Previous month:
January 2023
Next month:
March 2023

Why a great Bible scholar thinks many translations are junk

The recent appearance by renowned biblical scholar Robert Alter (pictured here) at the Kansas City Public Library gave a large in-person and Zoom audience dozens of delightful moments from a serious man nearing the end of a terrific and consequential career.

Alter-1As he acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks, a logical question is why anyone would do what he has done, which is to do a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. What's wrong with the old King James Version (KJV), which has been around since 1611? And what's wrong with the dozens of new translations that have appeared since the middle of the 20th century?

Well, let's start with the KJV, which Alter said he admires "in certain ways." But that old version, he contends, "is seriously flawed, not just archaic." And although he didn't mention it, it's also true that the translation team that produced it was working with far fewer and newer manuscripts than the more numerous and older manuscripts that have become available since then, especially with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s.

Then let's consider what Alter, an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkeley, calls the translations produced by "all these high-powered, denominational committees of scholars with degrees from Harvard and Yale and the University of Chicago and Oxford and Cambridge in England."

First, Alter said, the KJV "is better than all these translations-by-committee done in the second half of the 20th Century." There are, he said, "two things wrong in general with these translations. I have discovered as a translator of the Bible that it's a marvelous opportunity to conduct two simultaneous love affairs -- with the Hebrew of the Bible and with the English language. And what I find in the modern translations is no love for either of those languages. I don't mean there's ignorance of those languages. . .but the Hebrew language (in academic settings) remains an object of study and analysis but not something that gets you excited, not something that enthralls you. And you can see that in the translations."

Unlike the people who translated the Hebrew into the English of the KJV, he said, "the modern translators have a tin ear for the English language. . ." The result is that half of many verses sound like a "government directive" and half like a "daily newspaper," he said.

Because of all that, Alter concluded, "I view the modern translations as execrable." (If you need a translation of the word he used, try substituting the word "crap.")

As some of you know, I have a collection of Bible translations, including many that Alter would put in the execrable category. I find it's useful to check one against others to get a clearer sense of the meaning of a word or phrase. Sometimes I favor one translation over another but inevitably I'm disappointed in some aspect. As for paraphrases of the New Testament -- and, of course, a paraphrase is not a translation -- my favorite is the late Eugene Peterson's called The Message. He does some lovely things there.

If you watch Alter's entire library presentation, which you can do here, and which I highly recommend, you may agree with me that the thrust of it is a condemnation of biblical literalism, by which I mean reading the Bible as if every word were literally, historically and in all other ways accurate. That idea is called inerrantism, and it, too, is execrable. It leads people to imagine that the world was created in six 24-hour days and that God rested on a seventh 24-hour day. It leads people to imagine a real rib taken from a real man named Adam and that real rib being used to create a real woman named Eve. It leads people to imagine the entire globe was covered with water in the Noahic flood. It leads people to believe that the Bible says that David, and only David, killed Goliath (see II Samuel 21:19). And on and on.

I had a chance to have dinner with Alter after his Kansas City talk and I asked him whether I was correct to interpret his remarks as a rather harsh critique of biblical literalism. He agreed I was right. Then I asked him if there was anything useful we could learn from the literalists, knowing that often people with whom I disagree may still have something to teach me. Alter's answer: "No."

I'm not yet quite sure I buy his answer but I've never found a good way to refute it.

* * *


In this era when we're seeing electric vehicles growing in popularity, someone thinks church parking lots would make great charge station locations. The idea is that for most of the week their parking lots sit empty. Which tells you how much the people who have dreamed up the notion know about church parking lots during the week. At my church, the lot may not always be full on weekdays and weeknights, but it's never empty because of lots of things, including a preschool, that go on. Still, many people who think of Sunday worship services as a way to charge their personal or spiritual batteries might well take advantage of EV charging stations during the week. And while their vehicles are juicing up, they could come inside and do some volunteer work.

How can we stop antisemitism's resurgence?

A new American Jewish Committee survey, as this RNS story reports, has "found that 41% of American Jews said they were feeling less secure than a year ago, a 10 percentage point increase over a 2021 survey when 31% of American Jews said they felt less secure."

AntisemitismIt's more disheartening evidence of the resurgence of antisemitism in a country in which a couple of decades ago, many, if not most, American Jews were not experiencing much antisemitic behavior.

