchal male who distrusted women." Indeed, in many ways, by the standards of his day, Martin says, Paul could be called an "unmanly man," meaning he was comfortable with his feminine side.

The picture of Paul that emerges from Martin's study is of a poor man who gave up any privilege he had as a Pharisee with, perhaps, Roman citizenship so that he could not just identify with the poor and outcast on whom Jesus focused his ministry but actually become poor and outcast himself. And yet it was all worth it to Paul, who, Martin writes, may have traveled more than 10,000 miles in his ministry for the sake of being "in Christ."

As Martin writes, "Paul knew, from firsthand experience, the world of the urban poor, who lived (in the words of II Corinthians 11:27) "in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked."

Even after reading Martin and other books on Paul, we still see the apostle "through a mirror, dimly," to use words found in his famous chapter on love in I Corinthians. Still, what we can discern quite clearly in the authentic Pauline letters is that, as Martin writes, "his wasn't a gospel for some kind of inner spiritual renewal, but it was actually a bold political vision, a direct challenge to those claiming to rule the world."

That's the Paul people in the pews of Christian churches can and should hear and hear about. This book can help make that happen.

My only negative surprise about this book was that the publisher, Claremont Press, the official imprint of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif., has done the author no favors by allowing too many typographical and punctuational errors and misspellings into the final text. In the end, it doesn't affect meaning but careful readers will find it needlessly annoying.

* * *


To combat the historic practice of redlining (making it difficult, if not impossible, for people of color to buy homes in certain parts of metro areas), a church in California's Bay Area has created a Black Wealth Builders Fund to help first-time home buyers get the down payment money they need, this RNS story reports. It's a good example of people of faith responding to injustice in a way that can change the future for at least some of those who have been wronged. I hope this idea spreads.

What you may not know about the celebration of Christmas


A book group I'm part of through my church, Second Presbyterian, recently read and discussed a book by one of our members, Ann Parr, Grit and Grace: Gordon Parks. A terrific, poetic tribute to -- and life of -- the great photographer who was so much more than that.

In our discussion, we also mentioned Gordon Parks Elementary School here in Kansas City. Someone -- it may have been Ann Parr herself -- said that she discovered at one point that a lot of students there didn't know who Parks was.

In much the same way, a lot of people seem not to know much about St. Nicholas, whom we've come to call Santa Claus. Well, if you didn't already know this, there really was a living human being called, eventually, St. Nicholas, and you can read about him at the link I just gave you. In fact, he participated in the famed Council of Nicea (or Nicaea) in the year 325.

American children, no matter whether they're attached to a faith tradition, know about Santa Claus. But, like their parents and grandparents, there are a lot of gaps in what they think they know.

And maybe Christmas this year is a good time to help them fill in some of those gaps.

The History Channel has put together this list of 10 things we may not know about Christmas. The first one is that Christmas isn't really the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. As the article notes, "There is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible; in fact, there is no mention of when Jesus was born at all."

Well, the old author Alfred Edersheim begs to differ. In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he argues in a footnote that "there is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date. The objections generally made rest on grounds, which seem to me historically untenable." And then he goes into a long explanation to make his point -- a point most biblical scholars nowadays reject.

In this article from, for instance, you can read this about Dec. 25 as the birth date of Christ: "Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice."

There are even scholars, including Ernest Renan, who dispute that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Renan may or may not be right about that, but he also draws some conclusions that are, well, not widely accepted today.

Anyway, if the piece doesn't give you enough to chew on, this Shari's Berries blog post has 45 alleged facts about Christmas that may surprise you.

Consider it my gift to you this year. You're not, after all, getting anything from me in a box that needs unwrapping. Merry Christmas.

Oh, and the English word Christmas? That unimpeachable source Wikipedia assures us that it's a shortened form of "Christ's Mass."

