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The global heat is on and God's green Earth is threatened

As this year shuffles off to Memoryland this weekend, I want to share some thoughts about how human life as many of us know it may be working toward such a radical change that, if it happens, life as we know it now may be forever gone.

Heat-Will-KillTo do that, I'll draw on an important new (published this past July) book by Jeff Goodell called The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.

It's an account of climate change written by a careful observer who draws on both scientific findings and on his own experience of spending time in places that already are being adversely affected by the scary warming of our planet.

And given the recently concluded United Nations annual conference on the climate -- a conference that was both reassuring and disappointing all at once -- Goodell's book can be a useful guide to what is happening to our planet and what we're doing to make it both worse and better. At the moment, worse is winning. By a lot.

One reason for people of faith -- or at least people with spiritual sensitivities -- to spend time on this subject is that faith communities of many types have been sending out warnings for many years about the dangers of climate change and connecting those warnings to beliefs about human responsibility to care for God's beautiful creation.

So first I want to give you a few links to statements on the environment from different religions or religious groups: The Presbyterian Church (USA); the Episcopal Church; the Southern Baptist Church; the United Methodist Church; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Reform Judaism; Islam; Hinduism; Buddhism.

So for more than half the roughly 8 billion people on the planet, there is at least some responsibility to respond to the environmental crisis using teachings from religious or spiritual leaders. You might think that would be enough to make a difference in electing public officials who recognize climate change as an existential threat and in living individually in ways that don't make things worse.

If that's what you think, you'll be disappointed by the reality.

Back to the book: Goodell's primary focus is, the book's cover tells you, heat. And although I'm familiar with the term global warming and try to keep up with what science is telling us about this subject, the author opened my eyes to several matters to which I've given almost no attention.

For instance, he quotes the prestigious medical journal The Lancet as saying that "489,000 people worldwide died from extreme heat in 2019." That's far more, Goodell writes, "than all other natural disasters combined, including hurricanes and wildfires. It's also more than the number of deaths from guns or illegal drugs. And those are only the deaths that are directly attributable to heat." One of the other heat-related causes has to do with inhaling smoke from wildfires, and Goodell says that "globally, between 260,000 and 600,000 people die each year from" that cause.

Global-warmingIndeed, he points out that "the last time the Earth was hotter than it is today was at least 125,000 years ago, long before anything that resembled human civilization appeared."

Goodell spends a good deal of time writing about oceanic changes that are making -- or soon will make -- the Earth hotter and more dangerous. For instance, one of the profound changes in the oceans has to do with the fish population and its locations.

"Largely because of overfishing," he writes, "90 percent of the large fish that were here in the 1950s are gone. One metric ton of plastic enters the ocean every four seconds. . .But the biggest problem is that the ocean is heating up fast. Since the 1960s, the rate at which the top mile or so of the ocean is heating up has doubled. In 2022, the ocean hit its warmest temperature on record for the fourth year in a row."

Heat leads people to want and buy air-conditioning units -- something rare when I was a boy in my small hometown in northern Illinois. Goodell writes that the more a/c units people buy and use, "the more electricity is required to power it. And as long as some portion of that electricity is generated by fossil fuels, that means more greenhouse gas pollution -- which further heats up the climate. It's a vicious cycle."

And that, he notes, is "how the climate crisis works: the rich pollute, the rest suffer."

What Goodell calls the "Goldilocks Zone" of climate stability in which many of us have lived most of our lives will be decimated by heat, and it "will not be accidental heat. . .It will be deliberate heat. Premeditated heat."

If there is any good news, he writes, it's that "clean energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel energy in most parts of the world." Which gives us a chance to recover, but "right now, our dependence on fossil fuels is all about inertia, political will and big oil and gas companies wanting to milk their investments as long as they can."

So even if it's not quite too late to pull ourselves literally out of the fire, we don't have much time. And surely the last thing people of faith want to do is to be bad stewards of creation and to create a living hell on Earth. Right?

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This past fall, in this blog post, I suggested that the world finally may get a clearer picture soon of what Pope Pius XII did, if anything, to save Jews in the Holocaust. Newly discovered correspondence from a wider opening of the Vatican's archives seemed promising.