And it's another appalling piece of evidence revealing that destructive hatred stalks American streets despite the efforts of many well-meaning organizations that try to educate people about the many dangers of bigotry and systemic racism. Jew hatred arises from fear, which arises from mis- and disinformation, all of which in turn can lead to violence, as Jewish Americans know only too well and as the history of Jewish people throughout the world confirms.

The good news in the AJC survey, if you can call it good news, is that "less than a quarter (23%) said the Jewish institutions they attended had been subject to antisemitism (in the form of graffiti, threats or attacks) over the past five years, and 73% of American Jews said they felt safe attending Jewish institutions to which they are affiliated."

Those figures are good news only in the sense that they could have been worse.

The story to which I've linked you above also says that "the survey also shows that 38% of American Jews changed their behavior in the past 12 months out of fear of antisemitism. (That includes avoiding certain places or not wearing items of clothing that might identify them as Jews.) That figure has remained steady since 2021."

Antisemitism has deep roots in historic Christian anti-Judaism, as I describe in this essay found elsewhere on my blog. What that means is that Christianity has a special responsibility to undo the anti-Jewish preaching and teaching that has stained it almost since its beginning. And, indeed, many Christian branches have taken helpful steps to do just that. But so far it's not enough and neither, obviously, has it solved the problem.

If you're part of a Christian congregation and/or denomination, find out what it's doing to help. Same if you're a member of another faith tradition. And find resources to educate yourself and those around you. In the Kansas City area, that includes the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and SevenDays. I serve on the boards of the last two agencies.

If we devote time and energy to this problem, maybe next year's AJC survey will be more encouraging. In the meantime, I direct you to this Tablet column, which looks at the issue of antisemitism through one person's eyes. It's a good read.

* * *


There are, of course, religious hatreds beyond antisemitism. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who wants to be president, no doubt experienced some of them as the daughter of Indian immigrants. Haley grew up Sikh but later converted to Christianity. This RNS column by another daughter of Indian immigrants describes what she -- and Haley -- went through in their girlhoods in the South because of their non-Christian heritage. As Khyati Y. Joshi writes, "Particularly for our generation of 1.5- and second-generation South Asian Americans who identify as Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Jain, religious identity is a source of struggle, strife and isolation." In an increasingly pluralistic nation, the question is why that's still true. By now we should be a nation that embraces religious diversity in our population because it strengthens us.

* * *

P.S.: The Dialogue Institute in the Kansas City area is hosting a Turkic food fair fundraiser for earthquake victims from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at its offices at 4215 Shawnee Dr., Kansas City, Kan. You're asked to RSVP via email to [email protected].


Does A.I. have even a clue about religious matters?

Humanity once again is up against yet another scientific or technological development for which it is morally and ethically ill prepared: Artificial Intelligence.

ChatGPTA.I. has been around for long enough now that many people think they know what it can and can't do and some even imagine that in some way it can be controlled, sort of like the splitting of the atom. We got that one right, huh?

The latest A.I. issue that has people both excited and fearful is ChatGPT, which seems to be able to hold reasonable conversations with non-artificial human beings and, as high school and college teachers are discovering, also can whip up a pretty good term paper. (ChatGPT, by the way, stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, something your grandparents never dreamed of having.)

But as the author of this Religion Dispatches article points out, ChatGPT seems to be, well, inconsistent about things when it comes to religion. (Which, ironically enough, strikes me as a deeply human characteristic.)

In the article to which I've linked you, Robert M. Geraci writes that "One thing it (ChatGPT) does — and I’m not sure which category to put this in — is define religion. It does so implicitly through its responses to various kinds of queries. In doing so, however, it reveals bias in the training sets and bias in the constraints put on it by developers."

What Geraci, who teaches religious studies at Manhattan College, has learned, among other things, is that ChatGPT will tell you jokes about some historical religious leaders but not about others.

"In January," he writes, "I received an email about how ChatGPT will allow jokes about Hindu religious figures, but not Christian or Muslim figures. . . The sender, a Hindu, was naturally quite upset about this. So I set about confirming the claim and trying to understand how ChatGPT manages religious categories.

"As it turns out, ChatGPT will, indeed, tell you a joke about the Hindu god Krishna, though it won’t tell you jokes about Jesus, Allah or Muhammad. With regard to these latter examples, ChatGPT informs the user that it could hurt someone’s religious sensibilities by telling such a joke. But it does not say this with regard to Krishna."

