The World Wide (Religious) Web for Friday, October 28, 2011


YEAH, WHAT HE SAID: “It’s the Spirituality, Stupid: Vital Congregations Cultivate Personal Piety.”

Even though research shows spiritually alive churches are the most likely to grow, the percentage of U.S. congregations reporting high spiritual vitality declined from 43 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2010, according to the latest Faith Communities Today survey.

The drop was accompanied by a decline in the emphasis given to spiritual practices such as prayer and scripture reading across nearly all groups aside from white evangelicals and congregations with 1,000 or more attenders.

The most notable slide occurred among white mainline Protestant denominations, which have been aging and losing members faster than any other major religious group.

The reasons are varied: Declining financial health in the recession saps morale; aging memberships are less likely to embrace new forms of worship; some denominations have shifted emphasis away from personal piety toward social service programs.

It’s not, however, because they don’t know any better.

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MISTAKES WERE MADE, BUT… “What’s Right with the Religious Right.”

Yet I now feel no desire to distance myself from the people in the Religious Right.  Rather, on Saturday I was proud to be in their midst.  These are people who believe that life is an inestimable gift and a sacred treasure, to uphold and protect from the very first moment of conception to the very last breath.  These are people who believe that marriage should honor the pattern shown in scripture, that children should be reared by loving mothers and fathers, that families form the best bulwark against poverty, and that our culture should give careful thought to the influences and temptations it puts in front of its young people.  And these are people who believe that the government should form a final safety net, but that families and churches and local institutions should be the first line of defense, and the second and the third — that our commitment to the social good should be wise and should steward our resources for generations, rather than excusing and facilitating generations of poverty — that the government has a role to play in regulating the economy and defending against unfair business practices, but that its influence should be as minimal as possible in order to maximize freedom and maintain the efficiency of the free market — and that our market should encourage creativity, initiative and self-reliance, the dignity of man made in the image of a Creator God.  They also believe that a culture that is richly seeded with what is truly true and good and beautiful, and leaders who are shaped by classical Judeo-Christian values, can have an extraordinarily beneficial effect upon our nation.

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THE DIALOGUE OF FAITH AND REASON: “Pope Benedict’s Interfaith Outreach.”

Benedict’s decision to include agnostics, to whom he dedicated the conclusion of his address, was the choice most revealing of his priorities. In acknowledgment of their presence, Thursday’s official program called for “reflection and/or prayer,” and the day itself was rechristened one of “reflection, dialogue and prayer.” Thus at a gathering of religious leaders, worship had become optional.

This change, redefining the group as united not by faith but by the desire for peace and justice, ruled out any interpretation of their meeting as an advertisement for religious syncretism. Even more importantly, opening the dialogue to nonreligious “seekers of the truth” underscored one of the major themes of Benedict’s pontificate: the need for Western culture to restore its dialogue between faith and reason, and thus to rehabilitate the concept of objective truth in the realms of metaphysics and ethics.

This audacious goal has unsettling implications for Catholicism’s relations with other faiths. After all, if religion is of more than merely subjective value, and if its many varieties are not just different expressions of the same reality, it follows that some religions are truer than others. And Benedict has never hidden his conviction of where the truth in its fullness lies.

However undiplomatic it may seem in certain contexts, Benedict’s emphasis on objective truth is, by his lights, essential to the agenda for which he prayed in Assisi. As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from “reason and nature”—that is, from “universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment.”

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COMPETENT TURK WATCH: “A Mormon-Catholic Ticket Would be Groundbreaking and Typically American.”

The religions of our presidential nominees say a lot about our diversity and increasing tolerance, famously so with Catholics. When Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for President in 1928, it was shocking and another Catholic wouldn’t be on the ticket until 1960. Then Catholics began popping up as veeps: William E. Miller on the Republican ticket in 1964; on the Democratic side, Ed Muskie in 1968, Sargent Shriver in 1972 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. John Kerry was the last Catholic to top a presidential ticket. No one made a fuss and the Kerry campaign found the number of Americans who were even aware of his Catholic faith and for whom it mattered to be inconsequential.