But this Tablet Magazine piece by Frederic Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist but now a lawyer and historian, suggests that a clear, indisputable answer may be too much for which to hope. Pius, as you no doubt know, has been criticized for what Brandfon calls "failing to provide leadership and moral clarity" in response to the Holocaust.

So far, he writes, the newly available material from the Vatican archives provides no ringing defense of Pius, just more questions, including questions about how, all these decades later, it might be possible to fairly interpret the pope's actions and words at the time.

Brandfon writes that "Pius XII’s pronouncements. . .invariably expressed sympathy for those suffering. But while he deplored the crime, he failed to identify either the perpetrators of the crime or its victims." The question was whether that was a way of protecting the sources of the accurate information about genocide the pope was receiving or whether that was simply moral cowardice.

But even in the best possible light, it appears that Pius was not bold enough to condemn the murders of millions of Jews that he knew was happening. As Brandfon writes, "There can be little doubt then, that the pope was aware of the genocide taking place in Europe as early as 1942, both in general terms and also in many of its specifics. Nonetheless, he remained silent. He was woefully ambiguous in the (1942) Christmas message, and two months earlier, in an exchange of memos with Myron Taylor, the American special envoy to the Vatican, he refused to verify the reports he had already heard."

Brandfon's conclusion, which may not be the conclusion to which others come, is quite dismissive of Pius: "The pope’s vague statements and his silence appear to be part of a chosen policy rather than the outcome of personal timidity."

Eventually, more evidence may emerge from the archives that will either cast Pius in a darker light or make him look bolder in his response to the Holocaust than he looks now. What we can say, however, is that many world leaders, including at times President Franklin D. Roosevelt, failed to be the necessary voices for the millions of Jews and others whom Hitler's Nazis were murdering. So Pius XII, if he's finally judged to have held his fire while millions died, will not be the only one who failed the moral test of his age. (A major moral test of our own age is the question of how to respond to climate change, as I wrote about above. The current pope has been a moral leader on that question.)

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Is God omnipotent? This theologian's answer: 'Nope'

One of the women in a weekly Bible study of which I'm part is fond of declaring God's omnipotence by saying this: "God can do anything." Or: "God can do anything he wants."

Death-omnipotence-1Thomas Jay Oord, author of a new book called The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence, begs to differ. And he makes a persuasive case.

Oord, who teaches at Northwind Theological Seminary in Florida, asserts that the idea that God is omnipotent, or all-powerful, "leads some to unbelief and despair. To those who suffer intensely, a God who can eliminate pain is asleep on the job. Or this deity doesn't care enough to rescue the hurting from horrors and holocausts. Fervent prayers for healing go unanswered; cries from the abused elicit few divine rescues; children are not protected. Consequently, many people have no desire to live forever with a God who allows evil now."

In fact, he argues, "Christian scripture does not support omnipotence. It doesn't teach that God has all power; it says there are many things God cannot do."

Oord then provides a rather long list of things he says God can't do, starting with the illogical, like creating a stone so heavy that God can't lift it, but then moving on to more practical things, such as: God cannot die. God cannot sin. God cannot lie. God cannot change the past. God cannot do pushups. And on and on.

So if God isn't omnipotent, what word might be a better description? Oord proposes amipotence, a word he coined to show that God is full of love. I believe it's pronounced am-IP-otense. The "am," he says, is pronounced like the first syllable in the name of the city of Amsterdam.

"We best define the love in amipotence as acting intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being," he writes. "The definition applies to both divine and creaturely love. The love God and creatures express, in other words, acts with intention, relates with others and aims to promote flourishing. And because love is inherently uncontrolling, neither divine nor creaturely love controls. Love cannot be omnipotent."

A primary reason to abandon the idea of divine omnipotence, Oord says, is the old problem of evil, which theologians call the theodicy question. It asks why, if God is good and all-powerful, is there evil and suffering in the world. Doesn't God care?

An omnipotent God, in Oord's description, has the power to abolish evil and yet evil continues to make a wreck of countless lives. So Oord's answer is to give up on omnipotence as one definition of God's attributes because, as he writes, "the Bible does not sanction the view that God exerts all power, can do absolutely anything or controls."