(I took the photo here today several years ago in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is supposed to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born. I bet Ernest Renan wonders why it's not in Nazareth. And just FYI, here's an article from the Smithsonian about how the tradition of manger scenes "has changed over time, taking on new meanings as Christianity itself has evolved." Also: Last Christmas here on the blog, I reprinted an old Star Magazine piece I once wrote about the manger scene that my family of origin set up each Christmas season. Have a look if you have time.) 

* * *


I reviewed, quoted or wrote about a fairly crowdy pile of new books on the blog this year, but in this RNS list of what RNS editors call the "most intriguing" books of the year, I see only one that I reviewed. If you can name it, you may win a few leftover Christmas cookies.

* * *

P.S.: In many ways, every budget adopted by a government, every piece of legislation and every act performed by any government official has a moral dimension to it. Among the questions to be answered to determine whether a budget, a law or a behavior by such officials is moral are these: Does it promote the common good? Is it legal? Does it honor the universal moral principles of truth and justice that lie at the heart of a government of, by and for the people? So I was pleased to note that in her foreword to the just-released report from the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee's vice-chair, reviewed the actions of former President Donald Trump on the afternoon of Jan. 6 and declared them to amount to "an utter moral failure." It is a harsh judgment but one justified by what we know of his intentions and his actions on that day and in the days leading up to the insurrection. We should be cautious about making moral judgments like this because it is easy to describe some actions as immoral when they are simply unwise or debatable. But when we are staring at clear moral failures, we are obligated to name them and to do what we can to prevent anything similar from ever happening again. That's what Cheney has done. Good for her. And, by extension, good for us for having someone with such core moral fiber in a position to say what she said.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Kansas City area funding of the national "He Gets Us" campaign to introduce people to Jesus -- now is online here.

How Christians can respond to resurgent antisemitism this Christmas


This coming weekend, those of us who are Christians will gather for worship to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, known to us as the Christ, or Messiah.

It will be a celebration of what theologians call the incarnation -- God's presence with us in human form. Unfortunately, it also will be an opportunity for our words, our hymns, our beliefs to express a vile anti-Judaism that has plagued Christianity since its beginning.

Clearly, that is to be avoided. But more than that, Christmas this year gives Christian congregations and their leaders an opportunity to speak and work against antisemitism, which has been in resurgent mode for several years, in some ways because, as this opinion piece from The Hill notes, politicians from both major parties have allowed it to happen and in some cases even encouraged it.

As this Religion News Service article reports, just a week ago, "the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations — a group of roughly 30 member institutions dedicated to mutual understanding between Jews and Christians — issued a public statement calling U.S. churches to confront the crisis of antisemitism."

“The United States is facing the greatest crisis of public antisemitism in a century,” the statement says, warning that “we may be witnessing the normalization of antisemitism in American discourse, which recalls events that happened in Germany when the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s.”

What is there about Christian worship -- even at Christmas -- that can be seen as, at the very least, dismissing Judaism? Well, some of our liturgical language, including the words in some hymns, can be seen that way. And some of the scripture passages we will hear read to us can be heard as suggesting that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus made Judaism unnecessary and irrelevant.

The RNS story to which I linked you above gets at this issue this way: "Elena Procario-Foley, professor of religious studies at Iona University in New York, told Religion News Service that 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' could also be read as hostile to Jewish people. 'So Israel is captive, and the understanding is they are in exile because of their sin,' she said, referring to the first verse. 'And Jesus is going to appear and solve all these problems.'”

Over Christianity's history, sometimes liturgical words have been directly anti-Jewish. For instance, for a long time, Good Friday services in Catholic and other branches of the faith referred directly to people the liturgy called "perfidious Jews."

The point is that we Christians can celebrate the birth of Jesus while being more aware of how certain aspects of our celebration can be seen by Jewish people as unfriendly or unnecessarily critical of Judaism, the faith tradition of Jesus himself and a tradition that has never gone away.

