World War II

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.

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In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

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Historian George Marsden revisits C.S. Lewis’s remarkable case for 'Mere Christianity'

Historian George Marsden revisits C.S. Lewis’s remarkable case for 'Mere Christianity'

The latest offering in Princeton University Press’s splendid “Lives of Great Religious Books” series is “C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by front-rank historian George Marsden.

Without debate, Lewis’s classic has been the most popular explanation and defense of the Christian faith the past six decades, and Marsden is just about the perfect guy to analyze this remarkable book.

“Mere” had modest sales upon its 1952 release but eventually developed quite astonishing popularity(3.5 million copies sold in English since the 21st Century began, available in at least 36 other languages). That’s a good story that many media have treated. If yours hasn’t, then the Princeton event offers the perfect peg.

This theme was so familiar that The Religion Guy’s news expectations were slim when he idly scanned a review copy. Then Marsden magic and readability kicked in and The Guy couldn’t put it down. After all, Marsden’s award-winning “Jonathan Edwards: A Life,” somehow managed to make the great Colonial theologian’s prolix writings understandable, and as intriguing as his life story.

Lewis “does not simply present arguments; rather, he acts more like a friendly companion on a journey,” Marsden says. He “points his audiences toward seeing Christianity not as a set of abstract teachings but rather as something that can be seen, experienced, and enjoyed as the most beautiful and illuminating of all realities.” 

What underlies the stunningly wide impact of “Mere Christianity”?

Marsden describes: (1) timeless truths not limited by culture, (2) common human nature that reaches readers, (3) reason put in the context of experience and affections, (4) poetic imagination, (5) the “mere” aspect, focusing on what all Christian branches believe, (6) no “cheap grace” and (7) “the luminosity of the Gospel message itself.”

“Mere” originated not as a book but brief BBC Radio talks to Britons in the pit of World War Two that were then issued as three small books.

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Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

I don't know about you, but for years now I have grown increasingly skeptical about a lot of the books and other products that continue to roll out from the publishing industry that surrounds the life and work of the great Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Don't get me wrong. I have an entire room of my house that, basically, is dedicated to Eastern Orthodox icons, my family and C.S. Lewis. My son's middle name is "Lewis" and we almost used "Jack" as his first name. I read "The Great Divorce" every year during Lent.

But, honestly, it's almost like we've reached the point where people would publish an annotated edition of this man's grocery lists, should they become available. There are still fine books being published about the Narnian, but I've grown more skeptical about some of work produced by the C.S. Lewis industrial complex.

And then someone comes up with an interesting twist in the life of Lewis. In this case, Christianity Today has just published an online essay -- by scholar Harry Lee Poe of Union University here in Tennessee -- that is a bit of a news scoop. It argues that, while no one is claiming Lewis ever ran around with a gun and a decoder ring, the young Oxford don appears to have done some work for MI6, as in Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Yes, you read that right. This kind of adds a new layer of meaning to discussions of an "Inner Ring" and talk about devilish high-ranking agents working with case officers to snare souls. Here is how it starts:

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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Chaplains offering real prayers at fake POW/MIA rites?

Dang! Just when you thought that the news couldn’t get any weirder and darker for the U.S. military and, in particular, for military veterans. I’ll get to the chaplains in a minute.

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NY Times gets religion ... in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

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