HeschelOord goes back into the Jewish scriptures to test this idea and concludes that the famous rabbi, the late Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured here), has it right that "the idea of divine omnipotence. . .is a non-Jewish idea." And, as Oord argues, some of this misguided idea goes back to mistranslations of the original Hebrew in the Bible. I won't go into all that here, but it's a section of the book well worth reading. But even New Testament writers, Oord writes, "do not use words that mean 'omnipotent,' 'almighty' or 'all-powerful'. . .Omnipotence isn't in the New Testament."

To extend that argument about the New Testament, Oord says that in Jesus Christ "we find a God who does not dominate. God is made known to us in the one whose crucifixion on a cross. . .demonstrates divine weakness. . .The life, death and resurrection of this humble Nazarene display strength and weakness but not control."

In the end, Oord insists that the phrase "'God can do whatever God wants' is empty puff."

Another problem with the idea of an omnipotent God, he writes, is that it "also supports the false claim that the Bible is inerrant." Biblical inerrancy is problematic for countless reasons, as I wrote in this recent blog post and in this one.

So why is the idea of divine omnipotence so prevalent? Oord's answer is that it "remains on life support due to high church liturgies and low church piety, which shape the theologies of countless people."

People have three choices about God, Oord says: "An impotent God would watch from afar or be present without engaging. An omnipotent God would control, always or on occasion, and therefore be responsible for all that occurs, both good and evil. The amipotent God loves by empowering and inspiring, and part of the evidence for the strength of amipotence comes in positive creaturely responses."

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The subject of antisemitism has become increasingly difficult to understand and even discuss, in part because of the Hamas-Israel war and all of its complications. For instance, as this Jerusalem Post article reports, at the recent annual convention of the Association for Jewish Studies, "the war weighed heavily during the conference, turning historical issues into debates very much of the moment. A presenter would be discussing, say, Jewish attitudes about contraception in the 1950s and be asked why Jewish concerns about safety are ignored by campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs."

There is, naturally, anger among Israelis and anger among Palestinians, and anger always complicates rational discussion and understanding. Coming to some common understanding about what constitutes antisemitism today may require the end of the current war. In the meantime, one good source for understanding what can be understood about modern antisemitism is the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. I commend the institute and its programming to you. Just don't expect to agree with all its presenters about everything.

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P.S.: You can get an email notice each time my blog publishes (almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays) simply by clicking here and signing up for that.

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ANOTHER P.S.: By the way, in case you're keeping track, with my recent weekend Dec. 22-23 blog post, I began my 20th year of writing "Faith Matters." So if you're new to the blog and want to see what you've missed, well, you have lots of archives to get through. You can start that process here.

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A POSSIBLE RECORD 3RD P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, you'll find it here. It's about a new book on Jesus that contends he wasn't born just to die but to show us how to live.

Here's a 41-year-old story re-gifted to you for Christmas

As I've done a time or two in the past, I'm resurrecting a Christmas story I wrote for the now-defunct Sunday magazine of The Kansas City Star in 1982.

It draws on the characters in a manger scene that was in my family's home when I grew up in Woodstock, Ill. I hope you enjoy it, even if you've read it before, perhaps even when it was first published more than four decades ago.








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My oldest sister (I have three) got her pipe organ degree from Juilliard and has been a professional organist and teacher in the Bay Area of California for decades. That's part of the reason I've always loved hearing pipe organs.

But, like religion in general in the U.S., the number of pipe organs and the people who play them have both been in decline for many of those same decades. Sigh.

Which is why I so appreciated this Religion News Service story by Adelle M. Banks about a growing interest in pipe organs by young people. And for sure there's work to be done. As Adelle's story notes, "The American Guild of Organists’ current total membership is 11,516, including professional organists, people who play the instrument as an avocation and those who just like the organ. A decade ago, there were about 17,000 members and the group reached its apex of about 20,000 in the 1990s."

I hope you'll have a chance to hear a good organist this holiday season. And if you like what you hear, don't be shy about telling the musician afterward.