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DOWNS SYNDROME & INTEGRATED CLASSROOMS: “A Real Christian Education.”

The purpose of education, at least from a Christian perspective, is not simply academic achievement or increased GDP. Education is one aspect of spiritual formation, in which we learn how to love and serve one another as Christ has loved us. Classrooms with differentiated learning serve “the least of these,” even if they lead to less academic success for peers with higher IQ’s. But I would argue that differentiated classrooms serve the high-achievers too. In some ways, classrooms with differentiated learning mirror the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which merit does not gain us a seat at the king’s table but rather the invitation of the king to understand ourselves as dependent and vulnerable human beings who are both gifted and loved.

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TECHNOLOGY ETHICS: “The fog of blogs.”

That blogs can be used both rightly and wrongly is a claim hardly in need of justification. But the assumption often seems to be that if one can blog, and can blog for the church or for right reasons, then blogging is a commendable activity. But, again, this is simply to sanctify a question cast in utilitarian terms. Instead we want to identify what role blogs play ethically within the life of the church and what they are doing to us.

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THE (OTHER) HOLY LAND: “Archaeology in Turkey: Major Finds in Asia Minor.”

A deadly 7.2 magnitude earthquake has drawn renewed global attention to Turkey. For archaeologists and early church scholars, the country was already a renewed focal point. A surge of archaeology projects in the country have uncovered more of the Christian legacy of Paul and other early evangelists. But archaeologists from the U.S. and other countries face growing barriers put up by Turkish authorities.

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BIBLE STUDY: “Is God Angry or Loving?”

If you are troubled by passages in the Old Testament in which Yahweh got angry, here are three pieces of advice. First, ask why Yahweh got angry. Be open to finding a legitimate reason for his anger. Second, read the whole context. Yahweh did get mad at Israel in Exodus 32, but only after he had freed them from slavery, rescued them from the Egyptian army, fed them with manna, provided water for them, and met with them at Sinai. He was mad because they committed adultery on the honeymoon. Given the context, it makes sense that Yahweh got mad. Third, have reasonable expectations. You won’t be able to resolve all the problems. But some work will help you understand these passages better and save you embarrassment over your lack of biblical knowledge and over the behavior of God.

I reviewed (and recommended) David T. Lamb’s God Behaving Badly here. This article is adapted from a chapter in that book.

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HAPPY HALLO JESUS WEEN! “All Candy, No Jesus: Halloween in America.”

Why does Wiccan Eric think that the Jesus Weeners are getting so roundly mocked? “Jesus Ween isn’t about anything other than ‘uh, Jesus is cool, and Halloween is evil.’ Well, if you’re the kind of person who’s going to consider celebrating Jesus Ween in the first place, you already think Jesus is cool.” He added that since Halloween is “a day of taboo-breaking, even for those who are not pagan,” Jesus Weeners might be seen as fun-trouncers.

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN REFORMATION DAY! “Trick or Treat: Satan, Jack Chick, and Other Halloween Horrors.”

I think it’s safe to say that if the Lord hates Halloween then he must despise Chick tracts. When a well-intentioned but overzealous Christian gives these “comics” to a child it must be, as Chick would say, a slap in the face. If you are the type of person who does this on Halloween I only have one word to say to you: repent.

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DON’T CON A CON MAN! “Magicians say their craft makes them see religion as just hocus-pocus.”

Not all magicians—even those who are skeptics—agree that magic and spirituality don’t mix.

“I think there is a deeper and more real link between magic and spirituality than between magic and atheism,” said Eugene Burger, a teacher of magic who also holds a divinity degree. “I think for most people who have moved from magic to atheism it is based on a false generalization—that because some things are tricks, all things are tricks.”

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