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Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

It was a blunt, personal comment, the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.

The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends -- period.

Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition," who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," noted theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's life in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading, in shelves of books, an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his December 8th death at the age of 85.

"Here was a guy who -- until his mid '40s -- had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," said Seamands. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."

In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s he plunged into Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."

As he dug into early church writings, from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy."

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Like most illustrations in children's books, the image of Mother Teresa is quite simple, showing her kneeling in prayer beside her bed in a dark room, facing a bare cross and a single candle.

The tiny nun's eyes are open and her expression is hard to read. The text on the opposite page is candid.

"Mother Teresa experienced a great sorrow. Ever since she had moved to the slums, she no longer felt the presence of Jesus as she had before. She felt as though abandoned, rejected by him," according to "Mother Teresa: The Smile of Calcutta," a storybook for young children. "In her heart, she felt darkness and emptiness. She experienced the suffering of the poor who did not feel loved. She shared in the loneliness Christ suffered on the Cross."

Only the priests who worked with her knew about this "dark night of the soul," an experience seen in the lives of some other saints.

Working with text by Charlotte Grossetete, originally written in French, Ignatius Press editor Vivian Dudro said she "spent lots of time working on how to phrase that part. … You picture a young child reading about this pain in a saint's life or having this story read to them. How do you explain something like this in a few simple words?"

This dark night is clearly a crucial part of the life of the Albanian nun who was canonized this past weekend as St. Teresa of Kolkata. The formal petition to Pope Francis concluded: "Despite a painful experience of inner darkness, Mother Teresa travelled everywhere, concerned … to spread the love of Jesus throughout the world. She thus became an icon of God's tender and merciful love for all, especially for those who are unloved, unwanted and uncared for."

St. Teresa's sense of spiritual loss was the mirror image of the intense spiritual visions that, in 1946, inspired her to plunge deep into the slums of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) to serve the poorest of the poor.

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics.

Did the terrorists who murdered Father Jacques Hamel know what they were doing?

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015 they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. … That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter ...

It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

Mother Teresa's private battles on the long path to sainthood

While no one knew it at the time, 1951 was a pivotal year for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the start of a private battle for the tiny nun millions hailed as a living saint.

"When we talk about Mother Teresa we celebrate her victories and all the good works she accomplished in her life. But what did this victor have to overcome? That's an important question," said journalist Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why."

"We often miss this spiritual warfare component in the lives of the saints, that whole element of struggle and grace. … With Mother Teresa, this just has to be there or her story is not complete."

It was in 1928 that 18-year-old Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left her family in Macedonia to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, first working as a teacher in Calcutta.

Then, on Sept. 10, 1946, Sister Mary Teresa experienced a vision of Jesus calling her to move into the slums while serving the poorest of the poor. After this "call within a call" she created the Missionaries of Charity, beginning the work that produced waves of support for the Vatican to proclaim her a saint -- which will occur in rites on Sept. 4, the eve of the anniversary of her death on Sept. 5, 1997.

But another story was unfolding that remained a secret for decades.

It was in 1951 that Mother Teresa prayed that she be allowed to share the pain and loneliness that Jesus suffered on the cross. Her private letters made it stunningly clear that this prayer was granted. Her visions stopped, replaced by silence.

Good news or bad news, these days, for the church in China?

Pope Francis didn't make global headlines on Aug. 14, 2014, when -- with permission from Communist Party leaders -- Shepherd One flew through Chinese airspace on the way to Seoul, South Korea.

Still, it was a symbolic moment that hinted at progress, after decades of bitter persecution for Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican. Then, a year later, Bishop Zhang Yinlin was ordained as bishop of Anyang, after nods of approval from both Rome and Beijing.

So things are looking up for religious freedom in China?

If so, what did it mean when the Rev. Gu Yuese -- leader of the largest Protestant megachurch in China's state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement -- was recently jailed after opposing the government's demolition of thousands of crosses in "China's Jerusalem," part of Zhejiang province.

"There may be all kinds of reasons they arrested him, other than that he is famous and his church is huge. It's hard to know what's happening, when you're talking about the Chinese government," said Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author or co-author of 36 books on various religious issues, past and present, including "A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China," with sociologist Xiuhua Wang.

"We can say that we haven't seen the Nero effect yet, with the government putting heat on Christians because China's economic numbers are looking bad. … Also, it's important to remember that we've reached the point where many leaders in China now have kids who are Christians. In some villages, you may have a Communist Party leader with a cross on his wall."

The bottom line: There is truth in the popular saying that China is so huge and complex that just about anything someone says about religion in China will be true -- somewhere in China.

At the same time, it's crucial to understand that human-rights trends among the 1.38 billion people in China, even among minority groups, will have a major impact on world affairs.