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What it means that human rights around the globe are abused

It was 75 years ago this month -- Dec. 10, 1948  -- that the United Nations General Assembly announced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Human-rightsAnd it was less than two weeks ago that UPI offered this story, which began this way: "Most countries around the world struggle with protecting their citizens of some of the most basic human rights, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Rhode Island's Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. . ."

Happy holidays.

It hardly needs to be said that documents like the UDHR or the Declaration of Independence are aspirational and not accurate pictures of current reality.

And as bleak as the news is these days, such aspirational documents are important and necessary. They keep us flawed humans aware that we can and should do better. And they give us standards against which to measure our actions and thoughts. We can argue about the standards, but at least they're a place to start.

I liked what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on the occasion of the UDHR anniversary: “As we look at the first 75 years of the UDHR, we recognize what we’ve accomplished in this time, but also know that much work remains. Too often, authorities fail to protect or — worse — trample on human rights and fundamental freedoms, often in the name of security or to maintain their grip on power."

The irony is that these good words were said by a top official of a country that, in the Rhode Island study, as UPI reports, "earned a D grade of 64, while neighboring Canada received a grade of 88. The center said, though, that 60 percent of the countries around the world received a grade of F for their human rights protections and only 20% of the countries received a B grade or higher, or a grade of 80 or higher."

In her almost-daily "Letters from an American," historian Heather Cox Richardson noted that the "UDHR is a vital part of the rules-based order that restrains leaders from human rights abuses, giving victims a language and a set of principles to condemn mistreatment, language and principles that were unimaginable before 1948."

Perhaps leaders of the U.S. and other countries with low grades in the Rhode Island study might want to know that, as UPI reports, "The study found that Finland was the leading country for human rights, with a grade of 98, or A, followed by Australia (92), Estonia (92) and Austria (90)."

How about we figure out what such nations are doing right and see what we can learn? And I won't complain if you call such a suggestion aspirational. We need our aspirations.

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I may come back to this topic later because of its potential importance, but (speaking of human rights) for now just know that, as NCR reports here, the "Vatican's doctrinal office has officially declared it possible for Catholic priests to bless same-sex unions and divorced and remarried couples." The declaration, the National Catholic Reporter piece says, has limitations that make it "extremely narrow in scope."

And yet the declaration "may serve as the most concrete pastoral shift on the church's stance toward gay couples in the church's centuries' long history." It doesn't surprise me that the church finally is waking up on this issue given how much time and effort other Christian communities have spent studying what to make of some biblical passages that historically have been used as hammers to beat LGBTQ+ people. You can find my essay about all of that here. (Feel free to share it with friends.)

As welcome as this new Vatican declaration might be, let's also remember that the Catholic Church continues to teach that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" and, in that same document, that "homosexual practices" are "sins." Until those conclusions, based on misreadings of scripture, change the likelihood of foundational alterations in church teaching can't happen.

Oh, and Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who has long advocated for LGBTQ+ ministry in the Catholic Church, says in this America Magazine article that the pope's action, despite its limitations, "is a major step forward for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics."

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P.S.: Perhaps you saw the story the other day that an important cardinal at the Vatican was "convicted of several counts of embezzlement," as CNN reported here. I've made this comment before related to other scandals having to do with religion but I think it's worth repeating. Not only do such things injure whatever religious institution was involved -- in this case the Catholic Church -- but they injure the very idea of religion. In a time when -- at least in Western Europe and North America -- participation in religion is noticeably on the downswing, you'd think religious leaders would pay more attention to avoiding scandal. Must have something to do with the human condition, which sometimes seems like it needs an overhaul.

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ANOTHER P.S.: You can get an email notice each time my blog publishes (almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays) simply by clicking here and signing up for that.

100 years later, scriptural literalists are still around

As most of us know, the Covid-19 pandemic has created divisions among Americans over the reliability of science.

Trial-CenturyOne result, no doubt, is that the results of this Pew Research study on this subject published just before the Covid outbreak don't reflect the anti-science attitudes that were revealed and that grew in that period.

But concerns -- some legitimate, some bogus -- about science are nothing new in American history, as you can learn (or be reminded of) in a new book about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, The Trial of the Century, by Gregg Jarrett, with Don Yaeger.

