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 History.com, 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 History.com 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.) 

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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 wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how to get one.

How 'Pharisees' came to stand for all Jewish people

The term "Pharisee," found nearly 100 times in the New Testament, has come to refer to self-righteous hypocrites. But worse than that, in much of the history of Christian theology, the term has come to stand for all Jewish people.

PhariseesIn the 2021 book The Pharisees, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Joseph Sievers -- a book I've not had a chance to read until quite recently -- various scholars explore how the term Pharisee came to be used in that antisemitic and anti-Jewish way and what we can do about it.

It's about time.

"Christianity's judgment of the Pharisees formulated over the centuries. . .is the child of an anti-Jewish theology," scholars Sievers and Massimo Grilli write in one of the final essays in the book.

Levine herself is equally direct in her essay: "Despite historical and exegetical advances, preaching and teaching throughout the Christian world continue to depict Pharisees as xenophobic, self-righteous, elitist, legalistic, money-loving, judgmental, unseeing hypocrites. Because 'Pharisee' has, to the present day, been generally understood to refer to 'all Jews,' anti-Pharisaic characterizations consequently extend to Jews across the centuries and throughout the globe."

The problem is exacerbated because of this reality: Today there is only one way to read what any Pharisee wrote and that is to read the New Testament chapters written by the Apostle Paul, who described himself as one. We have no other records written by any self-identified Pharisees. Not one. (Imagine if 2,000 years from now the only way people could know about your family would be for them to read the writings of just one member of your family whose views you may not have liked.)

This is not a book for summer beach reading. It is, rather, serious scholarship by people who write in great detail about theology, historical research and other areas requiring specialized knowledge and insight.

So your casual book club isn't likely to take up this volume. But the book does describe a serious theological and social problem. Then it explores how that came about and makes some suggestions for how, after all this time, we might begin to fix things. In other words, the book can give even theologically and biblically illiterate people in the pews of Christian churches (there are many such folks) a profound appreciation for the detailed research that scholarship requires.

The problem, as the editors write in their preface, is that "while historical-critical research on the depiction of the Pharisees in the gospels has provided some correction to these toxic stereotypes, the skewed image -- drawn from select New Testament passages and exacerbated by anti-Jewish theologies -- continues to infect not only Christian sermons and Bible studies but also popular culture. Because Pharisees, in the Christian imagination, represent an ossified, degenerate Jewish culture that both Jesus and Paul sought to correct and are the forebears of Rabbinic Judaism, negative descriptions of Pharisees bleed over into antisemitic discourse."

And although I'd like to report that antisemitism is on the decline here in the U.S. and around the world, the reality is that it's resurgent. (My essay on the Christian roots of anti-Judaism and antisemitism can be found here. And here you can read the essay "Jews Are Guilty: Christian Antisemitism in Contemporary America" by Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. Plus, here is an interview with Rosenfeld about what to do to try to stop antisemitism now. Finally, here's a good piece by a rabbi about how to talk to children about Jew-hatred.)

One of the issues giving rise to the misuse of the term Pharisee is that it's difficult to know exactly when they arose as an identified group and, as scholar Eric M. Meyers argues in his essay in this book, "purity practices" were not the focus of the Pharisees alone but "were widespread in the first century and touched all groups."

To which scholar Steve Mason adds this: "For most Christian scholars before the Second World War, who grounded their views in New Testament polemic and sought confirmation through distant impressions of rabbinic literature, Pharisees were part of the dark background against which Jesus and Paul stood out in relief," especially as contrasted to what Mason calls "codification of laws to a finally pointless and barren legalism."

Mason does note that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John "all present the Pharisees as lethally opposed to Jesus." By contrast, he writes, the author of Luke (and Acts) "gives a strikingly different picture. . .Luke's Jesus considers them righteous or just, faulting them chiefly for exclusiveness and hypocrisy, as they in turn are scandalized by Jesus's bad company."

When it comes to ideas for how Christian preachers, particularly, can confront all of this, Levine herself offers the most and best ideas in her essay, noting that "most Christians who give homilies, sermons and Bible studies do not intend to propagate, let alone convey, Jew-hatred; and most would be appalled to know that they are doing precisely that."

She also acknowledges this: "There is no easy fix for texts that have, over two millennia, led to Jew-hatred. Texts, especially texts considered sacred, can be dangerous. But interpretations can change. Once we diagnose the sources of the problem, we can then begin the process of detoxification and reconstruction."

Christian leaders have considerable work to do in this area. This book can help them do that necessary work. If you are part of a Christian congregation, give a copy of this book to your pastor for Christmas.

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As Donald Trump seems to be marching himself into a deeper and more isolated political hole by hanging around antisemites and Holocaust deniers, a rabbi, in this RNS column, makes this plea to fellow Jews who may still be in Trump's camp: Drop him. It's hard to imagine why this column even needs to be written.