There's more about all this in the article, but already we know enough to be deeply skeptical about how A.I. platforms like ChatGPT might handle matters of spirituality and institutional religion. And once we know that, we're armed to be able to ignore any A.I. results from this field -- well, ignore or, even better, tell others to ignore such results.

But let's not stop there. Let's do what we can to tell others about these problems. Then let's encourage A.I. developers to do better when it comes to religious matters.

My concern is that given the theological and scriptural illiteracy that's so common among even allegedly religious Americans, when A.I. collects its data on which to base ChatGPT responses its material will be either dead wrong or misleading.

This is a problem no one needs. The unanswered question is whether A.I. developers can come up with a solution that everyone needs in this area -- one in which it's possible to trust ChatGPT's answers. So far, I'm betting against that happening.

* * *


As the dreams of Afghan girls perish under Taliban rule, many young women -- barred from a traditional education -- are turning to madrasas, or strict religious schools, to learn to memorize the Qur'an, this Reuters story reports. The news is both sad and troubling. In many cases, students at such schools are taught the same kind of twisted version of Islam that has unleashed terrorists around the globe. And, of course, the girls now attending madrasas will never become doctors, lawyers or a member of any other profession, barring a sudden but unexpected change in Afghanistan. A 17-year-old student is quoted this way in the Reuters story: "I wanted to be a doctor in the future, but now I think it's impossible. If you come to a madrasa you just can be a teacher." Thank God at least some families escaped before the Taliban clamped down.

* * *



I Am Not Afraid: Psalm 23 for Bedtime, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated beautifully by Marta Dorado. One of the most famous passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. Its simple, if soaring, poetry often is read at funerals, but it has deep meaning beyond the end of life. In fact, as Sasso shows in her new children's book, it can be adapted and adopted to help children face their fears. Sasso has created a modern version of the psalm to show its potentially calming and enlightening effects on the sometimes irrational, often understandable fears of children. "God is my Comforter; I will not be afraid," the book begins as the pictures show a little girl getting into bed with her stuffed lamb doll. "I lie down beneath my warm blanket. Cool water beside my bed." At the back of the book readers will find a brief, helpful discussion about Psalm 23 and about how it can bring even children comfort. This book should be in the children's library of every church and synagogue -- to say nothing of home libraries of parents with young ones.

Can American Christianity reverse its downward trend?

For some years now, I and many others have written about the diminishment of Christianity in America. Falling church membership and worship attendance numbers are signs of what's been happening.

Flag-crossYou can find two recent pieces I've written about this here and here.

The question, of course, is whether the trend will continue until there's not a single Christian church left in the U.S. Well, I'd be shocked if that's the stark future toward which we're heading. But can the trend be reversed?

That's the question raised in this Atlantic article by the Rev. Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. (Redeemer is part of the Presbyterian Church in America, which generally is considered more conservative and evangelical than the larger Presbyterian Church [USA].)

Keller thinks the answer is yes. But the way he gets to that answer reveals some of the problems that I believe have helped lead to the diminishment the church has experienced.

"While a revival of the Church would benefit society," he writes, "that will never happen if the Church thinks of itself as just another social-service agency."

He's exactly right about that. The work that churches do in society -- feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable -- is rooted in their understanding of theology. The church, in other words, is not the Rotary Club even though both do good things in and for the world.

But Keller then uses language that seems to separate the church from the people to whom it's trying to appeal.

"First and foremost," he writes, "Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true; they are not true because Christianity helps society."

Each faith tradition, of course, makes various and different claims about what is "true" and what isn't. The 20th Century movement of "perennialism" has sought to deny or smooth over those differences by saying that at their core, all religions are one or at least they're all based on the same principles.

But, in fact, one of the values of having different faith traditions is that they are different. They tell different stories. They come to different conclusions. They offer different paths.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and followers of other religions learn what those religions teach and either buy into the theology in some way or walk away. But the conversation ends when one religion claims to have a complete corner on theological truth. That may not be exactly what Keller was claiming in his article, but that's how it almost certainly would come across to anyone outside of Christianity reading the words that the faith's "metaphysical claims are true."

And, no, I'm not arguing for syncretistic religious mush or for moral relativism. Rather, I'm saying what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: "We have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn't come from us." Another way to put it is to say that we should be what the late theologian Shirley C. Guthrie calls "modest theologians."