The Tennessee legislature had passed a law forbidding teachers from teaching anything about evolution, as the world had begun to understand that process after Charles Darwin published his 1859 book, The Origin of Species. That was despite the state mandating which science textbook had to be used in public classrooms. That mandated book had a section describing evolution as Darwin came to understand it. So teachers had to use that book but were liable to arrest if they did use it to teach about evolution. Paradoxical? Indeed.

At any rate, some folks in the small town of Dayton, Tenn., decided it might be a civic boost if they could convince a teacher to challenge the law and to have the trial in Dayton. As many of you know, the trial wound up featuring a biblical literalist, the famous William Jennings Bryan (three times a presidential candidate) for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, a great lawyer who was also an agnostic, for the defense. The defendant was a high school teacher named John T. Scopes.

A rigged trial (rigged in many ways) convicted Scopes, who had to pay a small fine. But the highlight was the way Darrow put Bryan on the stand and made him look foolish by his inability to defend the Genesis creation accounts against the theory of evolution. Bryan was so done in by the humiliation, in fact, that he died five days after the trial -- right there in Dayton.

As Jarrett writes in his account of the trial and its aftermath, Darrow argued that "evolution had become a dirty word to religious zealots" even though "the term meant nothing more than the historical change process. . .Life is dynamic, not static, because our universe is that way. To argue otherwise is to elevate ignorance over truth." (Sound like some political discourse today?)

Darrow had brought to Dayton a group of scientific experts who were prepared to explain all this to the all-male jury, 11 of whom also identified as theologically conservative Christians who read the Bible literally, as did Bryan.

But the judge, who also read the Bible in that way, refused to let them testify. To the judge, Jarrett writes, "this kind of illumination was a blasphemous threat to the Bible."

In place of his experts, Darrow called Bryan to testify, and give Bryan credit that he was willing to do so even though that wasn't legally required.

Well, Darrow simply destroyed Bryan as a witness, though even today there are American Christians who continue to believe that the creation accounts in the Bible reflect accurate science. In fact, Darrow got Bryan to concede, Jarrett writes, "that, according to his belief in the Bible, no human beings were on earth other than Noah and the people on his ark in the estimated year of 2350 BC." This, he believed, even though there was solid evidence 100 years ago that people lived in Egypt, China and elsewhere thousands of years before 2350 BC.

ScriptureI wish I could report to you that no Christians in the U.S. still read the Bible the way William Jennings Bryan read it back then -- as literal history. But, in fact, there are lots of Christians still today who believe in the concept of "inerrancy" in the Bible, meaning it contains no errors of any kind, whether scientific or historical.

Religion makes infinitely more sense when the scripture promoted by that religion is understood to have a purpose broader and deeper than telling an accurate scientific story about how we all came to be. To force scripture into a literalistic straitjacket is to deprive it of its power. That's a good lesson to remember in this season of Hannukah and Christmas and the stories that lie at the roots of those celebrations.

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Pope Francis has done the right thing by calling for what this Reuters story calls "a legally binding international treaty to regulate artificial intelligence." A.I. can be -- and is -- used in helpful ways and those should be encouraged. But as I wrote recently in this blog post, the dangers of A.I. are high and must be confronted. Religious leaders everywhere should be educating people about A.I. and the various necessary and humane responses to it.

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P.S.: Recent stories (like this one from RNS) about past sexual misconduct by Mike Bickel, founder of the International House of Prayer in the Kansas City area, have intrigued me because I met him several decades ago when I was doing a story for The Kansas City Star about his brother Pat, who was severely injured in a high school football game. I found Mike then a little off-putting and religiously strange (who isn't?), but did not anticipate he would become famous via IHOP.

As usual, The Star's Judy L. Thomas has been on top of Bickle's troubles. Here is a recent story she wrote about all this. And here is her story (co-authored with The Star's Eric Adler) about Bickle's sort-of confession. The RNS story to which I linked you in the first sentence of this P.S. says Bickel "apologized. . .for past misconduct that caused 'pain, confusion, and division in the body of Christ.'" But it also says Bickel "gave few details and said many of the allegations against him were false. He also said he was not confessing to 'the more intense sexual activities' he had been accused of."