As someone quoted in the RNS article puts it, thinking about how Christian liturgy might be seen as anti-Jewish is "an invitation with high stakes. Words, lessons and theologies have real consequences, something that must be taken seriously at a time when anti-Jewish hate crimes are on the rise."

So it's also helpful to remember that although Christians read many passages of the Hebrew Bible as prophecy about the coming of Christ, Jews read it without attaching such meaning to it. That doesn't mean it's wrong to read it as prophetic, but it need not also be read as a condemnation of people who don't read it that way.

The alarming increase in antisemitism in recent years requires an active response. One way Christians can help is by making sure that our celebratory Christmas worship services don't add to the problem, even if just inadvertently. That would deny and dishonor our faith's deeply Jewish roots.

(The photo here today shows the old Nativity scene that my family of origin displayed each Christmas. If it doesn't look like it's of Mediterranean origin that's because it was purchased from the local Woolworth's five-and-dime store in Woodstock, Ill., and repainted by my mother.)

* * *


Last night at my church, we held a service, as we do each year, called "The Longest Night of the Year." This year it was co-sponsored by The Open Table, a new worshiping community housed in our church building. It's an opportunity to remember that although this is supposed to be a season of joy and love, a lot of people aren't sharing the happy feelings because they're grieving and/or lonely. That's what this RNS column is about. "This year," the author writes, "collective loss and grief have been constant." I hope all of us will remember and be in touch with those living alone, those mourning a death or loss, those recovering from illness, those in some kind of trauma. That's what the baby of Bethlehem came to urge us to do. And it's what all the great world religions urge, as well, even as Judaism is in the midst of its annual celebration of lights, Hannukah.

The 'god' we have made of technology

A man who lives in Aix-en-Provence, France, wrote to me recently after he somehow came across this 2010 column that I wrote for The National Catholic Reporter.

Technology-godIn it (and in this blog post from 2019) I wrote about the late French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul, whose work includes my all-time favorite book about hope, Hope in Time of Abandonment.

My French correspondent, Joël Decarsin, who is committed to promoting Ellul's work in his country, wanted me to know that he thinks Ellul also has a terrifically important message about technology. And having read some of what Decarsin has written about that, I agree with him.

It will come as no surprise to you that a French man who lives in France mostly writes in French. So if you'd like to read something Decarsin wrote in which he mentioned Ellul, here's a recent column in pdf form: Download Victoire de Trump.

In the article, Decarsin tries to update Ellul's thought. Indeed, he believes that social networks contribute to devaluing considerably the notion of truth. In these conditions, for example, he argues that the ecological fight, as important as it is, becomes secondary. After all, he asks, "what is the use of affirming that the planet is in danger if, more and more, the militant positions are disguised by conspiracy theories?"

But Decarsin, who identifies as Catholic, also sent me some of his writing in English about Ellul and Ellul's thoughts about technology. Here's a quote from that: Ellul, he writes, "devoted his life to demonstrating that technology had changed its status during the 20th century: it could no longer be considered as a set of means to an end, it had become a supreme end. If humans boasted 'we don't stop progress,' it was not because they didn't want it to stop, but because they were literally incapable of regulating it, simply because they unconsciously made it sacred.

"Out of intellectual laziness or, more exactly, because there is no one more deaf than the one who does not want to
hear, they have understood nothing of Ellul's demonstration and. . .have rejected his conclusions, namely that technology has become an autonomous phenomenon, and therefore uncontrollable."

Decarsin asks Christians a question that has deep echoes of the question that Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" That question from Decarsin, channeling Ellul, is: "And you, what do you say that technology is?"

Wording it like that is one way to call attention to Ellul's insight (and charge) that humanity has sacralized technology, meaning that we value it in a way that resembles worship. We rely on it for the way we live. Technology, indeed, has acquired the status of something to be worshiped.

Technology now controls us much more than we control technology. I, for instance, am bound to it if I want what I write to be read. Yes, beyond my books, I could write on paper using a pen or pencil (an early form of technology) but even then I would need the technology of a duplicating machine of some sort if my words were to be read by more than one person.