The question, with that in mind, is not what theological truth is worth dying for but, rather, worth living for.

If we appear to have all the answers in final form, there's no more exploring to do, no more talking, no more thinking. That's how Keller's words strike me.

What Christianity has to offer the world is the gospel, a word that simply means good news. The news is that, as Jesus asserted at the start of his ministry, the kingdom of God has come near and that we can live under the reign of God today by adopting the kingdom values of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, justice and love.

I think that's a more welcoming way of putting it than simply claiming that Christianity's "metaphysical claims are true." Keller's way seems to leave no room for conversation and exploration.

* * *


A role that many people play in the lives of loved ones is to be a surrogate decision maker on health issues when the loved one is incapable of making such decisions. Yes, it helps to have an advance directive to guide such decisions but not everyone gets around to doing that. One result is great pressure on the surrogate. But a new study finds that "those receiving enhanced spiritual care had a clinically significant decline in anxiety. Additionally, family surrogates receiving enhanced spiritual support experienced higher spiritual well-being and satisfaction with spiritual care compared to individuals receiving usual care from a hospital chaplain." It's one more reason not just for chaplains but for people who can give support and guidance beyond what chaplains can do.

* * *



The publishing industry in the U.S. puts out an astonishing number of books related to religion. Some of them are even valuable and readable. Others, meh.

But behind this publishing story is the tale that Stephen Prothero tells in his new book, God The Best Seller: How One Editor Transformed American Religion a Book at a Time. Prothero, author of the important book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't, delves into the personal and public life of Eugene Exman, whose career at the company now known as HarperOne helped define religious America.

In his teenage years, Exman had an experience of the presence of God that sent him on a lifetime journey to understand it and maybe even repeat it. No repetition ever quite came, but Exman managed to find authors who would explore not just Christianity in the U.S. but religious experience more broadly. Prothero gives him credit for making Americans more religiously literate, though in the process contributing to the diminishment of fundamentalist approaches to Christianity.

There's both a certain joy and a certain sadness to the Exman story. Prothero writes that he "was a victim of his own success, and a victor after his own failure. His personal failure to become a saint made his professional life more successful and the religion of experience he preached more popular. The distance he experienced from God was doubtless disappointing. But he made out of that disappointment a quest. And he made out of that quest a life."

It was a quest and a life with which I had no familiarity, but because the story revealed much about the religious publishing industry, I was educated on almost every page.

Prothero summarizes Exman's intriguing life this way: "He was selling guidebooks to the never-ending search for God. These guidebooks shifted the gaze of their readers from religious institutions and their traditions to individuals and their experiences. They were never as pluralistic or as broadminded as Exman sometimes imagined. They never shook their Protestant biases. They were at times anti-Catholic. And they were persistently naive about the strength and breadth of racism in the United States, and the ways in which white supremacy and religious fundamentalism are mutually reinforcing. But they cracked open a space for religious variety, for spiritual pluralism, for hallelujahs to a vast songbook of hymns in what had been for too long a one-note country."

Official publication date for this book is March 14, but it can be ordered now.

* * *

P.S.: In the lead commentary here today I was talking about American Christianity's downward trend. If that makes you sad, maybe you'd be interested in a comedy performance at an area church that could cheer you up. At 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, Tim Hawkins will be performing (songs, jokes -- all of the "clean" variety) at Sheffield Family Life Center in KC. To get tickets, go to this link. And to learn more about the Sheffield Family Life Center, read this Flatland column that I wrote in 2019.

Ignorance of history can lead to misunderstanding religious commemorations

When we somehow take note of anniversary dates that are important to this or that faith or ethnic tradition, we should be especially careful to try to understand the meaning of those dates as the people of that tradition understand them.

Yom HaShoahIt's far too easy to overlay such commemorations with our own attempt at meaning and, in the process, either misunderstand or, worse, dismiss the meaning they have for people in the tradition commemorating the events, as this column from The Tablet shows.

In this case, the problem was revealed by a no-doubt well-meant but culturally ignorant editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal, a newspaper that long has had a good reputation for high-quality journalism.