This kind of religious news must be reported but such scandals injure not only the reputation of the people accused of wrongdoing but the reputation of religion itself. It's why some people simply walk away from institutional religion.

Dismissive religious language just causes more trouble

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the American Public Square in which a good mix of panelists talked about religious diversity here in the Midwest.

ThobeTwo of the panelists were Muslim women. Another panelist was a male member of the Kansas legislature. In fact, he's the one who, more than once, referred to the hijab, or head scarf or covering, that many Islamic women wear, as a "costume."

As you might expect, the Muslim women on the panel quickly took exception to his dismissive remark about a matter of clothing that had deep religious significance for them. The man sort of apologized, though he seemed baffled about what faux pas he had committed.

Something Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said recently in the fourth debate among Republican presidential hopefuls reminded me of the Kansas man's tactless remark and hijabs being part of a "costume."

DeSantis, clearly no champion of any kind of diversity, referred to clothing worn by members of Al-Qaeda as “man dresses.” And as this NBC story notes, it's not the first time he's used that demeaning term.

HijabNow, of course, we need to be clear that Al-Qaeda is a brutal terrorist organization. It deserves nothing but condemnation for its vicious activities, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks that murdered nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew.

So to complain about DeSantis' foolish wording is in no way to defend terrorists. But it is to suggest that critical, dismissive words about the religious faith and practices of others need to be eliminated from our discourse. Now. We can disagree about which religious path, if any, makes the most sense. And we can criticize people of faith other than our own when they do illegal, destructive and abominable acts.

But to refer to a hijab as part of a "costume" or clothing worn by men who identify as Muslim as "man dresses" simply adds needless fuel to the fire of religious bigotry and hatred. It's exactly what the world doesn't need now -- and never will.

DeSantis might want to know the correct term for what he was mentioning -- thobe or thawb.

No, he probably doesn't. Sigh.

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Writer Graeme Wood of The Atlantic raises, in this article, the interesting question of whether Hamas is a religious organization. His answer is quite nuanced because, like many things in the world, especially in the Middle East, there are complications. In the end, Wood concludes that Hamas' "religious roots are sinking deeper. But they haven’t hit bedrock yet." To get to that conclusion, however, required a lot of analysis -- but it's worth reading. What we do know about Hamas is that, like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and others, it's a terrorist organization willing to murder to score political or religious points.

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P.S.: My boyhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this praise of Americans, though we disagree (as we often do) about some of the protests over the Hamas-Israel war. Which is to say that I think some of them have been warranted and some have been disgustingly antisemitic. And I wish Markandey had made that distinction.

Local religion news is being neglected to our detriment

When I was full-time at The Kansas City Star for most of four decades, I spent a fair amount of that time griping to editors about how few resources (people) we put into covering religion.

Wheres-religionFor most of that time, we had one person -- the late Helen T. Gray, whose funeral I attended a few days ago -- as the religion editor but with essentially no other staff members to work with her.

Eventually, editors got tired of my complaining and asked me, toward the end of my Star career, to move my column from the editorial page to the then-still-existent Faith section, which appeared in the Saturday paper.

So that's what I did -- writing not only a weekly column but also a series of news and analysis stories about some aspect of religion. Those pieces would run almost anywhere in the paper, from page 1 to inside the Faith section.

But even then I knew that we weren't covering the topic of religion and spirituality adequately. And, truth be told, part of that was the fault of readers, who rarely demanded that editors increase this coverage. They'd do that for sports all the time. Which is one reason The Star has had -- and continues to have -- a good and thorough sports section with, comparatively, lots of reporters.

All of this is by way of introducing this Poynter (journalism) Institute opinion piece by Deborah Caldwell, arguing that the Hamas-Israel war once again shows the need for local religion reporting.

Caldwell, publisher of Religion News Service, writes this about our current situation in light of the Hamas-Israel war: "Anger and violence seem to be spreading, and the Anti-Defamation League and Council on American-Islamic Relations say these incidents are surging to levels not seen in years.

"As I read these reports, I keep returning to one thought: local media must reclaim the religion beat."