As I write these words, I have just returned from taking my printer to a fix-it shop because the cartridge carriage jammed up tight. I say "printer," but it's also my scanner and copier and without it my work is made much more difficult. (The printer, it turns out, has died and so I immediately replaced it because, well, I need a printer/scanner/copier to do my work -- a position an earlier [and much better and more famous] writer named William, Mr. Shakespeare -- never was in.)

So what do we call something on which we depend for the way we live and work? Some kind of god is not too strong an answer, Ellul would say, I think. And what is the first of the Ten Commandments? That we should have no gods but God.

I don't quite know how to get out of this mess of somehow worshiping technology. But I do know the first step is to recognize the way in which we have sacralized it.

(The image here today came from here.)

* * *


I have been to the Israeli site on the west bank of the Jordan River where, tradition says, Jesus was baptized. It's interesting in the way that a lot of such sites in the Holy Land are interesting in that they recall an event in history but there's often precious little historical proof that whatever event being commemorated actually took place on that exact site. Still, Jordan has decided to raise $300 million "to develop the officially recognized site of Jesus Christ's baptism located on the east bank of the Jordan River," this Voice of America story reports what first was reported by The Washington Post. For me, all this raises this question: "What would Jesus buy if he had $300 million?" I feel confident in saying that he'd spend none of it on developing a tourism site to commemorate his own baptism. Not one cent of it.

How can we tell solid religious beliefs from superstition?

In his 1981 book of essays, Palm Sunday, the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who sometimes described himself as an atheist and sometimes as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, reprinted a 1974 graduation speech he gave to Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y.

Superstitions"I suggest," he told those graduates, "that we need a new religion. . .What makes me think we need a new religion? That's easy. An effective religion allows people to imagine from moment to moment what is going on and how they should behave. Christianity used to be like that."

And this: "Might not we do without religion entirely? Plenty of people have tried. . .A lot of people have been forced to do without it because the old-time religions they know are too superstitious, too full of magic, too ignorant about biology and physics to harmonize with the present day. . .We know too much for old-time religion. . ."

Indeed, critics of religions often dismiss core beliefs as simply superstitions. Which raises the question of how people come to believe what they believe, especially mis- and disinformation and superstitions.

That's the question that , who teaches anthropology and psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, tries to answer in this article about "magical thinking" from The Conversation.

He writes that "seemingly bizarre cultural beliefs and practices. . .share some common features."

First, he says, "At the core of most superstitions are certain intuitive notions about how the world works. Early anthropologists described these intuitions in terms of principles such as 'similarity' and 'contagion'. According to the principle of similarity, things that look alike may share some deeper connection."

As for the idea of "contagion," he says, "people often believe that certain essences can 'rub off' on someone, which is why casino players sometimes touch someone who is on a winning streak."

Is that why we have the New Testament story of the woman with an illness who wanted to -- and did -- touch something Jesus was wearing? Is that why a Major League pitcher always touches the exact same spot on his cap before throwing the next pitch?

In the end, the question for people of faith is whether something they believe once jumped from being a superstition to being a religious belief. Did something like that happen in the past in our faith tradition so that this or that belief is really unsustainable? And what do we do with the idea of revelation? Can we simply believe that God revealed certain truths -- otherwise scientifically unprovable -- to certain of our ancestors and that we're obliged to hold on to them?

The Conversation piece notes that "research shows that rituals and superstitions spike during times of uncertainty, and performing them can help reduce anxiety and boost performance." And, thus, people find them helpful.

Cover-Value of DoubtThese kinds of questions may seem like challenging something that should not be questioned. But, in fact, nearly everything at some point should be questioned -- a point I tried to make in my book, The Value of Doubt.

Indeed, it's only by asking the hard questions of faith that we ultimately are able to find a faith that can sustain us in good times and bad. Otherwise, faith is little more than superstition.