As Dara Horn says about the Louisville editorial in The Tablet piece, "In it, a group of noble public servants explained to primitive dolts like me that International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) is not, in fact, a day to remember the Holocaust. Instead, it is a day when we must 'remember all the hate speech and all the violence that is perpetuated against religions, races and genders, all those acts committed in the past and those that continue to this day,' because 'for one group, for one person, to claim that the hate and violence towards them is more important than another’s, only encourages more acts of violence against others.' Most of all, as the authors put it in their middle-school-worthy topic sentence, 'Jews do not have a monopoly on persecution and atrocities.'”

As I say, no doubt good intentions, but written out of an abundance of ignorance about the Holocaust, its commemorative dates and Jewish history.

As Horn then writes, "I don’t need to do the work of shredding this deeply antisemitic take, because the good people of the internet did it for me — pointing out that Genocide Prevention Day already exists, for instance, or that ''with Black History Month coming up, it’s good to remember there are more races than black,' or 'This September 11, we should also remember all those other plane crashes over the years.'”

All of this raises the question of the difference between International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah (April 17-18 this year), which essentially is the Jewish version of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Horn writes: "International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah are fundamentally different, and not only because one is 'international' while the other is Jewish. The two days commemorate different things—in fact, opposite things. International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the date of Allied (in this case, Soviet) forces liberating Auschwitz."

In that way of thinking about it, Horn writes, the day "celebrates non-Jews 'liberating' Jews, while honoring Jews precisely for being passive victims with no agency — a condition that happens to make human dignity impossible. The world often seems to prefer its Jews that way.

"Yom HaShoah is exactly the opposite. The day’s full Hebrew name is Yom hashoah vehagevurah, or 'Holocaust and Heroism Day.' Its spring date does not commemorate Jews being 'liberated' by others, but rather the heroic and doomed Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on the first night of Passover in 1943."

The writers of the Louisville editorial should have known those differences. Similarly, Christmas on the Christian calendar isn't primarily about gift-giving and lights in the darkness of winter. Rather, it's about the incarnation, when Christians believe that the one God of the cosmos entered mortality by being born as a helpless baby named Jesus.

Name an annual religious commemoration in any tradition -- from Ramadan in Islam to Passover in Judaism to Diwali in Hinduism -- and you will find layers and layers of meaning that should not be reduced to a stereotype. Religion, after all, is complex and many-headed, and even followers of the same faith sometimes disagree about the meaning of this or that commemoration.

What this calls for is religious literacy. A good place to start to improve yours is a book called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero.

And next time I see you, I hope you'll know a little more about who St. Valentine was so you're more appreciative of Valentine's Day. (For a different and funny take on Valentine's Day, see below.)

Finally, a great regional source to draw from for learning about the Holocaust and its causes is the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, on the board of which I serve.

* * *


In the wake of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal and its coverup by bishops, 10 Jesuit institutions began to search for some answers. This RNS story says a new report on all this from Fordham University may be a good guide not just for how Catholics can move forward in a healthy way from this scandal but also how others can learn from what the Jesuits learned. The story gives these examples: "At Georgetown University, a priest began studying the healing effect of abuse survivors’ stories; an ethicist at New York’s Fordham University began investigating how Black survivors had been erased from the clergy abuse crisis; in Milwaukee, an interdisciplinary team at Marquette University started a workshop for Catholic teens on abusive power dynamics." Sexual abuse is far from just a Catholic story or a story rooted in institutional religion. But the ideas from this Fordham report may point all of us toward a less-scandalous future.

* * *

P.S.: For Black History Month, The Conversation offers this interesting look at the history of historically Black churches and how they're doing today. It's a pretty brief summation, but it perhaps can enlighten you about things you either didn't know or had forgotten.

* * *


My friend Markandey Katju (we were school chums together in India in the 1950s) has sent me a note about his reaction to the suggestion from the India's government that people there not celebrate Valentine's Day but, rather, something called "Cow Hug Day." Really. (As the story to which I've linked you notes, the government then, uh, mooooved away from that idea. But when it looked like Cow Hug Day might be a real thing, Katju wrote this: "I am quite willing to celebrate Cow Hug Day. But how can I hug a cow when I don't have one? And I can't be expected to go on the street hugging stray cows I find there.

"So I request the government to provide me with a cow which I can hug. Moreover, how can I be sure I won't be gored by the cow's horns when I hug it? So either the government provides me medical insurance or a cow with no horns.  It appears from this video (move ahead in the video to 1:07) that cows don't like being hugged." I've suggested to Markandey that he simply hug his wife Rupa, instead. (If you want to read everything Markandey wrote about this, uh, B.S., click here.)