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P.S.: The Good Faith Network in Johnson County, Kansas, (I wrote about GFN here recently) is sponsoring a public prayer rally tomorrow to pressure public officials to do more about homelessness there. You can read what you need to know to attend here: Download Prayer Rally for Ending Homelessness Press Advisory

Some trouble in the Jesuit world -- including in KC

It's hard to think of a faith community that doesn't at some point struggle with internal dissension. Sometimes, in fact, those disagreements result in schism. Indeed, the United Methodist Church is the current prime example of that in American Protestant Christianity.

Jesuit-loogPerhaps you’ve seen the cartoon of a man being rescued from a desert island. It shows his rescuers asking the man about two structures on the small island.

“Oh,” he says, pointing to one building, “this is my church.”

“And,” he continues, a little sheepishly, “the other is the church I used to attend.”

So even in a one-member church there can be divisions.

When we're talking about larger traditions, we find that Christianity is divided into such categories as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox; Judaism's divisions include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist; Islam's divisions include Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi. And on and on. (Here, by the way, is a story about internal religious division that once was declared to be the funniest faith-based joke in the world.)

So when I report to you that there are disagreements about what's going on in the world of the Jesuits within Catholicism, it should come as no surprise.

But any divisions within religious traditions can be painful and can test the core of the faith of followers. In some ways, that's a bit of what seems to be happening among the Jesuits, a Catholic order known for its commitment to education. (Its symbol is displayed here). Indeed, Rockhurst University in Kansas City is among many Jesuit institutions of higher education across the country.

One sign of internal trouble in the Jesuit world is this opinion piece at TheCatholicThing.org by Francis X. Maier. Its title tells you quickly that Maier thinks things have gone terribly off track: "The Jesuits: What Went Wrong?" Maier, by the way, has long been among Catholic leaders who have identified as theologically conservative and who have been resistant to the reforms authorized by the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II.

In his article, Maier asserts that "enough prominent Jesuits have said enough strange things lately to invite concern." And then lists several examples.

He then shares answers from unidentified sources, people whom he asked to respond to the question of what's going wrong with the Jesuits.

The anonymity he grants to the sources of the quotes tends to make me ask why he uses their words that way instead of requiring that they be open about their questions. In other words, it seems like a way to let people take potshots at the Jesuits without accountability, a criticism sometimes aimed at practices in the traditional media.

So there's that. Another reason for me to bring up the Jesuits at all is that there is considerable pain among some Kansas City area Catholics at the recently announced news that the Jesuits are leaving St. Francis Xavier (SFX) Catholic Church, located right across Troost Avenue from Rockhurst University. Members of the congregation tell me that they're heartbroken about this news.

It's worth quoting a letter from the SFX pastor, the Rev. Jim Caime, and the parish administrator, Ann Sheridan, sent to parishioners earlier this fall:

St-Francis-Xavier-Catholic-Church-ichthys"In January of this year, Fr. Jim Caime, S.J., Pastor, and Ann Sheridan, Pastoral Administrator, were asked by Fr. Tom Greene, S.J., Provincial of the Jesuit Central and Southern Province, to prepare a presentation about our parish. His request came within the context of the Jesuits’ 10-year plan published in 2020. In that plan, the number of parishes the Jesuits intend to mission with Jesuit priests is slated to decrease from fourteen parishes to seven.

"For the presentation, we were asked to provide demographic and financial information about St. Francis Xavier, along with a description of our response to the Universal Apostolic Preferences. We were asked to describe the impact of our Jesuit parish in the wider community. We also recorded a video talk by our local bishop James V. Johnston in support of continuing the Jesuit leadership at St. Francis Xavier Parish. Fr. Tom Curran, S.J, then President of Rockhurst University, and others also weighed in heavily on the importance of SFX for the community as a Jesuit parish.

"Fr. Jim and Ann made a presentation to Fr. Greene and members of the Central and Southern Province Commission on Ministries in St. Louis in late April.  As we have previously reported to you, with your help, we felt the presentation accurately represented the dynamics of our parish. We were informed that a decision whether St. Francis Xavier parish would continue to be missioned by Jesuit priests would be made in Fall 2022.

"On Tuesday, September 13, Fr. Jim and Ann learned in a call with Fr. Tom Greene that the Jesuits will not continue to be missioned to St. Francis Xavier Parish. The responsibility for staffing parish priests will transfer back to the Diocese effective July 31, 2024.

. . .

"St. Francis Xavier Parish will carry on as we always do -- offering sacramental development and faith formation programs; sponsoring committees and events focused on eradicating the scourges of racism and poverty; building a parish community that is warm, loving, and supportive; making a difference in our community and beyond; and living the Apostolic Preferences. Diocesan leadership has affirmed their commitment to provide priests and other forms of support to help foster the life of our parish.

"This is hard. We are deeply saddened. We are asking everyone to pray and discern how to accept this information knowing that our faith and trust in God will carry us through."

At a recent dinner honoring Kansas City gem Alvin L. Brooks, I happened to run into Bishop Johnston and asked him about the SFX situation. He said he still had a least a little hope that Jesuit provincial leaders would change their minds and keep Jesuit leaders at the church. But he acknowledged that eventually he may be required to appoint a diocesan priest to lead that congregation.