* * *


In this holiday season, it seems that everyone wants our money. Not just merchants anxious to sell us Christmas gifts that the recipients may well return for something else but also good-hearted charities and other non-profit organizations. All this begging can turn one's heart a little sour. But maybe that's because we're not thinking very clearly about generosity, especially those of us who don't worry much about how to pay for our next meal. In this column, the Rev. Amy Butler, intentional interim senior minister of National City Christian Church has some thoughts about generosity that some of us (myself included) need to hear. After we've given to various charities, she says,  "I wonder what would happen if we gave some more? What if we pushed back the fear that money breeds in us and began to think of what we have as a tool to generously do the good work of healing the world?" Good point. Another good point, which she doesn't make in this article, is that wherever you see the need for widespread and consistent charity you see evidence of a broken economic system that doesn't work for everyone. In addition to responding to emergency needs to feed, house and care for people, we also need to be part of organizations that are thinking systemically about poverty, racism and other evils in our midst.

Even scientists find that religion has many benefits

For decades now, various scholars and scientists have been researching the interesting question of whether you'll live a healthier and longer life if you are in some way a person of faith.

Benefits-religionAnd as this story from The Guardian notes, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

"Joining a church, synagogue or temple even appears to extend your lifespan," it reports. But it adds this caution about such a conclusion: "These findings might appear to be proof of divine intervention, but few of the scientists examining these effects are making claims for miracles. Instead, they are interested in understanding the ways that it improves people’s capacity to deal with life’s stresses."

The author of the article, David Robson, also adds this: "Ultimately, most people’s faith will arise from real convictions; it seems unlikely that many people would adopt a particular religious view solely for the health benefits. But even if you are agnostic, like me, or atheist, this research might inform your lifestyle."

He makes various suggestions for how to use faith-based ideas and practices, such as forgiveness and gratitude, to better your life, even if you never join an institutional religion or show up at a worship service.

Having gone through tough times because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many houses of worship are experiencing financial difficulties. So here's an idea for people in religious congregations: Figure out how to charge people for all the religious practices and ideas that non-religious people can use to stay healthy and live longer lives. After all, people of faith pay for those practices and ideas through their pledges, offerings or dues. Why not make outsiders pay for using our ideas?

Do I have to say now that I'm just kidding? That it would be unworkable? That no one outside a congregation would ever be dopey enough to pay a dime?

I hope not. I trust you readers to know when I'm kidding and when I'm not.

Besides, if you have read The Guardian piece to which I linked you above, you know that I have just given you good advice for free. Which is? People who pray for others instead of just themselves often live longer. So I now free you to pray for me and to quit worrying about yourself so much. Maybe by doing that you'll live long enough to come to my eventual funeral. And maybe once inside the building that houses my church, you'll discover other reasons to show up there. All of which might turn you into a person of faith with access to all the better- and longer-life benefits scientists are discovering in religious people.

It could happen.

(The illustration above came from here.)

* * *


Here's one more way in which Christianity is divided: A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 39 percent of U.S. adults say they believe “we are living in the end times,” while 58 percent say they do not believe we are living in the end times. However, among Christians the differences are pretty stark. As the press release to which I've linked you says, "Christians are divided on this question, with 47 percent saying we are living in the end times, including majorities in the historically Black (76 percent) and evangelical (63 percent) Protestant traditions. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Christians say we are not living in the end times, including 70 percent of Catholics and 65 percent of mainline Protestants who say this." Not only that, but there are tons of different ideas about what is meant by the "end times," from the "Left Behind" evacuation theology ideas to ideas about eventual environmental collapse. So: Want to fight about it? If the fight is bad enough, it might mean the end times for one of us.

* * *



Walking Through the Valley: Womanist Explorations in the Spirit of Katie Geneva Cannon, edited by Emilie M. Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Alison P. Gise Johnson and Angela D. Sims.