The Church of England's attempt to tell its slavery story

As the people of the United States argue about how, if at all, to confront and learn about the country's history of slavery and of the crushing of Indigenous people by European invaders, we might do well, in Black History month, to learn from the Church of England.

Lambeth-slaveryIt has just opened a new exhibition that lays bare and tries to grasp Britain's and the church's own historic and historical racial sins, as this article from The Guardian reports.

"The exhibition of original artifacts," the story says, "some of which are on display for the first time in Lambeth Palace Library, is the latest step in a wide-ranging programme of work launched in 2019 that aims to 'address past wrongs' by researching the church’s historical links to the slave trade." (The photo here is from the exhibition. The caption from the exhibit says: "A 'slave bible' published in 1808 with all references to freedom from slavery removed is displayed at the exhibition in the Lambeth Palace Library, in London, Jan. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)"

Well, of course the church has such connections to this brutal history. As does the Catholic Church. As do other branches of Christianity. From the church, in fact, came biblical justifications for slavery -- justifications that were repeated and repeated and eventually promoted by lots of churches in the U.S., especially but not exclusively in the South. And Black History Month is a good time to remember all of that.

It's this kind of history that some people here and, clearly, in England want to ignore or gloss over. And certainly they don't want such history taught to our children for fear that they'll feel just awful about being an American or a citizen of the U.K. Such destructive avoidance of the truth astounds me. We need to understand this history not so that we'll feel guilty about what our ancestors did but so that we can grasp the ways in which the world today came into being because of what happened in the past. And then we need to work to correct systemic problems created by that history.

The Guardian story quotes the chief executive of the Church Commissioners for England, Gareth Mostyn, as saying that this new exhibition is an opportunity to show “really impactful documents” unearthed through the church’s research, which aims to “make sure that our history is told and that we’re transparent about what we have learned.”

There is much about the history of slavery that both citizens of the U.K. and the U.S. seem either not to know or that they are willing to ignore. For instance, as Howard W. French writes in his 2021 book Born in Blackness, to the roughly 12 million Blacks captured in Africa and sent into slavery in the U.S., it's important to add an additional six million who died in process of capture. (By the time of the U.S. Civil War, about 4 million people were enslaved in the U.S.)

Slavery sometimes is called America's "original sin." Well, certainly it was one of them but more likely the original one was the direct and indirect genocide committed against the Indigenous people who lived on this land long before Europeans showed up as invaders.

As French notes, “(O)n the soil of the Americas, they (Europeans) held an enormous epidemiological advantage: the native populations that lived there had thrived for thousands of years in isolation from the maladies of the Old World, and began dying in extraordinary numbers almost immediately upon contact with whites for lack of any biological resistance to the diseases that they and the animals they brought from Europe, especially swine, introduced. For the natives, even what we call today the common cold was deadly. One recent demographic study has suggested that the total population of Native Americans at the time of first contact with Europeans (1492) was roughly 60 million, or 10 percent of humanity’s global total, and that by 1600, as a result of contact with white people, 56 million of them were dead.” 

Imagine that.

Well, the Church of England is trying to help citizens there imagine such stories of brutality in their country's own past. Good. The question, however, is how that will change both the present and the future.

* * *


Pastors and other spiritual advisers now are allowed to be with death row prisoners at the time of their execution, and as this RNS story notes, it's both a comfort for the dying and a hardship for those trying to comfort them. The story starts by mentioning the execution of two prisoners in Missouri, my state, which deserves condemnation and shame for each person the state kills. Indeed, one more execution -- of Leonard Taylor -- was to take place yesterday, and did. Sigh. Each such state-sanctioned murder brings Missouri lower morally and ethically. But most of our top elected officials, including Gov. Mike Parson, seem to like it that way.

* * *

P.S.: A webinar from 1 to 2 p.m. CST today will explore how churches can help influence a shift of public resources toward innovative responses to violence. The Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network webinar is part of the Christian Community Development Association’s “Locked in Solidarity” national awareness and action week on mass incarceration (February 5-12). To register, click this link.

An online WWI exhibit that carries a vital lesson


Across the span of human history, religion has caused wars, shaped the course of wars, worked to prevent wars and helped people to heal after wars.