How profound is that need? Again Caldwell: "Today, in the United States, there are only a few dozen reporters in the entire country covering religion full-time for mainstream media — locally, regionally and nationally. Back in the 1990s, there were more than 500 members of the Religion News Association, the now-74-year-old professional association for religion reporters."

Imagine what it would be like if The Star, for instance, were to assign as many religion reporters as it has sports reporters.

It's not that no local religion stories get covered, but they get covered spottily and by reporters who may not be as grounded in the field of religion as they are in other fields. In fact, I'm sometimes impressed that The Star publishes as many stories related to religion as it does. But is religion less important than the opening and closing of local restaurants and bars, to which the paper seems now to have assigned two reporters to cover?

Well, I try to fill at least a little of this gap via my blog, which The Star graciously continues to keep on its website, and in the monthly column that I write for Flatland, KCPT-TV's online magazine.

But at best you should consider that part-time volunteer work by me. And although I have been critical of The Star in this blog post, the reality is that local radio and TV news departments rarely devote time to religion coverage either, despite how important religion continues to be for so many people in our metro. A rare exception happened last year when Taylor Hemness of KSHB-TV did a series of pieces about matters of faith in Kansas and, earlier, a series of interviews with area religious figures.

What to do about it? Make your voice heard. Click here for a list of the current Star editors and staff members' email addresses.

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Because it's Advent, when Christians wait for the coming celebration of Christmas, I want to share with you this essay about grief written by the Rev. Keith Herron, whom I first met when he was pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City. He's since moved on to the United Church of Christ. Herron argues that with the birth of Christ, "We find in the despair of our grief a mysterious power that is grounded in a faith that believes that even death is subject to God. The sting of death is tempered by the power of God to reign over even the grave."

The Hamas-Israel war has increased Holocaust denialism

It would, of course, be shocking if the Hamas-Israel war didn't add to the loathsome antisemitism that is resurgent around the globe. Why shocking? Because almost everything, including social media, and every development in the news seems to add to the putrid presence of this ancient hatred.

AntisemitismSo, yes, as this new study shows, that war has made the disdain for Jews worse -- more prevalent, more outrageous, more violent. The study, done by Gunther Jikeli of the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, focuses on how that hatred has been expressed across several social media sites since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

For the full report, click here: Download Isca-report-holocaust-distortions-on-social-media-after-10.7.pdf

The particular kind of antisemitism Jikeli addresses in this study is Holocaust denial, that vicious lie that makes about as much sense as the idea that the Earth is flat (though, of course, there still are some non-institutionalized people who insist on a flat Earth).

The study's executive summary says that the research into social media since Oct. 7 "shows the pervasiveness of Holocaust denial and distortion on many of these platforms."

Jikeli says the study "examined Holocaust-related content on YouTube, X (formerly Twitter), Truth Social, Gab and 4chan. The latter two are known for their far-right user base, including neo-Nazis."

In summary, Jikeli reports that the "study found a disturbing trend of increasing radicalism in antisemitic messages throughout October, including explicit calls for violence and mass murder. This suggests that discussions about the Holocaust are now being actively exploited to fuel antisemitic mobilization."

As I indicated above, the surprise would be if social media weren't behaving in this awful way. I wrote here recently about a new book that describes how social media is especially designed to send users down one dark rabbit hole after another, truth be damned.

In that blog post, I quoted Max Fisher, author of the book The Chaos Machine, as writing that "the social media giants, as currently constituted may be simply unable to roll back their systems' worst tendencies. Technically, it would be easy. But the cultural, ideological and economic forces that led executives to create and supercharge those systems in the first place still apply."

Jikeli concludes that the findings of his new study "underscore the urgent need for social media platforms to implement more effective measures to combat Holocaust denial and distortion, as the weaponization of these harmful narratives poses a significant threat to the preservation of historical truth and the promotion of tolerance, non-violence, and understanding."

TWJP-coverI'm not optimistic about any of this getting fixed very soon. But we can't even begin to work on solutions if we don't know it's happening. So spread the word. And, for God's sake, don't be part of the Holocaust denial delusion. That lie is antisemitic through and through. (If you're tempted by the antisemitism nonsense, read the book that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote: The Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. And then talk to me.)