Back in the mid-1980s, the late Christian ethicist Katie Geneva Cannon came up with the term and concept of "womanist theology." The idea, simplified, was that when Christians do theology as a way of understanding life and its purposes, they should no longer neglect a group of long-neglected people: Black women. Cannon was among many women of color who recognized that the theological task in our age was being short-circuited and distorted because it was primarily a discipline led by white men. That's certainly not to say that white men got everything wrong in their theological explanations. Rather, it was to say that they didn't represent everyone and, thus, missed out on the concerns and insights Black women could offer.

This new volume of essays seeks to explore where the world of Christian theology, especially Christian ethics, has come since Cannon sounded her important wake-up call. As the editors say in their foreword, Cannon's "founding of Black Womanist Theology built a new mountain on the old landscape of Christian ethics." As one of the essayists, Renita J. Weems, writes in the book, "To be a Black female intellectual in this country means, for one thing, to think, write and teach under a cloud of suspicion that says you're not good enough, not serious enough, not smart enough." Womanist theology intends to try to fix that.

Kansas City area readers may be particularly interested in the essay by Angela D. Sims, who taught for several years at St. Paul School of Theology here and who today is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.  In it, she explains that "to form students in theological and multireligious studies to serve, care and advocate for all peoples and the earth is a core tenet of womanism." Sims also describes her own intriguing story of how she ended up leading a major seminary (one where I used to take lay theology courses when I worked as a reporter in Rochester in the late 1960s).

In some ways, this is a book for people inside the academy and, thus, its language often reflects what anyone who has read academic essays has come to expect -- inside-baseball talk that many people watching the game from their stadium seats won't get. But it's an important book because it picks up the useful work Cannon began and it bears the promise that this work will and must continue.

Is humanity 'totally depraved' or is there some hope for us?

One of the consistent threads running through the theology of many, if not most, of the world's religions is that human beings can be -- and often are -- sinful. Which is to say that they do things any rational person would call unnecessarily destructive, if not downright evil.

Black-HawkThe famous 16th Century reformer, John Calvin, father of my own Reformed Tradition (Presbyterian), is often quoted as saying that humanity is marked by "total depravity." Any time someone uses the word "all" or "total," you can be pretty sure that something has been oversimplified. Even so, Calvin believed and taught that although people have free will and are capable of good deeds, they can be counted on to choose to do things that are evil.

I was thinking recently about this total depravity idea and about the inevitably dark view of humanity it conjures up as I was reading Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, by Kerry A. Trask. It's a 2006 history of the 1832 Black Hawk War, which took place in northern Illinois and what today is southern Wisconsin and eastern Iowa.

It is one more bit of history that I didn't learn when I grew up in northern Illinois.

Deep into the book, there's a distressing account of the way in which American soldiers -- both professional and volunteer -- behaved as they dealt a final blow to the Sauk tribe that had been led back to Illinois to reclaim land it had lost to white settlers. A Sauk leader named Black Hawk had led them on that ill-fated move that cost both his tribe and white settlers much pain and many lives.

Trask writes that many of the settlers who chased, found and killed Indians who were associated with Black Hawk were influenced by a more modern version of the idea of "the Wild Man in medieval folklore." That Wild Man, he says, "had been the dark and repulsive predatory figure who lurked in the shadowy place beyond the boundaries of civilized order and Christian goodness, waiting to prey upon the innocent and vulnerable. . .He was the grotesque personification of human depravity at its worst -- dwelling beyond decency, beyond order, beyond all hope of redemption. . ."

Trask then says that the "Indian -- at least the image of the Indian that prevailed in the imagination of the trans-Appalachian West -- was such a Wild Man within an American context. He was seen as the archenemy of everything good and decent."

The result was that it freed those white settlers and soldiers who held such views to murder Indians with abandon. (Just as the depraved, subhuman image of Black people freed white Americans to own them legally.)