The interconnectedness between religion and war is almost endless. And sometimes those connections help to reveal the ways in which governments sometimes seek to exploit religions for the purposes of whatever war they are waging at the moment.

All this is demonstrated by a fascinating new online exhibit called "Fighting with Faith" from the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Here is a Religion News Service story about that exhibit.

Because of the museum's purpose, this exhibit naturally tells a story that happened as part of the first world war. I encourage you to click on the link to the exhibit and spend some time hearing and seeing the story of the Halbmondlager, or “Half Moon Camp,” a Muslim prisoner-of-war camp in Wünsdorf, Germany.

In the RNS story to which I've linked you, Patricia Cecil, specialist curator of faith, religion and World War I at the museum, is quoted this way: “We conceive of it as this very European war. But it wasn’t. It was a global war. And this camp is evidence of that, and the photographs we have are evidence of that.”

Germany and the failing Ottoman Empire, in fact, were doing their best to draw Muslim soldiers to fight on behalf of the Ottomans, an ally of the Germans. One way the Germans did that was to build a mosque -- the first ever on German soil -- at the prison and to give Muslim prisoners special treatment. (The drawings above, taken from the exhibit's website, show aspects of that mosque.)

As part of the online exhibit explains, "German leadership viewed promotion of religious practice as a cornerstone of propaganda. The Ottoman Empire also advocated for Muslim prisoners of war to have a place for worship."

Cecil explained it to RNS this way: “From the outset, using religion as a tool of propaganda was the goal. They wanted to have the benefit of millions of Muslim soldiers. If you can get all these people currently under the rule of the British, French and Russian empires, and can get them to side with a religious ideology that also aligns with your military ideology, you have a recipe for revolution across the world.”

And how did that recruitment campaign go? Here's what you will find about that at the online exhibit:

The campaign by most measures was a failure.

    • Some POWs did join the alliance: about 800 prisoners from the Half Moon Camp registered for the Ottoman army and went to Turkey.
    • Most Muslim POWs, about 4,200, or 84%, did not join the German-Ottoman alliance.
    • A Muslim revolution to overthrow English, French and Russian empires never materialized.

"Prisoners were not convinced they should join the cause of the German-Ottoman alliance," the exhibit notes say. "Germany and the Ottoman Empire were counting on pan-Islamism to have a major influence on the prisoners’ attitudes, but the soldiers’ own views of religion and their ties to home regions proved stronger."

Besides learning some not-well-known history, this exhibit should remind us of the ways in which political powers sometimes seek to coerce faith communities into supporting their goals -- often in conflict with the teachings of those religions. As we've seen over and over, it's easy for people of faith to get seduced by political power and to wind up supporting politicians whose entire lives and careers are in conflict with the teachings of the religion their supporters preach. (And if the Trump era popped into mind, I'm not surprised.)

By the way, seeing this online exhibit is a fine way to get introduced to the World War I museum here in Kansas City. But if you've never been in person to see this national gem, please go. It offers lots of changing exhibits and related programming that can teach us how important it is to understand our own history.

* * *


One of the most famous verses from the Hebrew Bible is Micah 6:8, which in the Revised English Bible translation says this: "The Lord has told you mortals what is good, and what it is that the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God." Many other translations don't use "loyalty," but "kindness" or "mercy."

But I want to focus on the idea of walking humbly with God because that's what the author of this article from GoodFaithMedia says is needed in interfaith dialogue. Colin Harris writes that "humility has its roots deep in the intellect, and it has theological implications as well. Intellectually, humility is the recognition of the partiality of our understanding of anything. There will always be more to things and people than we know of them at any given time. The more complex the reality, the more partial our understanding of that reality will always be."

His conclusion is that without humility, efforts to engage in deep interfaith conversation and understanding are doomed. And he's right. The idea of such dialogue is to know and to be known, not to convert someone to your ideas about religion. It's not that conversion can't happen as a result of such conversation, but that's not to goal. The goal is simply to understand another way of considering the eternal questions.

* * *

P.S.: I almost never see a news story about religion with a dateline out of my hometown, Woodstock, Ill. But here is one. And it has to do with the spiritual -- maybe even Buddhist -- nature of the famous movie "Groundhog Day," which was filmed in Woodstock as it pretended, for the movie, to be Punxsutawney, Pa., where a groundhog named Phil predicts each Feb. 2 when winter will end. Some year maybe some of us can watch the film together and I can tell you about the various places in Woodstock shown in the film -- unless, of course, that would be TMI.