(And speaking of antisemitism, if you missed the recent powerful speech about this subject on the U.S. Senate Floor by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, you can read the text here.)

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Here's a little something different: A story about a map that shows the countries (or areas) mentioned in the Bible and what they're called today. There's a video with the story. Its creator, Tommy Trelawny, notes that “when the Bible was written, the countries as we know them today didn’t even exist.” The story then says that "though the concept of the modern nation-state hadn’t yet come into being, the places that would give rise to a fair few of the nation-states in the twenty-first century certainly had." You might want to share this one with your kids or grandkids. A little education can't hurt.

Why does the Bible's Christmas story get retold each year?

Because the church of which I'm a member offered our traditional "Journey to Bethlehem" experience yesterday and will again today (Saturday), I want to spend just a bit of time this weekend exploring how we are to understand stories in sacred scripture, especially the Bible.

J-t-BFirst, of course, we have to say what we mean by the Bible. The Hebrew Bible? The Christian Bible? If the latter, the one that includes the books of the Apocrypha or not? And which translation from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic (the latter two languages being found in the manuscripts that made up the books of the New Testament)?

Differences between and among translations can make a lot of difference.

The Christmas story, as played out in our congregation's "Journey" presentation, may be a good place to start. That's because the play we present smashes together biblical stories of the birth of Jesus that, in the original gospels, likely took place over several years and not on the single night we call Christmas. Which is to say that in our play, the so-called wise men arrive at the stable soon after the birth of Jesus, whereas in the biblical account, it probably was a year or two before these astrologers from the east showed up.

But that's the point. Figuring out the day and hour the wise men showed up at the manger is like asking what language the snake in the Adam and Eve story spoke or whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons. As Jeff Sharlet puts it in his terrific new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, "You can't fact-check a myth." Exactly.

What we're dealing with here is not all literal history, though for sure some time around the year 5 or 6 B.C.E., a family from Nazareth added a boy they named Jesus to its numbers. Only the most radical historian denies the existence of Jesus.

The story of the birth, however, is not told as the kind of history we find in classroom textbooks that cover, say, the American Civil War or the lives of U.S. presidents. In such books, if you wrote that Harry S. Truman wrapped up his time in the U.S. Senate on Jan. 16, 1945, before becoming Vice President Truman on Jan. 20, it would be a two-day factual error. His last day in the Senate, it turns out, happened on my very birth date, Jan. 18, 1945, as attested to on Truman's gravestone. Truman-grave

Such historical precision is not the point of the Bible or, really, of any religious tradition's sacred scripture. The point, rather, is storytelling with a purpose. So when reading the Bible, it may be interesting to ask if the event described ever happened in actual history, but a much better three-part question is this: What does this story say about God, about us as people and about our relationship with God?

That, of course, is why it's nonsensical to insist that in the creation stories in Genesis God created the world in six 24-hour days and then plopped on the couch on day seven. Insisting on such literalism misses the point almost entirely. The point had to do with the idea that the impulse behind God's act of creation was love and the hope for healthy relationships within humanity and with the rest of the natural world. The impulse was God's love of life and a divine desire to share life with others.

I'm not equating the story of Jesus' birth with the story of Santa working all year at the North Pole to be ready to drop down millions of chimneys to deliver millions of toys. That would be a ridiculous comparison between what Christianity insists was one of history's most important historical events -- the incarnation -- and a lovely but silly folk tale.

But I am hoping that when you read stories in scripture, you won't read them all as literally accurate history. If you read them that way, you'll almost certainly miss their point.

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Pope Francis recently made this plea to the International Theological Commission: "One of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ the church. This is the job I ask of you, please: Demasculinize the church.”

Said a male pope to a commission he appoints, a body currently made up of 25-plus men and five women.

The pontiff is right, of course, but it's true of not just the whole Catholic Church, which will not ordain women as priests or deacons, but of the whole of Christianity. Many branches now ordain women and offer women leadership roles, but in countless ways the church is dominated by men and masculine thinking. Some of this goes all the way back to the Adm and Eve creation story, but clearly the church (indeed, almost all faith traditions) can and should do better in the effort to demasculinize. Said this one man.