This "dehumanization of Indians and the entire 'metaphysics of Indian hating' made it easy and enjoyable to slaughter native people -- even women and children -- and offered a ready-made moral justification for doing so," Trask writes.

It was, he says, "that deep, disturbing, primal passion which emerged along the marshy riverbanks to turn the battlefield south of the Bad Axe River into a hellish place of murderous rage, where the winds of destruction howled. Such passions transformed especially the men of the militia (Tammeus note: essentially volunteers) into wanton killers every bit as diabolical as the imagined devils they so eagerly sought to destroy." 

And yet. And yet.

Trask also reports that right in the middle of this ruthless slaughter, there were cases of "something positive and good amid all the pain and death and brutality of the final ugly spasms of the war. In almost all cases, what compassion was shown came from members of the regular army, and most frequently from its officers, rather than from the volunteers among the ranks of the militia.

"That may have been mostly a matter of discipline. For, unlike the overeager and excitable amateurs. . .the soldiers of the regular army -- certainly no better men to begin with than most of those in the militia -- were taught and trained, drilled and conditioned, to remain coolheaded under pressure and self-disciplined in the face of danger. Most of all, they had learned through hard lessons how to control their own fear and rage, and to value collective order over personal freedom." (That's a lesson we desperately need to learn again today.)

As for those untrained and undisciplined, Trask writes this: "Through the killing of the native people white men came to believe in their own power and superiority and their right to possess a land that was not their own."

The historical incidents from which theologians draw their conclusions about the causes and repercussions of evil are found in every age. And although the evil done (often in the name of God or a value like freedom) can be overwhelming, it is not the entire story. Rather, if we look carefully we often can find tiny sparkles of light in what is otherwise utter darkness. In other words, sometimes goodness and graciousness appear.

And sometimes, as this Christian season of Advent reminds us, sometimes that goodness and graciousness show up in the form of a helpless baby.

* * *


The world is bidding a fond farewell to Christian scholar E.P. Sanders, who died on Nov. 21 at age 85. As the RNS story to which I linked you notes, Sanders spent most of his career "promoting more accurate and, for Christian scholars, more sympathetic understandings of early Judaism." In this time of resurgent antisemitism, Sanders' work is particularly important. As some of you may know, a Kansas City-based scholar, Mark D. Nanos, has been following Sanders in exploring ways of understanding Judaism at the time of Jesus and particularly understanding the Apostle Paul. Misunderstanding Paul's life and work has fed the long strain of anti-Judaism in Christianity, as I explain in this essay on the history of anti-Judaism in Christianity.

* * *

P.S.: Creek Freedmen, Black or mixed-race descendants of Creek Native Americans, have been trying to make the tribe recognize them as members. They finally had a hearing in court last week. It's unclear when a decision will be made. For background to this story, here is a Flatland column I wrote about area Freedmen.

Does the Museum of the Bible help or hinder scriptural understanding?


Several months before the Museum of the Bible opened in 2017 in Washington, D.C., I wrote this Flatland column describing how Kansas City metal craft workers were creating the stunning front doors through which visitors would enter.

As I described it then (the photo above shows it), the "40-foot-tall bronze doors — a replica of the bed of Johannes Gutenberg’s press from which he printed the first mass-produced Bible in the world in the 1450s — are being milled and brought to life by skilled artisans at the A. Zahner Company near Ninth Street and The Paseo."

Five years later, that museum has traveled a difficult road with various kinds of troubles. In March of 2020, I wrote this blog post about some of those difficulties that have -- or should have -- embarrassed the museum's private owners.

Now comes a new book in which two scholars, Jill Hicks-Keeton, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and Cavan Concannon, a professor at the University of Southern California, call into question the foundational motives for building the museum in the first place. As this RNS story reports, Hicks-Keeton and Concannon examine "the museum’s exhibits, theatrical experiences, publications, funding and partnerships. The book, Does Scripture Speak for Itself?: The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation, argues that the museum is part of a larger 100-year-old project of white evangelical institution-building."