I told him that I understood there was much disappointment and angst among SFX congregants and that if the Jesuits really left, Johnston would need to keep in mind the congregation's disappointment and to find someone to lead who would be sensitive to that. And Johnston indicated to me that he's well aware of that.

So we don't yet know what finally will happen with SFX, but it's clear that this congregation is not the only area of controversy within the Jesuit world.

Beyond that, of course, it's far from the only controversy across the wide range of religious traditions around the world. Perhaps one day people of faith can be consistent models for how to live in peace and harmony. But today isn't that day. Sigh.

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Many faith communities -- from Methodists to Presbyterians to Quakers and more (plus the federal government) -- were part of the indefensible boarding school system that sought to take Indigenous children from their communities and turn them into white children. I wrote about the recent federal report on this outrage here earlier this year. Now this RNS report raises the good question of what healing from this scandal might look like. It's a good question, and here's one answer suggested in the article: "The first step is an apology." Apologies are not opportunities for the current generation to take responsibility for what previous generations did. But they do provide a chance to acknowledge what happened and to begin working to fix the consequences that extend to the present time. There is much to regret in the history of how white European invaders disrupted Indigenous life in this land and destroyed countless lives and cultures. Knowing that history also provides the opportunity to begin to recognize how many Indigenous people (millions in nearly 600 federally recognized tribes) still exist today and to offer to be an ally when that would be helpful.

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P.S.: The terrific redlining exhibit at the Johnson County Museum closes Feb. 7. So you still have time to see it. Here's a link to the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit several months ago.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland now is online here. It's about how shrinking, huge old churches are trying to create new futures for themselves.

Signs of renewed talk about ordaining female Catholic priests

The question of whether women can or should be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church has been around pretty much since the beginning.

Clergy-collar-femaleAnd although officially the church declines to ordain women to be priests or deacons, the issue hasn't died. Indeed, an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests exists outside the Rome-based church and lobbies for the church to change its rules.

As this recent article in The National Catholic Reporter notes, there is new evidence that there may be some new Vatican flexibility on the matter. Writer Kate McElwee notes that a recent report from the Vatican doesn't simply dismiss the idea of female priests.

Rather, she writes, it "weaves narratives from around the world throughout the document, noting the tensions women experience within the church they love, their baptismal equality, and the reality of structures and systems that prevent their full participation in the life of the church."

More than that, it "acknowledges a 'diversity of opinions' on women's priestly ordination, noting some national reports called for it, while others consider it a 'closed issue.'"

Just that acknowledgment of disagreement on the issue, McElwee writes, is significant. And I agree with her, though I do not expect to see the Catholic church change its policy on ordaining women in my lifetime.

Back in 2010, when I was still writing a regular column for The National Catholic Reporter, I wrote this one about what people in the pews miss when they don't have female clergy.

"I wonder," I wrote, "if Catholics know what they’re missing by not having female priests. Yes, Catholics get a sense of ministry by women through the often remarkable work of women religious. But even that is different from authorizing women to engage in the full range of ministry, including administering the sacraments."

Then I shared some of my experiences of being in a church with female pastors.

McElwee seems more hopeful about there being female priests and deacons in the Catholic church than I think the evidence now warrants. But she's right when she says this: "The Vatican's admittance that the teaching on women's ordination is not a consistently held belief among Catholics reveals a spirit of openness and accountability to the people of God. The very fact that those challenging voices — many of which were filtered out at the local level — broke through means this call is strong and clear."

That "spirit of openness and accountability" is to be celebrated.

So I hope she's right about the possibility of female pastoral leadership in the Catholic church. I have family members who are members of the Catholic church, and I hope that some day they can experience being ministered to and ministering with women who are deacons and priests. But that will require a significant change in Catholic polity and doctrine -- two areas that are way outside of my area of ecclesial responsibility.

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A deep sense of spirituality accompanies the effort by Indigenous people to restore herds of bison to Oklahoma and other lands where they once roamed in huge numbers, this AP story reports. "The Cherokee Nation," it says, "is part of a nationwide resurgence of Indigenous people seeking to reconnect with the humpbacked, shaggy-haired animals that occupy a crucial place in centuries-old tradition and belief." If you want a deeper sense of the terrific and appalling damage that white pioneers in the 1800s -- aided and abetted by the U.S. government -- did to American Indians on the Great Plains, find a copy of a book I'm reading now, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, by Kerry A. Trask. Oh, my.

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P.S.: Artists-in-residence weekend at Congregation B'nai Jehudah in suburban Kansas City is coming up Dec. 2-4. You can find details here. This is being presented in connection with the terrific Michael Klein Collection of Judaica that I wrote about in this 2020 Flatland column.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The terrific redlining exhibit at the Johnson County Museum closes Feb. 7. So you still have time to see it. Here's a link to the Flatland column I wrote about the exhibit several months ago.

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A FINAL P.S.: In light of Qatar's recent banning of alcohol at World Cup games there, the Associated Press has published this interesting explanation of what Islam teaches about alcohol.