Is the pope really moving the church on LGBTQ+ issues?

What are we to make of what Pope Francis said in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press released on Jan. 25, as reported in this National Catholic Reporter story? (And here is the original AP story.)

Pope-francis"Being homosexual is not a crime," he said. "It's not a crime. Yes, but it's a sin. Fine, but first let's distinguish between a sin and a crime."

The important -- but sad -- thing to notice first is that in terms of Catholic moral teaching -- much of which is beautiful and well worth knowing and following -- this statement, as weirdly conflicted as it may seem, actually represents a tiny (very tiny) step in the right direction.

Direction from where? Well, from this June 3, 2003, statement and teaching from the Vatican that declares this:

"Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts 'as a serious depravity...(cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered'. (5) This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries(6) and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.

"Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided'. (7) They are called, like other Christians, to live the virtue of chastity. (8) The homosexual inclination is however 'objectively disordered' (9) and homosexual practices are 'sins gravely contrary to chastity'.(10)"

This kind of thinking -- even if expressed in different language -- was common in Christianity for a long, long time, even though the word "homosexuality" didn't even enter the English language until the 1800s. But eventually scholars began to explore where such condemnatory thinking came from. And many of them decided that, in the end, the Bible has almost nothing to say about same-sex relations as we're beginning to understand them today. You can read my essay about that here and see some additional details about the change in thinking that's happened.

Lgbtq-Xian-flagAnd even though the 2003 Vatican statement quoted above says the church's "moral judgment" about homosexuality being "intrinsically disordered" is "unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition," the reality is that there are some priests and women religious who no longer buy that and who have engaged in helpful ministry to the LGBTQ+ community.

But change in almost all religious traditions happens slowly. For instance, it took my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), until 1956 to ordain its first woman as a pastor. The Episcopal Church followed suit, but not until more than 20 years later.

There are both societal and institutional reasons for this slowness, and sometimes it's actually a good thing because it can keep faith communities from changing doctrine whimsically whenever a fresh breeze blows in society.

But homosexuality and how to understand it is no fresh breeze -- and hasn't been for quite a long time. What science and sociologists are learning about issues of human sexuality should at least make religious leaders want to understand those lessons and see if they reveal distorted thinking behind certain expressions of doctrine. That's one of the things that happened to the Catholic Church after it recognized that its condemnation of Galileo for suggesting that Earth revolves around the sun -- and not the other way around -- was flawed. The church changed its teaching.

Will that kind of change happen in my lifetime with the Catholic condemnation of homosexuality as "objectively disordered"? Almost certainly not. And maybe never.

But if I had to bet, I would wager that such a change eventually will happen in Catholicism -- and maybe even in other faith traditions that similarly condemn same-sex unions and actions. The pope's teeny-tiny step of noting that homosexuality shouldn't be illegal (a position out of sync with some African nations as the pope now is visiting Africa) may have moved the camel's nose just a bit closer to the inside of the tent. At least I hope so.

And my hope is heightened a bit by recent remarks from an openly gay advisor to the Vatican. As this NPR story reports, "Juan Carlos Cruz, an internationally known Chilean advocate and survivor of clerical sexual abuse," says "that anti-sodomy laws in dozens of countries, including some that impose the death penalty, are 'horrifying,' but the pope's moral leadership will help civil authorities, bishops and cardinals to 'change their heart' and join the pontiff in speaking out." I hope he's right.

(Here, by the way, is an article from The New Yorker that offers an interesting perspective about the LGBTQ+ remarks of Pope Francis in light of the recent death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.)

* * *


As this article from The Conversation notes, "White conservative evangelicals, who make up most of the religious right movement, largely oppose government regulation to protect the environmental initiatives, including efforts to curb human-caused climate change." But that didn't use to be the case. In fact, environmental protection, often presented in faith-based words about being good stewards of God's creation, used to be emphasized frequently by people who identified as evangelicals, including "popular conservative evangelical author Francis Schaeffer." Government regulation, as we all know, can get burdensome and nit-picky. But environmental degradation leading to climate change is -- or should be -- a major focus of all people of faith. And it's going to take more than individuals recycling material or using more efficient light bulbs. The future for our children and grandchildren is at stake.