In other words, the authors conclude that the new museum isn't presenting a historically fair and unbiased view of the Bible and its history but is, rather, trying to "bolster a white evangelical identity by producing a Bible that is benevolent, reliable and divinely inspired; a Bible that resists critique and has universal appeal."

The authors contend that the museum's wealthy founders "have not just created a museum, but a kind of parachurch organization intended to hold up the Bible as central to American public life." The RNS story about this, which includes an interview with the authors, adds this:

"In a statement responding to questions from RNS, the museum said it disagreed with the book’s premise and claims. 'We recognize that the Bible’s story is global and that its impact on different communities is historically varied and complex. As such, the museum strives to ensure our exhibitions are accurate and have historical nuance, which has been consistently confirmed by positive visitor feedback.'”

The interview with the authors includes this section:

You point out that the museum presents a white evangelical Bible. Why is the racial component important?

CONCANNON: Not all evangelicals are white. We’re talking about a sect shaped by whiteness. It’s less a demographic descriptor and more as a description of the institutional makeup. It’s a culture of whiteness. Some people in that orbit are not demographically white.

HICKS-KEETON: People think of white evangelicalism as an accusation. But we mean it as a description. We are not saying, "Hey look. They get the Bible wrong." Instead we’re pointing to the museum as an institution founded and funded within white evangelicalism and then asking, "What is the Bible they are producing?"

Well, I haven't yet read the book so I'm in no position to draw conclusions about whether it's fair.

But I do think it's fair to recognize that different branches of both Christianity and Judaism have different ways of reading the Bible -- ranging from considering it the literal, inerrant word of God to a collection of spiritual-based stories -- including a lot that can't be taken as historical -- that can be helpful in figuring out how we're meant to live today. Beyond that, some people unattached to any faith consider the Bible and other sacred writings to be little more than fairy tales.

To take our religious traditions seriously, we must have a grasp of how to understand and interpret sacred scripture. That's true for any institutional religion. But in my experience there is so much biblical illiteracy among both Christians and Jews that there's a lot of misunderstanding about how to read and interpret the Bible as well as a lack of knowledge about who wrote it, when and for what purpose.

So my guess is that a lot of people visiting the Museum of the Bible don't have the tools to evaluate whether it's of true museum quality and reliable or whether it's simply another product of white evangelicalism, such as many Christian radio and TV broadcasts.

In the end, the important point is that to understand any tradition's scripture, you need to know something about when it was written, to whom, in what language, for what purpose -- to say nothing of the editing, translation and transmission process that has brought it to the volume in your hands. Sadly, there seem to be fewer people in the pews willing to devote the time to take the Bible seriously. And taking it seriously means not taking it literally (though there are passages that contain actual history).

A Bible museum should add to this process. I'm still not sure the Museum of the Bible does much -- or at least enough -- of that. But I've promised myself that the next time I'm in Washington I will experience it for myself.

* * *


No doubt because I grew up in the United States (except for two years in India), I've always been skeptical of countries that have an established religion, meaning one that has a government stamp-of-approval. Such as the Church of England. That very church's establishment credentials are being called into question increasingly with the news that now fewer than half the citizens of the United Kingdom identify as Christian, as this opinion piece from The Guardian reports. The author of the articles persuasively argues this: "The case for dismantling the Church of England’s relationship with the state is now overwhelming. The church cannot retain the monarch as its governor 'by the grace of God'. It should retire from its prominence in state and civic ceremonies, remembrance days, judicial oaths, the BBC and the daily service. The church cannot justify its privileged access to state schools and its reserved seats in parliament, the latter perk shared only with Tory party donors."

* * *

P.S.: If you want to give my latest book as a holiday gift, I still have a few autographed copies of Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, both in paperback and hardback. Email me at [email protected] and I'll tell you how to get one.